I recently asked Cincinnati Reds head athletic trainer Paul Lessard and noted pitching authority Coach Bill Thurston that same question: Is Aroldis Chapman more likely to get injured as a starter.
What I found out was: it depends who you ask.
“If you maintain your mechanics, you should be able to maintain (your arm) through 162 games, starter or bullpen,” said Lessard, who was head athletic trainer for the Boston Red Sox for four years before coming to the Cincinnati Reds in 2009. “As a starting pitcher it’s much more of a routine to maintain their arm, shoulder and body because they’re on a schedule. It’s tougher on our bullpen guys who may pitch for three days in a row and then be off for three days in a row.”
“I would say his best chance long-term for his career is out of the bullpen rather than as a starter,” said Thurston, a pitching consultant for the Pittsburgh Pirates who has also been a consultant of renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews for the past 20 years. “When you get up to 100 pitches you start to fatigue. As a reliever you don’t really reach that point of fatigue. When you’re tired, you’re more at risk of an injury.
“I would say his long-term (prospects for injury as a starter) are not good because he has so much flexibility in his arm and he has a greater chance of fatigue because of that flexibility.”
Asked if Aroldis Chapman’s all-world velocity puts him more at risk of an arm injury, both experts again had differing opinions.
“One of the problems (with him being a starter) is that he’s one of the hardest throwing guys velocity-wise in baseball,” Thurston said. “Any time you throw that hard you have a higher chance of injury.”
“(When) someone knows how to use their legs and body, then the arm is just kind of along for the ride,” Lessard said. “He’s got a great body mechanic-wise and he’s got a long arm with a lot of torque. It’s not like it takes a special effort to get that magic 100 mph fastball. He’s just a gifted guy.”
Both men did agree, however, that the most important factor in arm injuries is mechanics.
“It comes down to good mechanics,” Lessard said. “When you’re mechanically sound, you won’t get hurt. Of course these things are unpredictable, (but) when your mechanics are off, your control is off, that’s when (injuries) flare up.”
“Mechanics are really important,” said Thurston, who spends about an hour analyzing a prospect’s or free agent’s windup and mechanics in slow motion as part of his consulting work with the Pirates. “The biggest cause of injuries as far as I’m concerned is arm action. The cleaner your arm motion (and) the cleaner your release is, the less chance of injury there is.”
By a “clean” motion and release, Thurston means a smooth, mechanical delivery with full follow through, or deceleration. “If you have hesitations or bad mechanics you have a greater risk of injury,” said Thurston. “One of the key causes of injuries is improper deceleration. A poor follow through (or) if you decelerate across your body instead of down, it causes shoulder problems.
“With Chapman, he’s just so loosey-goosey with that tremendous arm-action, if you watch him in slow motion he has delivery angles that you just don’t see (from other pitchers).”
As for offseason conditioning, Lessard said it it doesn’t matter whether he is a starter, a closer, or a middle reliever. “All the pitchers do the same program,” Lessard said. “(The difference) is more in spring training than the offseason. In their first spring training outing pitchers (throw) about 30 pitches, and then they get bumped up in increments of 15 from there (depending on their expected role).”