Both the Yankees' Joba Chamberlain and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg are victims of the "Inverted W"
New York Yankees Joba Chamberlain has a torn ligament in his elbow. This means the two most hyped pitching phenoms of the 21st century, Joba and the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, have now fallen victim to the same curse: the "Inverted W," or the "Inverted L," or whatever a particular trainer or sports physician wants to call it.
Per the website Texasleaguers.com, the inverted W is the position of a pitcher's arms as he picks up the baseball during the cocking phase of a pitch. When winding up, "the pitcher picks up both of his elbows above his shoulder," creating the inverted W. This puts a lot of strain on both the shoulder and elbow, which many baseball mechanics experts think can tear the ulnar collateral ligament, which stabilizes the elbow.
Chamberlain pitches against the Seattle Mariners in a 2009 game. (Image by Reuters.)
Strasburg pitches against the Chicago White Sox in a 2010 game. (Image by Reuters.)
Baseball observers have taken so long to identify the inverted W because it is a relatively recent development—that is, it didn't come into being until the windup disappeared almost entirely from baseball. Go back 40 to 50 years and look at pitchers like Warren Spahn or Juan Marichal and ask, "Why is it that they could pitch 300 more innings year after year and not hurt their arms?" There are several answers to that question, but the primary one is that pitches used to throw out of a full windup, which took advantage of the momentum of their whole body to give velocity to the pitch. In recent decades, with pitchers more concerned about holding runners on base, the windup has largely gone the way of the two-dollar hot dog. The Inverted W is the result of a pitcher trying to add speed or finesse on a pitch by forcing the delivery—in other words, his arm working against his body instead of with it.
The "W" took a little while to get Joba. When he made his debut late in the 2007 season, Chamberlain was the hardest throwing right-hander the Yankees had seen in more half a century. Roger Kahn, perhaps the greatest living sportswriter, saw every Yankees pitcher from the end of World War II through this century. Kahn told me three years ago that, "In his velocity and his fearlessness, he [Joba] most reminds me Allie Reynolds"—the flame-throwing right-hander who was the ace of Casey Stengel's five consecutive World Series winners from 1949-1953 and threw two no-hitters in 1951.
Like Reynolds, who was part Creek Indian, Chamberlain has Native American blood—on his father's side, the Winnebago tribe in Nebraska. And like Reynolds, he seemed capable of both starting (which he did in college for the University of Nebraska) and relief (which he has mostly been doing for the Yankees). A big difference between them, said Kahn, "Joba is eight years younger than Allie when he came to the Yankees. Another difference is that he throws harder than Allie ever did."
Blessed with a torrid, hopping fastball that sometimes topped 100 mph on the radar gun, Chamberlain also had a hard slider that broke downwards with such force that Ron Guidry, then the Yankees pitching coach, commented, "When you don't get good wood on it, it hurts your hands like you've just whacked a bowling ball with a broomstick."
When he first came up, he was coming off the mound like the great Tom Seaver, with a powerful, effortless stride. His mechanics were similar to Seaver's; as he started to move forward off the mound, his arm was already cocked and the ball just about his head. He pitched only 24 innings in 2007 but was positively overpowering, striking out 34 of the 91 batters he faced and walking just six. His ERA of 0.38 was, in the words of BronxBanter.com's Alex Belth, "lower than a Kardashian's IQ."
In the spring of 2008, after the words came the coddling. When this happens with a young pitcher, it is always a case of decision by committee. Then-manager Joe Torre and general manager Brian Cashman came up with "The Joba Rules," which limited the number of pitches he could throw in an outing and the frequency he was allowed to throw them, instead of just letting him pitch and see how long he was effective before tiring.
Worse, they began tinkering with Joba. Yankees new pitching coach Dave Eiland and special pitching instructor Rich Monteleone worked with him to add a curve ball and a change-up to his arsenal. The change-up was a natural—nearly every great fastball pitcher develops one, and the greater his fastball, the more devastating the change-up. But I remember sitting in the press box at Yankee Stadium with Baseball Prospectus's Will Carroll, who has studied pitching injuries for years, when we were handed the press release on the curve ball experiment. Carroll articulated my thoughts, "Why put strain on that young arm by teaching him a curve ball? What's wrong with fastball-slider-change?" To which I added, let him learn the curve ball as his arm grows stronger. We were right.