The Pitching Technique That's Threatening Baseball's Young Phenoms

The Yankees couldn't decide whether Joba was going to be a starter or reliever; clearly that decision should have been made in spring training and development planned accordingly. But they went into the season without a plan, with the predictable results that Chamberlain wound up as neither a starter nor a reliever, starting 12 games and relieving in 30.

Almost from the time Joba started to throw curves you could see his motion and mechanics change. The curves were slow, lazy, elliptical, and almost never struck anyone out; you could see them coming from the awkward motion of his delivery.

By 2010, he still hadn't learned to throw an effective curve ball, but nevertheless he continually used the curve ball in strikeout situations where the fastball or slider would have been the most obvious choice. But the Yankees wasted much of his strength in silly assignments such "three inning limit starts," which helped Joba little, and which, even when he got through the three innings successfully, put more of a strain on the rest of the relief corps.

For the next two seasons, Joba slid into mediocrity, posting an ERA of about 4.60. A month ago he was named in a Sports Illustrated poll as one of the most overrated players in the game. The irony is that this season, Chamberlain was finally starting to master his trade, posting a 2.83 ERA in 27 games. And though his old hopping fastball wasn't hopping as hard—just 24 strikeouts in 28.2 innings—he had walked only seven hitters. But he was still throwing the ball with the inverted W motion. Instead of using his entire body to supplement his arm strength, he seemed to pit his arm against the rest of his body.

What's amazing about the Yankees' mishandling of Joba is how so many professionals over four seasons could not see the obvious problem: a flaw in mechanics.

It's hard to tell whether the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg's problem was the same or the opposite of Joba's—that is, perhaps he could have used more coddling. Was he coddled, or was he rushed in too soon? The evidence shows that no more natural a fastball pitcher has ever lived—at age 21 he struck out 92 batters in 68 innings. He averaged 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings; in 1973, when Nolan Ryan set the major league record with 383 strikeouts, he averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

Last August, when it was announced that Strasburg would miss a year after Tommy John surgery, BleacherReport's Todd Kaufmann made a persuasive argument that Strasburg was a victim of neglect: "They [the Nationals] brought him up too soon, and now they're paying the price for it. They should have shut him down long ago, especially since they were so far out of the race. They have no one to blame but themselves. They had nothing to play for, but ticket sales were up when he pitched, so they kept running him out there."

I didn't observe the Nationals' handling of Strasburg as closely as I did the Yankees' of Chamberlain. I do know two things. First, Joba did not start throwing with the inverted W motion until after the Yankees started overcoaching him. I also know from watching Strasburg on TV and looking at photos that he was using it at the time he incurred his injury. It would be interesting to know if anyone who monitored Strasburg's development from college (San Diego State) or with the Nationals farm teams (Harrisburg and Syracuse) could say whether or not he threw that way in the minors or whether he started doing it with the Nationals. I strongly suspect that the inverted W is the result of overcoaching, trying to rush his development.

There is at least one known cure for the Inverted W, though it's drastic: Tommy John surgery, named for the lefthander it was perfected on. Stephen Strasburg has undergone this surgery and is already throwing 30 to 40 fastballs three times week; the hopes are that he will pitch for the Nationals again this season, but not until September. Still others, not wanting to take any chances, are hoping he will wait until the spring of 2012. Joba Chamberlain will be undergoing Tommy John surgery within a few days.

The good news is that it generally works, or at least gets the pitcher back in a major league uniform. But there is some bad news as well: Even when the young pitcher returns to the mound, he seldom comes back as the phenom he was.

Perhaps it would be better for teams, young pitchers, and fans if coaches started recognizing the curse of the Inverted W before it has struck.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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