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Did Jameson Taillon’s mechanical changes lead to his ankle injury?

Taillon changed his delivery in an attempt to protect his elbow, but did he inadvertently cause an ankle problem?

Toronto Blue Jays play the New York Yankees with an increased capacity from 15,000 fans to 30,000 fans Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Earlier this season baseball writer Travis Sawchik posted a thread on Twitter about how the Yankees’ Jameson Taillon was one of several MLB pitchers who had shortened their “arm circle” to theoretically protect the arm and improve performance. Sawchik wrote:

“The shorter ‘arm circle’ or ‘elbow spiral’ is gaining popularity (Jameson Taillon and Aaron Civale are among the new adopters) and when you look at the success guys like [Lucas] Giolito, [Trevor] Bauer, [Shane] Bieber & [Zach] Plesac have had with a shorter arm action it makes a lot of sense.”

Without getting into a lengthy discussion on biomechanics, the short version is that keeping the hand and elbow closer to the body when throwing (more similar to a quarterback throwing a football) will both create more leverage from the torso, and put less stress on the arm. I am of the mind that although that’s technically correct, it’s also a simplification that omits some very important variables from the discussion. Furthermore, comparing throwing a football to throwing a baseball isn’t quite an apples-to-apples comparison, to put it mildly.

The plot thickened somewhat in September when Taillon suffered a partially torn tendon in his right ankle — an injury that would eventually require surgery. Admittedly, it may have only been me for whom the plot thickened because I’m an unabashed nerd of human movement and I focus on such things, but it brought to mind what Taillon himself added at the time to Sawchik’s comment. Taillon posted:

Author’s note: Taillon was referring to pictures that Sawchik posted of Taillon that were taken in two very different parts of the throwing motion, which didn’t really help illuminate the points either of them were making.

We should pause at this point to be very clear about something: The movement to which Taillon referred — hinging at the hips, getting the glutes more involved — is a very good thing. It creates more power if you’re in an athletic competition and it’ll keep the backs and knees healthy of the non-athletes among us. Generally speaking, depending upon a few variables, a bodyweight distribution that drives down more on the heel and a little less on the toes is a good way to facilitate hip hinging and glute involvement.

However “simple” and “easy” aren’t synonyms, and although simple in theory, the above isn’t easy to pull off. Keeping weight on the heel when squatting, lunging, or preparing to drive yourself toward home plate to throw a baseball at maximum velocity requires a pretty good degree of ankle mobility, as the foot is now more or less anchored to the ground and has restricted movement. If adequate ankle mobility isn’t present in this case, one of two things tends to happen: Either the body reflexively generates movement elsewhere, creating stress at the secondary location (in this case, the knee; the ankle and knee are attached by the same bone — if one end can’t move, the other end will), or the body will force the tissue around the ankle to extend further than it is able to. This, as one can surmise, does in fact put repetitive stress on the tissue around the ankle.

Now let’s look at two pictures of Taillon’s motion taken at a very similar point in the throwing motion. Note the position of his rearfoot and ankle in both pictures.

In the second picture, you should be able to see that Taillon’s foot and shinbone are almost exactly at a right angle, which is to say little-to-no dorsiflexion is required. Additionally, as he’s able to pivot on the ball of his foot, very little lateral or rotational movement is required in the ankle either.

Meanwhile, it’s evident in the first picture that with Taillon’s heel down, his ankle is forced to move laterally (invert in this case). What may be harder to see, but I can assure you happened in the second photo, is that with the heel down the ankle needs to dorsiflex. Unlike in the first photo where the foot and shin are at a right angle, the shin would have to tilt forward as his body descends to decrease the angle where the front of the shin and top of the foot meet. This doesn’t even factor in the rotation in the ankle that’s necessary as he drives forward just prior to the foot coming off the rubber.

As I’ve never been accused of being subtle, it’s probably obvious where I’m going with this. It’s not unreasonable for us to ask if the change in Taillon’s foot position put mobility demands on his ankle that his ankle could not meet, and the resultant stress may have contributed to the eventual partial tendon tear in September. A key reminder here is that the overwhelming majority of non-contact injuries don’t “just happen” and are not random at all. They are usually the end result of repetitive micro-trauma over a long period of time — so micro it usually doesn’t even cause pain — but the stress adds up on the tissue, eventually leading to an injury. (An injury that may appear acute, but is the result of a chronic issue.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean that “is” what happened, but it is a possibility that needs to be considered ongoing. As I’ve written before on these pages, the number of variables in play when throwing a baseball are innumerable so all solutions are educated guesses to a certain extent.

However, it can serve as a reminder: Everybody moves differently with different aspects of movement they are better at than others, even elite athletes. Some people have more mobile ankles and shoulders than other people, while some may have stiffer torsos than others. As a result, there is no “right” or “wrong” way, as throwing and swinging are highly individualistic. What works for one person may not work for someone else, so trying to fit square pegs into round holes is what needs to be avoided.