Many hopes in Yankee Land are pinned on the health and performance of Jameson Taillon in 2021. Although his well-documented health and injury report is extensive, when we dig beneath the surface, there is plenty of room for optimism.
For starters, Taillon’s age is still in his favor. Despite being drafted 11 years ago by Pittsburgh, he’s still on the good side of 30. Youth brings many advantages — one of them is that injured tissue tends to return to normal function post-injury faster than when we’re older, as does neuromuscular control of the injured tissue. Two elbow surgeries are quite significant regardless of age, but a 29-year-old has better odds of returning to normal function than someone who is a good chunk into their thirties.
Secondly, when discussing arm injuries, the elbow is a far less complex joint than the shoulder from a biomechanical standpoint, which makes it more likely that a return to normal function will be the end result. The shoulder is the clavicle, the scapula, and a ball and socket that needs to flex, extend, adduct, abduct, and both internally and externally rotate to a great degree with a cadre of muscles (large and small) controlling it. And about that ball and socket – it’s more like an orange in a shot glass, which makes keeping it stable a very tricky proposition. Conversely, the elbow is essentially three straight bones with a far lesser degree of multi-directional motion, controlled by only a few muscles. Again, it’s not insignificant, but it brings more reasons for optimism than other arm injuries.
Perhaps most important is the simple recognition that after two elbow surgeries, the status quo was not working. Changes needed to be made — specifically in Taillon’s case, a change in mechanics designed to reduce stress on the elbow.
In a lengthy Twitter thread, Travis Sawchik, co-author of “The MVP Machine”, noted that Taillon is one of several pitchers who’s adopted a shorter “arm circle”, meaning the elbow stays closer to the body when throwing. The idea behind the theory is that this creates more leverage from the torso and therefore less stress on the elbow.
From a biomechanical standpoint this is true; the closer the arm is to the trunk of the body, the stiffer the torso can be, which creates a more stable and leveraged base. Sawchik compared it to throwing a football, which is obviously a heavier object than a baseball and requires more leverage to throw. As a result, quarterbacks generally keep their elbows closer to their body than pitchers do when throwing, and also not coincidentally, suffer exponentially fewer Tommy John surgeries than pitchers.
To be fair, quarterbacks also don’t want their throws sinking, tailing, or curving. Pitchers do. A torso that’s a little less stiff that extends and flexes, combined with an arm extended away from the body, can create faster arm speed with a whip action, creating the ball movements desirable to a pitcher. Tom Seaver appeared on a Mickey Mantle instructional video in 1987 teaching that very concept: To create maximum arm speed and whip action, getting the hand away from the body as far as comfortably possible was necessary for maximum “life” on the pitch. Tom Seaver did OK with that M.O., as did Pedro Martínez and Randy Johnson among many others.
That’s not to say there’s either a right way or a wrong way. The variables involved with pitching mechanics are both limitless and highly individualistic – there will never be a one-size-fits-all. But when discussing Taillon specifically, the former way was just not working from a health perspective. Give credit to him and those around him on the Yankees for addressing it. This leads to the obvious question: Is it working?
So far, yes. Let’s look at some relevant numbers from 2018 - Taillon’s best season – and compare them to 2021.
|Vertical Movement 4-seamer (inches)||14.8||13.4|
|Vertical Movement slider (inches)||28||28.2|
|Horizontal movement slider (inches)||4.7||6.4|
|Average 4 seam Fastball velocity||95.3||93.9|
Taillon’s performance so far this season is evidently comparable to those from his best season. There’s a little drop in velocity but good improvement in horizontal movement, which is one of the factors leading to a better K%-BB% in the so-far small sample size.
Does this mean that we can safely bet on 200 innings and a top-10 finish in the Cy Young Award voting this season from Taillon? No, we’re still in April, and he has a long way to go to prove that he can be consistently healthy. That said, there are far more reasons for optimism than pessimism and keeping the glass (at least) half-full.