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Player Scouting, Baseball Mechanics, and Sabermetric Analysis Combined into One

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 | By Alex Eisenberg

Breaking Down the Pitching Mechanics of Joba Chamberlain

I was asked by a loyal reader recently to take a look at Joba Chamberlain's mechanics due to the circumstances surrounding the Yankee pitcher recently. In case you live under a rock, Chamberlain was placed on the 15-day DL a while back with what was deemed rotator cuff tendonitis.

I don't think this injury by itself is something to be concerned about. It seems the tendonitis resulted from overuse, likely from the transition of relieving to starting. There doesn't appear to be any tear or long-term type damage.

But as for Joba's mechanics, let me first sum up a couple of general thoughts:

His tempo is excellent, meaning the frames from the point his knee reaches his upper most point to release is around 21 or 22 frames. The faster one's tempo, the better in terms of velocity (usually). For reference, Ian Kennedy's tempo is average, coming out around 26 frames.

Chamberlain is blessed with an extremely fast arm and generates excellent separation between his torso and his hips to produce what can be plus-plus velocity.

Joba's Adjustments

One wrinkle Chamberlain has added recently--since the middle of June judging from the starts I've seen, is a brief hesitation in his arm action just after he breaks his hands. This helps in preventing his arm from rushing through his wind-up. In simpler terms, Chamberlain is essentially correcting certain timing issues with his delivery that may have a negative effect on his control. Below is Chamberlain at various points in the year. Going from left to right, the animations are of Joba throwing his off-speed stuff in starts on 6/8 (slider), 7/19 (curve), and 7/25 (slider).

Joba-SliderJoba-Chamberlain-SliderJoba-Slider-A

Notice how his throwing arm is further ahead in it's arm circle for his 6/8 start compared to his later starts. This is Joba giving his body a little more time to get out in front before aggressively moving his arm through its arm circle, which helps correct any issues where his timing is thrown off by his arm being too fast for the body.

What's interesting is how over time, Chamberlain increased the frequency of how often he utilized this hesitation. Chamberlain initially used the hesitation when throwing just his breaking stuff. However, Chamberlain soon began applying this hesitation with his fastball as well--not everytime, but whenever he wanted to increase the liklihood of throwing a strike or even to throw off the timing of a batter.

The hesitation isn't as exaggerated with his fastball as it is for his off-speed stuff, but the change is still evident. The result is a fastball with more command, but less velocity. This is because Chamberlain, when he hesitates, is briefly stopping momentum in his wind-up. You can see this in the clips below, where Chamberlain is throwing a fastball in his 6/8 start (left) and his 7/19 start (right):

Joba-FastballJoba-Chamberlain-Fastball Joba Chamberlain Fastball

Did the mechanical adjustment made by Chamberlain do the job? The answer is yes, though the sample size is small.

BB% and IP by Month:

April - 6.8%, 11.1
May - 15.4%, 12.1
June - 12.1%, 25
July - 6.9%, 35.2

The change manifested around his June 25 start against Pittsburgh and he began to use it more when he faced Toronto on July 11. Beginning with that Toronto start, Chamberlain went on a roll, walking two batters in four starts before the start in which he left for injury.

This kind of adjustment to his mechanics would not be a cause for injury.

The Risk of Injury

Not taking into consideration the increase in workload after Chamberlain was moved to the rotation, the simple fact that he throws a baseball in the upper 90's makes the risk of injury higher.

However, there are a couple mechanical issues that may heighten Chamberlain's risk of injury. For instance, his finish is pretty abrupt. Ideally you want to give the arm a long distance to decelerate. By finishing so abruptly, Chamberlain increases the risk of injury to his arm, shoulder, and even his back.

With that said, he does firm up his front side, which is helpful in limiting the pounding one takes on their shoulder.

Now, there have been some questions about Chamberlain's timing in that the arm isn't in a loaded position at foot plant. I think this is debateable for a couple reasons:

1. The video used to evaluate Chamberlain is 30 frame per second video, which doesn't give us a good enough indication of where the arm is at the specific point of time in which his foot plants. The angles used by the people who say this aren't ideal and don't tell the whole story.

2. Is the timing problem consistent or an isolated incident? Does the center field angle tell us everything we need to know? Can you pin-point the second his foot is firmly planted on the ground? What about if we use the two side shots below? Can we make a determination then? I don't see enough where I can say with any certainty Chamberlain has an issue with the timing of his foot plant. He very well may have a timing issue, but I need some cold-hard evidence before stating something as fact.

Joba ChamberlainJoba-Chamberlain-Side Joba Chamberlain
*H/T to darienfawkes and Driveline Mechanics for the above clips

What you'll also notice in the two above clips is just how abrupt Chamberlain's finish is, which as I stated earlier, is my biggest concern in regards to Chamberlain's mechanics. I like pitchers that bury their head downward after release, allowing for a long follow through. Chamberlain basically springs upward into an upright position very shortly after his release and inital follow through, which makes it much tougher to achieve what is a long enough distance for the arm and body to decelerate cleanly.

A couple of other outside factors we all need to be aware of in regards to assessing the injury risk of a pitcher:

1. Changes over time - It's very difficult to know every change made to one's mechanics over a long period of time, but Chamberlain has a history of changing his mechanics and last underwent a pretty dramatic change to his mechanics after he was drafted in 2006. If a pitcher changes their mechanics over time, who's to say which version of a pitcher's mechanics incurred the most stress on the pitcher's arm? My main point here is that the injury risk of a pitcher shouldn't be limited to what a pitcher's mechanics look like now...we need to know what the mechanics of a pitcher looked like in college, looked like in high school, and looked like in Little League.

This isn't limited to just pitching mechanics; we're talking about a litany of other factors at play--too many to go over in this article. This isn't to say you can't identify various risk factors in a pitcher's mechanics. It's when one declares a risk factor as the reason for a pitcher getting injured which is problematic.

2. Past injury - Anybody with a history of injury is more likely to get hurt again compared to somebody without a history of injury and Chamberlain has battled injury before his time with the Yankees.

Final Thoughts

The bottom line is the Yankees should obviously be extremely careful with him...and they are. Limit pitch counts when possible, control his workload, be wary of any warning signs of fatigue--I know several teams use various barameters on pitchers to determine whether a pitcher is tiring or pitching through injury.

Also work to strengthen the tendons and muscles in the pitching arm to better handle the stress of pitching. Perhaps the strengthening programs Chamberlain has employed in the past weren't up to par. Or maybe he simply doesn't have the genes that will allow his shoulder to handle the workload of pitching over the course of many years.

One thing that struck me when I read Tom Verducci's tremendous article on the mechanics of Tim Lincecum was this passage:

"From the loaded position, when the ball has come to a stop, it is accelerated from zero mph to 90 mph in 3/10 of a second...

"If your entire body was accelerated at that rate of speed for over 60 seconds you would die."

No wonder pitchers break down. Pitching, unlike most athletic activities, has reached the limit of what is humanly possible. So while we are accustomed to increasingly swifter sprinters, faster swimmers, longer drivers of the golf ball and bigger football players, you will not see a pitcher throwing 110 mph. The arm and shoulder are maxed out. Pushed any further, the shoulder would blow, like an engine in a race car."

If the arm and shoulder are maxed out, it only takes so much more for the shoulder and arm to reach their limits and suddenly...strain, inflame, tear, rip of the labrum, the rotator cuff, the elbow. The risk rises the harder one throws.

The Yankees can work with Joba to make his mechanics more efficient, can strengthen the shoulder and the arm with a regimen that has proven to work, and they can baby him as much as they like. But sometimes a team simply has to hope for the best because even if a pitcher does everything right, there is still only so many pitches in a player's arm before the arm begins to give way and the pitcher loses the quality of his stuff. Just how many depends on many factors, most of which the Yankees and other teams will never know. For the Yankees sake, they should hope Joba is one of the lucky ones.

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