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Bill Conlin: Strasburg injury no surprise to one mechanic

HE HAD THE perfect pitcher's body, long of arm and sturdy of leg. At 6-4, he had the perfect height.

HE HAD THE perfect pitcher's body, long of arm and sturdy of leg. At 6-4, he had the perfect height.

In college, at San Diego State, Stephen Strasburg defied the laws that apply to human anatomy. Man was not designed to throw an object at 103 mph. Not a rock and certainly not a sphere as heavy as a baseball. To do so consistently would result in eventual major damage to the working parts of such a vulnerable catapult.

Throwing a baseball with an overhand motion is an unnatural act. Major league baseball has established 90 mph as the entry level for a righthanded pitcher. Lefthanders are cut some velocity slack because their pitches inherently have more movement.

Stephen Strasburg threw his changeup in the low 90s. It not only was 8-10 mph slower than his almost unprecedented peak fastball velocity, but it dived wickedly in the vicinity of the plate.

A noted arm mechanic named Dick Mills, the Dalai Lama of the momentum delivery, was among the first to issue the Strasburg Warning.

"Just because a pitcher throws with high velocity," the former Red Sox journeyman wrote, "should we ignore his pitching mechanics and the possibility of an arm injury? . . .

"Stephen Strasburg has some flaws in his mechanics that could lead to a shoulder and/or elbow injury . . . "

Nor was Mills the only one red flagging what to the eyes of a layman appeared to be a smooth and efficient delivery.

"I have seen lots of analysis of his mechanics where these flaws are pointed out but I have yet to read one diagnosis that suggests what changes could be made to help reduce his risk of injury and possibly improve his velocity and control," Mills wrote.

Dick Mills wrote all this Strasburg stuff in an online newsletter that was published March 25, 2009, 10 weeks before the Washington Nationals made the college version of Nolan Ryan the No. 1 pick in the draft.

The kid was a Scott Boras client, of course. And the super-agent made sure that if the lead pony in his 2009 stable suffered a catastrophic injury and never threw a meaningful pitch, he would be set for life . . . Make that set for several lives.

Boras scored a 4-year, $15.1 million deal for a kid who had yet to throw even a minor league pitch, including a $7.5 million signing bonus spread over 3 years.

Strasburg will not throw another major league pitch until at least late next season. The normal recovery and rehab time for the Tommy John surgery he must have to repair a torn ulnar tendon is 12-18 months.

When Strasburg resumes his derailed career, maybe the Nationals will worry less about his pitch counts and more about straightening out his flawed mechanics. And maybe the pitching-coach fraternity, including the biomechanic "experts" who scoff at people like Dick Mills, will rethink the deliveries they have been teaching.

Stephen Strasburg was born with a golden arm. And that's the problem. He relied on that great arm to do too much of the work.

And to get that arm to shoulder - pun intended - even more of the load, he fell into what I call the Gullwing Syndrome. After breaking his hands and beginning the arc of his delivery, his elbow would be above the height of his shoulder. To see it, you have to use slow motion. But let Mills explain.

"The mechanical flaw that has many concerned is what is referred to as hyper-abduction, where the pitcher's throwing elbow continues to move above the line of his shoulders. In the case of Strasburg, his elbow is above his shoulder well before landing," Mills wrote.

The result is undue stress to both the shoulder and elbow.

Ill-starred Mark Prior is Exhibit A of the Gullwing Syndrome and has the incisions to prove it. Phillies prospect Jason Knapp was felled by Gullwing shortly after his trade to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee package and recently resumed his minor league career.

"Unlike Mark Prior," Mills wrote, "Strasburg is not what I call an elbow lifter, where his throwing hand never overtakes his elbow after he breaks his hands. Strasburg does swing his arm down back and up, but because he has to get ready to land, he starts to get his arm into position too early."

Leaving the arm to do almost all the work involved in throwing the baseball.

The solution?

A longer stride, for starters. Mills teaches his students to use a stride at least equal to their height. The 6-4 Strasburg's stride falls well short of the 80 inches Mills recommends for him. Consequently, his arm is too far ahead of his center point to take advantage of an explosive back-leg drive off the rubber. It is the back leg that provides the "momentum" in the momentum delivery.

"What I like about Strasburg is his intention to break his hands quickly with good body tempo," Mills wrote. "However, his lower [half] is the problem. With his height he should be striding out to about 80 inches or more. His stride is much too short for his size. This means his lower body is not moving fast enough to give his arm more time to get to a better position."

In a recent column, Mills said that a large and powerful pitcher like Phillies 6-4, 245-pound righthander Joe Blanton should be able to throw a lot harder than his 88-90 mph norm.

Breaking down the components of Blanton's stiff delivery, Mills points to Joe's relatively short stride and straight up-and-down body position on ball release: "He has not generated enough forward motion to develop explosive trunk rotation and trunk flexion, which is how velocity is created."

And you thought everything would be cool as long as the good, old pitch count stays under 100. Throw 100 pitches imitating Jonathan Livingston Seagull and there's a guy with a scalpel waiting for you.

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