It happened so fast we didn’t even know what had hit us. Jeff Niemann was heading to the Rays’ bullpen after losing the Rays’ 5th starter competition, but before he appeared in a single game, he hit the DL with shoulder soreness, and then suddenly he had to undergo season-ending surgery on his shoulder. How could all of that possibly happen in just a week’s time?
It’s natural to associate Niemann’s DL stint and subsequent surgery with the shoulder problem that ended his 2012 season in early September and his velocity loss for most of spring training. It’s impossible to say that neither of those previous issues were related to the surgery. However, Niemann mentioned something else as the direct cause that sent him under the knife: his preparation to move to the bullpen.
“In the bullpen you have to be ready every day, and my attempts to be able to throw a ball and be loose and warm and have the body ready to go pitch had no recovery time. It went downhill so fast,” he said. “It was the first time we experienced any backtracking at all during this time.”
How did heading to the bullpen cause Niemann to get injured? Doesn’t moving to the bullpen let pitchers pitch in shorter stints and throw many fewer innings, which puts less stress on their arms and helps them stay healthy? Niemann mentioned that having “no recovery time” was a magic factor and that’s something that we don’t really take into account. As I discussed elsewhere, when starters take the ball, the adrenaline starts pumping and except in the most severe situations, whatever pain they’re feeling fades away. Even if their arm hurts a lot after starting, they have another four or five days to recover before going again. In relief, however, the rest disappears and pitchers have to head to the mound when their arm isn’t feeling as well. Why would a pitcher possibly take the ball when their arm is hurting? Especially for a starter heading into relief, they would probably tell themselves “I’m only heading out for an inning or two and my arm is just a little sore. I can take this.” Maybe Niemann did that one too many times, and it cost him dearly.
It seems pretty clear that Niemann pushed himself too hard trying to convert to relief and that made the pain in his shoulder too much to bear. However, that was another major force working against Niemann: his height. Niemann is 6’9″, ranking among the tallest players in the history of baseball. And players with his height have done well playing the relief role he was trying to go into. Jeff Niemann was going to play the same type of role that Wade Davis and Andy Sonnanstine have played for the Rays in recent years, heading to relief but being more than one-inning players. Using the Baseball-Reference Play Index, I did a search for players who threw a minimum of 50 innings pitched, averaged 1.25 innings per relief appearance, and made two or less starts. I further restricted the search to players in their 4th season or later, getting rid of young starting pitchers beginning their career in the bullpen because that’s not what we’re looking for, and also restricting the age from 25 years old to 35 for much of the same purpose and to try to get rid of seasons from washed up starting pitchers barely hanging on. Within that search, I looked for players who are 6’7″ or above- and note that 6’7 is pretty regular baseball height. Looking at this graphic from Flip Flop Fly Ball, there were 14 players 6’7″ or above on MLB active rosters on June 11th of last season, and there were surely several others on MLB 40-man rosters. All in all, there were 393 seasons since 1990 from players that fit my guidelines. Just 8 of them came from players 6’7″ or above, and five of those were from two players. Just one such season has occurred since 1995: Dustin Nippert in 2010. There are quite a few tall pitchers in baseball. But for whatever reason, they can’t seem to deliver this type of long relief season.
For tall pitchers, it’s hard enough for them to maintain their mechanics, as Rays fans have seen firsthand with Niemann’s inconsistency of the years and as fans saw for years with Randy Johnson before everything finally clicked for him in his 6th season. When their mechanics are off, not only does their control and command suffer, but also it sets them up for injury with their arm not moving in the right way. And out of the bullpen in shorter stints, pitchers who had previously been starters have to be reaching back for something extra on their pitches, and that could cause them to overthrow and risk getting hurt. Combining the extra effort and lack of rest involved with the conversion from starting to relieving with his height made Niemann a particularly likely candidate for injury. If Niemann returns to the bullpen after surgery, maybe he’ll figure out a way to pace himself better of avoid this fate again. This time, though, it was a collision of all the wrong variables at precisely the right time, and the results could not have been worse as Niemann will miss of 2012 and is left with his entire future in question.