New York Yankees: Derel Lowe is a Better Free Agent Risk Than AJ Burnett

Even though Derek Lowe at 36 years of age is four years older than AJ Burnett, he is the better long term option for a team getting their free agent money’s worth.

The main reason is that Lowe is more durable because of his tremendous mechanics.

Since becoming a full time starting pitcher in 2002, Lowe has averaged 33 starts and 208 innings per season, and is one of only two current players who have played ten years in the majors without going on the disabled list. (The other is Brad Ausmus).

Meanwhile, Burnett has topped 29 starts (and thus 200+ innings) only three times in his ten year career: the first in 2002, the season before his arbitration year; the second in 2005, the season before his free agent year; and in 2008, before his opt out year. It appears Burnett is more of an opportunity pitcher – whenever it will benefit him, AJ will pitch effectively.

While Lowe has had an injury free career, Burnett has been on the disabled list at least 11 times, mostly for elbow injuries – and in 2007 with shoulder problems.

There are many theories about why certain pitchers can handle excessive workloads (like Lowe), while others have recurring problems (like Burnett).

Many people talk about pitch counts, the amount of throwing between starts, and the most popular theory of all – innings increases from year to year. This last theory was recently popularized by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci.

He produced data about certain young pitchers who had increased their innings by 40 or more from one season to another, and suffered injuries or ineffectiveness within the next two seasons.  But, despite all these new precautions regarding the safety of pitchers, there are still dozens of disabled list trips each year for pitchers, and it appears orthopedic surgeons will never go out of business – especially those surgeons working with the Toronto Blue Jays pitchers.

With all the precautions foisted upon hurlers, why do the injuries still occur? It has nothing to do with pitch counts or innings limits, but that many young pitchers have terrible mechanics. The main factor in avoiding injuries is good, old fashioned proper pitching mechanics.

Derek Lowe has tremendous mechanics and AJ Burnett does not, and while Lowe will be able to throw the ball injury free till he retires (just like Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens), Burnett will continue to have stints on the disabled list.

Pictures tell a thousand words, and in order to prove my point, you are going to have to do a little work. Above is a picture of Lowe with the Dodgers. His pitching mechanics are perfect, putting the least amount of stress on his elbow and his shoulder.

In the picture, Based upon the point of the delivery, Lowe’s front foot is just landing. See how his throwing forearm is pointing up at the exact same time? That is the perfect position for the arm when the front foot lands. It is the classic power position for a pitcher, similar to when a hitter “loads up” before his swing. Although pitchers compete against hitters, the mechanics behind both pitching and hitting are very similar in regards to balance, loading of the weight and trunk rotation.

In this picture, Lowe’s arm is in perfect position to throw the ball with very little additional stress on the elbow and shoulder. Also notice how Lowe’s elbow is just BELOW the shoulder and not above it.

A misconception in pitching is that a pitcher needs to have his elbow higher than the shoulder in order to throw “downhill.” That is wrong and leads to extra stress in the shoulder joint. Having the elbow higher than the shoulder at this point (what I consider a “winged arm action”) causes a timing problem with the arm. This causes the arms to hurry and “catch up” with the body, which puts a major strain on both the elbow and shoulder.

Both Burnett and Josh Beckett have the same type of “throwing downhill” motion, which I believe is the likely cause of Beckett’s 2008 shoulder problems. At worst that pitcher can have his elbow EVEN with the shoulder.

Although you cannot see it in the picture, Lowe has the desired “down, back and up” motion after he breaks his hands, leading the backward motion with his throwing hand AND NOT HIS ELBOW. When a pitcher leads with the hands, the arm comes up into the correct vertical spot when the front foot lands. I call it the Double L, the Lock and Load position.

Click here to see an image of Burnett. With Burnett’s front foot about to land, see how his forearm is pointing down and his elbow is higher than his shoulder? Many pitchers, including Burnett and Jake Peavy, have their forearms pointing down (and lead with their elbows) when their front foot lands. 

I have spoken to several scouts and pro pitching coaches who feel this is the worst thing a pitcher can do within his motion. Similar to Lowe, however, Burnett begins his break by leading with his hand, BUT THEN DURING THE MOTION, brings his elbow up higher than the shoulder, a major pitching fault, leading to additional stress loads on both throwing joints.

This motion of Burnett and Peavy is the main reason why both have experienced elbow troubles, and why they both will continue to experience them in the future.

Back to the Derek Lowe image. Pitching velocity is less about arm strength and more about explosive hip rotation. That is why a 150 lb pitcher like Tim Lincecum can throw so hard – his hip rotation is tremendously explosive. See Lincecum’s motion here and notice how his hips turn well before his shoulders turn. His arm is also in the correct power position.

Now, go back to Derek Lowe’s image from cnnsi.com and look at his hips. They are turning, but his shoulders are staying closed (pointed towards the plate). The hips need to open first BEFORE THE SHOULDERS, so the core can build up the arm speed. When the shoulders open too fast, it puts too much strain on the shoulder and elbow.

Burnett’s and Peavy’s front shoulders open way too soon, causing extra load to both the elbow and shoulder. See Peavy’s motion here. Elbow higher than the shoulder and front shoulder beginning to open before proper hip rotation. A major injury waiting to happen.

Lowe’s mechanics are the reason he has never been injured and has gone seven straight seasons without missing a start due to injury. Also, the fact that Lowe throws a lot of sinkers, and doesn’t rely on the violence of the slider like Peavy, is another factor in the health of Lowe. While the slider is a very effective pitch, it is absolutely the worst pitch for the elbow. 

Based on Lowe’s great mechanics, I would sign him in a heartbeat over AJ Burnett and over trading for Jake Peavy, two guys who will not fulfill their long term contracts. Even though Lowe is much older than the others, the history of his durability and the lack of violent pitches in his repertoire show he is a better long term risk. For the local teams, both who have interest in a free agent pitcher or two, the durability of Derek Lowe runs circles around the other two big names available.

For those Yankee fans who are concerned about CC Sabathia’s durability over an even longer 6 or 7 years deal, rest assured that the big guys arm action is pretty good. This is a big reason why he has been able to throw as many innings as he has over the last couple years.

Sabathia compares favorably to other “big” pitchers such as Sid Fernandez, Fernando Valenzuela, Rick Rueschel, Mickey Lolich, David Wells and Livan Hernandez, guys who are bigger than your average pitcher. They all have had long, successful careers, primarily due to sound mechanics.

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