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A couple of months ago, we went under the microscope with a trio of pitchers who were coming back from major elbow injuries, as Jose Fernandez, Matt Cain, and Matt Moore each made his 2015 debut (on the same day, no less). Today we take a similar approach but open up the scope beyond elbows to see how some pitchers have fared in their own comebacks from injury, specifically focusing on pitchers for contending clubs who will be counted on to maintain effectiveness as their teams make the push for the postseason. Not every pitcher comes back to the mound in the same condition that he left it, and a pitcher's mechanics can offer a glimpse into his progress in getting back to 100 percent, while helping us to understand some of the details of his prognosis over the next couple of months.

Kris Medlen

Medlen is coming back from his second Tommy John Surgery, and as great as the track record for TJS has become, the comp list is far more sketchy for pitchers having their second operations on the UCL. Having missed the entire 2014 season and now pitching for the Royals, Medlen was brought along slowly with a role in the bullpen, making his season debut on July 20th with three innings of relief, though he was hit up for four runs in the ballgame. Those were the last runs that he allowed for the next month, throwing 11.0 innings of scoreless relief between his 2015 debut and Monday's starting gig. The Royals traded for Johnny Cueto at the deadline and have continued to purge the rotation of nonessential pieces, and a healthy Medlen will allow the club to upgrade the back end of the rotation by jettisoning Jeremy Guthrie and ensuring that he doesn't start a playoff game.

Medlen pitched well considering that he was still shaking off some rust, posting a baseline quality start with six innings of three-run baseball, including five hits (one homer), six strikeouts and zero walks. Remarkably, he was able to chew up those 18 outs on just 69 pitches, flashing the efficiency to derail a potent Baltimore offense without compromising any pitch-count limitations that the Royals may have had for the right-hander. He gave up a double off the center field wall to leadoff batter Manny Machado, and two batters later Machado came around to score on Adam Jones' two-run home run, but the O's would get just one more extra-base hit off of Medlen for the rest of the game.

When a pitcher undergoes Tommy John Surgery, the focus tends to be on pitch command as opposed to raw velocity, but it's worth noting that Medlen threw harder on Monday (weighted average of 92.4 mph for four-seamers and sinkers) than he did in any game from 2013, which is the last season in which he was throwing an MLB baseball. His curveball was sharp, generating empty swings on four of the eight hacks that Oriole batters took at the hammer, all four of which finished at bats for a strikeout.

Mechanics Report Card

2013

Aug 24, 2015

Balance

60

60

Momentum

55

55

Torque

45

45

Posture

40

50

Repetition

65

60

Overall

C+

B-

For an explanation on the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

Prior to his injury, Medlen rode strong balance and a repeatable pace to the plate to elite repetition of position and timing, generating a consistent release point despite late spine-tilt that wrecked his grade for posture. Here is how his delivery looked in the 2013 NLCS, during his last stretch of big-league pitching prior to going under the knife:

… and here he is pitching on Monday, striking out Chris Davis on a nasty sinker (the same pitch as in the first clip above), which we get to see in slow motion from a vantage point that is in front of the pitcher:

His balance was just as strong on Monday as it had been in the past, and though he may have added a slight touch of drop to his delivery that interferes with his lateral balance, the motion that Medlen displayed in the Monday’s game was even more stoic in the lateral direction than he had been in the past. He maintained his line to the plate with momentum that was essentially identical in speed to his 2013 motion, and his efficiency was improved with kinetic energy that continued to drive him on a line to the plate after release point, rather than early tilt that caused him to fall off to the first base side.

There was still some spine-tilt in the delivery, but the change in posture typically occurred later in the kinetic chain and was much less egregious when compared to what he had shown in the past, thus quieting the first-base fall off. His repetition on Monday wasn't quite at the elite levels that he had shown earlier in his career, but what he flashed was still plus repetition and he has all of the essential ingredients to improve his consistency in rapid fashion. Put it all together, and what Medlen brought to the table on Monday was a more efficient delivery than he had pre-surgery.

Drew Smyly

Moving up the kinetic chain from elbows to shoulders, Smyly was expected to be a major piece of the Tampa rotation this season, but his campaign was thrown off-track by shoulder woes. Tendonitis delayed his first start until late April and then Smyly made it through just three starts before the balky wing was further compromised, suffering a tear in the shoulder that shelved him for a second time this season. His season was on the verge of being lost but Smyly progressed from that injury much more quickly than expected, returning to the mound August 16th for a start in Arlington.

Smyly got knocked around a bit against the Rangers but rebounded in his next start to blank the A's while generating 17 outs, an outing that took place last Friday. Smyly's ridiculously low hit rate with the Rays last season was bound to regress upward in 2015, but his ownership of the strike zone is exemplified by a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.5-to-1. The big question revolves around his mechanics, as I had anticipated that we might see some changes when he switched organizations from the Tigers to the Rays, and now we were adding the physical uncertainty that surrounds any injury to a pitcher's throwing arm.

Mechanics Report Card

2014

Aug, 2015

Balance

40

50

Momentum

50

45

Torque

45

45

Posture

35

40

Repetition

50

50

Overall

D+

C-

I have long been a critic of Smyly's delivery due to a combination of imbalance that involves glove-side spine-tilt and a back leg that pops off the ground prematurely, leaving him leaning like a drunken flamingo at release point.

The above screen-grab is from Smyly's time with the Rays last season. Here's an example with moving pictures:

His approach seems to be centered around his being able to coax a release point that is artificially high and angled toward the first-base side, and my suspicion was that the Rays – who emphasize balance and posture as key tenets for most of their pitchers – would help Smyly to make some alterations in order to get more out of his delivery. It wasn't expected to be an overnight change, and the fact that teams will be extra cautious with in-season mechanics led me to believe that any coaching influence from the Rays would be difficult to discern until this season.

Here's Smyly from this season:

The camera angles are different when contrasting his delivery in 2014 to this season, but with only two starts under his belt this—and neither being in the camera-friendly Tropicana Dome—the best that we have available will require us to mentally adjust for the parallax (his other start was in Oakland, with a feed that was even more off-center). This makes a big difference when judging posture, as the side-to-side spine-tilt is obscured by an off-center camera angle, so the fact that Smyly's posture looked a bit better in the Ranger game comes attached to a salty caveat. The improvement appeared to be legitimate, a possibility that was corroborated by the fact that Smyly's vertical release height has gone down over the last three seasons, from 7.2 feet tall in 2013 to 7.1 feet in '14 and now 6.9 feet this year. The difference isn't massive, but the gradual lowering (as the tilt lessens and the arm slot slightly lowers) is consistent with anecdotal evidence.

His momentum from the windup looks worse than it did last season, an unsurprising development given the Rays' emphasis on a “stay back” approach that effectively slows down many of their pitchers. The most recent GIF is from the stretch so it's not as obvious, but compare the first clip (windup 2015) with the second (windup 2014) and it becomes clear that he has slowed his roll. Some pitchers struggle with this type of timing pattern, given that a slow move opens the time window through which mechanics can fall off-kilter, though Smyly appears to be adjusting quickly. He has also improved his balance to quiet the lateral wobble in his delivery, such that his tuck into max leg lift is less exaggerated and the drift toward third base has been occurring later in the motion, allowing him to stay on line through the delivery.

Jaime Garcia

We stay with the shoulder theme as we turn to Jaime Garcia, but rather than look at an isolated injury we are left with a pitcher who has dealt with recurring shoulder injuries for the past several years, as Garcia missed 228 games from 2012 to 2014 with various problems with his left shoulder. The injuries limited Garcia to 99.0 combined innings across the past two seasons, and though he has been on the mound since May of this year and so is hardly a recent addition to the Cardinals rotation, the recurring nature of his injuries place a greater emphasis on in-season evaluation.

Garcia offers an unusual example, given that his previous injuries have kept him off the bump for such extended periods that—even in the good times—the lack of consistency in his workload makes it tougher to anchor on his previous motion given how much that changed over the years. He is currently enjoying by far the greatest season in his tenure as a big-league pitcher, and future employers will want to anchor on what we are seeing now as the potential ceiling with Garcia.

Mechanics Report Card

2014

Aug 25, 2015

Balance

50

55

Momentum

50

50

Torque

60

60

Posture

35

45

Repetition

55

60

Overall

C

C+

Garcia is another pitcher about whom I've been skeptical in the past, as an inability to harness late spine-tilt has resulted in an inconsistent release point and copious amounts of missed targets. The poor posture was the only down mark on an otherwise average report card for his mechanics.

That was Garcia's delivery last season; now let's see how he looked in his last start:

In what has become a common thread among the pitchers under evaluation today, Garcia's delivery looks better right now than it did at any point in 2014. His spine is still busy near release-point, but Garcia has traded much of the side-to-side tilt for an added dose of flexion, with a head-butting move near release point. The maneuver is part of an approach that is more powerful overall in that more of the kinetic energy is channeled at the target (rather than an inefficient tangent), as the southpaw follows the baseball with his body continuing forward after release. The posture is still far from ideal and the late move still throws him off-line slightly, but the problem is not as isolated as it was in the past and his degree of spine-tilt is less exaggerated yet more consistent on a pitch-by-pitch basis.

When I first undertook this project, I expected the results to be more similar to the previous piece on Fernandez, Cain, and Moore, with each pitcher at a different point on the comeback trail in rediscovering their past mechanics. Instead, each player has made some improvement to his game, simultaneously rehabbing and upgrading through mechanical development.