Tyler Thornburg (Jasen Vinlove/USA Today Sports)
Prior to Tuesday night’s game against the Pirates, both John Farrell and Dave Dombrowski were digging in on their defense of the Red Sox’ shoulder program.
Both the manager and the president of baseball operations were questioned about the perceived cause for Tyler Thornburg having to shut things down once again due to a shoulder impingement. Each tried to make it very clear that they were not going to pin this on the approach taken by the team to strengthen the reliever’s right shoulder.
“There’s a lot been written targeting our shoulder program here. I would discount that completely,” Farrell told reporters. “He came into camp, he was throwing the ball extremely well, makes two appearances.They were two lengthy innings in which the inflammation flared up to the point of shutting him down. But in the early work in spring training, he was throwing the ball outstanding. So to suggest that his situation or his symptoms now are the result of our shoulder program, that’s false.”
True. Technically, the shoulder program probably wasn’t the problem.
It’s a process that has been almost universally praised by those pitchers who have participated. For example, Kyle Kendrick credits it for the impetus for his current success. And Joe Kelly passed on his own testimony, explaining the difference he experienced from his time with the Cardinals.
“It made a big difference,” Kelly said. “In St. Louis, if you hurt you go get treatment. Coming here I saw every single pitcher doing it. It didn’t take me long to buy into it.”
So, where did it go wrong for Thornburg?
The blame actually shouldn’t go on the program itself, but most likely the implementation of it.
Talking to WEEI.com on March 11, Thornburg explained that he was being shut down after just two spring training outings so that he could full acclimate himself to the new shoulder program without having to simultaneously pitch.
“Once we started working those muscles in the back that in depth and that much they really started to tire. I was doing a shoulder program on a certain day and all of a sudden I would pitch in the game and they would already be fatigued,” he said. “It was one of those things where we decided to shut it down and let them relax as well as strengthen it at the same time. It was really hard to do it all at the same time. It’s a lot more than I was used to, for sure. I’d say the amount of exercise-wise, probably three times the amount than I was doing.
“I was kind of doing the same 10 or so exercises and rotating them [in Milwaukee]. It was not only the pick up in the amount of exercises, but the type of exercises that were so different. I think that the reason the shoulder responded that way.”
OK. But here’s the problem: Thornburg admits he didn’t start to fully understand how the whole thing worked until just before spring training started. That, it would seem, wouldn’t be optimal for a pitcher ready to focus on ramping up his throwing rather than getting used to a significantly intense shoulder program.
“This one, yes,” said Thornburg when asked if he started the program only upon arriving at spring training. “When I went up there for the [Foxwoods] FanFest [on January 20-22] they sent me a list of the exercises we do here so I could familiarize myself with it. I kind of looked at them and thought this was all the exercises we do, not that we do all of this today, in one day. Because in Milwaukee we had shoulder excesses and we picked five and rotated them. I’m thinking these are all the ones we do, picking five or six. Not that this is the shoulder program and this is one day’s worth.
“The first day I did it I was thinking it was a lot of stuff, but didn’t think too much about it. I never had shoulder issues at all. And my shoulder felt stable after the first time. But then with the live Bps and the outings, it just started to fatigue more.”
Considering Thornburg was acquired on Dec. 6, it would seem like a big part of this problem was not using the time leading up to throwing a baseball in spring training to indoctrinate the pitcher into the aforementioned program. Instead, as we’ve discovered, all of it was probably too much, too soon.
When Thornburg first drew back due to the shoulder issue, Kelly remembered when he was traded to the Red Sox in midseason in 2014. While pitching those final two months, he dabbled with the shoulder program, but didn’t fully commit.
And when he did dive into the program, the following spring training, the then-starter ran into a similar problem as Thornburg faces, having to start the season on the disabled list with a shoulder/biceps issue after not adjusting to his new regimen.
“It was hard because it’s the first time you’re actually throwing a baseball every day and it’s the first time you’re doing the program. You combined those two things together,” Kelly remembered. “Now, I feel stronger with my mechanics, and I feel stronger with my shoulder and biceps. But I went through similar thing with my shoulder.”
It might work out in the end, but something certainly didn’t go right in the beginning.