Evan Meek was one of the game’s best relievers in 2010, posting a 2.14 ERA with 7.9 K/9 in 80 innings. That led to big expectations for his 2011 season, which ended up being a pretty big disappointment.
The reason 2011 did not go well for Meek was because he suffered from shoulder tendonitis. Let’s get medical for a second.
Shoulder bursitis and tendonitis are common causes of shoulder pain and stiffness. They indicate swelling (inflammation) of a particular area within the shoulder joint.
The shoulder joint is kept stable by a group of muscles called the rotator cuff as well as the bicipital tendon (the tendon that keeps the upper arm bone within the shoulder socket). When the rotator cuff tendon or the bicipital tendon becomes inflamed and irritated it is called rotator cuff tendonitis or bicipital tendonitis.
An area called the subacromial bursa lies in the space between the shoulder tendons. The bursa is what protects these tendons. Subacromial bursitis occurs when the bursa becomes inflamed.
Both conditions (shoulder bursitis and tendonitis) can cause pain and stiffness around the shoulder and may exist together.
This tendonitis had a negative effect on Meek’s best tool – his velocity. Here’s a graph of his velocity, the line starts at his average for the 2010 season, and then moves according to his average velocities from the given intervals of dates on the x-axis. The intervals are based on the times of Meek’s two trips to the DL last year. He missed nearly a month his first trip, and missed two months his second trip.
You can see that the injury cost him nearly three miles per hour on his fastball, which is huge. Despite that, Meek managed to put up pretty good numbers with a 3.48 ERA and 7.4 K/9. He walked a bunch of hitters (5.2 per nine) and gave up a bunch of hits (11.8 per nine), but still kept the Pirates in the game when he was healthy enough to pitch. He racked up just 20.2 innings, which no doubt hurt the team, even though his replacements did a fine job.
You can see that Meek started getting some of his velocity back after his second DL stint, which is encouraging. Now he has had proper time to recover over the offseason and should see his velocity get back to where it used to be. That’s not a sure thing however, it depends on how the injury healed. Tendonitis is most often an injury that completely heals and has pitchers getting their full velocity back, but it does have a tendoncy (oh, shit!) to creep back up after a pitcher suffers from it once.
Another pitcher that suffered from shoulder tendonitis last year was Tommy Hanson, a very good young starter for the Braves. Hanson went on the DL twice in 2011, the second time ending his season. At the beginning of the year he was throwing 91.3 MPH and after the tendonitis creeped up and he had a stint on the DL, he threw an average of 90.9 MPH for the rest of the season. The tendonitis had a small affect on his velocity, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as what we saw from Meek. There’s obviously a difference here since Hanson is a starter and Meek is a reliever, but I think Meek’s case was worse than Hanson’s.
The Pirates will monitor Meek closely this spring training and it’ll be interesting to see how hard he’s throwing early on. I expect him to be back in the 94-95 range, but I’m not sure we’ll see him hit 97 and 98 as we have in the past. The best case scenario is Meek doesn’t have any setbacks and has another all-star caliber 2012 season handling the 8th inning, but there is a risk that he could miss more time this year if the injury comes back.