|Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services|
May 18, 2009 news-leader.com
Joe Williams shook off "Tommy John" surgery -- and is still pitching
BY ALLEN VAUGHAN
MAY 18, 2009
Joe Williams' pitching delivery draws snickers every time the 28-year-old left-handed relief pitcher throws one of his seven pitches without the high leg kick of a traditional delivery.
Eyebrows are raised when Williams says he can pitch every day without any stress on his elbow or shoulder.
They're also raised when his mentor, former major league pitcher Mike Marshall, swears the non-traditional pitching motion can eradicate arm injuries.
Yet, following his instincts and the unorthodox notions of a baseball outcast have helped Williams continue his baseball dreams with the Springfield Cardinals, who begin an eight-game home stand tonight against Arkansas.
"There are two Joe Williams," said Mike Dooley, Williams' baseball coach at St. Xavier University in Chicago.  "His career is split into two guys, the one with the (New York) Mets and the one after the Mets."
It's also the Joe Williams before Mike Marshall and the one after Mike Marshall.
The first Joe
Williams had it good by the time his red shirt senior year was over at SXU -- the same NAIA school that produced former Springfield Cardinal and current San Diego Padre Luke Gregerson.
Biology major with a 4.0 grade-point average and a "normal" pitching delivery -- with the shoulder and body turn and high leg kick -- Williams turned down medical school when the New York Mets selected him in the 17th round of the 2004 draft.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder was an all-star for the Brooklyn Cyclones of the short-season New York-Penn League, posting a 5-4 record and 2.20 earned run average in 15 starts.
But the next season, the wheels fell off.  A back injury limited him to six games and a late-season magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam revealed the torn labrum in his left shoulder.
The Mets told Williams he needed surgery.  The would-be med student refused to be cut on, so the Mets cut him in March 2006.
"Most kids would just be, like, 'He's a doctor, he knows what he's talking about,' " Williams said.  "Just because he has a piece of paper doesn't mean they're right.  I wanted to find out for myself, make the best informed decision I could.
"It's my body.  I don't care if I'm under contract, I'm not having surgery.  It's my body, I have to live with it."
That's when Williams found Mike Marshall.  Marshall -- the 1974 Cy Young Award winner for the Los Angeles Dodgers who was known for his screwball -- has a doctorate in exercise physiology and runs the Pitching Research and Training Center in Zephyrhills, Fla., outside Tampa.
Marshall preaches that the traditional pitcher windup is a waste of time and energy.
Instead, he teaches pitchers to work in a straight line -- to square their shoulders to the hitter and throw directly over the top without a leg kick.  He teaches them to pronate their pitching arm, turning their thumb downward at release, instead of supinating and turning the thumb upward.
The 66-year-old Marshall says the results of his years of research can stomp out the need for "Tommy John" elbow ligament replacement surgery or any type of shoulder reconstruction.
But no one in Major League Baseball is taking his advice.  He is considered too unorthodox, too stubborn.
"They don't want to think they're wrong," Marshall said.  "But they are." But the St. Louis Cardinals are listening -- at least, they're willing to give Marshall protégée Williams a shot.
The decision, perhaps, was not without debate within the organization.  When asked about Williams during the last home stand, Springfield pitching coach Bryan Eversgerd declined comment.  St. Louis pitching coordinator Dyar Miller didn't return multiple phone messages.
Jeff Luhnow, St. Louis' vice president in charge of amateur scouting and player development -- who knows Marshall through arm-injury research -- commented only via e-mail.
"As an organization, we are constantly seeking to learn more about the pitching delivery and how guys can remain free of injury while maintaining or improving their effectiveness," Luhnow wrote.  "Overall, we've done a good job in these areas, but we always strive to be better."
The second Joe
After eight months of baseball purgatory in Chicago after being released by the Mets, Marshall's methods made enough sense to Williams for him to move to Florida and learn first-hand.
As soon as Williams starting using Marshall's method, the shoulder pain vanished.
After completing the 280-day program in 2008, Williams failed Independent League tryouts with the Bridgeport Bluefish, the St. Paul Saints and the Gary RailCats.
Williams was puzzled about why he wasn't signed.  He said he and other Marshall protégées would succeed in pro ball if they got a fair shake.
"We all know people are talking behind our back about the way we throw," Williams said.  "But we know what's best for us."
Taking the tryout failures as signs his career was over, Williams started to change his life plans.
Since the beginning of the year, Williams trained with a former Navy SEAL in Florida and that was where his life appeared headed.  Aware of his baseball background, the Navy struck a deal to excuse Williams from his May 28 deployment date if baseball came calling again.
"I was set on joining the Navy," he said.  "I'd made peace with baseball." Less a month from shipping out, Luhnow convinced Williams to attend the Cardinals' extended spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla.  He impressed the Cardinals enough that they signed him to a contract and assigned him to Double-A Springfield on May 5.
Finally, he thought.
"All I've wanted is a shot," Williams said.  "I don't want to push my style on anyone else. This is how I pitch."
The current Joe
Hoping to be a stopper in the Springfield Cardinals' leaky bullpen, Williams has been uninspiring in his three appearances.
He has allowed four earned runs in four innings, walked three and struck out two.  He has a 9.00 ERA.  He gave up a home run on his second Double-A pitch.  Williams noted that the work is his first since he allowed two runs in one-third of an inning on Sept. 3, 2005, with Hagerstown, then the Mets' Low-A affiliate.  Luhnow said because of Williams' age (28), he needs to succeed at Double-A ... immediately.
So, Williams is trying to harness those seven pitches he learned at Marshall's camp --the four-seam fastball that hits around 85 mph, the two-seam fastball, the sinkerball that acts like a changeup, the slider, two different curveballs or the screwball -- on the fly.
Williams said none of his Cardinals teammates has poked fun of his motion.  But when asked who on the staff had the most unorthodox pitching style, it was no contest:  Springfield pitcher Tyler Herron pointed at Williams.
Still, Williams said he wouldn't change anything about his journey.  "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," Williams said, repeating Marshall's favorite quote, from Albert Einstein.
"I knew if I was going to play baseball again, it would be this way."