Despite pitching only 83.1 professional innings since being drafted in the fifth round of the 2015 MLB Draft, Thomas Szapucki’s young career has been fraught with injuries. A lower back injury ended his 2016 season prematurely, and a shoulder impingement delayed the start of his 2017 campaign. On July 6, the southpaw felt tightness in his pitching forearm and was removed from his start after recording just two outs. He was placed on the seven-day disabled list, and wound up undergoing Tommy John surgery.
The 21-year-old Toms River native dazzled out of the gates in 2016. Assigned to the Kingsport Mets, Szapucki posted a 0.62 ERA in 29 innings (five starts), allowing 16 hits, walking nine, and striking out 47. He was promoted to the Brooklyn Cyclones at the end of July and was just as good. In 23 innings (four starts) in Coney Island, he posted a 1.38 ERA, allowing 10 hits, walking 11, and striking out 39. He was assigned to the Columbia Fireflies in 2017, and while he did not dazzle like he did in 2016, he was still highly effective. For the season, he pitched 29 innings (six starts), allowing 24 hits, walking 10, and striking out 27.
Szapucki entered 2017 as Amazin’ Avenue’s number-three Mets prospect. Armed with a fastball that sat 92-95 and topped out at 97 MPH, he could easily blow away the competition relying on just that one pitch, but Szapucki was more than just a thrower. In addition to his fastball, Szapucki threw a sweeping curveball that sat 76-81 that flashed plus and a fringe-to-average changeup that became more effective against right-handers as the 2016 season went along thanks to tutoring from Ron Romanick, the Mets’ minor league pitching coordinator.
While the Tommy John surgery is certainly the worst possible outcome for the promising left-hander, it is not something that comes as a complete surprise. Throwing from a low three-quarters, almost sidearm arm slot, Szapucki’s pitching mechanics have always been somewhat unorthodox, and his arm action was a red flag. Back when he was drafted, Alex Nelson had this to say on his mechanics:
“The biggest knock on Szapucki right now is his arm action. It’s not good. There’s an awful lot of length to it, as he brings the pitch way down low after separating high, which does forcibly load the scapula to generate velocity. But it also stresses the shoulder and slows his tempo down such that the arm noticeably drags behind the rest of his body. This means that much of his forward momentum has already halted by the time he releases the ball, which means his arm is doing all the work.”
The only silver lining to this development is that Tommy John surgery has almost become routine among pitchers. Most fully recover from the surgery and their arms come back just as strong as they were before the procedure. With a recovery time of roughly 12 to 18 months, Thomas Szapucki will miss not only the rest of the 2017, but very likely all of the 2018 season as well.