Gil Meche took the mound yesterday against the White Sox in his fourth start of Spring Training. He was pulled after four innings after giving up three runs on four hits while walking one and striking out one. After the game he said that he was having shoulder stiffness:

“I just kinda have some shoulder stiffness, you know. It’s nothing serious, through all the tests, checked me out, shoulder is strong but the tightness is there. I don’t feel real loose when I’m pitching.”

It is important to note that Meche missed the final 29 games of the 2009 season with shoulder trouble, so this is a little bit more concerning than merely some of the usual spring tightness that plenty of pitchers go through.  I wanted to see if Meche’s shoulder tightness had any effect on his fastball speeds. So I looked at every pitch which he threw that was classified as a fastball by and charted the speeds over his four spring training starts. The left axis of the graph is speed in MPH and the bottom axis is the pitch count for the spring. The red vertical lines separate each outing.

There has been a noticeable decrease in his fastball speeds over time, and particularly in his last two starts. Part of that could be the fact that he knew he would be throwing more pitches, so he needed to pace himself. However in his post game comments when asked if he had felt the tightness previously he responded by saying:

“It’s been there a little bit.”

When he was asked if he was concerned he said:

“There’s no pain going on or anything, so I’m not worried about it.”

Ok, no big deal right? He isn’t feeling pain, he isn’t worried. It is just typical tightness and the team is being cautious with their #2 starter.

Let’s take a trip back in time. It’s April 4th 2009, Opening Day. Arizona Diamondbacks ace Brandon Webb takes the hill and after four innings leaves the game with tightness in his right shoulder. The headline on the next day was:

Webb not worried by shoulder stiffness

To contrast, here is the headline on today:

Meche stiff after outing, but not worried

After throwing a bullpen session a few days later, Webb reported no pain. Sound familiar? Those four innings were the only innings Webb threw all season. I am not a doctor and I have no idea if what Meche has is anything close to what Webb had, but the point is that this is certainly something to worry about. Whether or not Meche is feeling any pain is irrelevant, whether he is personally worried or not is irrelevant. What is relevant is what is going on in his shoulder and inside those muscles and ligaments. That is what will have a profound effect on the Royals this season.

The biggest strength of the Royals team this year is likely to be the starting pitching. It is the part of the ball club which can keep them competitive. If anyone harbors any ideas that this team has a shot at contention, it is completely based upon the starting pitching being excellent. Zack Greinke is unquestionably the ace of the staff, but he can only go out every five days. Gil is supposed to be the guy who can go out in the wake of Greinke and put together a solid outing. Without him, the Royals will be forced to pick two guys from the group of Davies, Tejeda, Farnsworth and Osuna to be in the rotation rather than just one. That isn’t a particularly pleasing thought.

Nick hosts a podcast about the Royals at Broken Bat Single and welcomes feedback via Twitter (@brokenbatsingle) and e-mail (brokenbatsingle [AT] gmail [DOT] com)