Body Weight, Throwing Velocity, and Pitching Injuries: Interesting Parallels
Written on August 17, 2012 at 7:43 am, by Eric Cressey
This morning, my good friend (and fellow baseball aficionado) Lou Schuler posted the link to an article that compared mortality rates in football players and baseball players. If you’d like to check it out, you can do so HERE.
One thing the article showed that I found very interesting was the rapid physical development of the average MLB player. In 1960, the average player was 72.6 inches and 186 pounds, which is actually surprisingly comparable to what one might expect of the prototype male model for a magazine (I’d call this a weighted average of the skinny Abercrombie types and the more athletically-built Men’s Health guys). In 2010, however, those numbers had shifted to 73.7 inches and 208.9 pounds. For those curious about what it looks like in a jersey, this was right about the height/weight of CP athlete and Orioles utility man Ryan Flaherty when he got to spring training this year:
Height had increased relatively linearly over the course of the 40 years, presumably as teams scouted and selected taller players and the game increased in popularity, drawing better athletes to the sport. Weight, on the other hand, made a rapid surge (+18.5 pounds) in the fifteen years between 1995 and 2010 (and +20.9 pounds between 1990 and 2010). You’d expect a small increase alongside average height improvements, but this jump can only be explained by the increased emphasis on strength and conditioning (which was obviously aided by the steroid era for quite some time).
I don’t think the results of this study are all that awe-inspiring – that is, until you look at them alongside some other numbers in baseball over the past decade. As Jayson Stark discussed in his outstanding article, The Age of the Pitcher and How We Got Here, pitchers have dominated more and more over the past ten years. Check out these 2000 vs. 2011 changes Stark highlighted in his article:
Runs Scored: 24,971 vs. 20,808
Home runs: 5,693 vs. 4,552
Then, between 2006 and 2011:
Average ERA: 4.53 vs. 3.94
Strikeouts Per 9 Innings: 6.6 vs. 7.1
Perhaps most telling is the fact that between 2007 and 2011, the number of MLB pitchers with an average fastball velocity of 95mph or higher increased from 11 to 35. When velocities are jumping like that, it’s hard to say that the improved pitching performances are just due to the fact that guys are introducing better secondary pitches (most notably cutters), or that hitters are falling off because they’re off the sauce. Pitchers are getting more dominant.
I understand Stark’s point that hitting has declined considerably in recent years as strikeout totals have piled up and batting averages have plummeted. However, I’m not really interested in debating whether offense is falling off because pitchers are getting better or because hitters are getting worse, because it’s obviously a combination of the two. However, what I think is a hugely valuable takeaway from this is that increased body weight is once again associated with increased pitching velocity.
Can you throw hard without being heavy? Absolutely; many guys do it. Would many of these already-elite slighter-framed MLB pitchers benefit from increases in body weight? In many cases, yes – assuming the changes in body weight are gradual, accompanied by strength/power gains, and properly integrated with their existing mechanics. While a gain of ten pounds seems like a huge deal to most pitchers, the truth is that it’s actually a trivial amount of muscle mass over an entire body. Have a look at this picture of 5lbs of muscle vs. 5lbs of fat that’s floated around the internet for a while now:
Now, imagine spreading two of the red masses on the right over the course of an entire body; you would barely notice they’re there, especially on the average MLB player, who is almost 6-2. I guarantee you that if you hide one of those in each glute, you’re going to see some big velocity gains, regardless of who you are.
Of course, every action has a reaction. While you’ll be more successful if you throw harder, you’ll also be more predisposed to arm injuries. It should come as no surprise that the number of Tommy John surgeries has gone sky-high as more and more guys have blown up radar guns (and scales). Run fast and you’re more likely to pull a hamstring. Drive your car fast and you’re more likely to crash.
Lots of people are quick to hop on board the “all injuries are due to bad mechanics” bandwagon, but the truth is that a lot of injuries are due in large part to the fact that a lot of guys are throwing really, really hard nowadays. And, taking it a step further, they were usually throwing pretty hard at a young age – and on five different teams, in front of 150 radar guns at each game, with absurd pitch counts, while jumping from showcase to showcase, while playing year-round without a quality baseball strength and conditioning program and arm care routine in place. The truth is that all injuries are multi-factorial, and we have to control what we can control with an athlete, especially when we first interact with that player after years of mismanagement.
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