Home Posts tagged "Pitching Mechanics" (Page 3)

Tinkering vs. Overhauling – and the Problems with “Average”

Over the past year or so, Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta has been a highly celebrated MLB athlete not only for his dominant performances (including two no-hitters) on the mound, but also for "reincarnating" his career with a new organization. Previously, Arrieta had been a member of the Baltimore Orioles organization - and while he had been a Major League regular, his performance had been relatively unremarkable. That all changed when he arrived in Chicago.

Arrieta

Source: Yahoo Sports

In Tom Verducci's recent piece for Sports Illustrated, Arrieta detailed that his struggles with the Orioles were heavily impacted by constant adjustments with everything from mechanics, to pitch selection, to where he stood on the rubber. He was even quoted as saying, "I pitched for years not being comfortable with anything I was doing. I was trying to be somebody else."

I'm always cautious to take everything I hear in the sports media with a grain of salt, and this blog is certainly not intended to be a criticism of anyone in the Orioles organization. However, what I can say is that this story isn't unfamiliar in the world of Major League Baseball. There is a lot of overcoaching that goes on as many coaches try to fit pitchers and hitters into specific mechanic models. In other words, rather than looking for ways to make Jake Arrieta into the best Jake Arrieta possible, some coaches look to make athletes into Greg Maddux or Nolan Ryan - and they usually wind up with Henry Rowengartner (minus the arm speed).

Rookie_of_the_year

This "phenomenon" isn't confined to baseball, however. In his outstanding book, The End of Average, Harvard professor Todd Rose, writes: "The real difficulty is not finding new ways to distinguish talent; it is getting rid of the one dimensional blinders that prevented us from seeing it all along." Moreover, he adds, "We live in a world that demands we be the same as everyone else - only better - and reduces the American dream to a narrow yearning to be relatively better than the people around us rather than the best version of ourselves."

51BfYqW4LOL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

As Rose notes, we can extend this concept to the idea of standardized testing for students and conventional hiring procedures for new employees, both of which often overlook the brilliant individuals among us who may be wildly capable of remarkable contributions if put in the right situations. In short, pushing the "average" rarely allows anyone to demonstrate - let alone leverage - their unique potential.

This is where coaching becomes more of an art than just a science. On the pitching side of things, we know there are certain positions all successful pitchers get to in their deliveries - and there are certainly bad positions they should probably avoid to stay healthy. With that said, we have to "reconcile" this knowledge with the realization that some of these "bad positions" may help pitchers generate greater velocity, influence pitch movement, or add deception. If we try to change them - especially at the highest level - we may take away exactly what makes a pitcher successful. 

You can draw parallels in a lifting environment. Some of the best deadlifters of all time pull conventional, and others use a sumo stance. Their individual anthropometry, training histories, and success to date govern the decision of how to pick heavy things up off the ground.

It's important to note, however, that it's very easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback in situations like these, as hindsight is always 20/20. Long-time CSP athlete Corey Kluber won the American League Cy Young award in 2014 in large part because he switched to a 2-seam fastball with the help of Indians pitching coaches Ruben Niebla and Mickey Calloway. And, another long-time CSP athlete, Jeremy Hazelbaker, is one of the feel-good stories of Major League Baseball after a subtle adjustment to his swing from a Midwest hitting coach, Mike Shirley, yielded huge results and put him on the Cardinals opening day roster after seven years in the minor leagues.

Arrieta's Cubs teammate Jason Hammel spent some time with us at Cressey Sports Performance this off-season and made some mechanical adjustments, and he is off to a good start with a 4-0 record and 1.85 ERA. The point is that we hear a lot more about failures than we do about success stories, and it's really easy to rant when things don't work out. Subtle adjustments that keep guys healthy and confident don't always show up on the radar - and as a result, some really important and tactful coaches from all walks of life don't always get the recognition they deserve.

So when is it right to tinker on the coaching side? And, are there commonalities among what we'd see in pitchers, lifters, and other facets of the performance world? Here are seven questions I think you need to ask to determine whether the time is right to make a change:

1. Has the athlete been injured using the approach?

If an athlete can't stay healthy, a change might be imperative.

2. Has the athlete stagnated or been ineffective with the approach?

The more an athlete struggles doing it his way, the more open he'll be to modifying an approach. Career minor leaguers will buy in a lot easier than big leaguers - and the minor leaguers definitely have much less to lose if things don't work out. Conversely, Jason Hammel already had over eight years of MLB service time before I even met him; we weren't about to drastically change things.

3. Is the athlete novice enough that a change is easy to acquire and implement?

It's a lot easier to correct a 135-pound deadlift than it is to correct a 500-pound deadlift. You're best of fixing faulty patterns before a lifter has years to accumulate volume of loading the dysfunction. This is one reason why I'd rather work with a young athlete before he has a chance to start lifting on his own; there aren't any bad patterns to "undo."

4. What's the minimum effective dose that can be applied to "test the waters" of change?

Can a "tinker" be applied instead of an "overhaul?" Switching from a 4-seam fastball to a 2-seam fastball is a lot less aggressive than switching from a 4-seam fastball to a knuckleball. And, it's probably easier to go from an ultra-wise sumo deadlift to a narrower sumo stance than it is to go all the way to a conventional set-up.

5. How can you involve the athlete in the decision-making process with respect to modifications?

The concept of cognitive dissonance tells us that people really don't like conflict and generally like to avoid it. This works hand-in-hand with the concept of confirmation bias; we like to hear information that agrees with our beliefs and actions. In their fantastic book, Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath write, “In reviewing more than 91 studies of over 8,000 participants, the researchers concluded that we are more than twice as likely to favor confirming information than dis-confirming information.” Furthermore, the Heaths note, “The confirmation bias also increased when people had previously invested a lot of time or effort in a given issue.”

How, then, can we involve our athletes and clients in the decision-making process so that they effectively feel that the necessary changes are their ideas? And, can we regularly solicit feedback along the way to emphasize that it's "their show?"

6. How can we change the situation rather than the person?

In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, another great read from the Heath brothers, the authors note that you will almost never effect quick change a person, but you can always work to change the situation that governs how a person acts. If a pitcher's velocity isn't very good in the first inning (particularly during colder times of year), there's a good chance he needs to extend his warm-up. However, many pitchers are very rigid about messing with pre-game routines. Maybe you just encourage him to do more of it inside where it's warmer, or have him wear a long-sleeve shirt until he starts sweating. Here, you're impacting his surroundings far more than his beliefs.

7. Can the change be more efficiently implemented utilizing an athlete or client's learning style?

All individuals have slightly different learning styles (one more reason "average"coaching isn't optimal). Some athletes simply need to be told what to do. Others can just observe an exercise to learn it. Finally, there are those who need to actually be put in the right position to feel and exercise and learn it that way. And, you can even break these three categories down even further with more specific visual, auditory, and kinesthetic awareness coaching cues. The more we understand individual learning styles, the more we can streamline our coaching with clear and concise direction. If a adjustment is perceived easy to understand and implement, an athlete will be far more likely to "buy in."

Closing Thoughts

On the whole, I think there is a lot of over-coaching going on in today's sports. Above all else, I think us coaches need to talk less and listen more so that athletes can be athletic. And, when a change is warranted, we need to make sure it's a tinker and not an overhaul - and it's important to give an athlete or client and ownership stake in the process.

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Pitching Injuries: Should Lat Strains Even Be Happening?

In a 2016 meta-analysis, researchers examined the existing body of research on latissimus dorsi and teres major strains in professional baseball pitchers. While the collective sample size was small (30 total athletes), one resounding theme was present:

Lat strains can be pain in the butt to rehabilitate.

In these studies, 29 pitchers were managed conservatively, while one pitcher required surgery for the issue. In the conservative group, the average return-to-pitching timeline was 100 days, whereas the surgical case was 140 days." Perhaps of more significance, though, the researchers noted that "five patients in the conservative group suffered from complications and/or setbacks during their treatment and rehabilitation."

We have to keep the sample sizes in these studies in mind, too. They haven't had a large pool from which to draw, and many researchers might not appreciate how different "return-to-pitching" is than "feeling like your old self." The general consensus among guys I know who have had the surgery seems to be that it's 8-10 months before you're back to feeling 100% in games. 

Let's face it: if you're missing 3.5-5 months with an injury - and adding even more time to get back to 100% - you might as well just cash in an entire season. That's not only a lot of money wasted on disabled list time at the Major League level, but also a lot of lost developmental time in the minor league ranks.

To make matters worse, the rehabilitation process can be delayed because lat strain diagnoses can be somewhat challenging. According to Dr. Leon Scott, a sports medicine physician and Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University, "Because lat strain diagnoses aren't all that simple to make, especially if a physician’s exam is limited and relies heavily on an MRI, they are often a missed diagnosis. A standard MRI may not be distal enough to capture the area of injury. Arthrogram images are an even smaller field, leading to a missed diagnosis." He also notes that in one acute lat injury he saw in the past, "With a wide field shoulder MRI, there was acute edema, hematoma seen at the bone-tendon interface. It was hard to miss." In short, ordering physicians may be trying to use a narrow imaging technique for a shoulder injury when they should be painting with a broader brush that would also pick up an upper arm injury.

 Latissimus_dorsi_muscle_animation

 Source: By Anatomography (en:Anatomography (setting page of this image)) [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

One professional player I saw struggled with getting a definitive diagnosis that his lat strain needed surgery for two years. At first, they suspected his anterior shoulder pain was occurring because of a labral tear, but a labral "clean-up" surgery didn't change his symptoms. Perhaps more interesting, though, the surgeon didn't even see the lat tear while he was doing the arthroscopic intervention. Five months later, another surgeon went in to repair the lat - which was actually significantly detached from the bone.

The first take-home message here is that if you're a thrower and you have shoulder pain, you need to make sure that you see a sports medicine physician who sees a lot of throwing injuries. A lat strain can be a tricky diagnosis, and even the most well-intentioned physicians may not know to look for it. This is especially because it often presents as pain in the front of the shoulder, in the event of a tendinous injury. You can see this clearly demonstrated by the attachment points in the image above, but I'll take more about this later when we get to functional anatomy.

As I pondered the research article and actually discussed it with a few of my staff members, I realized that we have literally never had a lat strain happen with one of our regular clients at Cressey Sports Performance - and we see a lot of pitchers. I say this not to brag (or jinx us), but rather to just bring to light that success leaves clues - which I'll also get to later on in this article.

That said, I should note that my ideas in this article also draw heavily on our experiences working with a lot of frustrated pitchers who have come to work with us after the injury has occurred because they need help bouncing back. Failures (in this case, injuries) also leave clues.

Before we get to all these observations and potential countermeasures to prevent lat strains, I think it's incredibly important to discuss the functional anatomy of the latissimus dorsi and teres major. And, as an extension, we'll discuss how this functional anatomy understanding needs to be put alongside biomechanics research and anecdotal observations of injured athletes to pull together a hypothesis for the "perfect storm" of lat injury risk.

Functional Anatomy

The latissimus dorsi is a big muscle with huge functional implications.

Latissimus_dorsi

It attaches on the thoracolumbar fascia (lower back) and runs all the way up to the intertubercular groove of the humerus (front of the upper arm). This is why it has to be considered as a differential diagnosis for anterior shoulder pain in throwers - alongside everything from biceps and rotator cuff tendinopathy or tears, to labral injuries, to anterior capsule injuries, to thoracic outlet syndrome.

As an interesting aside, there are a number of anatomical variants present along this lengthy anatomical course. In a small percentage of people, the lat actually attaches on the ilium (top of the pelvis). In just under half of individuals, it has a direct attachment on the scapula. The number of costal (rib) and vertebral attachments also varies from person to person.

Everyone knows about the functions of the lat at the shoulder - extension, adduction, internal rotation, and horizontal abduction - but in consideration of this expansive functional anatomy profile, we have to appreciate that it has several other key roles to consider.

Lat is a key core stabilizer - to the point that it can be heavily overused and pull athletes into a "gross extension" pattern. Notice the big anterior pelvis tilt and lordosis here - but also take note of the position of humeral extension (and the indirect effects on forward head posture).

Ext4

Given its attachment on the scapula in some individuals - and the indirect impacts of "crossing" the scapular region - the lat also contributes to scapular depression. 

Finally, it's been theorized that an aberrant, extension-biased posture would interfere with optimal diaphragmatic function (via loss of the zone of apposition). Because the lat is also an accessory respiratory (inhalation) muscle, you could say that it has to pick up the slack for a problem it actually helps create! My favorable experiences with the Postural Restoration Institute and my own anecdotal observations definitely support this theory.

Zone-of-Apposition-300x220

Source: www.PosturalRestoration.com

For all intents and purposes, you can view teres major as a "mini-lat." It shares the same scapula-to-humerus functional relationship and actions, but doesn't impact the rib cage or lumbar spine directly.

 

Teres_major

 

Implications for Throwers

By appreciating the functional anatomy of the lat, we can recognize just how vital it is to throwing a baseball hard. In short, it connects the lower body to the upper body to allow for force transfer that ultimately leads to arm speed and ball velocity.

Not surprisingly, a 1987 study from Gowan et al. observed that lat recruitment during the acceleration phase of throwing was substantially higher in professional pitchers than in amateurs. Not surprisingly, experienced, accomplished athletes know how to use big-boy muscles (prime movers) to do big-boy jobs (accelerate the arm, which is the fastest motion in all of sports). The amateur pitchers actually continued to heavily rely on smaller, stabilizing muscles - the rotator cuff, biceps, and posterior deltoid - during acceleration. That's not a safe or effective long-term strategy.  

This is likely why we rarely see lat strains in younger athletes; you probably have to throw 90mph+ to effectively "use" the lat, and muscles that don't get used usually don't get strained. The younger kids are more likely to have rotator cuff pain, irritation of the long head of the biceps tendon, or proximal humeral growth plate issues.

There's a bit more to "lat overuse" than just the acceleration phase of throwing, though. During the lay-back (extreme cocking, or maximum external rotation) portion of throwing, the lat and teres major are two of several muscles (including notables like subscapularis pectoralis major) that are working eccentrically to prevent the humerus (upper arm) from flying off the body.

layback

This eccentric pre-stretch also helps to store elastic energy that is subsequently released during the acceleration phase to create ball velocity. Most muscle strains occur - whether it's acutely or chronically - as muscles and tendons are stretched during the eccentric phase of activity. Hamstrings strains usually occur at the terminal swing phase of sprinting. Middle-aged men rupture Achilles tendons when they land on dorsiflexed ankles - where the calves are maximally stretched. The lats and teres major are the most overstretched at this lay-back phase of throwing.

On a chronic note, repeated exposures to aggressive eccentric stress can lead to muscle shortening. Reinold et al (2012) demonstrated this with respect to elbow extension and shoulder internal rotation. My experience has been that pitchers who trend toward the "tight" end of the continuum also lose shoulder flexion and "true" external rotation over the course of the season. As I describe in the video below, this is very likely related to stiffness or shortness in the lats - and the research has demonstrated that it is associated with an increased risk of elbow injuries in pitchers.

Beyond just the specific roles of the lats during the throwing motion, we have to also appreciate that they're heavily overused during daily life because of their roles as core stabilizers and accessory respiratory muscles. And, given that we don't spend a lot of time in our daily lives with our arms overhead and shoulders externally rotated, they aren't afforded a whole lot of length throughout the day. Take a chronically shortened muscle, overuse it, and then throw it into the fastest motion in all of sports, and you've got a recipe for strains. However, you can't throw hard without it. Hence, this Tweet from me a few years ago:

Why Do These Injuries Take So Long to Heal?

Having established the injury mechanisms, it's important to also consider why lat strains in throwers take so long to rehabilitate. I see four primary reasons that differentiate lat strains from just "any other muscle strain:"

First, as we noted earlier, early diagnosis may not happen. This can occur because the athlete just ignores the issue as normal soreness, or they manage it as "biceps tendonitis." Or, a physician may not recognize that a lat injury could create anterior shoulder symptoms. Finally, a typical MRI might just miss the injury altogether. All these factors can potentially lead athletes down the wrong rehabilitation path.

Second, my experience has been that many of these injuries are far more chronic than they are traumatic. More often than not, when you dig deeper into the history of a pitcher who has a lat strain, he's thrown through some kind of extended soreness/discomfort for weeks, months, or years. Eventually, it becomes too much to stand and begins to significantly interfere with pitching performance. Given that the issue developed over an extended period of time, it isn't going to go away overnight. 

Third, as I discussed in my functional anatomy musings earlier, the lats are heavily involved in multiple planes of motion. I've theorized in the past about how muscles that play crucial roles in multiple plans are more likely to be stubborn rehabilitation projects:

Pull a quad (rectus femoris), and you’ll usually bounce back really quickly. Pull an oblique and it’s much more stubborn. What’s the difference? The rectus femoris is really all about the sagittal plane, whereas the obliques have a big role in controlling excessive motion in the sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes. The more complex the job of the muscle, the more significant the injury – and the longer the rehab. Hamstrings have roles outside the sagittal plane and can be equally stubborn, too.

Fourth, the proximal humerus (upper arm) area really seems to scar down faster than almost any other region in the body - and this is particularly true of throwing shoulders because of the eccentric stress pitchers encounter. There are 17 muscles that attach to the scapula, and most of these structures cross the glenohumeral (ball-and-socket) joint. Perhaps more significantly, eight of these tendons attach in close proximity to the insertion of the latissimus dorsi and teres major. Throw eight tendons in a very small area that experiences a lot of eccentric stress, and you'll wind up with a gritty, fibrotic mess eventually.

Injury Risks

Whether it's a chronic or traumatic onset lat issue in a pitcher, one theme always seems to hold true: symptoms emerge after a dramatic increase in throwing stress.

On multiple occasions, I've seen lat strains that have come about because a reliever pitcher was moved into the starting rotation without a gradual increase in pitch count. 

In other instances, the lat got cranky after a big velocity jump in a single off-season. This is usually the case in a high school kid who jumps from 84 to 94mph in a single winter. As my friend Derek Johnson, the pitching coach for the Milwaukee Brewers has said, the "arm is writing checks the butt can't cash."

delivery5

Sometimes, it may come about after a single outing with an abnormally high pitch count. The pitcher just can't bounce back in time for the next start, and the subsequent start becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back. y experience has been that when you throw the typical "high arm speed" (90mph+) high school pitcher out for back-to-back outings of 100+ pitches - even on a seven-day rotation - things often start to head down the wrong path. This doesn't happen nearly as frequently in the college game, and I think this speaks to the fact that there is clearly something really important that's occurring in terms of work capacity and/or strength improvements for pitchers in the 16-19 age range.

Finally, lat issues seem to be particularly common when you see high school and college starters switch from a 7-day rotation to a 5-day rotation when they enter professional baseball. It isn't as much of a dramatic increase in stress as it is a significant loss in recovery time or capacity. I've heard many guys over the years say that they have to learn to pitch with only 90% of what they're typicaly capable.

Movement Quality 

Beyond just the increase in throwing stress, there are a few things I've found to be common in the lat strain pitchers I've seen in recent years.

1. The lower traps can't keep up with the lat.

The lower traps are very important for providing posterior tilt (slight tipping back) of the scapula and assisting in upward rotation. These two functions make it essential for a pitcher to get his scapula in the right position during the lay-back phase of throwing.

Conversely, the lat has more of a "gross" depression effect on the scapula; it pulls it down, but doesn't contribute to posterior tilting or upward rotation. This might help with an adult rotator cuff pain patient who has an aggressive scapular elevation (shrug) substitution pattern, but it's actually problematic for a thrower who is trying to get his scapula up and around the rib cage to make sure that the ball-on-socket congruency is "flush" when it really matters:

baseball-97898_960_720

As such, you can say that the lat and lower trap "compete" for scapular control - and the lat has a big advantage because of its cross-sectional area and multiple attachment points. It's also much easier to train and strengthen - even if it's accidentally.

To this end, we'll often hear throwers cued "down and back" during their arm care drills. The intention - improving posterior tilt via lower trap activation - is really good, but the outcome usually isn't. Unless athletes are actually put in a position of posterior tilt where they can actually feel the lower traps working, they don't get it. Instead, they pull further down into scapular depression, which feeds the lat-dominant strategy. This is why we teach almost all our throwers to differentiate between depression and posterior tilt on their first day in the gym.

2. The rotator cuff can't keep up with the lat.

As I noted earlier, the lat has numerous functional roles at the shoulder. Because the attachment point of the lat is on the shaft of the humerus and not the ball, the lat really can't have any direct control on the positioning of the ball in the socket. In fact, it actually indirectly destabilizes the throwing shoulder because it contributes to an anterior (forward) gliding of the ball on the socket during the lay-back phase of throwing. This anterior glide is counteracted by the rotator cuff musculature.

image412

Whenever we evaluate movement, we have to consider both osteokinematics (gross movements - flexion, extension, etc. - of bones at joints) and arthrokinematics (subtle movements - rolling, rocking, gliding, etc. - of bones at joint surfaces).

To paraphrase something that physical therapist Shirley Sahrmann has noted many times, whenever you see a strained or overworked muscle, look for a dysfunctional synergist. In this case, the synergists to the lat and teres major are the rotator cuff muscles. We just rarely consider lat strains as a consequence of rotator cuff weakness because it's usually the biceps tendon, labrum, capsule, or rotator cuff itself that winds up cranky before the lat starts barking.

3. Guys usually have a history of doing a lot of lat dominant lifting.

In a baseball population, throwing is lat dominant. Breathing is lat dominant. Core stabilization is lat dominant. When you add in a lot of lat dominant lifting to the mix - particularly during the in-season period - things don't usually go well. I'm just going to put this out there:

[bctt tweet="I've never met a high-level thrower who had weak lats."]

I'm speaking with respect to both relative and absolute measures. Relatively speaking, I've never looked at a guy and said, "Well, if he added 50 pounds to his best weighted chin-up, he'd definitely throw harder and be healthier. His rotator cuff and lower traps are too strong." Absolutely speaking, I have yet to see any research examining the relationship between lat strength and throwing velocity. I'm very confident that there is a point of diminishing returns where getting stronger doesn't help add any more velocity. Moreover, it may actually interfere with improvements - and increase susceptibility to injury. This includes elbow irritation, as heavy weighted pull-ups and chin-ups are brutal on the medial elbow in lifters who don't even throw a baseball for a living.

Just like you don't have to squat 800 pounds to have an elite vertical jump - but you probably won't jump high if you only squat 200 pounds - your lats just need to be strong enough to throw hard.

Also worthy of mention is the fact that exercises like deadlifts, farmer's walks, and dumbbell lunges, and any other drill where weights are held in the hands are actually very lat intensive. With the arms at the sides, the lats are almost fully shortened - and the lat is working hard as a core stabilizer against appreciable external loading.

The take-home message is that you really have to critically examine your entire strength training program for how much lat-dominant work your athletes are doing. My rule of thumb is that an athlete has to have full shoulder flexion and great cuff strength to "earn the right" to do pull-ups in his off-season programming, and we don't use any pull-ups or pulldowns with in-season programs. We can accomplish everything we need with horizontal pulling variations.

4. Guys usually accumulated a lot of innings or appearances without much, if any, manual therapy 

NASCARs require more upkeep that ordinary automobiles. If you're going to push a car to its limits, you better plan on changing the oil and tires more frequently. The same goes for a high level throwing arm. Manual therapy is a game-changer for maintaining or improving range-of-motion and bouncing back between outings.  

manual_therapy_page-300x206-2

The lats and teres major get pushed really hard during the throwing motion, and it's important to do regular routine manual therapy maintenance to keep them "supple" with a variety of soft tissue approaches. I've seen athletes that responded really well to cupping, some to Graston Technique, some to Active Release Technique, some to dry needling, and others to more traditional massage. Everyone is different - but everyone needs it.

Also worth of note, trigger points in the latissimus dorsi may actually relate to discomfort in other regions. Chris Howard, massage therapist at Cressey Sports Performance – MA, notes:

“Trigger points in the latissimus dorsi can refer pain and discomfort to the medial and inferior border of the scapula extending to the posterior shoulder, medial triceps region and down to the pinky and ring finger. Trigger points not only cause pain, but can also mimic nerve symptoms by causing numbness and tingling in their referral zone. Of particular interest to this article is the fact that trigger points, regardless of whether they are active or latent, have the ability to alter muscle activation patterns. In other words, once trigger points are present in muscles of the shoulder girdle, the normal activation pattern is altered, which can lead to abuse of some of the smaller muscles.”

5. Guys have insufficient anterior core control.

The stiffer (or shorter) your lats are, the more you need to have great anterior (front) core control to prevent this from happening:

When the core control isn't present, the lats are never really challenged to approach their end range - which is full shoulder flexion. Learning to add some good stiffness to lock the ribs to the pelvis during overhead motion obviously protects the lower back, but it also has the added benefit of making lats "healthier."

6. They turn all rowing motions into lat dominant movements.

Rather than reinvent the wheel on this point, check out this detailed rowing technique video I filmed a while back. In particular, points #1, #2, #4, and #6 are the most common findings in a very lat-dominant individual. I'd encourage you to watch the entire video, though, as it's not uncommon to see multiple mistakes at a time:

7. Guys have lost shoulder flexion.

If a muscle is fundamentally short, it's going to be more likely to strain. These are usually the ones who have failed miserably on points 1-6 over an extended period of time.

shouderflexion

Prevention

Several years ago, in the heart of the ACL prevention program craze, Mike Boyle made a bold statement, "ACL injury prevention is just good training." In short, if you teach athletes to move well with comprehensive, well-rounded programming and solid coaching to ensure good training technique, you're going to markedly reduce the incidence of ACL injuries. I couldn't agree more - and I'd argue that lat strain prevention training in pitchers is just good training, too. 

1. Maintain tissue quality with regular manual therapy, and complement it with daily foam rolling.

2. Make athletes earn the right to do pull-ups.

3. Don’t do pull-ups/pulldowns during the season.

4. Make sure that the rotator cuff, lower trap, and anterior core are strong enough to keep up with the lats.

5. Be cognizant of overdoing it on drills like deadlifts, farmers walks, and DB lunges/split squats. These are all great exercises that can have their place, but anything done to excess can be a problem.

6. Ensure appropriate training technique. Specifically, don't overuse the lats when you aren't supposed to use them at all.

7. Closely monitor athletes who have seen dramatic jumps in pitching velocity or workload - and avoid building up pitch counts too quickly.

8. Constantly solicit feedback from pitchers so that mild lat soreness is discovered before it can become a full blown injury.

Obviously, once an athlete already has a teres major or lat strain, things are a lot hairier. That's really the point of the article, though: as always, prevention is the absolute best treatment

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Looking Closer at Pitching Injuries: An Interview with Jeff Passan

Today, I'm fortunate to have an interview with Yahoo Sports baseball writer, Jeff Passan. Jeff spent the past few years traveling the country to research why arm injuries in pitchers are at an all-time high, and his efforts culminated with the recent release of The Arm. I've read it, and it's fantastic.

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EC: Why did you write this book?

JP: Originally, I wrote it because I thought maybe, just maybe, through reporting and research I could find a fix-all for elbow injuries and help rid the sport of Tommy John surgery. What I learned was that I was foolish to even conceive of that, considering people far smarter than I am have dedicated their careers to ramming dead ends. Because of that, while I still think the recoveries of Daniel Hudson and Todd Coffey are the heart of the book, I began to realize just how acute this is for children. When nearly 3 in 5 Tommy John surgeries is done on a teenager, and the rise of teenage surgeries has gone in lockstep with the ascent of the showcase circuit and desire for velocity, something is very wrong. This is a book about a lot of things. I hope amid those, the lessons to parents resonate and cause them to think twice this spring about sending their young kids especially back out for an extra inning or keeping them in the game too long.

EC: Let's stay with the teenage discussion, as I've been preaching about this problem it for a decade now! When you investigated the current state of teenage baseball, what did you find? And, what surprised you the most?

I found a wasteland of ignorance, greed and scars on the elbows of children. I always heard executives complaining off-handedly about the showcase circuit but didn't realize the pervasive grasp it has on the youth space. Major League Baseball's greatest failure was allowing a for-profit company to co-opt its pipeline. As much as Perfect Game wants to claim moral superiority and a concern for the arms of children, reality tells a different story. Showcases 11 months of the year. Radar guns trained on infielders throwing across the diamond. Out-of-control pitch counts for arms simply too young to handle the workload. And that's to say nothing of actively seeking out sub-standard players to fill out an event. The commodification of children is gross, and encouraging performance and winning over development at young ages simply reinforces some of the same principles that I fear ultimately lead to arm injuries.

EC: Many people claim these issues are isolated to just the United States, and that the Far East and Latin American are immune. They deny that arm injuries are occurring at high rates in these areas; what did you find?

At the major league level, one's ethnicity does not make him any likelier to hurt himself. The numbers are pretty flat across the board. We see with Latin American players how that manifests itself because so many spend their formative years in the minor leagues and we witness their ascent and, in unfortunate cases, injury. Japanese pitchers, on the other hand, have a reputation of clean mechanics and hard work, and while that may be true, the results are devastating. It's not just the recent study that showed 40 percent of a sample of 9- to 12-year-old Japanese children had suffered ulnar collateral ligament damage. It's what I saw first-hand: Little boys, some so young their adult teeth still weren't fully grown in, coming into a clinic especially for baseball players and being diagnosed with an arm injury. Avulsion fractures. Frayed ligaments. OCD lesions. You name it, these kids had it. And it made me wonder how the Japanese baseball culture can live with itself knowing that it's choosing blind tradition over something as fundamental as the health of children.

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EC: Everyone likes to play Major League Baseball general manager on the internet, but I'm going to do you one better. I'll let you be MLB commissioner and task you with determining how to address the injury epidemic that's spanning from youth leagues all the way to MLB veterans. How do you handle it?

JP: Wow. OK. So, I'm assuming an unlimited budget here, because a lot of these things are going to take money. Let's start with the kids first. I appreciate what Pitch Smart is trying to do. I also think it's not conservative enough with the youngest kids. If baseball is injuring its youngest players -- and doctors and studies alike believe it is -- we need to focus on the two likeliest culprits: overuse and excessive maximum-effort throwing. Curb the first with lower pitch limits. It's not like 8- or 9-year-old kids need to be building toward triple-digit pitches. And in concert with that, advocate an epistemological change in how we approach youth baseball: as an apparatus for development over competition. Don't get me wrong. Competition is great. But if competitiveness in this space leads to the things that lead to an increase in injuries, we can satisfy our competitive jones elsewhere and instead emphasize developing safer development and the importance of control and command over velocity. This demands better coaching, and free coaching clinics run by MLB-trained advocates at least gives us a better chance of empowering those whose voices are critical with the necessary education.

There are so many more things in the youth space I could do, but I want to move on to the pros, because if I were in power and had carte blanche, the first thing I would do is force the 30 teams to abandon their injury-prevention fiefdoms and band resources to help start solving this problem. This is a matter of the greater good. Baseball as a sport is facing another generation of pitchers arriving with Tommy John surgery scars on their elbows, and if a team found something that could mitigate injuries, those children deserve to know. I understand the desire for a competitive advantage. I also see this as a moral imperative for baseball to do what it can to solve it. Beyond that, continuing to fund the current epidemiological studies, working hand in hand with the tech companies -- so many of which seem to have a problem getting their products to market -- and pioneering in-house research through a think tank-like establishment devoted not just to the arm but varying other ends of research. In other words, I'd throw the full weight of MLB behind this, not just monetarily but starting with the first commercial of the World Series, which is a close-up camera shot first on Matt Harvey's elbow, then Stephen Strasburg's, then Jose Fernandez's. And as the camera pans back to reveal their familiar faces, each says: "This could be you." Then some stats on year-round baseball -- oh, yeah; as commissioner, I'd shut that down and hold twice-a-year showcases at which the top prospects can show up and show off their stuff for everyone in the industry, like a combine -- and some other scary numbers and, boom: Immediate education on Tommy John surgery through people not wearing white lab coats.

EC: Thanks for joining us, Jeff! Whether you're a baseball player, coach, parent, scout, or fan, I'd strongly encourage you to  pick up a copy of The Arm.

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Understanding Scapular Positioning in the Throwing Motion

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance - Massachusetts pitching coordinator, Matt Blake (@Blake_Matt). Matt is an integral part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team. Enjoy! -EC 

At a recent conference, Eric Cressey gave a presentation that tackled the importance of baseball professionals understanding scapular mechanics and the integral role they play in the throwing athlete’s kinetic chain. Eric Schoenberg also recently showed a great drill to incorporate scapular motion into the kinetic chain of activity. Given that I’m the third member of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team with these two, I figured I might as well chime in to highlight its importance from my perspective as well.

This is an important discussion to have because it can help demonstrate the need for all phases of development to work together to keep the high-level thrower operating on all cylinders. If we’re all speaking the same language, we can work to build the athlete’s awareness for their overall movement and integrate the education from the warm-up through the initial phases of the throwing progression.

If we’re all saying different things to the athlete using our own jargon, it’s easy for them to misinterpret the carryover of certain drills, exercises, and concepts across channels. If we all lay down similar verbiage in our conversations with the athlete regarding their prehab work, dynamic warm-up, strength training and throwing motion, it makes it a lot easier for them to appreciate the importance each piece holds in the puzzle.

In order to get started, let’s look at where the scapula is positioned and introduce its fundamental movements so we can begin to appreciate its role in the kinetic chain.

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When looking at the scapula’s position and actions, you have to acknowledge the importance of its relationships with the rib cage and the humerus. These relationships are integral in tying the torso and the arm action together in a high-level throw. These interactions between the thoracic region, scapula and humeral head may be the most overlooked or misunderstood components of the delivery – especially for the average coach who has no anatomical background.

The degree of misunderstanding is mainly because the actions are so subtle and can’t be fully appreciated when the athlete throws with their shirt on. This is why its so vital to have a strength/rehab professional in the mix, who can provide a shirtless scapular screen to give us a baseline on where the scapula lies at rest and how it functions in relation to the movement of the arm.
 

Once you can identify how an athlete presents, you can begin to build a more individualized corrective movement progression. This will serve to help the athlete identify and turn on the appropriate movement patterns to keep the humeral head flush with the scapula through its full range of motion. This is essential in the throw, because of the importance of a “clean” arm action to help alleviate some of the stress involved in the high-level motion. For demonstration sake, here’s an example of a HS pitcher, who throws 88-91, with a relatively efficient arm action for his age.

The ability to create elite levels of hand-speed in a durable manner can be won or lost based on how the humeral head functions in conjunction with the scapula. In my mind, this is the crux of the delivery, where you need to be able to tie the “whip-like” arm action into the sequential actions of the torso.

As the thrower engages his landing position, the kinetic forces of the delivery are beginning to flow up through the chain towards the scapula and arm. It’s crucial at this point for the arm to get set up in a sound position to optimize control of the (glenohumeral) joint in an effort to handle the energy that’s about to drive through that portion of the chain towards release. The “optimal” timing of this set-up will be dictated by how the athlete sequences hip and torso rotation, as well as how much laxity they present with, etc. - but for the sake of discussion, we’ll say landing is a crucial checkpoint.

From here, the key actions that we’re going to break out today are upward rotation and protraction. This isn’t to say that they are more important than the other actions, but throughout the season, throwers tend to lose upward rotation from the stress of the throwing motion. With that in mind, let’s identify what it is and how it works with protraction to aid the durability of the high-level delivery.

This concept is something that EC has written and produced videos about countless times over the years, but it continues to be a point that needs to be reiterated time and again. For those who haven’t seen it, this is a great video to consider in this discussion.

From this video, we’ll take it a step further, so you can visualize how this actually plays out in the throwing motion itself.

As you can see, there is a considerable amount of range of motion and control that needs to be in place if you expect to keep the humeral head “centered” from lay-back through the entirety of the deceleration phase. The challenge here is that we can’t always see how the arm action is working with the shoulder blade. One way to combat this is via communicating with your athletes about where they feel their soreness the day after throwing.

Generally speaking, I like to have guys tell me they’re sore near the medial border of the scapula, in the meat of back, where the scapular retractors are eccentrically controlling the scapula as it moves away from the mid-line. If guys are sore near the back, top, or front portion of the shoulder joint itself, then we’re probably getting too much “joint-play” and the humeral head is gliding and translating away from the center of the socket too much during the throw.

If these other patterns of soreness are presenting somewhere along the line, either the rotator cuff wasn’t doing its job, the scapula wasn’t working in sync with the humeral motion, or the thrower’s motion in general is putting them in positions that aren’t utilizing the correct patterns. In this case, let's assume that we did have a “good” post-throwing stress pattern.

Once we’ve identified that we are using scapular upward rotation and protraction to our benefit to control the socket, now we need to work extremely hard to counteract the eccentric damage associated with these actions. This is where the recovery protocol and the warm-up itself are crucial on a daily basis to make sure we’re getting back both the range of motion that we need, as well as activating it correctly before we begin to throw again.

To learn more about how physical assessment, strength and conditioning principles, video analysis, and drill work for the pitcher fit together, be sure to check out one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships. Our next event will be held January 17-19, 2016 at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. The early-bird registration is December 17, 2015. For more information, check out www.EliteBaseballMentorships.com.  

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Timing Adjustments and Their Impact on the Pitching Delivery: A Case Study

Today's guest post comes from Matt Blake, the pitching coordinator at Cressey Sports Performance in Massachusetts. Matt is an integral part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team.

I recently Tweeted out a picture of some mechanical changes a pitcher had made and it received a lot of responses. As such, I decided I would follow up with a little more depth and context to this particular picture to help shed some light on the thought process that goes into making mechanical adjustments. So, for starters, here’s the picture in question, with the left side being the original delivery and the right side being the revised version.

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Typically, when discussing pitching mechanics, I avoid using still shots, because they can be very misleading. In this particular case, there were some substantial changes that were made in this landing position, which I thought encapsulated a lot about the enhanced movement quality of the delivery as a whole, which we’ll unpack in further detail here.

For those familiar with the pitching delivery, the first thing that should jump out at you is the extremely late arm action in the initial delivery. This could be classified as an “inverted arm action” at landing, where in this case, the elbow isn’t necessarily hyper-abducted (elevated) above the shoulder, but the hand is definitely below the elbow. In a Cliff's Notes version, this positioning is generally regarded as increasing stress on the shoulder and elbow. This is in part due to the orientation of the humeral head in the socket at landing, as it’s in a position of excessive internal rotation and pinned into the front of the socket. As a result, we’re not in an optimal position to get the rotator cuff to function to center the head for a clean ball in socket rotation.

This is coupled with the fact that we’re adding more torque to the joint since we have more range of motion involved in getting the hand to full lay-back before accelerating to release. That being said, there are plenty of pitchers who throw very hard and have successful big league careers pitching with an inverted pattern, and the reason they throw so hard may very well be due to their inverted pattern, so you have to constantly weigh the risk/reward of making mechanical adjustments for pitchers.

As an example, Billy Wagner had an inverted pattern and multiple injuries, but was hitting 100mph before it was industry standard to hit 100mph - and he accumulated 422 saves in a successful big league career.

wagner1024px-Billy_Wagner_on_September_15,_2009

When weighing this potential risk/reward, some of the questions might include:

  • Where is this pitcher currently in the developmental process?
  • What type of stress does he currently report during or after throwing?
  • What can we gain by making adjustments?
  • What do we have to lose by adjusting this current delivery?

These are important questions to consider, because you’re obviously not going to take a big leaguer at the tail end of his career, and adjust what has got him to that point. Conversely, you might adjust a 15yr old high school pitcher, who throws hard, but has erratic command and reports a high level of stress after he’s done throwing.

In this particular case, we had a sophomore in college, who had a track record of success in high school, and was looking to establish his role in a very competitive program with a strong history of winning. His contributions as a freshman were limited in part due to command issues and his velocity would be erratic going anywhere from 82-90mph on any given day.

With these considerations in mind, it became apparent in looking at the the delivery in its current state, that these mechanics might be a limiting factor in commanding the ball at a competitive level, as well as sustaining his velocity on a consistent basis. On the flip side, though, if we reduce the inversion in his arm action, we may lose a mph or two of velocity initially, as we learn to “re-tension” the delivery and create force in a different manner. In order to fully comprehend these issues, let’s take a look at this delivery in full:

As I stated in the video, the crazy thing about this delivery is that for how extremely late that arm action looks in that still shot, it’s really a misrepresentation for how much I like the feel of this delivery as a whole. There’s a lot of quality movement that’s “loose” in nature, and this athlete has a good feel for creating “extension” in the throw, so we really don’t have to adjust the integrity of his movements, but more the timing associated with some of the actions, and at the crux of it, the athlete’s mindset for creating leverage in his throw.

If you look at where this delivery starts to break down, it’s in the excessive “counter-rotation” of his shoulders that creates too much length in the throwing arm and that couples with an exaggerated extension of the back leg into landing.

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As a result, the hand can’t catch up and “get on top of the ball” at landing and our pressure into the ground ends up being poor. This combines to create an issue for the stabilization pattern as a whole now, because the front leg can’t brace to create a fixed point of rotation to anchor the throw, as it has to allow for the torso to translate forward in an effort to create time for the hand to get into position behind the ball. So, as you can see, by the front knee ending up working into a more flexed position, we’re diffusing the ground force reaction we’re trying to convert into rotational power, and the pelvis loses its leverage on that front hip, flattening out our rotation. When this happens, you’ll notice that the path of the hand is actually diverted wide instead of keeping an efficient driveline through the target. Without a firm landing position that allows us to accept force properly, and keep the rhythm of our sequencing intact, our command and velocity will continue to be erratic in nature.

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Once we identified these issues, we had to rule out that there wasn’t a mobility or stability issue that was limiting our ability to move through more functional positions. In this particular case, mobility definitely wasn’t the issue, and even though the stabilization pattern was currently poor, the athlete did have the ability to stabilize. It really just came down to his awareness for what he was trying to accomplish. So, once we came to agreement that these were things that could be fixed and would be beneficial to his development in the long run, we had to start re-organizing the focus of his repetitions.

Anytime you’re making changes, it’s essential to understand root causes and not just symptoms. For me, the inverted arm action was a symptom of a misdirected focus in the delivery. We needed to make the focus less on length and extension in the throw and more on strength in the landing and properly sequencing his rotations through the chain. By creating a stronger stride pattern and tying the timing of the arm path into the lower half sequencing, we would have a more connected and repeatable delivery that had a more efficient stabilization pattern. Let’s take a look at what shook out over the next seven weeks and then we’ll discuss some of the altered components.

As discussed in the video, the first thing that should stand out in the revised delivery is the compactness of the arm action, and from there, the angle of the ball flight out of his hand. And, to be honest, I could run through every drill that we did to get him to this point, but I don’t know if it’s really the drills themselves that are important. I think we could have accomplished this in a multitude of ways, as long as we kept the focus on cueing him to be “strong into the floor.”

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Now, that being said, we definitely used versions of the “stride drill” to coordinate the rhythm of the back-hip rotation and arm action, and we did our share of step-behind shuffles to speed up his timing and learn to accept force properly upon landing, but if the focus on trying to create force into the ground and working from “top-to-bottom” on the baseball wasn’t in place, I don’t think either of those drills would have mattered.

Changing his focus and “pre-throw vision” for what his ball flight should look like helped him organize his body into this revised delivery. By placing the importance on being “strong into the floor”, it didn’t allow him to put himself into these overly extended positions, whether it be the lower half or the arm action, as he came to understand these weren’t “strong” positions. Ultimately, understanding the importance of landing in a position that allowed him to accept the force and transfer it up the chain was crucial in this process.

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At the end of the day, the most important part of making any type of delivery change is getting “buy-in” from the athlete himself. It doesn’t matter what I think a delivery should look like unless the athlete understands and accepts why it’s important for him to make these changes, because ultimately he’s the one who has to throw the baseball.

In this particular case, we had a college pitcher who is on the cusp of turning himself into an impact pitcher in a competitive college program. If getting himself into more efficient positions in his delivery allows him to command the baseball more consistently, and he can reduce the erratic nature of his velocity, he’ll give himself a real chance to be a reliable college performer and we can begin to entertain the possibility of becoming a pro prospect.

All in all, I’m really proud of the work this athlete put in over the summer and I think these rapid changes speak volumes about the level of commitment he has to his development, as changes of this magnitude aren’t common in this time frame and they certainly don’t happen by accident. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done to “own” this remodeled delivery. It needs to become second nature and highly repeatable in order for this athlete to be able shift into a narrow-minded focus on just competing in the strike zone, but I’m certainly excited to see where his continued effort leads him.

For more pitching discussion, you can follow Matt on Twitter.

Looking for more video analysis and training insights like this? I'd encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have an upper extremity course in November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational experience.

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How Strength and Mobility Impact the Pitching Stride

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance Pitching Coordinator, Matt Blake. Matt is a key part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team. Enjoy! -EC

In today’s video, we’re going to be discussing stride dynamics in the high-level throw. In order to do that, we’re going to use Zach Greinke as our pro model and then show a few other amateur variations, while going into some detail on how strength and mobility play into the equation for developing this powerful stride.

This is important to understand because a lot of the other qualities we look for in a high-level throw – such as achieving efficient “extension” at release, repeating the delivery, and executing our deceleration pattern consistently in an effort to reduce stress – all rely on having a stable stride pattern. In order to understand how this works, let’s take a look at some of the components that make up Greinke’s stride:

As you can see, one of the defining features of Greinke’s stride is the efficient action of his back leg and hip directing the pelvis down the target line early to set the direction and momentum for the stride. The way this is achieved is often overlooked and ultimately results in “offline” or unstable landings.

If you’ll notice the move that Greinke is making here is a posterior weight shift where he actually pushes his hips back in the delivery by hinging at the hip and not drifting his knee forward over his toes like most amateurs do. By engaging his posterior chain in this manner and not relying simply on his front leg to swing him into landing, he’s able to create a more balanced stride phase that unfolds in a more rhythmic manner, using the lead leg as a counter-balance to the delivery and not the primary power source.

For those familiar with the strength & conditioning world, I typically like to relate it to the initial movement of a one-legged squat to feel the glute and hamstring engagement and then a lateral lunge to stay engaged in the adductors for control of the pelvis. The lead leg action is ultimately just a relaxed extension to counter the posterior weight shift and then a swivel in the hip socket to align the foot for landing.

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The effect of engaging the rear leg’s posterior chain allows us to create both extension and rotation out of the back-side, which is important for maintaining the direction of our force into the ground at landing. If we can’t control the force of our action into the ground, we won’t be able to stabilize our landing appropriately, which has ramifications up the chain into our pelvis positioning, core stability and ultimately into our hand positioning on the ball at release.

If we’re trying to create a level of “extension” at release and maintain our leverage on the ball to throw it with angle, we need to take ownership of our pelvis positioning. If we don’t actively control the pelvis movement into landing, we’re going to have a hard time centering the head of the lead leg in the hip socket, and in turn, accepting the ground reaction force that we’re trying to create. This happens when we lose the tension of our back hip too early, because we swung our lead leg out as the power source and “chased it” into landing. This means we won’t have control of the pelvis upon landing and we’ll be unable to properly pressurize the front leg to keep leverage in the delivery.

This pelvis leverage is essential in making sure we can keep our core stable and allow it to translate the thoracic region forward, instead of rely on it to create motion, which isn’t the primary role of the lumbar region. We want the “core” to simply transfer the energy we created from the lower half efficiently. If we can do that, we allow ourselves to accelerate on a longer line to release, because our path of deceleration is set up to be fully accepted on the front hip’s internal rotation and flexion. If the pelvis is too flat, and relies purely on rotation and not flexion, our line of deceleration becomes much shorter and forces us to handle more of the stress in our throwing arm, which isn’t ideal.

A good example of how both length in the adductors and strength in the posterior chain helped an athlete achieve a more athletic and powerful stride can be seen here. The first clip is a video of a 17 yr old LHP, who was 6’4” 180lbs, and 82-84 at the time of the video:

Notice how his stride pattern is very limited not only in his length toward home, but in its inefficient direction and its ability to allow for a full finish to protect the arm. As you can see, this athlete struggled to get a posterior weight shift out of his gather position, drifted into a closed stride position, and then had too flat of a pelvis position to achieve a proper flexed hip position. As a result, he runs out of lateral rotation in the lead hip and the finish buckles on him. This could be a result of many things, including limited adductor mobility, poor single leg stability, weakness of the anterior or rotary core, etc. Candidly, though, you usually see all these things in untrained pitchers!

Fortunately, this same athlete took it upon himself to devote some quality time to making himself a better athlete, getting stronger, and gaining awareness for the movements the high level delivery was asking of him – and he’s now turned himself into a legitimate prospect. In this more recent video, the athlete is 20yrs old now, 6’5” 215lbs, and 88-91mph, topping at 92mph:

By no means is this athlete a finished product, but you can see where the added strength, mobility, and movement awareness allows him to get into a deeper hip-hinge position, ride out of the stride longer, and certainly take the finish deeper to allow for a longer line of deceleration. The next step for this athlete will be continuing to work on his single-leg stability, as you can see a slight wobble in the landing and a touch of misdirection, but certainly leaps and bounds ahead of where he was three years prior.

To give you an example of where this stride pattern can go, here is an example of one of our more accomplished athletes, Tyler Beede, who was the 14th overall pick in this year's draft and had one of the best amateur stride patterns I’ve seen:

From time to time this athlete will struggle with slight misdirection and postural control, but his ability to pitch 92-96mph with above average off-speed offerings is a testament to the balance and power in the lower half of his delivery.

At the end of the day, everyone is going to present with different levels of mobility, stability and coordination, so you certainly have to leave room in your model to account for individual variance. However, these athletes are good examples of how properly maintained mobility and stability can tie into the high-level delivery to make you a more powerful and durable pitcher in the long run.

Looking for more video analysis and training insights like this? I'd encourage you to sign up for one of our upcoming Elite Baseball Mentorships. We have events in both October and November, and you won't find a more intensive baseball educational course.

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Baseball Injuries: Are Pitchers Really Getting “Babied?”

Today, I want to tackle another argument that gets thrown out there a lot nowadays in the baseball world:

"Pitchers are getting hurt because we're babying them."

Usually, this phrase comes from more of an “old school” coach who simply doesn’t appreciate how substantially the game has changed over the last 20-30 years. Flash back to the 1980s and 1990s, and you’ll see the following differences:

1. Kids weren’t heavily abused with year-round baseball at a young age, so there weren’t as many damaged goods arriving in collegiate and professional baseball.

2. Strength and conditioning was simply non-existent at all levels. As quantifiable proof of this evolution of the game, recent research has shown that the average MLB player’s body weight increased by roughly 12% between 1990 and 2010. Bigger, stronger athletes throw harder – and guys who throw harder get injured more frequently. All those guys who threw 86-90mph in the 1980s would be out of jobs if they played nowadays and didn’t strength train.

3. Video analysis was archaic back then as compared to now. Nowadays, throwers at all levels can optimize mechanics much more easily with the help of technology. Better mechanics should reduce injuries, but we have to realize that optimizing mechanics usually also equates to greater velocity. Efficient movement is efficient movement, so this is likely a “wash” in terms of injury risk.

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4. Travel wasn’t as stressful at the professional level. The game has expanded to include more teams (which equates to more travel) and nastier time zone changes. That wreaks havoc on players more than the typical fan realizes.

5. The season was slightly shorter. This is likely a trivial difference, but with the expansion of the wild card at the MLB level – as well as the World Baseball Classic every few years – the season has been stretched out a bit. Anecdotally, it seems that more and more players are heading out to play winter ball as well.

6. There weren’t nearly as many guys throwing cutters. This pitch isn’t very friendly on the elbow, and it seems like everyone is throwing it nowadays.

7. The pitching side of the game wasn’t as specialized. Nowadays, outside of starters, you have set-up guys, lefty specialists, righty specialists, and closers. It seems counterintuitive, but the more specialized a pitcher you are, the more likely you are to pitch frequently. And, this doesn’t just include getting into games, but also the number of times pitchers throw in the bullpen, but don’t go in the game (a scenario that is not-so-affectionately known as a “dry hump” in professional baseball).

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8. Sports medicine wasn’t as advanced. This is a bit of a leap of faith, but I’d say that modern medicine has made it possible for pitchers at the highest level to throw through a lot more arm discomfort than in previous decades. The anti-inflammatories/analgesics are more powerful and they’re sometimes handed out like candy, so you have a lot of scenarios where minor issues become major injuries over the course of time because they’re masked pharmaceutically.

Take these eight points all together, and you realize that we have taken already damaged pitchers and provided them with tools (strength and conditioning and video analysis) to help them move at greater velocities than ever before, throwing more stressful pitches than ever before – and then pushed them out into a longer and more stressful competitive calendar than ever before – where they pitcher more frequently than ever before. And, sports medicine has trended more toward making it easier for them to push through injuries than preventing injuries in the first place.

How the heck does that equate to us “babying” them?

This is on par with sending an experienced racecar driver out to the Daytona 500 track in a beat-up old lemon and having him drive it as fast as he can for 250 days per year. Would you be surprised if the car broke down, or the driver crashed and was injured? Would you say that the car or driver was “babied?”

Go ahead and let all your starters throw 150 pitches per game, and leave ‘em out there for 300 innings. Dry hump all your relievers until they don’t sit down in the bullpen all season. And, be sure to let me know how it goes.

The current system hasn’t “babied” pitchers; the pitch count and innings restrictions were a response to the dramatic changes to the game that have effectively destroyed the long-term health of pitchers. Look at the velocity drops (and, in some cases, injuries) of CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Josh Beckett, Dan Haren, Mark Buerhle and others who have racked up a lot of innings at a young age. While other players their ages may be able to preserve (or even increase) their velocities, these guys are on the steady downslope. Do you really think the problem is that they haven’t pitched enough?

Tim_Lincecum_2009

This leads to a very important clarification I should make: I’ll agree that pitchers need to throw more – but only if that means they pitch less. In other words, we need to get them away from specificity. We know too much specificity hurts them – and we also know that pitching off the mound generally increases arm stress as compared to flat-ground throwing, especially when that mound work is highly competitive. Whether it’s long toss, weighted balls, flat-ground work, or a combination of all these things, players need to find a way to build or preserve arm speed without the stress of the mound.

On the whole, pitchers aren’t being babied. In fact, in most cases, they’re being pushed more than ever before – and if you just keep pushing, something will always give.

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The Truth About CC Sabathia’s Weight

Earlier this week, the New York Times published Joe Brescia's article, For Yankees' Sabathia, It Appears Less (Weight) is Less (Success).  It stirred up quite a bit of controversy among those "in the know" in the baseball world, particularly those with a knowledge of how the body actually works.  As is often the case with articles targeted toward the lay population, this piece didn't delve into the specifics in too much detail, so I thought I'd use this post to do so.  Be sure to read the article before proceeding, if you haven't already.

The Body Mass - Pitching Velocity Relationship

To begin, research has demonstrated a clear relationship between body mass and pitching velocity, so this is at least a question that has to be asked.  However, I think it needs to be answered fairly - via a compilation of anecdotal reports and actual research. And, most importantly, nobody except CC Sabathia knows how he feels at different body weights - and certainly nobody can speak to his injury history better than he can. Instead, we got some heavily dated and biased opinions with some cherry-picked interviews by Mr. Brescia.

CC_Sabathia_2009

The problem with cherry-picked interviews in this realm is that they always seem to fall back on a sample size of just a few pitchers.  "Greg Maddux did this, so everyone has to do this."  The problem is that not everyone has Greg Maddux's abilities with respect to pitching location, movement, and sequencing.  Other guys need to make it up with athleticism, especially in today's game - where fastball velocities blow those of yesterday out of the water. The game has changed dramatically; it's played with faster throwing, running, and swinging velocities than ever before (one of MANY reasons for the increase in injuries, contrary to what Lou Piniella and Leo Mazzone seem to think) - and if you want to compete at the MLB level, you don't have the option of not pushing your body to be better.  With that in mind, we have to look at what the majority of players have done to get to improve their bodies. To speak to Piniella's assertions, players don't get hurt or fall off in performance simply because they train; these problems occur when they train incorrectly, whether it's poor exercise technique, excessive volume, imbalanced programming, inappropriate loading, lack of attention to mobility and soft tissue quality, or any of a host of other factors. 

I've devoted my career to helping players get better and stay healthy by avoiding these common errors. To that end, at Cressey Performance, I work with over 100 professional players each off-season on top of a large college, high school, and middle school clientele - so I feel that I'm in a good position to give valid anecdotal evidence in the context of this weight gain vs. weight loss discussion. 

ECtable

While weight gain is almost universally beneficial at the younger ranks, as kids get past ages 17-18, things shift a bit.  As an example, in our professional pitchers crowd, I'd estimate that about 70% can really benefit from gaining weight.  Roughly 20% are at a good weight - and need to focus on improving body composition rather than actually making the scale go up or down.  Finally, only about 10% need to actually lose weight.

As it relates to throwing, weight gain is a perfect example of the Inverted-U curve.  In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell writes,

Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic.  There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better.  There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference.  And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.

In other words, there is a weight that helps performance, but gaining more doesn't help past a point. Here's what the inverted U looks like graphically, with body weight on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis:

invertu

The 40 pounds Tim Collins has put on at Cressey Performance since he was drafted have had a profound impact on his pitching velocity, as he's gone from 82mph to the mid-90s.  So, as you can imagine, I look to take advantage of this weight gain window whenever possible.

TimCollins250x_20110610

The Body Mass - Pitching Stress Relationship

Unlike examples like Collins, I don't think Sabathia is a candidate to thrive with weight gain. You see, pitching is a combination of absolute and relative strength and power. From an absolute standpoint, more body weight equates to more force to push off the mound, and more momentum moving downhill; that's why gaining weight can have such a profound impact on pitching velocity.

On the other hand, from a relative strength and power standpoint, you eventually have to "accept" all the force you create.  We know that there are substantial ground reaction forces taken on by the front leg, and research has demonstrated that they are (not surprisingly) directly impacted by body weight.  Additionally, according to 1998 research on professional pitchers from Werner et al., at ball release, the distraction forces on the shoulder are approximately 108% of body weight.  You could also make the argument that these forces are even higher now, as average fastball velocity has crept up significantly since 1998, and the subjects in that study averaged only 89mph.  As is the case with body weight increases, as arm speed rises, so do shoulder distraction.  With this research in mind, there should be no question that carrying extra body weight at this critical instant in the delivery wasn't helping his cause:

CCSabathia

And, at risk of playing Monday Morning Quarterback, if you look at his recent injury history, you shouldn't be surprised. He had torn meniscus in his right (landing) leg repaired in 2010, and bone spurs removed from his left elbow in 2012.  Both are ball release/deceleration mechanism injuries to passive restraints.  In other words, they take place because the active restraints (muscles and tendons) can't keep up with the workload placed on them.  If you can't keep up with shoulder distraction forces, you only have two options, when you're in panic mode and trying to get big league hitters out:

1. Let your arm fly off your body.

2. Crank your elbow into more aggressive extension, increasing the likelihood of bony injury (loose bodies) or protective adaptation (spurs).

Clearly, gaining weight won't do much for his longevity - and, to be fair, the New York Times piece did discuss that. I'd also argue that it'd make it more difficult to field his position and run the bases during interleague play. Plus, his fat loss will make any future diagnostic tests - MRIs, x-rays, etc. - more accurate, should he encounter additional musculoskeletal problems. Here's what radiologist Dr. Jason Hodges had to say when I interviewed him five years ago:

By far, the biggest limitation is obesity. All of the imaging modalities are limited by it, mostly for technical reasons. An ultrasound beam can only penetrate so far into the soft tissues. X-rays and CT scans are degraded by scattered radiation, which leads to a higher radiation dose and grainy images. Also, the time it takes to do the study increases, which gives a higher incidence of motion blur.

I also found it interesting that there was no mention of the reduced risk of chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes; I give him a ton of credit for getting the weight off so that he can be a healthy role model for his kids (not to mention fans who've witnessed his transformation).

Your velocity doesn't matter if you're on the disabled list...period.  However, we have to ask the question of whether CC's velocity drop in 2013 was really just a function of him losing weight.

Finding the Right Body Weight to Maximize Velocity

If there are two thing I've learned over years of working with pitchers, it's that no two deliveries are alike, and every body is unique.  What works for Steve Cishek (6-6, 220lbs) won't work for Tim Collins (5-7, 170lbs).

CresseyCishekCollins

Beyond just height and weight differences, some guys have more joint laxity than others.  Each pitcher has a unique injury history. Some throwers have more retroversion in their throwing shoulders, or a larger valgus carrying angle at the elbow. 

crazyvalgus

I could go on and on about these individuals differences, but the point is that it's dangerous to assume that all guys will respond exactly the same to a given stimulus - whether it's a mechanical adjustment, modified throwing program, added athleticism, a change in body weight, or something else.

On the body weight side of things, I've had a few years to develop a sample size of where pitchers seem to fit in best weight-wise.  Obviously, there are individual differences in body weight distrubtion, limb length, and body composition, but we can generalize a bit if you think about the average build of a professional pitcher.  Being about 220-225 pounds for a 6-3 pitcher, as an example, seems to be a sweet spot.  If their weight drops, so does their velocity.  If their weight climbs, they don't necessarily benefit - and may actually feel worse.

By contrast, go to someone who is 6-5, and 240-245 pounds seems to be a good spot - so you could make the argument that each inch equates to about 10 pounds.  At 6-7, I'd estimate 260-270 pounds.  This is something that's been reflected in my conversations with the really tall guys I've trained over the years:

Really tall guys simply don't thrive with weight gain like shorter guys do.

While there are obviously exceptions to this rule, in the 6-7 and above pitchers I've encountered, we're usually focusing a lot more on improving body composition (dropping some body fat while gaining muscle mass, even if the scale weight doesn't change).  It all depends on their starting points - but I can't say that I've ever pushed hard for a guy to go from 250 to 270 pounds.

I should also note: interpreting online height/weight listings in MLB pitchers is tricky, as guys are always listed about an inch tall without a change in body weight. Plus, they are rarely updated - and guys don't grow much after they enter pro ball, but they do gain weight.  As an example, Felix Doubrant is currently listed at 165 pounds by Yahoo Sports, but ESPN.com and MLB.com have him at 225 pounds.

Obviously, there are exceptions to the "norms" I just set forth.  As an example, Cishek is more comfortable slightly lighter than typical 6-6 guys because he drops down and throws across his body, landing really closed off.  This gives him more deception and movement, but also requires a lot more mobility and athleticism than a big donkey who just stands upright and throws downhill. That same argument could be made for Jered Weaver and Andrew Miller, who are both listed at 6-7, 210 pounds.

Based on what I've heard and seen in his delivery, Sabathia is also a super athletic guy - and you can tell from the way he really gets down the mound.  I'd argue that he's better off at 270; it's a happy medium between velocity and health, in my eyes - and that's the Holy Grail of pitching we're always working to find.

The Mathematics of Sabathia's Weight Loss

According to the New York Times piece, Sabathia has lost 45 pounds over the past two years - effectively bringing him from 315 to 270 pounds. If these numbers are accurate, he lost 14% of his body weight over the course of 24 months - and that's certainly a notable reduction that has to raise his eyebrows.

However, those eyebrows are only raised if you look at things in absolute terms.  A 14% loss for a 6-3, 225-pound pitcher would be 31.5 pounds - and would certainly equate to a huge drop in velocity.  However, that 225-pound pitcher wasn't starting out from a point of what could actually be classified as obesity.  The 45-pound drop brought Sabathia back to a more normal range, whereas the 31.5-pound drop would put a 6-3 pitcher far too light to thrive. Unless he's got an insanely quick arm, it's not going to work.

This parallels my own experiences in cutting weight as a competitive powerlifter.  Losing 5-10 pounds would lower my lifts dramatically, but I knew guys in the 242-, 275-, 308-pound weight classes (and super heavyweights) who could do it in a matter of minutes without noticing a thing.  The heavier you are, the less sensitive you are to changes - especially when they happen over the course of two years.

Heavy people (especially taller ones) who diet don't experience the serious lethargy and lack of satisfaction lighter-weight dieters notice because of the total amount of calories that are still being taken in.  I remember talking to a world-class bench presser who wanted to stay above 350 pounds to shorten the distance the bar had to travel while pressing.  He told me he was drinking three gallons of Powerade a day on top of his normal diet just to keep his weight up - and was absolutely miserable.  He also couldn't go for a 1/4 mile walk without his lower back tightening up.  So, we can kill off the myth that CC was starving himself to take the weight off; he was probably just making better food choices - which actually meant he probably ate a higher volume of food.

Regarding mechanical changes that occur with significant weight gain or loss, I simply haven't seen it.  I've put 25 pounds on guys in off-seasons on countless occasions, and can't ever recall someone saying it interfered with their mechanics.  I've also had guys lose that same amount, without ever complaining about it throwing them off.  It's a much more dramatic change at these lighter weights, too.  Losing 20 pounds during an off-season when you're 320 pounds doesn't dramatically change your mechanics. And, even if it did, a high-level, intelligent athlete like Sabathia would sort it out, particularly with the video analysis resources at his fingertips.

In fact, I'd actually argue that his weight loss would improve his ability to get to the positions he needs to be successful with his delivery, as Sabathia lost a lot of abdominal fat. 

CChomeplate

When you carry a lot of weight in your midsection, there is a tendency to slip into lumbar extension (lower back arching) to counteract it.  This is one reason why pregnant women often have back pain; beyond the mechanical impingement on the posterior aspect of the spine, the muscles of the anterior core are excessively lengthen as the pelvis tips forward and rib cage slides up.  CP pitching coordinator Matt Blake and I discussed this common fault in our recent series, Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike (part 1, part 2, and part 3).  A larger belly would shift a guy like Sabathia into a more extended (arched) posture - similar to what we see with Lincecum on the right - as opposed to to the more neutral core positioning we see on the left with Zach Greinke.

grelin

Greinke is older and has thrown more innings over the past two years than Lincecum, yet his average fastball velocity this year was 1.5mph higher. According to Fangraphs (Lincecum vs. Greinke), since 2007, Lincecum has dropped from 94.2mph to 90.2mph, while Greinke has dropped from 94.0mph to 91.7mph.  This is one of many factors that may contribute to Greinke's ability to sustain his velocity better than Lincecum has, but I'll take a neutral core posture and clean drive line over the long haul over a heavily extended one - and that's where CC's larger abdomen was shifting him.

Finally, from a common sense standpoint, I don't think anyone would call 6-7, 270 pounds "light" - especially when we're talking about a guy who still looks pretty damn intimidating on the mound. His body weight is fine, people - as much as that doesn't sell controversy in the New York Times.

How, then, do you explain his loss in velocity? Read on.

Fatigue Masks Fitness

As the Lincecum vs. Greinke example demonstrates, getting older and throwing a lot of innings means a velocity drop. Sabathia's average fastball velocity is consistent with this trend, going from 94.7mph in 2005 to 91.1mph in 2013. Let's have a look at the active leaders in innings pitched (courtesy of Baseball Reference):

IP

As you can see, Sabathia is an outlier.  He was among the youngest on this list (if not THE youngest) to make the big leagues - and he's certainly the only one with a track record of sustained success without missing considerable time due to injury. 

Throwing a baseball is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, and CC Sabathia has done it at the highest level more than anyone else on the planet over the past 13 years.

It's virtually impossible to compare him to anyone on this list in terms of both innings pitched, admirable health, age and consistently. The only four parallels who can help for the sake of this discussion are Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, and Mark Buerhle.

Haren is the same age as Sabathia and also made his MLB debut at age 21. While he's averaged 186 innings per year over the past 11 years, he's thrown 729 innings (almost four full seasons worth) less than Sabathia, who has averaged 213 over the past 13.  Haren's average fastball velocity has declined from a peak of 91.9mph in 2005 to 88.9mph in 2013.

Beckett, like Sabathia, was an absolute stud in his early 20s and threw a ton of innings over his first decade in the big leagues - but his 149IP/year rate can't touch CC's because of the amount of time he's spent on the disabled list, especially in light of this year's season ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome.  He is a good comparison for Sabathia in terms of velocity, though, as Beckett's average fastball velocity dropped from 94.7mph in 2006 to 91.4mph in 2012 (his last full season). 

Jake Peavy is the same age as Sabathia, but got to the big leagues a year later than CC, and like Beckett, Peavy has missed too much time with injuries to really be a valid comparison (averaging 162IP/year). Peavy's average fastball velocity drop has been more subtle - 92.5mph in 2007 down to 90.7mph in 2013 - but you have to wonder where it would be if he'd thrown over 800 innings more during that time period - as Sabathia has.

Buerhle is a bit different, though, as he's averaged 205IP per season over the past 14 years - making him the only guy who can touch Sabathia's streak of longevity and performance.  The main difference?  Sabathia throws a lot harder than Buerhle, and that's a lot more stress.  Make no mistake about it: you don't pull your hamstrings if you don't run fast (even Lou Piniella's strength and conditioning approach supports that) - and the same applies to pitching.  Still, Buerhle's average fastball velocity has dropped from a peak of 87.1mph in 2004 to 84.2mph in 2013.

I've often heard that many front office people in baseball consider the prime of a player to be age 26-31. It's the point at which increased knowledge of the game coincides with peak athleticism and recovery ability.  After 31 - as each of these examples shows, things start to decline.  It stands to reason that power pitchers like Beckett and Sabathia, who rely heavily on athleticism, will fall off faster than those like Buerhle and Peavy, who rely more on location and movement.  I'd also add that those with considerable congenital laxity (loose joints) will fall off the fastest (more strength = more stability = better force transfer) - and based on what I've seen of Beckett and Sabathia, they are both freakishly flexible. Getting old sucks.

CCBack

What do these examples - and literally hundreds more in guys who weren't even close to as successful as Sabathia - show us?  Fatigue masks fitness.  If you throw a ton of innings (impose fatigue) and get older (reduce recovery capacity), your performance suffers. We saw it early this season after Justin Verlander's heavy workload in the playoffs last year.  And, this is true of every single sport in the history of mankind. 

That is, of course, unless you're CC Sabathia, in which case it's only because you lost some fat, at least according to a few of Brescia's cherry-picked interviewees.  To me, it's proof that there are scenarios where professional athletes can never win with the media.  Sabathia should be lauded for taking control of his health - and for taking the ball every time his team needed him to do so, pitching in some cases on three days rest.  We hear complaining all the time about how today's pitchers are soft and can't do what the pitchers of yesterday did.  How about praise for a guy who has made more sacrifices on the mound for his teams than anyone in MLB over the past 13 years?

And, who is to say that he would have pitched at all in these past few years if he hadn't taken the weight off?  If he'd come back and reaggravated the meniscus, then everyone would have been calling him too fat to perform.  There's literally no way to win without having the ability to predict the future - and that's why you have to apply common sense, anecdotal evidence, and research - none of which support the idea that being over 300 pounds is healthy or productive for a pitcher.

I, for one, am a huge CC Sabathia fan and think he can be a successful pitcher at this body weight given the right management in the years to come.  It's unfair, however, to expect him to throw 200+ innings per year in perpetuity and not anticipate a velocity loss to ever kick in.

And, more specific to the New York Times piece, it's incredibly shortsighted and borderline irresponsible to even attempt to to blame it on weight loss - which in all likelihood was necessary for him to continue to be able to perform at a high level in spite of the insane physical demands placed on him.

Note: A big thanks goes out to Matt Blake for the great photos from Right View Pro, and to the good folks at Fangraphs.com, who provide awesome stats info in the baseball world.

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Pitching Performance: Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike – Part 3

Today marks the third installment of this series on trunk position at foot strike during the pitching delivery.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2.  In those installments, we outlined the problem of early and excessive lumbar (lower back) extension, and how to address it with drill work.  In today's final installment, we'll introduce some drills we like to use with our athletes to teach them about proper positioning and build stability within those positions.

At the end of the day, there are a few things that can contribute to a pitcher drifting into excessive extension from the time he begins his leg kick all the way through when his front foot strike.  Obviously, the foremost concern is what cues the athlete has been given that may be leading him in this direction.  Once those have been cleaned up, though, we have to look to see how physically prepared an individual is to get to the right positions. I think the first question you have to ask in this case is, "Where does the posture start?"  If an athlete looks like this at rest, he's going to at least look like this dynamically - and this heavily extended posture is going to be much more exaggerated.

APT

With that in mind, step 1 is to educate athletes on what acceptable resting posture is.  In this case, we need the athlete to learn to bring the pelvis and rib cage closer together, most notably through some posterior pelvic tilt.  Once that has been established, here are some of my favorite warm-up drills for athletes with this heavily extended posture. You'll notice that exhaling fully and learning to get the ribs to come down are key components of these drills.

In addition to these low-level core stability exercises, we'll progress to some balance drills, especially in the early off-season.  Effectively, we're teaching athletes to resist extension and rotation in single-leg stance.  Yes, it's static balance training, but I firmly believe these drills have carryover to bigger and better things at higher speeds. And, you're certainly not going to overtrain on them, so you've got nothing to lose.

With all these exercises out of the way, it takes a lot more high level core stability for this posture to carry over to the high level throw.  You need to improve both anterior core control (your ability to resist excessive extension/arching) and rotary stability (your ability to resist excessive rotation at the lower back).  I've outlined loads of options on these front, but here are two to get the ball rolling for those who aren't up to speed on my writings just yet:

And, remember that the different types of core stability never work in isolation - especially during the basebal throw.  Check out this video for more details:

The core stability you build must, however, be accompanied by a strong lower half.  Candidly, I don't think having a huge squat is necessary.  Athletes seem to get much better carryover from deadlift variations, in my experience - likely due to the fact that the deadlift does such a tremendous job of teaching good hip hinging.  We see so many athletes who drift (LHPs toward 1st base, and RHPs toward 3rd base) early in the leg kick and subsequent movement toward home plate in part because they can't hip hinge at all.  Once you've gotten that hip hinge back (in part with the toe touch video from above), you have to strength train in that pattern to get it to stick.  For the most detailed deadlift technique video tutorial out there, check out my free one here.

Additionally, single-leg strength is insanely important, and there are lots of ways to attack it. 

I think it's equally important to be able to build and maintain strength outside the sagittal plane, especially when it comes to carrying that good hip hinge over to movements when a pitcher is starting to "ride his hip" down the mound.  With that said, definitely check out an article I wrote previously, 7 Ways to Get Strong Outside the Sagittal Plane.

Once you've established hip and shoulder mobility, core stability, and lower half strength, you can really start to make the most of your medicine ball training.  As you can see, I think Tim Collins is a great example from which young throwers can learn a lot, as he has built up a lot of these qualities to make the most of a smaller frame in order to consistently throw in the mid 90s.  That said, I couldn't ask for a better demonstrator for our medicine ball drills for a few reasons.

First, he always throws the ball with intent; there are no half-speed reps. If you want to develop power, you have to try to be powerful in each throw during training.  Second, his direction is outstanding.  You never see him drift forward as he builds energy to apply with aggressive hip rotation. Third, he's got a great hip shift, which is necessary to get the most out of his posterior chain.

As a follow-up to that video, CP coach Greg Robins has a great tutorial here to teach you how to get "in and out" of your hip on rotational medicine ball exercises:

As you can see, there are a lot of different factors that contribute to an athletes being in excessive extension - but also allowing that extension to carry over to their pitching mechanics to the point that trunk position will be out of whack at foot strike.  Additionally, these exercises should demonstrate to you that athletes who land in a very extended position - but still have success and don't want to change things - will need to take special precautions in terms of physical preparation to make sure that their bodies don't break down over time with this delivery style.

This wraps up our series on understanding trunk position at foot strike during the pitching delivery; we appreciate you following along for all three articles!I If you'd like to learn more about how we manage throwers, be sure to register for one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The next one will take place December 8-10.

 

 

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Pitching Performance: Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike – Part 1

Cressey Performance Pitching Coordinator Matt Blake and I collaborated on today's piece, which kicks off a three-part series. I think you'll find it to be a great example of how crucial it is for pitching experts and strength and conditioning specialists to work together to help athletes get to where they need to be. -EC

Today, we’re going to be taking a look at a key phase of the pitcher’s delivery that we like to identify when doing video assessments; this phase is the trunk positioning at foot strike. In doing so, we’re going to dig in on some variables that may make or break this position for pitchers.

The trunk orientation at foot strike is a key indicator because it’s a critical moment in the delivery that captures the momentum and potential energy that we were attempting to build in the stride phase.  Just as importantly, foot strike is the instant at which we begin to convert it into kinetic energy that moves up the chain.

In order to efficiently capture this energy, our body has to be set up properly at landing to both accept the ground reaction force in our legs and induce a sequence of stretch-reflex mechanisms throughout the body to optimize our hand speed at ball release. This is where the term “Hip and Shoulder Separation” originates; this commonly thrown-around concept is quite often bungled because of how people strive to get it. Without getting into stride phase mechanics, let’s just look at a couple key identifiable traits that we like to see at landing.

gre

Our model for this example will be Zach Greinke, because of his ability to create elite velocities in a highly repeatable manner from a body type to which most pitchers can relate. In order to do that, he’s got to be powerful and efficient, and (with or without knowing it) he has to get into some highly leveraged positions to create hand speed.

The first thing we want to identify is where the torso stacks up over the stable base we’ve tried to create at landing. The key landmarks we make note of here are 1) the degree of pelvis rotation that is leading the sequencing, 2) an effectively braced lumbar region, and 3) a balanced use of thoracic extension/rotation and scapular retraction, and 4) where the head is oriented. All of these markers need to be working together to create a lag effect from the initial rotation of the pelvis, up the spine to the shoulder girdle, and into the distal aspects of the throwing arm.

This “lag effect” or “segmental separation” has been documented in a handful of studies at this point, and is very evident in elite throwers, so we’re not going to dive into this too much. Instead, today’s post is more about identifying what the segmental separation looks like in these throwers and how it might be overdone at times.

The key in creating this separation effectively is keeping our target in mind and making sure these sequenced rotations are expressed in the right direction.  If you’ll notice the picture of Greinke above, he’s very adept at getting this separation without “selling out” for it by creating excessive lumbar extension (lower back arching) and letting his ribs flare upwards. He’s in an effective position to keep his ribs and pelvis functioning together so as to keep his intra-abdominal pressure for an effective bracing pattern.  In other words, the ribs need to stay down and pelvis can't tip forward excessively as he raise his arms to throw.

479px-Grays_Anatomy_image392

This is an important concept because a lot of athletes may be able to create “separation,” but they’re not doing it in a manner that allows their core to stabilize effectively over their pelvis upon landing. If there’s too much counter-rotation or extension in the lumbar region, we may be getting more “pre-stretch” than we can handle, and getting it from the wrong place, as the lumbar region is designed to be stable and resist this extension and rotation.  If this is the case, we may not be able to recall the stretch we’ve created, missing our temporal window to transfer force, and in turn, leaking energy. This doesn’t just mean losses in velocity or poor command, though; it can also lead to both acute and chronic injuries. 

We want the lumbar region to create an effective bracing pattern that simply allows us to channel the energy created in the lower half and then use our thoracic mobility to effectively “lengthen the whip.” If this isn’t the case and we become over-reliant on the lumbar region for this separation, we can begin to see lower back issues, or oblique strains on the non-dominant side from the excessive stretch in a region that is not structurally designed for a lot of range of motion.   As further anecdotal evidence, I (Eric) have never seen a player – pitcher or hitter – with an oblique strain who had what I’d deem acceptable anterior core control.

That being said, below is an example of two pitchers who set up in different postures, one relying on more torso extension than the other to create “whip” in the throw.

grelin

Now, obviously, the pitcher on the right has had a history of success at the highest level, so we're not saying you can’t pitch like this, but aside from the potential health issues in trying to mimic this level of extension, we also see amateur pitchers who have a hard time realizing an effective release point due to the excessive range of motion required to get from Point A to point B.

With pitchers like this, a lot of times you’ll see them miss consistently up to the arm side or compensate by cutting balls off to their glove-side instead of being able to backspin them there.  This is due to a host of factors, but mainly because they’re not able to sustain their braced rotation and create an effective driveline to release from this position.

The other piece of the puzzle that needs to be understood at landing is how we create effective  centration patterns in our joints.  Key examples in the pitching delivery are the front hip where the femoral head meets the acetabulum (pictured on left) and the throwing shoulder where the humeral head meets the glenoid fossa of the scapula (pictured on right).

hipGray342shouldGray326

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

We’ll leave the hip socket alone for now, but let’s try to understand why it’s important to create a relatively neutral orientation in our lumbar region for the sake of keeping our shoulder healthy.  

In order to get proper function at the glenohumeral (ball and socket) joint, we need the scapula to get to the right amount of upward rotation on the rib cage so our humeral head can center itself in its socket and get the rotator cuff to function in its true role of dynamic stabilization during external rotation (and, later, out front at ball release).

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If we are in a hyperextended position because we’re driving through an excessive combination of both lumbar and thoracic extension, we may be putting our shoulder blade in a depressed and downwardly rotated position that isn’t optimal for timing purposes in the throw.  In other words, the arm gets up, but the shoulder blade can’t – meaning the golf ball is falling off the tee.

If this is the case and we can’t upwardly rotate the scapula on time to keep the humeral head centered, we can run into an excessive amount of superior humeral glide.  Unless the rotator cuff is bull-strong to hold the humerus down in the socket, we have to rely heavily on other active and passive restraints (long head of biceps and glenohumeral ligaments, respectively) of the shoulder.  These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the humerus is externally rotating to get to the lay-back position, and when this happens, the humeral head has a tendency to translate forward.  So, the cuff, biceps tendon, and glenohumeral ligaments are all working hard to prevent both superior and anterior migration of the humeral head.  And, the biceps tendon is twisting and tugging at its attachment on the superior labrum; this is known as the peel-back mechanism for superior labral injuries. 

If you’re a visual learner and none of the previous paragraph made sense to you, don’t worry.  Check out this video and things should make sense:

Yet again, don’t get us wrong, there’s a lot of velocity to be had in these excessively extended positions, assuming they are timed up right, but the long and the short of it is, you’re probably not Tim Lincecum. If you’re attempting to sell out for these lengthened positions, you better have a real nice blend of hip mobility and stability, a ton of anterior core strength, some thoracic mobility and scapular stability and a boat load of athleticism to sustain these positions over the long haul. A quick arm won’t hurt, either!

These issues don’t normally present themselves during the first inning of a start in April, but they do have a tendency to linger underneath the surface until a point where your body is fatigued and the incessant abuse of throwing a baseball time and time again takes its toll, bringing you to threshold.

At the end of the day, we’re not going to be the internet warriors who tell Tim Lincecum he’s doing it all wrong, because he’s not, but we are going to warn the millions of amateur pitchers who aren’t Tim Lincecum that they need to be aware of how they’re attempting to create separation in their throw. More often than not, amateur pitchers are trying to write checks their body can’t cash for that ever elusive 90mph throw. Our advice to you is to dig in and learn more about how the body moves along your way. You’ll find that more often than not, you can do more with less, assuming you’re getting the range of motion in your throw through the right segments and optimizing the timing of your sequencing.

As much as it is the guys who have considerable amounts of laxity who throw hard, it’s the guys who combine it with right amount of stability to create the relative stiffness necessary to stay healthy over the long haul. Needless to say, there’s a lot more that goes into creating the durable high level delivery, but that should give you a couple key points to think about as you begin to figure out how you’re going to make yourself a better player this offseason.

In Parts 2 and 3 of these series, we'll cover some drills you can utilize to prevent or correct these problems.  In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about how we manage throwers, be sure to register for one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The next one will take place December 8-10.

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