Home Posts tagged "Pitching Mechanics" (Page 6)

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.

gre

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 and hard sliders. These pitches are commonly thrown incorrectly, and when that's the case, they aren't very friendly on the elbow. The pitchers of yesterday weren't throwing 92mph sliders and 100mph cutters.

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).

800px-Steve_Cishek_2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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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Should Pitching Coaches Understand Research Methods and Functional Anatomy?

Quite some time ago, I met a pitching coach who made a bold statement to me:

"Most Major League pitchers have terrible mechanics."

I don't know if he meant that they were mechanics that could lead to injuries, or simply mechanics that would interfere with control and velocity development, but either way, I shrugged it off.  Why?

Their mechanics are so terrible that they're in the top 0.0001% of people on the planet who play their sport.  And, they're paid extremely well to be terrible, I suppose.

Kidding aside, this comment got me to thinking about something that's been "festering" for years now, and I wanted to run it by all of you today to get your impressions on it.  In other words, this post won't be about me ranting and raving about how things should be, but rather me starting a dialogue on one potential way to get the baseball development industry to where it needs to be, as it clearly isn't there yet (as evidenced by the fact that more pitchers are getting hurt nowadays than ever before).

The way I see it, mechanics are typically labeled as "terrible" when a pitcher has:

1. Trouble throwing strikes

2. Pitching velocity considerably below what one would expect, given that pitcher's athleticism

3. Pain when throwing

4. Mechanical issues that theoretically will predispose him to injury 

In the first three cases, anyone can really make these observations.  You don't need to be trained in anything to watch the walk totals pile up, read a radar gun, or listen when a pitcher says, "It hurts."  Moreover, these issues are easier to coach because they are very measurable; pitchers cut down on their walks, throw harder, and stop having pain.

Issue #4 is the conundrum that has lead to thousands of pissing matches among pitching coaches.  When a pitcher gets hurt, everyone becomes an armchair quarterback.  The two biggest examples that come to mind are Mark Prior and Stephen Strasburg.

Prior was supposed to be one of the best of all-time before shoulder surgeries derailed his career.  After the fact, everyone was quick to pin all the issues on his mechanics.  What nobody has ever brought to light is that over the course of nine years, his injuries looked like the following (via Wikipedia):

1. Hamstrings strain (out for 2002 season)
2. Shoulder injury (on-field collision - missed three starts in 2003)
3. Achilles injury (missed two months in 2004)
4. Elbow strain (missed 15 days in 2004)
5. Elbow injury (missed one month in 2005 after being hit by line drive)
6. Rotator cuff strain (missed three months in 2006)
7. Oblique strain (missed two starts in 2006)
8. Rotator cuff strain (ended 2006 season on disabled list)
9. Shoulder surgery (missed entire 2007 season, and first half of 2008)
10. Shoulder capsule tear (out for season after May 2008)
11. Groin injury (missed last two months of 2011 season)

By my count, that is eleven injuries - but four of them were non-arm-related.  And, two of them (both early in his career) were contact injuries.  Who is to say that he isn't just a guy with a tendency toward degenerative changes on a systemic level?  How do we know one of the previous injuries didn't contribute to his arm issues later on?  How do we know what he did for preventative arm care, rehabilitation, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs? We don't have his medical records from earlier years to know if there were predisposing factors in place, either.  I could go on and on.

The issue is that our sample size is one (Mark Prior) because you'll never see this exact collection of issues in any other player again.  It's impossible to separate out all these factors because all issues are unique.  And, it's one reason why you'll never see me sitting in the peanut gallery criticizing some teams for having injured players; we don't have sufficient information to know exactly why a player got hurt - and chances are, the medical staff on those teams don't even have all the information they'd like to have, either.

Strasburg has been labeled the best prospect of all-time by many, and rightfully so; his stuff is filthy and he's had the success to back it up.  Of course, the second he had Tommy John surgery, all the mechanics nazis came out of their caves and started berating the entire Washington Nationals organization for not fixing the issue (an Inverted W) proactively to try to prevent the injury.  Everybody is Johnny Brassballs on the internet.

To that end, I'll just propose the following questions:

1. Did Strasburg not do just fine with respect to issues 1-3 in my list above?

2. Would you want to be the one to screw with the best prospect of all-time and potentially ruin exactly what makes him effective?

3. Do we really know what the health of his elbow was when the Nationals drafted him?

4. Do we know what his arm care, throwing, and strength and conditioning programs were like before and after being drafted?

There are simply too many questions one can ask with any injury, and simply calling mechanics the only contributing factor does a complex issue a disservice - especially since young athletes are growing up with more and more physical dysfunction even before they have mastered their "mature" mechanics.

The Inverted W theory is incredibly sound; Chris O'Leary did a tremendous job of making his case - and we certainly work to coach throwers out of this flaw - but two undeniable facts remain.  First, a lot of guys still throw with the Inverted W and don't have significant arm issues (or any whatsoever).  They may have adequate mobility and stability in the right places (more on this below) to get by, or perhaps they have just managed their pitch counts and innings appropriately to avoid reaching threshold.  I suspect that you might also find that many of these throwers can make up for this "presumed fault" with a quick arm combined with a little extra congenital ligamentous laxity, or subtle tinkering with some other component of their timing.

Second, a lot of guys who don't have an Inverted W still wind up with elbow or shoulder injuries. Good research studies bring issues like these to light, and nobody has really gotten a crew of inverted W guys and non-inverted W guys together to follow injury rates over an extended period of time while accounting for variables such as training programs, pitch counts, and pitch selection (e.g., sliders vs. curveballs). We don't know if some of these other factors are actually more problematic than the mechanics themselves, as it's impossible to control all these factors simultaneously in a research format.

As such, here we have my first set of questions:

Don't you think that pitching coaches need to make a dedicated effort to understand research methods so that they can truly appreciate the multifactorial nature of injuries?  And, more importantly, wouldn't learning to read research help them to understand which mechanical issues are the true problem?  

The Inverted W is certainly an issue, but there are many more to keep in mind. Just my opinion: I think the baseball industry would be much better off if pitching coaches read a lot more research.

Now, let's move on to my second question.  First, though, I want to return to the Inverted W example again. I have not met more than a few pitching coaches who can explain exactly what structures are affected by this mechanical flaw because they don't understand what functionally is taking place at the shoulder and elbow.  They don't understand that excessive glenohumeral (shoulder) horizontal abduction, extension, and external rotation can all lead to anterior glide of the humerus, creating more anterior instability and leading to injuries to the anterior glenohumeral ligaments and labrum.  Meanwhile, the biceps tendon picks up the slack as a crucial anterior stabilizer.  They also don't appreciate how these issues are exacerbated by poor rotator cuff function and faulty scapular stabilization patterns.  And, they don't appreciate that these issues are commonly present even in throwers who don't demonstrate an Inverted W pattern.

At the elbow, they also can't explain why, specifically, the Inverted W can lead to problems. They don't understand that the timing issue created by the "deep" set-up leads to greater valgus stress at lay-back because the arm lags.  They can't explain why some players have medial issues (UCL injuries, ulnar nerve irritation, flexor/pronator strains, and medial epicondyle stress fractures) while other players have lateral issues (little league elbow, osteochondritis dissecans of radial capitellum) from the same mechanical flaws.  They can't explain why a slider thrown from an Inverted W position would be more harmful than a curveball.

I can explain it to you - and I can explain it to my athletes so that they understand, too. I've also met a lot of medical professionals who can clearly outline how and why these structures are injured, but we aren't the ones coaching the pitchers on the mounds.  The pitching coaches are the ones in those trenches.

To that end, I propose my second set of questions:

Don't you think pitching coaches ought to make an effort to learn functional anatomy in order to understand not just what gets injured, but how those injuries occur?  Wouldn't it give them a more thorough understanding of how to manage their pitchers, from mechanical tinkering, to pitch selection, to throwing volume?  And, wouldn't it give them a more valid perspective from which to contribute to pitchers' arm care programs in conjunction with rehabilitation professionals and strength and conditioning coaches? 

The problem with just saying "his mechanics suck" is that it amounts to applying a theory to a sample size of one.  That's not good research.  Additionally, this assertion is almost always taking place without a fundamental understanding of that pitcher's functional anatomy.  It amounts to coaching blind.

To reiterate, this was not a post intended to belittle anyone, but rather to bring to light two areas in which motivated pitching coaches could study extensively in order to really separate themselves from the pack.  Additionally, I believe wholeheartedly in what Chris O'Leary put forth with his Inverted W writings; I just used it as one example of a mechanical flaw that must be considered as part of a comprehensive approach to managing pitchers.

With that said, I'd love to hear your opinions on these two sets of questions in the comments section below. Thanks in advance for your contributions.

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14 Reasons Pitching Velocity Decreases Over the Course of a Season

In the first half of this two-part installment on why pitching velocity changes during the course of a season, I outlined 9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season.  As you'll appreciate after reading today's post, there are actually a lot more ways by which pitching velocity can decrease over the course of a season. Let's examine them individually:

1. Body weight reductions 

This is far and away the most prominent reason pitchers lose velocity as a season goes on.  In fact, it's so big a problem that I devoted an entire blog to it: The #1 Cause of Inconsistent Pitching Velocity.

2. Strength loss

As I discussed in my first book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, strength is an important foundation for power.  And, taking it a step further, power is certainly an important part of pitching.  As the season goes on, many guys just don't get in the quality weight room work they need to maintain strength, and power on the mound tails off.

3. Injury

It goes without saying that if you're hurt, you won't throw as hard. This isn't just a shoulder or elbow thing, either; sprained ankles, sore hips, tight lower backs, oblique strains, and stiff necks can all wreak havoc on velocity. If something is bothering you, get it fixed before it causes you to develop bad habits.

4. Loss of mobility

When people hear the word "mobility," they typically just of tissue length.  However, mobility is simply one's ability to get into a desired position or posture.  In other words, it's a complex interaction of not just actual tissue length, but also strength/stability, tissue quality, and kinesthetic awareness.  If you don't continue working on mobility drills, static stretching (when appropriate), foam rolling, and your strength training program, one of the components of this equation can suffer.  

Obviously, as I wrote previously What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, stride length is the best example of this phenomenon.  However, what happens at the shoulder is another great example, too.  One who loses thoracic mobility or scapular stability may stiffen up at the glenohumeral (ball-and-socket) joint; it's possible to gain range of motion without even stretching at the "stiff" joint!

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5. Excessive workload

This is the time of year when a lot of guys start hitting all-time highs for innings in a season.  And, with the games getting more important at the end of the high school and college seasons, pitch counts often rise when the innings really matter.  It's very simple:

Fatigue masks fitness.

If you're dragging and the velocity is down, a short-term reduction in throwing volume is often the quickest path to getting velocity back - particularly in pitchers who are throwing more innings than ever before.  Throwing an easy flat-ground instead of a bullpen between starts is one way to stay fresh, or you may opt to alternating higher pitch counts with shorter outings.  If I hear about one of our high school pitchers who has an exceptionally high pitch count (105+), I usually tell him to make sure the next one is in the ballpark of 80 pitches.  At that age, arms always seem to be dragging if kids go over 100 pitches in back-to-back outings.

6. Cumulative effect of bad throwing programs

This is best illustrated by a "hypothetical" example that actually happens far too often.

a. Pitcher makes great velocity gains in an off-season with comprehensive throwing program that includes long toss.

b. Pitcher goes in-season and encounters pitching coach that doesn't believe in long toss as part of a throwing program.

c. Pitcher has a velocity loss.

This scenario doesn't just happen because a specific modality (long toss) is removed, but also because of the effect it has on a pitching routine.  This, for me, is why it's so important to have conversations with pitchers on what throwing programs they've done in the past.  What's worked?  What hasn't? It's all about tinkering, and rarely about overhauling.

7. Cumulative effect of distance running

This 2008 study might be the greatest research that has ever been performed on baseball players - mostly because it reaffirmed my awesomeness by proving me right: Noncompatibility of power and endurance training among college baseball players.

These researchers divided a collegiate pitching staff into two groups of eight pitchers over the course of a season, and each group did everything identically – except the running portion of their strength and conditioning programs. Three days per week, the “sprint” group did 10-30 sprints of 15-60m with 10-60s rest between bouts. The endurance group performed moderate-to-high intensity jogging or cycling 3-4 days per week for anywhere from 20-60 minutes.

Over the course of the season, the endurance group’s peak power output dropped by an average of 39.5 watts while the sprinting group increased by an average of 210.6 watts.  You still want to distance run?

Of course, there are still the tired old arguments of "it flushes out my arm" (much better ways to do that), it clears my head (go see a psychologist), "it keeps my weight down" (eat less crap, and do more lifting and sprinting), and "it helps me bounce back better between starts" (then why are so many players in MLB living on anti-inflammatories?).  The system is broke, but instead of fixing it based on logic, many coaches continue to change the oil on a car with no wheels.

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8. Insufficient warm-ups

While there are definitely some outstanding opportunities out there to develop in the summer, the truth is that summer baseball is notorious for sloppy organization.  Guys are allowed to show up ten minutes before game time, do a few arm circles, and then go right to it.  If you're walking directly from your car to the mound, don't expect your velocity to be too good in the first few innings.

9. Cumulative effect of altered sleep patterns

Early in my training career, I realized that missing sleep the night before a training session really didn't have any effect on my next training session.  However, if I had consecutive nights of little to no sleep, it crushed me.  I know of a lot of people who are the same way.

Now, imagine an entire season of red-eye flights, 3AM bus departures, and going to bed at 1am every night.  Beyond just the sleep deprivation component, you have the dramatic change in circadian rhythms that takes place.  Just head over to Pubmed and look at the hundreds of studies examining the health impact of working night shifts (shift work disorder); you'll see preliminary research linking it to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a host of other issues. I firmly believe it's one of many reasons injuries in baseball are on the rise - and certainly one potential culprit when velocity declines as a season progress. 

10. Pitching off a crappy mound

Many players wind up pitching off terrible mounds during summer ball, and when the mound isn't groomed nicely, you get into "oh crap, I don't want to get hurt" mode with your landing leg. If you aren't comfortable landing, you shorten your stride, or reach for a "safe" part of the mound, messing with your mechanics in the process. Additionally, velocity is going to be lower when the mound height isn't as elevated; it's just how gravity works.

11. Mechanical tinkering for the bad

In part 1, I noted that mechanics changes in the summertime can be a source of velocity improvements.  They can also, however, be a reason for guys losing velocity.  Not all changes are new changes, and it's important to be careful about overhauling things on the advice of each new coach you encounter. Repetition is important, and it's hard to get it if you're always tinkering with something.

12. Dehydration

Dehydration can have a dramatically negative effect on strength and power.  Most athletes are chronically dehydrated at rest, and certainly during pitching outings in the summer heat.  Hydration status is an important thing to monitor if you want to throw gas.

13. Throwing to a new catcher

Being comfortable with the guy who is catching your pitches is a big part of success on the mound.  When the catcher is constantly changing, there is more hesitation - especially if his pitch-calling tendencies are different from those of your previous catcher.  If you're constantly shaking him off, it'll mess with your pace on the mound and slow you down.

14. More erratic throwing schedule

One of the biggest adjustments a pitcher will ever have to make is switching from starting to relieving or vice versa.  While going to the bullpen can often lead to an increase in velocity, it can make other guys erratic with their delivery, as they've learned to rely on the pre-game period to get everything "synced up."

Meanwhile, thanks to an increased pitch count, guys who go from the bullpen to the starting rotation sometimes see a drop in velocity.  As examples, just compare John Smoltz or Daniel Bard out of the bullpen to what they have done in the starting rotation.

The only thing tougher than making that switch is to constantly bounce back and forth between the two, as it really hurts your between-outings preparation.  How you prepare to throw seven innings is considerably different than what you do if you're just going to go out and throw 10-15 pitches.

These are only 14 reasons velocity may dip, and their are surely many more.  Maybe your girlfriend cheated on you with the bat boy and you got distracted, or you decided to just throw knuckleballs.  The point is that - as if the case with many things in life - it's a lot easier to screw up (lose velocity) than it is to thrive (gain velocity). Plan accordingly!


 

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9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season

We're a few months into the college and professional baseball seasons. Not every pitcher's velocity is where it needs to be just yet, and that's no surprise. In today's post, I'll cover nine reasons why pitching velocity increases over the course of a season.

1. Increased external rotation

Over the course of a season, pitchers acquire slightly more external rotation at the shoulder (roughly five degrees, for most).  Since external rotation is correlated with pitching velocity, gaining this range of motion is helpful for adding a few ticks on the radar gun as compared to early in the season. However, this added external rotation comes with a price; more range of motion (especially if it's acquired too quickly) means that you be consistent with your arm care routines to make sure that you've got adequate motor control/strength in those positions. As I've often said, what makes you spectacular can often make you susceptible, too.

2. Optimization of mechanics

Many pitchers integrate subtle or dramatic changes to their mechanics in the off-season and early in-season periods, but these changes won't "stick" until they have some innings under their belt.  A few months in is often when those corrections start to settle in.

3. Transfer of strength to power

Some pitchers build a solid foundation of strength in the off-season, but take extra time to learn to display that force quickly (power).  In short, they're all the way toward the absolute strength end of the continuum, as described in this video:

If you want to dig in a bit deeper on this, this video on delayed transmutation is a good place to start.

4. More important game play

Some guys just don't get excited to pitch in games that don't mean much.  While that is an issue for another article, the point here is to realize that a greater external stimulus (more fans, playoff atmosphere, important games) equates to a greater desire to throw cheddar.  Soon, the MLB season will start, and high school and college post-seasons will be underway, so you'll start to see some of the big radar gun readings more frequently.

5. Warmer weather

Many pitchers struggle to throw hard in cold weather.  Some of the most dominant pitchers in the game have April fastball velocities that don't hold a candle to what they do during the rest of the year.

Warmer weather makes it easier to warm up, and many guys - especially the more muscular, stiff pitchers - need to lengthen the pre-game warm-up early in the season.  If you're a guy who typically doesn't see your best velocity numbers until you've got several innings under your belt, extend your pre-game warm-up, dress in layers, and don't pick up a ball until you're sweating.

6. New desire to prove oneself

For many pitchers, summer ball is a new beginning.  This might be in the form of a Cape Cod League temp contract, or a situation where a player is transitioning from a smaller high school that doesn't face good competition on to a program that plays a challenging summer schedule.  Again, that external stimulus can make a huge difference, as it often includes better catchers, better coaching, more fans, better mounds, and more scouts behind the plate. 

7. Mechanical tinkering

Piggybacking on the previous example, some pitchers may find their mechanics thanks to help from summer coaches.  So, a change in coaching perspective can often bring out the best in guys.

8. Freedom to do one's own thing.

I know of quite a few cllege pitchers who've thrived in the summer time simply because their pitching coaches haven't been in the way.  Usually, this means they can go back to long tossing rather than being restricted to 90-120 feet all season.  It's a great way to get arm speed back.

9. Different pitch selection

The college season is about winning games, whereas summer ball is more about developing. There are quite a few college coaches who have guys throw 75% sliders in their outings to accomplish the former objective, whereas those same pitchers might go out and throw a lot of changeups in summer ball in order to develop the pitch. This is also often the case when you see MLB pitchers get absolutely shelled during spring training; they're usually working on something, or simply just trying to build up their pitch counts.

As an extension of this, summer ball is a chance for many guys to take a step back and really work on commanding their fastballs, so it's not uncommon to see a few more mph on the radar gun as this becomes more of a focus.

On the topic of summer baseball, in case you missed it, registration is now open our Elite Collegiate Baseball Development Summer Program, a comprehensive experience we offer to pitchers from around the country to enhance velocity, develop new pitches, and stay healthy in the process. You can learn more HERE.

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Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It – Part 2

In part 1 of this series, I discussed the fact that – all other factors held constant – increasing stride length will improve pitching velocity.  Unfortunately, when you simply tell a pitcher to stride further down the mound, there are usually some unfavorable mechanical consequences that actually hinder pitching velocity.  So, be sure to read that piece before continuing on here. That said, sometimes, physical limitations can make it difficult to acquire a longer stride.  To that end, I wanted to use this second installment to begin to outline the top five limiting factors for those looking to get down the mound and throw harder. 1. Hip Mobility If you’re going to really get down the mound, you need outstanding adductor length on both the lead and trailing legs.  That goes without saying.  While we outline several options on our Assess and Correct DVD set, the split-stance kneeling adductor mobilization is definitely my favorite, as it improves adductor length in both hip flexion and extension:

 Just as important, players need to stop “hanging out” in adduction in sitting and standing.  I wrote about this in a bit more detail in my What I Learned in 2010 article (point #3).  This is incredibly common in right-handed throwers, in particular.  If your resting hip posture looks like this, fix it!

We use a variety of drills from the Postural Restoration Institute to help address the issue, but suffice it to say that you’ll be swimming upstream unless you learn to stop standing/sitting like this! Additionally, you need adequate length of the trailing leg hip flexors – particularly rectus femoris – to ensure that you don’t cut off hip rotation prematurely.  I like the wall hip flexor mobilization for this purpose.  Keep in mind that we perform the exercises on both the front and trailing leg, as many pitchers will have substantial knee flexion deficit on the front leg secondary to the stress of landing/deceleration.

Third, you need adequate hip internal and external rotation on both sides.  Hip external rotation range-of-motion on the trailing leg is particularly important to allow force to be applied over a longer distance.  Additionally, hip internal rotation is key on the front side, as enables a thrower to utilize the lower half more efficiently in deceleration.  Those without adequate internal rotation on the front side often cut their arm paths short and miss high with pitches – and put much more stress on their arm because the deceleration “arc” is shorter. External rotation is best gained through glute activation drills (supine bridges, side-lying clams, x-band walks) in conjunction with simply externally rotating the femur during the split-stance kneeling adductor mobilization I featured earlier.  For internal rotation, I like a gentle knee-t0-knee stretch/mobs (assuming no medial knee issues) , and bowler squats as a follow-up to get comfortable with the pattern.

 Of course, all these mobility drills must be complemented by quality soft tissue work: foam rolling and, ideally, manual therapy with a qualified practitioner. So, as you can see, adequate hip mobility for optimizing pitching velocity must take place in a number of planes.  Additionally, you need to remember that mobility is always influenced by musculo-tendinous. capsular, ligamentous, and osseous (bony) restrictions, so no two pitchers will be the same in their needs.  And, some pitchers simply may not have the bone structures to get into certain positions that are easy for other pitchers to achieve. 2. Lower-Body Strength/Power You can’t discuss lower-body mobility without appreciating the interaction it has with lower-body strength and power.

You see, mobility is simply your ability to get into a certain position or posture.  Flexibility is simply the excursion through which a joint can move.   What’s the problem? Flexibility doesn’t take into account stability.  Just because you can get your joints to a certain position in a non-weight-bearing scenario doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to achieve that same position when you’re in a weight-bearing position, trying to throw 95mph as you move downhill.  So, I’ll put my point in big, bold letters:

Pitchers need strength to have mobility.

Truth be told, building lower body strength in throwers isn’t tough.  You use all the basics – single-leg work, deadlift variations, squat variations (when appropriate), sled work, pull-throughs, glute-ham raise, hip thrusts, glute bridges, etc. – but just work to make sure that they are safe for throwers (e.g., use the front squat grip instead of the back squat grip).

Strength isn’t just a foundation for mobility, though; it’s also a foundation for power.  You can’t apply force quickly if you don’t have force!  So, once players have an adequate foundation of strength, they can benefit more from rotational medicine ball exercises and plyos in the frontal/transverse planes to learn to better apply force outside the sagittal plane. Make no mistake about it; having adequate strength/power to push off and rotate aggressively – not to mention decelerate the body on the front leg – is essential to outstanding pitching velocity. I’ll be back soon with Part 3 of this series.  In the meantime, if you’re looking for more hip mobility ideas for baseball players, check out Assess and Correct: Breaking Barriers to Unlock Performance.

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Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It – Part 1

Ask almost any pitcher, and he'd tell you that he'd love to increase his stride length on the mound in hopes of increasing pitching velocity.  And, this is certainly an association that has been verified by both anecdotal and research evidence for years.  Look back to the best pitchers of former generations, and they figured this out even without the benefit of radar guns.

On the anecdotal side of things, hitters often comment on how pitches "get on them faster" with a guy who strides further down the mound.  This is a no brainer: a pitcher who releases the ball closer to the plate has a competitive advantage.  That's perceived pitching velocity.  However, what about actual velocity - meaning what the radar gun says? The truth is that it's somewhat tricky to prove specifically that a longer stride directly equates to better actual velocity, as it really depends on how the pitcher gets to that point.  You see, a pitcher can effectively delay his weight shift to create better "separation;" in fact, keeping the head behind the hips longer correlates highly with pitching velocity.  This separation is the name of the game - and he'd throw harder.

Or, that same pitcher could simply jump out - letting his body weight leak forward prematurely - and completely rob himself of separation and, in turn, velocity.  So, that's the first asterisk to keep in mind: it's not just where you stride, but also how you stride there. Additionally, in that second scenario, this modification may cause a pitcher to shift his weight forward excessively and wind up landing too much on his toes.  While the point on the foot at which the weight should be centered is certainly a point of debate among pitching coaches, it's safe to say that they all agree that you shouldn't be tip-toeing down the mound! Lastly, even if the weight shift is delayed perfectly, a pitcher still has to time up the rest of his delivery - when the ball comes out of the glove, how high the leg kick is, etc - to match up with it in "slightly" new mechanics.  These adjustments can take time, so the velocity improvements with a long stride may not come right away because other factors are influenced. Of course, keep in mind that not every hard thrower has a huge stride.  Justin Verlander doesn't get too far down the mound, but he's still done okay for himself!  Verlander seems to make up the difference with a ridiculously quick arm, great downward plane at ball release, and outstanding hip rotation power.  There's no sense screwing with someone who is a reigning Cy Young and MVP - and has two career no-hitters under his belt.  However, YOU have to find what works best for YOU.

So, without even getting to my list, you can say that mechanical proficiency is the #1 factor that influences whether a long stride will improve your pitching velocity.  Dial in what needs to be dialed in, and it could work wonders for you - if your body is prepared.

To that end, in part 2 of this series, I'll outline five physical factors that will help you improve your stride length and increase pitching velocity.

Interested in learning more about the throwing shoulder? Check out Optimal Shoulder Performance: From Rehabilitation to High Performance!

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More Than Just Pitching Mechanics: The Skinny on Stephen Strasburg’s Injury

Since a lot of folks reading this blog know me as "the baseball guy," I got quite a few email questions about the elbow injury Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg experienced the other day.  Likewise, it was the talk of Cressey Performance last Friday - and got tremendous attention in the media.  Everyone wants to know: how could this have been prevented?

strasburg

On Thursday's edition of Baseball Tonight, my buddy Curt Schilling made some excellent points about Strasburg's delivery that likely contributed to the injury over time.  Chris O'Leary has also written some great stuff about the Inverted W, which is pretty easily visualized in his delivery.

invertedw

The point I want to make, though, is that an injury like this can never, ever, ever, ever be pinned on one factor.  We have seen guys with "terrible mechanics" (I put that in quotes because I don't think there is such a thing as "perfect mechanics") pitch pain-free for their entire careers.  Likewise, we've seen guys with perfect mechanics break down.  We've seen guys with great bodies bite the big one while some guys with terrible bodies thrive.

The point is that while we are always going to strive to clean things up - physically, mechanically, psychologically, and in terms of managing stress throughout the competitive year - there is always going to be some happenstance in sports at a high level.  As former Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi told me last week when we chatted at length, "you've only got so many bullets in your arm."

Strasburg used up a lot of those bullets before he ever got drafted, so it's hard to fault the Nationals at all on this front.  In fact, from this ESPN article that was published when the team thought it was a strain of the common flexor tendon and not an ulnar collateral ligament injury (requiring Tommy John surgery), "Strasburg has told the team he had a similar problem in college at San Diego State and pitched through it."  It's safe to assume that the Nationals rule out a partial UCL tear in their pre-draft MRIs, but you have to consider what a common flexor tendon injury really means.

medialepicondyle

As I wrote in in my "Understanding Elbow Pain" series (of interest: Anatomy, Pathology, Throwing Injuries, and Protecting Pitchers) the muscles that combine to form the common flexor tendon are the primary restraints - in addition to the ulnar collateral ligament - to valgus stress.  If they are weak, overused, injured, dense, fibrotic, or whatever else, more of that stress is going on that UCL - particularly if an athlete is throwing with mechanics that may increase that valgus stress (the Inverted W I noted above) - the party is going to end eventually.  Is it any surprise that this acute injury occurred just a few weeks after Strasburg dealt with a shoulder issue that put him on the disabled list for two weeks?  The body is a tremendously intricate system of checks and balances, and it bit him in the butt.

There are other factors, though.  As a great study from Olsen et al. showed, young pitchers who require surgery "significantly more months per year, games per year, innings per game, pitches per game, pitches per year, and warm-up pitches before a game. These pitchers were more frequently starting pitchers, pitched in more showcases, pitched with higher velocity, and pitched more often with arm pain and fatigue. They also used anti-inflammatory drugs and ice more frequently to prevent an injury."  And, they were also taller and heavier.

valgus

Go back through the last 12-15 years of Stephen Strasburg's life and consider just how many times he's ramped up for spring ball, summer ball, fall ball, and showcases - only so that he can shut down for a week, just to ramp right back up again to try to impress someone else.  Think of how many radar guns he's had to pitch in front of constantly for the past 5-7 years - because velocity is all that matters, right?

Stephen Strasburg's injury wasn't caused by a single factor; it was a product of many.  And, it can't be pinned on Strasburg himself, any of his coaches or trainers, or any of the scouts that watched him.  Blame it in the system that is baseball in America today.

We already knew that this system was a disaster, though.  Yet, people still keep letting their kids go to showcases in December.  Heck, arguably the biggest underclassmen prospect event of the year - the World Wood Bat Tournament in Jupiter, FL - takes places at the end of October.  When they should be resting, playing another sport, or preparing their bodies in the weight room, the absolute best prospects in the country are pitching with dead, unprepared arms just because it's a convenient time for scouts and coaches to recruit - because the season is over.

They're wasting their bullets.

Now, I'm not saying that Strasburg's injury could have been avoided in a different system - but I'd be very willing to bet that it could have been pushed much further back - potentially long enough to allow him to get through a career.  An argument to my point would be that if it wasn't for all these exposures, he wouldn't have developed - but my contention to that fact was that it is well documented that Strasburg "blew up" from a good to an extraordinary pitcher with increased throwing velocity when he made a dedicated effort to getting fit when he arrived at college.

My hope is that young pitchers will learn from this example and appreciate that taking care of one's body is just as important as showing off one's talent.

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