Home Posts tagged "Tim Lincecum"

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?

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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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Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It – Part 3

In part 1 of this series, I touched on some of the mechanical factors one must consider in relation to increasing stride length in pitchers.  Then, in part 2, I got discussed physical factors – hip mobility and lower-body strength/power – that govern how far you can stride.  In wrapping up today with part 3, we’ll work our way up the kinetic chain to discuss three more physical factors that control stride length. 3. Rotary Stability – As I discussed in my recent article at T-Nation, What I Learned in 2011, hip mobility “sticks” better when you have adequate rotary stability, so we’ve been doing more of our core stability exercises in more “extreme” positions of hip mobility.

If you’re going to push the limits of hip abduction, internal, and external rotation range of motion, you need to be sure that you have adequate rotary stability to be stable in these positions in weight-bearing and not destroy the spine.  Anybody can just get into these positions in slow speed, but not everyone can control the body precisely with a combination of isometric and eccentric muscle action at the high velocities we see with pitching. Additionally, many of the big-time long stride guys rely heavily on controlling lumbar spine hyperextension as they ride the back hip down the mound.  This is something you’ll see if you watch the deliveries of smaller, athletic guys like Tim Lincecum, Tim Collins, and Trevor Bauer.  If they don’t maintain adequate anterior core function, they’ll wind up with extension-based back pain in no time.

4. Thoracic Mobility – Throwing and hitting (and really any rotational challenge like a hockey slapshot or tennis stroke) present a unique challenge to an athlete: the hips and shoulders are temporarily moving in opposite directions.  This creates separation, which allows an athlete to store elastic energy and create velocity via the stretch-shortening cycle.

The first issue to consider is that not all separation is created equal.  You can create separation with the hips and lower back – and jack up a lumbar spine over time.  The goal is to having adequate thoracic spine mobility to ensure that this separation occurs higher up (and engages the upper extremity well). The second issue is that the more you push the limits of hip mobility, the more you must push the limits of thoracic mobility.  We’ve always heard “equal and opposite” when it comes to the throwing arm and glove arm, but the truth is that it probably apply to the lower half and thoracic spine as well.  You simply don’t see guys with terrible thoracic mobility getting way down the mound, as that lack of thoracic mobility would cause them to leak forward with the upper body.  I covered this in part 1, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that the head doesn’t stay behind the hips long enough, so throwers lose separation. The third issue is that poor thoracic mobility will really interfere with getting an adequate scap load, so the arm speed will be slower.  Throwing with a poorly positioned scapula is like trying to jump out of sand; you just don’t have a firm platform from which to create force.

A very basic thoracic spine mobility drill that would be a “safe” bet for most throwers would be the quadruped extension-rotation.

This drill doesn’t crank the shoulder into excessive external rotation, which may be a problem for the really “loose” arms in the crowd. Progressions for the really stiff pitchers would be the side-lying windmill and side-lying extension-rotation.  I also like the yoga plex, a drill I learned from Nick Tumminello, as a means of syncing everything up with a longer stride.

Note: be sure to read this shoulder mobility blog on why not all thoracic spine mobility drills are created equal for throwers! 5. Quick Arm – When I say that you have to have a quick arm to have a long stride, I really just mean that you need some upper body power to make things work.  The longer the stride, the quicker your arm must be to catch up in time to create a downward plane and throw strikes. You simply don’t see guys with long strides competing at high levels unless they have a quick arm that can catch up to the lower body.

When a guy’s arm isn’t quick enough to catch up to his lower half, you see him miss up and arm side.

This type of thrower would be better off shortening up his stride (at least temporarily) and spending more time on good throwing programs to increase arm speed. This is one reason Justin Verlander is great.  If you watch him, he’s not an insanely long stride.  Rather, he’s shorter with it, and much stiffer on his landing leg to create an awesome downward plane.  Plus, he actually does have a ridiculously quick arm and outstanding secondary stuff.  A lot of pitching coaches would try to lengthen his stride – and while this might work, I don’t know about you, but I think overhauling a Cy Young winner’s mechanics is silly.

The “long stride, slow arm” issue is (in my experience) most common in young, lax players who have the joint range-of-motion and just enough stability to get a long stride, but don’t have adequate arm speed to catch up.  This is really common in the 14-17 age ranges, and I think it’s one reason why so many of these kids respond incredibly favorably to long toss; it teaches their arms to go faster and keep up with their strides. Conversely, as you start to deal with 18-year-olds and older (or kids who have grown quickly), you start to see that preparing everything below the arm is arguably more important than arm speed.  You don’t pitch in college or professional baseball unless you have a reasonably quick arm, and getting more aggressive with the lower half to stride longer is often exactly what guys need to make the big velocity jump.  Likewise, when guys don’t take care of the lower half, but continue on aggressive throwing programs, they often wind up with velocity drops, injuries, or control issues because they’ve lost the separation that made them successful. Closing Thoughts While a long stride can certainly be advantageous in the throwing motion, as I've shown in this series, forcing it when you don't have the right physical preparation or mechanical coaching in place can actually hurt an pitcher's performance and health.  Remember that the best changes are subtle ones; in other words, you might increase a stride by six inches over the course of a year, not in a single session. Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!
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