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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Pitching: Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Tied Up in Biomechanics

"Sooner or later the arm goes bad. It has to...
Sooner or later you have to start pitching in pain."

 --Whitey Ford

Pitching a baseball is an art and a science. It is the primary action that leads to everything else in the game -- hitting, running, catching, sliding, and, yes, losing and winning. All baseball enthusiasts acknowledge that the fortunes of great Major League teams rest on the arms of their ace pitchers. Fans are all too familiar with old baseball adages such as "good pitching will always stop good hitting" and "pitching will always win out in a short series."

What "percentage of baseball success" does rely upon the performance of pitchers? The legendary Connie Mack is said to have remarked: "Pitching is 75% of baseball." And, many years later, John Schwartz in his article, "New Measures for Pitchers" published in the 1979 edition of the Baseball Research Journal wrote: "Pitching as the old cliche goes, is somewhere between 75% and 90% of baseball."

Of course, even in a game of statistics, such stats are impossible to calculate; however, let it suffice to say that the value of a talented Major League pitcher demands an astronomical contract. Thus, it is no wonder premier pitchers like Clayton Kershaw, an NL MVP and three-time Cy Young Award winner, and Justin Verlander, an AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, are among the highest paid commodities in the game. Kershaw recently signed a 7 year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers worth a total of $215,000,000 guaranteed income, while Verlander landed a 7 year contract with the Detroit Tigers worth a total of $180,000,000 guaranteed income.

Yet, large contracts do not guarantee the health of these athletes. The wear and tear of throwing a baseball takes a toll as hurlers rack up game after game and high pitch count after high pitch count.

Chris Barncard, author of "The Why Files: The Science Behind the News," says ...

"In May, with more than four months of professional baseball left to be played, there are plenty of fans of hapless teams hanging on to hope that this year is finally their year.
"Those thin threads of hope have an analog on the field: The fortunes of teams valued at hundreds of millions of dollars hang on the soft tissue holding together the elbows and shoulders of a couple dozen twenty-somethings who can heave a baseball nearly 100 miles per hour."

(Chris Barncard. "The Why Files: The Science Behind the News." University of Wisconsin
Board of Regents. March 04, 2015)

So, in this day of tremendously high contracts and inevitable, costly pitching injuries, you would think the health of these indispensable pitchers would be judged, monitored, and adjusted through the study of biomechanics. After all, pitching is one of the most complex and stressful movements in all of sports. Bodily stress, fatigue and muscle imbalances are all big concerns when training a baseball pitcher.

Well, some experts believe baseball continues to cling too much to old coaching techniques and pays too little mind to scientific studies. Although the first major stress on coaching came many decades ago with the introduction of video as a coaching tool, The American Sports Medicine Institute now has a library of more than 2,000 athletes from little league-aged kids to elite professional pitchers and employs exciting new technology.

The institute uses reflective markers on pitchers as they throw from pitcher’s mounds in laboratories while cameras and computers record all the movements from windup to the follow-through after the release of the ball. The result is a complicated stick figure, which is compared by ASMI “biomechanists” with advanced degrees in ergonomics and biomechanical engineering against the range of other recorded pitchers.

Glenn Fleisig, a biomechanist and research director at the ASMI in Birmingham, Alabama, said, “Using biomechanics, we can identify a pitcher whose, say, arm is too high or too low and in a dangerous position. And we can tell them how to change to reduce the likelihood of injury.”

Even with this knowledge, some baseball coaching staffs are not fond of change -- no matter the weight of the scientific research. “If you think about how the decisions get made on when and how guys work out, for the most part, it’s folklore,” said Will Carroll, a sportswriter who specializes in injuries from mundane to traumatic. “It’s hand-me-down wisdom that coaches learned from their coaches. It’s not what they’re reading in sports medicine journals.”

(Chris Barncard. "The Why Files: The Science Behind the News." University of Wisconsin
Board of Regents. March 04, 2015)

Glenn Fleisig says that pitching is "the most violent human motion ever measured." He claims that the pelvis can rotate at 515–667°/sec, the trunk can rotate at 1,068–1,224°/s, the elbow can reach a maximal angular velocity of 2,200–2,700°/s and the force pulling the pitcher's throwing arm away from the shoulder at ball release is approximately 280 pounds-force (1,200 N).

(J. Dean. "Perfect Pitch". WIRED 18: 62. October, 2010)

Duquesne University athletic training professor Peggy Houglum wrote detailed research on the process of pitching in her work "An Analysis of the Biomechanics of Pitching in Baseball" in Therapeutic Exercise for Musculoskeletal Injuries. It is a long description, too long for inclusion here, so click on this link for the full text:

As natural as throwing an object may seem, accurately throwing a baseball 100 times over a couple of hours is not natural. Due to the high speed of delivery, to scientifically analyze the action requires high-speed, sensor-aided imaging to sort out all the moving parts. Many experts agree that one phase of the delivery -- a brief moment when the pitcher turns his shoulders to match his waist and trunk, and he straightens his flexed arm and whipsaws toward the plate -- makes all the difference in the world.

“This is a fraction of a second. It’s not even clear on much video,” Glenn Fleisig said. Too much lag focused a great deal of the acceleration on the ligaments in the elbow. Too little lag meant asking too much of the shoulder in creating the acceleration required to throw with impressive speed.

“It’s the difference between a good pitcher and a great pitcher, or a pitcher with or without too much stress on the arm,” Fleisig said. And, he believes it is measurable now.

 Read the entire "Why Files" article. Just click here:

As pitchers continue to be drafted, signed, and acquired with an increasing emphasis on fastball velocity, Major League teams are hesitant to sign off on a pitcher whose mechanics appear to require considerable effort to achieve that velocity.

“Max effort” is a term used by knowledgeable scouts that seems to be a harbinger of doom. Still, the interpretation of the phrase takes many forms. A mechanically efficient player minimizes the risk associated with throwing a baseball at high intensity, rendering praise for an “easy” delivery or “effortless” mechanics. According to Doug Thorburn of Baseball Prospectus, there is dissension among the ranks when drawing the line in the sand where mechanics cross over to violence.

(Doug Thorburn. "Raising Aces." Baseball Prospectus. July 27, 2012)

Zachery D. Rymer, MLB lead writer of wrote an article in 2012 titled "10 MLB Pitchers Whose Mechanics Are a Ticking Time Bomb to a Serious Injury." I thought you might like to see how his predictions fared. I did not research the pitchers since the article was written, but here are their names and their teams at the time.

Mitchell Boggs, St. Louis Cardinals
Kelvin Herrera, Kansas City Royals
Craig Kimbrel, Atlanta Braves
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Carlos Marmol, Chicago Cubs
Jason Motte, St. Louis Cardinals
Pat Neshek, Baltimore Orioles
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
Jordan Walden, Los Angeles Angels

And speaking of Tim Lincecum ...

In his article of 2012 titled "10 MLB Pitchers With Great Pitching Mechanics," writer Nathan Gotch of the website "The Ultimate Pitcher" interestingly wrote this about Lincecum, whom he claimed has some of the best mechanics in the game:
"While Lincecum is having one of his worst season of his career, he still undoubtedly has some of the best pitching mechanics in baseball. Lincecum is similar to Roy Oswalt because of their below average physiques. However, Lincecum makes up for his size deficiency with some of the most explosive mechanics in the league."

You can buy a billion books about the art and science of pitching. You can learn every coaching tip and training exercise in the world to develop properly an effective pitcher. But, as biomechanics, coaching techniques, and Tommy John surgeries continue to improve, one thing is certain -- ace pitchers will eventually wear out their arms.

So, maybe some old, simple wisdom from a few of the best pitchers in the history of baseball will serve well those who ply their trade as Major League hurlers.

"My pitching philosophy is simple -- keep the ball
away from the bat." --Satchel Paige

"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing." --Warren Spahn

"I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it." --Sandy Koufax

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