Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Protecting Pitchers' Arms: The Mechanics

My last article covered the increasing trend toward "Pitcher's Elbow" injuries in youth baseball players. While I believe the article did a sufficient job of explaining at a very high level how coaches may contribute to the problem, I didn't touch on one significant cause of chronic injuries: technique.

I'm going to stick my neck out a bit and start from the assumption that most youth sports coaches were not pitchers at the high school level or above (neither was I). For the rest of us, we may have used what we learned as fielders and applied that to pitching to the best of our ability, or perhaps we tried our best to emulate what we've seen other, more experienced pitching coaches teach.

Like most coaches, my occasional participation in pitching clinics left me armed with just enough information to be dangerous. I taught my oldest son how to pitch with the knowledge I had picked up, and he has managed to "hold his own" on the mound thus far. Recently, though, as he grows older, I realize that his technique needs to be more finely tuned with knowledge beyond what I have been able to instill in him.

As the hitting coach for Town & Country Baseball's All Star team, as well as a few other successful groups of kids, I have often been tasked with "fixing" peculiar elements of young batters' swings. Over time I have developed a rather simple methodology -- and an even simpler philosophy -- to effective hitting. With a bias toward rotational hitting, my philosophy is, "never do anything in your swing that isn't related to moving the ball forward." Similarly, I believe a lot of young pitchers can incorporate extraneous motion in their delivery, ultimately reducing the effectiveness (and possibly even the safety) of their pitch.

As a prime example of simple, efficient delivery, I tend to look no further than Greg Maddux, one of the most durable and effective pitchers in recent history. Greg Maddux's pitching motion shows obvious parallels between effectiveness at the plate and effectiveness on the mound. In my next post I will look at his motion in greater detail, but for the sake of this article I'd like to point out, in high level, what has made him particularly effective.

Rotational Pitching: As a batting coach, I almost always prioritize rotational hitting over linear hitting. Linear hitters move their bodies forward, in a straight path toward the pitcher, while rotational hitters rely on rotation of the shoulders and hips. Similarly, Greg Maddux utilizes a rotational approach to pitching, characterized by a rotation of the hips and shoulders instead of forward motion toward the batter. Unlike rotational hitting, however, it is important to note that many of the Game's most powerful pitchers, including the uber-power-pitcher Nolan Ryan, used a linear stride.

Elbow Height: Anyone who has coached the 5-8 year age groups is likely familiar with the mantra "T-L-tuck" to describe throwing mechanics. Elementary throwing technique involves an extension, a load / release action and a follow-through. Teaching kids to "T-L-tuck" is a simple way to instill each of these actions in a young player. In many cases, though, the elbow tends to remain at shoulder height throughout the throw. By contrast, Greg Maddux's elbow tends to remain below shoulder level throughout his release. In my next post I will go into detail on why this is important.

Fastball, fastball, fastball: Even though Greg Maddux's pitches seldom broke 90 miles per hour, his excellent control over the fastball kept batters from making consistent, hard contact with the ball. While he did occasionally rely on the breaking ball, Maddux's primary pitches were the two-seam fastball, the four-seam fastball and the circle changeup.

In my next post I will outline each of these three points in greater detail, specifically from the perspective of preventing chronic injury in young pitchers. As coaches, we owe it to our players not just to teach them to play effectively, but to instill in them the habits they will need to ensure their longevity playing the game.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Protecting Pitchers' Arms

Over the last few months I have seen a significant amount of attention paid to the increasing rates of stress-related injuries to young baseball players' arms, particularly pitchers. Interestingly (but not necessarily surprisingly) enough, the rate of increase has correlated with an ongoing trend favoring travel or "select" baseball teams over recreational leagues like Little League Baseball, PONY Baseball, and others.

The culprit (again, not surprisingly) is one frequently identified by medical professionals such as Dr. Joe Chandler. With breaking pitches being introduced during players' formative development years, as early as 10 and 11, in some cases, young pitchers' elbows are facing unprecedented strain during a time in which their growing pre-teen bodies are particularly vulnerable. According to Dr. Chandler, many injuries among 19- and 20-year olds can be traced back to injuries in the pre-teen years.

Additionally, many coaches are unaware of "safe" pitching limits. In addition to the daily threshold recommended by the American Sports Institute in Birmingham Alabama (75 - 105 pitches per day, depending on age), the Institue also recommends a full day's rest for every 20 pitches thrown for players 16 and under. Thus, a well-meaning coach could prescribe a "safe" guideline of 40-50 pitches per day for his pitchers -- well beneath the daily guideline -- and still be putting his players at risk of chronic injury.

Finally, distribution of talent can further contribute to the risk of chronic injury. Because pitching and catching are arguably the most technically demanding positions on the baseball field, it is not uncommon for players to make respective appearances on the mound and behind the plate in the same game. While much of our attention thus far has been devoted to the pitcher's elbow, such cross-training puts the player at aggravated risk for chronic shoulder injuries.

Today's baseball landscape is divided primarily into the "recreational" and "select" categories, with a proportion of the recreational leagues operating in an unfamiliar grey area. Successful "select" teams are highly protective of their depth charts, but the temptation to introduce breaking pitches too early is ever-present. In recreational league, the most critical risks to pitchers' arms are coaches who are not aware of the implications of overuse, or who place competitiveness above the higher objective of player development.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

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