Monday, May 10, 2010

Protecting Pitcher's Arms: The Mechanics (Part 2 of 2)

In our last article, we looked at an overview of contributing elements to chronic elbow injuries in young pitchers. In that article, I made the assumption that most youth baseball coaches were not pitchers at the varsity level or above and, therefore, have either used secondhand knowledge (the example of other coaches, pitching clinics) or applied knowledge (for example, applying their knowledge of fielding mechanics to the pitch) to coach their pitchers. Additionally, I outlined three coaching opportunities -- rotational pitching, elbow position and pitch selection -- as practical examples of how we can make our pitchers more effective while ensuring player safety. This week's article will explore each of these in greater detail.

Rotational Pitching

I mentioned in the previous article on this topic that rotational pitching was an ideal style to implement with young pitchers. While it is worth pointing out that many of baseball's most powerful pitchers use a linear stride in their delivery, there are a few reasons why rotational pitching is ideal for young pitchers.

I'm sure that most, if not all, coaches at some point have watched their batting order fall prey to a kid throwing fireballs from the mound, whose pitch speed is easily 5 MPH or more faster than other players in the league. Most young batters, ill prepared to adjust to a significantly faster or slower pitch, will perform poorly against such a pitcher. As a result, our temptation as coaches is to teach our pitchers to become that pitcher, encouraging him to "throw harder." As I'll discuss in a moment, however, pitch location and speed variation are more important (not to mention safer) than velocity. As a result, the perceived advantage of a linear stride in pitching is not particularly applicable in youth baseball.

Additionally, as is the case in hitting, hip/shoulder separation (rotation of the "core" muscles) is critical to powerfully pull the shoulder and generate pitch speed. Tim Lincecum is an excellent example of a pitcher who uses hip/shoulder separation to generate formidable speed. Weighing in at only 170 pounds, Lincecum doesn't come anywhere near the heft of the league's power pitchers. Still, his excellent hip rotation allows him to generate exceptionally fast and powerful upper body momentum, resulting in a fast pitch.

By teaching our kids to pitch rotationally, we are naturally instilling in them a tendency towards wider hip/shoulder separation. This, in turn, will take the strain off the young pitcher's shoulder, as he is no longer attempting to generate pitch speed through arm strength alone. The result? A more consistent, better protected pitcher.

Elbow Height

Many well-meaning coaches teach a high elbow as a means to raise the pitcher's arm slot (the angle of the forearm in relation to the upper arm). The thought here is that a lower elbow will produce a more linear, less "loaded" pitch. A pitcher in this instance keeps his shoulders relatively horizontal, while extending his arm vertically to produce the desired load. This creates additional strain on the rotator cuff and the labrum.

So how does a pitcher raise their arm slot without placing undue strain on their shoulder? By altering their shoulder tilt. By tilting the pitching arm side shoulder upward at the release point, the pitching arm can extend without pushing the elbow above the shoulder. Not only does this reduce shoulder strain, but it can also encourage the upper body to rotate, thus contributing to a rotational pitch.

Pitch selection

The issue of pitch selection is one worth pointing out, although it has already received significant attention. The curveball and slider are frequently cited as unsafe because of their tendency to strain the elbow and wrist, respectively. In my opinion, coaches should generally seek to avoid these pitches until the players' growth plates have closed. Instead, teaching an effective changeup or knuckle ball is a great way of altering pitch speed to throw off the batter's timing. Additionally, varying the placement of the fastball can keep the batter guessing without relying on unsafe pitch motion.

Conclusion

One of the things I love the most about baseball is that it is both a team sport and an individual sport, combining the strategy and the passion of team sports with the technique and discipline of individual sports. Pitching is one area in which significant study and attention to technique can be applied. It is my hope that the tips included above have inspired a desire to apply safe and effective techniques to coaching your pitchers.

Additional Resources:

The TUFFCUFF Strength And Conditioning Manual For Baseball Pitchers: A 52-Week Guide To Pitching Workouts And Throwing Programs
by Steven Ellis

101 Pitching Drills
by Bob Bennett

The Picture Perfect Pitcher
by Tom House

The Art & Science of Pitching
by Tom House

Saving the Pitcher: Preventing Pitcher Injuries in Modern Baseball
by Will Carroll

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