Timing Adjustments and Their Impact on the Pitching Delivery: A Case Study

November 5, 2014

Courtesy of Cressey Sports Performance

I recently Tweeted out a picture of some mechanical changes a pitcher had made and it received a lot of responses. As such, I decided I would follow up with a little more depth and context to this particular picture to help shed some light on the thought process that goes into making mechanical adjustments. So, for starters, here’s the picture in question, with the left side being the original delivery and the right side being the revised version.

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Typically, when discussing pitching mechanics, I avoid using still shots, because they can be very misleading. In this particular case, there were some substantial changes that were made in this landing position, which I thought encapsulated a lot about the enhanced movement quality of the delivery as a whole, which we’ll unpack in further detail here.

For those familiar with the pitching delivery, the first thing that should jump out at you is the extremely late arm action in the initial delivery. This could be classified as an “inverted arm action” at landing, where in this case, the elbow isn’t necessarily hyper-abducted (elevated) above the shoulder, but the hand is definitely below the elbow. In a Cliff’s Notes version, this positioning is generally regarded as increasing stress on the shoulder and elbow. This is in part due to the orientation of the humeral head in the socket at landing, as it’s in a position of excessive internal rotation and pinned into the front of the socket. As a result, we’re not in an optimal position to get the rotator cuff to function to center the head for a clean ball in socket rotation.

This is coupled with the fact that we’re adding more torque to the joint since we have more range of motion involved in getting the hand to full lay-back before accelerating to release. That being said, there are plenty of pitchers who throw very hard and have successful big league careers pitching with an inverted pattern, and the reason they throw so hard may very well be due to their inverted pattern, so you have to constantly weigh the risk/reward of making mechanical adjustments for pitchers.

As an example, Billy Wagner had an inverted pattern and multiple injuries, but was hitting 100mph before it was industry standard to hit 100mph – and he accumulated 422 saves in a successful big league career.

wagner1024px-Billy_Wagner_on_September_15,_2009

When weighing this potential risk/reward, some of the questions might include:

  • Where is this pitcher currently in the developmental process?
  • What type of stress does he currently report during or after throwing?
  • What can we gain by making adjustments?
  • What do we have to lose by adjusting this current delivery?

These are important questions to consider, because you’re obviously not going to take a big leaguer at the tail end of his career, and adjust what has got him to that point. Conversely, you might adjust a 15yr old high school pitcher, who throws hard, but has erratic command and reports a high level of stress after he’s done throwing.

In this particular case, we had a sophomore in college, who had a track record of success in high school, and was looking to establish his role in a very competitive program with a strong history of winning. His contributions as a freshman were limited in part due to command issues and his velocity would be erratic going anywhere from 82-90mph on any given day.

With these considerations in mind, it became apparent in looking at the the delivery in its current state, that these mechanics might be a limiting factor in commanding the ball at a competitive level, as well as sustaining his velocity on a consistent basis. On the flip side, though, if we reduce the inversion in his arm action, we may lose a mph or two of velocity initially, as we learn to “re-tension” the delivery and create force in a different manner. In order to fully comprehend these issues, let’s take a look at this delivery in full:

As I stated in the video, the crazy thing about this delivery is that for how extremely late that arm action looks in that still shot, it’s really a misrepresentation for how much I like the feel of this delivery as a whole. There’s a lot of quality movement that’s “loose” in nature, and this athlete has a good feel for creating “extension” in the throw, so we really don’t have to adjust the integrity of his movements, but more the timing associated with some of the actions, and at the crux of it, the athlete’s mindset for creating leverage in his throw.

If you look at where this delivery starts to break down, it’s in the excessive “counter-rotation” of his shoulders that creates too much length in the throwing arm and that couples with an exaggerated extension of the back leg into landing.

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As a result, the hand can’t catch up and “get on top of the ball” at landing and our pressure into the ground ends up being poor. This combines to create an issue for the stabilization pattern as a whole now, because the front leg can’t brace to create a fixed point of rotation to anchor the throw, as it has to allow for the torso to translate forward in an effort to create time for the hand to get into position behind the ball. So, as you can see, by the front knee ending up working into a more flexed position, we’re diffusing the ground force reaction we’re trying to convert into rotational power, and the pelvis loses its leverage on that front hip, flattening out our rotation. When this happens, you’ll notice that the path of the hand is actually diverted wide instead of keeping an efficient driveline through the target. Without a firm landing position that allows us to accept force properly, and keep the rhythm of our sequencing intact, our command and velocity will continue to be erratic in nature.

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Once we identified these issues, we had to rule out that there wasn’t a mobility or stability issue that was limiting our ability to move through more functional positions. In this particular case, mobility definitely wasn’t the issue, and even though the stabilization pattern was currently poor, the athlete did have the ability to stabilize. It really just came down to his awareness for what he was trying to accomplish. So, once we came to agreement that these were things that could be fixed and would be beneficial to his development in the long run, we had to start re-organizing the focus of his repetitions.

Anytime you’re making changes, it’s essential to understand root causes and not just symptoms. For me, the inverted arm action was a symptom of a misdirected focus in the delivery. We needed to make the focus less on length and extension in the throw and more on strength in the landing and properly sequencing his rotations through the chain. By creating a stronger stride pattern and tying the timing of the arm path into the lower half sequencing, we would have a more connected and repeatable delivery that had a more efficient stabilization pattern. Let’s take a look at what shook out over the next seven weeks and then we’ll discuss some of the altered components.

As discussed in the video, the first thing that should stand out in the revised delivery is the compactness of the arm action, and from there, the angle of the ball flight out of his hand. And, to be honest, I could run through every drill that we did to get him to this point, but I don’t know if it’s really the drills themselves that are important. I think we could have accomplished this in a multitude of ways, as long as we kept the focus on cueing him to be “strong into the floor.”

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Now, that being said, we definitely used versions of the “stride drill” to coordinate the rhythm of the back-hip rotation and arm action, and we did our share of step-behind shuffles to speed up his timing and learn to accept force properly upon landing, but if the focus on trying to create force into the ground and working from “top-to-bottom” on the baseball wasn’t in place, I don’t think either of those drills would have mattered.

Changing his focus and “pre-throw vision” for what his ball flight should look like helped him organize his body into this revised delivery. By placing the importance on being “strong into the floor”, it didn’t allow him to put himself into these overly extended positions, whether it be the lower half or the arm action, as he came to understand these weren’t “strong” positions. Ultimately, understanding the importance of landing in a position that allowed him to accept the force and transfer it up the chain was crucial in this process.

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At the end of the day, the most important part of making any type of delivery change is getting “buy-in” from the athlete himself. It doesn’t matter what I think a delivery should look like unless the athlete understands and accepts why it’s important for him to make these changes, because ultimately he’s the one who has to throw the baseball.

In this particular case, we had a college pitcher who is on the cusp of turning himself into an impact pitcher in a competitive college program. If getting himself into more efficient positions in his delivery allows him to command the baseball more consistently, and he can reduce the erratic nature of his velocity, he’ll give himself a real chance to be a reliable college performer and we can begin to entertain the possibility of becoming a pro prospect.

All in all, I’m really proud of the work this athlete put in over the summer and I think these rapid changes speak volumes about the level of commitment he has to his development, as changes of this magnitude aren’t common in this time frame and they certainly don’t happen by accident. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done to “own” this remodeled delivery. It needs to become second nature and highly repeatable in order for this athlete to be able shift into a narrow-minded focus on just competing in the strike zone, but I’m certainly excited to see where his continued effort leads him.

For more pitching discussion, you can follow Matt on Twitter.

 

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Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 1

Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 1

Courtesy of Cressey Performance

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you’ve heard that there seem to be a lot of pitchers getting hurt lately. Well, in light of the media spotlight recently shining on the injury epidemic we’ve been watching evolve over the last few years, I figured there’s no better time to contribute to this discussion.

This media attention has discussed a plethora of incredible information regarding some of the most relevant research and statistics pertaining to these arm injury rates. You can see experts call into question usage rates among amateur pitchers, pitch selection among youth/amateurs, recovery rates, mobility deficits, too much or too little strength, length of season, delivery flaws, and a host of other factors. In short, there’s clearly no one right answer in solving this issue, as there are just so many variables in this multi-factorial problem, and as a result, it is quickly making Tommy John the most famous pitcher of all time for all the wrong reasons.

TJ

This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I can almost guarantee you every single MLB pitcher whoever existed would fall into one of the categories deemed “detrimental” to healthy development at one point or another during their career. I’m sure they’ve been at risk of throwing too much, pitching on short rest, having a red flag in their delivery, lacking necessary range of motion, etc. It’s all part of the game, unfortunately. Beautiful game, isn’t it?

So, if this is the case – and I’m sorry to sound so negative about the future of this game and the problem that we’re currently experiencing – but this injury issue has way more to do with our society at large and the values we’re pushing into the game of baseball than simply little Johnny throwing too many pitches in his Babe Ruth game or throwing 95mph when he’s 17.

It’s not too dissimilar from the global climate discussion we’re having (apologies in advance if you don’t believe in global warming), where we seem to understand what the problem is and potentially what some of the solutions are. However, because these issues have huge monetary implications and there are large organizations and cultures set in their ways behind a lot of this, it’s very hard to change the direction of this tsunami that’s been building out at sea and is now crashing onto our shores.

UCL

Percentage Growth of ASMI Youth/High School UCL Reconstruction Surgeries (Original Article)

In order to narrow the discussion, though, I’m going to try to pick a couple key points out to help give the general population something to chew on and digest without burying them in a sea of research, stats and mechanical jargon. In my mind, there are two main social factors that are fueling this:

1) the burning desire as a culture to see and reach for more velocity at every level of development

2) the digital age giving us enough information to be dangerous in so many different ways

I can promise you neither of these will be going away, so we better learn how to manage them effectively.

When I talk about this insatiable desire for velocity at every level of development and this information age, I’m encompassing a lot of different thoughts. It could be Johnny Rocket throwing 70mph in the Little League World Series at 12yrs old while being broadcasted to the world on ESPN, or it could be the fact that we have a generation of fathers armed with a Pocket Radar at the backstop, and an Ipad in the dugout with up-to-the-minute strike % rates at all of Little Billy’s games.

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Once these players get out on the travel ball circuit, online scouting resources do their fair share to rank every single player/team that comes through their tournaments and showcases, so every kid knows where he stands against his peers. Like it or not, this encourages them to make it to as many events as they can, regardless of the time of year, which we know from the research carries a larger injury risk as well. These issues are a microcosm of this media blitz, and are simultaneously creating our greatest strength and becoming our biggest weakness.

Now, don’t get me wrong, these same reasons can also be tremendous developmental qualities, by allowing for more information to be processed, we can speed up the developmental curve. We know that fastball velocity is an important predictor of strikeout rate and success at any level of baseball. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to speed up the developmental curve in an attempt to throw harder?

With that said, I’m sure there are people out there who point the injury bug finger at me in thinking I offer “Pitching Lessons” all year round, or point it at Eric Cressey for developing these athletes into physical monsters too soon, which allows them to throw the ball harder than the human species is supposed to do so. So, if we’re going to frame the discussion, we need to look at the process for how these athletes are being developed, because I think this becomes the crucial determinant.

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We have to have a big picture look at how we get Johnny Rocket to sustain his standard deviation of dominance at each level or how we get little Billy to have enough fastball so he can move from level to level and stay in the game he loves to play. But, if everything is causing problems, and you can’t play too much because you’ll get hurt, and if you don’t throw enough, you won’t be any good…How do we shepherd these athletes from level to level until they reach the promised land of the Big Leagues? Ultimately, it comes down to a few main principles for me.

At CP, we’ve had a lot of tremendous athletes and baseball players come through our doors ranging from Little Johnny Rocket at 10yrs old all the way to Curt Schilling on his last go round in the Big Leagues and everything in between. The three qualities that have resonated through all of the successful athletes regardless of level are – general athleticism, competitive instinct and an above average fastball that they can command.

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I’d also include a caveat that the ability to be consistent and adhere to a plan is the glue to these qualities. We’ve had good athletes who were great competitors who sucked at simply showing up, or following the program as it was written, etc…and, it’s ultimately what keeps them from being reliable performers. It’s what can separate a guy who doesn’t have natural athleticism from a guy who doesn’t make the most of his athletic talents. Our most diligent and successful athletes don’t just randomly disappear for three weeks, or skip their warm-up for the heck of it. This can be a major separator if you’re willing to show up day in and day out and be diligent about executing your process.

Now, this may sound overly generic, but I think it’s important to consider what falls in each bucket and how it affects each developmental stage.

If you’re looking at the youth level – say 10-14 year-olds – who ends up pitching the most? Typically, your best athletes (because they’re coordinated enough at that age to throw strikes), or the kids who throw the hardest (because they generally miss more bats). Often, these two categories occur in the same kids, too, so they’re extra likely to throw every inning of every game. I don’t think anyone would question that.

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The same begins to take shape when you look at who gets recognized at the high school and college level. The best pitchers again end up being the guys who throw the hardest and strike the most guys out, and ultimately, end up with the college scholarships and are drafted the highest.

At the minor league level, there’s less of an emphasis on winning games, but there is definitely a premium placed on competing in the strike zone with an above average fastball in order to advance at each level through the system, regardless of organization. Finally, you have your big leaguers, who have made it to where everyone wants to go, and in this day and age, its few and far between the guys that don’t have premium stuff or aren’t voracious competitors with at least “average” stuff. Mark Buerhle and Jamie Moyer are the 0.01% of professional pitchers who were able to compete with below average fastball velocities, but they were able to compete at every level – including the big leagues – by relying on good movement, changing speeds, and impeccable command. So how does this factor into our greater discussion? You have to find what each athlete does well and find a way to maintain those strengths while filling in the weaknesses. You’d be foolish to give guys on opposite ends of the spectrum – say, Aroldis Chapman and Jamie Moyer – the same developmental plan.

chapman  moyer

 

 If you bring that thought further down the developmental chain, and have a 12yr old who throws hard, but doesn’t have a “sound delivery” or isn’t a good athlete, he probably needs to work really hard on his general athleticism first to provide a sound movement base for him to repeat his delivery. This can mean playing another sport, such as basketball or soccer, or simply riding his bike or playing at the park with his friends. It doesn’t mean he needs to engage in the 10,000 hours theory and practice pitching more. Could this help? Sure, but is it the best long-term solution or does it attack the greatest window of adaptation? I doubt it. If anything, he just needs to keep playing catch with his dad, brother, or a buddy and continue throwing a lot on his own to learn more about himself, but pitching in more games is just going to exacerbate the problem. Games are fun, and obviously one of the principles of long term success is developing that competitive spirit, but with what we know about the stress of throwing a baseball and what happens to kids who throw hard at an early age, this kid is seriously at risk for hurting himself down the road, if he doesn’t find other ways to develop.

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Too often, we see parents who think that the best way to get Johnny to become Nolan Ryan is to bring him to the local pitching instructor and get him signed up on the local travel ball team. Also, obviously, he still has to play with his town buddies, so now he’s on multiple teams, etc. This is not the answer. Let Johnny figure out a world of movement and compete with different people in different venues and you’ll be surprised what that does for his confidence and motor control. Having the ability to relate to other social environments, and physically move through different patterns will drastically shape Johnny’s ability to repeat his delivery and create force in the throw in healthier ways. With that said, below, I’ve provided a “Developmental Lifespan” for how successful athletes have generally progressed in their athletic focus:

Up to Age 10 – Complete fun, wide variety of activities

Ages 11-15 – Multiple (3+) organized sports with “seasons,” integration of strength and conditioning

Age 16-17 – Hone in on 1-2 sports

Age 18+ – Specialization

When they do play baseball, let’s not worry so much about velocity just yet, but let’s focus on establishing good daily routines – sound warm-ups, arm-care processes, and movement patterns – as well as focusing on the yearly calendar. These will have long-term implications for the athlete’s health and continued progress – and I’ll focus specifically on these things in Part 2, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, if you’re looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships.  The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.

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