I’ve been trying to put this article into words for the better part of a year and debated completely shelving it, because frankly, it’s extremely controversial and not accepted by most of the people who train baseball players. However, I am not going to stay silent on the issue any longer: I think the trend of diagnosing injuries to the pitching arm as the result of “overuse” is complete garbage. Here, let me make that exceedingly clear:
Pitchers are hurt because they are undertrained – NOT overused!
The American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) publishes a set of instructions that are aimed at reducing and preventing pitching arm injuries in youth baseball athletes. They are:
1. Watch and respond to signs of fatigue. If a youth pitcher complains of fatigue or looks fatigued, let him rest from pitching and other throwing.
2. No overhead throwing of any kind for at least 2-3 months per year (4 months is preferred). No competitive baseball pitching for at least 4 months per year.
3. Follow limits for pitch counts and days rest.
4. Avoid pitching on multiple teams with overlapping seasons.
5. Learn good throwing mechanics as soon as possible. The first steps should be to learn, in order: 1) basic throwing, 2) fastball pitching, 3) change-up pitching.
6. Avoid using radar guns.
7. A pitcher should not also be a catcher for his team. The pitcher-catcher combination results in many throws and may increase the risk of injury.
8. If a pitcher complains of pain in his elbow or shoulder, get an evaluation from a sports medicine physician.
9. Inspire youth pitchers to have fun playing baseball and other sports. Participation and enjoyment of various physical activities will increase the youth’s athleticism and interest in sports.
Most of the list is totally reasonable, but I strongly disagree with some of the points made in this list. Here is how I approach training youth pitchers (13+ years old):
1. Very little – if any – pitching off a mound during the winter months. Completely avoiding pitching off a mound for 4+ months is strongly preferred.
2. Pitchers should be on a regimented and structured throwing program year-round, including winter training. Pitchers should prioritize deceleration training in the off-season.
3. If pitchers want to take time off from throwing, it should be for psychological reasons, not for any perceived physical benefit. Time off should not exceed four weeks.
4. The intelligent use of radar guns to track progress and to diagnose mechanical flaws with weighted baseballs is encouraged.
Yes, I advocate that pitchers should throw year-round. Sound the alarm! Even Eric Cressey says that pitchers should not throw year-round. Like him, I don’t particularly care what people think about my views on this, because I have also done a fair bit of research and experimentation in this regard. Eric makes a point that doesn’t make a lot of sense when he says:
Can you imagine if some clown trying to improve his bench press went out and benched an additional 4-5 times a week on top of his regular strength and conditioning program?
Well, I can. This is more or less the description of how the Bulgarians train Olympic weightlifters – with increasing intensity that has them training competition lifts every single day.
Coaches argue that rotator cuff instability and deceleration training needs to be prioritized, but these things can be managed in a training/weight room with a properly-designed training program. Manually fighting glenohumeral-internal rotation deficit disorder (GIRD) can be done through IR manual stretches, passive ER work, and specific throwing exercises made to strengthen the posterior muscles of the shoulder. (This is something the NPA has finally come around on with their Velocity program – they cite professional tennis as the inspiration for the deceleration training, but give credit where it’s due; Dr. Mike Marshall has been advocating this kind of training for decades. I will also be crucified for pointing this out, I’m sure, but the truth is the truth, regardless of how controversial it is.)
Understanding your population
Pitchers who throw abnormally hard for their age need to be treated differently than pitchers who are behind on the developmental curve. This is but one of many factors that no one takes into account when applying a blanket statement like “pitchers need to take four months off.” Here’s an example: I have a pitcher who is 18 years old and is currently a senior in high school. He is sitting in the high-80′s but has the body and frame of someone who could easily be in the low-to-mid 90′s. He has no standing college offers due to picking up pitching late in life. Are you going to tell me that this pitcher should simply take four months off and resume pitching in February, where he’ll take four weeks to regain a decent level of fitness and come out throwing in front of scouts at 86-88 MPH?
Get real. This type of advice is absolute trash for people who are at a major inflection point in their careers. If I took a hands-off approach with that kid and had him shelve throwing until his HS season, he’d be unprepared and would come out rusty with diminished velocity. That is unforgivable. There is a way to properly train him to further shield him from injury AND increase his levels of performance that will get him noticed.
On the other hand, there are kids who are throwing very hard for their age. Should they be on an aggressive velocity development program? No, probably not. They need different attention in the weight room and training table.
We count pitches and tell kids to stop throwing over the winter because it sounds reasonable. But even advice that makes sense from a training perspective like “pitchers need to lose external rotation to gain anterior stability” has no direct backing when it comes to training pitchers. It describes a set of symptoms that occur, but if a pitcher has terrible dynamic external rotation, then it doesn’t help to take months off.
Additionally, the idea that pitchers can simply pick up a baseball after four months of non-throwing and regain their skill within a few weeks is just stupid. Like anything else, if you aren’t actively developing extremely fine motor control (which is what throwing is), you’re losing kinesthetic sense and ability. Period.
The real reason people tell kids to stop throwing for months on end is because no one has any idea what “ideal throwing mechanics” even are. Did you know even the most sophisticated motion capture analysis systems that use inverse dynamics to estimate kinetic loads on the joints have upwards of a 10-12% error between lab results and real game results when it comes to ball velocity and other performance markers? Meaning that all the advice for “ideal mechanics” are based on a completely different set of data that may not accurately model reality?
Great advice for professionals, terrible advice for amateurs
Yeah, Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez should probably take plenty of time off in the off-season because they threw 200+ innings, plus tons of side work, plus their legendary training programs, plus spring training, plus… well, you get the point. However, you aren’t Justin Verlander.
However, amateur pitchers have numerous mechanical flaws, lack of fitness in their pitching arm, and throw maybe 40-50 innings per year. There is plenty left in the tank for them to hit the weights hard and throw a few times per week to improve throwing mechanics, proprioceptive sense, and body awareness.
Throwing programs aren’t all equal
In our MaxVelo program (more on that another time), pitchers are doing tons of different “throwing” work – including crow-hop step throws with weighted baseballs, kneeling pronated throws with 2-3 lb. baseballs, turn and burn throws, and so forth. They aren’t simply picking up a bucket of baseballs and throwing them at maximum intensity into a net for no reason. Using specific implements like wrist weights and weighted baseballs can be used to train the muscles in the forearm and posterior shoulder without imposing a large valgus stress on the elbow, which will increase the fitness of the pitching arm, increase release velocity, and protect the arm against future injury and fatigue. Yeah, a year-round throwing program when combined with an intelligent flexibility/mobility/stability program actually does all of those things.
The idea that injury and performance lay on two ends of a scale is antiquated and has no scientific basis.
Yes, having a coach who has no idea how to train for deceleration in the pitching arm, treat symptoms of fatigue well, and manage a pitcher’s workload in the off-season can definitely hurt a kid’s arm. It’s irresponsible to have a kid throw recklessly in the off-season with no plan; I totally agree. However, the idea that you will get better at throwing a baseball by not throwing a baseball is insane. It’s like saying you will get better at doing pull-ups by not doing pull-ups, or you will become a great writer if you just stopped writing for a few months out of the year (watch out for repetitive stress injuries).
It is possible to throw year-round and improve. Just ask this kid who threw four times per week in the off-season with weighted baseballs (oh no) and went from 77 MPH to 90 MPH in five months.
Ask him if he should have taken four months off instead.