How many times have you heard these lines?

  • “It’s a mental issue.”
  • “He has the yips.”
  • “He lost the ability to throw strikes.”
  • “It’s all in his head.”
  • “He’s mentally weak.”

They’re catch-all phrases that hope to capture the essence of why a pitcher like Daniel Bard can put up these kinds of insane runs:

It’s generally assumed that pitchers like Bard simply lose it mentally and can’t throw strikes because of some ephemeral issue that no one can pinpoint. Let me state for the record that this kind of thing DOES happen, but very often it’s actually an underlying physiological issue, not a mental/psychological one (or at least one rooted in those areas). Daniel Bard can still throw 95+ MPH – just like a handful of my pro clients who were throwing at their top velocities despite spraying the ball all over the place. None of them reported pain, soreness, or weakness – so it couldn’t be physical, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not how it always works.

First, let’s take a closer look at just how hard it is to throw strikes.

A Matter of Timing

Throwing a five ounce baseball with raised seams to a catcher at a target of your choosing is not exactly the easiest thing to do, yet the actual physics-to-performance marriage goes largely unexamined. Here’s two slow-motion videos shot from the side and overhead to capture the two main planes that the arm’s trajectory is on (capturing internal rotation, elbow extension, and trunk rotation). Aaron West is on the left, Taiki Green is on the right.

Aaron West vs. Taiki Green

The distal wrist of the pitching arm (and therefore, the ball) is on a weird curvilinear path around the body that is very individual to the pitcher in question. However, for simplicity’s sake to understand the basic geometry behind throwing strikes, we’ll make the arm path a simple circle below:

Tangent Arc

Imagine the black circle is the arm path and the blue line with points A and B is the ball’s trajectory. This is a line drawn tangent to the arc, and this is how a ball is thrown from the arm path. A line drawn tangent to a circle has only one point of intersection (inflection point).

So, now that the basic geometry lesson is over, here’s how it relates to throwing a baseball at a target – a baseball is ejected from the hand at a “release point” that has just one point of intersection with the hand (the moment of separation between the baseball and the hand, usually the middle finger). Now imagine that the circle above is rotating at something like 4500 degrees per second (internal rotation) but is also being deformed at up to 2500 degrees per second by increasing the radius of the circle (elbow extension), and you have a good idea of just how difficult it is to “repeat” your mechanics. (Take a look at an interactive display – change the point on the circle just slightly, and see how much the tangent line deviates.)

Actually, when you think of it that way, how is it even possible to repeat your mechanics? How is it possible that professional pitchers can hit their target on a somewhat regular basis? Mathematically, it seems to require superhuman reaction speeds and timing ability.

Physiologically, the body is one hell of a weapon.

Proprioception is Everything

Your body has the ability to automatically and unconsciously sense and control motor units in a complex way to perform incredibly difficult tasks – like ballistically ejecting an object at 90+ MPH towards a target with some degree of precision. Your body uses a set of levers (bones), pulleys (muscles, tendons, ligaments), and a central processing unit (brain, nerves installed in the muscles) to coordinate everything together to make minute changes that are impossible to consciously repeat. This is the genesis of the so-called “10,000 hour rule” as made popular by Outliers, and the MUCH better book by Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated.

Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of various body parts in relation to one another, usually while they are being moved. This is a generally automatic function of the body – you don’t think about firing the muscles of the upper leg in relation to the lower leg while you’re walking, nor do you think about expanding your chest manually when you breathe. When the body is damaged, there may be a temporary loss of proprioception, but the feedback given to the nervous system generally makes quick adaptations and allows for quick recovery.

For healthy pitchers, this is why we do a lot of overload/underload training using wrist weights, PlyoCare balls, and Driveline Elite Weighted Baseballs. By forcing the body to adapt to new stimuli through similar ranges of motion (and with vastly different ballistic profiles), the motor units of the pitching arm become more efficient.

However, for injured pitchers, it’s a completely different story – and that includes both pitchers who were previously injured and are now healthy in addition to pitchers who are injured but display no symptoms of injury.

Rebuilding Proprioception Through Rehabilitation – Early Intervention is Key

Rehabilitation of previously injured pitchers is far more complex than sending them to physical therapy after surgery and “returning to function” based on strength and skill tests. A pitcher who has had UCL graft/replacement (Tommy John surgery) will now have holes drilled in his arm plus a brand new tendon in place of the original ligament, not to mention severe cuts to the pronator/flexor mass that were required to get to the connective tissue in the first place.

Tommy John

Retraining the pitcher’s proprioceptive ability is similar to what we do with our healthy pitchers, though the focus is generally more on partial and constraint movements that get backchained into the full throwing motion. By using overloaded drills to help force the body to feel the proper movement patterns to more safely generate velocity, we can start the primary programming of the interval throwing program off with an accelerated pace. It is critical that when the athlete starts interval throwing that he immediately starts these simple and safe drills, because the minute a pitcher picks up a baseball, he will revert to primary programming – even if that programming is detrimental to his arm’s health. Furthermore, primary programming is not always applicable, because leftover proprioceptive sense believes the ligament is in one place, the forearm flexors have sufficient strength, the biceps work in a certain way…

Get where I’m going with this? Is it any wonder that a pitcher who seems “healthy” after surgery has ridiculous control problems? It may partially be due to psychological fear of getting on a mound and “cutting loose,” but often it is due to proprioceptive failure. Remapping the proprioceptive senses is incredibly important, and one that is often lost in the physical therapy world. Even if the PT uses Bosu Balls or other unstable surfaces to work on proprioceptive sense, these are not sport-specific and have little to no carryover to ballistic training.

Rebuilding and Regaining Control

For athletes who have microtears in their ligaments or otherwise damaged tissues that they cannot feel – ligaments have poor blood supply and innervation – this can have a serious negative impact on their ability to throw strikes. The proprioceptive mapping of how to throw strikes may be on one setting but cannot adequately adjust to the new situation of slightly damaged tissue that presents no symptoms to the central nervous system. This is why pitchers who have destabilization of the elbow tend to display control/command issues well before their UCL ruptures, even if their velocity does not significantly drop in the process.

Close monitoring of these markers should be done by all professional teams, and athletes themselves should integrate proprioceptive remapping exercises into their training.

The next time you think your favorite pitcher has simply “lost his marbles” and has developed “Steve Blass disease,” consider that maybe he has a serious injury that is simply asymptomatic. Just because he doesn’t feel pain doesn’t mean he’s not hurt – and that’s one of the most frustrating things any athlete can go through.