Releasing Tommy John’s Grip on Pitchers

It’s about that time, isn’t it? The short period of time where we notice the rash of elbow and shoulder injuries to pitchers and look for answers in the usual places, like Tom Verducci’s columns (never mind that the Verducci Effect has been thoroughly debunked) where the “experts” are interviewed and say some variation on the following:

  • Travel ball is evil
  • Showcase ball will cause you to kill your arm, damn those people at Perfect Game
  • Latin players grow into their velocity
  • Americans put too much focus on velocity
  • etc

Let’s not forget: If a pitcher is going to be injured, it is most likely at the beginning of the year. The reasons for this aren’t necessarily clear, but as Dirk Hayhurst pointed out in his latest book, when he hurt his shoulder in the gym, he was tempted to nurse it to the beginning of Spring Training and hope to blow it out on the mound there so medical insurance would be picked up by the team. It is not inconceivable that this is a significant contributor. Additionally, players are often allowed to do whatever they want in the offseason by their teams, and are not given specific workouts to train their arm. I’ll always remember Matt Diaz doing P90x in the 2008-2009 offseason, which is probably one of the worst possible “training” (I use the term loosely) methods you can employ for a baseball player. A lack of a sound throwing program with specific prehab exercises probably contributes to both the velocity drop at the beginning of the year (in addition to weather of course) as well as increased risk of injury in the early months of the year.

So, with all that out of the way, let’s cover some major talking points.

Youth Pitchers are Overused

Tim Lincecum - Young Age

This is a trope that generally covers the “showcase baseball is more risky than Little League” as well as the “pitch counts / adequate rest is important” line of argumentation. Most of these arguments lately are based off of a longitudinal 2011 study done by the University of North Carolina (pdf, web) which indirectly surveyed youth, high school, and college pitchers across the country from 2006-2010 (HS players 2007-2010, college players 2008-2010).

ASMI also released a ten-year longitudinal study (pdf) in 2006 that concluded that pitching more than 100 innings in a calendar year increased the risk of serious injury to the pitching arm. However, like most longitudinal studies, sample size and retention rate dropped off very quickly:

ASMI Sample Size

The University of North Carolina study was cited by many publications, including USA Today, which concluded:

The study found the primary cause of such injuries is overuse.

Researchers went on to say that curve balls were not more likely to hurt a pitcher’s elbow than any other type of pitch based on the data from this study. Fortunately, they published their summarized data for review:

Pitch Data

Er… overuse is the primary injury factor here? Like Russell Carleton concluded based on statistical analysis of MLB pitchers, it’s actually prior injury that best predicts future injury. And furthermore, the second-highest risk ratio was throwing sliders, according to the data! Higher innings pitched and showcase pitching both fall below use of the slider AND the curveball (thrown at a later age).

Now, pitch counts seem to be effective at reducing injuries to youth athletes, and that’s certainly a cause I can get behind. It is my opinion that pitch counts need to be instituted at the youth level to avoid abuse by parents, even if these pitch counts are overly conservative.

So, is overuse a real problem? I have no doubt that some coaches and parents out there abuse their kids by leaving them in games too often. However, the 30th pitch of the inning and the 30th pitch of the game in the third inning aren’t the same stress-wise, and this is a factor that should hopefully be understood by coaches and parents alike. But outright blaming showcases and select teams for the rise in pitching injuries is irresponsible, considering none of these studies controlled for the ability of the pitchers in question – of course the pitchers who throw hard and are more effective tend to do more showcases, and this effect can be very large.

Which brings us to our next point…

Kids Throw too Hard

Lance McCullers

In Tom Verducci’s latest article in Sports Illustrated, he talks at length about how youth pitchers are overused and how velocity is at a premium, which leads to more injuries to the pitching arm. He quoted an anonymous international scouting director, who said:

Latin American pitchers are allowed to grow into their velocity. It’s a common story to sign a guy throwing 84, 85 [mph] who eventually winds up throwing in the 90s. Michael Pineda is one. You’re looking for someone with a good, athletic body who can throw the ball around the plate and has a feel for spinning the ball. The velocity comes in time, with training and better nutrition and physical growth. Here? The statistics don’t lie. We need to look elsewhere around the world to learn a better way. It’s time.

Really? The same Michael Pineda who missed three months in the minors during the 2009 season with a non-specific elbow injury and later had invasive labrum reconstruction surgery, requiring him to miss all of 2012 and most of 2013? The same Michael Pineda who averaged just about 95 MPH with the Seattle Mariners and has now “grown into” an average velocity of 92.5 MPH with the Yankees?

Verducci continues the cherry-picking, noting:

Go back to 2002, which featured a strong first-round high school draft class that included Zack Greinke, Cole Hamels and Matt Cain. None threw harder than 94 mph as seniors. All of them have thrown more than 1,500 innings in the big leagues.

Greinke never threw harder than 94 MPH as a senior? Perfect Game shows he threw 94 MPH during the winter after his junior year of high school, and John Sickels noted something entirely different in his ESPN column during the 2003 summer season:

Greinke is an excellent overall athlete, who was mostly a position player before his senior year in high school. He moved to the mound full-time a few months before the ’02 draft, and showed stunningly quick development. Greinke’s fastball has been clocked as high as 96 mph, though it’s more usually in the 90-93 mph range. He hits spots with it, and isn’t afraid to throw inside. His curveball and changeup are already above-average pitches.

Hamels broke his humerus bone his junior year of high school, which limited his velocity and dropped his draft stock to the middle of the first round. So even if he was topping out at 94 MPH, there would have been extenuating circumstances on why he didn’t throw harder considering he missed an entire year of development. But Verducci was verifiably wrong once again according to mlb.com:

Hamels returned to go 10-0 with an 0.39 ERA his senior season, impressing the Phillies with his 94-96 mph fastball and plus curve and change.

By the way, all the experts that say playing multiple sports is good for an athlete may enjoy this bit of anecdotal fun:

Apparently the 18-year-old would run through a truck to play for the Phillies — a parked car to be exact. Hamels smacked into the back of one playing street football with friends. He injured his arm then but did nothing about it. Three weeks later, he broke the humerus bone in his throwing arm while pitching in a game.

(I happen to think playing multiple sports is a good thing, too – but for psychological reasons and not “scientific” ones that are trotted out there all the time.)

Matt Cain did not, in fact, throw over 94 MPH as a high school senior – reportedly topping out at 92 MPH. However, once he was allowed to “grow into” his velocity in professional baseball, he fractured his elbow while pitching in 2003, just one year after the draft.

Jonah Keri’s post on the topic at Grantland started off a bit more realistic, quoting some solid research presented by Dr. James Andrews:

“The big risk factor is year-round baseball,” Andrews said. “These kids are not just throwing year-round, they’re competing year-round, and they don’t have any time for recovery. And of course the showcases where they’re pitching for scouts, they try to overpitch, and they get hurt.”

I can’t disagree with that – playing games and pitching competitively year-round is ridiculous and should be immediately stopped. I advise all of my warm weather clients to tell their winter ball coaches to kindly stuff it while they rest, recover, and train hard in the weight room or play a second sport.

But then Jonah quotes another anonymous AL executive who seems to be totally clueless about cause and effect:

“The rise of Perfect Game baseball and other summer travel baseball has dramatically decreased the off time for younger players. Kids are traveling all over the country from 8 years old on, and playing year-round. Colleges are recruiting younger and younger, and kids feel like if they don’t compete in every summer or fall event, they will lose their chance for exposure. That kind of exposure also leads to kids absolutely airing it out at max effort. When the section behind the plate is loaded with recruiters and scouts, kids absolutely take it up a notch and try to throw it through the backstop. The damage that is being done early can’t be undone by managing workloads once pitchers get into pro baseball.”

So… how is this Perfect Game’s fault, exactly? College and professional teams are the ones sending scouts to these events! If they were so concerned with keeping kids healthy, they would decrease the incentive to attend the events by not sending representatives of their teams. PG is only responding to market forces by providing events, and it’s a stretch to blame them specifically for decreasing the amount of time off, anyway.

PG - WWBA

Look how much we care about these kids’ arms!

Dr. Andrews goes on to say:

“It used to be that we didn’t see these injuries until they got into high-level professional baseball. But now, the majority of the injuries are either freshmen in college, or even some young kid in ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th grade in high school. These young kids are developing their bodies so quickly, and their ligament … isn’t strong enough to keep up with their body, and they’re tearing it.”

It’s true that the majority of the injuries happen early in the year as well as early in a pitcher’s developmental cycle, but to say that it’s wholly because their bodies are developing so fast ignores a whole host of other variables we’ll get to later in this article – such as massive ignorance of training principles amongst amateur baseball coaches.

Dan Jennings – GM of the Miami Marlins – said:

“Back in the day, you’d be pitching melons in a field, doing things with your hands — that’s how you built strength, from your elbows to your fingertips. Because of the new strength and conditioning programs, that’s been taken out. By the 10th grade, you’re told to focus only on football, or only on baseball; kids no longer play multiple sports. You get these specialized regimens where you build large muscle groups, but not the small muscles around the rotator and UCL. The large muscles get developed so large that when you try to decelerate, you can get badly hurt.”

Of course, Jonah interviewed a strength and conditioning expert in the field of baseball like Eric Cressey, Ron Wolforth, or if those two were busy, maybe me, right? No. Not a single interview appears in the article with an athletic trainer that is well-known for training amateur players with a good record of health like the aforementioned people I listed. I highly doubt we were all so busy we couldn’t be reached via email or phone call – I know that I didn’t get pinged before this article went up!

Our field got thrown further under the bus with no chance for rebuttal by an anonymous executive, who said:

“I think what has happened is that, due to improved training and instruction, pitchers throw harder. Joints and related connective tissue are put under greater stress from the increased velocity. Many claim that they can reduce injury with ‘their program.’ There is no evidence to support those claims. I am afraid, in fact, that many of these programs — several of which are well designed — actually increase injuries. The conundrum is that they also improve performance.”

First of all, this is a completely ridiculous statement with no evidence presented in favor of it – unfortunate, consider Jonah Keri used to write for Baseball Prospectus, a website that highly values falsifiability and thorough research.

Secondly, I have done internal studies on our training program of our amateur and professional talent, and when comparing our data with longitudinal studies and surveys done at appropriately matched levels, Driveline Baseball athletes are far less likely (2+ SD) to suffer a major arm injury (defined as missing competitive baseball for 8+ weeks; usually surgery) than your average athlete. I am sure that the athletes at Cressey Performance training under Eric Cressey and Matt Blake have similar – if not better! – records at keeping their athletes healthy, yet at least I was not contacted to give my side of the story, and I highly doubt Eric or Matt passed up on a chance to chime in with their experiences on such an important subject matter.

Four Camera System

Let me take a moment to state that at Driveline Baseball, injury prevention is the NUMBER ONE most important lens that all training is filtered through. Our private training facility has some of the most sophisticated equipment you can possibly find, and I can absolutely guarantee you that no other private pitching development facility in the world has the scientific tools we have to evaluate pitchers. We use multiple high-speed cameras in a markerless biomechanics laboratory that can calculate both kinematics and joint kinetics, a four-camera synchronized system to subjectively evaluate pitching mechanics, a database of major league pitchers with correlated planar kinematics and injury histories to compare our pitchers to, wearable athletic EMG sensors to measure muscle activity under the skin during maximum effort throwing with no degradation in performance/velocity, and force plates to measure ground reaction forces of various activities – not to mention high-end EMS recovery tools like the Marc Pro, equipment from Oates’ Specialties, and custom-manufactured and designed implements like Driveline PlyoCare Balls.

So while I can’t speak for others (though I have a good feeling that the aforementioned people care a LOT about preventing injuries), I am doing a whole hell of a lot to analyze and study the pitching delivery to help cut down on injuries to our pitchers, and I don’t really appreciate the blanket statement handed out by baseball executives hiding behind an anonymous snippet throwing the strength and conditioning community under the bus like we’re a bunch of idiots who don’t care about the future health of our clients. Furthermore, it’s quite irresponsible of Jonah Keri to not get this side of the story from noted representatives of our field, a fact I have pointed out on Twitter which garnered no response.

The real problem is probably a bit more involved, but what’s clear is that teams are not electing to draft weak arms and hope to develop them – they still go for the hardest throwers possible in the top rounds. Of course, they’re absolutely correct to do so, considering that fastball velocity is the number one best predictor of strikeout rate and success at the MLB level:

Being able to bring the heat is a very important factor in a pitcher’s success. Being able to crank it up a notch typically improves a pitcher’s run prevention abilities, and losing a notch hurts his effectiveness. Starting pitchers improve by about one run allowed per nine innings for every gain of 4 mph, and relief pitchers improve by about one run per nine innings for every gain of 2.5 mph.

ASMI’s Risk Factors for Shoulder and Elbow Injuries in Adolescent Baseball Pitchers (Olsen, Fleisig, et al AJSM 2006) was heavily cited in Verducci’s article to damn fastball velocity. The study had numerous flaws, including self-reporting of injury factors for control groups and injured groups (groups who are hurt are FAR more likely to report negative things about their coaches and previous throwing programs, and this factor was not controlled for) but was still a mostly well-designed study with very interesting data. Using a multivariate analysis of the data yielded far more interesting conclusions than the cherry-picked conclusions from the abstract:

Multivariate FB Velo

So despite the fact that Verducci (and Fleisig, to a lesser extent) blamed fastball velocity as a huge factor, it is actually in fact the least important factor in the multivariate analysis. And where did the 85+ MPH marker come from? It seems to have been subjectively chosen as a “high-velocity” marker.

Regardless of the origin of the “velocity limit,” if we simply accept the number given, throwing harder is fourteen times less relevant to predicting injury than pitching with arm fatigue on a regular basis, and half as relevant as pitching year-round (greater than 8+ months per year, a good number considering winter ball is the usual culprit here).

Uneducated, Ignorant, and Malicious Coaches are the Real Problem

HS Pitching Coach

If you play baseball, let me ask you a question: What would your pitching coach say if you asked him to cite his favorite research paper on pitching injuries?

Let me guess: Nothing. Or you’d be benched.

This is the real problem. Coaches at all levels simply don’t care about educating themselves on thrilling topics such as kinesiology, biomechanics, and research. The gold standard for coaching at higher levels of baseball is the fact that the coach played professionally or at a high college level, as if this is some good way to evaluate someone who will have a large role in keeping your arm healthy. It is, of course, the best example of falsely appealing to authority.

Let’s just pick a random well-known article on baseball pitching that is fairly important, such as Comparison of shoulder range of motion, strength, and playing time in uninjured high school baseball pitchers who reside in warm- and cold-weather climates (web). This paper by Kaplan, Elattrache, et al (AJSM 2011) talks about the soft tissue differences in pitchers who reside in warm weather climates compared to cold weather climates, concluding that athletes who competitively pitch year-round in warmer climates tend to have increased shoulder range of motion (ROM) and poorer shoulder external rotation strength. It’s fairly basic stuff to most decent trainers and coaches out there, but even a concept like this requires a coach to:

  • Read the paper
  • Understand the implications for increased total ROM of the throwing shoulder (perhaps GIRD?) and decreased ER strength (deceleration weaknesses?)
  • Figure out the best ways to counter these negative adaptations (specific stretching? passive external rotation strengthening? more time off?)
  • Deploy it effectively with his pitchers
  • Monitor the changes in soft tissues and ranges of motion
  • Evaluate his corrective exercise program and follow up with improvements

Keep in mind that this is for a SINGLE well-understood adaptation that happens with throwers of all ages and has wide-ranging implications on keeping arms healthy (let’s not even get into the elbow, hips, core, etc), and understand that the vast majority of pitching coaches (95%+?) don’t even do this. Your average pitching coach has never heard of Eric Cressey, Ron Wolforth, Lee Fiocchi, Matt Blake, Randy Sullivan, Jim Wagner, Kyle Boddy, or any other progressive baseball coach out there who cares about sports science, and expecting the average 14 year old to keep up on graduate-level kinesiology isn’t exactly fair.

Anti-Intellectualism is the Real Issue

Moneyball

Of course, this is nothing new in America – the dislike for intellectual behavior is well-established in this country and is perhaps most strongly present in the sports world. Consider how long it took Bill James and Pete Palmer to have their ideas adopted by most of professional baseball and you will come to the stark – and sad – realization that true player development (and injury prevention) is even further behind today than where James and Palmer started decades ago.

Since amateur coaches aren’t going to reverse their trend any time soon, it is unfortunately up to the athlete and parent in question to educate themselves and to fight back against disruptive and dangerous behavior by baseball coaches at large. Coaches that do not understand kinesiology and the importance of a proper training and throwing program must have kids taken out from under their wing; parents (and kids, sadly) must stand up to them and refuse to let their arms be abused, even if it means being labeled “uncoachable.”

Stop blaming velocity, pitch counts, and other weakly relevant factors. The number one issue is and will remain uneducated and willfully ignorant coaches that allow these things to continue. Focusing on the symptoms rather than the cause won’t solve anything.

Understanding Internal Motivation – Driveline Baseball’s History

On occasion, this blog can get a bit too heady with the science jargon and lack of personal feel, and I don’t want it to turn into that. So today, instead of talking about the issues that typical players have, I’ll try to relate to you the challenges I’ve faced to show you that there are plenty of doubters and haters in all areas of the game.

When I first started Driveline Baseball, I had recently been fired as a coach at Roosevelt HS. I remember it fondly, because the head coach of the Varsity had gone 1-19 with his program and the Junior Varsity similarly only won a single game. Meanwhile, my assistant Jacob and I won nearly half of our games on the Freshman team despite the roster being gutted by the JV program. The reason given was: “I want to bring in more guys who played at a higher level.” Nice reasoning, considering how well that worked for the guys above me…

The first post to this site was in 2009. I smile when I read the quick blurb I wrote and marvel in the fact that it’s already been four and a half years – it seems like it was just yesterday, but it also reminds me of the fact that I started off in my North Seattle townhome garage, training a pair of high school athletes.

Power Cage: The Garage

The humble beginnings

While I worked during the day as a slave to a desk as a software developer, I read as much as I could on training – ordering books from Amazon, pilfering studies from PubMed, and iterating my training logs with the small group of kids I had (fewer than 5 at this point). It was a stroke of luck that my partner Jacob received a set of weighted baseballs from 4-11 oz. from Frozen Ropes incorrectly when he was trying to get a 2 lb. ball for drills we had integrated into our throwing program. At this point in my life, I hadn’t thought much about weighted balls in that range of weight, but I decided to give them a test run. I could go into massive detail on the free study groups I ran and research groups I had to herd, but suffice to say the results were so good that we eventually became well-known for that kind of training and eventually designed and had our own types of weighted balls manufactured.

At about this time, my pitching mechanics blog (Driveline Mechanics) had been shut down by SB Nation because I had stopped updating it. Some readers loved what I did, but many others hated me, resorting to pretty mean insults and accusations that I had never studied biomechanics in college and had never played the game, so I was a nobody – a fraud. I had lost faith in what I was writing and let the crowd get to me – it would be the last time I would let this happen. Interestingly enough, at least one company out there plagiarized my hypotheses and now sells draft analysis services based on my writings from 5+ years ago – with no change in philosophy.

Our First Facility

We had a small breakthrough in 2010, moving our meager equipment into the North Seattle Batting Cages and partnering with their organization. Our weight room was the size of a chicken coop, about 10 feet x 20 feet, but we trained hard and loved it all the same.

GHR / Back Extension

Despite being listed as a coach on the facility website, I was overlooked – constantly. I had never played professional baseball and my last gig was being fired as a coach of a bad high school team, and we hadn’t yet turned out any athletes. The first guy to 90 MPH was Joe Marsh; I remember it like it was yesterday. I couldn’t believe that we had finally done it, yet I still had people telling me I would amount to nothing. All the while I was doing this (and losing money, mind you), I was working my full-time job during the day, which I really despised. But I needed that money to feed my family, and with a son on the way, I couldn’t afford to straight up lose money full-time.

At this point, I knew I would have to partner with a larger facility with an established base of players to expand. Through the help of one of my Internet fans (whose son now trains with me), I ended up becoming the head trainer at RIPS Baseball in 2012.

RIPS Baseball – Lessons Learned

RIPS Baseball

RIPS Baseball

I worked at RIPS Baseball and helped them move facilities from 2012-2013, meeting a way more serious group of baseball players. Some of my training ideas were well-accepted, though others were not. One of the parents of the athletes encouraged me to manufacture my own line of weighted baseballs, which ended up becoming an incredible success and was the cornerstone of the Driveline Baseball Online Shop. However, it was here that I started to meet coaches who stopped necessarily ignoring me and started actively undermining our business.

Driveline Baseball started to attract better and better talent, including athletes like Michael Fairchild (Asuza Pacific University) and Chris Carns (Decatur HS, committed to Seattle University), both RIPS Baseball players. Michael increased his top fastball velocity to 93 MPH and Chris touched 92 MPH while training with me (neither train with me at the time of this writing), and word started to spread – yet all the while, doubters shifted their attack from “it doesn’t work” to “Kyle will hurt kids arms.”

The last statement really hurt me. I had suffered very painful arm injuries while pitching in my past, and I knew that if I was to coach athletes, that injury prevention HAD to be at the top of mind for everything we did. When our first athlete suffered a shoulder injury (sidelined him for six weeks), I invited his Physical Therapist to visit my training facility and evaluate what we did. He was incredibly impressed by all the detail we took in screening athletes and trying to keep them healthy! He did give us some great ideas moving forward; ideas that persist today.

When Trevor Bauer (Indians), Jack McGeary (Dodgers), and Ryan Chapman (Mets) flew to Seattle to work with me, the reaction from my fellow coaches was not one of happiness for me, but rather jealousy and confusion. “Why would these professional athletes work with him,” they no doubt thought.

Pro Studying

What we did – and still do today – is so different from the paths that other coaches take that they simply cannot process it in their minds. I make no excuses for this and I will not apologize. Simply put: Our results are better than theirs, and this is the ultimate source of frustration for them.

Given that reaction, I knew I had to find my own place, because the acrimony was reaching new levels.

Our Own Place

After being ousted from RIPS Baseball, I interviewed with Mike Brooks at the NW Sports Center in Puyallup, WA, and eventually struck a deal to take some unused upstairs space. Our business was still breaking even – at best – so we couldn’t afford much, but Darren Larson (owner) and Mike worked with me and we figured it out. It was this move that absolutely skyrocketed our business potential.

Biomechanics Lab

No longer hamstrung by fellow coaches and bureaucracy, my research took off. My biomechanics lab became fully functional, I installed a synchronized four-camera system to analyze pitching mechanics with the click of a mouse, I got EMG sensors to evaluate training efficiency of our exercises, and most of all, the results continued to accelerate. Through it all, clients that I thought were fiercely loyal would abandon me, coaches in this facility would look up at our training space and tell their kids to never visit me, and high school coaches would hold vendettas against my players because they simply feared what they did not know – and ultimately, they were scared that a 30-year old could gain so much traction so quickly in their hotbed of baseball talent – the South Puget Sound League.

The release of The Dynamic Pitcher – the elite book on training youth pitchers – was incredibly successful, blowing all my expectations out of the water in the first two weeks of sales.

I started consulting with an MLB organization after a year of negotiations and also started consulting for a major Pac-12 baseball program which leads many categories in pitching as I write this blog post. Players across all levels love the program that I design for them, even if their teammates think they are weird.

So, what’s the message? All of my successes have been born out of a process of iteration – constantly hypothesizing, testing, evaluating, and beginning the cycle anew. The haters from five years ago are no longer around, and even if they are, I feel no need to hunt them down and shove their nose in my success. The last point is why I am often called an “anti-motivational” speaker; I believe that if you are in need of YouTube motivational videos or enemies to prove wrong, you will never be successful.

I got into this business after reading Moneyball, like so many other baseball nerds. But what I took from the book was far more powerful and far more spiritual than simply understanding the value of walks and seeing the beauty of sabermetrics (which I love, for the record). No, what brought me to tears and frustrated me to no end was reading Scott Hatteberg’s chapter – the fact that this big league player was nearly erased from history without getting a second chance despite his obviously useful toolkit. For every Scott Hatteberg, I reasoned, there must be so many more that fall through the cracks without a real chance at developing as a big league baseball player.

I know for a fact that we can help pitchers who have fallen by the wayside or who never got their careers started on the right foot – the results speak for themselves. However, most of organized baseball does not see it this way. And what drives me is the knowledge that this Holy Grail of Pitching Development – turning non-prospects into prospects, restoring the life of a former big league arm, and developing amateur talent – is attainable in my lifetime, and that I could really change the game of baseball.

Like Brad Pitt channeling Billy Beane said in the movie adaptation of Moneyball:

I’m not in it for a record, I’ll tell you that. I’m not in it for a ring. That’s when people get hurt.

Will I rejoice if the college team I work for wins the NCAA National Championship? Of course, I will probably throw some stuff around the office in joy. And if the MLB team I consult for wins the World Series with some of the pitchers that I helped develop, I will be incredibly happy.

But I didn’t get into the game to win a championship. I got into the game to change it. And so my advice to all the struggling high school, college, and pro players who can’t seem to find their way in this game (and it’s easy for that to happen given the quality of coaching out there), I leave you with this: You don’t play this game for the haters, your dumb coaches, the scouts who don’t like you. You play this game to iterate, to get better every single day, to become a better version of yourself every time you look at yourself in the mirror. In my experience, when you focus internally on why you got into this game and why you want to continue in it, great things eventually happen. Do not let others dictate your future, no matter how unorthodox your methods may be.

I leave you with a truly anti-motivational quote that I like to use from time to time when I am feeling particularly negative towards this game:

The average man will die, will not have a Wikipedia entry, and no one will remember him because he has done nothing notable with his life. So why let these men affect what you do?

Is Your Coach Responsible for Your Arm Injury?

I’ve often said in the past that elbow injuries (specifically UCL tears) are due to microscopic fraying of the ligament due to a variety of factors – poor mechanics, improper warm-up, poor fitness, etc –  that eventually cause a partial or full rupture of the ligament, thereby destabilizing the elbow and requiring either length rehabilitation or corrective surgery. While this method is widely accepted as being true, there certainly exist acute injuries to the UCL requiring surgery that have nothing to do with chronic fraying of the ligament. Some examples include:

  • Falling on an outstretched arm in an unusual position that stretches or tears the ligament
  • Trauma to the arm in football or another contact/combat sport
  • Weight training accident that subjects the elbow to extreme valgus
  • Throwing a ball from an unstable surface (this is how Josh Outman tore his ligament while pitching)

However, there is another method that can cause acute UCL tears – improper warm-up. And coaches who don’t warm-up their pitchers properly are to blame.

Activation of the Forearm is Vital

In Dynamic contributions of the flexor-pronator mass to elbow valgus stability (2004 Park, Ahmad – link), the researchers understood that “Previous studies have indicated that the demands placed on the medial ulnar collateral ligament of the elbow when it is subjected to valgus torque during throwing exceed its failure strength, which suggests the necessary dynamic contribution of muscle forces.” So the researchers sought to test how the muscles of the pronator-flexor mass helped to counter valgus torque, eventually concluding that:

The flexor-pronator mass dynamically stabilizes the elbow against valgus torque. The flexor carpi ulnaris is the primary stabilizer, and the flexor digitorum superficialis is a secondary stabilizer. The pronator teres provides the least dynamic stability.

In fact, the FCU and the FDS provide up to 24% of the dynamic stability of the joint alone!

Flexor Carpi Ulnaris

Houston, We Have a Problem

So what does this have to do with coaches and warm-ups? The flexor carpi ulnaris (FCU) and flexor digitorum superficialis (FDS), alongside all the other muscles of the pronator-flexor mass that support the elbow, all need to be:

  • Strong and durable
  • Properly activated prior to competitive pitching

Every good training program for throwing should address pronator-flexor mass strength and durability through a variety of exercises and movements, ranging from sport-specific (wrist weights / overload training), to the weight room (deadlifts / rows / pull-ups / direct grip work), to the passive (manual therapy / Marc Pro therapy). Of course, this is strike one for most coaches, since few have a decent background in sports science. Try pulling out a copy of the highly influential research paper cited above and see if your high school coach has read it – or even knows what the pronator-flexor mass even is. At least your trainer and pitching coach can address this issue on the side, so that negative effect can be mostly countered.

However, the second part can’t be stopped by your independent pitching coach or trainer. The strength and durability of the dynamic stabilizers of the elbow (and the shoulder, but that’s another blog post) don’t work very well if they aren’t activated prior to competitive pitching. That means all pitchers need to warm-up properly, especially in the cold months of the high school baseball season – and doubly so if the athlete has a propensity for poor bloodflow in the first place! (Very common in long limbed athletes, and again, not something your average high school coach ever stops to think about.)

If the dynamic stabilizers of a joint are not properly activated, the risk of injury skyrockets, and performance usually suffers as a result.

So yes, your coach can be VERY responsible for acute injuries to your UCL, but there’s just one problem with that – he is NOT going to suffer the consequences. You are. You will be the one on the surgeon’s table legging out a 6-12 month rehabilitation program, saddled with thousands of dollars of medical debt, in no small part due to your coach simply not being up to date on the current research on arm injuries – or not executing a plan to fully prepare his athletes for competition.

You have to take your arm health into your own hands – and if that means having a meeting with the coach or escalating the issue up the chain, then so be it. No high school pitcher should have to take a stand on this issue, but if high school coaches continue to put their athletes in harm’s way (and I unfortunately see way too much of this), then it leaves the athlete and his parents without a lot of options.

How to Protect Your Curveball

I was recently in Spring Training with the MLB team I consult with, watching a few pitchers throw, when a Pitching Coordinator came over and remarked to another pitching coach that pitchers need to throw high fastballs to protect their curveball. I asked the coordinator to expand on his statement, and he explained the tunneling theory of keeping the high fastball in the same tunnel as the middle/low curveball to increase deception – that fastballs located outside of the tunnel can’t adequately “protect” the deception of a pitch with a hump in it.

As most know, I’m on board with tunneling theory, and we teach it all the time at Driveline Baseball:

Drew Rasmussen Overlay

However, I have never heard it referred to as “protecting your curveball.” I loved it! The phrase makes complete intuitive sense, and the pitchers on the MLB staff in question loved the idea and immediately grasped the concept. This is huge, because we in the nerd/sabermetric community tend to overcomplicate concepts for fear of diluting their meaning – however, simplifying the truth is possibly the most important gap to bridge when it comes to applicable use on the field.

Of course, this phenomenon had already been discussed by my former co-writer, Josh Kalk…

Ted Lilly and High Fastballs

Josh Kalk wrote about how he theorized Ted Lilly threw below-average fastballs up in the zone to protect his curveball in an outstanding Hardball Times article – Pitch sequence: High fastball, low curveball. In the article, Josh illustrated the difference between a fastball that protects a curveball:

Protected FB / CB

And a curveball that is so far outside the fastball’s tunnel that pitch recognition becomes much easier:

Average FB CB

Tons of words can be written on pitch tunneling (and will be in my upcoming book!), but this is a great graphical representation of the pitch tunneling theory as well as a bitesize phrase – “protect the curveball” – that makes a lot of sense!