Should Youth Pitchers Throw Curveballs? Probably Not.

The debate on whether or not youth pitchers should throw curveballs rages on, and on, and on. Studies to seem to show that breaking balls are no less stressful on the elbow and youth pitchers who throw curveballs don’t seem to be more likely to have surgery or retire from pitching due to pain, so what’s the deal?

Despite the inconclusive kinematic/kinetic and longitudinal studies done on breaking balls, Dr. Kremchek (a well-respected sports orthopedist) strongly disagrees:

“They have an obligation to protect these 12-year-old kids and instead, they’re saying, ‘There’s no scientific evidence curveballs cause damage, so go ahead, kids, just keep throwing them,’ ” Kremchek said. “It makes me sick to my stomach to watch the Little League World Series and see 12-year-olds throwing curve after curve. Those of us who have to treat those kids a few years later, we’re pretty sure there is a cause and effect.”

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so black-and-white. There is a real sampling issue here in that pitchers who throw breaking balls (or throw harder than average) tend to be more successful, and therefore they are used more. Youth pitchers who throw a large amount of innings in a calendar year – especially year-round baseball in the warm weather states – ARE more likely to be hurt, by a huge factor! However, we know that overuse is a real problem when a pitcher is young; that doesn’t help us answer the question on whether or not youth pitchers should throw breaking balls.

Youth Pitchers

 

So why do I think youth pitchers shouldn’t throw curveballs?

Their Neuromuscular Control is Underdeveloped

Have you ever seen a 10-year old kid run into a table at full blast for no reason, cutting his head open and requiring stitches? Or watch them trip over their own feet while walking down the street? The young body is undergoing huge physiological changes in a multitude of domains, and on top of that, the motor control center isn’t very good at coordinating all these changing areas of the body. Just when the body has a map to follow, the map detours wildly off path, forcing the brain to rewire everything once again.

Wildly changing mechanics in pitchers who already throw hard is a great way to injure the athlete if he is not enrolled in a solid arm care / arm strengthening program (such as one outlined in The Dynamic Pitcher). Recently the 11U Showtime team I train (with continually dwindling numbers) have been introduced to the standard supinated grip curveball with the “pull-down the lampshade” mechanics by their pitching coach.

Instead of analyzing the pros/cons of teaching a curveball that way (see my article for more details including high-speed video – Young Arms and Curveballs), I think that most instructors and pitching coaches have never taken video of their pitchers and done a spot check of their pitching mechanics when comparing their fastball with their breaking ball. The video below is an overlap video shot at 120 frames per second, and this was AFTER I instructed the pitcher to try to maintain similar mechanics between his fastball and curveball:

Overlay Kinematics - FB vs CB

Does that look particularly consistent to you? Didn’t think so.

My issue with teaching breaking balls to youth pitchers is simple: You expect a kid who can barely tie his shoes the same way to learn complex motor control patterns and hope to repeat it on a regular basis? This on top of the fact that developing good velocity, repeatable mechanics, and a base of arm strength are more important than breaking balls for even elite high school pitchers – much less youth pitchers!

It all stinks of trying to “win now” when development should be the primary goal.

For fun, here’s what one of my clients (Drew Rasmussen, class of 2014 – Oregon State commit) looks like when throwing his change-up against his slider (two of the most different possible pitches you can pick):

Drew Rasmussen Overlay

You can barely tell that’s an overlay video until the ball separates or you check the follow-through. Now compare that to the youth pitcher above. Easy enough?

How to Efficiently Change Your Pitching Mechanics

Recently someone asked me a question that I get fairly frequently:

I see a lot of strength, conditioning, and training videos and articles on your site, but not a lot about mechanics. Do you teach mechanics in your Elite Velocity Development program?

I have mixed reactions to questions along these lines – one being confusion; certainly I’ve written quite a bit about pitching mechanics on this site – some of our more popular articles are:

Additionally, there may not be another person or organization out there that pushes the boundaries of cost-effective and applicable motion capture out there than Driveline Baseball. We now have eight high-speed cameras (four that record in a central video server and four standalone cameras), and the whole point of a comprehensive video analysis system is to review, analyze, and adjust the pitching mechanics of our clients.

Biomechanics Lab

However, I don’t think the conception is all that unwarranted. Most of our pages don’t mention mechanical adjustments, or if they do, they’re not direct changes that most pitching coaches talk about. And there’s a very good reason for that – we don’t believe in forcibly changing the pitching mechanics of our pitchers. To us, that’s an outdated model that doesn’t have very high transfer or applicability. Let’s talk about that last point a bit more.

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“See This? Do That.”

Most pitching coaches out there today fall into a few buckets:

  • Don’t use video, just coach based on what they heard their coaches tell them
  • Don’t use video, but use cues they heard about on the Internet
  • Do use low-quality (24-30 FPS) video, but just to replay the pitcher’s mechanics without much added insight
  • Do use low-quality video and compare the client to a college/professional pitcher of their choice

HS Pitching Coach

The first three categories of pitching coaches are totally useless, so if that accurately describes your coach, we highly recommend you find another pitching coach. Remember, the shoulder is internally rotating at 7000 degrees/sec in the 90+ MPH delivery, so to not even use crappy iPad video says that the coach is completely giving up on truly understanding how you throw a baseball.

The last category is one that the “good” pitching coaches fall into. Oftentimes, these coaches pay for expensive programs like Right View Pro to compare an amateur pitcher’s mechanics with a professional pitcher’s mechanics, and take the approach of “See This? Do That.” They might pair a three-quarters right-handed pitcher with a neutral spine alongside someone like Roger Clemens or Greg Maddux and tell them to look more like them, or they might take a high three-quarters / overhead right-handed pitcher with spinal tilt and compare him to Tim Lincecum and tell them to do what he does.

We don’t do any of that, and we never will – we did that for 4 years with very little success. If an athlete was capable of looking like Clemens, Maddux, or Lincecum just by watching video of themselves, they wouldn’t need outside help. Sure, you’ll run into the occasional athlete that this approach works on, but chances are very good they would have succeeded due to obviously pre-existing high kinesthetic feel.

That’s not to say that we don’t try to change someone’s pitching mechanics. We do. Here’s how we’ve found the most success in doing so, and why our results have been so good over the last 2 years of using this system.

Deep Analysis + Proprioceptive Reprogramming = Big Changes

We strongly believe that without high-speed video, you cannot be an effective pitching coach. Things are happening too quickly in the pitching delivery to simply eyeball or even use standard camcorder-quality video – especially when it comes to elite athletes. Sure, there may be glaring flaws that can be fixed in younger athletes, but if you plan on working with elite high school, college, and pro athletes (or getting your guys to that level), you’ll need better insights on what you’re trying to see.

But just knowing what you want to change isn’t enough. An elite athlete doesn’t learn how to throw 95+ MPH without some sort of “feel.” He doesn’t get there by checking off a bunch of things off a list, and he can’t respond to simply telling him what he should or should not do better. So how do you effect the change you want to see?

Here’s an example of one of our clients, Trevor Bauer. Here is a still image I took of Trevor from two high-speed videos synchronized to release point from the front view (click for larger size).

Trevor Bauer Gloveside

Astute readers will note the difference of Trevor’s non-throwing hand and how his thumb is pointing away like a hitchhiker. The cue he was focusing on here was understanding how the glove side disconnects properly to avoid out-of-phase acceleration of the throwing shoulder, which can cause shear stress on the cervical spine. This also allows him to develop better forward rotation of the throwing arm and to improve his line of force application. (This discussion then touched on the third derivative of position, which is known as jerk – the rate of change of acceleration. Never let it be said that your classical mechanics classes won’t be useful on the baseball diamond, kids.)

If you look closer, you will see a green two-pound mini-medball on the ground next to the pitching rubber. The previous day, Trevor was working on the overloaded feeling of the non-throwing hand to build a proprioceptive map of the positive disconnection he was trying to experience. It looked something like this:

Trevor Bauer

Weighted Balls are Pitching Coaches

Using weighted baseballs is a cornerstone of our program, but not necessarily in the way that everyone thinks. Yes, we are simply uncorking them and letting them fly sometimes:

But their benefit is not simply just a physiological stimulus, but also one that helps to subtly alter pitching mechanics through active and passive methods.

Elite Weighted Baseball Set

Elite Weighted Baseball Set

Active Methods

We use a Stalker radar gun to measure all of the weighted balls that are thrown by our athletes with the intention of changing their programs or addressing specific needs that come up as a result. Without divulging the secret formula, if a pitcher throws overload (7-11 oz) balls or underload balls (2-4 oz) in drastic deviations away from a regulation baseball (5 oz), then I know that there’s a constraint in his arm action, ball release phase, or intent to throw the ball. By monitoring these differences, I will switch the athlete to a more appropriate weighted baseball routine and/or mobility circuit as well as different cues to focus on.

Passive Methods

Weighted balls can change a pitcher’s mechanics by simply being thrown. Research shows that weighted implements beyond 20% of the regulation weight cause significant changes in biomechanics – this is often trotted out there by anti-weighted ball advocates as being bad – and this can be a very positive thing. Think of it this way – if weighted baseballs changing someone’s mechanics is such a bad thing, why do the pitching coaches who say this then immediately try to change your pitching mechanics using only their intuition?

So, do we “teach” pitching mechanics?

I don’t know, to be honest. Yes, we do, but not in the way that most pitching coaches out there do – and that will never change. Properly designed drills, movement patterns, and equipment will get the best movement patterns out of your athletes when combined with solid coaching, deep analysis (high-speed video), and proper cueing.

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New Video Analysis Techniques in Our Lab (Facility Update, 11/14/13)

Our biomechanics lab is in the process of getting a rather large upgrade. I’ve been head down on building a custom high-speed video solution for our lab, which as of next week will include these cameras:

  • Four synchronized high-speed cameras that feed into a central video server, shooting at 180 FPS from these fixed angles: Overhead, Front, Rear, First Base View
  • Two tripod high-speed cameras that shoot at 120/240 FPS for quick review
  • Two tripod high-speed camcorders that shoot full HD (1080p) video at 60 FPS or high-speed video at 300 FPS with Wi-Fi connectivity, allowing athletes to directly connect and download videos off the system using their smartphones

The throwing cage has been a lot of manual labor to build and get right, and I’m happy to say we’re 95% of the way done with it. Here’s an older picture of the cage from a few days ago:

The Lab

As stated in previous posts, we also have EMG sensor units from Somaxis that we’ll be rolling out in the near future to measure actual muscle activity in the pitching delivery. These EMG sensors will also form the backbone of evaluating our training methods to ensure that our athletes get the best benefit.

I think it’s safe to say that we push the envelope when it comes to measuring performance and training efficiency. There aren’t too many other facilities out there that offer eight high-speed cameras for analysis purposes, advanced weighted baseball training, specifically-tailored mobility/recovery protocols, and the many, many other things we do. We call it the Elite Velocity Development program, but it’s so much more.

Remember, there’s only four months left before the HS season is underway. Don’t waste any more time.

Pro Baseball Summit, New Underload Baseball Record, Seminar Dates, Mariners’ Scout Team, and Wireless EXG Sensors – MaxVelo News

I’m going to try to make these posts a little more frequently since the 2013-2014 offseason is here, which means tons of action. Let’s get to it!

Pro Baseball Summit

Driveline Baseball will be hosting the first annual Pro Baseball Summit at our facility in SeaTac, WA from September 15th-21st. This seminar/group work session is open to all current professional pitchers, pitching coaches, and athletic trainers attached to a professional baseball organization. We will be covering a wide variety of topics, including – but not limited to:

  • Pitching Mechanics
  • Strength and Conditioning
  • Rotator Cuff Training
  • EXG Sensor Measurements – Muscle, Heart, and Brain Measurements (more on this later)
  • Command/Control Training
  • Velocity Development

If you are interested in attending, please contact Kyle Boddy for more information.

Confirmed attendees include Trevor Bauer (Cleveland Indians), Jack McGeary (Boston Red Sox), and Michael Boyden (Washington Nationals), with many other invites pending.

New Underload Baseball Record!

Resident flamethrower Julian Archuleta (Peninsula HS, 2015) hit 109 MPH on a run-and-gun throw with a 2 oz. underload ball, which shatters the amateur record of 107 MPH set by… himself.

Julian - 109 MPH Underload

Hell of a job, Julian! Keep blowing it up in the MaxVelo Program!

Seminar Dates – Mount Mercy University, ShoulderWorks

Driveline Baseball will be hosting a small seminar/hands-on demonstration at Mount Mercy University (IA) from September 13th-15th. Desi Druschel (head coach) and I are considering opening up part of the seminar to the public on Saturday, September 14th. If you are interested in attending, please contact Kyle Boddy ASAP for more information.

Mount Mercy Pitcher

I will also be presenting at the ShoulderWorks & OrthoEd conference - The Modern Overhead Athlete.

OrthoEd Mailer

I look forward to presenting some unique data on how we train the medial forearm to withstand injury and improve performance, as well as demo preliminary studies that use our new EXG sensors from Somaxis.

To sign up, go to lakewashingtonpt.com and contact them for more information!

Seattle Mariners Scout Team – See Driveline’s Guys

We are pleased to have strong representation on the Seattle Mariners Scout Team this fall. The list of pitchers on the roster from Driveline Baseball include:

  • Chris Carns (Decatur HS, 2014 – committed to Seattle University)
  • Janson Junk (Decatur HS, 2014 – uncommitted)
  • Julian Archuleta (Peninsula HS, 2015 – uncommitted)
  • Drew Rasmussen (Mt. Spokane HS, 2014 – committed to Oregon State University)

Their preliminary schedule is:

September 15th @ Meridian Park vs the Texas Rangers Scout Team and Shoreline CC
September 22nd @ Everett CC
September 29th @ Bellevue CC
October 6th @ Tacoma CC
October 10-14 @ Arizona Fall Classic

Wireless EXG Sensors – Dominating Objective Measurement

Any fan of ours knows that we are all about objective measurement of everything related to pitching. That’s why we use the following tools to evaluate our training methods and our pitchers’ mechanics to design the optimal training program for them:

  • Multiple high-speed cameras that shoot from 120-1000 Hz
  • Wearable computers designed in-house with built-in gyroscopes and accelerometers
  • Goniometers to track and measure ranges of motion of various joints
  • Stalker/JUGS radar guns to measure not only fastball velocity, but velocity of underload/overload throws to uncover discrepancies

We’re extremely excited to add Somaxis EXG Sensors that should be at our facility within the next two weeks. These sensors will measure muscle activity (sEMG) during training and throwing without significantly impeding performance.

SomaxisEXG

Previous EMG sensors require invasive procedures to get muscle activity readings and thus degrade performance significantly, which causes issues when trying to replicate and/or apply conclusions found from related studies. With wireless, self-powered units, Somaxis EXG sensors stand to absolutely change the game of athletic training. My hat is off to Alex Grey, who has worked tirelessly over the last year to get these to his first-round investors and backers – a group I am proud to be in. Not only will they measure muscle activity; they also have accelerometers built into them to allow us to measure kinematics of the delivery as well.

I couldn’t be more excited about this development, and I encourage you to watch the following TED talk that I first saw over a year ago that led me to spamming Alex’s blogs, email accounts, social media sites, and even TED.com to beg him to sell me some units.

It could totally revolutionize how we – and everyone else – will train baseball pitchers, and I am incredibly excited!

If all of the above excites you, then join us today. We are going to do some amazing things this offseason. Don’t miss out.