Control Problems on the Mound? It’s Not Always “Mental.”

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.

The Reinvention of Casey Weathers – Restoring What Tommy John Took

Casey Weathers was the first round pick of the Colorado Rockies (8th overall) in 2007 after putting up incredible numbers at Vanderbilt – striking out 75 over 49.1 innings while allowing fewer than one hit + walk per inning pitched. Casey was throwing 95-97 MPH at the time with a wipeout slider, and was tagged as a fast-mover. In his first full season in Tulsa (AA), he was off to a good start, striking out a ton of hitters and getting very weak contact with his ERA hovering just around 3. He would hit 100+ MPH on several outings in the hot weather. He’d also throw in the 2008 Olympics for the United States, taking home the bronze medal for his efforts.

Casey Weathers - USA

Things were good, until his command started to desert him, and it finally happened – his elbow hurt after throwing a pitch. He had an MRI done on his arm by the team doctor, which led to the following report:

FINDINGS:
There has been interval development of increased signal and poor definition of the mid to
proximal fibers of the anterior bundle of the medial collateral ligament compatible with
ligament rupture. There is mild edema in the adjacent flexor digitorum superficialis
muscle compatible with mild muscle strain injury.

IMPRESSION:
Rupture of the anterior bundle of the medial collateral ligament as well as a mild strain
of the adjacent flexor digitorum superficialis muscle.

For those not aware what that means, it’s not good news. On October 20th, 2008, Casey Weathers had a follow-up meeting with Dr. Lewis Yocum to receive the official bad news, and eleven days later had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced. Tommy John surgery had struck yet another pitcher.

The Dark Side of Tommy John Surgery

Tommy John

On a late night rant about elbow reconstruction surgery, I said this:

Casey was one of the unlucky ones; the ones who don’t magically throw harder and have no problems after having major surgery on a body part that they lean on to earn a living. This is more common than you think – remember Kris Medlen? Ryan Madson? Jack Armstrong? Daniel Hudson? Andrew Brackman?

When you drill holes in the bone, cut into the soft tissue, and perform reconstructive surgery, serious complications can occur. We accept this as a fact of everyday life when it comes to major surgery on other body parts, like our heart or even rotator cuff, but many believe elbow surgery is this simple procedure that has no issues that come along with it. These people are wrong, and spreading this sentiment is very, very dangerous.

Casey complained of post-operative pain and obtained another MRI in March 2009, which found:

There is very mild bone edema along the graft tunnel in the ulna. Posterior to the intact graft there is a
small fragment of bone along the posterior inferior margin of the medial epicondyle
separated 2 mm from the condyle at the expected origin of the posterior band and in part
involving posterior bundle humeral attachment. There is surrounding granulation and/or
inflammatory tissue. There is adjacent remodeled sclerotic margin with mild deformity of
the adjacent tip of the medial malleolus again posterior to the graft. These changes are
best appreciated in entirety on coronal 17 sagittal 07/06. Linear band of soft tissue
inflammation and scar tissue extends along the posterior margin medial epicondyle as
well with elevation of the capsule 1-2 mm from the bone in this location, likely post-
surgical related.

Summary: Casey had a lot of post-operative problems with his elbow, primarily a bone spur that started to develop.

Throughout 2010, his rehabilitation continued to progress slowly. Casey would have a PRP injection in his elbow before the season, which did little to improve the situation. Casey wouldn’t throw in a game until late 2010 – nearly 20 months post-operation. And when he did, he would feel pain near the ball release phase of the delivery, and was walking a lot of guys despite his velocity nearly fully returning.

The list of pitchers who lose enough proprioception from elbow to fingertips is long and varied, yet Casey was – and others undoubtedly are – branded “mentally weak” for being unable to throw strikes.

However, research in the Driveline Sports Science lab shows that forearm fitness, endurance, and strength are strongly correlated with command. During elbow surgery, the flexor-pronator mass is sliced open, and during rehabilitation, it atrophies as the elbow is immobilized for months on end. Is it any wonder that so many athletes who have had Tommy John surgery return only to find their ability to throw strikes has completely abandoned them – despite the fact they may feel no different?

EMG Sensors

After pitching in 2011 and 2012 with ridiculous walk rates (including 53 free passes in 34 innings in 2012) and pain in his forearm, Casey had an MRI and exploratory surgery to confirm that the bone spur in his elbow was near the posterior aspect of the anterior bundle of the UCL, and though little to no damage was done to the UCL, this bone chip was causing serious issues in Casey’s arm. The loose bodies were removed and Casey would undergo rehab yet again, missing all of the 2013 season.

The Chicago Cubs notified Casey they would not be renewing his contract, and Casey signed with the San Francisco Giants for the 2014 season.

Teamless in Seattle – Work Begins

Though Casey took the 2013-2014 off-season seriously and trained very hard through his rehab period, he would show up to the Giants camp without his trademark velocity – throwing just 89-91 MPH and topping out at 92 MPH. His command wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t good either, and he was swiftly cut from the roster.

Casey’s teammate at Vanderbilt (Caleb Cotham, Yankees) had trained remotely with me over the 2013-2014 off-season and Caleb highly recommended that Casey email me for more information and to see if I could help restore his velocity.

On March 27th, Casey fired off an email to me stating his history, unsure of where to go from here. I responded that he was welcome to train here and that we just had two unaffiliated professionals leave our facility (previously with the Nationals and Phillies), so it was a good time to get some individual attention. After going over the training plans and fees, Casey committed to training here for an indeterminate amount of time with the minimum being around 2 weeks of full-time training. He expressed his fear of regressing back to having elbow pain once again, and I assured him that our program was first developed to help reduce short-term pain and hopefully ingrain long-term health, and through those methods, we believed velocity would be more easily developed.

So, knowing that he had two elbow surgeries – one just a few months prior – I naturally took it easy on him on his first day, right? Not exactly. Here’s what I said in an email to the Driveline Baseball Email List:

On day one, I had him throwing Driveline Elite Weighted Baseballs and Driveline PlyoCare Balls and took tons of high-speed video and radar readings of his throws. What the data revealed was obvious to me after thousands and thousands of repetitions of watching pitchers throw and marrying it to real research – Casey did not adequately control the direction, timing, and magnitude of extension of his pitching elbow. Further probing revealed that Casey had issues with hyperextension of the pitching elbow, which made total sense.

Yes, you read that correctly, I had Casey throwing one and two kilogram PlyoCare balls as well as 9 ounce weighted baseballs on the first day he was here. (After taking video of him in our biomechanics lab and showing him the lengthy warm-up / arm care protocol we have, of course.)

Driveline MegaKit

The look on his face after I told him to throw weighted baseballs as hard as he possibly could was pretty funny. Casey wasn’t argumentative, however, and he completed his first round of Ballistic Efficiency Testing, clocking a whopping 93 MPH on a maximum effort pull-down with a regular five-ounce baseball.

Not too impressive. But the spread of velocities told me something in addition to the high-speed video and four-camera synchronized video I shot – Casey was holding back. He was able to throw overloaded baseballs at a velocity far too close to a regular baseball, yet his underload throws were fairly standard. The arm strength was there – the reciprocal inhibition is what was killing him.

I showed him video of him in the Futures Game, of his draft video coming out of Vanderbilt, and the video we shot in the lab. I told him that he needed to be like the guy at Vanderbilt with just two mechanical tweaks that could be felt using our overload/underload training program using wrist weights and various weighted implements – so we started undoing all the “take it easy” programming he got in pro ball and started reprogramming his central nervous system using specifically crafted drills, including hundreds of throws at submaximal intensity of underload baseballs to develop the correct relationship between his throwing hand and his throwing elbow.

Casey Weathers - Vanderbilt

Restoring the velocity of a pitcher like Casey is a lot easier than it is to develop in a 16 year old high school pitcher. I told him on day one that I was extremely confident that we’d restore his velocity to close to what he was throwing at Vanderbilt, and if he continued to train using our methods, that he should be able to return to full strength while maintaining a healthy mechanical pattern. At this point, he was all for it.

He would throw a bullpen to one of my clients, Brendan Illies (Puyallup HS). In the bullpen, he sat 90-92 – not appreciably better than he was in Spring Training, but at least this was an indoor bullpen session and should expect to be better outdoors against hitters. Still, I wasn’t banking on it, and neither was Casey. He would show up 5-6 days a week to train individually and in a group setting with my other clients, many of them high schoolers. Every day he came in, he learned something new – rebounders to develop force acceptance, tons of use on the Marc Pro for electrical muscle stimulation, hundreds of reps using PlyoCare balls to develop proper mechanical patterns, and lifting a bunch of free weights to maintain his strength levels.

Then we’d evaluate and test, over and over again. Iteration is the key to success in our program, and Casey would be no different. His velocity began to pick up, and ten days after he began training here, progress was coming along:

Not satisfied with those numbers, we scheduled another velocity testing day four days after the +10 day marker to officially cap off 2 weeks of training, and breakthroughs started to occur:

Weathers Velo 14 days

That’s more like it – 98.7 MPH isn’t too bad at all. Casey was throwing more often and with more intensity and never once complained about significant arm pain. Sure, he’d have the tweak here or there, but I reminded him that’s when he was regressing back into a painful pattern, and overloaded implements helped him explore the limits of those mechanical issues. When Casey was at his best, he was ripping off near 110 MPH underload throws at my face:

Casey Weathers Underload

After a few indoor target sessions to work on his command – which was getting better all the time through proprioceptive improvement and virtually NO work on it specifically – I felt confident that he could throw to hitters and be successful. Through the gracious help of Coach Wiese at Puyallup HS, I arranged for Casey to throw to volunteers from Puyallup HS who were on their way to an undefeated season in the SPSL 4A league and earning themselves a top-25 national ranking in the process. I told Casey these kids could be a pain in the ass and that he should go right after them, after all, more than a handful of them had significant Division-I scholarships to schools like North Carolina, New Mexico, Washington, and Oregon State. He made some disparaging comments about the Pac-12 and ACC (being a former SEC closer, of course), but smiled and took the mound.

His command was significantly better than expected, and while his slider was a work in progress (watch the above video for one particularly nasty slider from the rear view – sorry, Adam Stump), his velocity had jumped up from the 89-91 MPH range he was at in Spring Training, touching 96 MPH.

Casey 96 MPH

We went back to work to develop arm strength and durability in addition to trying to eke out some more velocity gains. At this point, I emailed the various local scouts that I knew as well as some scouting directors I was friends with and told them about Casey’s resurgence. More than a few organizations were interested, and some fairly important people came out to see him at his last live hitters session (once again versus Puyallup HS) where his slider was incredibly sharp and he sat 94-95 MPH.

The End of the Beginning

Casey would return home with a parting gift in his travel bag – a full set of Driveline PlyoCare Balls, Elite Weighted Balls, and Jaeger Sports J-Bands for at-home training (all available in the Driveline Velocity and Arm Care MegaKit).

I sent him his remote training program so he could continue to work hard, and we stayed in frequent touch over a period of two weeks. I opened up a channel with his agent, Mark Pieper of Relativity Sports, as well as other scouts who previously expressed interest in Casey’s progress, until the inevitable happened – Casey would sign as a free agent on May 16th, 2014, with the Tampa Bay Rays – joining the organization that has treated his former Vanderbilt teammate so well, David Price.

I couldn’t be more happy for Casey. He truly embraced the facility’s motto – Rest is Atrophy – and set a great example for our high school athletes. He was ready to discard everything he thought he knew about training and was very open-minded about the entire process, asking tons of questions along the way to further his own understanding of the material in addition to simply training very hard to get better.

Whether or not Casey succeeds in professional baseball – and I’m betting he’ll do just fine – he’s already proven that velocity can be developed and restored safely, despite the fact that few coaches and trainers in the professional ranks think it can happen. And even if they believe it can happen, they sure as hell don’t think “weighted baseballs” are the way to do it, especially with guys who have had arm surgery (two, in Casey’s situation).

I look forward to seeing Casey this coming off-season to continue to work, especially alongside our ragtag group of professionals like Trevor Bauer. The crowd will be bigger this time around, but the spirit of the facility always remains the same – and that’s the real reason our program works.

Casey Bullpen

Here’s what Casey had to say about his training time at Driveline Baseball – presented totally unedited:

I was nervous at first to start an intensive program like Kyle’s. After 2 elbow surgeries and Chronic elbow pain, how would my arm hold up to throwing weighted balls at maximum intensity? Within two weeks all of my concerns had been alleviated. Kyle has an advanced understanding of the research that is available in the biomechanics and pitching community. It impressed me even more how incredibly driven he is to continue to learn.

Kyle’s program brought me back from a guy scared to throw because I didn’t want to agitate my arm, to throwing with full intent every day and more volume than I had since 2007 in college. I spent the majority of my career protecting my arm and not using it. It felt great to actually practice with athleticism and purpose again. I really feel like Kyle gave that back to me and more.

He went above and beyond what a pitching coach could do for a player. I can’t thank Kyle enough for breathing life back into my career. I will continue to work with Kyle because I truly believe in the benefits of the program.

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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