The truth about picthing velocity and shoulder durability in Pitchers: where does the speed come from?

I recently read an article in Sports Illustrated about pitchers losing their arms once they go pro. Apparently this is a phenomenon of some sort. It is a common problem in certain clubs, and not a problem in others. So what is happening to these wonder rookies once they go pro? And why doesn’t happen in certain clubs?

The possibilities: psychological, over working (and under recovery), change in technique by the pitching coach, under training, a change to pushing the ball (throwing with the arm rather than slinging through it). Most rookie fair quite well in their first year, which eliminates the likelihood of the first 2 options. It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to pitch one to two 100 pitch games per week, so under training is out. That leaves the last two. I would suggest that most of it has less to do with the actually coaching of technique and more to do with the training systems.

I have know quite a few major league coaches and strength coaches. My favorite mentality is “a pitcher has to be able to throw 100 pitches a night, and stay fresh, so we run to keep their endurance up.” It’s not uncommon for a pitcher to run 2-4 miles as many as 3 times per week.   The average pitch takes 1.4 seconds from the beginning of the recoil to the contact of the ball with the catchers glove. The pitcher then gets at least 30 seconds of rest, many times closer to a minute, before the next throw. There is absolutely nothing aerobic about that. A world class 100 meter runner takes 9.7 seconds to run his race, 5 times longer than a baseball pitch. Every track coach in the country (maybe the world) knows that you don’t have a 100 m runner go run a mile unless you want him to loose every race that he enters.  Distance reduces power, and therefor will slow you down.

The problem is that pitching speed begins in the legs. The drive off the ground generates forward force which is translated through the trunk and then into the arm (if properly executed) like pulling a slingshot and then releasing it. That works out to a angular velocity of +/- 60,000 degrees/sec/sec at the shoulder several times through the motion, and a ball acceleration of over 500 m/sec/sec as the ball leaves the hand. Perspective: a top fuel dragster accelerates at 80 m/sec/sec at its greatest moment of acceleration, and the worlds fastest jet is capable of accelerations close to 100 m/sec/sec.  Only explosive energy is capable of higher acceleration.  There is no way that the muscles around the shoulder (most of which which are smaller than your finger) can generate those types of forces. But they can transfer them.  The largest, most powerful muscles in the body are the glutes and lats, which happen to attach to each other diagonally across your back. Then means that a push off the back leg with a pull of the front arm yields a powerful forward or rotational movement. This is where most of your power is generated for nearly every athletic movement possible (overhead movements like the tennis serve are the predominant exceptions).

The best things for pitchers (assuming their basic mechanics are sound) are squats, chin-ups, sprints and long toss. They are the fundamentals, there are other great exercises, but these create the foundation. These all increase power and help a pitcher learn to use his legs.   When I was at the College of Charleston, we could never get our pitchers to work their legs or lift anything heavy. “Gotta protect my arm and motion coach, can’t bulk up”. One of our rising Seniors named Brett was a great closer but he was wiry and tall. His coach told him that he had a shot at going pro but he needed to put on some weight (20 pounds). So he comes to me and says, “I gotta put on 20 pounds in 8 months  to have a chance at the majors coach. I’ll do anything that you want me to do!”. My response, “Finally! Legs go start with some squats!”. We put on 15 pounds, but doubled his squat and had him doing chin-ups with 60 pounds strapped do him by the end of the season. His response? “Coach, I am not throwing a lot harder, 94 instead of 93, but I can close every game in a week (normally 2-3 innings and 30-50 pitches counting warm-up, maybe 3 games a week), plus throw bull pen everyday, and not loose anything on my speed. And I am always fresh! My arm has never felt better!”.  He ended being on of the school’s best closers ever, and had one of the best seasons of closer in the country that year.

And he also went pro….

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