I wanted to be one of the first to welcome Nate Pearson and his 100+ mph fastball to Canada. Nate is the HARD throwing right handed pitcher from the College of Central Florida that the Blue Jays picked up in the first round. He’s the hardest throwing prospect the Jays have had since Noah Syndergaard, and hopefully we won’t trade this 100 mph for an aging knuckle ball. I’m still a little bitter about that trade not to mention that we also lost Travis D’Arnaud for Josh Thole.
Its going to be fun to add him to the mix of Blue Jay pitcher’s that I analyze to help communicate my ideas about customizing Mechanics and Training based on an athlete’s unique physical profile. For the last year now I’ve been using Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez as example because its easy to see that these two are very different physically yet produce the same kind of stuff in regards to velocity. In doing so I’ve created some hypothetical profiles for each of them based off of what I can see from studying them on TV since I’ve never had the honor of assessing them and their athletic ability directly.
What makes the addition of Nate Pearson so exciting for me is that he throws harder than both of these guys and the physical profile I have for Nate is real and not hypothetical.
This past year I was lucky enough to be consulting with the College of Central Florida Patriots which is where Nate played in 2017 after transferring from Florida International University. The baseball sport scientist in me was really pumped that I was going t be able to see on paper (and video) what a guy who throw in the mid 90’s looks like after I ran him and this teammates through all sorts of testing and screening at the beginning of the season.
I will be following up with an article like I did last year on the DBacks 4th round selection Curtis Taylor who also throws really hard yet is very different from Nate despite the fact that they are both 6’6″.
Until then I just wanted to congratulate Nate and the coaching staff at College of Central Florida (Marty, Zach, Jon and Ryan) for all the hard work they did this past year in the weight room and on the field to help him become a better pitcher while also improving his velocity by 5+ mph which helped raise Nate’s stock immensely.
Welcome to Canada Nate
How strong do you need to be to throw a baseball really, really hard? This is a tricky question to answer since there are a lot of factors at play.
For example, I mentioned way back in the antropometrics article that you wouldn’t expect Aaron Sanchez to lift the same amount when bench pressing or squatting as you would Marcus Stroman due to their obvious physical differences. To make things even more complicated the type of strength seen when lifting the max amount of weight with squatting or bench pressing represent only one of several types of strength that can be used to throw a baseball.
So in order to try to answer this question of how strong and what kind of strong you need to be to throw hard we’re going to first have to learn about these different types of strength.
This article will undoubtedly just be the first part of a 2-3 more discussing this part of the physical profile. The goal of this intro article is to help paint a clear picture about the different types of strength.
In the profile I’ve only listed four different types of athletic attributes/qualities that fall under the strength umbrella but there are more as you will see in next couple of graphs. For my purposes of trying to make things a little be easier here are the types of strength I’ve listed in the profile:
- strength (aka maximum strength)
- speed (aka maximum velocity)
As you make your way down the list on my profile the weight being used gets lighter but the speed of the movement is faster which is seen here in a force-velocity curve.
This 1102lbs deadlift seen below by strong man Eddie Hall would represent the extreme left side of this curve which takes about 6 seconds to complete. The arm action of an Aroldis Chapman fastball with a 5 ounce ball would represent the other extreme. But notice how I said that its just that final portion of the pitching delivery that’s going that fast. If we were to focus on the first part of the delivery, where the rules states you have to start from a complete standstill (rule 8.01), you would be looking further to the left when we try to get our entire body moving towards home plate with off of just one leg. So its important to look at the whole force curve to see how we can transition our way from the left to right as you deliver the ball.
I’ve used the race car transition analogy in the first article that started this series about customized mechanics over a year ago. Check it out here. To expand on this analogy a little more think of pitchers like as drag race cars. They too must start from a complete standstill in 1st gear (max strength) then hit all the other gears along the way to max velocity like we see from the inside of the drag racer below shifting gears. Pitchers do get the benefit of using a sloped mound which helps them get a rolling start which is why not every hard thrower you see out there has a good 1st gear.
The pitching delivery is really all about how you “shift gears” to maximize your top end speed when you release the ball. But its also really important to see how fast we can go in each gear because you could be the best gear shifter in the world but if you don’t have any horsepower its relatively useless.
How Powerful Are Your Gears?
Determining how powerful (force x velocity) a player is at different points along the force curve isn’t that easy since we have to know how fast (velocity) the weight (force) is moving in order objectively and accurately determine the amount of power being produced. Measuring the force is as easy as adding up the weight on a barbell but measuring the speed is a bit trickier since radar guns don’t do a great job of measuring barbell speed. Fortunately there has been an influx of affordable and accurate devices like PUSH which do allow us to measure the velocity.
Did Somebody Say Velocity?
The baseball world is obsessed with the velocity and our ears always perk up when we hear the “V” word. Here is what that curve looks like when we use velocity to categorize the different types of strength. Just as a reference a 99 mph fastball is moving about 44 meters/second (m/s).
Everyone has these gears but to be powerful its all about how much weight can you move at each speed. Finding out how well a player does in each category I think this is important because it can help us provide better training in the gym and advice/coaching cues for the mound.
There has been a recent surge in the strength and conditioning world with the use of what’s called velocity based training (VBT) because it has been shown to help deliver results. Dr. Bryan Mann from the University of Missouri has been leading this charge of using velocity to help develop better training methods.
Dr Mann noticed that when he was training the football team the vertical jump scores did not improve when they used the heaviest loads while performing hang cleans. The use of the heavy loads was at the request of the football coaches since they thought that this was important and wanted everyone’s hand clean max’s to go up. The speed of the lifts when using these heavier loads was just too slow in the range of 0.6-0.8 m/s whereas jumping is a lot faster (1.4 m/s).
The next semester the focus shifted to bar speed rather than weight. When the athletes had to meet the minimum requirements for speed when performing the hang clean the results for vertical jump scores were much higher. This isn’t to say that working at lower or higher speeds doesn’t provide any benefits but it does highlight the principal of specificity.
If you are really interested in this subject you should come visit me in Kelowna this July because Dr Bryan Mann himself is going to be presenting at this conference that my gym host’s every year. Let me know if you want to come hear him and some other great presenter’s like
- Jeremy Sheppard , Director at Canadian Sport Institute
- Dr. Ramogida, Chiropractor and Performance Therapist Seattle Seahawks, UK Athletics, Altis
That will do it for the first article about the strength portion of the physical profile. Next I will cover the individual types of strength starting with the heaviest and slowest part of the curve.
This article below is a practical guide to a form of conditioning called High Intensity Continuous Training (HICT) that can be really helpful to the baseball athlete and if nothing else is way more effective that running poles.
In the past I’ve written about how long distance running can kill your velocity, check it out here. Conditioning however still needs to be done because it is very, very important so I wanted to provide a better alternative. If you want to a team HICT workout example check out the second half of this article.
This type of conditioning perfectly suits baseball because they both require high amounts of power/intensity with short rest periods. Think of a pitcher with a tough inning where they need to make a really good pitch to get out of a jam or limit any damage. Sometimes pitch #32 of an inning is very important and it gets tough to produce the same levels of intensity when you have to do something as intense as throwing a baseball every 15-30 seconds. This is where HCIT comes in handy.
It is also very simple – look at the gif below and just follow along for 5 minutes!!!
How to do it:
- Take a powerful step every 2-3 seconds – alternating legs
- 5 minute rounds x 3
- Take 5 minutes of between rounds
- If the power/intensity drops then stop
- step up with enough power to produce a bit of a jump (3-6 inches)
- make sure the leg that is on the step is providing most of the power
- don’t push off too much with the leg that’s on the ground
- you should be able to carry on a conversation – I don’t mean at you should talk the whole time but if you can string a sentence together than this is an indicator that you are in the “training zone” that you need to be in.
- pick a step that is just below knee height
- start to add load but don’t go past 40 lbs
- when loading where a weighted vest or even a back pack with 10-20 lbs – holding weights can be tough on your forearm grip.
- progress by going longer – don’t go past 12 minutes
- add rounds – don’t go beyond 4 rounds
- heavy resisted bike sprints can also work
- Get a good playlist going because it is a little boring
- get someone to do it along with you – misery loves company
Who does it help?
- Injured pitchers: if your arm hurts and you can’t throw pens or in games then this type of conditioning will work great to simulate a start. Go through your pre-game routine minus the throwing and then do these as innings to keep your legs in “game shape”.
- This can help the player that can produce high amounts of power and speed but the numbers of times they can repeat it are limited.
- It can also help the player that doesn’t lose any steam but just doesn’t produce enough power in the first place. This type of athlete should however spend more time developing that overall power but when it comes to conditioning do this type. You have to limit the conditioning they do so go with rounds that aren’t as long.
HICT for Teams
Conditioning at the end of a practice is common place at all levels of baseball. What’s not common however is the fact that very few teams are actually doing conditioning that is going to help players improve their on-field performance.
Most of the time you will see conditioning take form in one of two ways:
1)long distance running which baseball has none of. So that doesn’t make any sense to go really slow for really long when the game is all about long periods of no action (i.e rest) followed by short burst of explosive athleticism.
2) sprints – at least here we are performing running at higher intensities which we see in games. But what happens here is that coaches want to “toughen up” or “build character” with short rests between long sprints making this type of conditioning really hard. Remember that baseball has short bursts (the base’s are only 30 yards apart) with long breaks (approx 15-sec between pitches).
What should we do?
For me the answer relies in the form High Intensity Continuous Training and the best way to implement them is with circuits for both variety and athlete management.
These circuits require very short burst’s of energy with plenty of time in between to allow the rest that’s needed to achieve high intensity. Without the rest there is no humanly way to keep intensity up. If you are doing wind sprints with short rest periods it may feel like it is “intense” but slower speeds compared to your best when you are 100% rested would suggest otherwise.
Set Up & Execution
Pick as many stations as you need so that you have 5 players at each one. Put the players in a single file line at each station and number them 1 through 5. Instruct that all of the #1’s will go at the same time at their respective stations followed by the #2’s and so on. After you complete a station you go to the back of the line at the next station and wait your turn. If you don’t have a number that evenly divides up into 5 don’t make even groups of a lower number. We want to ensure that there is adequate amount of rest to keep intensity up. If you have 12 players for example put five players at stations A & B then the remaining two at station C an assigned them as #1 and #2 so that they know when its their turn.
Each player will perform 5 seconds of work or an assigned number of reps that can be done in 5 seconds.
Here is an example of an on-field conditioning circuit that only requires a med ball, an old tire, a sledgehammer and a battling rope that can be purchased at most marine stores.
Here are the stations – look at the end of this article for a description of how to perform each exercise.:
- Battling Rope
- Med Ball Squat & Toss for Height
- Half Kneeling Lateral Jumps
Every ten seconds one group will perform 5 seconds worth of exercise. The remaining 5 seconds is used by the next group to get ready.
Perform 3 to 6 rounds continuously. Each round is 3:20 if you stay exactly on schedule which makes 3 rounds exactly 10 minutes and 6 rounds is then 20 minutes.
The number of times that you go through depends on a number of factors such as:
- amount of time you have in practice to dedicate to conditioning
- How hard the preceding practice was (volume, intensity, temperature)
- How long its been since you played a game
- how long you have until your next game
Error on the side of caution and if the intensity levels are dropping then cut it short. You should be able to tell the intensity based on jump distances as well as the height of the med ball throws assuming the players are still trying to be as powerful as possible.
The exercises shouldn’t cause a lot of soreness if any due to the fact that they are concentric based. However don’t do this circuit for the first time if you have a meaningful game in the next day or two.
- Rope: Pick up the ropes and perform 10 explosive and continuous reps of trying to make the rope wave as higher and as long as possible. If you want to do this in an alternating fashion with the hands perform 10 reps each.
- Med Ball Squat & Throw for Height: Hold the ball under your chin and squat down to throw the ball as high as you can with very little horizontal distance. Work on transferring energy from your legs up through your body towards your arms which throw the ball as high as possible. Transferring power from the lower body to the upper body is needed in both throwing and hitting and while this exercise looks like neither it does provide some positive carry over.
- Sledgehammer: Perform three sledgehammer swings in a row with your right arm higher than your left. One the next round through the station perform it the other way.
- Half Kneeling Jump – start in a half kneeling position with your left knee down on the ground. From a completely stationary position drive off of your right leg and jump towards your left while landing on both feet like you would doing a standing long jump. Go to the ground and jump back this time reversing the process by jumping off of your left leg to your right while landing again on both legs
This is just one example and there are ton of other fun variations that can be used. Even using med ball throws and sled pushs/pull are also great ways to add some variety.
The buy in you get from players will be thousands more than running poles which means that you’ll have players that will try harder and moan less.
The previous two articles, which you can read here and here, I’ve written about how the human body is designed to throw by being built to take full advantage of the elasticity. To get a refresher of what elasticity is you can check out this article here. This article looked at the elasticity of the lower body while this one looked at the core while today’s will focus the elastic energy of the muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder.
This will be my fifth article in a row covering this topic of elasticity and I feel as though I am just scrapping the surface of this vital power source. I have enjoyed reading and learning about this topic and I’ve even participated in a study at local University that looked at the difference in tendons surrounding the elbow of baseball versus non-baseball subjects and after 100 throws with imaging ultrasound. I’ll be sure to write about the results and what they mean in the future but for now let’s look at the tendons responsible for the fastest action that the human body can produce; internal rotation of the shoulder when throwing.
Tendons of the Internal Rotators
The muscles responsible for internally rotating the shoulder are the Pectoralis Major (pic below), Latissimus Dorsi, Teres Major, Deltoid and the Subscapularis.
Their tendons on average are 58 mm long, as a comparison the Achilles tendon is 120 mm. When we just look at the length however we only get a 2D look at something which real life is 3D. One of the main reason that these tendons can store and release so much energy is because of it cross sectional area (CSA) which gives us an idea of the tendon’s girth. By comparison this group of internal rotators has a CSA of 3.6-5 times larger than that of either the Achilles Tendon or the Patellar tendon (48mm) in the knee which are both used to store and release elastic energy when jumping. This gives these short tendons more volume that they need to exchange the high amounts of energy when the forearm is laid back into ER right before it springs into IR at speeds in excess of 7,500 deg/sec.
To highlight how these tendons are designed for throwing read the hypothesis from Dr. Roach whose study on human evolution and throwing I’ve be referencing for the last two articles.
“we propose that as a complex, the short length and large aggregate CSA of the numerous ligaments and muscle tendons act in parallel across the shoulder allowing these elements to return large amounts of elastic energy very rapidly”
These short but thick tendons are made for the fast action of throwing but this is just an observation about humans in general. We should know by now that not everyone’s the same and there is sure to be some variation in both the length and CSA of these tendons from person to person allow some to have naturally gifted arms.
Since different people will have slightly different tendon size and quality not everyone will use the same strategy to load into external and unload into internal rotation. Here we see two very different arm actions, first is the 6’5″ and 220 lbs Nate Jones with a very short and quick arm action.
Next we have the long circular arm action of 6’6″ and 180 lbs Chris Sale.
Just to be clear I don’t know exactly what kind of tendons these guys have in terms of size and quality plus there are a lot of other factors that go into how they use their arm. But I wanted to use this example to draw a parallel to what we learnt in a previous post about how tendons played a huge role in determining the biomechanics to two different elite high jumpers.
This first clip shows how Stefan Holm uses his short and extremely stiff tendon to get himself off the ground fast!!! This is similar to how Nate Jones throws the ball.
Next is Donald Thomas with his longer but not as stiff tendon going through a slower jumping motion with more range of motion to produce the same type of results. This is more along the lines of a Chris Sale type arm action.
The slightest variations of tendon length or girth (CSA) of the internal rotators might play a huge role in how a pitcher optimally loads their throwing arm back into external rotation by stretching the tendons of the internal rotators. The reason I say “might” is because this is just a theory at this point since I haven’t been able to find any type of research to back this up. But as a theory it makes sense to me and would put some scientific, objective and quantifiable reasoning behind the classifications that are already used in the baseball world when we say “he has a quick arm” or “he has a long loose arm action”.
The difficulty is that measuring the length and size of these tendons isn’t that easy. Differences in length are easy to see in the Achilles Tendon and you can even get a rough estimate by just using a measuring tape. The variation with the internal rotators won’t be as drastic and easy to see with the naked eye but that’s not to say that their isn’t variation between tendon size of the internal rotators from person to person because their is.
The only way of truly measuring this is with imaging ultrasound like we see in the picture below where they are where they are measuring the Achilles Tendon length.
If you have the ability to measure tendons you can see how they big they are and more importantly how stiff they are. Tendon stiffness is a subject that is worth its very own 2000+ word article but for now you just need to know that its a good thing that can provide you with a lot of power.
If we think of tendons like the springs seen below, the shorter one on the left is very stiff and has the potential to return a lot of energy. The reason I say potential is because it requires a lot of force to load up this spring enough to get all that energy back. Where as the longer one on the right doesn’t need a lot of force to load it up but it won’t give too much energy back but its length is what allows it to produce more power. In this case the tendon would be compliant instead of stiff.
Stefan Holm is said to have the stiffest tendons on record which is why he can produce so much force in such a short amount of time. Stiff tendons require a lot of force to make them stretch enough to reap the benefits which is why he has the fastest approach speed of any higher jumper. This is the reason why he can’t jump very high from a standstill (24 inches) but if you let him get a running start he is able to produce enough force to load up is stiff tendons in order to produce Olympic Gold Medal results.
Stiff tendons are a requirement for the sport of high jumping. And while Donald Thomas’ aren’t as stiff he makes up for it by having a longer tendon which gives him the opportunity to build up more power and use whatever stiffness he does have.
Everyone is going to have a different combination of size (length & CSA) as well as stiffness and as a result there is going to be different ways to load up the throwing arm back into external rotation before unloading into internal rotation.
How to Get Loaded? Into External Rotation that is..
This loading phase is known as a countermovement. We’ve talked about the countermovement jump which is performed by squatting down which flexes your hips, knees and ankles before you rebound into the jump when those joints go into extension. This is what they call triple extension. The countermovement stretches the tendons which adds power to the muscles contracting to help catapult you off the ground higher than if you only used your muscles if you tried to jump from a seated position.
Here is how Dr Roach described the countermovement of the arm:
“While the arm cocking countermovement is similar in a number of respects to the squat preceding a countermovement, we hypothesize that this counter rotation is driven by a different and novel mechanism (the inertial mass of the forearm)”
What this means is that the throwing arm isn’t being actively loaded into ER by the muscles that produce ER but rather the forearm is being whipped back into the layback position due to the momentum being produced by the rest of the body. Here we see Zack Grenkie’s forearm being whipped back into the layback position.
While these two movements might differ in regards to their countermovement they share the fact that if the tendons are stretched further and faster it can potentially produce more power.
There’s that word “potential” again. There are lots of athletes who are big enough, fast enough and strong enough to load up their arm with the mechanics that precede the layback position but the lack the tendons (quality and/or size) needed to reap the benefits of this added stretch.
We learnt this concept in this video where the vertical jump was used as an example, go to the 2:50 mark. When we perform a depth jump we should be able to jump higher than a countermovement jump because we get the benefit of a bigger and faster stretch of our tendons due to enhanced loading speed from stepping off a box. In theory if we kept raising the height of the box that we are stepping off of we should continue to see higher and higher jumps due to the bigger and faster stretch of the tendons. This however has a limit for each person because we end up getting to a height where we will see the jump heights go down rather than up. If you can’t measure jump height you can watch closely and you will see the athlete spend more time on the ground as they transition from landing to take-off rather than bouncing off the ground. Spending too much time on the ground causes an energy leak. This will happen if you don’t have enough isometric strength in the muscles or enough stiffness in the tendons. Coordination also plays a huge role and if you have heard of “muscle slack” that’s what this is about which is another subject for another long article.
In order to assess this when it comes to throwing it’s a lot tougher to see if there is any lost energy or delay between the transition of ER into IR due to the high speeds but it is possible. Let’s say we have a slow motion video of you pitching that’s a 150 frames per second and that your max amount of external rotation you get is 180 degrees. In order to get the most efficient energy exchange we would only want to see that arm at exactly that 180 degree angle for one frame, anything longer and we are losing precious energy.
If this was the case it might make sense to get this pitcher to “slow down” their mechanics in order to produce a smoother stretch of the internal rotators because they are unable to handle this force that they’re producing. It does you no good to produce a ton of force with your legs and torso if you can’t harness it and turn it into velocity. As the old saying about earning money goes “it’s not about how you make its about how much you keep”
On the opposite end of the spectrum we are going to have pitchers that might have stiff enough tendons to produce lots of power but don’t have the size, speed, strength or mechanics to produce enough of a stretch to reach their potential. These types of pitchers are the ones who really shine when you watch them long toss due to the extra stretch they produce with the added momentum from the crow hop but when they start from the stationary position on the hill they can’t reach the same velocity.
There are lots of other factors and even other tendons at play when we are talking about throwing a baseball. The goal of this article was to highlight these internal rotators because in my opinion they are the limiting factor for producing velocity since they are responsible for the highest levels of speed we see when the shoulder joint goes through internal rotation during the acceleration phase.
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS
This article is going to continue to look at how the human body was designed to take advantage of elastic energy and throw better than any other species on earth. The previous article quickly touched on how this ability to throw played an important role in the evolution of the human species while going into great detail about one of three traits that allows humans to throw way harder than our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, the chimp.
The 3 traits are:
- Tall Mobile Waist – Long torso
- Less Humeral Torsion
- Laterally Orientated Glenohumeral Joint
#2 – Less Humeral Torsion
Humeral torsion is a term used to describe the twisted shape of the humeral shaft. You have probably heard of the term “retroversion” which is used to describe the same thing as humeral torsion, the only difference is the angle that you are measuring.
We want more retro-version and less torsion to create bigger ranges of motion. Compared to chimps humans have 10-20 degrees less humeral torsion which allows for bigger ranges of motion like we see on the right.
Having larger amounts of external rotation has been shown to distinguish “fast” from “slow” throwers in previous research. In 2001, Matsuo et al. published a study that reported harder throwers had 179 degrees of external rotation while the slower throwers were only able to demonstrate 166 degrees.
Here we can see Billy Wagner getting approx 180 of external rotation or “layback”, but we also have to consider the fact that he is going down the mound which makes this 180 closer to 200 which is why he was throwing 100 mph when it wasn’t as common as it is today. The hard throwers in the study were only throwing about 85 mph.
Having more ROM when we go back into external rotation allows for more elastic energy to be stored and released as internal rotation during the acceleration phase. When dealing with really fast movements, like throwing, elastic energy is what we want since it is made for speed whereas the power we get from muscles is designed more for moving heavy things at a slower rate.
The amount of torsion/retroversion that we have is determined partially by how much throwing that we do when we are young. If we are able to keep our juvenile levels of torsion into adulthood we stand to benefit from this extra range of motion that naturally decreases as we age with what’s called anteversion. To learn more read this great article by Eric Cressey called “Why Does President Obama Throw Like a Girl”
#3 – More Lateral Orientated Glenohumeral Joint
The glenohumeral joint (aka the shoulder) is classified as a ball and socket joint. The “socket “portion is the glenoid fossa which is part of the scapula/shoulder blade while the “ball” is the head of the humerus. In humans this socket is facing to the side (aka laterally) while in chimps it is facing more upwards. This picture below shows us the difference with the human scapula on the left.
This does is creates a better angle to both produce and transfer force which is displayed in the picture below. Having the arm abducted at 90 degrees from the body allows for more energy to be transferred from the rotating torso creating torque. The approx 135 degree angle shown on the right from the chimp doesn’t allow for as much energy transfer from the torso when throwing but it is better for climbing, which for chimps is pretty important. That’s evolution for you.
When the arm is at the 90 degree angle it puts the long axis of the humerus in-line with the axis of the pectoralis major which acts as an internal rotator. On the right in the picture below we see the muscle fibers of the human pectoralis major and how they run almost straight across at that 90 degree angle.
This really illustrates why we need to be near that 90 degree angle of arm abduction when we throw no matter if you throw “over the top”, “three quarters”, “side arm” or even “submarine”. Check out this article to learn more about this 90 degree rule and how throwing “over the top” increases velocity and stress on the arm.
Even if is knuckles are almost hitting the dirt he is still showing 90 degrees of arm abduction
So we know now that humans have more laterally orientated GH joints but there is some variation within the human spices as to how laterally orientated the shoulder joint is for each person. This is going to be another case where I go back to the analogy of getting a suit tailored to your body rather than going with the standard “off the rack”.
Having a shirt that fits the slope of our shoulders is going to feel and look better. The same can be said about pitching mechanics. Maybe this has something to do with finding one’s “natural arm slot” since there does seem to be a little bit if wiggle room with that 90 degree angle rule in that you can be plus or minus 10 degrees.
Some people will naturally have either sloped or square shoulders but we don’t want it to be exaggerated by either tight traps pulling our shoulders up closer to our ears nor do we want tight lats pulling our shoulders down towards our toes. Either of these overactive muscles can increase the risk of injury while also decreasing performance.
Now that we know how these traits allow us as humans to take full advantage elastic energy we will learn exactly how this vital power source works in the shoulder and how it too will differ from person to person.
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS
This article is going to start exploring the important role that upper body elasticity contributes to throwing velocity and the evolution of the human species. That last part might sound a bit weird but when I was gathering information for this article I came across some pretty interesting research. It suggested that the elasticity of the upper body provided the human species with an unique and important advantage allowing us to hunt and kill prey which in turn provided the nutrients (proteins and fats) required to develop bigger and better brains. This advantage is our ability to throw.
Charles Darwin himself noted that the unique throwing abilities of humans, which were made possible when bipedalism emancipated the arms, enabled foragers to hunt effectively using projectiles.
This means that once we didn’t walk on our hands we could use our upper bodies to do other things like throw. This is great because compared to other carnivores humans are weak, slow and lack the natural weapons like claws and fangs used to hunt animal. We had to rely on the one thing we can better than any other species which is to throw rocks and spears. This is how scientists believe that our caveman ancestors were able to hunt since we have been eating meat for the last 2.6 million years and killing large pray for the last 1.9 million years both of which predate hunting tools like the bow and arrow.
The ability to throw fast and accurate in modern times is important if you want to be a successful pitcher but back a couple of million years ago it was important for survival which made it a trait that was improved due to generations of natural selection. Here is a quote from a study by Dr Neil T. Roach who is an anthropologist from Harvard which confirms this idea.
“Throwing proficiency provided good throwing males an advantage over weaker throwers in gaining access to reproductive opportunities”
This quote contradicts the research done by Nike et al. (1996) that stated that “Chicks love the long ball”.
Perhaps modern day females dig the long ball but cave woman were definitely more interested in throwing ability. Here’s a link to the awesome commercial starring Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Human Throwing Traits
In the study I mentioned from Dr. Neil T. Roach there are 3 distinct physical differences that separates humans from chimpanzees (our closest relative) which allows us to store and release more elastic energy. Everyone has heard that chimps are much stronger than humans but throwing relies more on elastic energy in the upper body. Check out this page and click on the video for more info from this study.
The three traits are:
- Tall Mobile Waist
- Less Humeral Torsion
- More laterally oriented glenohumeral joint
Now there are exceptions to every rule. The chimp in the 1996 classic “Ed” co-starting Matt LeBlanc could throw absolute gas!!!
If you’re asking why should you care about these differences between chimps and humans its because it gives us a better idea of what to look for when developing hard throwers. Knowing what allows humans to throw hard might give us some ideas of what to look for when trying to determine what allows certain humans to throw harder than others.
Let’s look at each of these traits in more details, today I am only going to cover #1 and the others for part two in this series.
#1 – Tall & Mobile Waist/Torso
You don’t need to pull out a ruler to see that the distance between the top of the hips and collar bone is much bigger on the left. The relative distance would still be greater in humans if we took their overall height in consideration. Notice the small gap between the hips and ribs on the left.
This extra space is what allows for hip and shoulder separation. This has been a buzz term in the pitching world for years and if anyone asks you what exactly “hip and shoulder separation” is and how it adds to throwing velocity repeat this quote from Dr Roach to make yourself sound super smart:
“tall, mobile waist of humans decouple the hips and thorax permitting more torsion rotation, in turn enabling high torque production over a large range of motion, which is needed to load the shoulders elastic elements.”
The elasticity we get from our trunk/core doesn’t come from a single muscle and its tendons but rather a series of muscles and tendons that run into one another which create a “sling” or “serape” shown here.
Let’s look at how these muscles work during the initial phases of the throwing delivery.
“wind up” position
Here we load up the posterior sling/serape from the right foot to the left shoulder. The picture below shows what this looks like in a golf swing.
If you were to go golfing and pause at this point in your back swing for a second or two you would lose some serious distance. The pause would eliminate a lot of the elastic energy stored in these muscles.
As the body moves forward the anterior sling/serape gets loaded from the right arm to the left leg as they are extended and abducted respectively like we see in the picture below.
By extending the right arm and abducting the left leg these two body parts are moving in opposite direction which causes the muscles and tendons to be stretched. This is why we want a good amount of stride length – which depends on a bunch of other factors so don’t try to get 125% of your height just yet!!
When the left foot hits the ground the left hip decelerates while the right hip continues to move forward and rotate. As the back/right hip rotates forward in a counter clockwise manner it unleashes the stored elastic energy between the hips and shoulders. The stored energy in the posterior sling/serape from the “wind up” phase is also adding to rotational power by pulling the left shoulder in the same counter clockwise direction.
See how Kimbrel still has his posterior sling/serape loaded this late into the delivery.
One of many reasons this guy throws really, really hard!!
Here is how it is described in a article by Santana, McGill and Brown.
“The core’s bigger mass “pulls” on the lighter right arm of the pitcher, much like a hand pulls on a whip”
In order to get the most out of this whip these authors go onto say say that:
“The Key to the acceleration phase is a stiff core so that maximum power can be transferred between hips and shoulders.”
This highlights the dual role that the core plays in that it transitions from a force producer, when it is being stretched and separated during the “cocking phase”, to a force transmitter in the “acceleration” phase when the muscles contract and produce stiffness. If you want to learn more about the importance of core “stiffness” check out this article I wrote about how grunting can help you throw 5% harder!!
Stiffness & Separation Balance
The terms “stiffness” and “separation” contradict one another but the balance and timing between the two is vital to our overall success. Without a stiff core you can’t transfer energy efficiently but without the separation you don’t have any energy and speed to transfer in the first place.
If we artificially try to produce too much separation in hopes of creating a bigger ranges of motion we might see a decrease in velocity if it isn’t synced up with the rest of our mechanics. But if we try to be too quick and stiff we slow ourselves down and cut down on ROM needed to reach high velocities. We should be looking at an ideal range and if you are at the low or high end of this range depends on other parts of the profile like mobility, strength and limb length to name a few. This is how Santana, McGill and Brown sum it up:
“core stiffness is tuned with the appropriate muscle activity to best enhance the storage and recovery of elastic energy”
This is obviously complicated and teaching it to someone is even harder. So let’s find out what kind of separation ability we are dealing with so that we can at least aim our efforts on the mound and in the weight room to meet the individual needs to the athlete in front of you today.
How to Test
If we remember back to the traits that Dr Roach listed which allowed humans to throw hard it was our “tall & mobile” waist which was first of three distinct differences between humans and chimps. So let’s test to see how “tall” and how “mobile” we are since everyone is going to be different.
By looking at the results of the seated vs standing height which we already discussed in the “antropometrics” article we can get a better idea of the distance from their hips to shoulders.
The seated height goes to the top of the head so this could be made a lot better if we subtracted the neck and head height. It would more like a tailor taking a measure for the length of a shirt like we see on the right.
Since this distance is something that can’t be change, unless you are dealing with young athletes, we have to work our mechanics around these results.
Using a seated rotation test, which was listed in the “Mobility” article, is a simple way to get some great information. Obviously if you don’t have much ROM here you shouldn’t focus your mechanics around this power source but there are lot mobility drills that you can use to improve this score, namely t-spine extension and rotation drills.
The limitation of this test is that the athlete is producing this ROM by using only their muscles which is called active ROM. Passive ROM on the other hand involves the therapist applying an external force to move the athlete through their range of motion that goes beyond what the muscles can produce when moving slowly in this type of testing situation.
The distance that a therapist can rotate you past your active ROM to the point where your ligaments or joint structure stop you can as give us some clues in regards to your elasticity. Ligaments and joint structure are just a couple of the reasons why there might be a difference between the two types of ROM which is why it’s important that you have a professional therapist carry out these types of assessments.
If the guy in the picture could push on the stick and cause more rotation this would be passive ROM.
Even more force is being applied when we pitch which is we should compare these clinical numbers to the ROM we see with a slow motion analysis of the pitcher throwing.
This extra bigger ROM that happens when we pitch is due to the linear power we create when you move down the hill. The same thing happens when we do a depth jump compared to a standard vertical jump. The extra height that we drop in from causes more of a stretch making it more “elastic” then the standard jump.
If I’ve got you confused here check out this sport science video where that explains why PGA golfer Padrig Harrington can get more more separation and distance when he uses a “Happy Gilmore” approach. Go to the 5:15 mark of the video for their description.
Check out that extra “stretch”
This would be the case for long toss or Run n’ Gun type throws as well making it an appropriate drill for those who need to improve in this area.
Medicine Ball Testing/Training
Here are some tests that double as training exercises to help gain even more insight while providing a training stimulus to allow the athlete to improve their performance.
If we look at how fast or how far you can throw a medicine ball using a rotational motions we can see how efficient players are at storing and releasing elastic energy in a rotational fashion.
There are some pretty high-tech med balls out there that have sensors which tell you how much power you’re producing which is awesome because any time an athlete can have accurate and instant feed back you’re going to get better training effort when they try to beat their previous score.
If you don’t have $500 for a really fancy medicine ball you might have to use distance as a marker or hope that your radar gun can pick up the med ball’s velocity. Either way these tests require some practice in order to learn the skill so that you get better results.
Static Med Ball Toss
Here we instruct the same as above but we make the athlete pause for a full 1 second before they rotate towards their target. This method doesn’t use the stretch shortening cycle.
Med Ball toss w/ Approach (aka Happy Gilmore)
The added approach speed seen below adds both momentum and stretch placing it further along the elastic end of the spectrum.
Please note that these are two different styles of med ball throws. The first two are what I call a “scoop toss” while this last one is a “horizontal shot put”. Be sure to compare the results using the same style of throw but use both during the training process.
Also take note of how heavy the ball is since the heavier it gets the more we have to rely on muscles only while lighter balls allow for higher speeds which can cause stretch shortening cycles to play a larger role.
So can get some useful information in two ways. The first is to compare the scores and ratios between the pre-stretch, static and Happy Gilmore throws using the same weighted med ball. The second would be to use the same type of throw and looking at the scores using say a 4, 8 and 12 lbs med ball just like we look at our velocity difference between 4,5 and 6 oz baseballs.
The best part is that med ball throws are great training exercises that specifically target the muscles and movements that pitchers need to be more successful.
How does this Play into Mechanics?
This subject could really takes us down a really deep rabbit hole and its worthy of its own 2500+ word article. But by determining how tall, how mobile and how good a player is at storing and releasing elastic energy could help you as a coach make a better game plan in regards to the following parts of throwing mechanics:
- Should you rotate your shoulders towards second base during the wind up like Johnny Cueto or should you stay squared up towards 3rd base?
- Should I stay closed with my front foot and hip for as long as possible as I make my way down the mound to deliver a quick powerful rotation. Or should I open up early to allow more time for more separation to occur.
This a lot of information to digest but we have to remember that this is only the first of three traits that allows humans to throw better than any other species out there. Next up we will explore the traits #2 and #3
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS
In this article we are going to dig deep into how elasticity plays a role in throwing velocity. You might want to do a quick review of the previous article that explains how elasticity works since it has been over a month since I published it. This has everything to do with me watching a lot of playoff baseball but at least it has provided me with some big league examples of elasticity that you will see later in this article.
Elastic energy is vital to throwing a baseball and without it we wouldn’t be able to throw very hard at all. Every body part involved in throwing a baseball, which is pretty much all of them, uses elastic energy but I am going to focus on only four of the major ones:
- Loading of the back leg
- Landing on the front leg
- Rotation of the hips and shoulder
- Rotation of the shoulder joint
Each one could be explored in-depth and be their own article. In fact this article will just cover the back leg. I am dedicating the next couple thousand words to the elasticity of the back leg for a couple of reasons:
- It’s the initial power source for pitching – if we don’t get enough power here we sometimes try to make up for it further up the chain and this is a recipe for disaster (aka injury)
- It is the one that we can consciously make the most changes with since it happens first and at much slower rate than the other body parts.
- It’s the one I know the most about.
Elasticity – The Back Leg
The power generated from the back leg in the direction towards home plate is important. But how this power is optimally generated is going to be different from player to player based on their athletic profile.
In the previous article I discussed how this idea applies to high jumpers. These athletes can be classified as “fast” jumpers if they use more elastic energy or “slow” jumper if they rely on the muscular strength.
The same classification can apply to pitchers when they load up their back leg. Pitchers that are “fast” will quickly “stretch” their tendons and other connective tissues in order to maximize their ability to harness elastic energy. Whereas “slow” pitchers will deliberately “wind up” the muscles of their back leg and hip to maximize the power they get from these muscles contracting. Again everyone uses both elasticity and muscular power but you can lean on one more than the other.
I wanted to highlight the terms “stretch” and “wind up” because we already use them in the baseball world and I think that it’s ironic that they are common place because of the accurate way they are used to describe the action of the back the leg.
When runners on base we have to be quicker to home plate so we pitch from the “stretch” which ironically allows our body to rely on the stretch reflex when we quickly load and unload our back leg.
When nobody is on base we can pitch from the “windup” and take as long as we want to load up the muscles of the back leg and hip. If you remember from the article on eccentric strength I used the analogy of a wind up race car to describe the action of loading up a muscle and how if we can wind up it more we will have more strength and power when it unloads.
Maybe someone a long time ago had a great understanding of muscle physiology and came up with these terms!!
If I’ve got you confused here is a reference table describing the two ends of the spectrum when it comes to loading up the back leg and hip.
|Sport Sci Term||Baseball Term||Primary Energy Source||Time||Range of Motion*|
|“slow”||“wind up”||muscles||> 250ms||Big|
The last column titled Range of Motion (ROM) looks at how much movement at the joint actually occurs. Bigger movements generally require more time since they have to move further which places them in the “slow” category which rely’s more of muscle contractions. This however is not always the case which is why I put an asterisk in this column. The reason for this is that time is more of a factor. If the ROM that the athlete uses can fit in that short amount of time they stands to benefit from elastic energy. This is true of all of our internal rotator muscles and their respective connective tissues around our throwing shoulder as we go through a huge amounts of external rotation range. But since this still happens in a very short period of time the amount of elastic energy is the primary driver of this fast action. This is why bench press and throwing velocity don’t correlate very well.
The best example of this in regards to the back leg came from watching the playoffs this year in the Rangers and Blue Jays series. The Rangers Tony Barnette has a ton of leg movement in his back leg but the speed that he drops and loads his back leg puts him into the fast/stretch category.
This clip above has him pitching with runners on base. He gets a fast but deep leg bend allowing him to be quick to the plate in order to not let runners steal base’s but more importantly maximizing his ability to store and release elastic energy.
The clip below is what his mechanics look like when there isn’t anybody of base. He adds some deception by coming to a pause at the top of his leg lift. This may distribute the timing of the hitter while also increasing the amount of stretch that he gets by dropping in from a higher height. This extra height increases the eccentric load which in turn enhances the amount and rate of stretch that the connective tissues receives which can create more POTENTIAL power to be produced. He can harness this POTENTIAL power because he has the strength to absorb and then redirect this extra energy. If he didn’t you would see a longer pause at the bottom which would result in a less power being produced. If you remember from the previous article I had a video clip from Dr. Behm talking about the stretch reflex and how sometimes if load up our muscles with too much force we can’t benefit from the elastic energy because it takes us too long to accept that force before trying to redirect it. Here is the link to that video if you need a refresher – go to the 4:50 mark.
As a comparison let’s look at another member of the Ranger’s bullpen Matt Bush who has one the best “slow” back leg loading and unloading patterns in the game.
He is a clip of Matt Bush smoothly but powerfully loading his back leg before unloading his back leg and ultimately this fastball into Jose Bautista’s ribs.
You can only “stretch” so much
Before you go and start doing plyometrics everyday to build up your elasticity I wanted to touch on its limiting factor when it comes to pitching which is having to start from a static and stationary position. The lack of a running start means that you can only apply so much of a stretch to really maximize the amount of the elastic energy you can use to power your fastball.
Here are some examples to help illustrate my point.
The only time you ever see a pitcher get a running start is when Trevor Bauer is warming up with one his famous crow hop throws. What I want you to look at is how quick his back leg loads and unloads compared to the second clip.
Trevor’s back leg loading method is definitely on the fast end of the spectrum even when he is pitching from the full wind up. The amount of back leg bend is noticeably greater in the second clip. He doesn’t need the bigger ROM when he crow hops because he has an approach which let’s get the same if not more elastic energy wihtou having to load up as deep.
Here are a couple of examples from the outfield. Here we have two Cuban outfielders who have more than enough leg strength to throw the ball a mile even from a stationary position but when you can get a running start you’re best served to use the stretch reflex.
Here we see Yasil Puig throw a bullet with a quick and short punch of power from his back leg and hip.
He is able to throw the ball this hard with minimal amount of range of motion in the trail leg and hip because of a long and fast approach he had from playing back and charging this ground ball. This momentum really allows him to load up that hip with a short but quick motion.
Next we have an example that doesn’t have much of a running start. This bomb of a throw from Yoenis Cespedes uses more knee bend which results in a longer application of power from his back leg and hip muscles into his throw.
Because he booted the ball into the corner he is pretty much at a standstill but he is still able to get a little bit of stretch reflex with his right foot crossing behind his left before starting his throw.
Without much of a stretch reflex he is relying heavily on the strength of his muscles to get the job done. Luckily for him he has some pretty strong legs. Here’s proof of that strength in his famous “recruiting” video that his cousin/agent/trainer made of him during his days in Cuba.
Since throwing off the mound doesn’t allow you to get a running start this means that we need to have some baseline of good old fashion strength in the back leg to initiate the throw. That being said we don’t need to turn everyone into power lifters since we don’t need really, really high levels of strength in order to utilize the fast stretch methods. I will elaborate on this when I get into strength part of the athletic profile.
Testing Your Pitchers
This is where we start trying to figure out which way a pitcher should try to load their back leg in order to maximize the amount of energy that can potentially be transferred all the way up the kinetic chain to the baseball.
Lateral Jump Tests
In the last article I went over a series of vertical jumps that you can put an athlete through in order to determine if they are a “fast” or “slow” jumpers. Each test placed an emphasis on either elasticity or muscular power. When we look at the results and the ratio’s between the different jumps it can help give us a more accurate and larger profile of each athlete.
We can use this same thought process and make it a bit more sport specific by jumping laterally. Which ever method allows you to jump the furthest should offer up some clues to how you might want to load up your back leg and hip. All of these jumps require some practice to perfect the skill so play around with them 2-3 time per week for two weeks before testing in order to get a more accurate profile.
Static Start Lateral Jump – This one let’s us know what kind of strength you have by eliminating the elastic energy. Load up on your back leg then pause for 1 second. It is harder to get a pause here because of the balance component and without that control at the bottom there is no way to harness all of the power that you body could produce. Practice first!!
What you can’t tell from this GIF is that he is waiting for my cue of “GO!” in order to start the jump. This one needs the most control as a coach to get accurate numbers. You can’t yell “GO!” until they are completely still for at least a full second. The longer you wait the more the stretch reflex goes away leaving only the muscle to provide the power. Don’t wait more than 5 seconds. You also need to ensure that they don’t use any pre-stretch in their leg back watching them closely. Our bodies know that we can get power for ourelastic connective tissues and because of that we will naturally want to cheat the test by getting a quick pre-stretch load by going down before up.
Play around with stopping at different joint angles to see which one suits you best.
Pre-Stretch Lateral Jump – This test falls into the same category as the depth jump because they both stress the ability to produce elastic energy. This one however looks at how well you can apply force into the ground in a more lateral/horizontal fashion then send it back out to get the most lateral distance. Here you jump back laterally off your right leg onto your left leg before jumping out as far as you can. It almost looks like a pitcher throwing from the stretch.
By jumping back you’re over loading the stretch of the connective tissues. Each player can play around with the speed and distance they jump backwards during the loading phase. Too fast and/or too far will result in a worse result because you need the strength to stop and redirect the loading of the muscles and tissues.
Counter Movement Lateral Jump – this is the cousin of the popular standard vertical jump which looks at a combination of muscular and elastic energy . This jump allows for both types of power sources to be displayed. As a coach watch the speed and depth each player natrually uses to get a general idea if they are “fast” or “slow” jumpers.
Here again we can play around with the speed and depth of the counter movement as we load into the back leg. Try going fast and slow along with different ROM’s.
The results we can get from these tests are great and they get even better when you look at them collectively and build ratio’s. This then becomes very useful information about how to build mechanics and training strategies.
Looking at the distances a player can long toss with and without a crow hop can be useful too. The crow hop allows for an over-speed type of training effect which in turn means that elasticity will play a more prominent role just like we saw with the throws from the outfield.
We’ve all seen the guys that can bomb it out there during long-toss but can’t reproduce those same high levels of speed when they are throwing from a mound without an approach. If when your athlete throws long toss without an approach and can only get 80% or less of their long toss distance with a crow hop then you can ecpect this athlete to be “springy”. If the athlete can achieve 92% or more of their max long tosss distance without using an apprach then this athlete is more on the “strength/slw/windup” end of the spectrum. These numbers didnt’ come from a fancy study but rather just my own observations. Anicdoetal evidnce.
Finally I think we can just get our pitchers to play around with different loading patterns during bullpens. It’s a good thing in my opinion to play around with mechanics and add variety and variability so that each pitcher can learn to adapt to different ways of throwing. Obviously it will take time to sync up all the mechanics so don’t expect to see higher velocities the first time out with any new loading pattern.
Graeme Lehman, MSc, CSCS