The preface is simply here to offer credit to the inspirations of this post- Steffan Jones, Brian Kaplan and Eric Cressey.
Steffan Jones is a former professional cricket bowler and current cricket coach. He operates a site named cricketstrength.com and on that site, he has written in length about how “Physiology dictates biomechanics” which can be found in this link. Essentially this means that each person’s body affects how they move and how well they move.
Brian Kaplan is the Vice President and Co-Founder of CSP- Florida in Jupiter, Florida and runs one of the top youth travel ball teams in the country – The FTB Rockets. Brian merges performance coaching and pitching coach backgrounds to offer arguably the best training environment the country has to offer at CSP- Florida. I attended a seminar where Brian said, “Don’t coach the different out of people”. This immediately resonated with me because I’ve always believed to never coach the unique out of pitchers (which we will get into later in the article).
Eric Cressey is arguably the worlds’ premier baseball performance coach. In fact, if you’re reading this and are unfamiliar with his philosophies, follow this link. EC posted the tweet below and it is one of the better tweets I’ve seen. Too often players arrive on campus or get into pro ball and mechanical overhauls immediately occur. The problems with mechanical overhauls are that they are physically difficult, often dangerous and have major psychological implications.
OSTEOKINEMATICS VS ARTHROKINEMATICS: HOW DO WE JUDGE MOVEMENT?
Understanding true mechanics is rooted in physics and biomechanics is the marriage of physics and kinesiology. Judging movement is a tricky and very subjective task. After all, who would actively teach a young kid to pitch like MadBum, Kenley Jansen, Jake Arrietta, Kershaw, or Sale and assume they would throw at elite level velocities with elite level stuff and with elite command?
When assessing mechanics on a field or with most technology, we can only see movement- what is happening and what the body looks like (Osteokinematics). Unfortunately, while there are benefits to that, there is a major drawback… We don’t know what is happening inside the joint (Arthrokinematics). There is an aesthetic quality to mechanics, but more often than not, that quality is athleticism and is an overarching characteristic of the athlete rather than finer points to be tinkered with.
When an athlete is pitching, and asks, “How does that look?”, sometimes it is appropriate to offer up the placebo effect to let them self-organize so they feel confident, but other times, they may be asking the wrong question. As a pitching coach who is actively recruiting and making decisions based on how athlete’s move, I wrestle with the following issue: I know that each player’s mechanics aren’t supposed to fit into another person’s aesthetic model of movements which are labeled as GOOD or BAD, but as any coach on a field would do, I need to make my best attempt to decide how effective a pitcher will be and how they project based on my own personal movement preferences and biases. So, with that, asking how a delivery looks can be valid, but a better question may be “How does that feel?”. If movement feels right, chances are we’re on the right path.
EVERYONE ISN’T BORN WITH THE SAME ANATOMY OR PHYSIOLOGY
For example, the shoulder is a very interesting joint. One of the bony processes that make up the shoulder girdle is the acromion. To keep it simple, the acromion is the marker for the midline of your body that dissects the “front” and “back” aspects of the body- hence the popularized baseball term “acromial line”. The acromion process is a small triangular bone, attached to the scapula that sits superior to the glenoid fossa and extends laterally over the joint. Between the acromion and “the joint” is the subacromial space.
As you can see in the photo, if an athlete has a hooked acromion (type 3), there is less operational space in the joint for joint play and function. A basic anatomical consequence of a hooked acromion is when said population gets into a bench press position. When those folks abduct (moving away from the midline of the body) the shoulder, they may very well feel discomfort because the hooked end segment of the bony process can cause a type of shear force and grate away at the soft tissue in the joint. Sure enough, if assuming a simple bench press position (with a minor anatomical defect) affects how an athlete can deliver force, it will certainly extend to how an athlete delivers and accepts forces within a throw.
Do you think these pitchers’ anatomies and genetic predispositions will affect how they throw? All the pitchers below have eclipsed 90+ MPH and all have unique deliveries that wouldn’t be “taught”. However, their natural “down falls” have made for elite level velocity output and collegiate and/or pro careers. My point is, without an in-depth assessment and constant communication and re-assessment, it may be injurious and counter-productive to make mechanical overhauls. Seeing a pitcher throw without screenings and proper assessments is similar to seeing the tip of the iceberg- after all, about 90% of most glaciers are under water.
MECHANICAL CHANGES IN THE BEST LHP OF ALL TIME AND IN YOUR BUDDY
Sandy Koufax is arguably the best LHP of all time. He retired at 30 years old. It is well known that Koufax struggled with a myriad of limiting physical factors including debilitating arthritis. In fact, there is an old legend of how Koufax once woke up with a swollen and black and blue elbow. He was told to take a few days off, dunk it in ice buckets and get back to it in a few days. That ain’t happenin’ now-a-days. I don’t know the validity of that story, but it’s cool nevertheless. Anyway, we are left to speculate the contributing factors that made Koufax who he was. He is known for his incredibly unique delivery and the magic-like qualities of his pitches. Did he design his mechanics to optimize performance? I think not. Koufax would struggle his entire career to find pain-less pitching. His unique mechanics were without a doubt were a contributing factor to his “stuff”, yet they were a by-product of his body adapting and finding a way to optimize performance and efficiency all while being pain free. Would he have had the amazing breaking ball if his arthritis didn’t inherently cause mechanical adjustments? Would he have had the plus-plus fastball he had, if his body wouldn’t have continued to find pain free avenues of performance? Would he have been the best pitcher ever and pitched completely differently if he didn’t have debilitating arthritis? That’s all up to speculation, but I think that thought deserves a seat at the table when discussing mechanical efficiency and potential changes.
Sometimes your greatest “biomechanical” disadvantage may be your greatest performance advantage. It's worth noting that some physiological shortcomings and mobility deficiencies may be contributing factors to high velocity outputs. To further the point, if a player has incredibly poor hip mobility and can't generate much power from his lower half, theres a good chance his arm has had to pick up the slack for years and has become so fast that it has become his best delivery.
Natural physiological adaptations take place across all levels of baseball and bleed into youth baseball, as well. We’ve all seen the pitcher who has arm pain/discomfort/bad stuff and consciously or subconsciously re-routes his motor patterns to maximize performance and minimize pain. Often, empowering and encouraging natural, un-coached and thoughtless movement leads to the best performance and helps guys forge an identify that they may not otherwise have. Biomechanics and adaptation principles aren’t reserved for just the genetic elite.
“But Big Leaguers Do It”
When reviewing mechanics, it’s important to remember what we just spoke about regarding Koufax. Some big leaguers are who they are despite what they do (and how they move), rather than in-spite of what they do and even vice versa. But to say that a mechanical skill set is good or right because one or some big leaguers do it, is a logical fallacy and it is called an appeal to authority. Just because a person in a position of authority or with expertise claims something or does something, doesn’t qualify it as good or right. One example of the issues with appealing to authority is the lack of context surrounding that practice. As lay fans and even as coaches we are only privy to what athletes are willing to share with us and what we can best identify in the short amount of time that we have with them. Consider this: there is a ligament in the elbow known as the annular ligament. Not every person is born with an annular ligament and sometimes the ligament becomes displaced and/or tightly wound. A “tight” annular ligament presents hidden variables that factor into how a pitcher may throw the ball. For example, a “tight” annular ligament restricts an athlete’s ability to pronate the forearm. We know that the body will naturally adapt to an athlete’s inability to pronate (which is often correlated with deceleration patterns) perhaps by adding compensatory shoulder abduction, or another method, which would certainly affect the pitch and the osteokinematics of the delivery. Remember, often, we are not privy to the arthrokinematics that take place, inherently causing us to have more questions than answers when dissecting movement qualities and properties. So again, I’d ask how much do you want validate movement by only saying “because big leaguers do it”? Having said that, there is a ton of value in identifying patterns and noticing movement qualities of different pitchers with differing body compositions.
The Body and Biomechanics Aren’t Logical
As much as I’d love to imagine that biomechanics principles are logical and can be explained by rational assumptions and claims that seem to make sense, the reality is that there isn’t much validity in that practice. Physics and mechanics aren’t logical systems. They are methods of explaining nature, identifying relationships within nature and have engrained mathematical concepts. Also, not to mention that anatomy, physiology and kinesiology are anything but logical. So, when analyzing pitchers and how they move, I think people will be well served by best avoiding subjective rationale and confirmation bias as a rule of thumb.
PSYCHOLOGICAL FACTORS THAT AFFECT MECHANICS
The word “intent” when referring to RPE (rate of perceived effort) when throwing was first coined by Paul Nyman and has been well served and popularized by Kyle Boddy and Driveline Baseball. If you’ve spent anytime browsing TheArmFarm.com, you’d know by now that I have an incredible amount of respect and appreciation for Kyle and his team. I’d love to explain intent, but you will be well served by reading this article outlining what intent is and its role in performance development. All in all, the intent to throw hard often the overloads the body’s baseline movements and forces maximum efficiency to carry out a difficult task (like throwing hard) while avoiding initial injury. One good example is the video below. Below is Matt Martin, a RHP at Florida Southern College. The difference between the first part of the video and the second (aside from being on flat ground and the mound and slo-mo vs real-time) is Matt’s intent level. The first throw was recorded just 5 days before the second video. There are clearly major mechanical changes (for the better) in the second video and the only change was his desire to move quickly down the slope. Remarkable what setting yourself free will do, huh?
Merton’s strain theory is a sociological theory that was originated in the early-mid 20th century. Strain theory is concerned with the acceptance and rejection of means and ends. According to Merton, an innovator is an individual who rejects the institutionalized means but accepts the ends. Simply put, an innovator wants to reach the goal, but will do it his own way. Obviously, this is a major extension into the world of biomechanics, but I believe it applies. Let me explain: as we spoke about, superstar pitchers like Kershaw, Sale, Kluber, Arrietta, etc. all have become who they are because (at least in some aspect) they rejected normative, standard teachings of mechanics and allowed their own natural strengths to curb their own development. According to Merton, the above pitchers are to be considered as innovators. Aside from the obvious psychological benefits and sense of individuality that are born from these unique styles of pitching, there are added intrinsic qualities that factor into each pitcher’s ability to feel. YES, FEEL. As a culture, we desire an immediate impact and immediate return on investments, and in baseball this translates into being told what is right, wrong, beneficial, detrimental and everything in between. Being told what is good or bad mechanics engrains dependency on authority (a person) rather than the athlete’s biofeedback (his feel) as the authority.
Biomechanics assessments are very few and far between. It costs thousands of dollars to just obtain the equipment necessary for a true quantitative biomechanics screening. Many “biomechanics assessments” are done using an iPhone. The issue with calling a single POV iPhone recording a “biomechanics assessment” is that the integrity of the screening is immediately compromised using a single camera. A single camera angle can distort angles, lines of force, and drastically affect the perception of what the athlete may be doing. An iPhone is certainly better than nothing and is a very good on field tool for coaches and players, but a true biomechanics assessment is in a completely different ball park.
There is no set/perfected mechanical model. If anyone is going to figure it out, it’s probably going to be Driveline; but for now, there is only one rule that applies to each pitcher’s mechanics- anthropometry dictates appropriate movement! Anthropometry is the measurement of man. The varying metrics that make up each athlete are so unique, constantly changing and interdependent with an athlete’s psychological profile that it is simply quite impossible to assign a set of movement patterns to each person. Granted, there are certainly patterns within different anatomical profiles and clusters, but even then, each athlete should be viewed as the exception. It is my belief that experimenting, feeling and taking creative liberties with your movement patterns is a great way to improve efficiency. Arguably the best way to improve mechanical efficiency is to improve an athlete’s fitness level. Mechanical cues and drills become pointless when an athlete can’t move through that range of motion. Generating force becomes pointless when an athlete can’t recruit certain muscle groups and fibers. Being able to feel your movements and making pitch to pitch adjustments when throwing is increasingly difficult when coaches make throwing such a cognitive activity. Immediate corrections work with many things, but sometimes encouraging failure and understanding/ appreciating the learning curve may be exactly what the athlete needs long term.
I’ve talked about it before: my belief is that the best way to improve mechanics is often to do it without thought and with great physical awareness. When it comes to cues and coaching verbiage, IT NEVER MATTERS IF THE COACH IS ACTUALLY RIGHT. It only matters that the goal can be felt and understood by the athlete’s body. The word proprioception gets thrown around a lot as a pseudo-jargon blanket term to cover the often-unknown characteristics of athletic development. Proprioception is a sort of athletic cognition, if you will. It has to do with an athlete’s spatial awareness and motor control. I sometimes find myself questioning how effective and justified immediate corrective mechanical cues are. On one hand, thousands of amazing coaches over many decades have employed this method and on the other hand, it may totally discount the benefits and process of recruiting proprioceptors throughout the body- I just don’t know. That is a question for someone above my pay grade.
The easiest way to improve mechanical efficiency as a thrower is to enjoy the varying degrees of freedom and to reap the benefits that come from long toss- undoubtedly, the foremost authority on long toss is Alan Jaeger. His year round throwing manual may be the most underrated manual for easy and practical player development application.
ALL IN ALL
As much as we know about mechanics, we currently have more questions than answers.