Monday, February 8, 2010
Where Throwing Velocity REALLY Comes From
RT Staff Note: There is a really good site with many good articles called Baseball Fit and it's that time of year to talk about arm strength, and other conditioning issues. Here's one of Baseball Fits articles on Velocity...more to come...
We'll start by asking some of the great baseball questions of all time:
1) Did Babe Ruth really call his shot?
2) Can you bat .375 and play error-free, as Shoeless Joe did, and still throw a series?
3) Does Pete Rose deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?
And, perhaps the greatest question of them all:
4) Where does throwing velocity REALLY come from?
In our quest to find the answer to #4, let's start with a good fastball story:
"This incident allegedly took place during a Spring Training game in 1968. A rookie catcher named Johnny Bench was behind the plate and eight-year veteran Jim Maloney was on the mound. Bench continuously called for breaking balls and Maloney continuously shook him off. Frustrated, the two met at the mound where Bench bluntly said, "Your fastball's not popping." Maloney, also blunt, replied, "%*$@ you." The rookie returned to his position behind the plate and called for a curve, only to be shaken off again. Bench gave in to the veteran (who had recently strung together four consecutive seasons with 200+ strikeouts) and signaled for a fastball. Maloney delivered. Before the pitch reached the plate Bench dropped his glove and caught the ball bare-handed - or so the story goes." [Source: Baseball Almanac]
I'm sure many of you are familiar with the various ideas espoused on the web, in various books, and clinics around the country as to what works best in developing pitching velocity. These experts agree on some aspects of pitching, and disagree on others. I'd guess that if you were to get 12 of them together to offer their opinions on this matter, you'd get at least 15 different theories!
Note I said "theories." I use this word purposefully, as there is not universal agreement on precisely how high-velocity pitches are consistently generated by a pitcher. Very little has been done in the way of clinical research on this matter. We do have some good ideas, though, based on the research that has been done and empirical evidence. Here are several of the most common ideas - doubtless there are others:
· Good mechanics
· Physical size
· Throwing a lot
1) Good Mechanics - The ONLY Path To Great Velocity? Of course, mechanics are the foundation of pitching. Generally speaking, the more mechanically efficient one is, the better they will perform. But how do we account for the pitchers with good mechanics who can hardly break a pane of glass? Jamie Moyer of the Seattle Mariners is a good example of this - great mechanics, 200 career wins, and an $8 million salary in 2005. All accomplished with a mid 80s (at best) fastball.
Moyer's stuff probably wouldn't even get him an invitation to a high school pitching showcase, yet at age 43 he'll likely be playing his 20th major league season in 2006. There are many examples of this at all levels of the game - good mechanics yet not much velocity.
And what of the pitchers with poor mechanics who throw hard? There are plenty of these as well. I've watched Francisco Rodriguez (aka K-Rod) of the Angels pitch a few times on TV, and his mechanics hurt just to watch. He's the same size as Moyer, yet he regularly hits the low 90s, touching 94-95 on occasion. There are many examples of this at all levels of the game - poor mechanics with excellent velocity.
Bottom Line: Mechanics are important to a pitcher, but they are no guarantee to exceptional velocity.
2) Genetics. So are great athletes, including hard throwing pitchers, born or made? Pitching staffs that follow identical training programs usually show differing levels of ability and performance. Some improve, some don't. What accounts for this difference in results? And what of the skinny 165 lb. pitcher who throws gas, versus the 220 lb. horse who can't break a cob web?
Such differences can be accounted for in a number of ways:
· Work ethic - mental and emotional factors affecting motivation
· Conditioning & nutrition
· Facilities and equipment
· Coaching and support
The first five factors pitchers can control to some extent. The sixth, genetics, are essentially uncontrollable. They are a factor of birth. So here is the first truth regarding genetics and pitching velocity:
An Individual Will Throw No Harder Than Their Genetic Makeup Allows
Humans have some 35,000 genes that determine who and what they are. The following is just a few of the genetic markers affecting pitching performance:
· Muscle fiber type
· Bone structure/limb length
· Metabolic capabilities
Yet we've all seen the physically gifted athlete with poor work habits, mental-focus issues, and the like, who cannot overcome opponents who possess lesser physical gifts combined with better “intangibles” - work habits, self-discipline, attitude, etc.
So why does the 165 lb. pitcher throw harder than the 220 lb. pitcher? Start by taking your pick of the six factors above in formulating your answer. It comes down to some mixture of them, not the least of which may be genetics. Both pitcher's mechanics can be of similar quality, but if the 165 lb. pitcher has a greater preponderance of Type II (fast twitch) muscle fiber, everything else being equal, he'll likely always throw harder than the bigger guy in our example. This would probably be the case even if they both performed identical strength and conditioning programs.
If you happen to have a greater number of Type I (slow twitch) fibers, you have a much better chance at excelling at long distance running than you do at throwing high velocity pitches. If you are born short of stature with short arms and legs, you may have more athletic success as a gymnast than as a hard-throwing pitcher.
Bottom Line: Hard throwing pitchers acquire their skills and abilities from a combination of congenital characteristics and hard work. None of us knows what our genetic limitations are, so work hard and dream on!
3) Physical Size. This is related to genetics, but is unique in that is readily observable. So what's the optimal size for a successful pitcher?
The average MLB pitcher is about 6' 1” 190-200 lbs., and approximately 12% body fat. So the bigger, the better, right? Well, of course - look at Roger Clemens (6' 4' 220) and Curt Schilling (6' 4” 215). Successful, hard throwing big guys. But then what about Billy Wagner (5' 10” 180) and Pedro Martinez (5' 11” 180 lbs)? Successful, hard throwing small guys.
How about the “lever arm” issue? Biomechanics tells us that a long lever (like Johnson's arm) moving at the same speed as a short lever is capable of greater force production than the short one, but this longer lever also requires more torque to move it at the same rate of speed as the shorter lever. A short lever (like Wagner's arm) cannot produce as much force as a longer lever, but it can move through its range of motion faster than a longer lever. So either way, force production (throwing velocity) can be roughly equivalent with different lengths of throwing arms.
So which of all this is better?
Bottom Line: Physical size means little when it comes to throwing velocity.
4) Throwing a lot. Do you want to run faster? Practice running fast. Do you want to swim faster? Practice swimming fast. Do you want to throw harder? Then practice throwing hard. All of these are “power activities.” Along with improving the mechanics of each activity, this is how these athletic attributes are developed and acquired. It is not much more complicated than that.
In regards to throwing velocity, it appears that for some time now, the methods I espouse (use of weighted baseballs/softballs) have been questioned by a certain self-anointed “pitching expert.” I'm choosing to address his comments out of concern that someone will believe and implement the convoluted and completely fallacious reasoning he uses in his on-going attempt to discredit this kind of training:
“Pitching Expert” Question #1: I would ask this certified trainer how on earth can you effect better speed of body movement by throwing a weighted baseball?
Very simply - by using an UNDERweight baseball. When the arm trains with an implement that is lighter (a 4 oz baseball) than the competitive implement (a 5 oz baseball) it moves more quickly through its Range of Motion (ROM). That this occurs is not subject to debate amongst knowledgeable individuals. It is called OVERSPEED training and is utilized throughout the sports world. Our “pitching guru” needs to educate himself on modern strength and conditioning practices.
Can players swing a lighter bat more quickly than a heavy one?
Of course. Can this be objectively measured? Yes, and I have done it many times with ball players of all ages and ability levels on a specialized bat speed computer. That an arm, which is what ultimately propels the ball, can move more quickly through its ROM with a lighter implement should surprise no one.
The result of this faster movement through the ROM is easily measured by an unbiased device - the radar gun. Clinical research and empirical evidence repeatedly demonstrates that the best throwing velocity increases are attained by way of training with UNDERload (4 oz) baseballs. Then again, this same “expert” is on record as attributing the objective measurements of a radar gun to the “placebo effect.” I'd like to see his data showing that an inanimate object is subject to a human psychological condition!
“Pitching Expert” Question #2: Even a weighted baseball of 10 oz is a load factor of only 0.312% of body weight of a 200 lb. pitcher. Does this certified trainer believe that throwing that 10 oz baseball is going to effect the mass of a 200 lb pitcher and provide some magic training effect?
The question itself is complete nonsense. The mass of the player is irrelevant. Why? Because the mass of the competitive implement - a 5 oz baseball - is consistent amongst all players, from Little League through the Major Leagues. 10 year old Roger throws the same baseball as big leaguer Roger. Therefore, the change of training load is made with the implement used by the players, not with their body weight.
To the muscles, tendons, ligaments and related structures involved in the act of throwing, however, a 20% differential from the competitive load is very significant.
As it turns out, magic has nothing to do with it.
Conditioning changes occur by way of what's known as “Minimal Essential Strain.” It's the amount of stimulus required to produce anatomical changes in a structure that enables it to positively adapt to the increased workload imposed on it. This process is analogous to a weight lifter using 300 lbs. for a lift and changing his workout to use both 360 and 240 lbs. This will clearly affect his training outcomes and his lifting performance.
As for long toss, the “pitching expert” wants PROOF that it works. You might as well ask for PROOF that the moon is not made of cheese. Some things do not require proof. Common sense suffices. Making a successful long toss requires maximal effort. If you want to throw hard, practice throwing hard. Long toss is just another way to perform this activity, no better or worse than throwing hard from any distance.
A helpful benefit of performing long toss is that it is easy to observe the effort expended during long toss simply by how far the thrown ball travels. The harder the throw, the farther the throw. It can be done with or without a crow hop. And it is similar enough to throwing a hard pitch from the mound that its conditioning effects are beneficial for pitchers.
Its value translates to the vast majority of pitchers who, at least through the HS level, do NOT have the luxury of throwing off of a mound that is precisely 10 inches high, sloping uniformly by one inch by one foot towards home plate. Bullpens are often worse, so should players stop throwing and pitching from these poorly maintained mounds? To suggest that throwing from anything other than a mound has no value for pitchers is ludicrous. Common sense, empirical evidence and an understanding of anatomy and kinesiology is all the PROOF needed.
But just for fun, how about some PROOF of the value of long toss?
Perhaps some of you saw the front-page article on the 1 October 2005 issue of Collegiate Baseball titled “Unique Long Toss Program Brings Big Results To New H.S. National Champions. Warriors post fine 38-1 record in 2005 with 0.77 team ERA.” Some highlights from the story:
· The high school is Russell County in Seale, AL. They won the Easton Sports National High School championship, along with their state Class 5A title
· The head coach, Tony Rasmus was named winner of the Easton Sports Master Coach award. He's a former professional ball player
· The pitching staff struck out 429 batters
· Six of their pitchers threw harder than 90 mph
· At least one of them is expected to be a first round draft pick in 2006
· His entire team participates in a year-round weight-lifting and throwing program. Throwing is based on an organized and specific long-toss program
· Not one of them had a sore arm last season. Arm problems are a rarity in this program
Our “pitching expert” would dismiss all of this as “belief based,” of course, because it doesn't fit his narrow paradigm. But there's no arguing with real-life results. Keep in mind that this self-proclaimed “expert” has nothing in the way of credentials - academic or otherwise - that qualify him to bash the methods of others. I urge the readers of his bilge to consult with someone competent and knowledgeable in exercise science and baseball before applying anything he recommends.
So what's the SECRET to throwing hard?
Are you ready?
HERE IT IS:
There is no secret!
If we had a cookie cutter, push button answer to this question, believe me, someone would be very rich and famous as THE pitching guru these days. BEWARE the advice of any “expert” who claims to have all the answers to anything related to pitching. Ultimately, throwing velocity is the result of a number of factors and methods as discussed above. So here are some solid, proven practices to follow to maximize both your velocity and overall development as a pitcher, baseball or softball:
1) First, improve throwing mechanics. Throwing properly by itself can improve velocity.
2) Train the body core in particular for strength and power.
3) Properly increase flexibility. Generally speaking, the further a joint can move through its range of motion, the less injury prone it will be. Increasing one's ROM is a good thing.
4) Begin a Specific Resistance Training Program for throwing with weighted baseballs or softballs. Remember, a 5 oz. baseball is itself a "weighted" implement.
5) Perform a properly designed, periodized strength and conditioning program specific for baseball or softball. Such a generalized program should include weight lifting, plyometrics, flexibility, and energy system conditioning.
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The information contained herein is the opinion of the author
based on his personal observations and years of experience.
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