Pitching Mechanics 2 – Where’s The Stress?


Gearrin is the latest Brave to require elbow surgery this year. So far 16 major league players and five minor leaguers have had the surgery Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link, and life is after all a chain. William James

The spike in elbow surgeries discussed by Dr. James Andrews on XM radio and provided in my last post make it clear if there was ever a doubt that the elbow is the weakest link in the kinetic chain of pitching mechanics. In part 2 we look more closely at that chain after a quick step back to pick up something I omitted.

In part 1 of this series I compared current the stand tall and fall (T&F) motion to the more traditional drop and drive motion. I’ve been reminded that I neglected to talk about the start of the pitcher’s motion and began at the balance point (top) of his load. So I’ll comment on that briefly.

An Object at Rest

The first time i actually noticed a pitcher stopping his motion was when I watched Hideo Nomo do that exaggerated stop so pervasive among Japanese pitchers. I don’t know why they do it but I suspect it has more to do with deception than anything else and obviously they can produce power using it. Whatever their rationale it makes little sense mechanically.

The windup is where pitching mechanics begin. It is designed to generate power (velocity) more by building up then releasing energy through the kinetic chain. Cricket fast or pace bowlers do that by running towards the wicket so the momentum of their body adds to their velocity. Fast or pace bowlers take a long run while spinners (the off speed bowlers) take a short run. Pace bowlers land facing the batter, with their weight over the front foot and their back parallel to the ground. Sound familiar? They don’t actually throw the ball however, they use their arm more like a catapult as this image shows.

A pitcher can’t take a run up of course so they use the large muscles in their legs and trunk to add the power through loading them prior to release via the windup. Pace Bowlers do this on the fly and by flexing their load leg to give them lift during delivery.  When a pitcher stops at the top of the windup they lose the momentum built as they moved into that position and actually start over from a power generation point of view. The lost power has to be made up somewhere farther down the chain by smaller less capable parts. That Japanese pitchers still produce the velocity they do after stopping makes me wonder what the result would be if they didn’t.

Now that I’m caught up (unless someone knows differently) let’s look at Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy beside Roger Clemens. I use the The Rocket because neither of these men in 6’10” with the wingspan of a 747 to provide leverage. Beachy is almost exactly the same height and weight as Clemens during his playing days while Medlen is six inches shorter”

Medlen and Beachy

I promised a look at the pitching mechanics of Kris Medlen today and decided to include Beachy as well.  This is a continuation of a look at the motion and while ther eis some detail about the arm and elbow more will  come in the part 3.   As I go through this I’ll reference the work of Dr. Brian Casazza a pitcher during his college days at Princeton and now a orthopedist specializing in the spine. I’l also touch on information from former major league pitcher turned Mike Marshall PhD. My thanks for Kerry Aslin, a physical therapist at D1 Sports here who proofread and corrected my misstatements as I tried to provide a more simply worded post.

No matter whether you’re Randy Johnson or a high school pitcher, Dr. Casazza believes there are a few things pitchers need to do to keep the pitching mechanics of the kinetic chain in tact and as a result help prevent injury. Here are three of them

  • The pitcher’s stride foot  must land slightly closed to prevent his hips and shoulder from opening too early.
  • When that lead foot does land, his shoulders must be level, almost parallel to the ground
  • As the pitcher faces (opens up to) the plate, there needs to be some bend in his trunk away from his throwing hand – “lateral flexion.”

The power required to throw a 90+ mph fastball comes from the muscles so it seems practical to try to use the largest and strongest of these muscles efficiently and reduce reliance on the smaller muscle groups. If the larger muscles in the legs aren’t used efficiently, the work they haven’t done passes to the core muscles of the abdomen and so on until we get to the end of the kinetic chain where we have to use leverage rather than muscles to add power.  Dr. Cassava puts it this way.

"“If one part of the chain doesn’t work, then another part will try to make up for it. If you open your hips up too early, your shoulder and arm will try to compensate. That puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder joint, which it is not built for.”"

With that in mind, here are clips of Beachy, Clemens, and Medlen. Some are in slow motion as I have a limited supply of camera angles to choose from but all show what we need to see. If you have some I could use please let me know, side views are best for obvious reasons.

When you put the Braves duo side by side with Clemens some things are pretty clear.

At the top of their load only Clemens has his head over or slightly behind his hip and is actually standing tallest and most completely loaded. Medlen almost matches Clemens in knee lift and flex but his head is already ahead of the hip while Beachy’s knee just clears his waist and his head is well ahead of his hip.
Rocket is still over the rubber his head behind his hip, back knee bent 69 degrees. Medlen is tilted forward with only 20 degrees of back knee flex and his head is well ahead of his back hip. Beachy is already moving (falling) forward, front knee all the way down, back knee flexed just 32 degrees. His head is already halfway to its final destination.

While Beachy and Clemens (top) are at the same relative point in their delivery, their stride nearly complete. Beachy’s back leg is through providing any help. That legs has to be pulled forward through hip rotation with help from the adductor magnus (groin muscle.)  His head and spine are aligned but almost vertical.  Rocket’s head and spine are tilted but still aligned and he still has the extra thrust coming from his drive leg.

Medlen and Clemens are at the same point too but Medlen is tilted 25 degrees forward while Clemens is only about 13 degrees forward of the rubber. It isn’t easy to see here but Medlen is starting to bring his head forward while his spine is still tilted back a bit. You’ll see that better later on.

Clemens head is still over/behind his hip and his shoulders are titled at about 72 degrees after his push off. The shoulders of Beachy and Medlen are tilted about 8 degrees less. Like Clemens, Beachy still has spine and neck alignment but Medlen has his head pulled forward likely to keep the target in sight. Looking at the landing foot you see that Clemens – who started his move forward withe that foot pointing between third and home  – and Medlen have the toe pointed down and the foot is

slightly closed

while Beachy has his foot pointed up making his heel strike first and open – pointed directly at the plate.

Here Clemens and Medlen have their arm lagging the shoulder with the elbow flexed.  Beachy’s elbow is actually leading his shoulder. In order to stay on top of the ball during delivery the forearm is rotated out showing the baseball the sky . The upper arm isn’t built to rotate like that and is held by the pectoralis major which attaches to the upper arm. When the forearm rotates outward the pectoralis moves up and back while rotating the upper arm inward. Arm leg and elbow flexion (bend) are required for a good delivery In Beachy’s case the upper arm is behind the shoulder movement slightly and the elbow is lagging more than it should straining among other things the pectoralis. (More on lag and flexion next post)

All have released the ball but while Clemens and Medlen are continuing to move over their plant leg, Beachy’s plant leg is stiff. He actually seems to hit the ground almost flat footed though his toe is down slightly. That stiff leg stops forward motion of his lower half like it ran into a wall. He is almost upright compared to the other two. I realize that he’s also thousandths of a second behind them but his back leg is down, his hips are gone and he isn’t over his front knee but behind it. All pitchers use their oblique internus abdominis muscle along with the pectoralis muscle to pull the arm through aided by hip and shoulder rotation. Beachy gets less help from hip and shoulder rotation leaving these muscles to do more of the work needed to get the whip action required to add power. Beachy’s oblique also has to help the adductor magnus (groin) muscle drag the leg through as he has almost no forward momentum in hi slower half at this point.When I was trying to learn to pitch they told me to pitch against a firm front leg. In Beachy’s case his leg isn’t just firm, it’s rigid. This allows him to snap his pitching arm forward with more power generating downward movement and velocity. It also causes his elbow to bounce more violently.The pronator teres muscle is the only protection the UCL has against this bounce. Its function is to rotate the forearm and flex the elbow; it essentially holds the forearm, elbow and upper arm together. In this case as the arm starts to get into a position it shouldn’t be in, the the pronator contracts to stop it. At this point the UCL is taught, stretched like a bow string. Since ligaments can’t contract the stress imposed causes micro tears in the ligament. The sudden stop of the upper arm from outwardly rotating increases that stress and strains the pronator.  Beachy’s delivery is also hard on his hip and lower back.

With his knee locked,t the posterior cruciate ligament tries to keep the knee joined aligned to prevent damage to the joint. Again, ligament don’t contract so the sudden stop strains and damages it. The weight of the body moving forward against his stiff leg then stopping causes the upper leg up into the hip joint which in turn presses against the L5/S1 junction at the base of the spine. Anyone with lower back issues knows that this is not a good thing.

I’ve picked on Beachy enough . . .for now. With both pitchers at the point of release Clemens’ arm is now straight and getting a similar whipping motion as a cricket bowler gets.  Medlen’s forearm is still behind (lagging) the elbow. As I noted, forearm lag and the bent elbow are essential to get the good whip action needed but timing and angle are important. If the lag is too long or the flexion (bend) of the elbow is at the wrong angle, excess stress is placed on the elbow ligaments. Medlen tilts because he’s shorter than most pitchers and is attempting to get a more downward plane on the ball at release. This is fairly common and in itself isn’t an issue.  While Medlen’s elbow is behind his shoulder and – when compensating for tilt – his shoulders are straight, his spine is still curved and not aligned with his neck and head. This push

es his chest out ward. Clemens might have another problem that we may never hear about; lost elbow flexion.Clemens is unwittingly demonstrating what Dr. Marshall calls forearm fly out. This motion transfers all of the power to the arm and finally the ball as it moves away laterally from the body. Think of it as being on one of those suspended chair rides at an amusement park. As the center of the ride turns faster the that force is transmitted to the chairs. The chairs can fly out almost perpendicularly to their attachment. The arc of the pitching arm carries the power generated by the pitching motion out to the tips of the fingers. Because the forearm is not rigidly attached to the upper arm like the swings to their pivot, the forearm’s weight and the weight of the ball pull the forearm away from the elbow.  To keep the elbow from locking out the brachialis contracts.

Unlike ligaments, most muscles get stronger the more they are used. In this case repeated stretching and contracting of the brachialis strengthen it while also making the coronoid process (what you might call the point of your elbow) longer as well. The result can can eventually result in loss of how far the elbow can be bent (flexion). In Dr. Marshalls case he lost 12 degrees of  flex as a result of his violent delivery.

  That’s A Wrap

This part is already longer than I planned but simplifying and keeping topics together is something like this is a challenge. I encourage you to visit Dr. Marshall’s site linked above and watch his videos. It struck me that his delivery is one of the most violent I’ve seen so it’s not surprising he he’s had knee and hip replacements and lost flexion in his elbow. They called him Iron Mike because he was always ready to pitch and never complained.  In 1973 he made 92 appearances totaling 179 innings; ERA 2.66. In 1974 it was 106 appearances with  208 1/3 innings and an ERA of 2.42. In 1979 he again appeared 90 times for 142 innings an d produced a 2.36 ERA.  Suddenly the appearance numbers of modern relievers isn’t as shocking. My point about Iron Mike is this, he was an all out 100% effort guy his whole life.   Today’s pitchers don’t iver exaggerate their motions and the majority aren’t that violent with their lower half and that’s a good thing. In my opinion however they’ve swung too away from using the lower body and now depend on the whipping action at the end of the delivery from the weakest point in the chain to provide extra zip. I’ll look more deeply into the arm and arm angles next time.