Throwing Problems

Poor throwing technique typically causes one or more of the following three problems.
1.  The player doesn’t achieve the maximum velocity that is possible for him.
2.  Stress is placed on the throwing elbow or shoulder and soreness or injury occurs.
3.  The player’s throwing accuracy is not optimal for him.
Two players with excellent technique won’t necessarily generate the same arm speed or accuracy, but both can reduce the chance for injury.
Velocity
Arm speed is one of the most important TOOLS for a baseball player. The majority of the emphasis and suggested techniques in this website are offered to achieve greater arm speed and therefore higher velocity of the thrown baseball.
When I work with young players, I first evaluate their technique and try to determine how close to optimal they are. After making this evaluation, normally I think in terms of making 10 to 15% improvement in their velocity through improved technique (unrelated to any other player’s ability). That’s 7-10 miles per hour improvement for a typical high school pitcher.
The advantage of incremental improvement for the individual is that when the player goes from 75MPH to 80MPH he has achieved a significant portion of the goal that was originally established. With positive feedback he feels he is making progress, and progress is necessary to keep a player enthusiastic about working on changing tendencies that have been ingrained over many years.
Injury
When we begin to analyze a young player who exhibits poor technique, we generally can tell if he has had previous arm or shoulder pain. Poor throwing technique that can cause injury takes a few different forms, but usually the cause is that the arm gets into a “weak” throwing position. We will discuss these causes in detail as we move through Our Approach. The result of a weak throwing position is that the small muscles and tendons of the shoulder and/or elbow carry too much of the load in comparison to the major muscles of the lower body, trunk and back.
With a throwing athlete, there are key points in the delivery that must be correct to allow the athlete to achieve a “strong” throwing position and a much better chance of long term, injury free competition. In general, any elbow or shoulder pain in the throwing athlete is an indication of a technique problem and the player should not be allowed to continue throwing with pain. Continued pain in joints, muscles and tendons can cause atrophy and long term harm. A “no pain, no gain” philosophy for the throwing athlete makes “no sense.”
As an example, recently I was working with my 14-year old grandson Kolt, who is primarily a soccer player. He is thinking about playing for his middle school baseball team in the spring so we started throwing periodically to help him be prepared. While working through the keys of this website, Kolt would occasionally complain about his elbow getting sore. That was a red flag for me that he was doing something wrong, even though a lot of what he was executing appeared to be quite good. As I was playing catch with him I noticed that the baseball came to me with “slider” spin. A slider comes to you with a “dot” showing or a small circle showing because of the spin on the ball. The key to understanding “slider” spin is that at release the hand works like it is turning a door knob in a clockwise direction (in front of you) as shown by these two pictures.

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For a right handed player, you can take the thumb of the left hand and put it on the attachment of the ulnar collateral ligament.  This ligament can be felt in front of the “knob”at the bottom of the elbow as shown below. When you turn the hand as described above and again in these two pictures that follow, you are simulating the “slider spin” forearm rotation and you will feel the elbow ligament tighten. That tightening of the ligament when throwing can cause pain if you haven’t done sufficient strengthening exercises to prepare the arm for that stress. The same thing is true for someone starting to throw a split-finger fastball. Splitting the fingers apart causes the ulnar ligament to tighten which can cause throwing pain very similar to throwing a slider.

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I immediately started working with Kolt to insure he was getting on the inside of the baseball at release, rather than being on the outside of the ball. The term “inside” can be confusing, but basically it refers to the hand position on the baseball at release relative to your body. When your hand is on the inside of the ball the pressure from your fingers is on the portion of the baseball that is closest to your body. The way I had Kolt throw for a quite a while was using a “circle change up” grip as shown below.

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The “circle change” grip uses the two middle fingers to throw the baseball with the first finger and thumb overlapped in a circle off to the side of the baseball. The “circle” grip makes it more difficult, but not impossible, to be on the outside of the ball at release. By talking to Kolt about making the hand “pronate” (palm of his throwing hand turns away from the body) at release, the stress on the ulnar ligament was removed and his elbow discomfort went away. We continued to play catch when time permitted and increased the percentage of throws with a normal fastball grip. I continually emphasized being on the inside of the baseball at release as shown in the picture below. After a few throwing sessions his discomfort with the fastball was almost completely gone; and what was really important, Kolt could tell immediately what he did wrong if he did cause himself any elbow pain.
Pronation of the throwing hand occurs naturally after release of the baseball, independent of the type of pitch that is thrown. It’s just the way the shoulder is formed. You can throw a curve or fastball, and well after release you will see the palm of the throwing hand turning away from your body. That natural pronation is simply emphasized closer to release to eliminate “slider” spin on the ball.

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If you don’t recognize the issue that is causing pain early and the player continues to throw with pain, the issue will only continue to get worse. This is exactly the kind of issue that can lead to Tommy John surgery for competitive pitchers (and position players). Even if it never reaches the point where surgery is required, the discomfort certainly will take a lot of the fun out of playing the game.
There tends to be a significant difference in the approach to instruction of pitchers in comparison to the approach to instruction of hitters. Almost every hitting instructor has a set of “absolutes” that they emphasize and they tend to implement these absolutes with all the players that come to them for instruction. Maybe because of the fear of injury, many pitching instructors do not feel comfortable making major technical corrections to throwing mechanics.
We believe most players simply get started throwing incorrectly at a young age because proper instruction wasn’t available. After a while poor throwing habits become ingrained in muscle memory. The older the player is when changes are taught, the more difficult the task to implement the changes. It is simply easier to slightly modify techniques than to overhaul them. As a result of major changes being difficult, most pitchers are instructed in a manner that makes the best of their existing throwing methods. I think that’s one of the reasons you see so many professional pitchers undergoing Tommy John surgery. Pitching coaches do not want to make any significant changes to prospects that have been successful for fear of messing them up.
One thing that is particularly important for a pitcher that is making significant changes in his throwing mechanics is the ability to “feel” what their body is doing. Understanding what the body is doing can be improved with work in front of a mirror or with a video camera; but whatever the method, it’s important that the player has a knowledge of what he has implemented as far as changes to his throwing mechanics and the reasoning behind the changes. Feeling what the body is doing is one of the most difficult things for most players. Additionally, new techniques generally “feel” very strange the first times they are implemented. I’ve had many guys tell me, after several months of work, that they didn’t think they would ever be able to implement what was being taught because it just “felt” so different from their old technique.
Accuracy
The third problem associated with poor throwing technique is inaccuracy. Bad technique can cause inaccuracy, but an accurate thrower doesn’t necessarily possess good technique. Accuracy throwing the baseball is simply the result of a repeated method by a good athlete. An average player can be extremely accurate using a dart thrower’s technique if it is repeated consistently. By contrast, outstanding athletes (David Cone types) can throw the ball accurately from many different arm angles, using many different throwing techniques. The throwing technique that is the subject of this book is intended to achieve both powerful and accurate throws even if you are not necessarily an outstanding natural athlete.
Accuracy is the last of the three problems discussed on this site. This priority is set to emphasize that young players should not have a primary focus on accuracy. I know this is a terrible concept to hear for most youth, high school and college coaches; because the team can’t win if the pitchers aren’t throwing strikes. However, this website is focused on the concept of player development. If at all possible the young pitcher should be instructed to reduce the emphasis on statistical performance and winning games and increase the emphasis on improvement in TOOLS.
Young pitchers should be encouraged to utilize hard thrower’s mechanics at every opportunity, rather than focusing on accuracy. This is one lesson I learned from working with my son Paul. As he was growing up, it’s hard to recall a time that he ever threw easier trying to be more accurate. By consistently throwing hard as he grew up, near maximal effort became normal effort. His accuracy was not always good as a young player and he didn’t always win the youth games he pitched. However, his velocity remained high and his accuracy continually improved with each season he played. Paul wasn’t considered to be an outstanding major league control pitcher, but the combination of explosive stuff and better than average command made him one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game.
The previous paragraph doesn’t mean a young player needs to throw hard all the time. It means that the hard throwing techniques need to be emphasized all the time. Throwing hard should be limited in workouts and particularly limited in competitive situations. Young players involved in travel baseball need to be extremely careful about the number of maximum effort throws that are made, especially off the mound. We’re firm believers that young pitchers (13-16) should be limited to 30-40 maximum effort pitches off the mound per week.
So, to summarize this section, the main point of emphasis is that it is critical to develop a young player’s arm speed through development of proper technique, and parents need to de-emphasize the young player’s statistical performance numbers. If your son is throwing harder without any shoulder or elbow pain, but occasionally is wild, continue to congratulate him on his arm speed improvement rather than chastising him for poor location. After the proper mechanics have been repeated over and over, they will become more natural to the player. As the mechanics become repeatable, the pitcher should be able to throw the baseball with good velocity using the same release point over and over and his location should improve.