"Delayed Internal Rotation" revisited and elbow roll-in

Almost 4 years ago, I wrote an article that was sort of a spit-balled take on an arm action sequencing concept. Practically immediately, it was torn apart by Dr. Mike Marshall. I realized then that the article was poorly written. Part of that was the spit-ball nature of it, its kind of "thinking out loud" approach, but a big part was my wonderfully awful descriptions of and references to the kinetic chain.

Shortly thereafter, I threw a disclaimer at the top and promised to re-write the article. Well, there really isn't much point because, even cleaned up, I don't think the concept holds water.

Today, at Ron Wolforth's Pitching Central Ultimate Pitching Coaches Boot Camp, that exact article was mentioned in reference to an analysis of different types of lay back, what causes lay back, and how someone can have late forearm turnover and avoid the dreaded reverse forearm bounce.

It's an action that I've addressed before in my pitcher analyses. In my analyses (both professionally and on this site), I've drawn attention to when a pitcher decreases reverse forearm bounce by "picking up" his elbow. You can see this very well in my 2009 analysis of Brandon McCarthy. Back then, I described it like this:

It's hard to tell from this angle, but McCarthy's reverse forearm bounce might be exaggerated by some elbow flexion. By this, I mean that he picks his elbow up high enough that gravity plus natural elbow flexion - rather than inertia - appear to be causing some of the ball's downward motion. This view is inconclusive, but I don't believe his ulnar collateral ligament would hold up for very long if inertia alone caused a bounce that large.

You probably noticed that I was having trouble effectively articulating my thoughts about it. Chris Holt of Pro Bound USA in Clearwater, FL -- who didn't know I was in the audience -- has solved this problem for me by calling it "elbow roll-in".

With that term in mind, watch some of those McCarthy pitches again. Pay attention to his elbow and layback. While there is almost definitely an intertial lag component that helps with McCarthy's layback, the bulk of the layback was done by the way he rolled his elbow into position to lead his forearm.

This method of layback is something for which I've become a big proponent over the past 4 years (for a number of reasons that I don't have time to get into right now). I've needed a succinct way to describe it for some time, and I'm glad Chris was there to help me out.

A collection of thoughts on Stephen Strasburg

Yeah, I'm late to the party on this one, but I wanted to share some of what has been written in the blogosphere about Stephen Strasburg's elbow injury.

To start this post off, here are two quotes from my March 2009 analysis of his mechanics after watching him pitch against TCU:

His flexed elbow moves well behind his back and reaches shoulder height before the ball. From there, he must forcefully externally rotate his arm to get the ball to driveline height. This causes late forearm turnover and increases the valgus torque that occurs during reverse forearm bounce. This is a risk factor for his ulnar collateral ligament.

Strasburg has some of the common flaws of traditional pitching mechanics and carries with him the associated risks. These risks will almost certainly not affect his draft status because it could be 10 years before anything goes wrong.

The second quote is included to give context for my analysis.

Around the same time as my analysis, Kyle Boddy (then writing for Driveline Mechanics - the now-defunct SBN blog) compared Strasburg's mechanics to those of Pedro Martinez and Mark Prior. The three pitchers demonstrated striking mechanical similarities.

Notably, Pedro Martinez pitched relatively injury free for most of his career until his age 34 season, the one exception being rather severe shoulder inflammation in 2001.

Mark Prior, of course, was not as lucky. After initially injuring his shoulder in a baserunning collision, Prior suffered from a string of elbow and shoulder injuries. Some people blame the collision for his problems, and while it seems like a possibilty, it is impossible to know for sure.

After Strasburg's injury, Kyle wrote two articles concerning Strasburg and elbow injuries in general.

His first article (Elbow Injuries and What Causes Them (Stephen Strasburg Bonus Content!)) is a lengthy discussion of how horizontal shoulder abduction -- referred to as "scap loading" or "scapular loading" by some -- leads to increased horizontal adduction velocities that increase valgus stress in the elbow. He notes that while this clearly can't be labeled as the sole contributor to Strasburg's injury, it certainly played a role.

Kyle's second article (Strasburg, The Inverted W, and Pitching Mechanics) attacks some misconceptions and naysaying about the reputation of the inverted W position. In his discussion, he brings it back to Mark Prior by comparing Prior's peak horizontal shoulder abduction position to Strasburg's peak horizontal shoulder abduction position.

Finally, Eric Cressey offered his thoughts -- The Skinny on Stephen Strasburg’s Injury. Much of the article explains how important the health of the anterior forearm musculature (flexor-pronator mass) is in helping take valgus stress in the UCL. He briefly tackles overall tissue quality and links back to the great series he wrote on elbow pain.

Cressey puts some of the blame on the inverted W, but he is quick to mention that mechanical quirks like that aren't always a sign of impending injury.

A lot of people subscribe to the idea that a pitcher "only has so many bullets" in his arm. Cressey quotes J.P. Ricciardi and seems to agree with him. The idea is hard to argue with, since "so many bullets" could be 1,000 or 1,000,000 or even 1,000,000,000.

As a stand-alone theory, it leaves a lot to be desired, and leads to a series of questions:

  • How many bullets do I have?
  • What's the best way to conserve my bullets?
  • Can I get more bullets? If so, how?

With a boiled-down, unexplained idea like this, people are likely to misapply it by any number of means. That could include keeping strict pitch counts to protect the arm but still pitching year-round without rest. Alternatively, some people may wind up thinking that there's nothing they can do to extend the life of their arms and then neglect appropriate strength and conditioning.

Cressey, however, applies idea very well in a brief discussion of how to save those bullets. If you haven't read his thoughts, you should.

I have some of my own thoughts to share about Strasburg, but it may take me some time to pull them all together. Stay tuned.

A great series on the elbow

Eric Cressey, of Cressey Performance, published a series of posts on his personal blog over the past two weeks that takes a fairly comprehensive look at the elbow. His series progresses through anatomy, pathology, and injury before discussing how to go about protecting pitchers.

The first three parts are factual in nature, heavy on scientific facts but without beating you over the head with mumbo-jumbo.

Part 4 of Cressey's series builds on the information from the first three. He uses a 4-category approach to make general suggestions for keeping a pitcher healthy. The last three categories are spot-on, but I have a few issues with his ideas about injurious pitching mechanics.

To kick it off, Cressey shows a photo of a 5' 7" pitcher and a 6' 7" pitcher standing side-by-side and says, "Anyone who thinks these two are going to throw a baseball with velocity and safety via the same mechanics is out of his mind."

This is a very interesting statement to me, since Cressey seems to be suggesting that "safe" mechanics for a tall pitcher are different from "safe" mechanics for a short pitcher. I may be out of my mind, but that's just plain wrong.

Now, in real life, dealing with two different pitchers, yes, safe mechanics for one pitcher aren't necessarily safe for another pitcher, but height has as much to do with it as a pitcher's choice in footwear. The basics of functional anatomy do not vary with a person's height.

Things that will cause variations in "safe" mechanics are long-term training and congenital joint laxity. Long-term training is a very general term that I am using here to refer to how the body has adapted over time to throwing a baseball. This encompasses principles involving conformational changes in the skeleton (i.e. humeral retroversion), increased bone density, changes in muscle contractile force, and changes in tensile strength of ligaments. Congenital joint laxity can be thought of as natural flexibility, and it varies from person to person.

Cressey might as well have included a photo of any two pitchers standing side-by-side.

Kinetically speaking, shorter people have shorter levers, so an equal amount of force applied at a given joint results in less torque for a shorter person than for a taller person. This, however, is unavoidable.

The safest mechanics for an individual will be the same no matter how tall or short that person is. There is no height at which certain mechanics become safe and others become unsafe.

Cressey then discusses two biomechanical studies that correlate horizontal shoulder adduction and external rotation, respectively, to elbow valgus stress. Neither study supports his proposition, but the points are well taken, if somewhat incomplete.

My chief complaint about studies like these is that they focus mainly on peak torque values instead of the loading rates of those torques (i.e. How much time did the joint tissues have to adapt to the stress?). This is a topic for another day, though.

He follows this up with a discussion about balancing health-risk with performance as it pertains to deception and pitch movement. This is an excellent point, but it's one that I think far too many young pitchers fail to understand. This is also a topic for another day.

Cressey has two more posts in this series, and if you aren't already a reader of his, I highly suggest you become one. Click here to visit Eric Cressey's blog.

Curveballs less stressful, more dangerous

Author Mark Hyman of The New York Times recently published an article about two studies that have shown curveballs are no more stressful on the arm than fastballs. Hyman uses this information to openly question the wisdom that says curveballs are bad for young arms. [Click here to read Hyman's article in full.]

The chief problem with Hyman's article is that he seems to misinterpret the study's conclusion. The study found no link between curveballs and injuries, but Hyman appears to have interpretted this to mean that curveballs conclusively do not lead to injury. This is a logical fallacy.

It's unclear whether Hyman has an opinion of his own, but he did seek the opinions of Dr. Glenn Fleisig and Dr. James Andrews. He offers these opposing quotes from Dr. Fleisig and Dr. Andrews about the studies.

I don’t think throwing curveballs at any age is the factor that is going to lead to an injury.
— Glenn Fleisig

Dr. Fleisig's quotes in the article clearly indicate that he doesn't believe throwing a curveball is any worse than throwing fastballs or change-ups. They may be taken out of context, but Hyman sure makes it seem like Dr. Fleisig is very confident with this position.

It may do more harm than good — quote me on that.
— James Andrews

Dr. Andrews, on the other hand, seems to have a deeper understanding of what the studies actually reveal. While the studies did not reveal an obvious link between curveballs and injuries, Dr. Andrews recognizes that a link may still exist outside the scope of these studies.

Obviously, a more stressful pitch is more risky than a less stressful pitch. That's just not all there is to it.

The two recent studies were inspired by a study published in 2006 by Dr. Fleisig, Dr. Andrews, et al. That study's clinical relevance was summed up in its abstract:

Because the resultant joint loads were similar between the fastball and curveball, this study did not indicate that either pitch was more stressful or potentially dangerous for a collegiate pitcher. The low kinetics in the change-up implies that it is the safest. - “Kinetic Comparison Among the Fastball, Curveball, Change-up, and Slider in Collegiate Baseball Pitchers.” American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2006.

Essentially, this means that the slower your arm moves, the safer the pitch. This principle carried over into the follow-up studies on youth pitchers, and it's the main flaw with all three.

The studies measure raw joint torques but they don't account for basic mechanical or functional differences between the pitches which already vary from pitcher to pitcher anyway.

The key factor that is essentially unaccounted for in these studies is forearm action - pronation versus supination. A properly pronated pitch is not equivalent to a supinated pitch no matter how similar the kinetic measurements may be.

The muscles of the flexor-pronator mass can provide support against the valgus force that damages the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). When a pitch is thrown with the forearm in a supinated position throughout the delivery - as most pitchers throw their curveballs - these muscles do not provide the same support for the UCL. This makes UCL tears more likely even if there is no difference in the measured stress levels between pitches.

Additionally, powerful pronation through release helps decelerate elbow extension and helps prevent the olecranon process from slamming into the olecranon fossa on the back of the elbow. When the elbow slams closed it can lead to inflammation of the hyaline cartilage and excessive bone growth including lengthening of the ulna, bone spurs, and bone chips.

When a supinated curveball is thrown, a pitcher risks injury in a number of ways. Without paying attention to what the pitcher is actually doing with his body, these studies simply do not reveal much. They certainly don't give carte blanche to start flipping curveballs like they're going out of style.

Delayed Internal Rotation: Performance Implications

In the previous article Biomechanics: Ulnar Collateral Ligament, the discussion centered on what causes UCL tearing and how to prevent it. In one of my conclusions, I suggested the delay internal rotation until after arm extension. Now, I will discuss this concept in greater detail. Delayed internal rotation is the term I use to describe arm action in which internal rotation does not occur until after the arm extends. Done properly, this arm action allows the triceps brachii to maximally accelerate the forearm directly toward the target.
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