Peeling back the curtain a bit we are being afforded a glimpse into the future of pitching. It is being provided by a team of biomechanics researchers. What they’ve found has strong implications downstream. However, it’s only a small part of a much bigger picture.
First of all, baseball is sorely lagging in the biomechanical study field. Golf is many years ahead. That provides a bit of a roadmap as to what the future holds. On this front Golf and Baseball are on parallel tracks albeit with different starting points. Biomechanics in golf was started by equipment manufacturers trying to get a leg up in the competitive market. Titanium had replaced Persimmon as the Driver head material. Each new model had to be theoretically longer than the one before. So one avenue that opened was to put sensors on top professionals to measure such things as pelvis rotation speed, upper torso speed, and ground reaction force. It didn’t take long for the PhDs to get involved. Today the biomechanics study of golf has expanded in scope and breadth. Although the PhDs in the business say that the study is in its early stages it makes what is happening in baseball look absolutely nebulous. A large part of that goes to who is providing seed money for the work. Unlike Golf, the baseball equipment industry hasn’t funded biomechanical studies. That leaves MLB itself, the teams, or the individual players to do so. In other words, there’s no one that will pick up the ball and run with it on a large scale.
But, there is some work being done. A team of four researchers equipped a mound with sensors. Using a sample of eighteen former competitive pitchers they were able to establish a statistically strong correlation between velocity and one element of the motion; ground reaction force of the forward, or stride leg during arm-cocking and arm acceleration phases. The force exerted by the drive leg was inconsequential. That may be surprising. But, to those involved in golf biomechanics it was no surprise at all. The swing and the pitching motion are very related. What counts is acceleration and deceleration of body areas during the move. Think of cracking a towel or a whip. The wrist moves before the beginning of the whip then stops as the wave works down the whip until it cracks at the end with maximum velocity. This all has to be sequential in order to be effective.
The ground reaction force in the stride leg is dependent on the angle of attack of the leg and the location of the upper body. What is key is to activate the hamstring and glute muscles of the stride leg to decelerate the lead side of the pelvis, causing the lag side to accelerate. This carries up the torso during delivery where the pelvis decelerates and the upper torso accelerates and so forth through the hand. It’s a complicated version of a whip. What starts the wave is planting the stride foot. When we hear of pitchers “opening up” they disrupt the chain by allowing the shoulders to open prematurely removing the differential angles between the pelvis and shoulders. This reduces the potential velocity of the pitch.
A quick look at a couple of high-velocity pitchers shows this in action. Billy Wagner was all of 5’10” tall at 180 pounds soaking wet in his playing days. He could throw it 100 mph. We did not have radar guns when Walter Johnson was pitching. But, by all accounts it was a higher velocity ball than his counterparts. We are fortunate to have a few fuzzy videos of actual in-game pitches. The two are interesting to juxtapose because the arm action is completely different while the lower body is very, very similar. Note how the stride leg angle changes very little throughout the delivery. That produces maximum ground resistance force. Both end up facing square to Home Plate.
Think for a moment back to Max Scherzer’s season. When he struggled he started falling off the mound towards first base. Although this was all attributed to arm slot angles the fact is that he was not preserving his attack angle with the stride leg. If he had, he wouldn’t have been falling off the mound like that.
What does all this mean? First, it gives scouts a tool when analyzing prospects. It gives a glimpse into who has the higher potential velocity. Additionally, following the golf biomechanical experience, as information becomes available it filters down to the instructors. The golf instructor of today has much more information available than just a few years ago. The absolute pity in baseball is that the lowest level of instruction available is what is provided to the most important group of athletes, the youths. The promise provided by biomechanical research is that those coaching the youngest will have adequate information to get them on a path that will preserve their arm.
Baseball is currently plagued by UCL injuries. Tommy John surgeries have turned into a sadly predictable “Rite of Passage” for young pitchers. If you want a quick corollary go back to golf. Jack Nicklaus inspired a generation of golfers with a swing technique that placed his left hip forward of his knee and ankle at impact. It’s a recipe for a bad hip. Orthopedic surgeons saw way too many of these golfers, including Jack, for left hip replacement. That hip orientation is a rare sight on the Tours today as we now know that having the ankle, knee, and hip of the lead side in good vertical alignment produces maximum ground reaction force while maximizing safety for the hip. We can only hope that years from now the baseball world will look back at the Tommy John rash with a similar outcome; a biomechanical answer providing a pathway to maximum performance with maximum safety.