Are little league pitching mechanics the same as major league mechanics?

In a previous post, I wrote about teaching pitching mechanics to Little League pitchers, and how I recommend taking a different approach with very young pitchers than with more mature athletes (you can read that post here).

What I didn’t really get into, though, is what I consider to be the biggest problem with the way most young pitchers are taught “proper pitching mechanics” these days.

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I was working with a 12 year old pitcher over the weekend, and we were working on things like creating good momentum, staying fluid, good rhythm and tempo… and then something he said stopped me in my tracks.

“They’ve been teaching us to do this,” and he raised his knee up and paused. Then he separated his hands and made a “T” with his arms, all the while holding that balance position. Then he strode out and paused in the “Power Position.” Then he finished his throw…

I just stared at him. “Wow… okay, let’s talk about this,” and I began explaining that while I’m sure his coaches have very good intentions, what they’ve been teaching him and other young pitchers is not what you see among the majority of successful, major league pitchers. Which raises another question…
 

Are Little League pitching mechanics the same as Major League mechanics?

In theory, Yes… The mechanics used to throw with speed and power are the same regardless of the pitcher’s size and age. But expecting Little League pitchers to move with the same sort of power and athleticism you see among world class major league pitchers is pretty unrealistic (minus the rare exceptions).

So does that mean it makes sense to teach young pitchers using drills that force them to move slower?? Or would they be better off doing things that actually made them more explosive and athletic in their pitching deliveries? In my experience, many of the drills used for teaching “good pitching mechanics” to little leaguers actually work against moving powerfully like the major league’s best pitchers.

Here are the top 3 mechanical issues I see with Little League pitchers:

1. Raising the Throwing Arm Early (lack of early momentum)

2. Opening (Unloading) the Hips Early (front foot points towards home too soon)

3. Collapsing Front Knee after Landing

So what are some reasons young pitchers might have a tough time moving like their major league counterparts?

1. They may lack the necessary mobility and leg strength:
Yes, leg strength IS important for a powerful pitching delivery!
(more on this in a future post)

I highly recommend getting a full assessment by a trained Strength Coach or Physical Therapist. If you’re unable to do that, Eric Cresssey’s Assess & Correct is an excellent program.

2. They likely don’t possess the same overall athleticism:
That’s right… pitchers ARE athletes. Mariano Rivera started out as a shortstop. Dylan Bundy trains like a prize fighter, Tim Lincecum (known affectionately for his athleticism as “The Freak”) can walk around on his hands like a circus clown…

Heck, even the big overweight guys that sometimes give pitchers a bad name are usually a lot more athletic than you’d think.

3. Youth pitchers have been taught to get to “positions” rather than learning the right movements for a big league pitching delivery:
When you teach kids to get to positions, training things like getting to a Balance Point, getting the throwing arm up, and getting to the Power Position, You effectively rob them of their natural athleticism, kill their momentum, and turn them into slow-moving mechanical throwers (see this article for more on why I’m against most pitching drills).

I’m generally okay teaching these positions when kids are just starting out so they can know what that feels like. But once they get comfortable with them, the emphasis should be on staying fluid and dynamic, flowing right through those positions!

And while possessing the necessary strength and athleticism is important, a big part of developing “Big League Pitching Mechanics” is just learning the right motor coordination. This is why video analysis can be so powerful. Nothing speeds up the learning process like being able to see how you’re moving vs. the pros.
 

So if drills that teach getting to “positions” are bad, what do you do?

 

  • Train the athlete: Focus on improving overall strength, stability and body awareness. These things can be developed through conditioning and strength training (beginning with bodyweight exercises) and dynamic balance/stability drills.
  • Train the intent to throw hard: As a young kid, I developed my “arm strength” by throwing a tennis ball against the back of my house and playing with friends at school, throwing against a brick wall (played a game called “butts up,” probably outlawed these days). That freedom to just throw without a coach constantly telling me things like “Get balanced!” or “Get your arm up!” taught me how to recruit my entire body in order to throw with more power.
  • Avoid drills that teach cookie cutter mechanics: No two pitchers are exactly the same, and they shouldn’t be taught to have exactly the same pitching delivery. That said, there are components within the delivery that are consistent among the majority of elite pitchers. Things like Early Momentum, Loading the Hips, creating Torque, and Stabilizing the front side.
 

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[h5]There’s a saying that real gains are made in the off-season…[/h5]

And generally speaking, this is true. 9 times out 10, the off-season represents the best opportunity to work on your mechanics, improve your overall strength, mobility, flexibility, and implement an effective throwing program for increasing velocity.

And that’s all well and good… but about when that ship has sailed? The other day I got an email from a baseball dad asking for some advice regarding his son, a college pitcher. His son has been pitching well, having good success, but is a bit frustrated that his velocity seems to be maxing out at 86-88 MPH.

And while plenty of guys would be envious of that kind of velocity, this kid is 6’3”, 210 lbs. and has been at 88-89 in the past. Realistically, there’s no reason this pitcher shouldn’t be throwing 90+ when he puts it all together.

Now his situation is a bit unique, since he’s also coming off a pretty significant arm injury, which limited his ability to train as aggressively as he could have this winter. So in his case, my advice was was pretty simple.

He’s a freshman. This year should be about getting a full, healthy season of pitching under his belt. Once that objective has been met, there will be plenty of time for enhancing velocity.

But there are a lot of guys out there in similar situations (minus the injury part, hopefully) who want to know how they can bump up their velocity. So first we need to ask the question…

[h3]Is it possible to increase velocity during the season?[/h3]

The short answer is absolutely yes.

In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for guys to see their velocity go up over the course of the season, even at the big league level…

I did a quick screen for 2012 fastball velocities over at fangraphs.com (very cool tool if you ever want to research this sort of thing) and a number of guys, including Justin Verlander and David Price, were throwing significantly harder in June than they were in April last year.

Of course, you’ll also see pitchers who tend to lose velocity as the season wears on. There are a ton of factors that go into why pitchers gain or lose velocity during the season…

I considered going into detail about all of those things here, but it just so happens that Eric Cressey has already done a heck of a job of that. So for more on that, be sure to check out his articles on the topic:

9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season

and…

14 Reasons Pitching Velocity Decreases Over the Course of a Season

Among the reasons he gives for gaining velocity during the season, the two biggest in my opinion are increased external rotation and improved mechanical efficiency (or what he refers to as “Optimization of mechanics.”

Increased External Rotation: Studies have shown that pitchers develop more external rotation over the course of a season, and with the link between external rotation and velocity, it makes sense you’d see velocity go up a notch. But read this post before stretching your arm out to max external rotation.

Wagner-Chapman-Mechanics

Improved mechanical efficiency: Guys may have worked over the off-season to improve their mechanics, but sometimes it takes a while to implement those mechanics effectively at game intensity.

This isn’t necessarily due to direct tinkering with mechanics during the season (in fact, in most cases I wouldn’t recommend a major mechanical overhaul while pitching in-season). Sometimes it’s just finding your rhythm and getting things synced up while in the heat of competition.

[h3]Why it might go the other way…[/h3]

Among the top reasons he gives for velocity dropping over the course of a season, the big ones for me are: Weight loss during the season, too much distance running, and a loss of strength… but the list goes on.

Another big one I’d actually add to his list would be a lack of proper arm care and conditioning during the season.

I remember when I showed up to camp my first year with the Indians after just completing my college season. My arm felt great, but after testing my shoulder strength they actually shut me down for 3 weeks based on how weak things were in there.

No injury to speak of, no arm pain at all, but a pretty alarming level of weakness and fatigue. This was a big wake up call. I thought I’d done a good job with my arm care in college… in reality, it wasn’t even close to what it should have been.

Okay, so we’ve looked at some reasons velocity can go up during the season, and some things to be wary of that can cause your velocity to drop. But now we need to ask another very important question…

[h3]Should gaining velocity be a focus during the season?[/h3]

As is often the case, the answer to that question depends on a number of factors. So before making velocity gains a priority this season, here are some important things to consider…

[h5]Some problems with trying to increase velocity during the season:[/h5]

1. Pitching is about more than throwing hard:

For guys pitching in at the college, pro, or even competitive high school level, the main goal is competing and getting the job done. And when it comes down to it, that means commanding your fastball, changing speeds and attacking the strike zone. As one of my coaches liked to say, “I’ve never seen the radar gun get anybody out.”

It’s also important to realize that working on things to increase velocity (which usually means training hard in the weight room, making mechanical adjustments, and implementing an aggressive throwing program), can interfere with your ability to do all of those other things well.

So if the most important thing right now is getting hitters out, focus on those other things first. Sometimes the added velocity will come on its own, for some of the reasons mentioned above.

2. Trying to light up the radar gun can lead to overthrowing:

You’ve probably seen this plenty of times. Guys get in a jam or want to impress a coach or scout in the stands and they wind up “muscling up” and overthrowing. As a result, they tense up, which usually leads to a loss of momentum and actually decreased velocity and control.

Overthrowing can also lead to a host of other problems. In addition to what I just mentioned, you tend to see guys get sloppy with their mechanics, leading to greater fatigue and increased stress on the throwing arm.

3. Tinkering too much with your mechanics during the season can lead to inconsistency, and you’re less likely to make changes that stick:

When it comes to your pitching delivery, you’re dealing with movement patterns that have been ingrained over years through countless repetitions. Expecting to make big changes that stick while also trying to compete is usually an uphill battle.

Lantz Wheeler at BaseballThinkTank.com wrote a nice article on this topic, definitely worth a read.

Now with all those things considered, it would seem the clear cut answer is that no, velocity gains shouldn’t be a goal during the season. But not so fast…

For many young pitchers, time (the race against the clock) is a major concern.

You only have so many years (sometimes months) to get your velocity where it needs to be to garner the attention of college coaches and scouts.

And while you don’t want to do things that will hurt your performance and your team, you probably don’t want to put off making mechanical changes that can help you gain velocity and could be the difference between pitching at the next level or not.

The best situation for working on increasing velocity “in-season” is usually with your summer league or travel ball team, where things tend to be more about development and gaining exposure (getting in front of college coaches and/or scouts).

And when you’re younger, sometimes those mechanical adjustments are easier to implement since you don’t have the years and years of ingrained movement patterns the way you do at the college or pro levels.

But even at those higher levels, sometimes you can find mechanical adjustments that are powerful yet subtle enough so you can implement them without a complete overhaul.

[h3]I’ll give you a couple quick real-life examples…[/h3]

1. College pitcher gains 3 MPH with one simple fix:

A few years back when I was working as the pitching coach for a division I college program, we had a young pitcher with a ton of potential. He was 6’5”, 220 and strong as an ox. But he was also stiff as a board with his delivery.

But pitching from the stretch he actually moved pretty well and threw harder than he did from the windup. Mainly this had to do with his intent – from the stretch, he focused on getting loaded up quickly and driving down the mound…

He was basically leading with his shoulders. With a minor adjustment (getting him to lead with his hips better to move down the mound more powerfully) he went from throwing upper 80’s to hitting 92 MPH… in a matter of minutes.

2. Cubs 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year:

Last year I wrote about Cubs pitching prospect, Nick Struck, and how a mechanical adjustment he made mid-season really turned his season around.

In his case, it was actually shortening his stride – not something I typically recommend… most young pitchers could benefit from a longer stride, not the other way around.

But it’s a good example of how every pitcher is different, and how you can make a subtle mechanical adjustment during the season in a way that can help, not hinder, your performance.

You can check out the interview I did with Nick by clicking here: Why a Longer Stride Isn’t Always the Answer

So to sum up… CAN you gain velocity during the season? Absolutely.

But more importantly…

[h5]SHOULD you try to gain velocity during the season? Not necessarily…[/h5]

It all comes down to understanding your unique situation and where you are in terms of your development. What are your goals, what are your short-term and long-term objectives? Get assessed, know what you need to work, and develop a plan that makes sense for YOU!

For a completely customizable system for developing a Powerful, Dynamic Pitching Delivery Click Here

[h5]What can a hitter teach you about pitching?[/h5]  
Well, a LOT actually…

See, as pitchers, it’s easy to get wrapped up in that mindset, and you wind up looking at everything from a pitcher’s perspective. We tend to talk to other pitchers and pitching coaches, and look at everything through that lens.

But one of the best things you can do as a pitcher is talk to the hitters on your team. You’d be surprised what they might see in your delivery. And you might even learn a thing or two about what hitters are looking for at the plate that can really help you in your approach on the mound.

I recently caught up with Art of Baseball Founder, Mark Brooks.

Mark’s got a great website on hitting, and he’s a great resource for young ballplayers when it comes to developing strong character and a positive mental approach.

[h5]In this interview, you’ll hear Mark talk about things like:[/h5] [circle_list] [list_item]Persevering and creating your own opportunities:
How he went from riding the bench in Junior College to starting for a Division 1 program.[/list_item] [list_item]What it was like facing Stephen Strasburg[/list_item] [list_item]Who he’d rather hit against, Nolan Ryan or Greg Maddux[/list_item] [list_item]What makes a pitcher tough to steal on (not just a good pickoff move)[/list_item] [list_item]How hitting mechanics and pitching mechanics aren’t all that different[/list_item] [list_item]Developing good habits and focusing on the process over the outcome[/list_item] [/circle_list]
[hr] [h5]Mark Brooks[/h5] Founder, Art of Baseball
ArtofBaseball.net
Hitting Machine Academy
Hitting-Machine-Academy

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