If you follow baseball at all (and if you found this site, my guess is you do), you’ve by now heard the awful news about Mets phenom Matt Haryey (if you haven’t, here’s a pretty good summary). And one thing that makes his elbow injury so disturbing is that by most standards Harvey demonstrated a pretty smooth, efficient pitching delivery. There’s even a YouTube video promoting Harvey as a great example of “safe” pitching mechanics.
So now come the questions. How did this happen? What about those “clean” mechanics? And I’m sure some will come out now pointing to mechanical flaws that people should have been aware of all along (where were they 3 months ago?).
Here’s a look at that smooth delivery… Now there’s that aggressive front knee action (locking it out) and lack of follow-through, but seems to have worked okay so far for Justin Verlander.
So here’s something that bothers me about the world of youth pitching instruction and the way it’s often sold to parents and players…
When parents approach me about working with their young pitchers, one thing I hear again and again is they want to keep their son from developing bad habits. They want their sons to become better pitchers, but there’s also the assumption that by learning “good mechanics” they can somehow guarantee they won’t get hurt. And I think mainly this assumption comes from what they’ve heard from other coaches and what they’ve read online or elsewhere.
Now is developing a sound pitching delivery a good idea? Of course. It can definitely help performance and we know from studies that certain mechanical flaws can increase stress on the arm. But here’s the thing: There’s no such thing as “safe” high-velocity mechanics.
“Safe” Pitching Mechanics is a Lie!
One pretty alarming data-point from Will Carroll’s recent series on the history of Tommy John surgery was his finding that roughly a third of all current major league pitchers have had the surgery. Pretty mind boggling… and the list is only growing.
And unfortunately, despite all the research and best efforts, we haven’t been able to crack the code yet when it comes to analyzing for mechanical inefficiencies that could lead to injury.
So you get guys like Harvey with relatively clean mechanics who break down, and then guys like Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sales and Max Scherzer who thus far manage to defy all the naysayers (all of these guys are featured in 2012 Bleacher Report post on Pitchers Whose Mechanics Are a Ticking Time Bomb).
Many of those other pitchers even exhibit the dreaded “Inverted W” that many believe doom a pitcher to an inevitable trip to the operating table. Lantz Wheeler does a nice job dispelling some of those inverted W fears in this recent piece: The Inverted Race For The Cy Young W
In Will Carroll’s piece on Matt Harvery, he suggests the Mets could have sent Harvey for a biomechanical analysis in spring training to measure for any excessive elbow stress. And while that might not be a bad idea, it wouldn’t necessarily have kept his elbow healthy. The Orioles took that approach with young prospect, Dylan Bundy, but again, despite pretty clean mechanics, they weren’t able to keep him from eventual Tommy John surgery.
The truth is pitching is a high risk/high reward endeavor
The idea that there’s such a thing as “safe” pitching mechanics is just flat out inaccurate. It’s either promoted by people passing down what they’ve been taught (conventional wisdom) or, in the worst case, is used as a cheap marketing ploy. Bottom line, the only guaranteed way to completely eliminate the risk of pitching injuries is not to play.
So what do we do?
If like me, you think the idea of not pitching just isn’t an acceptable solution, what can be done? Should we just throw up our hands and accept that injuries just happen, and leave it all up to fate? Again, I don’t accept that.
The goal is to develop a pitcher to his full potential. And that means developing good velocity, command, and an assortment of complimentary pitches to go along with a good fastball. And at the same time, we should strive to do everything possible to reduce the risk of injury and keep pitchers healthy.
Unfortunately, many of the things we do to increase velocity, by their very nature increase stress on the throwing arm.
Pitchers who throw harder place more stress on their joints than pitchers who throw slower – pretty self-explanatory. It’s one reason that the best young pitchers are also the ones at the greatest risk. They put more stress on their arm, and they’re the ones that teams rely on to pitch the most. And with kids throwing harder than ever before, and pitching year-round more than ever before… well, it’s not a good combination.
However, one thing we do know is there are certain mechanical flaws that both reduce velocity and increase stress on the shoulder and elbow. Is eliminating those flaws a good idea? You bet!
But does eliminating those flaws magically make pitching 100% safe? No way. Safe-er ? Okay, now that’s a lot more accurate and truthful.
So did Harvey’s elbow break down because of his mechanics? It’s possible. But you also have to realize he throws 99 MPH… and when you do that, you’re going to put some serious stress on your elbow. And when it comes to pitching injuries in general, it’s extremely difficult to pinpoint one specific cause…
It’s almost always multi-factoral, and that includes things like:
- Mobility and Strength Deficiencies
- Conditioning/Preparation (or lack thereof)
Given that much of this damage can occur over years of wear and tear, you also have to factor in how much pitching guys did before they made it big. And that has a lot to do with what goes on at the youth and college levels.
But everyone’s looking for a silver bullet or a magic pill: “Do this and you will never get hurt.”
And there are guys who promote that kind of thinking and prey upon it. There are also people in the scientific and baseball communities doing great work, but the truth is, we just aren’t there yet. And anyone who tells you they’ve got it all figured out is either showing tremendous hubris, or is just flat out lying.
I wish I had all the answers (that would be nice, wouldn’t it?). But until I do, I’ll continue to do my best with my pitchers, taking a holistic approach to help them maximize their potential, building around their own unique strengths while addressing any limitations.
And if you’re looking to get the most out of your off-season training, my suggestions remain pretty straight forward:
- 1. Get assessed – mechanical flaws and strength/mobility issues go hand in hand
- 2. Prepare yourself to pitch – mentally and physically
- 3. Be smart about your training and your workloads
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