December 13, 2017
Erick Mojica – B.S Kinesiology
In the last segment I talked about the risk-reward of choosing the path of sport specialization. To the population of young baseball players who choose such an approach, the risk-reward aspect gets magnified with year-round throwing. Especially for pitchers, the arm can only make so many throws until some type of damage can and will likely occur.
If you have the ability to hit the diamond from January to December like I did growing up in Southern California, it is a tremendous advantage in terms of baseball skill development. Playing college ball in Kansas City really made me appreciate my high school days because when there’s snow you don’t always have the ability to go outside.
My freshman year we took about 30 shovels for a full day workout to clear half of the infield. Avila has a turf field so no excuses!.
Indoor facilities really come in handy in these winter-struck regions of the country, so regardless of your geographic location there’s always a way to work on things if you really want to work hard for that ultimate goal.
With that said it is extremely important to establish a program for all aspects of your various baseball seasons. Baseball’s main season takes place in the spring and many take advantage of the summer time to continue practice and games. That all sounds great, but you need to evaluate your load in all aspects of your training during the calendar year. This includes strength and conditioning, practice, games, throwing cycles, and innings pitched (taxing innings specifically).
For college players let’s begin with what we consider the beginning of next season: when the regular season has ended. This is the summer time where most of us are off and the lucky few get to the postseason. Regardless of when your season ends, the summer at some point becomes your first transition (active rest).
From a Strength and Conditioning point of view, you have 2 options. Rest and restore for next year or continue playing with summer ball. If you decide to play summer, consider first what your pitching load was for the spring. You can consider innings and pitches thrown for the course of 4-6 months, but what we often forget is everything else that happened in between. I’m talking about all your long toss, bullpens, scrimmages, nagging or legitimate injuries. As pitchers there are often things that are out of our control. A great example goes for relief pitchers. Maybe you only threw 20 innings but what about those days where you warmed up a couple times in a 4 game series and the guy on the mound got out of the jam? You hadn’t thrown for a series or two and threw in some scrimmages to keep your stuff sharp. These are just a few scenarios but think about how that taxing adds up to those 20 innings that the stat book shows: we could have doubled that!
So let’s say that we’ve evaluated your load and you’ve decided to go on with summer ball. Great! Now we have to figure out what the schedule will be like along with the transition into the fall season. What does your coach plan on for the fall? At some point the competition will begin in terms of scrimmages so how do we prepare ourselves to be ready to win a job? You have to remember that the fall season is all about preparing for the main spring season. You can have a great summer and fall season but what happens 6 months after when it is the prime time to compete? Once again, it truly depends on the load of throwing through the entire process. At the college level you should have an established understanding of your body and being able to listen to it when something isn’t right physically. This is also where communication is vital with your coaches and trainers to figure out the best approach for you to both develop and maintain your health.
High school players follow an identical structure but with an added element of travel ball and showcases. Exposure to college and pro scouts is awesome but we need to consider the risk-reward of throwing competitively year round. Being this deep into baseball specialization can be detrimental to your development and health because of increased fatigue. As fatigue increases we increase the likelihood of injury, especially for the joints of the elbow and shoulder.
When we throw a baseball the arm is put in a position where our mechanics and their timing determine how much force is distributed throughout the kinetic chain. “Clean mechanics” is a blurred phrase because velocity and command do not indicate as such. For me this phrase is defined clearer through a biomechanical analysis. This means that we look at the entire delivery and break down key movements that show how your body is positioned from start to finish. Notice how I didn’t say your arm’s position? This is because our arm position is affected by how we apply a force from Front Foot Strike and transfer that energy through the finger tips when we release the ball. Top pitching instructors can debate what an optimal delivery should look like, but what we do have available to us is data that shows what inefficient movement patterns look like among pitchers who have frequent injuries.
Some phrases that you might have heard of are “Inverted W” “Tommy John Twist” and “Early Trunk Rotation” just to name a few.
Top pitching researchers like Brent Pourciau, Lantz Wheeler, Kyle Boddy, and Chris O’Leary all have their different perspectives and theories and how to teach proper mechanics, but I think they all speak the same language. It always comes down to timing and how we apply all the movements in our delivery. So what does this have to do with year-round throwing? A fatigued body will not move efficiently!
Just because our arm feels good throughout the year doesn’t mean that we aren’t applying any damage to it. Most injuries are not acute, meaning that your UCL didn’t just pop on one throw. Every athlete has some kind of wear-and-tear in their body and pitchers’ elbows and shoulders are no exception. According to Dr. James Andrews in a NY Times article, he discussed with pitchers evaluated that were not injured and had no pain, their M.R.I.’s found “abnormal shoulder cartilage in 90 percent of them and abnormal rotator cuff tendons in 87 percent. ‘If you want an excuse to operate on a pitcher’s throwing shoulder, just get an M.R.I.” Every period of loaded throwing involves some kind of micro-tearing to the muscles and connective tissues. That is why I am a huge advocate in resting your body at some point of the year. Resting doesn’t mean to not do anything for a period of time, rather taking that time to work on things like mobility, soft-tissue work, and corrective exercise. Stretching and band work isn’t the most exciting thing to do but I think that injury-prevention is the easiest and most detrimental thing neglected in a pitcher’s development.
The value of hard work is often validated by performance. You can follow your throwing program to the wire, work hard in the weight room, and refuse to take days off to get better every day. That is definitely worth admiring, but it wasn’t until my injuries made me realize that I didn’t do everything right. I was always focused on getting stronger lifting 2-3 hours a day and long tossing to throw harder. I was always the small guy who had to outwork everyone, so I worked harder rather than smarter. From complete games in summer ball, December college showcases, and excessive weight training in college, I was focused on reaching the top of the mountain when I should have looked for the best way to climb it. The little things matter and that is why I think every young pitcher should take the time to process and map out the micro-goals to develop.
Once again it’s all about context. If you are a professional athlete the risk sometimes outweighs the reward. Heavy training and intensive throwing might be the only option to continue your career, but for the high school and college athlete? YOU STILL HAVE SOME TIME!!! You obviously need a sense of urgency to get to the next level but you have the time to strategically plan your development. So what are some good ideas?
Constantly adjust your programming. Establish important dates in terms of competitive seasons that require you to be at your best. This means regular season, showcases, and most importantly how you prepare for them. What period are you going to use to restore your body and how will you do it? In a college and high school program a Strength and Conditioning coach should be able to assist you in terms of how to train for them. Your coaches should be able to give you a schedule months in advance and be able to communicate what and how they want you to be prepared for them. If you take initiative to carefully map out your development, your effort should ultimately display how much you develop. Your success also relies on who you surround yourself with, but if you control the controllable and trust in the process, you set yourself up for a successful and healthy career.