Stephen Strasburg Arm Inefficiencies
This is a continuation of my last blog regarding the Washington Nationals and their decision to shut down their ace, Stephen Strasburg, despite the pennant race and the upcoming MLB playoffs. This decision shows that the Nationals organization, as is the case with many (perhaps most) organizations, doesn’t understand why pitchers get injured. In my opinion, the Nationals have decided to take the approach that pitchers only have a certain number of “bullets” in their arm and therefore they better limit the number that Strasburg throws the season after his Tommy John surgery.
The Nationals have failed to realize the most crucial point in this entire ordeal: Strasburg was injured not simply because he threw too many innings (or too many pitches) but because of the inefficiencies in his arm action. Strasburg has some fundamental flaws with his delivery that are ultimately responsible for his injury. By not trying to correct his delivery, and instead just capping how many innings he can perform the delivery, is the equivalent of telling a drunk driver he can only drive a short distance, as opposed to making him sober up before driving at all. It might lower the odds of injury or something bad happening, but will not eliminate it.
The flaws with Strasburg’s delivery primarily stem from his arm action. While it is quite obvious that he can generate serious torque and power from his arm action, it also generates a lot of stress. There are two primary issues with his arm action. First, when he breaks his arms he has what some would call a rising elbow (or inverted “W”). This means his hand is below his elbow as it climbs upward. Mark Prior had this type of arm action and we all know the struggles he had staying healthy.
For anyone questioning why this an improper movement, I encourage them to force their arm into that type of position. Put your hand below your elbow and raise your elbow toward the sky as far as possible. How does this feel? Natural? I don’t think so. I know when I do it I can feel the pinch and uncomfortableness in my shoulder, and I am making the movement slowly and in a controlled fashion. Imagine if that movement was accompanied by the stress involved in throwing a mid-90s fastball and is repeated thousands of times throughout a season. It is not surprise that it can lead to injury.
It is true that this movement puts stress on the shoulder, so some of you might be wondering how this can lead to an elbow injury in a pitcher. Well the stress on the elbow occurs due to the rapid turnover of the arm. Let me clarify this: when the arm is in an inverted “W” the forearm is below the elbow as the elbow continues to rise going into foot strike. Then, as the elbow reaches its highest point and foot strike occurs, the arm has to uncoil out of this position and go into external rotation for delivery of the ball. This rapid movement at extreme angles – the forearm below the elbow directly into forearm above the elbow and the elbow leading the ball – creates extreme stress on the elbow. Many people would call this a “banging” of the elbow as the arm goes into full external rotation.
Now let’s compare the extreme movement of Strasburg’s arm action to another hard throwing young pitcher in the Major Leagues – Felix Hernandez. Notice the position of Hernandez’s arm during the stride and going into foot strike. The forearm/hand/ball is not below the elbow but is instead even to or above it making for a much easier transition/movement into the lay back of external rotation. This puts a lot less stress on the elbow and prevents the extreme “bang out.”
The second serious issue with Strasburg’s arm action that should be a cause of concern for the Nationals is the way he decelerates his arm. All of us involved with baseball know that throwing hard is in some ways a double-edged sword. The harder you throw the better, but the greater the risk of injury as well. A pitcher throwing 95 has to do a much better job decelerating his arm than a pitcher throwing 75. Both have the same amount of time and distance to slow down the arm but the 95 mph thrower’s arm is traveling a great deal faster.
Strasburg is by all accounts an extremely hard thrower, yet does a poor job of slowing his arm down after release. There are two essential parts to deceleration after release. The first is pronating the arm, which is a natural occurrence in the body, but is something that can be trained and improved. A pitcher wants to pronate as soon as possible after the ball leaves the hand because this helps begin the deceleration process. Second, a pitcher should never let his arm extend straight out across his body after release. In order to accomplish this, the pitcher needs to keep his torso rotating around his front leg so that the entire body is slowing down the arm and the energy from the throw can dissipate throughout the back.
Now let’s address Strasburg’s pronation. He appears to be late in pronating after the ball has been released from his hand. Compare Strasburg to another hard thrower like Matt Cain. These two pictures seem to be taken at almost the exact same moment, yet Cain is fully pronated with his pinky facing up to the sky while Strasburg’s hand is still parallel with the ground, as the pinky is not facing upward at all. The sooner a pitcher can pronate the earlier the arm can begin to decelerate.
The later pronation that Strasburg has contributes to his next flaw. He allows his arm to straighten out across his body during his follow through which places a great deal of stress on his arm. One reason for this is because Strasburg does not continue to rotate his torso after he has released the ball. If the trunk stops rotating then the arm, which is still traveling at a high rate of speed, will be forced to slow down on its own, and the only way it can accomplish this is by straightening out across the body causing a banging to occur at both the elbow and the shoulder. Compare Strasburg with Nolan Ryan for example. Look at how Nolan’s arm still has flex to it and seems to be relaxed as well as how rotated the torso is. Strasburg’s arm is completely straight across his body and his torso is upright.