There are several phrases that most of us who have been around the game of baseball have heard over the years:
“Get your elbow up.”
“Reach back to get more velocity.”
“Pull/tuck your glove side to help speed up and get your arm through the zone.”
I know I have heard some variety of these common sayings too many times to count during my playing days, yet, unfortunately, they are all incorrect instructions. In fact, if a pitcher were to follow these instructions he would be increasing the chance of injury while decreasing his velocity.
As for the first saying regarding getting your elbow up, this might be one of the most common phrases I heard throughout little league, because it was thought that if your elbow was below your shoulder you were vulnerable to injury. The opposite actually turns out to be true. In reality, your elbow SHOULD be slightly below your shoulder at foot strike. For those of you doubting this proposition, I encourage you to put your arm up beside your body in a 90 degree angle and move it up and down until you find the spot that feels most comfortable for your shoulder. As you move your arm up with the elbow rising above the shoulder you can feel the tightness and uncomfortableness as the shoulder muscles are impinged into that range of motion. Similarly, as your elbow is moved too far below the shoulder the same type of uncomfortableness is felt. For most people, if they were told to stop at the position that felt the best on the shoulder their elbow would be just slightly below the shoulder (or perhaps parallel). This is due to the fact that this position is the most natural on your arm and causes the least amount of stress – which is what we are looking for.
The reason the elbow is below the shoulder at foot strike is because this is the moment that you are in your maximum scap load or energy building phase. The stress on your arm can be enormous when pinned back into an unnatural position. As you unwind around your plant leg during torque to release and your chest turns from 3rd base (for right handers) to the catcher the elbow will begin to rise naturally as it lays back into external rotation. The key, therefore, is for your elbow to be slightly below the shoulder at foot strike to minimize the stress of the throwing motion.
Next, the adage that reaching the arm back can generate more power or velocity is completely false as well. In fact, the forearm should be inside a 90 degree angle of the arm. This means that the ball should never be extended out past the elbow. The more extended your arm gets outside of the 90 degree window, the more movement that is required in order for the arm to get into external rotation, and this additional movement along with the force that is generated in getting into the movement can cause a banging effect on the arm. This repeated banging is what can cause a rotator cuff injury as the rotator cuff muscles are the ones taking the brunt of this stress.
However, when the forearm is inside the 90 degree angle there is little to no movement required in order to reach external rotation. As the athlete rotates the arm is already in position and is able to lay back naturally and smoothly.
Last, I want to discuss the saying that the glove side should be pulled through in order to speed up the arm. This theory has been dispelled for years, in part thanks to Tom House, who recognized early on the importance of having a firm front side to rotate into. The more stable the front side (glove side) is during rotation the more power and energy can be exerted through and out of the arm that is being rotated. An example of this is to look at a boxer. As he throws a punch his left hand doesn’t move backward, instead it firms up so that his right hand can be more explosive. The picture below is of Mike Tyson - he looks pretty similar to a pitcher who has just released a pitch. Notice how firm his glove side is.
Now, some of you might not agree with the propositions I have stated and that is understandable as they have been the common teach in baseball for many years. I therefore included numerous pictures of durable major league pitchers to give you examples of what I am talking about.
Even Roy Halladay, who is known for his longer arm action when he breaks from his glove is right at a 90 degree angle with his forearm. And notice that his elbow is slightly below the shoulder as well.
I do want to mention that there are good major league pitchers who don’t have their elbows slightly below the shoulder, or their forearm inside of 90 degrees, and they still have great stuff. All that this means is that they do not have the most efficient movement patterns and are more susceptible to stress and injuries. Tommy Hanson of the Braves and Adam Wainwright of the Cardinals are good examples of pitchers with their elbows above the shoulder.
Jake Peavy is a guy who has a tendency to get long with his arm at foot strike, as it is outside of 90 degrees - this puts a lot of stress on the shoulder as he rotates and his arm is still far out behind his body.
My next post will address a phenomenal drill created by Ron Wolforth of the Texas Baseball Ranch to teach athletes to get more connected and travel through these efficient positions.
Until next time,