One of the most commonly discussed topics in pitching is a pitcher's arm action. Is a long or short arm action better? Isn't a smooth arm action best? Does a pitcher with a fluid arm action have a better chance to stay healthy? Doesn't that guy’s arm action seem jerky? Should you break from the glove with the ball or the elbow? How much "scap load" should a pitcher have and how does he get into that position? Should the ball be facing 2nd base during the "cocked" phase of the arm action? How do you keep pitchers from having an inverted "W" during delivery? Etc, etc., etc.
These types of questions and discussions happen all over the country on a daily basis. Many coaches believe that they have the answer to teach the "ideal" or "perfect" arm action. I have heard pitching coaches tell players to break from their glove with both thumbs facing down, or that the ball should go up to the sky, and even to drive their elbow back when taking the ball out of their glove so that they immediately get into a "scap load." And there are many many more.The problem with trying to teach a "good" arm action by telling a player what to do with his arm or by trying to get him to feel something in particular is that it generally creates an arm action that is unnatural to that athlete. Most of these approaches are essentially a "cookie cutter" teaching program with the end result being that all the pitchers on the staff have very similar arm actions. More importantly, even if you were able to gather the top pitching coaches in the world into one room they would not be able to agree on the "right" mechanics much less what the "right" arm action looks like.
All one has to do to see evidence of this is by taking a look at a random sampling of major league pitchers. Arm actions in major league baseball vary tremendously, and yet, they all get the job done at a very high level. The reason for such a wide variety of different arm actions is that each pitcher has his own unique strengths and weaknesses - including things such as size (see Pedro Martinez vs. Roger Clemens), flexibility (See Tim Lincecum vs. Heath Bell), and strength (Probably see Lincecum vs. Bell again). A pitcher's natural mechanics are a result of all of these individualized things and while you can make these movements more efficient, it is not smart to begin making wholesale changes at once.
My recommendation for coaches or parents who want to improve a pitcher's mechanics is not to try and talk them into a new arm action by telling them to break their hands some way or to force their arm into a certain position, but to instead let them find their own way into a better arm action. What I mean by this is to simply give the athlete varying goals to accomplish and let him, by attempting to accomplish these objectives, let his arm action naturally evolve. Coach Ron Wolforth always cites the Bernstein principle, which states that the body will organize itself to accomplish the task at hand. Therefore, if you give a pitcher tasks/drills that require certain things to be done then the body will find a way to get that task finished.
One example of this in terms of arm action is to ask the pitcher to throw harder than he has ever thrown before. As a coach or parent if you get out a radar gun and begin to measure the velocity in which the athlete is throwing in order to get a baseline velocity, and then ask the athlete to beat that previous record, the pitcher will find a way to do it. Often times it innately involves the athlete increasing momentum in order to get more behind the ball, which in turns allows less time for the arm to move through the arm action. This will of course make the arm quicker and move through a more efficient path. By doing this, setting a velocity goal, the athlete will be naturally forced to improve his arm action, without any mention of it.
Similarly, another great way to improve arm action is by throwing weighted balls. The reason this is such a great way to improve a pitcher’s arm action is due to the weight of the ball. Because the athlete’s brain realizes just how heavy the ball is and the brain’s primary focus is to keep the body from being injured, it will force the arm to stay in stronger, less compromising positions. This means that if an athlete has an inefficient arm action with a 5 oz baseball, the body is going to try and force the athlete into a tighter more efficient arm path in order to keep it from being placed in a weaker position with a heavier 14/21/32 oz weighted ball. Over time, by training with weighted balls and a better arm action and then throwing a regular baseball, it is possible to blend the more efficient arm action into the throws with a baseball. This is in fact one of the reasons that weighted balls can help to increase velocity – because it improves the arm action (and due to the overload principle too).
Of course, velocity is not everything, and the same type of thing can be done to improve the arm action by way of command drills. If a coach takes a Pitching Pad for instance, and tells the pitcher that he must hit a certain spot (such as a specific number/color) 15 out of 20 throws from 10 feet away before he can back up, the athlete will find a way to focus in and execute these throws to that location. And this can then be repeated again at 15 feet away, and then 20 feet and so on until the pitcher is hitting the spot the requisite number of times from 60 feet 6 inches. By doing this over and over again a pitcher is going to eventually figure out the best way to throw the baseball and hit the intended target since that is the goal. This process will help correct flaws in the arm action that could detract from command.
Another tremendous way to improve a pitcher’s arm action is through long toss. Once again, when you give an athlete an objective he will find a way to accomplish the task. In long tossing, the objective is to throw a baseball further than ever before. Yes, this requires a tape measure, unless you are on a football field that is marked, but if the goal is to get the ball to fly through the air further than your previous throws the athlete will innately move faster (gaining momentum) and move more explosively in order to try and throw it further. A pitcher will soon realize that his arm action has to move more quickly, or efficiently, or needs to be more linked up in order for the ball to travel further. Therefore, slowly his arm action will improve.
These are only a few ways to help improve an arm action and there are many more. In my opinion, the way to improve an arm action is not discussing it with your pitchers in great detail and trying to come up with some gimmick or catchy training drill that all your pitchers will spend time obsessing over. Instead, the best way is to allow pitchers to figure out their natural arm actions on their own over time. If you train this way a pitcher’s arm action will evolve into a much more dynamic and linked up movement as opposed to some artificially trained motion. Additionally, training this way will simultaneously improve command and velocity along with arm action.
I also would recommend checking out the Connection Balls. I wrote a post a while back on how great the Connection Balls are at teaching pitchers to naturally feel the key positions that their arm should travel through during the delivery. The Connection Balls allow the athlete to still be themselves and keep the natural arm action, yet they also make sure the arm is moving as efficiently as possible.
If you are able to incorporate certain drills like velocity training with radar guns, long tossing for record distance, throwing weighted balls, and using the target pad for command while mixing in the Connection Balls during all of these drills you will be able to quickly correct any bad arm action that a pitcher might have. And better yet, you will be able to do it without ever truly discussing it with him.
Until next time,
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