Pitching Skill versus Throwing Ability…

PaulN mechanics, skill development, training Leave a Comment

Pitching Skill versus Throwing Ability, Understanding the Difference Can Make or Break Your Baseball Career.

A commentary on issues such as the use of weighted baseballs, flat-ground, long-toss or other non-mound training components.

Where to Begin??

What pitchers should or should not do with respect to training seems that times to be more confused and that times controversial than ever.  All baseball players throw the baseball but only pitchers are placed on a very high and unique throwing and training pedestal as evidenced by this “pitching” challenge. It is my contention that, when examined with anything resembling rigor, logic, and common sense, much of this pedestal consists of nothing more than opinion and speculation with very little factual support. Much of this pitcher training opinion is based upon “after-the-fact” reasoning and speculation, much of which is driven by fear of injury. This fear is then seized upon by others who play on the fears and ignorance of the unsuspecting.


Ability 1. The quality of being able to do something physical, mental, financial or legal power to perform.  2. A natural or acquired skill or talent. 3. A being able; power to do (something physical or mental).

Skill: 1.proficiency, ability, or dexterity; expertness.  2. An art, trade, or technique, particularly one requiring the use of the hands or body. 3. Great ability or proficiency; expertness that comes from training, practice etc.

(These definitions come from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition and Webster’s New World Dictionary, Second College Edition.)

From these definitions it’s easy to understand why skill and ability are confused. No different than why certain types of training and activities get confused, especially when it comes to pitching in throwing a baseball. Yet an understanding of the difference between skill development and ability enhancement is critical to not only unraveling some of the confusion and controversy surrounding pitcher training but also creating the best possibilities for maximizing a players baseball potential.

Why Are We Even Talking (Worrying?) About This??

The issues of weighted baseballs, flat ground, long toss and other non-mound related training components are a relatively recent “phenomena”, as in not being issues 20 or so years ago.

20 years ago (and for 100 years prior to that) players (kids) threw weighted baseballs.

How can it be you ask??

When you only had one baseball, or what might pass as a semblance of a baseball, there was rarely such thing as a regulation weight (5 oz.). Many of the baseballs we used were either waterlogged or they had several ounces of tape wrapped around them.

As for long toss and flat ground throwing, that’s pretty much all we did as their was usually nothing even close resembling a mound where I played.

And long tossing was what we did to other occupy our time when we didn’t have enough players or didn’t feel like having a game, i.e. playing catch and seeing how far we could throw the baseball (natural competitiveness).

As long as we could be outdoors with a baseball glove that’s all we cared about. And not too many (parents, coaches) cared what we threw, how much we threw or how we threw.

Aches and pains were an indication that we had “trained properly” (put forth enough effort to stress our bodies adequately).

Only when there was more blood than Band-Aids could handle or definitive broken bones protruding was medical attention considered. Usually it was aspirin, Ben Gay, Ace bandages and a good night’s sleep.

All in all, a different time with a different set of belief systems and priorities.

Compared to the above, today’s baseball training and instruction experience bears little resemblance to that of years gone by.

Changes brought about by technology, affluence, other alternatives and an environment perceived as being much more dangerous than ever before. The days of playground baseball player development and training in United States are long gone, having given way to organized play, practice, instruction and training.

And as one might suspect/expect, change creates new opportunities as well as pitfalls.

The transition from playground to structure (organized baseball) creates a need for new information and methods to replace “(attempt” to replace??) what previously occurred on the playground.

Back to Skill versus Ability.

Of all sports baseball represents the greatest challenge because it asks the player to deal with two diametrically opposed factors, precision and power. A critical factor involved in making a decision regarding alternative pitcher training is understanding the difference between skill (precision) and ability (power). I find that few people understand the difference between the two. And understanding the difference is critical to decision making with respect to weighted balls, long toss and flat ground throwing.

The building blocks of skill are ability, practice and knowledge.

Ability has its foundation in individual genetic traits. This includes body structure type (mesomorph, endomorph, ectomorph) and nervous system structure to name a few. Arm speed is a classic example of what most consider ability (God-given). In reality ability is not totally genetic; it can also be developed-improved further through training. Some may be shocked when I say that we have added 20 mph within six months to a players throwing abilities.

Pitching a baseball is a skill. Pitching is the skill of defeating the batter. Whether the pitcher defeats the batter with great velocity or precise location or both and does this on a consistent basis than we might say that this player has mastered the skill of pitching.

Throwing is an ability.  Throwing ability is characterized by the ability to impart speed and accuracy to objects (throwing rocks, apples, baseballs, footballs, etc.).

There have been many great pitchers who threw hard (Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax to name a few).

There have been many unsuccessful pitchers who threw hard (Steve Dalkowski, “Those who saw Dalkowski pitch believe he was the hardest thrower in baseball history. In a Newsday article from 1979, several baseball men discussed Dalkowski’s and his blazing fastball, http://www.sportingnews.com/archives/sports2000/players/175838.html ).

There have been many great pitchers who did not throw hard (Hall of Famer’s Hoyt Wilhelm, the Perry brothers, Whitey Ford).

And as one might suspect there have been, are and will continue to be many more unsuccessful pitchers who did/do/will not throw hard.

So the ability to throw hard is not necessarily a requirement for developing successful pitching skill.

But it is generally believed an accepted, that all other things being equal, and the important statement here is “all other things being equal”, that the ABILITY to throw a baseball hard predisposes a pitcher to potentially greater success at developing the skill of pitching.

How many of you understand the rationale-reasoning behind this?

It is not that hard throwers are more difficult to hit. Rather it is that the harder a pitcher throws, the more mistakes he can get away with.

Weighted Baseballs.

The use of weighted baseballs ranks right up there with the controversy over who shot JFK.

Most of the controversy is based on ignorance and opinion. These anti-weighted baseball feelings are fueled by “medical rationale” and logic. What I would call a “rehab” versus “prehab” mentality. It is also interesting to me that many of those who oppose weighted baseball training do so based upon their “common sense”. The commonsense being that attempting to throw something heavier than a regulation baseball exposes the player to greater risk of injury, i.e. creates greater stress on the arm and body, which is exactly opposite as to what the mentality was 50 years ago. 50 years ago it was believed that throwing something heavier would better prepare you to throw something lighter.

This commonsense is driven primarily a lack of understanding of training physiology i.e. how the body response to stress. The first principle of training and I quote from “Nueralmechanical Basis of Kinesiology”, 2nd Edition, Roger M. Enoka;

” Substantial effort has been focused on determining the nueral mechanical basis of muscle strength.  As a result of these efforts, several rules for the prescription of exercise have been elaborated.  These rules are often referred to as the principles of training.  One such rule is the overload principle (DeLorme, 1946) which may be stated as follows;

To increase their size or functional ability, muscle fibers must be taxed toward their present capacity to respond. This principle applies that there is a threshold point that must be exceeded before an adaptive response will occur.”

There are at least a dozen research studies on throwing/training with the use heavier and lighter of the baseballs and I quote ( http://www.asmi.org/asmiweb/research/throwing/overweight.htm ).

Seven overweight and four underweight training studies (6 – 12 weeks in duration) were conducted to determine how throwing velocity of regulation baseballs was affected due to training with these overweight and underweight baseballs. The overweight baseballs ranged in weight between 5.25-17 oz, while the underweight baseballs were between 4-4.75 oz. Data from these training studies strongly support the practice of training with overweight and underweight baseballs to increase throwing velocity of regulation baseballs.
It is also important to note that none of the studies report any incidence of injury. The studies involved at least 500 to 600 players primarily aged high school and older.

From an anecdotal perspective, Dr. John Bagonzi (Ph.D. dissertation “The Effects Of Graded Weighted Baseballs, Free Weight Training, And Simulative Isometric Exercise On The Velocity And Accuracy Of A Thrown Baseball”. Bagonzi, John Albert, Jr. Ped, Indiana University, 1979.), author and pitching researcher says this about weighted ball training and I quote . ( http://www.pitchingprofessor.com/weighted_ball._html ).

“When used properly, and with patience, the weighted ball can be an extremely effective aide. I’ve had nothing but success with them and several of my subjects who’ve gone on to the pros, swear by them and are absolutely dedicated to them. Unfortunately though, for every piece of good information, it seems there exists an even greater amount of misinformation and rumor that leads to condemnation, resistance or as with the case of weighted balls, misunderstanding about when they are called for and how they should be used”

Long Toss Training

I not sure why this is even a topic for debate. Contrary to some “experts” who claim long toss is a relatively recent phenomena, attempting to throw baseball as far is you can is a genetic trait. It’s called survival instinct i.e. competitiveness. Show me someone who doesn’t want to try and throw the baseball as far as they possibly can and I will show you someone who has virtually no chance of making it to the higher levels of baseball competition never mind that they will never maximize their baseball throwing capabilities.

There is a very good “scientific” as in motor learning and control (motor in this case means how the body learns and acquires movement abilities and skills) rationale for long toss especially with respect to pitchers. Long tossing or throwing as far as you can creates a high level of intent to throw the baseball without the constraints of trying to hit a target 46-60 feet away. In the parlance of motor control goal formation, i.e. that all volitional body movement is driven by goal achievement and that throwing for distance allows one to maximize their intent to throw hard. Throwing off the mound to a catcher and/or batter does not necessarily achieve the same goal formation.  It would be nice if it did but in many instances it does not.

Alan Jaeger and Jim Vatcher of Jaegersports (www.jaegersports.com) are two people who has done the most would long toss (since 1985).  Many professional players use their long toss program and here’s what they have to say:

“”Working with Alan the last four years has made my arm very strong, durable and flexible and that’s something every pitcher wants and looks for…long toss is definitely the biggest part of my game.” -Barry Zito, Pitcher, Oakland Athletics.

“I’ve seen where Alan has taken a fringe, high school pitcher and turned him into a Division I caliber pitcher. If a kid is serious about baseball, this program will definitely increase his velocity and arm strength.” -Dale Sutherland, Scout, Anaheim Angels.

Flat Ground Training

Again, I’m also not sure why there’s so much controversy regarding flat ground versus mound throwing/training. I suspect it’s due to attempts by unscientific people to be scientific. Those who think that the world lives and dies by the principle of training specificity, that if you are not throwing off the mound you are violating the specificity principle.

First, there’s no such thing as the “law” of specificity. For those were not aware of the specificity principle, it can be simply stated as if you want to get good at “something” you must practice that something. The potential problem with trying to apply the specificity principle “ad hoc” is the ability to distinguish between skill and ability development.

One of the best examples is demonstrated in the following research study:

The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Vol. 8, No. 3, pp. 198-203, Baseball Throwing Velocity: A Comparison of Medicine Ball Training and Weight Training, Robert U. Newton and Kerry I. McEvoy Centre for Exercise Science & Sport Management, Southern Cross University, Lismore NSW 2480, Australia and I quote:


This study examined the effect of upper body plyometric training, using medicine balls, and upper body conventional weight training on baseball throwing velocity and strength levels as assessed by a 6-RM bench press. Twenty-four junior development baseball players took part in an 8-week training study in conjunction with their baseball training. They were randomly allocated to one of three groups: a medicine ball training group, a weight training group, and a control group. The first group performed explosive upper body medicine ball throws, the weight training group performed conventional upper body weight training, and the control group only performed their normal baseball training. Pre- and post-training measurements of throwing velocity and 6-RM bench press were recorded. The weight training group produced the greatest increase in throwing velocity and 6-RM strength. The medicine ball group showed no significant increase in throwing velocity but did show a significant increase in strength. For this group of non-strength-trained baseball players, it was more effective to implement a weight training program rather than medicine ball training to increase throwing velocity.

The other issue with respect to flat ground versus mound training is the stress of throwing off flat ground versus the stress of throwing off a mound. The general baseball consensus/mentality is that throwing off a mound is MUCH MORE STRESSFUL on the arm versus flat ground throwing. And in a rehab environment flat ground throwing is considered to be much safer than throwing off a mound.

According to the study, KINEMATIC AND KINETIC COMPARISON OF BASEBALL PITCHING FROM A MOUND AND THROWING FROM FLAT GROUND, G.S. Fleisig, R.F. Escamilla, S.W. Barrentine, N. Zheng, J.R. Andrews, American Sports Medicine Institute, Birmingham, AL 35205, the difference in stress on the arm from throwing off the mound versus flat ground is as follows (first number represents defeat from mound mound/second number represents 60 ft. on flat ground)

Arm cocking phase: Elbow varus torque 54 ± 7/51 ± 8, Shoulder internal rotation torque 55 ± 10 /54 ± 10, Shoulder anterior force 330 ± 40 /340 ± 70

Arm acceleration phase: Elbow flexion torque 52 ± 7/52 ± 8

Arm deceleration phase: Elbow compressive force 800 ± 90/780 ± 100, Shoulder compressive force 910 ± 110/890 ± 110, Shoulder posterior force 360 ± 200/350 ± 150

Instant of ball release: Ball speed (mph) 79 ± 4/76 ± 4

From these numbers we see that there’s virtually no difference with between flat ground and mound with respect to stress represented by torque and force on the arm. From a percentage standpoint there is a significantly greater percentage increase in velocity throwing off the mound as compared to the present difference of stress on the arm in other words it appears that can throw with greater velocity with less stress off the mound you can on flat ground. Which makes sense, i.e. the additional dropping distance due to the mound versus flat ground allows more energy to be developed from the falling potential to kinetic energy of the body.

Stages of Player Development or Linear Versus Nonlinear Systems

The human body is a complex system.  Complex systems do not follow or adhere to linear principles.

Linear principles are based on a one-to-one correspondence, double your effort you should double your results.

That’s not how the body works. In the early phases of training and development you may expect to get greater returns (assuming efficient and proper instruction and training).

As an example, assumed two players, 12 years old, identical twins with the same physical capabilities (as an aside in the field of motor control and learning, identical twins are very much sought-after as laboratory subjects).

One player has never thrown the baseball and in his evaluation testing throws reaches 40 mph.

The other twin has been throwing for several years with excellent instruction and training and throws 70 mph.

Two Questions.

1. Do we train the 40 mph pitcher the same way that  we train the 70 mph pitcher?

2. And do we expect the same relative improvement from both players i.e. if the 40 mph pitcher improves by 20% (40 mph to 48 mph) do we expect the 70 mph pitcher to improve accordingly (70 mph to 84 mph)?

My “common sense” (if there is such a thing) tells me to answer no to both of these questions. And if your common sense tells you to do same, then you have an intuitive understanding of the principle of non-linearity also called complex systems theory.

Simply put, the initial state of the body has everything to do with what methods and results one uses. This seems to be ignored by many so-called “experts”.

As an example, is it possible that training for the 40 mph twin should be different than the 70 mph twin? And is it possible that weight ball training, long toss throwing in flat ground work might be just the thing that the 40 mph twin needs to optimize his progress in developing his abilities to throw baseball?

And is it possible that the 70 mph twin may obtain greater benefit from a training regimen which emphasizes more throwing off of the pitching mound then the 40 mph twins training regimen??

How Much of Your Thinking Is Influenced by Rehab Versus Prehab??

The medical establishment (ASMI) complains that players are trying to throw too hard. An article which appeared in July USA Today, Dr. James Andrews, founder of the ASMI and who is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on Tommy John and shoulder surgery, attributes the continued escalation of arm injuries to players trying to throw too hard to impress radar. And continues to advocate moderation all things have you do with throwing a baseball. Yet statistics compiled by those who responsible for insuring major-league players show that injuries to major-league pitcher’s continued to increase. This in spite of of major leagues adhering to “advances” such as the ASMI’s pitch counts, extended rest and restrictions on weight training for their pitchers.

The medical establishment seems to have little or no comprehension or understanding of studies (and common sense) that indicates that the average American youth bears little resemblance in terms of physical conditioning to his counterpart of 30 or 40 years ago.

~ Obesity among children has reached epidemic levels.
~ About 25% of all U.S. children are seriously overweight, and 15% are obese.
~ There are now 11 million obese children between the ages of 6-11 alone.
~ We are now raising a generation of couch potatoes.
~ Lack of physical activity is the number one reason kids become overweight.
~ Only 2% of the 18 million school children taking the President’s Physical Fitness Test last year were physically fit enough to receive the award.

( The above is from http://www.momcentral.com/necnobesity.htm )

I wonder if it occurs to the ASMI and the medical community in general, to that possibly just possibly that the problem is that today’s youth/players are under trained. And that their attempts to limit throwing is actually making players more susceptible to injury.

There are more than a few coaches at the major-league level who now feel that the doctors are now in control of player development.  This is due to management’s attempt to protect its player investments. And is working under the potentially misguided belief that doctors are their best source of injury prevention. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This overdependence on the medical community to develop standards and procedures for developing players ripples down to all levels of baseball. Because parents, coaches who are responsible for developing their sons and players look too major-league baseball as the definitive source for player development information.

There are a few people are starting to question today’s so-called advances in training and developing baseball players. Especially the so-called “advances” in training methods that do not stress the player at levels equal to or exceeding what they encounter under game conditions. Unfortunately their voice is still far too faint as compared to those who want to save our youth from the evils of throwing too hard and too often.

In Conclusion

There is no magic recipe for maximizing a player’s abilities and skills to throw baseball.  From my perspective, in some (many??) ways today’s player is at a greater disadvantage than yesterday’s players in spite of all of the so-called “advances” in baseball instruction and training.

It is my opinion that much of today’s baseball instruction and training is nothing more than attempt to catch up AND “make up” for what used to be, i.e. young kids playing baseball day in and day out. And in doing so discovering what they need to do with their bodies to maximize both their abilities and skills to throw and pitch a baseball. Most of the instructional information that exists today is the opinion opinion of the person selling the instruction, little of which is supported by any form of rigorous investigation and scientific fact.

We can only hope that through efforts such as Webball’s pitching challenges, that the process of bridging the gap between what used to be and what players and coaches want to be will happen in a more timely and knowledgeable fashion.

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