The following is an article that I wrote for Collegiate Baseball News in 2003. This is the original manuscript. The original article was shortened by the publisher due to space limitations. In rereading the article I feel that it is as relevant today as it was when I wrote it in 2003. Enjoy!
“No two pitching “experts” can occupy the same point in space at the same time”….. Paul Nyman
Pitching Instruction, Form vs. Function?
Most Common Player Question: How can I get more velocity on my fastball? Most Common Pitching “Guru” Answer: Work on developing good pitching mechanics. Which “to me” always raises the question “just what are good mechanics??” Paul Nyman
“We don’t get no respect”
You are at the annual ABCA meeting. As you scan your program you see that is speaking at 1:00 PM is Ron Wilforth of the Texas Baseball Ranch, his topic Developing the Athletic Pitcher. At the same time is Paul Nyman of SETPRO on Developing Major League Pitching Arm Action. Which seminar do you attend?
Or someone you know as a knowledgeable baseball person and introduces Paul Nyman, what is the first thing that pops into your head (Hint: "who the heck is this guy…?")?
Such is the life of the pitching instruction "no-name". Someone who pitched in high school and possibly college or possibly not even that as opposed to being a former professional player of coach.
There’s a lot of us out there. Many of us are the "Rodney Dangerfield’s" of pitching information and instruction, as in "we don’t get no respect". Of course the obvious question, "why should we get your respect…??"
(As an aside and from the "I could not resist department", Ron Wilforth’s Athletic Pitcher Program is based upon a presentation that I made at his 2002 Pitching Coaches Boot Camp.)
It’s all about judging form vs. recognizing function.
How much of our everyday decision making is based on “form vs. function”? Decisions, discussions and debate based more on “appearance” or perception (form) than on actual performance, specific knowledge and results obtained (function).
Form: the shape and structure of something as distinguished from its substance.
Function: the action for which a person or thing is particularly fitted or employed.
(Definitions of “form” and “function” from The American Heritage Dictionary, Second College Edition)
When it comes to the topic of how to best instruct and train a pitcher to throw baseball it is my experience that 97 out of 100 times, form (what the pitcher looks like) “wins out” over function (the actual results of him throwing a baseball) is what is “argued” as in:
Most Common Question: How can I get more velocity on my fastball? Most Common Answer: Work on developing good pitching mechanics and velocity will “come”.
Which then “begs” the question, what are “good mechanics”? And that’s where the FUN begins.
Are good mechanics tall and fall, pause at the top of your delivery, achieving postural stability, making sure that nothing happens until foot plant, going to the high cock position, keeping your weight back, the direct application of Newton’s laws, yadda, yadda, yadda…..?
Or are good mechanics simply a “no teach”…??
Could it be that we as coaches/instructors are attempting to do something that is virtually impossible, trying to understand something we cannot see (how the muscles and nervous system work to throw a baseball)? And then attempt to teach something we cannot possibly teach (how the player actually uses his nervous system and muscles to throw a baseball)??
Is it because all we can really do is see and teach what we CAN see (form)? And then hope that we achieve the desired results (function)?
I may not be a widely recognized pitching authority. But I am an engineer and founder of SETPRO. SETPRO stands for Sports Engineering & Training PROducts. A “no name” who has spent the last 15 years developing sports training systems and products, the last five years with concentrating on how the body throws a baseball.
Please do not confuse “engineer” with scientist or researcher. Engineers are trained to find solutions to problems. Where as scientists and researchers are looking for absolute truth. And with respect to the best way to prepare and throw a baseball, something (absolute truth) that may never happened in our life time
Players and their situations I recently worked with to help see my “form”.
Case 1. Two years ago an 18-year-old player, Bryan, 6’1” tall, 180# left hander, called and asked if he could come and see me. Previously he posted on the SETPRO web site that he was following a well known “commercial” pitching program and was not improving. His efforts to get assistance from the developer of the program were eventually met by “your problem is that you are just not working hard enough at it”. (this player is one of the hardest working players that I have come to know). He would do his ‘wall drills” (throw with his back against a wall to prevent the dreaded hyper flexion, i.e. elbows going behind his back), 2×4 balance drills (going through the throwing motion while balancing on a 2×4), the “popular” towel drill (“attempting” to teach extension by going through the throwing motion with a knotted towel in hand). The day he came to visit, I was working with a player (drafted out of high school but chose to go to college) who flew in from California with his father (another “refugee” from the same pitching program). The first step is for the player to warm up, video tape him and measure his velocity. Bryan’s maximum velocity was 72 MPH.
“Fast forward” two years later. I am doing a pitching seminar in Lynnwood Washington. Bryan, who I have been working with via the SETPRO web site and personal correspondence, lives and goes to school nearby. I ask him and two other players in the area to come in and throw to demonstrate some of my training and instructional techniques as part of my seminar presentation. Bryan proceeded to warm up and them hit 92 MPH on the gun in front of 40 coaches and a few scouts. Remember this is the same player who two years ago at age 18, an age when most players are “written off”, threw 72 MPH “max”.
There’s a “corollary” to this story in that another left-hander, a junior in college that I started working with via the Internet, threw 87 MPH that day. He told me afterwards that it was 11 MPH faster than what he was throwing 6 weeks ago. This player also told me that his coach was an “ardent’ believer in the towel drill. And that he had performed literally thousands of towel drills for this coach over the past two years in an attempt to “improve” his ability to throw a baseball.
Case 2. This player was a third round, 6’3″, 200# right handed draft choice two years ago. When drafted he was throwing consistently 91-93 MPH. And could touch 95 MPH. Two years later his velocity is 83-85 MPH. I found out about his velocity decrease through another third rounder that I had work with (same ML team). I also knew of this player because he went to a local university (graduated) and lives about 25 miles from the training facility that I work out of. I contacted this player and invited him to come see me. Being either desperate or smart, he accepted my invitation. I also asked him if he had videotape himself pitching taken previous to his velocity decrease. He did. On viewing the tape and watching him throw it was obvious to me what the problems were. His coaches (minor league high A ball) slowed his delivery down and wanted him to ‘circle up’ to the high cock position, two very popular pitching beliefs/instructional. In this players case (and most players cases) this will almost always decrease (distroy?) the players velocity. The interesting thing (to me) was that his “old way” of throwing was much more consistent with my beliefs as to the optimal way (i.e. “good mechanics”) of throwing a baseball. After just two sessions this player’s velocity increased by 5 MPH. And the latest reports that I get from spring training are that his 90+ MPH fastball is back.
I am not a product of traditional pitching instructional “culture”.
I also believe that my specific background and experience allows me more flexibility in how I “see” and “what” I see when a player throws a baseball. At the very least I bring a different set of eyes to the pitching instruction arena. A set of eyes not clouded by throwing perceptions shaped from traditional pitching “wisdom” or dogma.
It is also my experience that very few of those who played the game, even at the highest levels are able to adequately explain how they did it. And fewer yet who can successfully teach how “they’ threw the baseball 95+ MPH.
Holding up “my” mirror, the present state of pitching instruction.
Baseball instruction, unlike some other skill sports such as golf, requires no certification process. Anyone can proclaim them selves as a baseball instructional “expert” (yours truly included…).
It’s little wonder that faced with this dilemma, those seeking pitching instruction/information are left to judge the competence of the instructor and quality of his information by that persons baseball background and reputation (form) as opposed to the judging the instructional process itself (function). “Common sense” dictates that a person who played professional baseball or coached at a professional level “must” know more about how to throw and teach throwing a baseball than someone who does not have this same experience. Again it is my experience that quite often the harsh light of obtaining results shows otherwise.
The inability to convert on the field performance to off the field instruction is the same reason why players cannot convert off the field instruction to on the field performance. And can be explained by the perception vs. reality paradox that motor control and learning theory predicts (motor control and learning is the study of how the body performs and learns skills). This theory states that whenever a goal directed movement takes place there are two systems at work in the body. One is the system that performs the actual movement that takes place (effects the actual movement of the muscles). The other system creates our perception of the movement that took place (how we “thought” our body moved). The “consequence” of having these two systems at work is that what a player thinks he is doing (his perception of what his body is doing) is many times is different than what is actually happening (form vs. function, i.e. perception/cues vs. reality).
How do you teach what you can’t see?
Throwing a baseball is achieved by something that no one can really see, the muscles of the body and their coordination. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Associations publication “Essentials of Strength and Conditioning” there are approximately 430 muscles in the body. No matter what movement activity, all muscles are involved, either in an active (on) state or an inactive (off) state. This means that there are 2430 power combinations of muscle actions that can take place when a player throws a baseball.
To give you an idea of how large this number is, if there is only ONE combination of muscles required to effectively throw a baseball and that one combination were a single grain of sand, you would have to search all of the beaches of all of the oceans on the planet earth (and then some) to find that one grain of sand.
It has also been shown (noted Russian physiologist and researcher Nicholas Bernstein) that no matter how well practiced a skill the exact same sequence of muscle actions are never repeated even though the end result is the same.
And teach something we cannot teach?
Pitching instruction (any movement skill) poses the problem of trying to instruct what we cannot see, muscle activation and their coordination. The pitching instructor has the virtually impossible task of trying to instruct something he cannot see and cannot directly teach, how to use the muscles of the player’s body to best throw a baseball.
Therefore virtually all of pitching instruction is done through subjectivity and inference. Some are attempting to change this and bring science to bear on the process of throwing a baseball. The use of high-speed video combined with computer analysis and simulation is adding to our knowledge of what the body looks like throwing a baseball. Unfortunately even with video and computer analysis, we still suffer from the same “blindness” in that it cannot see what the muscles are actually doing.
Attempts to measure muscle activity while throwing a baseball have been made by researchers and such organizations as the ASMI. These techniques are relatively primitive and results are inconclusive due to the vast number of combinations of muscles that are employed in throwing a baseball.
Another problem that exists with this research and pitching instruction in general is caused by “reductionism” vs. “wholism”. The reductionist believes the best way to throw a baseball can be determined by taking the throwing process apart, piece by piece. And if the parts are broken down into finer and finer pieces and analyzed, eventually this analysis will yield a picture of the entire pitching process. On the other hand the “wholist” takes the approach that the whole is greater than sum of the parts. And therefore only by studying the pitching delivery as a whole can the process be fully understood.
The present state of pitching “science” is very much in its infancy. Any attempt to claim pitching “absolutes” based upon either anecdotal experience or so called “scientific research” is in my opinion at best “optimistic. At its worse, foolish. The concept of “good” mechanics, at least as it’s presented by most pitching coaches, is at best “individually subjective”, as in “eyes of the behlder”. “Good” with respect to want? Or good for what reason? I find it interesting that according to some pitching belief systems, pitchers such as Juan Marichal, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Warren Spawn and a host of others would, according to their definition(s) NOT have “good” mechanics. Which leads me to the conclusion that at present all we can hope to do is identify pitching “principles”, those actions and teachings which SEEM to produce better results than OTHER instructions and teachings.
Bob Feller on left, Sandy Koufax , center, Warren Spawn on right. Feller & Koufax NOT pausing at the top of their delivery, shoulders are not level, eyes not level, etc. Spawn, no postural stability, hyper flexing, shoulders not level, hips don’t stay closed until foot plant. Neither pitcher a “prospect” by today’s “standards”
Pitching Mechanics vs. Pitcher Training
One of the “benefits” of progress and technology is a higher degree of specialization. Today’s major league teams have pitching coaches who are primarily responsible for developing the players pitching capabilities. They have the team doctors and trainers who are responsible for the pitchers health and well being. And strength & conditioning specialists who, in theory, are responsible for developing the pitchers body to maximally throw baseball. Each group also has a significantly different “purpose and mission”, especially at the major league level. In today’s professional game the people who exert the most control over what a pitcher does or does not do are the doctors and trainers.
The investment that major league organizations (business’s) make in their players dictates virtually all policy. As with any high dollar value investment it must be protected, the number one issue then becomes the health of the player and his arm.
Nowhere is this situation more evident than in the restrictions that the strength and conditioning people must work under. Typical of a teams priorities is what happened two years ago when a major organization eliminated their entire strength and conditioning organization as a cost reduction measure.
I also don’t think this thought process (protect the investment) takes into account “how did the player become so valuable (perform so well) to begin with”? Is the training regimen, types of activities that got the player to a first-round status before the draft the same after the draft? Most of the time it is not resulting in the decline of the player’s abilities to throw a baseball. In attempting to protect their investment, organizations are potentially putting the player at greater risk of either decreased performance or increased susceptibility to injury or both.
I can relate a story from the National Strength and Conditioning Associations Sports Specific Training Seminar for Baseball from three years ago. Fernando Montes, strength and conditioning coach for the Cleveland Indians, told the audience that if a player wants to do a certain left in the way room that is not on the “standard” as in “acceptable list” of lifts, that he will still let the player perform those lifts. Because the player wants to do this, the player is taking responsibility But if Fernando wants the player to do a lift that the player has not totally “bought into” and the player injures himself, Fernando said that the next day he would be calling 1-800 TRUCKMASTER looking for a job.
Today, this same “fear” and “protection” affects much of what is taught and marketed as pitching instruction. The “irony” is that instruction is “sold” promising opposite ends of the spectrum as in “protect your arm and gain “5-7 MPH”. The premise of this selling approach being that through more efficient pitching mechanics and better training methods you can have your cake and eat it too. In reality there is absolutely no proof that the seller of the program has discovered better mechanics or a better training system (other than taking the sellers word for it). And all other things being equal, increasing velocity INCREASES the stress on the arm, which by all of the principles of physiology and physics INCREASES the probability of injury. This is simply a fact of life and the nature of the “beast” which to many seem to ignore or have no understanding of. Throwing harder puts more stress on the body/arm which in turn increases the probability of injury. And pitchers are being told to throw less or train less stressfully when in reality they should be throwing more and more aggressively.
More and more trainers from major league baseball are questioning today’s throwing practices. Primarily the throwing work load of today’s Major League pitchers (and by direct association, all levels of baseball). Yet the people, strength and conditioning professionals, who are in the best position to make decisions about training load and its effect, have little no say about this matter.
Work load such as pitch counts have become the “property” of the medical community. The irony is they are not based on any real science. To the best of my knowledge, pitch counts recommended by the ASMI were determined from a poll taken of doctors and trainers (please note, trainers are not the strength and conditioning specialists). In other words there is absolutely no research or studies (that I am aware of) to support these pitch count numbers.
The reason all of this is important to understand is because many coaches are under the impression that major league baseball represents the apex of baseball pitching in training knowledge and activities. Anyone who has a real understanding of the training process and has been any time with a major league organization would see very quickly this is not the case. Unfortunately much of pitching instruction is “sold” on the basis of what major league players allegedly due or don’t do. What adds even more confusion to this situation is that at the major league level almost every player has her own personal trainer or works with some outside training organization. And each trainer or training organization has their own “special” way of training athlete. It’s called marketing 101.
Form vs. Function, Risk vs. Reward
It wasn’t that many years ago (actually it was) that I used to leave in the morning on a bicycle and not return until dark, yet my parents had very little concern as to my safety. There simply was not the fear and over protectiveness that exits today. And riding my bike was my means of transportation. We only had one car and if I wanted to go somewhere, it was up to me to get myself there.
Today, very few kids use their bicycles as a means of transportation. Part of the reason is the general increase in affluence. Part of the reason is that we are a society that is more fearful and less trustful than 50 years ago. Very few kids (if any) play sandlot baseball or any type of pickup or baseball type games other than organized baseball. Young players today do not participate in the same types of activities that developed baseball players 50 years ago. Today’s youth baseball experience is usually very structured. And many times there is very little incentive or latitude for a player to experiment and explore throwing movements other than those found “acceptable” by the coaches.
And just where or how do these coaches acquire their pitching knowledge? Some gain it through personal experience (played the game). Others gain it through instructional information, such as books, videos and seminars. Today there’s no comparison to the amount of instructional information available today as compared to 50 years ago. The increase of this information almost parallels the decline in playground baseball.
Society is also much less patient today than 50 years ago. Instant gratification is more than norm than the exception. Fast foods, instant coffee, over night delivery, microwave ovens, most commercial pitching programs are sold with the promise of producing quick results. Instruction programs that promise velocity, control and good health. In reality the pitching success they promise is designed to get the batter out and winning a baseball game for the player and coach. And the quickest way to achieve this is to get the player to throw strikes. They are also designed for a playing population that for the most part, possess questionable athleticism.
And yet the most precious commodity sought in any pitcher is the one thing that is NOT taught! Be it real or perceived, it is velocity, the skill of throwing the baseball hard. Something that is believed by most as “un-teachable” (as in you are either born with it or you are not) and therefore “cannot” be taught. And most of the time a player who try’s to throw hard is discouraged from doing so by coaches/instructors. As in just try and throw strikes.
All of which supports what many baseball people believe to be true that the players in countries such as the Dominican Republic have skills superior to our players because they play or should I say are allowed to play baseball (as opposed to organized baseball). In other words they are given much greater latitude to explore and discover baseball movement skills through the natural process of trial and error. As opposed to more structured methods that are possibly less than optimal for developing a player’s maximum throwing potential. Pitching instruction designed to produce quick and acceptable results as opposed to maximizing a players throwing potential. A preoccupation with control at all levels of baseball. This is a natural consequence of throwing strikes as being the quickest way to pitching success, both in getting batters out and winning baseball games.
This/these same problem(s) confront the high school or college coach. Most coaching at the high school or college level is geared for team vs. individual performance. Coaches look to “proven” or should I say “safe” methods of instruction and training. Pushing the envelope or making radically different changes with a player’s mechanics, especially if that player is performing well enough to win does not happen. This is not necessarily the coaches fault. It is just a fact of baseball life.
Form vs. Function, Return On Training Time
One of the very important issues facing the player, coach, parent of the player is selecting those activities that provide the greatest return on a players training efforts. The principle of specificity and transfer are two key concepts that all training and instruction should satisfy. Unfortunately most of what is being “touted” as specificity is very unspecific. And therefore has minimal if any transfer to the task of throwing a baseball in a game type situation.
Therefore one of the greatest challenges facing the coach and S&C coach in designing a program is how do they distinguish between activities that enhance ability vs. activities that enhance skill. Abilities are those raw components from which skills are constructed. And from what I see, many of the activities that players undertake neither enhance ability or develop skill.
A study was done in Australia on senior league level pitchers entitled “Medicine Ball Training Can Be “Hit Or Miss”. This study that was done several years ago on high level pitchers (all between the ages of 19-26 with 5 or more years of experience). They were divided into three groups. Control group did their normal training/practice. Medicine ball group did two of the most frequently used exercises for pitchers (two hand over head throw and twisting side throw). Weight training group did bench press and triceps extensions. Pitchers were tested for velocity before start of study and at end of study (after 10 weeks of training). The only group to show a statistically significant increase in velocity was the weight trained group. One of the conclusions of the study was that medicine ball training as done in this study might not be specific enough to throwing a baseball. Also that the higher the level of the player, the more difficult it is to effect a training response (medicine ball training as done in this study was not stressful enough to cause the body to increase it’s throwing performance).
These types of studies pose serious questions for those who advocate functional training as a more specific way to build throwing ability than traditional strength training. That functional training is not as “throwing specific” as they think. Also what many functional training advocates do not take into consideration is that many of the athletes they work with a professional level every spent many years strength training using traditional methods. The question that can be asked is worth functional training at a professional level yield the same results if those players had not trained using traditional methods prior to their functional training?
A Pitching Coach OR A Throwing Coach?
“I appreciate your honesty and have no problem with your assessment of pitching coaches in general. Easy targets, because, obviously, most pitching coaches are not what they are held out to be. Equally so, I see you as more of a conditioning/velocity coach than a pitching coach, who until you have been hired or fired on that merit are free to point all the fingers you want. I am a performance analyst who happens to coach pitchers.”
Is a response from a nationally known pitching instructional person to an email in which I said the following:
“But I will also be quite frank with you (a “trait” of mine that you will come to “appreciate”) that in the grand scheme of pitching instruction, I am a relative unknown. This combined with I also believe I know more about how the body throws and learns to throw a baseball than most “experts” creates and interesting “dilemma” for me (you?).”
I have a fairly extensive background in track and field. Track and field has several events that can be classified as throwing and object. The closest of which is the javelin throw. And a track and field team does not usually have a “javelin coach” per se. There is a “throwing events” coach, but not a javelin coach.
At a recent National Strength and Conditioning Seminar on Sport Specific Training for Baseball, the question was asked of the coaches round table discussion group as to their thoughts on the use of weighted implements. Dr Gene Coleman of the Houston Astro’s had a particularly interesting response to the question. He cited numerous examples of training to throw including how Nolan Ryan as a 15 years old was throwing a softball 330′ and then told by his coaches to stop doing this because he might hurt his arm. Dr. Coleman also said that he asked track and field people (throwing events) what they did. He said they told him that they threw kettle ball, softballs with nails hammered into them, etc. He also said that they would increase their throwing distance by 50′ ore more during their 4 years in college. And that major league baseball has a very poor record of increasing a player’s velocity once they are drafted. And then went on to say (almost in contradiction to everything that he just previously said) that with the players hat he works with they cannot take the risk of using these techniques (major league clubs have too much money invested in the players).
I also find it interesting that some of the strongest arms in baseball belong to position players. Yet they receive virtually no throwing instruction.
All of which poses (to me anyways) several questions or should I say raises the issues of just what is a pitching coach?? And are here or should there be really two types of coaches, a pitching coach who teaches the ‘art’ of pitching. And a throwing coach who teaches the science of maximizing your ability to throw a baseball?
Form vs. Function, Cues vs. Reality
How many of us have heard and buy into the saying that “practice makes perfect” or “practice does not make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”. I know that for most of my life I have.
Much of how pitching (and hitting) instruction is viewed/taught is based upon this belief/premise. That there exists a “perfect” way of throwing a baseball. That those who throw a baseball effectively exhibit this good ‘form’.
But more recently this view/approach has been modified by some in an attempt to take into account the problem/dilemma posed by those who throw the baseball exceptionally well but differ from there ‘ideal’ (good) mechanics. I see this most often on web sites where the pitching expert will try to explain the differences in how high level pitchers throw a baseball by using the word ‘style’ to “explain” the various deviations from their ‘perfection”.
Another interesting (to me) approach is “no teach”. No teach is used to explain the unexplainable. In other words those parts those parts of the pitching sequence that are not explainable are referred to as no teach. Which to me poses the question of how does one really know where teach “ends” and “no teach” begins??
As I said earlier, I have been designing training and measurement products and systems for sports for about 15 years. But it was not until about 6 years ago that I started to investigate the actual process of throwing a baseball and swinging a bat.
And being the good engineer that I think I am, the first thing I did was put video of the best pitchers on a computer and study them frame-by-frame. Which resulted in two things. The understanding that much of what is taught is nothing more than “cues”. But unfortunately these cues are many times accepted and reality. And resulted in the following article on the SETPRO web site:
“The other day I had a nice talk with a former Minnesota Twins pitcher (early 80’s vintage)“. He now coaches a college pitching staff as well as a team of 13 year olds. Last year he worked extensively with *** ***** (who by he way has “again” made some significant changes to his pitching theories). Anyways, I asked him what he thought of some of today’s current crop of “pitching gurus” (that’s how *** *****’* (and others) name came up). In the course of the conversation I told him that my personal experiences (especially my experience with web postings) have lead me to a several observations (he has had similar experiences).
“Pitching mechanics is in the same realm as religion and politics.” Very emotional issue based more on faith and opinion than fact. At one time (when I was very young and innocent researcher) I thought that If all givers of information (pitching, hitting,….) would distinguish between what they have actually experience and see as compared to what they hear, read or have opinions about (first hand vs. second hand vs. personal beliefs) it would solve this problem. But many years later I know that even this would not work.
“People need beliefs.” Beliefs are the foundation for our very existence and achievements. But beliefs can be so strong that they block one’s ability to really see. One day I happened to have a web conversation (on a popular pitching discussion board) with a coach about Rob Nen’s hip rotation. I said Nen reached most of his hip rotation (actually HIP JOINT ROTATION) before front foot plant (based on a game video of him that I did a careful analysis of). This “coach” (who had taped the same game) said I was crazy, that Nen’s hips were closed at foot plant and opened after foot plant. This has happened a number of times since (two people watching the same pitcher, I saw one thing, other person saw something different). There are three possible explanations; 1. I saw what actually happened, he saw what he thought actually happened. 2. He saw what actually happened and I thought I saw what actually happened. 3. We both saw what we thought actually happened. Next stop…the TwiLight Zone.
“Perception vs. reality.” How do you teach/make a pitcher (or hitter) to make his body perform high speed automatic of actions (ballistic events). Researchers call this automatically or muscle memory. Many, many times you can’t address the problem directly (stay closed until… and then rotate….etc.). You have to find what I call “cues” or “facilitators” that achieve the desired end result even though you may be telling them to do something that technically is not correct.
“The problem occurs when “cues” are accepted as “absolute truths”.” I believe that 90% of the disagreement over issues like drop and drive versus only pulling and not pushing off the rubber is caused by accepting cues as absolute truths. Waiting until foot plant to explode is a cue. It helps the player from opening up too soon. The problem occurs when you try to analyze the video you just took of the pitcher. You see his hips are 30-40% open at foot plant (which most major against pitcher achieve), but because of belief in the “cue” you tell him he is opening too soon. This pitcher, coach, parent is now heading for possible problems.
“Speaking from my own experience, the average coach, parent, player has no idea what they’re looking at.” They do not have enough training to correctly interpret what they are seeing. They may have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Much of what is happening is what you “don’t” see (internal workings of the body). It’s like saying you’re to make a race car go faster by making the body very sleek and fast “looking” without paying attention to the engine and suspension. Yes it may go a little faster, but nowhere near as fast as changes to the internals could produce. Every time I look at my videos, I still see new information. And most I have reviewed frame by frame at least 200 times. Relationships of time, distance, velocity, acceleration, etc. and how the external actions are controlled by the internal actions. Much of the information is obtained by watching body part actions other than the one you are directly trying to analyze.
“One problem with video is that for many observations standard 30 frame rate is really not fast enough”. A pitcher goes from zero to maximum hip rotation speed in less than one frame (we are talking about speed not the amount of rotation). It’s the timing of reaching maximum hip speed that’s critical. The amount of rotation is important, but the speed and timing of is even more so.
“The best that any player, coach or parent can do is to always search for a second, third and fourth opinions (more information).” I’ve been around this game long enough to know that there are no absolutes when it comes to training. How to maximize the bodies ability to throw a baseball with maximum velocity, movement and control is one of the least understood areas in sports science. There are an enormous number of variables to deal with. The best we can do right now to develop training programs is to use the limited amount of research that has been done on pitching (which is virtually non existent compared to other sports), sort out as best we can anecdotal stories, add some general principles of training, borrow research from other sports that we think is applicable to pitching and try it out and measure the results.
“There are many knowledgeable people out there.” The problem is, the ones who know the most know how much they don’t know. And they’re not heard from because they know its ridiculous to make “absolute” statements about what works and what does not. That’s left to the salesmen, politicians and preachers.”
Cues vs. Reality. One popular “teach” is the hips stay closed UNTIL foot plant. This may be an effective “cue” but it is not “reality”. Nolan Ryan shows that to throw with maximum velocity the hips MUST open before foot plant (right hand most picture is Ryan AT foot plant). This is a kinetic chain biomechanical imperative
Function, the SETPRO Approach
SETPRO’s pitching program is called An Engineering Approach to Designing the 95 MPH Delivery and uses the following concepts:
Biomechanics (Applied Body Physics)
Physiology (How the Body Develops Movement Power)
Motor Control & Learning
Some major form vs. function issue that “I” see with present day pitching instruction.
Pitching Mechanics Issues
Arm action, the number one issue. Why? For two reasons. One having to do with form and the other with function. The first thing scouts and most knowledgeable coaches look at is a pitcher’s arm action. They look for a lose, whippy, quick arm. The function reason is quite simple; arm action determines velocity, movement and location. Many baseball people believe that arm slot and arm action are “genetic”, a “phylogenic” property of the human species. They are NOT. Arm slot and arm action are learned motor skills. This learning begins when the first rattle is thrown out of the crib. Others instructors do make an “attempt” at arm action “teach” (as opposed to a “non teach”?). The teach being “go to the high cock position”. And in this case the teach is worse than the “no teach” (my opinion). I can only guess that this teach resulted from observing (the form) that a pitcher at some point in the delivery achieved this postural position. Unfortunately whomever came up with this teach did not understand what preceded the high cock position. The bottom line, arm action can and should be worked on. But as with all critically important things, only if you know what you are doing”
SETPRO’s approach: The shoulder-arm-hand-finger sequence/action IS the single most important part of the throwing process. I recently had the privilege of attending spring training as the guest of the Minor League Pitching Coordinator for a Major League team. Approximately 80 percent of all pitchers that watched had arm actions that will preclude them from ever maximizing their pitching potential. We were able to help several of the players during my visit. But for older players (more experienced) arm action is a very highly ingrained skill and therefore becomes much more difficult to either make changes to and/or improve. Our greatest success with more advanced players is to increase the tempo of their arm action as most players for reasons to be explained that will a break in the kinetic change of throwing a baseball. Younger players are much more “plastic” and their ability to make arm action changes.
Nothing happens until foot plant and all that matters is that you are in a good throwing position at foot plant. From physiology we know that the muscles, body cannot produce force instantaneously. To achieve or produce maximal muscle power proper preparation MUST PRECEED any ballistic action. This is all explained understood by the principles of eccentric-concentric muscle action, stretch reflex, elasticity of connective tissue, muscle potentiation of muscle fiber and intent. To say that nothing happens until foot plant and or all that matters is getting into a good throwing position at foot plant short changes the players ability to understand that the body can be prepared more effectively to throw baseball prior to foot plant.
SETPRO approach: what happens prior to foot plant determines everything that happens at foot plant. One of the most effective methods that we have found to maximize what does happen at foot plant is to use the backwards-chaining process as applied to pitching instruction. Backwards chaining is not a new concept and has been around for many years. In fact Geoff Zahn has a video entitled “Pitching Step-By-Step” where he explains his backwards-chaining process. But SETPRO’s implementation, which we have developed and used for over two years, goes far beyond previous attempts at applying the backwards-chaining process to throwing a baseball as we have combined backwards chaining with our knowledge of the physiology of how the body develops maximum throwing power.
Postural stability. The belief here is that all pitchers should somehow “set” their posture and maintain this posture through out the entire delivery. And that the head must be maintained on a straight line from beginning to end of the delivery. First of all I have difficulty with he term “postural stability”. As applied to a pitcher throwing a baseball, technically (biomechanically speaking) there is no such thing as postural stability. Postural efficiency, yes. Technically postural stability is possible only if the pitcher is not moving and is in a state of static equilibrium and his center of gravity has not moved beyond his base of support. Hardly a condition that promotes or achieves a pitchers maximum throwing potential. The intent of postural stability, as I understand it, is to limit and/or prevent motions that do not contribute to the effective throwing of a baseball. This is not the definition postural stability. This is the degrees of freedom problem that noted kinesiology and physiology researcher Nicholas Bernstein identified almost 70 years ago. What Bernstein found was that when a new skill is being learned that muscle groups and joints are “locked” together providing greater control at the expense of greater performance. As a skill he comes more effectively learned, muscle groups are released an allowed to act more independently creating a more fluid and efficient movement action i.e. becoming more skillful.
SETPRO approach: much of what SETPRO does is predicated on motor learning and control theory combined with biomechanics and physiology. Is my belief that understanding of the key concepts of research and study is the only hope that the instructor has of understanding what cannot be seen i.e. how the nervous system in muscles work in conjunction with each other to throw baseball. From physiology we know that the eccentric-concentric muscle actions are vitally important for producing force and power. And that there are other mechanisms such as stretch reflex and elastic properties that contribute significantly to throwing a baseball. That posture is only effective if it can optimize these variables. We also know that the head is not necessarily the center of the body’s movement universe. Is more likely that the center of mass or center gravity is the central reference point for most movement activities. And that the head’s primary responsibility is to provide visual and vestbicular (balance information from the inner ear) along with the body’s proprioceptive sensing to provide positional information of the body parts to effect the desired movement goal. What is also interesting is that children rely much more heavily on the visual sensing system to help them maintain balance and control body position whereas as one gets older less dependence is placed on our visual system and more on our overall proprioceptive senses. SETPRO attempts to use the motor learning principal that the final goal dictates how the body performs the movement actions. And that if the goal is to maintain the head on a straight line as opposed to throwing a baseball with maximal efficiency than that’s what the body will most likely attempt to do. The combining of science, observation and experience to “engineer” a training-instructional system is present in everything that we try to do.
Keep your weight back and or stay back. This cue has done more damage than one can imagine. The very thing that it tries to solve i.e. rushing or pushing off the rubber is in actuality what it creates. Because the way that most pitchers interpret this “cue” is to sit and collapse at the pitching rubber and then they have to rush the delivery to get to foot plant. Thus this cue promotes the very thing, rushing and pushing, that it attempts to prevent. This cue “rates” right up there with pause at the top of your delivery and going to the high cock position.
SETPRO approach: the problem here is that the cue of staying back does not do a good job of matching the desired movement. Again the problem of form vs. function. In this case (as in almost all instructional cases) is creating the proper informational cues so that the player can translate them into effective body movement. A very important part of the SETPRO process videotaping the player for analysis. And then providing videotape for instructional feedback for the player. One of the most effective ways (for me) to work with pitchers is to find a major league caliber pitcher who I consider does a good job of throwing the baseball and matches the attributes (physical and throwing “style”) of the player that I’m working with. As an example the player in Case No. 1 above. One of the models that we tried to use was Scott Kazmir, a 6’0”, 180# left hander, who throws mid 90’s and was drafted in the first-round of last year’s major league draft by the NY Mets. In particular I was trying to convey the concept of getting forwards, what I Ferris wheel affect that is part of most high levels pitchers throwing of the baseball. As hard as the player and I tried he could not duplicate the same actions of Kazmir. I believe part of the reason is due to his body type. Brian is more of a meso morph (a stockier wider body type) whereas cast their is more of a endomorph (a longer, leaner body type). So instead of banging a head against the wall, I switched to Mike Stanton as the player that Brian should uses his visual model. And this has worked out very well.
Slowing down the delivery. This seems to be standard procedure for working with players who have control/location problems. Or it is taught from the very beginning of a pitchers instructional life. Pitchers can and do try to be too fast in using their body to throw baseball. But again has been my experience that far more pitchers take too long to throw baseball with a “slow” delivery. In many ways slowing down the delivery works against the player. Not only can it decrease the pitchers capability to produce force, and power. It can also make the pitcher’s delivery more susceptible to timing and sequencing errors. This has been borne out with the success that I have had with speeding up pitchers deliveries not only improving velocity but control and movement on their pitches. Again, like everything else that I try to do their sound by mechanical and physiological reasons to support the statements.
SETPRO approach: very simple, one of the cues that I use is to tell pitcher to move as fast as he possibly can. In this case I have made the distinction that his rhythm is correct (and other words the sequence of how he uses his body to throw baseball is proper) and I’m looking to speed up the overall tempo of the delivery. Why? Because of the physiological benefits of the centric-concentric, stretch reflex, elastic energy storage and connective tissue, and probably the most important in that to maximize momentum and power transfer using the kinetic chain, each segment must connect to the previous segment at the previous segments maximum velocity. These factors also explain why any pause or hesitation in the delivery has the potential to compromise the player’s ability to maximally throw baseball.
Hyper Flexion, Forearm fly out, Forearm bounce, Counter Rotation. All of these actins obey the biomechanical and physiological principles of eccentric-concentric muscle/force production Hyperflexion is most often confused with horizontal adduction or what I call “scapula loading”. Almost every hard throwing pitcher adducts their scapula. Those who do not understand this action either view it as hyperflexion. Or believe that adduction occurs “naturally” and cannot or should not be taught. I do not believe this.
SETPRO approach: I do not discourage these actions if I consider them to be helping the player. As with all things they can be overdone. One comes the hyperflexion , form fly out and form bounce the actual science as opposed to opinion leads me to believe that these are all actions necessary to maximize power production to throw baseball. And that coaches and pitchers are always dealing with the paradox of to throw baseball with maximum velocity also poses the greatest risk in terms of stress placed upon the body. It’s been that way forever and I doubt if it will ever change.
Drop and Drive, Tall and Fall. Two pitching issues that still receive much attention. Both are “cues” that if they get the job done, are perfectly viable in teaching a player how to maximally throw a baseball. But neither of these cues actually describe how the muscles of the body are actually used to throw the baseball.
SETPRO approach: both drop and Drive and tall and Fall are still widely debated issues. Recently I was in communication with several other not as well known a very knowledgeable pitching coaches board/instructors and we were discussing how the player gets from the rubber to foot plant. In this is the quick explanation that I came up with.
Pitching Drills Issues
Towel Drill, Shadow Drills, Balance Drills. These drills (to name a few) do not contribute to the a pitcher maximizing his throwing potential. The most direct evidence are the number of pitchers who religiously do these drills but have very little in terms of performance increase to show for efforts. Again we must distinguish between novice pitchers, pitchers performing at what could be termed “average performance” and pitchers performing at the highest levels. All of these drills are in direct conflict with what researchers believe to be the way that the body acquires and develops skills. That doing a towel drill mimics throwing a baseball in “form” only. And that the actual sequence of muscle actions for a towel drill is totally different than actually throwing a baseball. same with shadow drills. Practicing balance MAY HAVE value for a 8 or 10 year old in terms of improving general athleticism. But has no value (no transfer) to maximizing the throwing f a baseball.
SETPRO approach: the ecological theory of motor control of learning says that there are three components to determine movement activity, the abilities inherent in the person effecting the movement, the demands of the environment that the movement is performed and, and the demands of the task that the movement is intended to achieve. This theory, principles of motor control goes a long way to explaining such phenomena as to why player can do shadow drills (mining type activities), tell drills, practice pieces of the delivery over and over again and yet when he steps on the pitching mound in a game reverts back to his old way of throwing a baseball. That’s because the drills provided neither the same task requirement nor with a conducted in the same environment as to what is demanded the player when he steps on the mound. Therefore important part of the wee do it SETPRO is to distinguish between those activities, which increase ability versus those, which are designed to improve skill.
Pitcher Training & Conditioning Issues
Functional Training Functional Training is the new “darling” of the training “industry”. It is being marketed as more specific to preparing a player to maximally throw a baseball than other training methods (most notably weight/resistance training).
SETPRO approach: there’s no doubt in my mind that functional training does have value. But not the over inflated value that many people are trying to sell and market. One of the great difficulties with science being applied to throwing a baseball is that there are just too many variables that have to be dealt with. But the few studies that I have read that attempted deal with issues such as balance, partial training, and weightlifting has applied to throwing a baseball imply that much of the functional training that is being hyped the sport specific is anything but sport specific as applied to start a baseball. The only studies that I have found that show icons in effect relationship between training and improving a player’s ability to throw baseball are weightlifting type activities. I have yet to find one functional training type activity that is documented in research literature as to having a positive effect on throwing a baseball. I’m not talking about athletically challenged individuals such as young players who do not get anywhere near the physical activity that youngsters did 30 or 40 years ago. I’m talking about high-level players such as college or professional were attempting to increase the throwing capabilities. There’s actually no evidence that says functional training is effective in doing this. And in fact the only studies that show effective improvement of this level of player our strength training type exercises.
Newton’s laws applied verbatim (straight line throwing) to the pitching process. I truly wish it were that simple. Unfortunately a few other principles get in the way, both physics and physiology. “Small” issues such as the kinetic chain dependence on sequential rotational of body parts for maximal transfer of momentum and power. That a significant component of “transforming” the body’s momentum requires rotational movement in the form of loops, i.e. the kinetic whip effect. Also as stated in number 2 above, the principles of eccentric-concentric muscle action, stretch reflex, elasticity of connective tissue, muscle potentiation of muscle fiber come into play. And that because all joint action is rotary (rotation in a single playing such as the elbow joint, or rotation in multiple planes such as the shoulder joint) and also the fact that it takes at least to join rotations to produce straight line movement “suggests” that storyline motion may be less efficient and require more nervous system overhead than rotational movements.
SETPRO approach: 20 years from now we may find that there is a better way to throw baseball than how most major league players do today. But it is interesting to me that throwing an object has been around for thousands of years. And to my knowledge, the basic principles of throwing a baseball that exist today are pretty much the same as existed 150 years ago when baseball first began. I would’ve thought that during this time with hundreds of thousands of players throwing the baseball and the competition to be the best in that what we see today in the highest levels of baseball pretty much represent the essence of those mechanics better best to throw baseball notwithstanding the differences in what some term “style”. In fact what I believed to be happening is that the decrease in activities such as played arm baseball where players had much more opportunity to use the trial and error process to find what worked best for them has now elevated the instructional methodology to a level where in many cases it is decreasing the players capabilities to throw baseball. Again this goes back to my original statement that we are attempting to see something that we cannot see into teach something we cannot teach i.e. how the player uses their nervous system in muscles to throw baseball. Much of what SETPRO does is based upon intent. The intent to throw baseball with maximal effort and efficiency is a critical foundation to what SETPRO does and teaches.
It is impossible to cover the total “state of pitching instruction” in a single article. The best they can be hoped-for is to provide some insight as to different approaches and reasons for those approaches. And hopefully raise questions and promote constructive discussions and debate. An important distinction needs to be made in the difference between coaching a player to pitch and coaching a player to throw a baseball. It is my opinion, the opinion of an “outsider”, much of the pitching instructional process is steeped in tradition and belief systems. And that attempts to “scienctize” the pitching process has in many cases failed because the methods used to apply the science were not/are not capable of handling something as complex as a human body throwing a baseball. The best that science has achieved to date is motion capture, EMG muscle activity and inverse kinematic analysis. All of which do nothing more than to produce data/ numbers. These numbers still rely exclusively on interpretation for meaningful “results”. And as I say quite frequently on the SETPRO web site we can only say what we’re capable of saying.