In yesterday’s AJC Kris Medlen tells Carroll Rogers that he feels his first surgery was a success and that changes in his mechanics contributed to the injury forcing a second TJ surgery.
“. . .for me the fact that I was able to come back and pitch for two years after surgery means that the first surgery worked. But I didn’t change anything mechanically from what I was doing before . . . being a former infielder, my mechanics used to be a lot shorter, a lot tighter and over time I’ve gotten kind of long. . . .”
Finally a voice of reason and logic and I’m not surprised it comes from Medlen. The question is, with the rash of injuries to pitchers – not just in Atlanta but across the league – why did it take so long and what do we do about it. Over the next few posts I’m going to look at pitching mechanics. I don’t claim to be any kind of expert nor am I a pitching coach, physical therapist or trainer. There is however a lot of information around from recognized sources and I’ll reference those as I go. Suggestions for stopping this epidemic – Cory Gearrin will be the eleventh pitcher this spring to require TJ surgery and the 607th overall with 90% of those taking place since 2000 – are starting to surface with frequency now and I’ll get to those in another post. Posts like this can end up with a little – okay a lot - of jargon so lets eliminate the most technical of that now with a few rules.
For the duration of this series and for that matter from here forward, if you’ll promise not to I’ll promise not to:
- Say pronate or pronation when I mean the lower arm is rotating towards the body
- Say supinate or supination when I mean it’s rotating away from the body
In one of my past comments I ranted a bit about the teaching pitchers the right way – my way of course – in the beginning so that these injuries wouldn’t happen. I threw out the terms “drop and drive” versus “stand tall and fall”. Today I’ll define them so when we refer to them later we’ll know what we’re talking about. A caveat here, there is no one size fits all delivery. Every player has to find one that works for them by being exposed to all kinds of successful pitchers. Fortunately baseball is on TV all the time so the best pitchers are visible. Unfortunately some of these pitchers picked or were pushed into something that worked but might not have been the best choice.
When I was learning the game my dad said,”pitchers don’t pitch with their arms, they pitch with their legs.” I was confused until he explained that a large part – the majority – of power a pitcher generates comes from using the large muscles in the legs and trunk. If you simply throw with your arm it won’t be all that powerful and you will hurt it eventually. Dad was describing a drop and drive pitcher.
Tall and Fall is a term coined by Tom House and is the antithesis of drop and drive; stay tall and fall into landing.
Looking more closely at them from a different angle we can see how the names were derived. I’m including some numbers that I’ll explain along the way.
Here the Rocket is loaded; his knee is at its apex, his hip rotated so you can see his back pocket and his front shoulder pointing between third and home. The vertical line shows he’s standing tall and while you can’t see it from this angle his head is over his back hip. The arrow through the raised knee shows the starting point for measuring his hip rotation. This is the coiling of the spring where the muscles are prepared to give him maximum efficiency.
Johnson is at his apex too but his hips are only slightly rotated. This leaves a portion of the task of opening of his hips to his core and trunk muscles.
Clemens has now flexed his back knee 67 degrees (the drop) and started his stride forward. The drop allows the strong muscles in the thigh to tense and provides power to start his forward motion. This also helps him open his hips. His front shoulder in now pointing directly towards the plate and he’s looking right over that shoulder at his target. The vertical line shows his head behind his back hip and still over the rubber. The drive forward will come from that flexed back leg.
Johnson’s back leg has no flex at all and there is nothing moving him forward except the fall off the rubber. While Clemens hips have already turned about 30 degrees the big Unit’s hips have yet to begin opening. Like Clemens his head is above and slightly behind his hip but while Rocket’s shoulder has now moved in line with the plate Johnson has rotated slightly away from the plate. This coils the upper body like Clemens coils his whole body and give Johnson additional shoulder rotation.
Both men are almost ready to fire here, their stride is complete at about 98 degrees for Clemens (about 80% of his height) while I measured Johnson’s stride at only 92 degrees. I’ve seen texts that say a 95 degree stride is the minimum required while others will give a percentage of the pitcher’s height. In either case Clemens is a textbook example while Johnson’s are a bit short but that could well be a measuring error. Johnson has the advantage of being 6’10” giving him a longer upper body lever and a severe downhill angle making things harder for the hitter. Both now have their shoulders pointed at the plate and the hips are opening.
Like a hitter’s swing, the hip rotation is the basis for generating Clemens power; the faster and more completely they open the more power is generated to start his forward momentum. When his drop (bending) of the back leg stops and he pushes off the rubber his muscle groups sequentially fire from his leg through his trunk and core to get full lower rotation. His shoulders open after his hips as the core muscles in the abdomen and his chest bring his throwing shoulder forward. Johnson relies on his lower abdominal muscles to begin the sequence and generates extra power through the over rotation of his shoulders
Rocket’s load with his back pocket towards the plate allows him to rotate his hips a full 136 degrees. That rotation and a solid core is how he continued to throw so hard for so long. The PED issue for Clemens was not a huge muscle building thing ala Barry Bonds. If as alleged and I believe, he did use PEDs it was to allow him to recover more quickly from the thigh and groin strains this kind of movement creates as athletes age.
Johnson gets just 103 degrees or hip rotation but about 115 degree of shoulder rotation. Johnson had lower abdominal issues as well as well as surgery on a disc in his back. How the spine moves and where it’s positioned in delivery are also important is keeping the flow of energy moving from bottom of the foot to the ball in the hand.
Both men follow through directly over their landing foot perfectly balanced and looking directly at their target. Clemens has his back parallel with the ground and both his shoulders still pointed at the plate. While Johnson isn’t quite parallel to the ground much of that is due to his height and extension, he is however balanced and still in control.
Tom House and Nolan Ryan worked together often and I’ve heard Ryan called a tall and fall guy. If so today’s coaches have changed what Ryan meant by that. From what I can determine Ryan meant that the fall was used to add to the drive created by the back leg because, as you can see, his back leg is bent pretty close to 60 degrees in this picture. While he varied his delivery over the years he never lost his drop and push off to the extent I’ve seen in some pitchers today.
It is Rocket Science . . . Sort of
Some tests use the the term “kinetic chain” when discussing a pitcher’s motion. The kinetic chain refers to all of the parts that must sequentially work together – from the time the foot pushes off the rubber to the time the ball leaves the hand – for the to transfer the energy created to the ball efficiently. Think of it in terms or a rocket, the initial thrust to start the rocket moving comes from the biggest part of the the vehicle. When that thrust has peaked the second stage fires. Early separation leaves the vehicle moving too slow while late separation – after the thrust starts to subside – creates drag that again slows it down. If the firing sequences remains on time the payload is delivered on target. If the sequence is disrupted the rest of the system has to adjust or the the target will be missed. That’s the way pitching works, if the muscle groups don’t fire sequentially or the body isn’t balanced and lined up as it should the later stages – smaller, more fragile muscles – try to compensate. If you’ve listend to interviews who’ve had a bad outing you’ve heard them say, “I got under the ball” or “I was just a little late” or I didn’t get on top of it”; they are all saying that at some point the alignment and/or firing of the kinetic chain was off and the end result wasn’t good.
That’s A Wrap
As I said at the start of this there is no one size fits all pitching motion. On the other hand there are some things you absolutely must do if you’re going to have a long and productive career, foremost in these is maximizing the power of your strongest muscles – legs truck and core – to the fullest extent possible based on your build. Not using your main booster robs you of the thrust needed to fire the other stages on time and without excessive stress. The power not harnessed has to be made up somewhere – trunk, core muscles, shoulder, or arm – and that leads to injury. I know this doesn’t address the effect of torque created by arm rotation or talk much about landing and follow through; we will get to those. But at a time when many look at the radar gun more often than the result, pitchers are trying too hard to find that extra mph and in doing that some are sacrificing longevity for instant gratification. Medlen put is in simple terms in his interview with Carroll Rogers.
. . .I’ve made adjustments up here to get outs because that’s what you need to do to succeed, but I’ve kind of left myself hanging with the whole injury thing. There’s no point in getting outs for a short amount of time when you need to try to do that for a longer period of time…
Pitch speed is not the be all and end of of pitching. It’s true that power pitchers – impact arms – are highly sought after and for good reason. If however the body is stretched beyond its limits too often the career is over before it begins. While a well toned arm is essential, pitch speed is less dependent on the power in the arm that anything that comes before it in the chain. No amount of weight lifting centered on the arm strength can change that. The ability to harness and transmit power from the lower body through the arm and a smooth balanced delivery is what is needed to maximize velocity. Next time we’ll look at the motion of the Kris Medlen and see what he might be looking to change
Tags: Atlanta Braves