Tim Kendall Baseball Scout on Pitcher’s Elbow

The medical books have a hard-to-pronounce name for it: medial epicondyle apophysitis.  The guys on the mound and in the dugout know it as Pitcher’s Elbow. Whatever you want to call it, it’s bad news and the increase in the number of elbow and shoulder injuries in recent years suggests the problem is not going away.

 

So, what’s going on here?

Let’s start by examining the some of the work done by some of the sports analytical leaders.

The Tale of Two Pitchers

Ask yourself why a pitcher like Detroit Tiger ace, Justin Verlander, has been relatively healthy, while the NY Mets have had so much trouble keeping Matt Harvey off the disabled list.  Yes, there may be a myriad of factors, including genetic predispositions, that one could cite, but research is increasingly pointing to mechanics.  Specifically, we’re talking about improper mechanics caused by poor coaching cues, leading to problems like pitcher’s elbow.  There is an increasing body of research by analysts like Chris O’Leary, whose analysis of arm motion can help to determine whether a pitcher will enjoy a generally injury-free career or be prone to chronic problems like pitcher’s elbow.

As O’Leary notes on his , “when evaluating pitchers, I try to do so relative to two groups of people, major leaguers who had long, generally injury-free careers (e.g. Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and Greg Maddux) and major leaguers who had short, injury-plagued careers (e.g. Mark Prior, B.J. Ryan, and Bobby Madritsch).”

In a presentation he calls , O’Leary says the first key difference between Verlander and Harvey is where the ball is pointing at front foot plant. In the case of Verlander, the ball is pointing at third base.  Harvey is pointing the ball at second base.   It’s thought the timing issue caused by that difference necessitated Harvey’s need for Tommy John surgery.

The second major issue raised in the comparison between Harvey’s delivery and Verlander’s is the height of their pitching side arm angles. Verlander’s pitching arm side elbow is just below the shoulder, while Harvey’s is just above it.  Pitching instructors know this as a “cheat” in order to load the scapular muscle earlier in the delivery, which often leads to the aforementioned flat arm at foot strike.

That may sound like a relatively minor difference in angle, but it’s magnified when you’re throwing 97 miles per hour.

O’Leary’s approach differs from that of noted sports medicine experts, but he says a growing library of evidence supports his work.   Baseball scout says pitchers trying to get increased velocity on their pitches are “being taught things such as showing the ball towards second base and the “Power T” which create timing issues.”

As Toronto’s , the former leads to premature pronation of the forearm at foot strike (the moment when the stride leg or front foot contacts the ground) and the latter leads to a flat arm at the same moment. Kendall adds, “At foot strike, the arm should be cocked at 90 degrees of external shoulder rotation with the ball facing towards third base (first for a lefty).”

There are certainly different schools of thought, but it makes sense to look at the history of how the habits of some pitchers prove successful, while those of others lead to disappointment and shortened careers.

It can be challenging to convince pitchers to change, especially if they’ve enjoyed a level of early career success based on what they are doing.  But, with spring training closing in and a fresh crop of hopefuls looking to impress managers and owners with their ‘stuff’, a careful consideration of what’s worked in the past might convince young hurlers that an alteration now could save them from a lot of frustration later.

 


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