9 Factors That Strongly Influence Pitching Velocity – Part II

In Part I of this 3-Part series we discussed three major factors that strongly influence a pitcher’s capability to throw a baseball with significant velocity. These factors were:

  1. Strength
  2. Power
  3. Efficient Mechanics

In total we will discuss nine different factors that can have a significant impact on throwing velocity. Today we will dive into the next three…

4. Exposure to Throwing Volumes

It’s important to understand that a lot of what makes up a successful pitcher is repetition. But, not just in the way you would normally consider – throwing often in order to learn and engrain mechanics so that pitch command can be optimized. There’s another outcome to consider when discussing the results that come from throwing early and often, and that’s increased pitching velocity.

As we discussed in Part I on the topic of strength, the body responds to stimuli and stress with very specialized and specific adaptations. In the same way that our body responds to heavy mechanical loading (heavy weight) by increasing strength over time, the body too responds to the imposed physical demands on the arm and shoulder from pitching. A baseball may only weigh five-ounces, but the action of pitching a baseball is the single fastest motion that a human joint can make, with a peak angular velocity reaching upwards of 7,000 degrees/second.

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This extreme motion of catapulting a ball not only takes a strong and powerful concentric muscle action, it demands an equally strong eccentric braking force out of appropriate muscles (in terms of the upper body, the rotator cuff and posterior shoulder), to slow the arm down. While the repetition of concentric muscle actions does create adaptation, especially neurological, it is the eccentric muscle action that, when combined with the extreme speed of the throwing motion, and amplified by large throwing volumes, illicit the physical and anatomical adaptations which lend themselves to increased velocity. For example…

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  • With high volumes of throwing the shoulder is actively and passively taken through progressively greater rages of motion, especially into external rotation. Muscle length can be increased, but more likely passive structures (i.e. the joint capsule and ligamentous bodies) will undergo changes (which is usually accompanied by damage) that allows for greater mobility. For better or for worse, this increased shoulder external rotation in the late-cocking phase (aka “Lay-Back”) is associated with greater pitching velocities.

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  •  With high throwing volumes, specifically at younger ages when the bones are still developing, the humeral head (the “ball” of the “ball and socket” that is the shoulder joint) can undergo significant osseous adaptations, including what is called retroversion. Simply put, this adaptation occurs to meet the demands of the throwing motion at a young age, twisting the humeral head slightly so that even greater external rotation can occur.

The paradox of pitching, though, is that the very same stressors (high throwing volumes) and adaptations that lead to potentially greater velocities can also carry the potential of detrimental effects on the throwing arm and shoulder. Osseous changes in the bones can occur from high workloads and stress, such as bone spurring and fragmentation. Greater layback in the late cocking phase (maximum external rotation) can cause the biceps tendon to tug on the labrum, leading to some degenerative changes. Likewise, that greater mobility can lead to joint instability, which can be equally problematic.

Point being, exposure to throwing programs and high throwing volumes can influence throwing velocity. Yet, it must be understood that this is a balancing act between positive and negative adaptations.

5. Mobility

When discussing mobility in regards to pitching velocity, we aren’t exclusively talking about the throwing shoulder. In fact, other key joints in the body also must possess adequate mobility in order to maximize the effectiveness of the pitcher’s mechanics. Namely, it is the thoracic-spine (T-Spine; the upper portion of the back), and the hips.

You’ve probably heard pitching coaches talking about hip and shoulder separation. This is essentially hip and pelvis rotation occurring through a stable trunk (lumbar spine; lower portion of the back) and a mobile t-spine. The hips must be mobile enough to rotate the pelvis while both feet are planted; the trunk must be relatively stable enough to hold firm against the torque that is then being created between the pelvis and the t-spine; and the t-spine must also have great rotational mobility to handle this position.

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Mobility through the hips and t-spine also allows for adequate trunk tilt and stride length. Of course, I know better than to suggest the optimal amount of any of these mechanical qualities, but the fact still remains that without the requisite mobility, no level of these mechanics could be achieved.

Overall, it isn’t necessarily important to know how each joint’s mobility individually impacts velocity. Rather, it is more important to understand that, without adequate mobility at the appropriate joints, the effectiveness and efficiency of the kinetic chain (which is the name of the game when it comes to pitching velocity and injury reduction) will be vastly minimized.

One of two things can then result if the adequate mobility is not possessed:

1) Other segments in the kinetic chain (namely, the shoulder and elbow) will have to make up for the lagging segments (in the same way arm speed might have to make up for a lack of power production), which in turn can put undue stress on these structures, or

2) The pitcher will not reach their potential in terms of velocity because they are lacking this mobility and are unable to compensate for it in other ways.

Regardless, neither outcome is optimal. Instead, the pitcher should seek to achieve and maintain adequate mobility in order to maximize all of the other qualities that lend themselves to safe and successful pitching, as well as to high pitching velocities.

6. Body Weight

The premise behind body weight’s influence on velocity is more or less a simple concept, and it is two-fold:

For starters, more body weight generally means more potential to produce force. Although this isn’t always the case, usually an athlete with greater body weight has more muscle mass in addition to any fat mass as compared to their skinny, rail-thin counterpart. Thus, the larger of the two is able to produce more force with greater absolute strength. Although absolute strength isn’t the end-all be-all for pitching velocity (again, see Part I for more on strength), it is certainly better to have the ability to produce absolute strength versus none at all.

Secondly, more body weight means more momentum going downhill toward the plate. And, while the pitching motion is about sequencing the kinetic chain as efficiently as possible to produce the greatest arm speed in a safe manner, another goal of the pitching mechanics is to gain momentum toward home plate. Thus, with greater body weight, we have the potential to accentuate that second goal.

Now, two caveats to counter the above points:

As stated in the first point above, more body weight can generally mean a greater potential to produce force. But, if this is not the case with a certain pitcher, that just means even more inertia to overcome in order to get their mechanics started and the body moving toward home plate. They simply will not be able to effectively use that increased body weight without proportional relative strength, thus their body weight may not only fail to positively influence pitching velocity, it may in fact have a negative impact.

INERTIA: a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.

Also, greater body weight and momentum through the wind-up leads to an increased demand to accept the increase in force production and momentum, specifically at landing and through deceleration. And, if the lower body, trunk, and posterior shoulder are not strong enough to accept and brake these forces, or if the appropriate joints don’t have the necessarily mobility to allow for gradual deceleration, then the body will not be able to safely utilize this greater force production.


So far we have discussed six factors that strongly influence pitching velocity. While each individual component has an impact on the kinetics of a pitch, my hope is that you are also seeing the interrelationship between each factor…

Strength can increase the potential for power, but without adequate mobility, all could be lost – or worse, the athlete could get hurt. Body weight can foster greater momentum toward home plate, but without adequate strength, increased body weight could be a detriment. Body weight, strength, and efficient mechanics may all increase the capacity for pitching velocity, but without enough exposure to throwing volumes, the pitcher may not have experienced physical adaptations that allow for the highest expression of these qualities on the mound.

In case you were not aware, the topic of pitching (and pitching velocity) is a highly complex topic!

Stay tuned for Part III…

Respectfully,

RJF

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