Phenom or Failure: Too Soon to Play?
In 2008, I had the chance to see a young pitcher dominate on the field for San Diego State University. His velocity was tremendous and intimidating as he struck out batter after batter. I said to myself, “I wonder how many innings this guy will have in the major leagues before he is injured?” In 2010, the Washington Nationals drafted Stephen Strasburg with the top pick in the professional baseball draft. Yes. Strasburg was number one on everyone board, except mine.
You see, Strasburg reminded me to much of Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and numerous other injured or soon to be injured pitchers in professional and amateur baseball. In 2010, I watched along with everyone else as he made his minor league rotation and ascended to the majors. In one of the televised minor league games, as I watched one of first starts, I noticed a change in the mechanics I had seen in 2008. Stephen Strasburg’s delivery had gotten worse indicating an injury was on the way. I tweeted it on twitter and told friends, who believed based upon my experience, that Stephen Strasburg’s season would be cut short.
Over the past 10 years, I have conducted 3D biomechanics assessments on over 2,000 collegiate and professional baseball players and prospects. After developing software first to compare amateurs to professionals, I noticed a flaw in my system. Early on I was comparing soon to be injured pitchers to other soon to be injured pitchers or those who had already suffered an injury and gone through major rehab.
In fact today, many “young amateur pitchers” and even veteran professionals are now seeking out surgery “early in” or “to extend” their throwing careers. Many pitchers are having “Tommy John” surgery (named after the 1970’s pitcher who was the first to have the surgery and recover) to repair the Ulnar Collateral Ligament in the elbow. Others experienced pain and opted to receive reconstructive or arthroscopic surgery to repair the rotator cuff in their throwing shoulder. Regardless, while surgery used to be billed as the kiss of death, now pitchers are encouraged to get it out of the way.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t fix the problem. It only limits the career longevity of the player having the surgery.
In 2005, I developed a numerical scoring system to measure the efficiency of a pitcher after completing a biomechanics assessment, Biomechanics Assessment Rating™ (also known as B.A.R®). In my numerical scoring system, a pitcher with throwing mechanics similar to Stephen Strasburg would score less than 44% out of 100%. The B.A.R® compares ideal body postures, joint angles, pitch accuracy, angular velocities, and torques generated by the pitcher. In comparison, a starting pitcher like Greg Maddox would score closer to a B.A.R® of 82%. With a B.A.R® score of approximately 43.5%, is the place where we find Mr. Strasburg after my assessment of his mechanics in games over the last two weeks.
What brings down the B.A.R® score of Stephen Strasburg, the franchise player of the Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball?
Well unfortunately, I would be writing all day if we went into complete detail breaking down his mechanics from toe to toe (in my assessment, the hand’s actions fall “in between the big toe on Stephen’s right foot and the big toe on his left foot). There are many factors impacting his future health, but we’ll look at a couple of simple and easy to fix items in his delivery.
Stephen’s Feet: For starters, Stephen Strasburg significantly “over-strides” during his delivery of the ball to home plate. The ideal stride length for a baseball pitcher is equal to no more and no less than 87.5% of his height. At 6 feet 4 inches tall (76 inches). This means an ideal place for Stephen’s lead foot in his throwing motion is 66.5 inches away from the position of his back foot at foot plant (the point at which his front foot lands on the ground).
Now many people mistake “stride length” in pitching (which is actually the distance from back foot to front foot at delivery) with the distance that the lead foot travels from the pitching rubber. Stride or step distance is a naturally occurring factor in human motion and is impacted by overall strength in both legs from toe to hip and flexibility.
In running, we measure stride length from one foot leaving the ground to the same foot touching the ground. In actuality, baseball pitchers take a step, not a stride which is part of the confusion.
According to baseball experts, the baseball pitcher’s step can be as far away from the pitching rubber as he is capable of achieving, while returning to a maximum distance between his feet at delivery of 87.5% of his height (ideally at the point of front foot plant). Now, I’m very aware that many skeptics will say that no pitcher strides that short and no one teaches them to maintain “solid, stable contact” with both feet in contact with the ground prior to delivery (which shall be defined as the point the ball is released from the hand). I agree 100%!
No one teaches this even though they should.
That’s a big part of the problem with pitching injuries today. Pitchers have become mechanical in their motion and imitators or each other. (To be addressed in its entirety in a different blog.) As for Stephen’s balance and stability, you’ll even notice that before his lead foot plants, his back foot is rolled over to the inside, where it is barely in contact with the ground. (In ideal biomechanics, both feet are needed to be in contact to contribute to the transfer or energy from one side of the body to the other).
If Stephen learned to throw this way at a young level, that’s where all of his injuries today started. This is because, our younger pitchers are being taught what coaches see major league pitchers doing on the mound. I’ve heard many of them say, “Get as close to the batter as you can, and he will have less time to see the pitch and react”. This is true but only in theory.
You see, getting closer to the batter at delivery costs the pitcher accuracy and velocity because they are throwing off one leg (the lead leg). As a result, the decrease in throwing velocity negates any advantage the pitcher achieved by getting closer. So, since Stephen Strasburg over-strides, it essentially causes him to throw using one leg, it will always affect his accuracy and velocity. To generate the velocity he achieves, Stephen must increase the effort or work load in his body (typically the arm). If Strasburg could reduce the distance between his feet at the time the ball releases, this will reduce the stress on his throwing elbow and shoulder. However, the benefit is significant, in that he will stay healthy.
In addition, once Strasburg masters the new stride length, there is greater than a 90% chance that Stephen Strasburg could throw with more velocity and accuracy. (BTW, strikes are not an indication of accuracy, because the batter could swing at and miss pitches that are nowhere near where the pitcher intended them to be.)
This will not be easy for him to do, so the best thing to focus on is: Strasburg TIP #1: Shorten your stride length. If you look at the picture of Strasburg in Figure 1, you’ll notice that before he is even ready to throw, he has already lost stable contact with his back foot.
This theory of getting closer to home plate for delivery is acceptable if the “Throwing Arm” is in the position to spring forward as the left foot touches down, but that is not the case for Stephen and all other pitchers who over-stride. They share the same problem and thus the same fate.
Throwing Arm: The previous sentence brings us to problem number two for Stephen Strasburg: Pitching hand or ball position at foot plant.
In the correct energy release sequence, a pitcher steps towards the batter, plants the lead foot and the ball immediately begins to accelerate forward towards the catcher. This occurs only after every segment before it has triggered the forward motion of the ball including near maximal external rotation and abduction of the shoulder. In other words, the arm has to be fully cocked or back like the hammer on a gun or the pocket of a slingshot. (Think of how inaccurate you would be with a sling shot if it started in the front and swung to the back before the object were propelled forward.)
Maybe this analogy helps: Think of slamming on the brakes in your car. Once the car stops, everything that not nailed down comes flying forward. Until the car comes to a complete stop or the forward momentum of any objects not being slowed down directly by the brakes exceeds the slowing speed of the car, everything is going at a rate of speed that allows it to stay put.
Now this is a little confusing, so I’ll explain it like this… Simply put, if your car is going 60mph, everything in the car is going 60mph. As soon as any object inside the car does not have enough weight/force acting upon it to resist being propelled forward by the slowing car, it will fly forward. That’s how you notice some things come flying forward immediately, while others have a delayed reaction.
Stephen’s motion actually throws his arm backwards first into external rotation and abduction (placing stress in his shoulder) because of the rotational position of his arm (at the shoulder) as he begins to apply the brakes (the planting of his front foot). This braking action causes a “whiplash type” motion (backwards then forwards just like a car accident) of his arm at the shoulder and places stress on the front and back of his shoulder to stop the ball from going backwards as he plants to get the ball near the point of release. After the arm starts going forward, the back of the shoulder, must now act as a decelerator once he gets to release. This is natural in kinesiology and biomechanics. The muscles on the back of the arm act a decelerator for the entire arm during delivery.
Essentially, Stephen is not in control of his throwing arm or the ball. Our good friend “Mo”-mentum is in control. And Stephen’s upper arm and forearm muscles have to work 7-10 times as hard to ensure that he releases he ball at the proper point to ensure delivery of the pitch to the catcher. As he fatigues when facing each and every batter, this delivery becomes more difficult.
The fatigue I am describing does not mean gasping for air or feeling tired. It means that every pitch causes an expenditure of energy and a natural shortening of each muscle involved in the action. So on pitch number 1 of the game, he starts out with a tank full or energy. By the 10th consecutive pitch to the same batter, a slight bit of muscular fatigue sets in. At this point, the muscle fibers get tighter and shorter causing him to have to work harder to deliver the same pitch he threw 90 seconds earlier. Just like sets and reps in the weight room, the muscles being utilized may recover quickly, but the athlete has to exert more force to achieve the same goal.
So, Stephen’s stride length (step length) and arm position cause one other problem which contributes directly to his elbow issues– Extreme Linear and Rotational velocity towards the third base side of the mound.
If you were to look at a top (overhead) view of Stephen’s delivery, you’ll notice that the ball travels towards third base as it comes forward in his hand prior delivery. Stephen must exert a significant amount of force to combat over 35mph of wasted rotational velocity towards third base on his fastball in order to turn the ball and his arm back towards the catcher. This torque at the elbow is even greater on other “movement pitches”. It is the torque exerted on the elbow by the muscle of the upper arm and forearm that will cause Stephen to have a setback once he returns to the major league club.
Stephen Strasburg had major surgery less than 12 months ago. The surgery may have repaired the damaged ligament, but from what I can see in several minor league starts, no changes to his throwing mechanics have been implemented.
Simply put, Stephen didn’t fix the reason why he needed to have surgery.
So it’s pretty clear to me what lies ahead in his career. Stephen Strasburg might make it through 2-3 starts for the major league ball club, but if he continues to throw with the same mechanics, one of two things will happen, Stephen Strasburg will re-injure the same elbow, or he will shift the stress to his shoulder and rotator cuff surgery is next. He might first experience stiffness in the forearm muscles or biceps area. If he continues to pitch after feeling this often called minor “discomfort”, a major injury will occur in the elbow. Typically, the pitcher experiencing this discomfort makes a subconscious adjust to move the stress away from the area and continue pitching. This moves it to the shoulder or lower back.
So let me leave you with this as we watch Stephen closely between now and the all-star break next season. Let’s pay attention to what is said about his accuracy (command), velocity, and arm health. Other than what I have stated here as fact-based opinion, I dare not guess at what exercises Stephen should do prevent injury. Muscular strengths and weakness typically cause deficiencies we see in biomechanics. However, in Stephen’s case, the way he was taught to throw the ball is now a part of his biomechanical deficiencies. As a result, he may destiny may have him set for duty in the bullpen (as was the case with Joba Chamberlain-who should never have been a starter (with a biomechanical efficiency score of under 50%). If the Nationals send him to the bullpen, Strasburg will be an incredible, nearly untouchable reliever.
In closing, don’t get me wrong. The Nationals can get another 10-20 starts out of Stephen before his next surgery (unless two of the first 10 are complete games where he throws over 120 pitches and takes the typical 5 days of rest). The more balls he throws, the closer he gets to being tabbed just another pitcher who failed recover from early injuries. But let’s hope for the best! Personally, I’m a fan and want to see Stephen Strasburg dominate pitching at the major league level. But the game may have other plans for him.