A Little Pitching Knowledge Goes A Long Way

Saturday, March 6, 1999


Tired of getting burned by pitchers who destroy your team earned run average? Maybe a little education is what you need.  Pay attention and try to absorb as much of the following essay as possible. It is one thing to read the words and understand them - it is quite another to develop a feel for the various strategies and use them to your advantage.

The reasons for poor pitching performances are varied. Small ballparks, stronger hitters, poor fundamentals and weaker pitching talent are the main culprits. Like anything else, baseball is a series of peaks and valleys. There are simply not enough talented arms at the major league level to go around at the moment. There is always hope at the lower levels but it will take a while for these kids to come around.

But why do the guys with good stuff still struggle? A good arm does not necessarily mean success in the big leagues. A pitcher must also develop his repertoire, control, location, mechanics, pitch selection, work habits, confidence, poise and concentration. If any of these important components goes haywire, the pitcher is in trouble. He must also learn to field his position well and to properly hold runners on base.  

A brief examination of repertoire

Fastball - Scouts rate a fastball on velocity (and how long it is maintained) and movement. The ball typically moves with sinking (two-seamer), boring (in), tailing (out), cutting (like a hard-breaking slider) and riding (rising or four-seamer) action. Average major league velocity is 88-90 MPH. Anything over that is considered above average or plus (91-93), good (94-96) and outstanding (97-100). Radar ratings are often misleading since scouts use two different types of guns that register as much as 3-5 MPH different. If you read where a pitcher is maintaining a mid- 90's fastball into the late innings, then you know his velocity is special. The same can be said for good movement but if his fastball is straight, he's in trouble, depending on the rest of his pitches.

Slider - Good sliders break sharply downward and are 10-15 MPH slower than the hurler's fastball. The break has to be late so hitters are fooled into thinking it's a fastball. Hanging sliders are called flat by scouts and are often hit out of the park. Cut fastballs are similar to sliders.

Curveball - A curve is slower yet but breaks (down and away) a lot more than a slider. A slurve is somewhere between a slider and curve - velocity and break-wise.

Changeup - Starting pitchers need three pitches to survive in a major-league rotation to keep the hitters off-balance. The third pitch is usually a changeup but could be a split-finger fastball or a forkball. It is a hard pitch to master because the pitcher's motion has to be the same as his fastball but with a different grip. The grip is the tricky part and is difficult to control. Ask a pitcher to show you his circle-change grip. You won't believe it. Off-speed pitches usually sink and if you read where a pitcher is "turning it over", that means he is turning his wrist the opposite way like a screwball. Southpaws use this against right-handers at times and vice-versa.

The nuances of pitching

As we said earlier, if any of the important components goes haywire, the pitcher is in trouble. Some common problems include tall pitchers struggling with their mechanics, young pitchers and left-handers struggling with location, young pitchers afraid to move the hitters off the plate or when and how to use their secondary pitches. If they lose their concentration, they can become flustered and unglued on the mound. All this and more scouts refer to as developing a "feel" for pitching or the nuances of pitching.

Injuries and what to do about them

Injuries are a completely different issue. Fantasy sports have turned us all into team doctors. None of us knew what a rotator cuff was let alone medial collateral ligaments and bursa sacs. But a little knowledge goes a long way.

The chief cause of elbow and shoulder injuries is overwork, inferior work habits and poor mechanics. These can cause inflammation, bone spurs or partial and complete tears of ligaments and tendons. In minor cases, the pitcher receives an injection of cortisone that is an adrenal hormone used to reduce inflammation. Pitching in cold and damp weather does not help either.

Consider a starting pitcher overworked if he pitches more than:

-- 200+ innings coming off reconstructive surgery.

-- 225+ innings after not throwing more than 200 innings for the last few years.

-- 225+ innings for three years in a row or more.

Some pitchers can handle overwork more than others so consider the above points as loose guidelines. (Divide the above figures in half or more for relief pitchers). The better high school and college hurlers tend to be overused by their coaches, which is why you read about so much arm trouble in the minor leagues.

A pitcher that is constantly battling his weight could suffer from a poor work ethic that might lead to arm trouble via poor mechanics. Mechanics include windup, leg kick, arm angle and even position of the foot on the rubber just to name a few. Tall, lanky pitchers usually have trouble with their mechanics as well, especially the young ones.

If a pitcher has received a cortisone shot or two, do not panic - he should be all right. Keep an eye on his anyway. Any report of soreness, tendinitis or inflammation should not be ignored. The best thing for him and for you is a short stint on the disabled list. If an MRI reveals nothing more than minor irritation, he should be ok once he returns. If some floating debris or a slight tear is discovered - there could be problems but minor arthroscopic surgery generally keeps the pitcher inactive for only a few weeks.

Bone spurs caused by calcium deposits are a little more serious and sometimes have to be removed sidelining the pitcher for quite some time. They have a tendency to reoccur as well but full recovery is generally expected. Sometime rest rather than a scope is prescribed if there is a tear (depending on how big the tear is). But things could be more serious.

The shoulder

The two most common but major pitcher injuries are to the rotator cuff and to the elbow ligaments. The rotator cuff is a series of tendons that buffer shoulder joints allowing smooth, pain-free movement between the bones. Pain occurs when the cuff is damaged causing the bones to rub up against each other. This discomfort causes a loss of arm strength, range of motion and, ultimately, velocity and control. The resulting reconstructive procedure and 12-24 month rehabilitation process leads to a permanent MPH reduction on the fastball.

Power pitchers usually have difficulty making the transition to finesse hurler because it takes a lot of time a dedication to basically start all over again. A select few can do it - most can't. Brett Saberhagen and Orel Hershiser have been the only ones to successfully return from the surgery but only because of their unique dedication to the rehab process. Jimmy Key and Donovan Osborne have had successful comebacks as well but they were not hard-throwers to begin with. Osborne also had youth on his side. Alex Fernandez and Chris Holt are also attempting comebacks.

A related procedure is to repair a torn labrum in the cuff that is much less serious. Several have had this surgery done and came back as good as new. Others have had additional trouble, though, which stems from the work habit factor or by simply rushing back too soon. Additional surgery is then generally required.

The elbow

Major reconstructive elbow surgery is just as serious but the chance of a complete recovery is much greater. Sometimes referred to as Tommy John surgery, it is the process by which damaged ligaments and nerves are rebuilt with healthy ones taken from other places in the body. Recovery time is generally one year but it usually takes a pitcher the better part of two years to become effective again. Like the previous procedure, finesse pitchers have more of a chance to return to their original level of efficiency than power pitchers.

And also like reconstructive shoulder surgery, the chance of another breakdown, albeit minor, is a distinct possibility. Cal Eldred, Butch Henry, Steve Karsay, Bobby Munoz and Jose Rijo had the surgery. Bill Pulsipher did not have reconstructive surgery but the MCL in his left elbow was ruptured and surgically repaired so his prospects of success are better.

The future

Both rehabs from these surgeries are extremely painful and most taxing on the pitcher's psyche. Some are simply afraid to let loose while others experience additional pain and have to be shut down again. Recovery time also differs as per the pitcher's physiology and dedication to rehab. Most teams tend to rush the pitcher back if impressed with his velocity and lack of pain but there is always another breakdown-- sometimes minor (to clean up scar tissue or loose debris), sometimes major (a second duplicate procedure) - lurking in the near future.

Who are the candidates for future breakdowns? Well, besides those discussed earlier who are either overworked, overweight or have poor mechanics, be wary of the starting pitchers who throw a lot of pitches in their starts and those that rely heavily on hard sliders and split-finger fastballs. The latter two places undo strain on the hurler's elbow. Also remember that most forearm, wrist and hand injuries take a while to recover from.


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