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IR Won’t Put Young Pitchers in the ER

Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.

With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.

The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.

This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.

Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.

But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.

IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.

It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.

So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.

Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.

Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position

Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:

The only being who has ever been happy about doing these.

Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.

Experiment #2 – How You Stand

Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?

If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.

These guys get it.

To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.

When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.

What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?

When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.

Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.

Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.

The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.

Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around

If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.

I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.

And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.

Reality check

The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.

The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.

They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.

The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.

I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.

The Importance of Developing a Pitching Staff

Today’s post was inspired by a Zoom session with Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch and High Performance Pitching. Always important to give credit where it’s due!

The overall topic of the session was on keeping pitchers healthy. But one of the points covered, in my mind, was of particular importance – the need to develop a pitching staff.

We’ve probably all heard the statement that fastpitch softball’s windmill pitching motion is “safe” and “natural.” Implied within that message is “therefore you can pitch the heck out of your pitchers, every inning of every game, without having to worry about them getting hurt.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s “safe.” Mushrooms are natural. But there are whole species of them that are anything but safe.

Could be deliciousness, could be death. Care to roll the dice, Karen?

Pitching a softball, at least when done correctly, requires a series of violent, ballistic movements. Over time, especially when there isn’t enough rest in-between sessions, those movements no matter how mechanically sound can take their toll on bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, etc.

When they do, you end up with injuries, some of which can be severe or even career-threatening. Even if they’re not bad enough to sit a pitcher down they can cause enough pain for her to change her mechanics to prevent that feeling, which can have further effects downstream.

The key to avoiding these types of overuse injuries is to abandon the old school approach of riding one pitcher’s arm for the entire season and instead developing a pitching staff. There are different ways you can do that.

The simplest is to bring on 3-5 pitchers who rotate starts, with the assumption they will pitch the whole game. In a travel ball weekend with seven games, where you have three pitchers, each would pitch two and the three could split the third one. Your choice whether that happens at the beginning or the end of the tournament.

In a high school season with one game per day Tuesday-Friday and two on Saturday, each would get two. In a college season with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday or two on Saturday and one Sunday, each would get one game.

That, of course, assumes that all three pitchers are fairly comparable. If you have one Ace and two others who are just ok, you may have to look at splitting games between the two who are ok while letting the Ace pitch complete games.

But that’s not the only approach. You can also look at it more like baseball does, with pitchers who fill different roles depending on how the game goes.

You might have a girl who can throw unhittable gas for two innings then gets gassed herself. She might better serve the team as the “closer” who can protect tight leads toward the end of the game.

Your fair-to-middlin’ pitchers might do well as a bridge between a high-quality starter and the closer. You’re not expecting those pitchers to win the game for you; you just want them to keep the game manageable until it’s time to either bring in the closer or bring back the Ace, who now has more innings available without the risk of injury.

You can also do it by who matches up best to a particular team. While it’s probably less effective in the highest levels of D1, in many other levels throwing a pitcher who’s a little slower than average, or relies on movement rather than overpowering speed, might be enough to throw off a team that just finished a week and/or weekend facing high heat in every game. It all depends on the hitters’ ability to adjust.

I’ve seen that one work with my own daughter Stefanie back in the day. Her team was playing an opponent her coaches expected to blow them out. They even came over to where the parents were and warned us the game would be a rough one. (I was merely there as a parent for this game, by the way.)

So of course, rather than waste who they thought was their best pitcher on a blowout, they gave the game to Stefanie. Only instead of getting blown out she confounded them with a mix of drops, curves and changes and held them to two runs as I recall.

Unfortunately, sensing blood and a possible upset the head coach, who clearly had no idea why Stefanie was being effective decided to replace her with their Ace in the fourth inning. As you can probably guess, the Ace got lit up quickly and that was the end of that.

Which brings me to an important reminder: when your pitcher is doing well, just go with it. Don’t question it, don’t get clever or think you’re going to put something over on someone. As the saying goes, ride that horse ’til he bucks you.

Another good reason to have a staff is even if you have an Ace, somewhere out there is a team that practices hitting the way your Ace pitches. In other words, they’ll be all over her like stink on batting gloves.

If you have no other options it’s going to make for a long afternoon. And it could damage your Ace’s psyche a bit too, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. But throwing in a change of pace pitcher might throw your opponents off while saving the Ace for a game where the other team doesn’t match up so well.

The days of riding one pitcher’s arm for the season are long gone. Everyone plays too many games, and the hitting has improved considerably in our sport since it first started getting population.

Develop a staff and give yourself options. It’s better for the pitchers (and their health). And it’s better for the team’s chances of success too.

Mushroom photo by Visually Us on Pexels.com

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