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The Effects of High Velocity on Players’ Health, Safety and Performance

The Effects of High Velocity on Players’Health, Safety and Performance

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E

Research and reports by members of several MLB Teams indicate that the recent emphasis on pitching velocity has had negative effects on the health, safety, and performance of players at all positions, not just pitchers. Some of these effects are discussed below.

Pitchers. The most serious injury among Major and Minor League pitchers is injury to the Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). Players who require ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (UCLR) aka Tommy John surgery are usually sidelined for approximately 17 months or longer. Being out of the game for this length of time results in a loss of essential development time in young pitchers and can be career ending for older pitchers. 

While velocity is at the top of most pitcher’s wish list, increases in velocity, especially rapid increases, are not always good in both professional and amateur pitchers. Average 4-seam fastball velocity among MLB pitchers increased from 89.0 MPH in 2002 to 93.6 MPH in 2022, but so did the incidence of injuries to the shoulder and elbow. Research indicates that there is a positive relationship between increases in velocity among pitchers of all ages and levels and the incidence of injury to all parts of the body, especially the shoulder and elbow. Increases in velocity put additional stress on the shoulder and elbow. Added stress when applied to under developed tissue in the presence of overuse and bad pitching mechanics can lead to serious injury. 

Data on professional pitchers indicates that UCL tears are more common in younger pitchers than older pitchers who tend to have better mechanics, a solid throwing base, more experience, proper arm care, and effective recovery programs. Younger pitchers tend to rely more on velocity while older pitchers rely more on changing speed, pitch location, and varying pitch types. More injuries also tend to occur early in the season (April to June) than later in the season when pitchers have established a solid throwing base, participated in a proper strength training program, established better recovery habits, and established a solid arm care program. 

Similar findings occur in college, high school, and youth pitchers. Freshman collegiate pitchers without a solid base and those attempting to impress new coaches tend to have a higher incidence of injury. Likewise, high school and youth pitchers who put it all on the line at off-season showcases and in early spring games without properly ramping up their throwing program are at increased risk of injury. Athletic trainers, qualified pitching coaches, and CSCS certified strength and conditioning coaches suggest that these injuries could be avoided with proper preparation, effective off-season strength training, adequate recovery, proper arm care, and avoidance of off-season showcases.

Increases in velocity among high school age pitchers parallel those among professional and collegiate pitchers. In 2012, for example, there were 3 pitchers at the Perfect Game Nationals that threw over 94 MPH. In 2013, that number increased to 17, and in 2023 there were over 54 young pitchers throwing faster than 94 MPH.  Some sports medicine authorities predict that several of these pitchers will experience a significant injury within two years because their developing ligaments cannot keep up with the muscle strength and arm speed that these 16–18-year-olds possess.

 Across all ages and levels of play, injured pitchers tend to throw with higher velocity than uninjured players. Recurrent injuries also tend be more frequent in pitchers with higher velocities. 

 

It's interesting to note that, while average Major League 4-seam fastball velocity has increased, fastball usage has decreased. MLB pitchers threw 64.4% fastballs in the past. That number has decreased to 49.1% today. Why? MLB hitters are catching up to high velocity. MLB pitchers, especially starting pitchers, are relying more on changing velocity, location, and off-speed pitches to keep hitters off-balance and less on sheer velocity. 

While it is unlikely that many HS and youth hitters will be able to catch up to high velocity without advanced training, the changes in fastball usage at the MLB level support the theory that young, developing pitchers should learn how to locate the fastball and throw an off-speed pitch (preferably a change-up) rather than try to blow hitters away. 

Young, developing pitchers are experiencing serious arm and shoulder injuries at an alarming rate. The frequency and severity of these injuries suggests that several will be broken by the time they enter high school, college, or the pros. To help slow this trend, parents and coaches should insist that pitchers adhere to the Pitch Smart Guidelines (http://baseballstrength.org/pitch-smart-risk-factors-and-guidelines/) and participate in an approved, supervised strength and conditioning program, and effective arm care program.

In addition to arm and shoulder issues, data indicate that high velocity MLB pitchers are being hit by come backers and line drives at an alarming rate. Apparently, the fall to one side follow through that these pitchers end up in after ball release is not as conducive to fielding their position as the more balanced program used by pitchers like Greg Maddux and other lower velocity Gold Glove pitchers. 

Finally, the pitch clock used in professional baseball limits the recovery time between pitches (15 seconds with bases empty and 20 seconds with runners on base), which can have a significant negative effect on the ability to recover between pitches, especially among high-velocity pitchers. Incomplete recovery can lead to acute fatigue between pitches and cumulative fatigue over multiple innings. Pitching when fatigued has been shown to be a major risk factor of overuse injury. Fortunately, the pitch clock has not been implemented at lower levels where the risk of fatigue-related injury is high. 

Batters. The number of MLB batters hit by pitches has increased with increases in pitching velocity. Why? First, there is less time for the batter to get out of the way of in-side pitches and second, pitchers tend to have less control of high velocity pitches. One should expect similar increases in hit by pitch among younger less experienced youth, high school, and college batters with increases in pitch velocity.

Because hitters want to be able to catch up to velocity, coaches at all levels from Little League to MLB have been using pitching machines to simulate higher velocities. Twelve-year olds are trying to hit 60 MPH fastballs, 14-year-olds are working at 70+ MPH, high schoolers are trying to hit 90 MPH, and college and pros are working at 100 MPH or higher. Higher velocity pitches from pitch machines are associated with higher velocity swings, more swings and misses, and more hits off the handle. Increases in the force and number of high-velocity swings has been shown to be related to increases in the number of thumb, wrist, shoulder, and oblique injuries in pro hitters. It is not unrealistic that these problems could filter down to younger batters who are not physically prepared for the number of high-intensity swings at high-velocity pitches needed to catch up to faster pitching. 

Catchers. As velocity increases, MLB batters square up fewer pitches which has led to an increase in the number of foul tips that catchers are exposed to. The increase in foul tips has been associated with an increased number of injuries to catcher’s thumbs, toes, and shoulders and an increase in the number of concussions. An increase in velocity also gives catchers less time to reach and catch balls in the pocket which can result in more injuries to the thumb. 

Infielders. With the elimination of the shift, MLB infielders have more ground to cover. Second basemen are no longer permitted to be rovers in right field, shortstop can’t play behind second base and third basemen can’t position themselves at shortstop. High velocity pitches, when squared up, leave the bat with higher exit velocities, and get through the infield faster. The combination of higher exit velocity and more ground to cover can require infielders to move at higher velocities and increase the potential to dive for balls in the hole. Moving at higher velocities has the potential to increase hamstring and other leg-related injuries. Diving from balls in the hole has the potential to increase the number of injuries associated with collisions with the ground.

Outfielders. Because high velocity pitches, when squared up, tend to have higher exit velocities, greater launch angles, and travel farther, outfielders often have to run faster and farther to track down balls and then make longer throws. The combination of faster sprints, longer runs, and longer throws has the potential to increase the risk of leg and arm/shoulder injuries.

For more information on this topic and the source of some of the information in this post, go to: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/elite-baseball-development-podcast/id1457825804

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Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros 1978-2012) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers 2013-2020). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager, https://pbsccs.org/

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