BY STEVE KRAH
Pitching a baseball subjects large (sometimes dangerous) forces on the arm particularly on the elbow; the weakest link in overhand throwing activities as most orthopedic surgeons and sports medical experts will attest.
When a ball player throws, a substantial force is concentrated principally on the inner part of the elbow (as the arm rotates first externally and then internally).
Placing undue stress on the inner elbow often results in injury, which can lead to ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) surgery (aka Tommy John surgery).
A physics professor and former pro baseball player in New York — Don R. Mueller, Ph.D. — who knows something about pitching and the physics behind it along with a successful senior adult baseball leaguer in St. Louis — Randy Tiefenthaler — suggest that there is an alternative way to throw (with less chance for UCL injuries).
It’s called Power-Pronation (first you supinate and then you pronate).
“You supinate the wrist as the arm swings back (in preparation to throw) and then you pronate the wrist “naturally” as the arm moves forward to release the ball,” says Mueller. “This method of throwing is also powerful because supination creates two unique opportunities for power: (1) activating the biceps muscle to contract (storing energy within the throwing motion itself) and (2) engaging the band-like pronator teres muscle by stretching it across the inner part of the forearm, which like a stretched rubber band releases its energy as the wrist pronates to release the ball.
“Power-Pronation can be viewed as an efficient way of pulling something like a rope, for example, over-your-shoulder (as a construction worker does) or pulling your arm from back-to-front as a MLB pitcher does to throw a ball.
“If only more folks realized that throwing a ball is more precisely depicted as the action of pulling the ball from back-to-front before it is released by the thrower, then perhaps they would better understand Power-Pronation.”
Mueller, a left-hander who threw hard, pitched in the independent Empire State League in 1987 (injuring his shoulder in 1986 and then tearing his UCL in 1989; ending his quest to play further) wants to help others avoid arm injuries; however, still adding a few mph to their fastball by using the power-pronation technique.
“The inner elbow is a time bomb for pitchers who throw hard,” says Mueller. “My research is focused on moving the force away from the inner elbow more toward the outer elbow, which may be more resilient for some players.
“Pitching like other sports activities, which require the player to essentially do the same thing over-and-over again, is a proving ground for various repetitive strain injuries (RSI). I suggest that they try power-pronation if for nothing more that to give their arm a rest from RSI.”
Mueller offers ball players what he calls “3-Points on Pitching/Throwing.”
1. Get the throwing arm up quickly (supinate the wrist if you choose to power-pronate) 2. Carry the center of mass forward as the arm moves from back-to-front. 3. Get the arm out in front with a longer delivery (less elbow strain more shoulder power) as the back leg drives the body forward.
On the follow-through don’t drag the back leg. Get the back leg off the rubber and into the air as the center of mass rotates forward: Explosive power from the legs, hips and shoulder; not so much emphasis on the arm and its weakest link the elbow.
“I’m a guy who still throws with power even at age 57, but perhaps more importantly I’m an expert in throwing pain,” says Mueller. “I have hurt myself repeatedly (from head-to-toe) in different ways and have learned by many trial-and-error experiments how to throw with more power and less pain.”
Mueller states emphatically: “Harness the power of your overall body. Be more like an Olympic athlete; an overall body user. They are the best athletes in the world. For example, Jan Zelezny (javelin thrower) who had just won the Gold Medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta showed coaches with the Atlanta Braves (a few days later) that he could throw a ball over 400 feet! Although he never made a go of pro baseball, his ability to harness his overall body into a throw was remarkable.”
Tiefenthaler, a 2019 member of the Greater St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame, pitched at Missouri Baptist University. By the 1980 Major League Baseball (First-Year Player Draft) he had torn his UCL, teres minor muscle (posterior rotator cuff) and suffered various other muscle and tendon injuries.
More recently, in using Power-Pronation principles, Tiefenthaler helped his fellow Midwest Pirates win the 53-and-over Roy Hobbs World Series in 2015 and he was named tournament MVP in 2017 as the Pirates came close to winning the title again.
“In September I will be 60,” says Randy Tiefenthaler. “And I can legitimately say that I can throw 80 mph with no pain or injury.
“It was (former major league pitcher) Mike Marshall that taught me the value of early forearm turnover and powerful pronation as the keys to getting the most out of your throwing arm. Those two keys help unlock increased velocity. “I am totally convinced that powerful and properly timed actuation of the pronator teres not only produces higher spin-rates on all pitches, but has the added benefit of preventing the olecranon process of the ulna (bony tip of the elbow) from violently colliding with the fossa of the humerus (upper arm bone).
“In other words, you can prevent the violent ‘hitting of the doorstop’ so to speak, on the back of your elbow, which can lead to excess ossification of the back of the elbow and sometimes even fractures.”
Mueller emphasizes the importance of the Power-Pronation as a method for kids to try. “
“If young ball players are willing to learn these techniques from a couple of old guys (who have been there and done that with the associated pain) then perhaps they can avoid such injuries altogether or at least greatly reduce the chance of hurting themselves,” says Mueller. “I also think kids need to extend their arm forward a bit with a longer delivery (like Aroldis Chapman who has a long fluid motion from start to finish) to allow for maximum acceleration of the arm forward, but also improved deceleration (slowing) of the arm once the ball is released.
“I see kids wanting to whip their arm forward, when it is still basically stuck behind them. I want them to carry their center-of-mass slightly forward before they begin to think about releasing the ball. In other words, I want kids to throw more downhill (and further down the hill) as they push themselves off the mound with their back leg. As the physics professor, I refer to this as converting potential energy into kinetic energy with maximum efficiency.”
Mueller also contends that kids don’t get their throwing arm up in time. As a consequence, the arm continues to lag behind the lower body, which begins its motion toward the target; with a dragging arm more likely to become an injured arm in time.
“Get the arm high and throw it lower,” says Mueller.
The professor has analyzed pitchers throughout the history of baseball as he applies his knowledge of physics. He still marvels at the compact and efficient delivery of former Detroit Tigers ace Denny McLain.
“Likely the last 30-game winner I will see in my lifetime,” says Mueller. “Dwight Gooden also had a beautiful delivery with near-perfect timing of the lower and upper body to throw his blazing fastball.”
Furthermore, Mueller observed that with both of these hurlers the arm was the “last thing to happen” as the lower body led the way and he prefers that today’s pitchers go back to this efficient use of the leg kick.
He explains that as the leg first kicks out and then pulls in (with the pitcher turning toward home plate) the big moment of inertia of the extended leg is converted into rotational angular acceleration of the upper body. The arm can then follow through more effectively with greater power and in all probability less chance for injury to the relatively delicate structure of the elbow.
Mueller says, “To maximize your pitching potential you need to use the upper body and lower body in tandem. Too many of the MLB pitchers I see in 21st century baseball are more upper body and not enough lower body.”
Although Mueller views the throwing of the arm forward as a pulling activity as it goes from back-to-front he understands and appreciates the importance of pushing (i.e., pushing off the mound) as a key element to pitching with power.
“I think immediately of Newton’s Third Law of Motion — For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” says Mueller. “You probably can’t throw the ball hard unless you are using this ‘ground force’ effectively.”
While Mueller agrees that you should push hard off the mound, he disagrees with “pitching experts” who advocate the dragging of the back foot (what they commonly refer to as the dragline) as part of this process.
He says, “I suggest that the thrower push forcefully off the pitching rubber and as the upper body rotates fully to the target, get the foot off the ground. If you want to have a 6-inch dragline fine, but I see no “physics-based” reason for a 2-foot dragline as recommended by some pitching coaches.”
Mueller also wants to make it clear that “he is not a pitching coach.”
He is a physics professor who investigates the physics of sports.
Tiefenthaler offers the following advice to anyone who wishes to avoid Tommy John surgery:
1. When breaking the pitching hand from the glove, lead with the
pitching hand in a pendulum swinging fashion that gets the hand up to your driveline position, with the forearm laid back in a supinated fashion ready to throw — this before your front foot plants and the hips and shoulders rotate forward.
2. During and after hip and shoulder rotation while you are driving the ball to the plate, powerfully go from forearm supination to full pronation while attempting to “inwardly” rotate your shoulder in a powerful fashion.
3. Learn to pronate the release of not just the fastball but all off speed/breaking pitches as well.
“Do those three things and you can bullet-proof your arm from UCL injuries,” says Tiefenthaler. “Tim Lincecum comes to mind as a Power-Pronator.
“You can see (in the slow-motion video) how Lincecum outwardly rotates his forearm at the beginning of the final drive home. Then the pronation begins as he drives his fingers through the release such that after release, his pitching hand turns inwardly so much that his palm is facing upward.
“For the novice fan, they would think that this action would injure the arm. However, it actually helps to protect the arm from the elbow to the hand, while at the same time maximizing spin torque on the ball at release.
“As far as the timing of when he gets his arm up and into driveline height; he is late with that, but that is another subject. However, as far as the powerful pronation action is concerned this is a good example.
“There aren’t too many MLB guys who understand how important pronation is to being able to throw the ball with ‘life’. The amount of late, sharp movement on the ball is directly related to the amount of ’powerful pronation’ as it is applied through the release.”
Physics professor Don Mueller applies his knowledge on the tennis court, too, and can swing effectively with either hand. Mueller is a proponent of Power-Pronation.
Randy Tiefenthaler (center) is a 2019 inductee into the Greater St. Louis Amateur Baseball Hall of Fame. Here is pictured with two men with St. Louis Cardinals ties — David Freese (left) and National Baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. Tiefenthaler is a proponent of Power-Pronation.
Former New York Mets pitcher had a delivery which started high and finished low — just like Professor Don Mueller recommends as a part of Power-Pronation.
Denny McLain, the last 30-game winner in the major leagues, was a Power-Pronation kind of pitcher.
Tim Lincecum also pronated his way to effectiveness on a Major League Baseball mound.
The difference between pronation and supination.