This is a very early essay in which I discuss a concept that I have
since come to call the
Tommy John Twist.
But Not Too Early
In Saving The Pitcher,
Will Carroll talks about how pitchers must pronate (twisting the
wrist as when turning a doorknob counter-clockwise) upon releasing the
ball. Based on his conversations with pitching gurus like Tom
House and Dr. Mike Marshall, Will has come to believe that pronation is the key to
protecting the elbow. Carroll uses Tom House's
student Mark Prior as an example of a
pitcher who does an excellent job of pronating upon releasing the
I initially took this advice as gospel,
but two things happened that led me to question some of what Mr. Carroll had said.
First, Mark Prior experienced a
series of arm problems. Sure, some of them were flukes (like
getting hit on the elbow by a batted ball). However, some of his
elbow injuries weren't. I suspect that were due to
motion and mechanics.
The second thing that led me to
question what Mr. Carroll had said in his book was when I started putting
together a number of analyses of
the motions of professional pitchers.
I saw much more pronation
than I expected to see.
Nearly everybody — including both injury-plagued and injury-free
pitchers — seemed to be doing it.
This threw me at first, but I believe that I have since figured
out what's going on. Based on my understanding of the physiology
of pitching, it is my opinion that merely pronating upon
releasing the ball is not enough to reduce the risk of injury.
Instead, I believe that you must pronate earlier in the motion,
just after the shoulders have begun to turn and the arm has just
begun to accelerate, for it to have the desired effect of
protecting the elbow.
Late Pronation vs. Premature Pronation
The problem is that if you
pronate the forearm through the Release Point (which I call Late Pronation), it will impart some spin on
the ball, which is good (a screwball is a pitch that is thrown
with a very large amount of pronation). However, pronating late will not enable the
muscle to bear some of the load that is normally born by
the UCL, which is bad. As a result, Late Pronators like
are vulnerable to tearing their UCL and/or irritating the parts of
the bone to which the UCL attaches.
The only way to enable the Pronator Teres to take some of the load off of the
UCL, and to protect the UCL, is to — as
Dr. Mike Marshall recommends — pronate
during the Acceleration phase (which
I call Early Pronation). By doing this, Early Pronators like
Bradford reduce the likelihood that they will experience
serious elbow problems.
One very common piece of advice to pitchers (and really to all
throwers) is that they should show the ball to Center Field as
they pass through what is variously referred to as the High
Cocked, High Guard, or the Power Position. The problem with doing
this is that it forces you to pronate your forearm too early. This
then forces you to supinate your forearm, at exactly the wrong
moment, in order to get your palm around to facing the target.
This then focuses the load on the UCL and may irritate it and/or
the bones to which it attaches.
The Limits of Pronation
As I discuss in my essay The
Limits Of Pronating, for a number of physiological reasons
pronating is of only limited value in pitchers that are younger
than 16 or 17.
Questions and Answers
Q: Sorry to bother you, but
I have a burning question I always wanted to know. Now, if I'm
teaching players to pronate early and while releasing how can I
effectively incorporate magnus force on the ball? According to the
studies I've looked at, backspin on the baseball makes it travel
further and with more velocity. How can I create backspin with the
pronation of the forearm? Or is backspin not safe on the elbow?
A: Good question. The answer is
that they are not mutually exclusive.
You want to pronate before (and through the moment that) you
release the ball but still release a 4-seam fastball or 2-seam
fastball with pure backspin (which lets you take advantage of the
Unlike the case of a screwball, where the spin does come from the
pronation, in the case of a fastball the spin and the pronation
are pretty much two different things. In order to protect the
elbow, you pronate as you accelerate the arm and extend the elbow.
However, at the release point, the rate at which you are pronating
should be slowing down (since you are pronating early), which
allows you to release the ball with pure backspin (by letting it
roll off of your index and middle fingers).
The case of a curveball is similar but slightly different. As
before, you pronate through the acceleration and the extension of
the elbow in order to protect the elbow but in this case you
release the ball with topspin (which means you have to cant the
wrist differently and snap your fingers).
There's nothing inherently bad for the elbow in terms of putting
backspin on the ball (and it's very good aerodynamically). There's
also nothing inherently wrong in terms of putting topspin or
sidespin on the ball.
What matters is how you do it.
If you generate that back, top, or sidespin while (or by) pronating the
wrist, then that's good. If you generate that back, top, or
sidespin while (or by) supinating the wrist, then that's bad.
Part of what might confusing about is the words we use. The best
way to say it is that (in the case of all pitches but the
screwball) you generate backspin "while" pronating rather than
saying that you generate backspin "by" pronating. While in the
case of a curveball or slider it's possible to generate spin by
supinating the wrist, that is a bad thing to do (because it
strains the UCL and causes the bones of the elbow to smash
together). In the case of a curveball or slider, you want to
generate that spin while pronating the wrist.
Q: Are you saying that you
advocate supination? I thought you have said elsewhere that
supination is bad.
A: Yes, I do advocate supination,
but it must be done at the correct moment.
By definition, if you are to be able to powerfully and
significantly pronate through the acceleration phase, then your
forearm must be supinated going into the acceleration phase. If
your forearm is neutral going into the acceleration phase, then
you won't be able to pronate as hard or as much.
Supinating before the acceleration phase isn't problematic because
the forces on the elbow and shoulder are relatively low (since the
shoulders haven yet started turning).
Q: I know you talk about early
pronation, but I was wondering if you could be more specific? How
do you do it? Could a cue for early pronation be keeping the ball
on the chest side, either pointing at the 1st or 3rd baseman,
depending on what arm they throw with? Or does it matter as long
as when the pitching arm gets to driveline height that the ball is
pointing at the 3rd/1st baseman?
A: The proper cue depends on where
you are in the motion.
Assuming we are talking about a RHP, at what some people call the
"high-cocked", "high guard", or "power" position the proper
cue would be to either show the ball to 3B (good), to show the
ball to Home Plate (better), or to show the ball to 1B (best but
really hard to do). At a minimum you
don't want to show
the ball to CF/2B.
As soon as the shoulders start to turn and the pitching arm side
forearm starts to bounce back, a cue that might work is to show
the ball to the sky (palm up).
The logic is that to get from showing the ball to Home Plate at the
high cocked position to showing the ball to the sky as the
shoulders start to turn and the forearm starts to fly out you
would have to pronate the forearm.
Q: I am an Athletic Training student
in college, and came upon your "essays". I am reading the
sections where you write about early vs. late pronation. I myself
played baseball with one Adam Ottavino, who you have used as an
example in this. I tried to replicate this "early" pronation you
discussed, but am having a hard time replicating it. I feel that
you may be mistaking pronation with supination. If I (a left
handed thrower) keep my elbow and wrist the same from the time the
ball leaves my gloves, the ball will face somewhere between 2b and
1b. If I supinate (the act of opening up the palm so it faces the
sky when in anatomical position), the ball will now face home
plate like you state it should. If you pronate in this motion,
the ball will end up facing centerfield, as you (and your pitching
"guru") state. Could you please explain this to me?
A: For a pitcher to be able to powerfully pronate their forearm as their
elbow extends and through the release point, their forearm must
first be supinated. It could also be in a neutral position, but
then you wouldn't be able to pronate as much as you would if your
forearm was supinated at this moment.
Just to be clear, I am not advocating supination
through or after the release point. That is bad because it focuses
the load on the UCL. What I am advocating is pronation through the
release point. However, this requires that the forearm be
supinated as the acceleration phase begins.