Zoomlander: Starting, Relieving and Throwing Hard
When it comes to general sports, I am a fan of watching people perform at the highest levels. This means, for example, that I got into it last week watching a women's college volleyball match because one player from Hawai'i (highly ranked nationally) was totally, and I mean totally, dominating. Everyone knew she was going to spike the ball and it was as if she took aim at one opposing player after another and made them eat leather. I do not know anything about volleyball, but I know she was performing at a level significantly higher than her opposition.
This type of performance, although somewhat far-reaching, reminded me of Tigers pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Specifically, their performance against the Yankees in the ALDS (since I actually got to watch some of it) and more specifically, their approaches to Yankees sluggers Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi were especially overpowering. These guys are fun to watch!
Here are two excerpts that show specific at-bats in full (clips thankfully prepared by an anonymous "donor"):
Verlander vs. A-Rod
Zumaya vs. Giambi
According to the radar display, each of these fastballs (5 of the 6 pitches) registered at or above 100 MPH. As if that was not challenging enough, as soon as A-Rod sniffed some contact, Verlander delivered an 85 MPH bender to expedite A-Rod's departure. Cool stuff in and of itself. . .
. . .But while changing around the format of the video, I came across an interesting feature which provided another option for making comparisons, and here is the resulting clip in full:
The clip itself comes from the same camera and same angle from the same game. Both pitchers are synchronized to release point and both are throwing 100 MPH fastballs.
Of course, the first question to me is: how do these guys throw so hard? Secondly, what became very interesting to me is a couple of things that Verlander and Zumaya apparently do a little bit differently, along with the implications that those differences might have for different types of pitcher (starters vs. relivers).
Here is the comparison one more time, slowed down in full:
In one quick sentence, Verlander appears to be more efficient with his body, whereas Zumaya seems to rely more on his arm. These are the areas I would like to focus on here.
In this section of the video, Verlander is moving more directly towards home plate than Zumaya, who is moving slightly to the 3rd base side. This appears to allow Verlander greater freedom to open his rotating hips as each pitcher arrives at foot-plant in frame 2.
This is important because it gives Verlander more potential to transfer energy from both his linear movement towards the plate as well as his rotating hips. In contrast, Zumaya's midsection is going to have to do more work to overcome this change in direction as he gets his upper body squared up to home plate before release. If this can not be accomplished, Zumaya is going to have to find those missing MPH's in another link towards the end the chain. The quick version of this is that Verlander appears more efficient in setting up forwards flexion of the trunk that is occurring during the time surrounding ball release.
Two other quick clues that indicate more efficient rotational ability for Verlander:
1. Check again the second frame of the clip section directly above. Look at the distance between Verlander's feet and Zumaya's feet.
2. Note the finish of Verlander in the full speed video as his momentum leaves him "falling" toward the 1st base side.
Now while Verlander is busy getting his hips and upper body in position, Zumaya is doing something else exceptionally well:
The first thing I noticed in the comparison was Zumaya's arm action. You can see the different positions of each pitcher's throwing arm in frame 1. While Verlander has his elbow, shoulder, and the ball at virtually the same height, Zumaya clearly has his elbow raised above his shoulder. This requires some internal rotation of the arm (humerus at the shoulder joint) and it is important because it creates more distance for Zumaya's hand to travel in order to catch up to Verlander (which he does). Frame 6 is where each player has reached maximal external rotation, and because of Zumaya's initial position in Frame 1, he has been able to create and store more elastic energy to be delivered upon release. Click here for a brief "textbook" explanation.
Starter vs Reliever
Thinking of this at surface level, it is logical that the starting pitcher should be more efficient. A starter is required to throw more innings and more pitches and increased efficiency reduces stress on the arm. The fact that relievers can come in and air it out does not dismiss the need for mechanical efficiency, but the nature of their short appearances may allow them more room for error. For instance, a reliever is less susceptible to muscular fatigue pitching one inning as opposed to 6 or 7, and it may be during those times of muscular fatigue that the door for injury is opened wider for certain pitchers.
As far as the conclusion goes, I do not have one yet. This is the start of an increasingly in-depth look at the physical demands of starting and relief pitching. Reviewing as much research as has been done on the topic is step one, but I'll also have some upcoming opportunities to learn from leading experts in the fields of exercise physiology and throwing mechanics.