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The Effects of Fatigue on Pitching Performance

October 12, 2010

This article was written and submitted by Functional Anatomy Seminars Certified Instructor Dr. Michael Chivers.  In the article Dr. Chivers discusses the literature on the effect of fatigue pitching performance, as well as injury.

The baseball pitching motion involves the coordinated movement of the lower extremity, trunk and upper extremity. The action of the throwing arm is the fastest recorded motion in all of sports. From the biomechanical data available we now know that the shoulder angular velocity can reach anywhere between 72500/s to 72650/s in Major League pitchers3. This repetitive motion performed over the course of multiple innings in the case of a starter, can potentially lead to muscle fatigue that could impair performance, cause mechanical alterations or compensations, and ultimately overuse injuries.

Considering the large body of articles and research on the biomechanics of pitching, there is a paucity of papers dedicated to the effects of fatigue on pitching. Barrentine et al, were the first group to investigate the effects of fatigue on performance.  During simulated game situations, their group of college aged pitchers demonstrated a decrease in shoulder abduction in the arm cocked position, in essence a “dropped elbow” and they found a decrease in lead knee flexion at the instant of ball release.  The researchers determined that these alterations began to occur as the pitcher approached muscular fatigue in the later innings. Murray et al examined the effects of fatigue on MLB pitchers during actual game play during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, using high speed cameras on both baselines and overhead behind home plate and digitized markers on the pitcher`s body. Pitchers who pitched at least five innings were those whose data were analyzed.  It was found that seven biomechanical parameters changed as the pitcher continued to pitch. During the later innings the pitchers demonstrated less external rotation of the throwing shoulder (unable to achieve a full cocking position), increased lead knee flexion at the point of ball release. Not surprisingly they also found that ball velocity decreased in the later innings by an average of 5 mph.  Numerous investigations performed out of American Sports Medicine Institute between amateur pitchers and professional pitchers and among American and Korean pitchers have shown that the greater external rotation of the throwing shoulder in the cocking position and the ability of the pitcher to quickly straighten the lead leg to act as a brace and allow the trunk to rapidly flex forward are two of the most important mechanical considerations to impart velocity to the ball. In addition, Murray et al, found that shoulder joint and elbow joint distraction forces increased. Simply this means that as the muscles around the shoulder and elbow fatigued, the joint structures themselves (i.e bones, ligaments, cartilage) had to withstand greater forces. This has important injury consequences as it is apparent that the shoulder and elbow are the most injured areas in MLB pitchers and cause the most days spent on the disabled list2.  Mullaney et al, in a recent investigation, using college aged pitchers, on muscle strength before and after a pitching performance found that there was significant fatigue in the shoulder muscles, primarily those that accelerate the arm forward and in the rotator cuff muscles. It is evident from this data that the muscles surrounding and acting on the shoulder experience a high energy demand during pitching and are susceptible to significant fatigue.  Macrina et al reported in their investigation that as MLB pitchers became fatigued the position of the scapula (shoulder blade) worsened leading to an increase in protraction (movement away from the spine) and forward tilting (lower border of scapula moving

Type II scapular dyskinesis - prominence of the entire medial boarder of the scapula

off the thorax).  There are numerous studies documenting dysfunction of the scapula termed “scapular dyskinesis” in the throwing shoulder, which includes increased protraction and forward tilting, and serious pitching injuries such as labral pathology and impingement lesions of the shoulder and ulnar collateral ligament injuries of the elbow. It is important from a “pre-habilitation” and strength and conditioning perspective that we train our pitchers shoulders to prepare for this fatigue effect on the throwing arm. Most recently Escamilla et al. in a labratory setting using digitized high speed cameras found that after throwing 15 pitches for 7-9 innings the pitchers demonstrated a trunk position that was close to vertical rather than forward flexed at the moment of ball release. In addition, ball velocity dropped significantly during the last 1-2 innings pitched. As was mentioned above greater forward trunk tilt contributes to increased ball velocity and it also helps to dissipate some of the forces on the throwing arm during the deceleration phase. With a more vertical trunk, the pitcher tends to throw with too much arm and ultimately increase the risk of injury.

The results of these studies have enormous implications for all those involved in the care of the overhead athlete, from the therapist, strength coach and pitching coach. A thorough knowledge of the changes that occur as the number of pitches increases provides valuable information regarding how long a pitcher can throw before mechanical breakdowns start to happen which can eventually lead to performance decrements and the potential for injury resulting in substantial time spent on the disabled list.

Dr. Michael Chivers BPhE (Hons), DC, D.Ac, FCCSS(C)
Kinesiologist, Medical Acupuncturist, Sports Specialist Chiropractor

Instructor F.A.P.Systems™
Instructor Functional Range Release™

References

  1. Barrentine S, Takada Y, Fleisig G. Kinematic and EMG changes in baseball pitching during a simulated game.  Paper presentatation 1997.
  2. Conte S, Requa R, Garrick J. Disability days in Major League Baseball. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2001; 29: 431-436
  3. Fleisig, G, Barrentine S, Escamilla R., Andrews J. Kinematic and kinetic comparison of baseball pitching among  various levels of development. Journal of Biomechanics, 1999; 32: 1371-1375.
  4. Macrina L, Wilk K, Geus J, Porterfield R. The effects of throwing on scapula position in professional baseball players (abstract). Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy. 2007; 37: A69
  5. Mullaney M, McHugh M, Donofrio T, Nicholas S. Upper and lower extremity muscle fatigue after a baseball pitching performance. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005; 33:108-113
  6. Murray T, Cook T, Werner S, Schlegel T, Hawkins R. The effects of extended play on professional baseball pitchers. American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2001; 29: 137-142

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