The Case for the Inverted W Part 2

baseballthinktank Featured Post, Pitching Mechanics

Part 2 of a 4 part series

In case you missed part 1, it’s right here.

Billy Wagner 5’10” tall, velocity 98 mph, Randy Johnson 6’10” tall, velocity 98 mph, size isn’t everything.

What was the difference in how they threw the baseball?

Much of my focus is on small body players who throw exceptionally hard.

The rationale being a simple one, the bigger you are the harder you should be able to throw.

Given two players, one such as Billy Wagner who is less than 6 feet in height, and the other being Randy Johnson, a foot taller, Johnson should throw significantly harder, yet both threw with the same velocity.

Why?

More importantly, how?

One of the early observations is,

The hardest throwers begin throwing much sooner then what is advocated by going to or practicing the high cock position and epitomized by the goalpost drill.

The key statement is “begin throwing much sooner”.

Throwing much sooner relates to another concept, the intent to throw.  Most players don’t really meet the “intent to throw” criteria until very late in their delivery.  They really don’t effectively use their body in preparation to throw because of their late intent to throw.

Video of Nolan Ryan demonstrates the throwing process begins as soon as his hands drop and separate.

Everything that the body does from this point on is then coordinated to the throw the baseball.  This is in direct contrast/opposition to instruction that advocates “going to the high cocked position” which delays initiation of the throwing process and is the precursor to the goalpost position.

Enter the engineer/physicist.

From the engineering/physics (my formal training) perspective, Nolan Ryan’s throwing sequence made all the sense in the world.

  • Ryan initiates his throw as soon as his hands start to break.
  • Once Ryan’s hands start to separate, he captures and maintains that energy bringing the ball and glove down and then up again in one continuous motion, as a roller coaster would go down the track and then up again capturing much of its down track momentum.

 

Figure 6: Nolan Ryan throwing the baseball 3-D simulation (animated GIF, click to view)

This continuous movement sequence signifies something else; the intent to throw early in his delivery which is critically important in coordinating the upper and lower body actions to support the throwing sequence.

To better understand what is behind the concept of the inverted W one needs to understand that the inverted W is only part of a much larger throwing mechanics picture.  The inverted W was only one of several descriptions depicting what was being observed in hard throwers.

My throwing templates were:

  • Nolan Ryan
  • John Smoltz
  • Pedro Martinez

And going back even further:

  • Bob Gibson
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Bob Feller
  • Carl Hubbell
  • Walter Johnson

These were just some of the throwing mechanics studied.

The inverted W was only one member of the “W family”. There is the inclined W, the “flat W” in contrast to a slinging (goalpost) initiation of the throwing process.

The W’s are what 90% of the hard throwing pitchers exhibit.

Not only are they more representative of how hard throwing pitchers initiate the throw, they are also more consistent with the physics of biomechanics of efficient throwing.

It must be noted that the W’s are an integral part of another concept first introduced by myself and one that is more universally accepted, “scapula loading”.

The kinetic chain/sequence is the development and transfer momentum from the larger body parts (muscle groups) such as the legs, hips and torso to the smaller body parts such as the shoulder, upper arm, forearm, hand and finally the ball.

This is also described as the distal to proximal sequence, distal being the most distant point from the ball (the feet) and proximal being the closest point to the ball (the hand/fingers).

Efficiency of throwing is not the same as throwing velocity.

Efficiency, simply measures how effective momentum is developed and transferred from segment to segment, the ultimate destination being the ball.

Velocity not only depends upon efficiency of transfer, but also the magnitude of momentum created during this process.  Another way of viewing this sequence is called the summation of velocities.  That is, as the kinetic chain sequences from proximal to distal, each segment increases in velocity, as depicted in Figure 5.

Maximum throwing efficiency occurs when momentum is “harvested”.

Momentum is the product of:

  • Speed
  • Mass

The faster a body part moves the more momentum it has.  For a given speed the larger the mass of the body part, the greater its momentum.

Harvesting means the transfer of momentum from the more distal segments (furthest away) to the more proximal segment (closest to the final action) with no interruptions or pauses.

In the throwing process the most proximal components would be the lower body parts and the most distal components would be the arm parts; the hand being the most distal component of all.

This approach dictates that the throw begins from first initiation of movement (leg lift). All subsequent movements must be coordinated in such a fashion as to maximize momentum transfer from segment to segment.

The mechanism for segment the body segment momentum transfer is connection. Connection is accomplished through:

  • Ligaments
  • Tendons
  • Muscle.

Connection is both active and passive. Active, in that muscle contractions add additional momentum by increasing the velocity of the next segment. Connective tissue, tendons and ligaments, will not actively creating force have elastic properties with the ability to store and release energy.

Most descriptions of the throwing process consider the body to be composed of a single proximal to distal throwing system. I preferred to view it as two systems.

  1. One system is the large body parts which include legs, hips, lower and upper torso (shoulders).
  2. The other consists of the scapula, arms and hands.

The challenge is to bring both of these systems together at the right time.

The throwing process can be further differentiated into three momentum producing components which incorporate both the linear and rotational aspect of the delivery. Pictorially I represented these components as a sequence of ferris wheel sitting on top of a merry-go-round sitting on top of a flatbed truck. More on this in another article.

It is the development and transfer of momentum from large body part system to the small body part system that is most responsible for high-level throwing capabilities.

The transfer between the two systems is initiated when the upper torso starts to rotate.

This same sequence of momentum transfer is responsible for the cracking of a whip. For the whip, the large momentum system is the action of the body moving the handle of the whip.  This action then connects to the whip itself which has to move in a predetermined coordinated fashion i.e. a loop needs to be formed in the body of the whip so that the loop can uncurl. As the whip uncurls the mass of the system becomes smaller (the system being the loop in the whip) as momentum works its way to the tip of the whip.

Reduced mass well maintaining constant momentum requires increasing velocity to satisfy the conservation of momentum principle, i.e., increasing wave velocity as it travels until at the very end where it breaks the sound barrier (with a crack).

This same principle is why action such as the inverted W (along with scapula loading and unloading) is critical to developing that extra 5-10 mph that pitchers are looking for.

The throwing “whip” starts with the lower leg sweeping around into foot plant.

  • As the front foot prepares to land, the momentum of the leg swing connects to the pelvic region (hips) slowing the lead leg down.
  • The hips will then accelerate and their momentum connects to the mid torso, slowing the hips down.
  • The mid torso will then connect to the upper torso which initiates rotation of the shoulders (upper body).
  • Meanwhile the arm action has prepared its momentum to “join in” and then connect to shoulder rotation.

Anything that disrupts this sequence or breaks this kinetic chain will compromise the throwing of the baseball.

  • Stopping or pausing breaks the momentum chain completely.
  • Rotational momentum is the primary driving force behind throwing, especially throwing velocity.
  • Effective throwing rotation takes place in the body’s transverse plane.
  • To maximize the development and transfer of throwing momentum, all proximal to distal movements should be in the traverse plane.

Figure 7: Planes of the body

Movement such as going to the high cocked position potentially a movements out of this plane and therefore compromise throwing efficiency.

The key aspect of the inverted W is that the forearm is being elevated such, that its direction is perpendicular to the spine when scapula loading is taking place.

This action promotes more effective loading of the scapula while at the same time achieving initial external rotation. This is in direct opposition to those who think that the purpose of the inverted W is to elevate the elbow above the shoulder. Or that raising the elbow the shoulder is part of the scapula loading process.

Next time in Part 3 of The Case for the Inverted W,I’ll talk more about arm action and the physiology of throwing.

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