July 19, 2011: Training, and science, help Verlander defy power pitcher’s odds


This story first appeared July 19, 2011 in the Toronto Star.

Morgan Campbell

Sports Reporter

DETROIT—For eight innings, Justin Verlander had the Seattle Mariners groping.

The Tigers ace didn’t even bring his best fastball that June evening, but he didn’t need it — few Seattle batters could make solid contact with his 98 m.p.h. heater.

And when they caught up to his fastball, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Verlander would mix in breaking pitches that travelled 20 m.p.h. slower, obliterating the timing on which every batter depends and making the Mariners grateful for the solitary run they squeezed out of him.

As he trotted off the field, fans at Comerica Park saluted the three-time all-star with a standing ovation, aware they were witnessing something special, a once-in-a-generation power pitcher who not only hits triple digits with his fastball — it has been measured at 102 m.p.h. — but combines that raw power with skill and endurance.

Heading into Tuesday, Verlander doesn’t just lead the American League in strikeouts (153), but also ranks second in WHIP (0.898) and wins (12), and sixth in walks per nine innings (1.892).

He is one of just 30 players to have pitched more than one no-hitter. His second came on May 7 against the Jays, when only an eighth-inning walk to J.P. Arencibia spoiled Verlander’s perfect game.

“He’s got the best stuff of anybody I’ve ever had, no question,” says Tigers manager Jim Leyland. “He’s still in the process of becoming the best pitcher. He’s starting to figure things out. If he lets himself, he should be real special for a really long time.”

Except that at 28, Verlander is already deep into middle age for a power pitcher.

Midway through his sixth big-league season, he averages an impressive 95.2 m.p.h. on his fastballs, a sustained velocity that both defies probability and strains the laws of biomechanics.

Pitching that hard for that long puts mind-boggling stress on the elbow and shoulder, and long-term studies show that preteens who pitch too much are more likely to wind up in surgery than the major leagues. At the big-league level, pitchers who surpass the 100 m.p.h. barrier appear every few years, but often develop career-altering arm problems.

A closer look at the science of pitching reveals that building a big-league fireballer requires not just a strong arm but an intricate linking of talent, technique and training, along with shrewd stewardship.

And surviving as a member of the 100 m.p.h. club for as long as Verlander has requires relentless off-season preparation and obsessive attention to the minute details of pitching mechanics.

Plus a little something extra.

“After 120 pitches and still throwing 98?” Tigers catcher Alex Avila said after the 4-1 win over Seattle. “That’s just a gift from God.”

Or at least Verlander’s parents.

While Verlander’s father, Richard, is the bigger baseball fan, even he admits most of Verlander’s uncanny talent probably came from Justin’s mother, Kathy, who was a star swimmer as a teen and remains a standout competitive tennis player.

Still, Richard was the first in the family to notice his oldest son’s outlandishly strong arm. It caught his attention one day when father and son decided to skip rocks on a pond near their home in Richmond, Va.

While Richard’s rocks sank in deep water, 10-year-old Justin sent a series of stones skipping clear to the other side of the pond.

“It was somewhat humbling,” says Richard, a retired organizing coordinator with the Communication Workers of America. “It was one of those moments I refer to as ‘pinch me’ moments. There have been quite a few with Justin.”

By the time Verlander reached high school he was strong-arming batters with a fastball that peaked at 81 m.p.h.; by Grade 10, he could hit 86.

But showing so much ability so early doesn’t necessarily hint at a major-league success. It might even indicate the opposite.

Dr. Glenn Fleisig, research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., has studied pitchers at all levels of baseball and notes that promising youngsters are often pulled into an unforgiving cycle of success and overuse.

The better a pitcher performs, the more likely his coaches are to send him to the mound; but as innings accumulate, Fleisig says, the risk of serious injury increases dramatically.

One of Fleisig’s studies identified 471 pitchers ranging from 9 to 14 years old and tracked them for a decade. The study found that players who pitched 100 or more innings per year as teens were 3.5 times more likely to require surgery than players who stayed below that threshold.

“The ones who get overused growing up are the ones who wind up breaking down before they ever make it,” says Fleisig, who is also a pitching safety consultant for Little League Baseball. “Even with perfect mechanics, if you use it too much it’s going to backfire.

“But if a guy’s not overdoing, there’s a huge advantage to having good mechanics. You’ll be able to throw hard but not overdo it on your elbow and shoulder.”

To ensure their son never learned bad habits, the Verlanders hired a private pitching instructor to tutor him, then made sure his high school and club coaches closely monitored his workload.

As a senior at Goochland High School, Verlander fanned 144 batters in 72 innings, and as a reed-thin freshman at Old Dominion University, his fastball first hit 100 m.p.h.

But instead of overusing Verlander’s big-league fastball, they limited his appearances to nurture his long-term potential.

“He would throw a lot of pitches but seldom would he come back with not enough rest and pitch again,” Richard says. “In high school, if he pitched on Friday night he typically wouldn’t pitch again until the next Friday. Same thing in college. He always had ample recovery time.”

The arm may get the glory, but when you’re pitching properly your legs do much of the work.

Instead of depending on their arm to muscle the ball across the plate, Fleisig says mechanically sound pitchers understand that each pitch is a carefully choreographed movement that involves the entire body, a seamless transfer of energy along a kinetic chain that starts with the legs, moves through the core and ends at the arm.

“If your legs and core are strong and you have proper mechanics, your arm is just kind of along for the ride,” says Verlander, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. “It all starts from the ground up. You kind of think of it like a whip.”

But even though the pitching motion starts in the legs, for a pitcher to reach triple digits, arm strength — and arm length — are vitally important.

Basically, the faster a pitcher can windmill his arm, the faster the ball will travel once it leaves his hand. Except a pitcher’s arm moves faster than any windmill.

A pitcher’s arm speed is measured not in miles per hour but in “angular rotational speed,” and tests in Fleisig’s lab show that a major-league pitcher’s arm moves at between 7,200 and 7,500 degrees per second.

How fast is that?

Consider that a helicopter can take flight once its propeller blades move at 1,100 degrees per second.

At 7,500 degrees per second, a pitcher’s arm rotates at the same rate as the wheel of a car travelling 100 km/h.

This is where having long arms helps, because there’s more force at the end of a long lever than at the end of a short one. Think of the difference between swinging an axe and swinging a hatchet.

Or riding a tilt-o-whirl at an amusement park.

“The further you are from the centre, the more sickening it is,” Fleisig says. “If two pitchers generate the same angular velocity (with their arms), the linear velocity (of the ball) is proportionate to how long your arm is.”

But taller isn’t always better, because when a pitcher’s arm is too long he can’t generate the arm speed needed to make his fastball sizzle.

Fleisig says pitchers who stand about 6-foot-3 have the ideal combination of arm length and arm speed, and the best chance of hurling a baseball as fast as humanly possible.

Verlander stands 6-foot-5, which gives him arms long enough for some extra pop on his fastball, but not long enough to sap his arm speed.

He might be ideally built for power pitching, except that no human being is constructed for a career as a 100 m.p.h. fireballer.

While Fleisig takes issue with the mantra that the pitching motion is unnatural, he points out that none of us is meant to throw 100-plus pitches at red line intensity. And we’re even less suited to doing it every fifth day for six consecutive months.

Verlander learned that painful lesson in his rookie season, when he totalled a career-low 186 innings yet lurched into the post-season with a tired arm.

“If I throw 100-plus pitches and the majority of them are 96 m.p.h. the muscles in the back of my shoulder, the rotator cuff, slam on the brakes 100 times,” he told Sports Illustrated in August 2006. “It’s like the brake pads getting worn down. You feel it.”

Verlander’s lucky that all he felt was soreness.

Fleisig says even pitching with proper mechanics taxes elbow and shoulder joints to their limits, and big-league pitchers routinely place forces on their arms that break bones and shear ligaments of cadavers in his laboratory.

On the mound the cumulative effect of the stress of power pitching becomes apparent every time a fireballing phenom flames out.

There are currently 28 players on major-league 40-man rosters who have pitched 100 m.p.h. or faster, but nearly all of them have to slow down at some point, either to maintain command or avoid serious injury.

Verlander’s Detroit teammate Joel Zumaya surpassed the 100 m.p.h. barrier several times as a rookie in 2006, and his fastball has been clocked as high as 104.8 m.p.h.

His injury problems began shortly afterward, the damage compounding until last season, when he delivered a pitch with such force he suffered a non-displaced fracture of his pitching elbow. He’ll miss all of 2011 after surgery on that joint.

Last June Washington Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg struck out a record 32 batters in his first three big-league starts, touching 100 m.p.h. several times along the way. A month later, he was sidelined with a sore shoulder, and three games after returning from that injury he had torn a ligament in his right elbow. Surgery to repair it will keep him out of action until at least August.

And after hitting 103 m.p.h. in his big-league debut last September, Cincinnati Reds southpaw Aroldis Chapman had been clocked as high as 106 m.p.h. in the first month of 2011 before poor control cut his playing time, and shoulder soreness forced him to the disabled list.

Reds manager Dusty Baker hopes the rocky opening to 2011 will teach Chapman to turn down the heat just a little.

“There ain’t a whole lot of difference between 99 and 100,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “If he can have the command (at 99 m.p.h.), that’s plenty. There aren’t many of those around.”

After Verlander’s rookie season, his own throbbing pitching arm prompted him to overhaul his off-season training program. He had always focused on keeping his shoulder strong, but now he trains in a way that enhances his up-from-the-ground approach to pitching mechanics.

The more he strengthened his legs and his core, the less stress his arm would undergo from start to start and from season to season.

“I realized how much arm fatigue comes into play if you’re not prepared for the season,” he said. “That’s why I work my tail off in the off-season, so I can do what I’m doing right now — go late in the game, throw a lot of pitches and still feel good and come back the next game.”

Even though the typical power pitcher’s career trajectory suggests his fastball should have lost some zip by now, Verlander’s blend of talent, technique and off-season training combine to help him defy that trend.

According to fangraphs.com San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum’s average fastball this season (92.8 m.p.h.) is markedly slower than his rookie year average (94.2).

The same slowdown applies to power pitchers from Minnesota’s Francisco Liriano (94.8 as a rookie, 92.0 in 2011), to 2010 Cy Young Award winner Felix “King” Hernandez (95.8 to 94.6).

Meanwhile, Verlander’s average fastball this year (95.2 m.p.h.) is just a tick slower than his career high (95.6), and exceeds his career average (95.0).

Setting Verlander further apart is his ability to deliver his fastest pitches late in games. His May 7 no-hitter against the Jays included a 101 m.p.h. fastball in the ninth inning.

“Normally guys, if they’re still throwing hard, they get fatigued and they lose command,” Avila said. “He just seems to get better.”

COPYRIGHT 2011 TORONTO STAR
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