By now, everybody in Nats Town is sick and tired of talking about or thinking about the dreaded “Inverted ‘W'”, the pitching technique that’s threatening baseball’s young phenoms, as a piece in The Atlantic put it so memorably. A new piece in ESPN: The Magazine revisits the technique, complete with parallel illustrations of “good” (Greg Maddux) and “bad” (Stephen Strasburg) pitching technique done in classic “Goofus and Gallant” style
I’m not sure how I feel about all of these dissertations about biomechanics in the sporting press, though. There have been a number of skeptical takes in the blogosphere, attacking this from a number of angles, and suggesting that perhaps the whole “Pitching biomechanics” thing is fallacious.
Strasburg suffered a catastrophic injury very early in his career. Maddux pitched for 22 years and never visited the DL until his 16th year. Surely, the longevity of the latter must be due to his form? This post seems to suggest this line of reasoning might be logically suspect:
Also, I sincerely think that he could write the same article and switch Maddux with Strasburg, if we didn’t know who they were….I think he could have written the following and no one would be the wiser:
“Strasburg’s spine is tiled slightly backward. This allows for less stress on his upper and lower body. It also allows him to be stable over his back leg with his head and spine slightly behind his center of gravity, the perfect position for a stress-free delivery. Maddux’ spine is at the 12 o’clock position, and his back leg is bent. That is not a natural pitching position. The body needs to transfer its weight backward onto a firm back leg, and then forward again, much like a PGA golfer does in the classic golf swing. Maddux is also striding too far toward the middle of the plate, leaving his hips and shoulders open, which will ultimately restrict the full rotation necessary to get maximum power. He then has to literally lunge toward home plate rather than effortlessly rotate towards his target. He’s out of sequence: His shoulders are already open, but his front foot hasn’t yet hit the ground.”
Maddux was never injured, because of his great form–Post hoc, ergo propter hoc?
The bulk of the “Inverted W” condemnation comes from people who believe that the principal authors of this theory are credible, authoritative figures. The persuasive force of the argument comes from the appeal to authority.
[Parenthetically, I like the Latin for this, "argumentum ad verecundiam," better. "Verecundia" means something closer to "shame" or "awe." The sense is that "you ought to be ashamed you don't believe what I say, because I'm citing awesome authority!"]
Perhaps the most forceful debunking of the appeal to authority comes from The Common Man over on the Platoon Advantage blog. The “Inverted W’s” main detractor is one Mike Marshall, a former Cy Young Award winner. The trouble here is that Marshall’s approach to pitching biomechanics may not be correct, either. Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus tartly summarized a study of Marshall’s pitching mechanics thus:
Marshall’s motion as tested simply does not work. You can read the entire study with all of the numbers here, but to summarize, Marshall’s motion gets less velocity out of more force, meaning it is less efficient.
The study itself was conducted by Glenn Fleisig, who seems to have done a great deal of original, peer-reviewed work in measuring and studying the stresses of pitching on the human arm (see, e.g. G.S. Fleisig et al. 1999. Kinematic and kinetic comparison of baseball pitching among various levels of development. Journ. of Biomechanics 32:1371-1375; G.S. Fleisig et al. 1995. Kinetics of Baseball Pitching with Implications About Injury Mechanisms. Am. Journ. of Sports Medicine 23(2):233-239; S.L. Werner, G.S. Fleisig et al. 1993 Biomechanics of the elbow during baseball pitching. Journ. Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy 17(6):274-8.)
After a good examination of the non-inverted-W technique, what’s the verdict? Well, not good for the Anti-Inverted-W crowd:
The data did not support the hypothesis that the Marshall style of pitching produces less risk of injury but with comparable ball velocity as traditional pitching. While the current study provides no direct measurement of injury risk, the biomechanical data do provide shoulder and elbow kinetic parameters….
* * *
Accuracy was also an issue. Collectively, the three skilled Marshall-style pitchers threw only one-third (9 out of 27) of their maxline fastballs for strikes, and about one-fourth (5 out of 21) of their torque fastballs for strikes.
While the current study does provide some insight into the performance and safety about various styles of pitching, future research would also be helpful. Biomechanical testing of a larger sample of Marshall‐style pitchers would be valuable, as would long‐term outcomes of performance and injury compared between Marshall‐style and traditional pitchers.
The trouble with the appeal to authority is that it depends on the credibility of the authority cited. I’m just a baseball fan–I’m not a scientist or a physician or even a physicist. I don’t know anything about the biomechanics of pitching.
But here, what I seem to see is a bunch of published, peer-reviewed, experimental studies on the one hand (Fleisig) against largely speculative hand-wringing on the other. That leads me to think–at least for now–that the “anti-curly-W” brigade may not be as credible as they hold themselves out to be.
Perhaps someone reading this could point me to better studies. I’m genuinely curious about this.