Posted by Steve Magness
What could baseball possibly teach runner’s or endurance athletes? I mean just look at the baseball players, and the words “in shape” or “fit” don’t exactly spring to mind. The sports themselves have almost nothing in common, except for the fact that each can drag on for hours, depending on the running event. But if we look hard enough, plenty of lessons can be learned from America’s national past time.
While cyclists embrace science and technology with all of their new fangled gadgets, aerodynamic bikes, and let’s not forget drugs, runners for the most part shun science. Running is a simplistic sport where all you need is shoes (or not) and you’re good to go. The simplicity is part of its attractiveness. It goes beyond gear and gadgets though, to how we train. Many coaches, and I’d be one of them, would argue that training running is a combination of art and science, but the art part is the most important. It’s the reason that all the training innovations always come from the coaches or athletes, and the role of science has been to explain the why’s or how’s. Or as Sir Roger Bannister so eloquently put it “The human body is centuries ahead of the physiologists.” Similarly, Stephen Seiller made the excellent point that the training done by elite athletes has essentially been developed and refined in a sort of Darwinian process of evolution. The stuff that works stays, the stuff that doesn’t goes, which leaves us with a pretty good practical system. However, the complete shunning of science and reliance on tradition is a mistake, and baseball shows us why.
Baseball is a sport that is defined by its past. It is so steeped in tradition that change is very slow. Besides the adoption of performance enhancing drugs, baseball is among the slowest to adopt new ideas. Strength training for example was shunned for decades, before it was fully adopted. Even now the strength and conditioning of many baseball players is lacking. There is still an emphasis on static group stretching as a warm-up, as well as a lack of any sort of a cool down.
While change is slowly occurring, if we look at the training practices of baseball, it points to the fact that one cannot rely solely on experience. There has to be a counterbalance, and science provides that in most cases. Baseball serves as the example of what happens if we solely and blindly follow tradition without any counterbalance.
Pitchers-, Matsuzaka, Mazzone and injuries
Pitchers get hurt….a lot. Despite the advances in medical technology, recovery methods, biomechanics, and training, pitchers throw less often and still get injured at an alarming rate. While I could not find any studies on injury rates in pitchers throughout the years, the dramatic drop in complete games is amazing, as is the decline in number of inning’s pitched, from just a few decades ago until now. In a 1999 study (mentioned here) it found that 23 out of 28 pitchers for the Toronto Blue Jays had tendonitis.
The first step in combating this injury plague is the pitch count. Pitchers have been limited to a certain number of pitches thrown per game and per practice session. For games, the magic number is almost always around 100. The pitch count has become so ingrained in baseball, that the 100 pitch limit is almost like a law. The problem is that it has little evidence to back it up.
Not unlike the magic 100 mile week for runners, the 100 pitch game seems to have developed mostly on tradition (it’s about how many pitches it takes to go 6-7 innings or so on average), and because it’s a nice round number. Similarly to mileage numbers though, there has to be individualization. For some pitchers 100 pitches will be way too high, for others, way too low. Lastly, it’s a gross oversimplification of the process. In essence the logic is akin to those who used to think we only had so many heart beats until the heart gave out. Which brings us to two interesting cases, that of Daisuke Matsusaka and Leo Mazzone.
Daisuke Matsuzaka was a star in Japan. A couple of years ago he got an enormous contract with the Boston Redsox to come be their ace of the staff. Daisuke was renowned for his durability in Japan, once throwing 250 pitches in a single 17 inning game. Matsusaka seemed to be a throwback to the Cy-Young’s or Walter Johnson’s who ruled baseball in the early 20th century. How did Matsusaka accomplish such incredible feats of durability?
Much like the Japanese marathoners who put in very high mileage, it seems like Japanese pitchers take the same approach. Let’s look at his training regime compared to the typical MLB player. According to an SI article a couple years back
(http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2007/writers/tom_verducci/03/20/matsuzaka0326/index.html), Matsuzaka’s watered down bullpen throwing session (100+ pitches) consisted of more than double the amount of pitches than any other Boston pitcher. His training regime in Japan sometimes consisted of 3 times as many pitches being thrown in a session. That means 300 pitches compared to the typical MLB number of 50. His long toss is done at twice the distance of other pitchers (300ft). And perhaps most intriguing, he would get in more work after his starts with some light throwing and refused to ice his arm.
Essentially, Matsusaka took the Lydiard approach to the problem. The demands of a pitcher are relatively straight forward. He needs to be able to withstand repeated near maximum throws over a 2-3hr game. Thus, it is a matter of strength endurance, with the endurance being the key. The Japanese took the route of ensuring that his arm could withstand the endurance aspect of the equation. American’s on the other hand, have this fear of throwing too much because they have illogically tied the number of pitches thrown to injuries. Essentially, they take the low mileage program of trying to run a marathon. In terms of pitch count, does it make sense to almost never throw the number of pitches you expect to throw in a game in practice?
Injuries mostly occur when mechanics break down because of fatigue. There is a reason it’s called an overuse injury. As seen with running, when done properly it builds bone strength. When done improperly with too large of an increase in intensity or volume or with incorrect biomechanics, you get injuries like stress fractures. By building up his body to withstand the rigors of pitching, Matsusaka was able to perform such incredible endurance feats in terms of innings pitched. An MRI of his arm and shoulder, according to the SI article, backed up that the training he was doing worked. It was “squeaky clean,” an almost unheard of report, especially given the amount of innings he had pitched.
Bobby Valentine, a manager in both the MLB and Japan put it succinctly in stating "I am convinced we do a bad job of coaching in the U.S. for pitchers."
So, what happened? How did a guy who had incredible durability and a clean MRI all of the sudden become an injury prone pitcher?. I do not know the specifics of what caused his injuries, but it is a bit interesting that as soon as he gets integrated into the American system, his injury rate goes through the roof. If we look back at the Sports Illustrated article, it provides some clues.
Even back then when he initially joined the team, the work load was being cut. They were making him skip his 300ft long toss session, and perhaps more importantly he made him skip his throwing session after his in game pitching. The manager, Terry Francona said “"I'd be looking for a job the next day [if I let him],”. The problem is that this post start pitching session is called a cool down….Something American pitchers don’t do…ever. Instead pitchers go straight to icing their arms, something Daisuke never did. Imagine if we went straight from a race to an ice bath skipping a cool down?
The point is that Matsusaka most likely got injured because of a big reduction in training. He lost his strength and endurance. He stopped cooling down. And he got injured…
Bobby Valentine might have predicted the future when he said, "I think he will do fine if he doesn't become Americanized.” He was referring to the training, and it looks like unfortunately he may have become Americanized.
The Braves Way:
The most successful pitching group in the 90’s and 2000’s was the Atlanta Braves. With Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, and Tom Glavine they had three future hall of famers on the staff at the same time. And not surprisingly, their pitching coach Leo Mazzone did some things differently. This info comes the books Living on the Black, and the Head Game
Although not to the same degree as the Japanese, Mazzone has his pitchers throw much more than regular teams. They have an additional throwing day in between starts. Additionally, they also throw all summer to, you guessed it, build a base. This runs contrary to many teams ways, who prefer rest. Lastly, Mazzone has his pitchers run more than other teams to build endurance in the legs. Essentially Mazzone treats his pitchers like the mixed speed/endurance athletes that they are, instead of treating them like pure power/speed athletes like most programs. Not surprisingly, Mazzone mentions the importance of talking to biomechanists and exercise physiologists in the book The Head Game.
The bottom line is that with a couple exceptions baseball is in the dark ages. They rely on pitch count and radar guns as if they are gods. They don’t cool down. They fear endurance training. This is why we need a counterbalance. If we blindly followed tradition without ever questioning the norms or learning from science, the training of distance runners would be far worse. The key is finding balance. There have been times in U.S. history when that balance has been out of whack (think early 90’s High School when the emphasis was on low mileage, high intensity), but the good coaches find out that it is not an either/or situation or one of science vs. coaches. Instead both seemingly opposing sides are necessary to keep the other side in check.