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The modernization of the pitcher

in Columns/Sports by

One day in the summer of 2015, I found myself on a seemingly endless three hour drive from my home in Washington, DC to Atlantic City, MD. The old pitching hermit my dad said we were meeting to work with awaited at the other side. After the excruciating drive through cornfields, woods, and unpaved roads, we finally arrived at a ramshackle pitching facility in an abandoned warehouse in the woods. Upon meeting the man and paying three hundred dollars for his “advanced arm care program,” I found myself seriously questioning the legitimacy of this man‘s renown baseball tutelage. However, for the next three hours, I found myself undergoing one of the most physically challenging baseball and weight programs I have ever seen. Rejuvenated by the strenuous day and expert refinement, I took on the program as a long-term project to improve my endurance, arm strength, and velocity as a pitcher.

For all of those who are not familiar with baseball, the sport seems to lack much physical ability between standing for large periods of time and the endless flow of sunflower seeds, bubble gum, and Gatorade. However, the athletic ability required throughout the game derives from a far greater technical basis. Particularly at the position of pitcher, quite arguably the most important in the game, the combination of brute strength, endurance, and mental toughness make the prospects of success for the average person quite slim. On top of that, the risk of detrimental injury as a pitcher remains quite high as the constant wear and tear weakens the tendons and muscles in the arm irreparably. Taking a further step past basic arm care, to be more competitive, pitchers constantly seek to improve their arm strength such that they can throw faster — a process that can add even more stress to the developing arm.

Therefore, from Little League to the MLB (Major League Baseball), the never-ending question of how to care for pitchers physically encounters constant scrutiny. At the most basic levels, coaches generally restrain their young pitchers to pitch limits, such that the children can grow and potentially be more successful when games matter more. However, beyond that, the biological facts and baseball folklore constantly intertwine to create a confusing mashup of eclectic training styles, all with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, for many professionals, the pressure to succeed debilitates their mental preparations, thereby affecting their performance on the field. However, for others, the same strive to succeed leads to cheating whether through performance-enhancing drugs, altered equipment, or some other means. Therefore, this topic widely and dramatically affects the play of the game and the culture of the sport.

Here at Swarthmore, the baseball program generally follows a strict arm care regimen to combat the constant strain undertaken in the rigor of games. The seven-day workout schedule generally consists of only a few days of actual throwing, supplemented with other drills — weighted balls, elastic Jaeger band work, sprinting, hip mobility exercises, and long-distance running among a slew of others. However, on top of these workouts, each pitcher has their own individual style to caring for their arm, ranging from unique throwing drills to holding towels as they throw. The culmination of this has resulted in a relativelyhealthy and successful pitching staff. The general arm care of pitchers at all levels of talent and competition is an extremely important science.

However, just as baseball statistics have expanded in their breadth and analysis, so too has this arm care science modernized to better aid the pitcher. Similar to football’s current issue with concussion technology and minimizing the damage to the brain through the daily rigor of the sport, baseball too must come to terms with its rapidly increasing arm injury problem that takes away the bright futures of so many young pitchers. Simply sitting in a discussion between a trainer with the Philadelphia Phillies organization and the Swarthmore pitching staff, it became quite clear that many pitchers actually had been taught incorrect and potentially harmful methods in the past for strengthening and caring for their arm.

Two young MLB superstar prospects, Baltimore Orioles’ Dylan Bundy and Cleveland Indians’ Trevor Bauer, who played an integral role in their respective teams’ playoff runs last year, both swear by the science of Alan Jaeger (whose elastic band workouts Swarthmore baseball uses extensively). Both pitchers have thrown upwards of 100 miles per hour during certain drills with impressive success, but Bundy has undergone the fated Tommy John surgery, calling into question the legitimacy of their long-distance throwing program. Others swear by modern tactics such as biometrics, as Swarthmore baseball implemented via a University of Pennsylvania initiated science lab, or more old-fashioned lifting and running techniques. Nevertheless, the combination of these large scientific progressions with the individual flair of baseball players everywhere has created a sport far more aware of the injuries and care necessary to be successful in the sport.

However, not only has biomedical progress aided the plight of the modern pitcher, but psychology has made leaps and bounds in the field of high-pressure performance. It is often described of pitchers that they control the game entirely, as their performance sets the tone for the rest of the game. That high intensity, coupled with being the center of attention on each played, can debilitate even the most talented of pitchers with one fell swoop. Recently, former professional pitcher Rick Ankiel published a memoir, in which he admitted to drinking vodka before games to calm the nerves of being the main actor on baseball’s biggest stage. At the same time, it is also rumored that legendary ace, Dock Ellis, even pitched a no-hitter on LSD. On account of all of this mental stress, psychologists now have calming techniques for these pitchers in high-intensity situations that let them slow the game down, focus better, and perform at a far higher level.

All of this scientific empirical evidence just adds to the rhetoric already surrounding the betterment of pitcher performance. In the rapidly modernizing world, the game has sought to keep up with the technology and speed of daily life, and the arm and mental care of pitchers has been just one facet of this initiative. It has enabled pitchers to come more prepared to succeed and stay healthy, and has altered the game for the best. Hopefully at Swarthmore, the bright future scholars we produce will further the progress already made thus far.

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