How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant (cont.)
A long stride, however, carries two severe risks for pitchers: 1) It can compromise the ability to rotate the hips; and 2) it can cause a pitcher to land on his heel with a stiff front leg, the equivalent of slamming on the brakes in a car. Jump and then land on your heels. The shock of the impact travels up your legs to your hips. It hurts. Imagine doing it 100 times a game over many games over many years. It's no wonder that long-stride pitchers such as Britt Burns, who needed a hip replacement, and Jason Schmidt, who can't stay off the disabled list, break down.
Now jump and land on the balls of your feet and your toes. The shock is absorbed with the help of the toes, feet, ankles, legs and bent knees. How can Lincecum take such a long stride and still land on the ball of his left foot with a bent front knee? One secret, he explains, is what he calls his "ankle kick," a snapping of his right ankle as his right foot, the back foot, leaves the rubber. Lincecum comes off the rubber with such snap that, upon the ball's release, his right foot is more than a foot in front of the rubber, shrinking the distance -- and thus stealing precious time -- between him and the batter.
"My dad never taught me to lunge at the plate," Tim says. "It kind of came naturally. That ankle kick that I get and the drive that I get from my back leg will make a big difference in how I get to the plate and how I pitch that day."
There is another secret to Lincecum's ability to land so softly with such a long stride: his extreme athleticism. It takes tremendous balance and coordination to pull it off. Many pitchers are poor athletes who happen to be blessed with one very specific skill. Lincecum has the body of a gymnast and can rip off a backflip or walk on his hands to prove it. Chris likes to tell the story of how Tim came home one day during his junior year of high school and said, "Dad, I want to try out for the golf team." Chris pointed out that Tim had played 27 holes in his life and didn't even own golf clubs. No matter. Playing with a borrowed set, Tim needed to shoot 40 on the last of three nine-hole rounds to make the team. He shot a 39.
Once the landing foot hits the ground, every pitcher must have the ball in the loaded position; that is, the ball is raised behind him, ready to come forward and be delivered. Think of the cocking of a gun before it fires. Here Lincecum again separates himself from most pitchers with his athleticism and timing. As he reaches the loaded position, Lincecum's hips have just opened so that his belt buckle is facing the batter. His torso, however, has not yet begun to rotate toward the plate. The GIANTS on his home jersey is facing third base and his left shoulder remains pointed directly at the target. Only then, with his body essentially twisted against itself, does the torso fire, creating more rotational power as, at last, after this symphonic whipsaw action of his body, his arm simply "comes along for the ride."
Once the baseball leaves his hand, Lincecum isn't done. An abrupt stop of the shoulder will lead to back and shoulder injuries, so to keep his right shoulder moving after the ball is gone Lincecum must keep his torso moving over his front leg. To create this sustained momentum, Chris invented a drill in which he placed a dollar bill on the ground to the left and in front of the landing spot of Tim's left foot. Tim would have to pick up the dollar in the same motion after releasing the ball.
"My dad's always stressing, 'Pick up the frickin' dollar! If I put down a hundred-dollar bill, you'd pick it up every time!' " Tim says. "If I get out there and get myself over [the front leg], my follow-through should be the tail end of when you whiplash a whip. That's what it is for me. Like Tiger Woods finishing his swing."
Says Chris, "When he finishes his follow-through, his back leg, knee to hip, is parallel to the ground, on the same plane as his back. His back foot is above his head. Like a ballerina's."
Throwing a baseball is an act of violence that has been graphically defined by Dr. James Andrews, Dr. Glenn Fleisig and the other doctors and clinicians at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham. From the loaded position, the shoulder, at its peak speed, rotates forward at 7,000 degrees per second. "That," Fleisig says, "is the fastest measured human motion of any human activity."
While in the loaded position, the shoulder and elbow bear the equivalent of about 40 pounds of force pushing down. When the ASMI biomechanists wanted to know how much more force an arm could take, they brought cadavers into the lab and pulled and pushed upon the elbow joint to find the breaking point. The cadavers's ligaments blew apart just after 40 pounds of force. "So a pitcher is just about at the maximum," Fleisig says.
From the loaded position, when the ball has come to a stop, it is accelerated from zero mph to 90 mph in 3/10 of a second. Rick Peterson, the former New York Mets pitching coach who has worked with ASMI since 1993 and is the acknowledged expert on pitching biomechanics among his peers, once referred to that measurement in a speech he gave to college coaches. A doctor of physics who was in the audience approached him after the talk.
"Rick, do you know what that means in g-forces?" the doctor asked.
"I have no idea."
"If your entire body was accelerated at that rate of speed for over 60 seconds you would die."
No wonder pitchers break down. Pitching, unlike most athletic activities, has reached the limit of what is humanly possible. So while we are accustomed to increasingly swifter sprinters, faster swimmers, longer drivers of the golf ball and bigger football players, you will not see a pitcher throwing 110 mph. The arm and shoulder are maxed out. Pushed any further, the shoulder would blow, like an engine in a race car.
"People run faster and jump farther because we have figured out ways to make your muscles bigger and stronger," Fleisig says. "The baseball pitcher, every time he pitches, his muscles are pushing his ligaments and tendons to the limit. In the future, I can't anticipate making the muscles bigger and stronger because you can't strengthen the ligaments and tendons that much. That's why the role of research in baseball is not to get the pitcher to throw faster but to lower the risk of injury."