There’s a belief that the faster you can throw a baseball, the better you’ll be as an MLB pitcher. While this may be true, it also may be dangerous. Higher velocity can help you get hitters out, but it may be overrated.
Even more concerning is that it could lead to hard-throwing pitchers suffering more injuries than their counterparts who don’t throw as fast or hard. There’s evidence that throwing harder can put more strain on the elbow, leading to Tommy John surgery. Here are the details.
Hard throwers go under the knife
Luis Severino, Chris Sale, and Noah Syndergaard were all All-Stars in 2018, and they’re some of the game’s hardest throwers among starting pitchers, with Severino and Syndergaard ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, and Sale in the top 20. What else do they have in common? They’ve all had Tommy John surgery in the past 18 months to repair torn elbow ligaments. Going further down the list, Sports Illustrated reports that of the 21 hardest-throwing starters, one-third blew out their elbow in less than 18 months. Syndergaard specifically has had three of his past five seasons shortened by injuries, and he has still thrown more fastballs of 97mph or faster than any other pitcher in that span. And it’s not close, as his 5,078 such pitches are 51% more than Aroldis Chapman in second place.
Data suggests a link between velocity and injuries
Researchers at the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Alabama studied biomechanical data on 452 professional pitchers last year, as well as using 3D motion capture to gather retrospective analysis on 64 pitchers. Their goal was to measure the relationship between fastball velocity and elbow-varus torque in pitchers.
Elbow-varus torque is an internal rotational torque that is often the peak torque placed on the elbow. The UCL and surrounding muscles must support the load. The overall results of the studies “suggested that increased velocity does increase the injury risk,” according to SI.
Only a small percentage — 7.6% — of the variance in load between subjects was explained by velocity. Mechanics and a player’s build also play a role. But for each individual player, velocity accounted for 95.7% in the variance in elbow-varus torque. This backs up the anecdotal evidence that a velocity increase also increases the stress on a pitcher’s elbow.
How pitchers can adjust
One way to avoid the increased injury risk through increased velocity is to not focus as much on speed and velocity, which can be overrated anyway. While more velocity allows the pitcher to get better results if his command is off, MLB hitters are accustomed to high-velocity pitches.
In 2019, for example, batters hit .248 against fastballs of 96 miles per hour or greater. This was 25 points better than when facing average breaking and off-speed pitches. The ASMI study suggested pitchers should pull back on their velocity. It stated that “a deliberate reduction in velocity without compromising mechanics will likely reduce the load on an individual pitcher’s elbow.”
One pitcher who has made such an adjustment is Stephen Strasburg. When he first made it to the majors in 2012, he hit 96 miles per hour on the radar gun more than 1,000 times — and he quickly blew out his elbow. He had only 188 pitches in that range by 2018. Last year, he dropped the number of his 96mph fastballs even more — to just 14.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Strasburg made 33 starts last year, which was the most since his career-high of 34 back in 2014. From 2015-2018, he maxed out at 28 starts in 2017. In the last five years, Strasburg’s average fastball velocity dropped from 96.1mph to 93.9mph.