Catchers, Arm Injuries, and Throwing Runners Out!
When most people talk about throwing injuries, pitchers are the main subject. This makes sense when considering that roughly 25 percent of Major League Pitchers have undergone Tommy John Surgery at some point in their careers, not to mention countless shoulder injuries. While the number of catchers who have undergone arm surgery is significantly less than pitchers, catchers carry the highest injury risk among non-pitcher position players. This risk results from throwing hundreds of sub-maximal effort throws back to the pitcher day after day and throwing a significant number of maximal effort throws to bases during practice and competition.
I have learned a great deal from Baseball Rebellion’s pitching and performance staff regarding throwing. Since learning about which movements increase risk of injury and which decrease risk of injury, I have watched and thought about how to apply these principles to the catchers we work with. While I defer to the pitching staff on throwing matters, JK and I have the unique experience of understanding the demands placed on a catcher when there is a runner bearing down on second base and every tenth of a second counts. Through my years of catching I had some good teachers. All of them emphasized the importance of being quick with the transfer and footwork but most of the teaching on throwing failed to address the difference between healthy and unhealthy throwing patterns. In this article, I will examine what many catchers are being taught and why this information is increasing the risk of throwing injury behind the plate.
The common thought is that the quicker the ball gets from the glove to the throwing hand, the faster the time to second base will be. While this transfer should not take long, the ball cannot be released until the lower half has done its job. Given this fact, getting the ball out of the glove in the wrong position can trigger a series of events that leads to the arm and ball stalling because they simply have nowhere to go until the lower half is set. Because many coaches fail to realize this, most of the catching teaching in regards to throwing is geared towards getting the ball out of the glove as soon as possible. This teaching is verbalized in a variety of ways using many different cues. Many of these cues include phrases such as
- Draw the bow and arrow.
- Transfer in front of your body.
- Take the ball straight to your ear.
- Don’t loop your arm.
- Grab the ball out of the glove; Don’t bring the glove to the hand.
Catchers who actually perform the movements described in the list above and the video below initiate a flawed chain reaction that leads to unnecessary stress being placed on the catcher’s throwing arm. The following video serves as an example of some of this teaching (Especially around the 1:00 mark):
The following video is of highly touted Padres prospect Austin Hedges.
Austin Hedges Full Throw
This throw embodies the common teaching of throwing to catchers and serves as a good example of three major flaws I see in many catchers at all levels of play.
Throwing Flaw #1: Head Goes Forward Prematurely
While Catchers movements should be shorter, quicker, and less dramatic than that of a pitcher, the same sequence should occur. One common cue I hear from our pitching staff is: “keep your head on your back hip.” Certain pitchers like Warren Spahn take their head to their back hip as they begin their delivery and maintain this head and torso position through foot-strike. I encourage you to watch Dave’s breakdown of Spahn because his delivery contains big movements that may help you visualize the movements I am describing in a better and more accurate way. As a catcher the degree of the movements will and should be greatly minimized when compared to a pitcher like Spahn but the core concepts can be maintained to make consistent, healthy, accurate, and powerful throws to second base. Catchers who are taught to transfer in front of their body tend to let their head and chest shoot forward as their arm draws back in a bow and arrow like motion. This leads to throwing flaw number two.
Throwing Flaw #2: Throwing Arm Stalls and is Flat at Foot-strike
Notice how Hedges makes his transfer towards the center of his body and draws his arm back as his head and torso stay forward. While Hedges lower half moves well, his arm has stalled and is very flat at foot strike. Notice how his right elbow is actually above his right shoulder and wrist. The resulting motion where Hedges begins to bring the ball up and proceed into his throw places excess stress on his throwing arm because his torso has gotten well ahead of his arm. When Hedges throws, his arm is less supported by his body thus putting him at greater risk for injury over time. There is no denying that Hedges is effective behind the plate but I believe that he could make equally quick, powerful, and accurate throws while changing his mechanics to allow him to throw with less stress being placed on his throwing arm.
Throwing Flaw # 3: Poor/High Finish
As mentioned in the two flaws above, many catchers have less of their body behind the throw than is optimal. This leads to a high finish where the the body and arm cannot decelerate properly. Think of it like hitting a tire on the ground with a sledgehammer or slamming a med ball on the ground. In order to get the best rotation and energy behind the movement, the body should finish as low as possible.
So How Should Catchers Throw?
When I teach throwing, I talk to my catchers about never letting the ball stop from the pitchers hand to second base. To give you a better picture of this idea, I’m going to borrow an analogy often used by our pitching staff. The shape and motion of the ball and body should appear as a wave builds energy and then crashes down. Pitchers may have time to create a bigger wave than catchers but the basic shape should remain. In order to create this shape, the catcher should go through quick footwork and a hip turn to get their lower half ready to throw to second base as soon as possible. As this is happening, the catcher should bring the glove (without pausing) to the hand at sternum height and at shoulder depth. As this transfer is happening and the lower half is progressing, the head and torso should remain closer to the back hip. As the front foot is getting into the ground, I like to see catchers move into their throw with thoracic extension and a more vertical arm. From this point, the catcher just has to release the energy already created and make an accurate throw that will be powerful because the body is getting into the throw. One of my favorite catchers to watch is Wilson Ramos. I absolutely love the constant, fluid motion he uses when throwing the baseball. Below are some videos of Ramos throwing in segments and in full fluid motion. The differences between Ramos and Hedges are clear if you pay attention the aspects of throwing that I detailed earlier in this article. Again, really pay attention to the choppy feel of Hedges throw vs. the fluidity of Ramos.
Wilson Ramos Full Throw
Wilson Ramos Transfer and Torso/Head Position
Notice how Ramos brings his head to his back hip and his glove to his awaiting hand. This simple move is vital to allowing the rest of the throw to occur in the proper sequence.
Wilson Ramos Movement to Foot-strike
Watch as Ramos lands with a much more vertical arm than Hedges and never allows his arm or the ball to stall.
It may be safer, but is it as quick and effective?
It is important to remember that the ball can only be released after the lower half of the body has moved into a position where the throw can be made. While catchers with choppier throwing motions may get the ball into their hand more quickly, the ball still cannot be released until the feet have been set. Since Ramos and Hedges have almost identical footwork and they both release the ball quickly and accurately to second base, their pop times are very similar. Any accurate in-game throw under 2.0 seconds is considered to be competitive. The best catchers have pop times between 1.8 and 2.0 depending on the pitch location and the speed of the runner. Both Ramos and Hedges have very good times to second base. One of the above throws for Ramos is around a 1.79 while the other is a 1.80. I have seen video of Hedges having great times as well being in the high 1.7 to low 1.8 range.
Another statistic to show the effectiveness of a throwing motion like Ramos is the caught stealing percentage. While there are many variables in throwing runners out (the pitcher’s time being a major one), this statistic can give us a rough measure of a catcher’s effectiveness when throwing out baserunners. In 2015, Ramos finished tied for 1st (w/ Russell Martin) with a 44.4 caught stealing percentage. He also finished first in Defensive Wins Above Replacement (DWAR) at 1.8.
The common flawed teaching of throwing mechanics, along with a culture obsessed with training velocity, is resulting in increasing numbers of throwing related injuries for players at all positions. While pitchers will continue to be the most affected, catchers will likely be second due to the number of sub-maximal throws made each day along with the many maximum effort throws made to bases. Matt Wieters and Christian Vazquez have been two of the most notable catchers to undergo Tommy John surgery. Unfortunately, I suspect the number of injuries in catchers will increase across baseball and softball. I hope you have learned that while there are many ways to throw effectively behind the plate, there are ways to minimize risk while maintaining or improving effectiveness. This sounds like a win-win to me!
Thank you for Reading.
Gabe Dimock- Baseball Rebellion Certified Catching Instructor