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October 17, 2002
Dr. Mike Marshall (Part One)
Dr. Mike Marshall pitched for nine teams over his 14-year career, leading the league in games pitched four times, saves three times. He won the National League Cy Young and finished 3rd in MVP voting in 1974, posting a 2.42 ERA in 208.1 innings of relief. Marshall earned his degree in kinesiology in 1978 while still pitching.
Today he works as an adjunct professor at St. Leo University in St. Leo, Fla., teaching exercise physiology. He also runs an instructional pitching clinic near Tampa, teaching pitchers a full array of pitches, including his patented screwball, through unorthodox methods like throwing shot puts. Marshall claims his training method can add velocity and movement to every pitch, while also wiping out arm injuries. Marshall recently chatted with BP about his unconventional teaching methods.
Baseball Prospectus: There are plenty of pitching theories out there. Why should we believe in yours?
Dr. Mike Marshall: Everyone has an opinion, I just state the facts as the facts are. Here are the facts: We have this epidemic of pitching injuries as a result of the traditional pitching motion. It's destroyed thousands of arms and continues to do so. The way everyone teaches pitching is flat out wrong.
BP: So what makes your method different?
MM: The key is in force application. I teach pronation of the forearm and rotation of the upper arm.
BP: What are you doing when you pronate your forearm?
MM: You're rotating your arm, going from palm up to palm down. The pronator teres is the most important pitching muscle. By manipulating the muscle, you learn to pronate your forearm effectively. You can never pronate your forearm too hard. You're making your radius bone cross with your ulna, turning from palm up to palm down. That's a perfectly natural motion.
BP: How is this different from the way pitching's traditionally taught?
MM: Normally people tell you to pull your elbow across your body. As soon as you pull your elbow you can't pronate your forearm. If you do what they tell you to do, pulling your elbow across your body or pulling the elbow down, you're acting contrary to the natural pronation of the forearm and rotation of the upper arm. That's how you pop your ulnar collateral ligament.
People have this notion that the farther you move your arm behind your body, the more powerful you're going to be. What really happens is you have to bring the ball back to your pitching arm side before you can throw to home plate. So now you're forced to bring the arm from 1st base to 3rd base, then redirect the ball to go toward home plate. You're straightening your arm all the way out, putting all kinds of pressure on the elbow and shoulder. And you're taking force away. The ball wants to go in a straight line, but you end up releasing the ball in this inefficient arc. The end result is less force on the pitch and more stress on the arm.
BP: Describe some of the pitching techniques you teach. On your Web site you talk about pitches like a "Maxline fastball." What is that?
MM: Maxline is a technique used to drive the ball to home plate. The idea is to maximize the length of your drive line. That means your force application is generally toward the pitching arm side of home plate. The pitching rubber is 24 inches wide, home plate 17 inches wide. If you stand at the far end of the pitching rubber on the glove side, you're standing 3.5 inches outside of home plate. If we release the ball from there we can have it move 17 inches toward the pitching arm side of home plate, or in on a right-handed hitter's hands. Any time you throw a pitch, from the moment you hit drive line height (just above the ear), you don't want the ball moving laterally at all. It should go from 2nd base straight to home plate.
BP: Where did all your ideas come from? You were studying kinesiology while you pitched, did it happen then?
MM: I learned all this starting in '67, pitching for the Tigers at the time. I took high-speed film of pitching, 400 frames a second. I was watching myself throwing a breaking ball. The next thing I knew, after throwing, my forearm pronated all the way out. My point is, your forearm's going to pronate no matter what you do, so why not do it more, if you won't get hurt doing it, it increases your velocity, and lets you achieve, say, better spin for a curveball. The first time I talk to kids that come here, I flip the ball out there, and it spins on a horizontal axis. When they see me pronate my forearm and hand, they can't believe it. It's something you never see. Nobody teaches it.
BP: On your Web site you describe your pitching programs for different age levels. For kids 13 and under, you say they shouldn't pitch competitively at all. Does that mean you'd want to see Little League abolished?
MM: I have nothing against kids throwing--it's the competitive pitching part that bothers me. I don't think most people know what goes on in a 13-year-old's arm and elbow. The growth plates are wide open. As you stress the arm intensely, you're going to alter how those growth plates mature.
BP: OK, so what do you suggest for kids that want to play Little League?
MM: Let parents who don't give a damn have their kids pitch. I have rules of my own. Twelve players on each team. Every player pitches to his own team, everyone rotates positions. You throw two pitches to your teammate, he gets two pitches to hit a ball fair or he's out. You learn the skills of baseball, how to hit, run and throw, rather than having an early-maturing kid throwing 72 mile-an-hour fastballs past kids who are biologically 10 years old. We want kids to learn the skills of the game. We also want to let them be kids.
BP: From ages 13 to 16, you're still keeping the pressure off. What sort of methods do you recommend during those ages? How does that training help ready those kids for competitive high school, college and pro ball?
MM: At 13, you don't let a kid throw more than one inning per game, two months a year. That way they can mature without significant damage to the growth plates, and as adults they can be healthy. The idea is to learn skill techniques so that at age 15 and 16 you can then start learning the developmental techniques to pitch competitively. Having said that, if a kid doesn't pitch competitively until he's 15 or 16, then goes by the traditional pitching method, he'll still probably get injured.
The adolescent training method for 13- to 16-year-olds lasts 60 days. I don't let them throw from a set position or the windup. They work on isolating body position and getting the body in a straight line. Various parts of the arm ossify at ages 14, 15, 16. The muscles become less apt to pull away from the bone as they get older. A little bit of stress is good for pubescent and adolescent pitchers, just not too much. No more than two months of training a year, no more than one inning a game. Pitching three games a week is fine as long as you stick to those limits.
I have no problem with kids of any age learning to throw a curveball or screwball either. You just have to get them throwing it correctly.
BP: What happens to kids who exert themselves too much before their growth plates close?
MM: Some of those plates have muscles attached to them. This explains why medial epicondyle injuries are so common. The pronator teres attaches to the medial epicondyle in the inside of the elbow. This is a critical, powerful pitching muscle. If you have youngsters trying to throw as hard as they can in a fatigued situation like in a game, they'll pull the medial epicondyle away from the bone. You can strain it and cause the growth plate to close permanently. This can permanently alter your arm, making one shorter than the other.
BP: What can excessive exertion do to adolescents who might otherwise become top prospects later on?
MM: If you've seen the movie The Rookie, it shows the dangers of adolescent baseball. (Jim Morris) had a great arm, and pitched all the time as an adolescent. By his early 20s he couldn't throw harder than 88 miles an hour. Then he hurt his shoulder. So they reconstructed his shoulder, tightened all the tendons and ligaments, but he figures his career is over. He continues to throw every day, adjusts his pitching motion, then at age 35 and 36 he starts throwing 98 miles an hour. You don't get that much stronger at 36 over when you're 22 or 23. The only thing different was all that adolescent throwing stretched his shoulder, so he couldn't throw hard anymore. The surgery brought him back to where he could have been if he stayed healthy.
It's the same with guys like John Smoltz. He's throwing 93-94 for a few years, he gets injured, has surgery, now he can throw 97-98 because they've tightened up the ulnar collateral ligament to where he would have been able to throw if he hadn't pitched so much as an adolescent. There's nothing you can gain pitching at these ages that they can't learn later on.
Coming Monday, in Part 2: Marshall on why he's been blackballed, why pitch counts are irrelevant, and the only great pitching mind in baseball.