Senior softball pitcher Elle Buffenbarger once pitched a triple-header — 21 innings — by herself. Some baseball pitchers don’t pitch that many innings in a season.
As Honors Anatomy and Physiology teacher Maggie Long explains, the natural bone structure of a shoulder causes the softball underhand pitch to be safer than its overhand counterpart.
“When we take a look at a baseball pitch,” Long said. “The problem is that a baseball pitch takes the arm out of what we call natural positioning. When we look at the humerus and the scapula, the glenoid cavity, it’s a downward motion. It sits right in there, but the moment we bring it up and out, the pitcher now rotates it into an abnormal position. The softball pitch, it’s what we refer to as a windmill pitch. What we notice is the glenoid and the humerus, they stay in their natural position. It also doesn’t put as much stress on the elbow and therefore that’s why we refer to it as a “safer” pitch, because it’s that more natural positioning, as far as motion of the shoulder.”
Because of the less taxing throwing motion, senior softball pitcher Elle Buffenbarger said that when she’s in season, she pitches daily and might even pitch multiple games in one day.
“It’s almost every day,” Buffenbarger said. “Then on off days for school ball I have pitching lessons, so (I’m pitching) like every single day. Especially in the summer, when you only play on the weekends, I would pitch three games back to back when we were short on pitchers.”
On January 19, the Ohio High School Athletic Association(OHSAA) approved new rules that restrict any baseball pitcher from throwing over 125 pitches in a game, as well as requiring rest days based off the number of pitches any pitcher threw in a game. There are no such requirements for softball pitchers.
Junior baseball pitcher Will Pfennig said that even during the regular season when the team plays several games each week, he may only pitch once a week before having several days of rest until he’s ready for his next start.
“I pitch about once a week,” Pfennig said. “You do your start, and then guys typically do light tossing after their start, and then the second day after your start you long toss, and then your bullpen day is usually a light 20-pitch bullpen just to get the feel and work on pitches and then it’s a long toss and then either another long toss or some guys just do nothing the day before they start.”
Chad Cherny, physical therapist at the Mayo Clinic, said that the unnatural motion of a baseball pitch provides far more stress on the arm than in softball.
“Due to the rapid acceleration and deceleration, there is trauma on the muscles which is why there are limits as to how many pitches one can throw in any given number of days,” Cherny said. “It’s basically needing to allow recovery after maximally stressing the muscle. It is why most pitchers will ice after pitching; they want to minimize the swelling and assist in more rapid recovery so they can pitch the next time they are scheduled.”
According to Pfennig, a college team will roster 35 players and half of those are pitchers, no matter what. Buffenbarger said a softball team really only needs a few pitchers to sustain the team through the season.
“You only really need two or three,” Buffenbarger said. “In summer ball you normally only have two or three pitchers on the team, and they play somewhere else (too) to get playing time.”
From a health perspective, it would make sense to have boys learn how to pitch underhand in order to limit the risks of injury. This brings up the question of whether or not boys should eventually convert to an underhand pitching motion. Buffenbarger said that although male fastpitch leagues exist, it’s advantageous when throwing from far away and there is the stereotype that it’s a girl’s pitch.
“There is men’s fastpitch, and people do learn that way,” Buffenbarger said. “Some (guys) learn that way, and you can throw forever like that. I would say it’ll never happen because it’s more of a girl thing, as much as that sounds weird. Boys can throw so much harder from far away with it and baseball’s never going to change.”
Buffenbarger also said that since the mound is farther away from the plate in baseball than it is in softball, the underhand pitch would lose substantial velocity.
“If a guy pitcher pitched underhand from 60 feet, from that far away, it would come in much slower,” Buffenbarger said. “But the equivalent from our 43 feet, if I throw 60 (miles-per-hour), then it would be the equivalent of an upper 80 mile-per-hour (from 60 feet away). And if the pitcher throws 70, that’s like 90 to 100.”
Cherny said he doesn’t believe the overhand pitching motion is unhealthy, and that it is in the matter of the pitcher in order to ensure he takes care of his arm.
“I am not of the camp that it is unhealthy,” Cherny said. “I think that it is unhealthy when there is too much without appropriate rest. I think rest breaks are very important to preservation of the elbow and shoulder to prevent breakdown.”
Pfennig believes that although a baseball pitch is violent and unhealthy, boys will never pitch underhand because of the loss of pace of the game and because injuries are still preventable.
“Throwing a baseball in a baseball game and pitching is one of the most violent things you can do to your body, in regards to your shoulder,” Pfennig said. “Just with the pace of the game, it’ll never happen because people like seeing the ball come in faster and it’s just a completely different sport. If you take care of your body the right way, it shouldn’t be a problem.”