Do Sidearmers Get Hip Problems?

When Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler made the switch to throwing out of a submarine motion, his new mechanics made him sore. In the hips, as he remembers it. Ask fellow submariner Darren O’Day if his delivery was related to his hip labrum surgery, and his answer is succinct: “Absolutely.” Now fellow side-slotter Andrew Triggs is headed for that same surgery and it’s fair to ask: is the sidearm or submarine delivery hard on the hips?

It’s never easy to answer these sorts of questions because of the problem of sample. There might be two true submariners in baseball today (O’Day and Ziegler), and then a few who others who live low — a group that includes Steve Cishek, Pat Neshek, Joe Smith, and the like. Head any higher on the release-point list, and you’re already at Chris Sale, nobody’s idea of a sidearmer.

If you just take the list of pitchers who have recorded hip problems in the last 10 years, you get 33 different names. Hardly an epidemic. Take those 33 pitchers, and look at their average arm slot, and you might think you’ve found something.

Hip Problem Pitchers and Release Point
Player Height (in.) Vert. Release (in) Difference
League Average 75 71.2 3.8
Average Hip Problem 76 68.7 7.3
SOURCE: Jeff Zimmerman

Pitchers with hip problems release their pitches, on average, three-and-a-half inches lower than the general population.

What we lack here is context! What does three-and-a-half inches look like? I went through and tried to find the pitchers who best fit the criteria here — and threw in Triggs to show the lower end of the spectrum.

Hip Problem Pitchers in Context
Height (in.) Vert. Release (in.) Difference
Garrett Richards 75 72.0 3.0
League Average 75 71.2 3.8
Jake Petricka 77 70.2 6.8
Average Hip Problem 76 68.7 7.3
Andrew Triggs 76 60.8 15.2
SOURCE: Jeff Zimmerman

Can you imagine those guys without pictures? I can’t. Here are all three pitchers on top of each other, visually.

So, yeah, three inches is the (nearly indistinguishable) difference between the top two arms, and then there’s another nine inches before you get to Triggs. If you take O’Day off the list, that difference between hip-problem pitchers and the league average shrinks to two-and-a-half inches. Not a huge effect here.

Maybe what’s here is more about traditional mechanics than arm slot. When I asked Blue Jay reliever and sidearmer Smith if he’d had hip issues like O’Day, he was surprised by the question. “We all throw from down there but from different mechanics,” he pointed out. “I stay up and throw down while O’day goes down and comes up. Ziegler is way down there.”

“I haven’t had hip labrum injuries but there’s a lot of torque down there,” Smith said in the end, and that’s important. The landing foot is immensely important for velocity, and there’s a ton of force and velocity in the hip as a result. If we look at Triggs and O’Day on landing, we might spot a correlation that’s more important for the hip than arm slot.

There are some similarities here when it comes to the angle of the landing legs, how much they’re flexed and how much the pitcher is pitching across his body. I haven’t seen hard data about these mechanical quirks, but plenty of pitching coaches will tell you not to land like this. A focus on the landing leg at least would make more sense than thinking too hard about how low a pitcher’s arm slot is.

To their credit, the pitchers know that their landing point, and the shape of their body at that moment, is an issue they track. “I kind of land on my heel and grind, and the surgeon said it looked really chewed up in there,” O’Day said of his hip labrum. “I feel like I need to stand tall through my delivery,” Triggs said of his mechanical keys earlier this season.

Maybe they should further investigate how they land with their front foot, where it’s pointing, how flexed it is, and how much violence those quirks may be doing to their hip labrum. That’s more important to their long term health outcomes than their arm slot, probably.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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baltic wolfmember
5 years ago

It’s too bad that Dan Quisenberry is gone—an untimely death from brain cancer.
IIRC Ted Abernathy was a submariner too. I don’t know if he’s still around, but he must be pretty old. (Born in 1933, according to Wikipedia.)
Off the top of my aging head, that’s two guys from the past that might give us a clue as to whether a large percentage of sidearmers get hip problems.
Btw: it says that Abernathy switched to being a sidearmer because he had developed shoulder problems.
Could that also be the reason some of the guys listed above by Eno did the same thing? Or is it more of an attempt to attack pitchers with deceptive motion? Or both?