Posted on July 15, 2014

BaseballWhen you think of baseball pitchers, what comes to mind? Fastball? Curveball?

These are common terms used to describe pitches thrown during Major League Baseball games. Professional pitchers that have perfected these two conventional styles may not have the special skill and expertise to pull off one of the most, if not the most difficult pitches in baseball history, the screwball.

New York Times article The Mystery of the Vanishing Screwball,” by Bruce Schoenfeld, describes the “screwball” as “erratic, irrational or illogical, unexpected.”

In his article, Schoenfeld writes about the screwball technique gleaning inside information from Hector Santiago of the Los Angeles Angels who says the secret to the pitch is “like driving with your right wheels going around a curve.”

Schoenfeld goes on to write that “Unlike the knuckleball, which is easy to throw but hard to master, the screwball requires special expertise just to get it to the plate. The successful screwball pitcher must overcome an awkward sensation that feels like tightening a pickle jar while simultaneously thrusting the wrist forward with extreme velocity.”

Chicago White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper is quoted in the article saying “the word on the street is that the screwball is hard on the arm.” Although there is no documentation of this, many experts continue to debate as to whether or not the intensity of such a throw is harmful to the arm.

According to the article, Schoenfeld found no existing research to help answer the screwball pitch question. That’s when he contacted ONS Orthopedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine Specialist Paul Sethi, MD.

Dr. Paul Sethi, a Connecticut orthopedist, was willing to help generate some new data. Sethi is a disciple of Dr. Frank Jobe, the man who did an ulnar collateral graft in Tommy John’s elbow in 1974 and so created the most famous baseball-medical connection since Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Dr. Paul Sethi
Paul Sethi, MD

I met Sethi at the Center for Motion Analysis in Farmington, Conn., in a 108-foot-long room as bright as an operating theater. A dozen cameras were mounted on the walls. A tattooed 26-year-old named Matt Bartolomei stood on a portable pitcher’s mound while technicians adhered sensors to his body.”

Dr. Sethi, along with a team of experts, were able to watch in slow motion and concluded that the force exerted on the elbow of the pitcher when he threw a screwball during the experiment was identical to that of a fastball or curveball.

“In fact, the screwball doesn’t exceed the fastball in any parameter.” The results were hardly definitive, especially given the data set of one. “But looking at the data compared to the normative data kind of makes me tingly,” Sethi said.

If he and Nissen could confirm the conclusions, Sethi believed they might rescue the screwball from near-extinction. While assisting Jobe in Los Angeles, he worked with Dodgers pitchers. He liked the idea of contributing to their cause. I was less certain, though, that a doctor could revive the flat lining screwball. For a pitch to be used regularly by major leaguers, or even Little Leaguers, it needed a stronger selling point than mere safety.”

Although the “screwball” has been somewhat “abandoned” by baseball, the research conducted by Dr. Sethi and the team he worked with could make for a comeback. In a phone message yesterday Dr. Sethi confirmed, “the “screwball” pitch isn’t a cause for higher risk of injury than that of a fastball or knuckleball. It puts the same amount of stress on the arm as the other pitches do.”

Paul Sethi, MD is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in sports medicine, the shoulder and elbow. He served as an orthopedic consultant to the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team. Sethi was also a former assistant team physician of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, Los Angeles Kings hockey team, Los Angeles Dodgers, and University of Southern California football team.

Orthopaedic and Neurosurgery Specialists PC (ONS) is an advanced multi-specialty orthopedic and neurosurgery practice in Greenwich, CT. ONS physicians provide expertise in sports medicine, minimally invasive orthopaedic, spine and brain surgery, joint replacement and trauma. For more information, please visit www.onsmd.com.

[Read Full New York Times Article]