Baseball Development: What’s with All the Power Arms?
Written on July 8, 2013 at 7:28 am, by Eric Cressey
Back in the summer of 2013, a good friend of mine attended the a well-known national showcase with one of his athletes. It was an invitation-only event for the best rising senior baseball players in the country. At the end of the event, he texted me to comment on just how crazy it was that it seemed like dozens of kids were hitting 95mph on the radar gun at this event. And, sure enough, in the post-event write-up, they commented on how over 100 kids topped the 90mph mark.
That is a huge deal.
You see, if you backtracked just 10 years, 90mph was a huge feather in your cap - and it essentially meant that you'd be getting drafted out of high school. Now, on a regular basis, we have dozens of kids nationwide consistently throwing 95mph+ even when there were only 35 major league pitchers in 2011 whose average fastball velocity was higher than 95mph! As I've mentioned before, average fastball velocity is higher in Low-A than it is in the big leagues.
The question, then, becomes, "Where are all these power arms coming from - particularly at the younger levels?" That's a question I'll answer today.
1. More specialization.
It goes without saying that early sports specialization across all sports is, unfortunately, at an all-time high.
However, baseball is particularly interesting because there is an extremely high likelihood of arm injury along the way. In fact, according to a 2008 study from Oullette et al., 57% of pitchers suffer some form of shoulder injury over the course of a season. And, that doesn't even take into account elbow, neck, core, and lower extremity injuries/conditions. It goes without saying that just about every player will have an issue or two (or 30) pop up over his four years of high school - and it's one reason why we don't see any more "clean" MRIs during post-draft physicals for high round picks. They're all damaged; it's just that some are worse than others, and we need to figure out which of the chips in the paint and rust on the hubcabs are clinically significant.
When kids specialize in one sport at an early age and try to play it year-round, it's like betting your life savings on the roulette wheel - except your chances of winning are even smaller. And, even if it works out and the kid manages to be the next star, you dodged a bullet - and he very well may just be waiting for problems down the road, as a lot of the early specialization kids actually have very "old arms" even if they aren't symptomatic.
Not surprisingly, the rise in specialization (as evidenced by the growth in popularity of fall ball teams, showcases, and opportunities to play for multiple teams during the "normal" baseball season) has paralleled the rise in velocity and injuries. Can long-term baseball development be successful without specialization? In my opinion, absolutely - but you have to tie up all the loose ends, and that's what my next few points will all be about.
2. Video analysis
If you want your velocity to increase immediately, there is no quicker avenue to doing so than reviewing pitching mechanics on video. Our pitching coordinator, Matt Blake, uses the RightView Pro set-up extensively at Cressey Sports Performance for this very reason. Many pitchers are visual learners, so this approach to coaching helps them to learn what needs to be corrected much more efficiently - and it's also of benefit to the pitching coach, as many movements in the pitching delivery occur so quickly that they really can't be spotted by the naked eye.
Surprisingly, there are still a ton of college and minor league teams who don't have video available to their players. Access to video can be a huge game-changer, and it's one reason that a lot of high school kids are throwing harder and harder.
Ask any coach what one of the best ways to motivate male athletes is, and he'll tell you competition. Most teenage guys thrive on trying to beat their buddies, opponents, or records that are in place. Nowadays, there are more opportunities to compete (and less preparation), and any player in the country can hop online and see how his velocity compared to other guys' at the last showcase. Although commonly overlooked, these competitive opportunities are big motivating factors to players.
4. Strength Training
I often tell athletes that "If you don't run fast, you won't pull your hamstrings." In other words, strength training can be a player's biggest asset, but also his greatest downfall if he doesn't approach it correctly. You see, if strength training isn't approached correctly, it can do a world of harm - both acutely and chronically. Obviously, the likelihood of getting hurt increases if you move with poor technique under external loading. However, taking it a step further, strength training "solidifies" movement patterns. This can be great in a rehabilitation context if you free up some new mobility and then want to create stability within that range of motion (or just maintain what you've got). However, if you lift like a moron, you'll mostly just teach yourself to be better at moving like crap - and that's when chronic injuries kick in.
Unfortunately, casual observers to exercise physiology don't get that there is a huge difference between appropriate and inappropriate strength training for baseball players. And, this is why there are quite a few "old school" folks in the baseball world who attribute some of the high injury rates these days to lifting. What they should be attributing the injury to (in part) is inappropriate strength training exercise selection, volume, and technique. After all, there are just as many guys get hurt late in the season because they cut out lifting and lose strength!
Simply stated, strength training is helping guys throw harder; there's no doubt about it. It's how that strength training is programmed and what's done to complement it that determines if the increased velocity will lead to an injury. Nothing happens in isolation.
5. More aggressive throwing programs
A decade ago, throwing programs were far from what they are today. Nowadays, up-and-coming throwers are using weighted baseballs and long toss more than ever before. No two pitchers are alike in how they respond to these modalities, but having them as tools at our disposal has certainly helped us to increase pitching velocity with countless throwers.
6. Less distance running
One of our minor league pitchers stopped in to check in with me over his all-star break a few weeks ago, and he came bearing great news. He'd hit 98mph on the radar gun four times in a single inning a few nights earlier - after never having been above 94mph before this season.
Sure, we did a lot of things differently with his programming this off-season, from strength training, to throwing programs, to mobility and soft tissue work. However, the single biggest change he made (in my eyes, at least) was that he started sprinting between outings instead of distance running. I have seen this time and time again, and I'm happy to report that more and more coaches at all levels are starting to pick up on it, too.
Everybody ran long distances back in previous decades. Yet, we throw harder nowadays. And, everybody seems to run long distances in baseball in east Asia. Pitchers throw harder in the U.S. Sure, there are a lot more factors that contribute to pitching success than velocity alone, but these observations are impossible to ignore.
7. More objective ways to quantify velocity
Have you ever wondered if pitching velocity has increased simply because technology has improved, and we therefore have more accessible means of measuring it? The price of radar guns isn't as high. Every stadium has a radar gun. They make pocket radar guns, and there are even iPad apps to measure velocity.
Basic accessibility to this technology has likely contributed to kids pushing the envelope of what they would otherwise think they were able to do.
8. More peaks, fewer valleys
Remember when Justin Verlander hit 101mph on the radar gun in the 9th inning of his no-hitter in 2011? You could call that a "peak" velocity moment. In short, it's a lot easier when the stakes are higher, people are watching you, and the adrenaline is pumping. Major League pitchers don't have as many of these because their professional seasons are a long grind: possibly 200 games in 230 days, if you include spring training and playoffs.
Younger pitchers, however, are more "excitable." With shorter seasons, there are more "big games." With showcases and tournaments each weekend, the stakes are higher. Heck, they get excited if a girlfriend comes to watch them pitch. In the lifting world, we call it the difference between a training max and a competition max. A competition max may be as much as 10% higher because a lifter is deloaded from training stress and put into a higher pressure competitive situation. In young pitchers, everything seems to be a competition max. It's great for demonstrating big velocity numbers, but may interfere with long-term health and development.
Clearly, there are a ton of factors that have contributed to guys throwing harder at younger ages in today's baseball world. They don't all apply to each thrower, as different athletes will generate velocity in different ways. While this increase in average velocity has definitely made pitchers more dominant, it has, unfortunately, been accompanied by a greater frequency of injuries. Understanding the factors that contribute to these velocity increases is the first step in determining how to keep kids performing at a high level while minimizing their risk of injury.
For more information, I'd encourage you to check out 7 Reasons Pitchers Shouldn't Do Year-Round Throwing Programs Part 1 and Part 2. Additionally, you can explore these topics in much greater detail with us at our Elite Baseball Mentorships.
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