Projecting the Development of High School Pitchers: Training Habits Matter
Written on February 8, 2015 at 7:56 am, by Eric Cressey
Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance pitching coordinator, Matt Blake. Matt is a key part of the Elite Baseball Mentorships team.
It happens every year. Inevitably, I talk to college coaches about players with whom I work, and without fail, the conversation always comes back to the question: "what type of kid is he and how hard does he work?"
These are two loaded questions and they’re becoming incredibly important in the evaluation process for college coaches. Because the recruiting timeline is getting faster paced every year, coaches are dipping into increasingly younger talent pools to get commitments. This process is forcing coaches to become more reliant on their ability to project what a 15 or 16 year old pitcher is going to look like three years down the road and project what that player might become at ages 18-22 in a new environment. If this is the case, then it becomes essential for coaches to be able to balance who the teenage boy is that he is currently watching, with the man he’s inherently going to become in a few years under his watch.
In order to do this, you need to have the ability to look at the individual’s actions and behaviors, as movement patterns that you think indicate potential for continued growth as this player moves forward. This topic could expand into a entire book, but I’m going to simplify this thought and condense the discussion down to one athlete to help demonstrate the point I’m trying to make.
In this instance, I want to highlight an athlete I've coached over the last few years and show what a drastic difference a year can do in the context of mechanical development. I think it will bring to the forefront how important it is to allow a player to grow into himself and not force the process for these athletes. While doing that, I want to flush out some of the character traits that are involved in refining this process on a larger scale.
Here’s a video of the same athlete one year apart (we’ll break it down in detail later in the article):
To give you some context, you have a 5’9 150lb sophomore on the right and a 5’10” 170lb junior on the left. The 150lb sophomore version of this pitcher pitched around 78-82mph with an above-average change-up and above-average command. This allowed him to develop into a consistent high-level performer on the 16U summer circuit playing in national travel tournaments, but yet the phone isn’t ringing off the hook for this type of 16U player unless he shows “projection” in the body or above average velocity now (neither of which apply to him).
I can understand how it would be very easy to write this type of player off as "average," because every high school RHP in America throws 78-82mph. As such, how could you possibly see this player and offer him a scholarship to play in college? Well, if you’re paying attention, and look at this pitcher one year later with an additional 20lbs on his frame and see that the delivery has continued to refine itself, you’re going to begin to gather a positive sense of direction for this athlete and realize that this RHP is going to conservatively throw 84-87mph this year with a very good chance to throw harder.
Now, 84-87mph still may not get a lot of people excited in this day and age, but I would go out on a limb and say that by the time this athlete is physically maturing in college, you’ll be looking at an 88-90mph RHP with three pitches, who knows how to compete in the strike zone at a high level because he wasn’t blessed with velocity from an early age. There’s a spot for that type of pitcher on any college staff; I don’t care who you are.
One could also certainly say that’s a large leap to make in projecting a 5’10” 170lb pitcher, but it all comes back to knowing what type of person they are and how hard they work. That’s why I think intimate knowledge of their overall training activity is crucial, because you can find out if this player is willing to go away from the “fun” part of developing their skills and identify that they’re willing to buy into a much larger process to make themselves a more technically proficient player on the field.
This is important, in my eyes, because there are only so many reps you can expect a thrower to execute, due to the stressful nature of the activity. So, in order to maximize the efficiency of their development, they have to be able to handle concepts that transcend the actual throwing process itself to be able to refine their throwing motion. If they can grasp why learning how to create stability is important, or why learning to manage their tissue quality on a daily basis will increase their training capacity, then you can give them larger and larger windows to create adaptation as an athlete on the field.
Take the athlete in the video, for example. He’s becoming one of the most consistent performers on the field, and it’s no surprise, because he’s learning to become one of the most consistent athletes in the weight room as well. If you are familiar with the pitching delivery, you’ll notice that he has upgraded at least four critical components of the throwing motion:
Postural control of his leg lift/gather phase
Rhythm/timing of his hands and legs working together during his descent into the stride phase
Lead leg stability and postural control from landing to release
Ability to maintain integrity and directional control of his deceleration phase
The interesting piece of these four components is that three of these are reliant on the athlete improving his overall ability to create stability in the delivery. At Cressey Sports Performance, I talk with our athletes all the time about understanding if their adjustments are mobility, stability or awareness issues. In this instance, we probably had both stability and awareness issues to resolve. The thing is, once you’re aware of the issues, it still takes deliberate work to iron out a stability problem in the delivery, which is why the athlete’s training habits are so important. Simply throwing the baseball over and over again may help you with your timing and repeatability, but we need to actively attack the strength training if we expect to impact an athlete’s pattern of stability in the throw.
In order to examine this a bit further, let’s walk through each of these components and identify a couple key things in video form:
Postural Control during Leg Lift/Gather Phase
Rhythm of Descent into Stride Phase
Stability from Landing to Release
Control of Deceleration
Now, don’t get me wrong: there’s obviously a long way to go for this athlete to get to 90mph. However, when you look at the development of this individual in the last 365 days, and you consider that there are over 730 more days before this athlete will even play his first college baseball game as a freshman, it becomes that much more important to know who the athlete is. Will the player you’re recruiting be comfortable with who they are, and become stagnant in their development, or will he use his time efficiently to keep improving both on and off the baseball field?
In the short time that I’ve been doing this, I’ve found that there’s usually a progression for athletes that involves learning how strength training can benefit them. It usually starts with showing up to the weight room from time to time thinking that’s good enough. Once they start plateauing there, they realize they actually need to be consistent in showing up to the weight room to make gains. The problem is, they eventually start plateauing there as well, and if they decide they really want to be good, they proceed to make the all-important psychological jump, and realize it’s not good enough to just show up to the training environment anymore. They realize they need to make positive decisions in their daily routines in order to make the most of every training session, whether it’s on the field or in the weight room. If they’re not willing to do that, there’s always someone else who is, and it doesn’t take long before these athletes are passing them by and they’re left wondering what happened?
When the athlete makes the jump from simply showing up to giving a consistent effort to make positive decisions for themselves inside and outside of the training environment, it becomes real easy to tell a college coach, "This is a guy you want, not only on the field or in the weight room, but in your locker room as well."
If you're interested in learning more about our approaches to long-term baseball development, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships; the next course will take place in January.
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