When you ask most people what makes an elite pitcher, you’ll usually get responses like “velocity,” “stuff,” and “durability.” And, certainly, none of these answers are incorrect. However, they all focus on outcomes.
When you dig a bit deeper, though, you’ll realize that these successful outcomes were likely heavily driven by a collection of processes. If you rely solely on what the radar gun says or how many runs one gives up as success measures, you don’t really learn much about development. Conversely, if you dig deeper with respect to the characteristics of an aspiring pitcher’s approach to development, you can quickly recognize where some of the limiting factors may be. Here are six characteristics of any successful pitching development approach:
Very simply, the athlete has to be willing to try new approaches to further his development. What gets you from 80mph to 88mph will rarely be what takes you to 95mph. Openmindedness precedes buy-in, and you’ll never make progress if you aren’t fully bought in. Twins pitcher Brandon Kintzler had a significant velocity drop from 2014 to 2015 - and that loss in velocity contributed to him spending most of 2015 in AAA instead of the big leagues. Fortunately, those struggles led him to being openminded - even at age 31 - to trying out Cressey Sports Performance programming, and he regained his previous velocity and then some. And, before 2016 was over, he was their big league closer.
Good assessments identify the largest windows for improvement/adaptation, and excellent programs are structured to attack these growth areas. All too often, athletes simply want to do what they enjoy doing as opposed to what they really need to be doing. Of course, this relates back to the aforementioned “buy-in” described. Another MLB closer, Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson, saw an even bigger velocity jump after his first off-season (2013-14) with CSP.
A big chunk of that had to do with a greater focus on soft tissue work and mobility training to get that fresh, quick arm feeling back. Sam loves to lift and would tend to overdo it in that regard, so he actually improved by doing less volume. Effectively, he had to prioritize removing excessive fatigue - and implementing strategies to bounce back faster.
[bctt tweet="You can't take a fitness solution to a fatigue problem and expect positive results."]
3. Attention to Detail
Inattentive throwing, mindless stretching, and half hazard lifting techniques all come to mind here. It drives me bonkers to see athletes “give up” reps, and my experience has been that this is the most readily apparent thing you notice when you see high school athletes training alongside professional athletes. When it comes to throwing, athletes need to learn to throw with both intent and direction. Corey Kluber is among the best I've ever seen in this regard; whether it's in lifting or throwing, he never gives up a rep with wasted, distracted effort - and it's no surprise that he's become such a consistent high-level performer in the big leagues over the past four seasons.
A great program can be rendered relatively useless if it’s executed with mediocre efforts. The truth is that while many athletes Tweet about hard they work, the truth is that very few of them actually putting in the time, effort, and consistency needed to even come close to their potential. Another Cy Young award winner and CSP athlete, Max Scherzer, takes the cake on this one. Max is always looking for ways to make individual exercises and training sessions harder by adding competition. He'll have other athletes jump in to chase him during sprint and agility drills, and he'll regularly reflect back on previous week numbers to verify that progress is always headed in the right direction.
I think this is one of the biggest struggles with developing arms in the college environment. The nature of the academic and athletic calendars – in combination with NCAA regulations – makes it very challenging to have continuity in pitchers’ throwing programs. As a result, there is a lot of ramping up and shutting down throughout the year. Athletes don’t get the consistency needed to optimally develop, and they don’t get the rest needed to optimally recharge. When you chase two rabbits, both get away.
The right training environment makes a good athlete great, and an average athlete good. It’s why we’ve gone to such great lengths to foster a “family” environment at both Cressey Sports Performance facilities. We want athletes to feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, thereby increasing accountability to something more than just a workout sheet.
Interestingly, as you look at these six factors, points 1-4 are intrinsic (specific to the athlete), whereas points 5-6 are extrinsic (specific to the environment/circumstances). Points 5-6 have a massive impact on points 1-4, though.
In Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath note that while you will almost never effect quick change a person, you can always work to change the situation that governs how a person acts - and do so relatively transiently.
With that in mind, changing the situation by heavily emphasizing continuity and environment are outstanding avenues to enhancing the previous four factors. First, you’re more openminded if you see training partners getting great results with training approaches you haven’t tried before. Second, you also learn to prioritize when you look around and athletes are outperforming you in certain areas. Third, you pay more attention to detail when you’re surrounded by other athletes working toward the same goal. Fourth, your diligence is enhanced when there is a competitive environment that challenges you to be better each day. And, all these improvements are magnified further when continuity is in place; they happen consistently enough for positive habits to develop.
An appreciation for how these six factors are related is why we structured our upcoming Collegiate Elite Baseball Development program for the summer of 2017 the way we did. The program is 10 weeks in length (6/5/17 through 8/12/17) to ensure optimal continuity. It's for pitchers who are not playing summer baseball.
Each athlete will begin with a thorough initial movement assessment that will set the stage for individualized strength and conditioning programming - which corresponds to six days a week of training.
There will also be individualized throwing progressions designed following initial assessment, and ongoing throwing training - weighted ball work, long toss, and bullpens (including video analysis) as part of the group.
All the athletes will receive manual therapy with our licensed massage therapist twice a week, and nutritional guidance throughout the program.
Last, but not least, we'll incorporate a weekly educational component (a presentation from our staff) to educate the athletes on the "why" behind their training.
The best part is that it'll take place in a motivating environment where athletes can push each other to be the best they can be. By optimizing the situation, you can help change the person.
Interested in learning more? Email firstname.lastname@example.org - but don't delay, as spaces are limited and we'll be capping the group size.
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The words "baseball" and "summer" have traditionally been virtually synonymous. While the phrase "The Boys of Summer" initially referred to the Brooklyn Dodgers, it's now a term that is applied to all baseball players. If you play baseball, you do so in the summer; that's just how it's always been.
However, as you may have noticed, the game has changed dramatically since the Brooklyn Dodgers took the field. Arm injury rates are sky-high at all levels of baseball. Average fastball velocities are at all-time high, too. Pitchers don't just throw fastball/curveball/change-up anymore; we're also seeing cutters, sliders, and splitters now. And, perhaps most significantly, baseball players are specializing in this one sport alone earlier and earlier - meaning they're showing up to college with more accumulated wear and tear on their bodies, even if that wear and tear is only a blip on a MRI or x-ray, as opposed to actual symptoms.
These factors all build to the question: is it time for a paradigm shift with respect to the baseball calendar?
Both professional and high school baseball players align well with respect to high school ball, as neither of them play fall baseball. The minor league season runs March-September, with the big league season extended by a few weeks on both ends. The high school season generally begins in February/March (with warm weather high school teams starting in January) and wraps up in August. The college season, however, is an incredible challenge. Why? I think this email I received last year from a well respected college pitching coach sums it up their unique scheduling challenges extremely well.
College training schedules and NCAA limitations make it very hard to develop kids properly:
-We have roughly 6 weeks of fall practice – team building, evaluation, some scrimmage
-After that, we have roughly 6-7 more weeks of training time before Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are limited to 2 hours of skill instruction per week: hardly enough time to make good adjustments.
-A 4-week break for Christmas – usually training takes a back seat to holidays, travel, and general laziness.
-We have a 2-week period once school starts to get back into the flow, followed by a 4 week period of practice before 1st game. Biggest goal here is to build a pitch count/base.
-We play 4-5 games per week from February to hopefully June
-Summer ball, for those who need it: this is where it would be great to take time off, get back into the weight room, skill building. BUT, it costs money for summer school AND the NCAA does not allow us to work with our players (skill-wise) during summer school. Plus, we are usually out working hard on recruiting.
Essentially, I am saying that the rules and demands of HS, college, and pro ball are all quite different, yet coaches at each level strive to develop their players. It’s hard to know, based on the unique qualities of each level, what is right and wrong [in terms of time off from throwing].
If it is complete shutdown, then let’s use a hypothetical situation. If I have a pitcher for 4 years and give him 3 months off from throwing per year, I have lost 1 full year of developing his pitching. That seems like a lot of time off…
Here, we realize the challenges that college pitching coaches and their pitchers face:
When does a college pitcher get time off?
The fall is a crucial developmental period for all pitchers, but particularly for incoming freshmen. Most of these freshmen pitchers are coming off "career" highs in innings from their senior years (and subsequent summer ball, in many cases). This is one of many reasons that you see so many schools encouraging freshmen to arrive early; it's not just so that they can take summer courses, but also so that they can't get overused in summer leagues. With the premier prospects who are drafted, there used to be incentive to pitch in the summer to "raise their price tag," but with Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement moving the signing deadline up to approximately July 15 (from August 15) and players signing much more quickly as a result, there really isn't much benefit to playing summer ball, if you're an incoming freshman stud.
This is a particularly important decision to make, as many freshmen struggle during fall ball. I've had lengthy conversations with two of the best college pitching coaches in the country about how they absolutely expect all their freshmen pitchers to see significant velocity drops during the fall. They're adjusting to the increased throwing workload, as well as life on a new campus and a more rigorous academic challenge. Effectively, they take a step back in order to take two steps forward when the winter/spring rolls around. It's important that freshmen show up to campus expecting this drop-off, so it helps to show up fresh rather than dragging before the challenges begin.
What about the summers between freshman/sophomore, sophomore/junior, and junior/senior years, though? I think it goes without saying that there are a number of factors that must be considered:
1. How many innings did a pitcher throw during the spring?
Tyler Beede has been a Cressey Sports Performance athlete since his early high school years, and one of the many reasons he was a first-round draft pick our of high school in 2011 was the fact that he'd never thrown more than 80 innings in a year. He didn't sign, but instead went to Vanderbilt. In his first season there, Tyler threw 71.2 innings - but he also put in a lot of work in the fall season to prepare for that season. He long tossed, threw bullpens, and worked on a curveball at a time of year when he would have normally been playing football or just training. This was "necessary volume" that helped him develop as a pitcher, but it also dictated that some innings probably ought to be subtracted off the tail end of his competitive year, so he opted not to play at the Cape.
Instead, he put in a great summer of training at CSP, gaining 18 pounds of good weight and lots of usable strength. He started his fall throwing program in mid-August and had a great velocity jump during fall ball. He went on to be a finalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award in 2013, dropping his ERA by over two runs as compared to the previous year. There are a ton of factors that contributed to these improvements - fantastic pitching coaches, unique throwing programs, an additional year of experience in the SEC, adjustments to living on campus, etc - but the work he put in during the summer of 2012 was definitely a big contributing factor.
Had Tyler sat on the bench for most of the spring season of 2012, though, he would have been a great fit for summer ball, as the spring season would have effectively constituted "time off." Everyone is different.
2. What is the development potential at the summer ball option?
This is the big white elephant in the room that no college coaches will ever talk about publicly. While there are some outstanding opportunities to improve at summer baseball options, there are also a lot of places that are just a field and a bunch of players and coaches. In other words, players sometimes don't exactly thrive. One prominent pitching coach told me last spring, "Summer ball is getting less and less developmental every year. We're sending guys out for it less and less."
Think about it: you have a combination of new coaches, new (host) families, new geographic regions, new teammates, and long bus rides. There are rarely athletic trainers on hand for games, and only a select few teams carry strength and conditioning coaches. Even still, players may want to execute their strength and conditioning programs, but have no gym access in a remote geographic region where they don't have their own transportation. Roughly half of their meals will be pre-game PB&J sandwiches and post-game pizza while on the bus. In short, I'd argue that it's a lot easier for things to go wrong than it is for them to go right.
What's actually somewhat comical is that most college coaches will tell recruits who are drafted that they'll develop better in a college program than they would in minor league baseball if they decide to sign. Yet, that previous paragraph essentially describes minor league baseball to a T, and players are sent in that direction all the time!
Long story short, if you're going to ship off to play in a league and location unfamiliar to you, you and your coach better do your homework. All that said, please don't take the preceding paragraphs as a gross stereotype; there are a lot of fantastic summer ball coaches and experiences out there. You just have to find them and make sure they're in the right system and matched up to the right kids if you're going to call it a great developmental option.
3. What is a player's risk tolerance?
Mark Appel was selected eighth overall in the 2012 draft, but opted to return to Stanford for his senior season. While he'd played summer ball after his freshman and sophomore seasons, Appel opted not to after his junior year. Why not? His risk tolerance changed. He only threw 69 innings as a freshman in 2010 and needed to pitch in the summer that followed to continue to improve. In 2011, he got more innings, but also needed to demonstrate he could be effective against the best college hitters in the country that summer to improve his draft stock. Once you've already been a top 10 overall pick and the NCBWA National Pitcher of the Year, though, there isn't much more to prove in the college game, so summer ball would pose an unnecessary risk. It worked out well, as Mark went on to be the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.
Obviously, this is a unique case, as very few throwers will reach this level of success. However, it is a great perspective from which we can appreciate it's not always appropriate to just "ride the horse that got you here." Baseball development is an exception. Summer ball might be a great option for a pitcher with a clean injury history, but not someone with a partial ulnar collateral ligament injury in his recent history. A lot of smart baseball people believe you only have a certain number of pitches in your arm, so you should use them wisely.
4. What are a player's long-term aspirations with baseball: experience or outcome?
Not everyone is going to be a Mark Appel or Tyler Beede. In other words, college baseball may be the end of organized, non-beer-league baseball for a lot of pitchers. In these cases, summer ball is about having fun and enjoying the game before you run out of time to do so. I'm all for it for these individuals. One has to decide whether it's about experience (having fun playing summer ball) or outcome (becoming a better player). These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, though.
5. Does a player need to pitch or throw?
Some pitchers need in-game pitching experience to develop, while others simply need to build up arm speed. There is a big difference. The former dictates the summer ball is likely a necessity, while the latter can be accomplished via a number of different means. Building arm speed might be a function of long toss, weighted balls, or just taking time off from throwing to build up strength, power, and mobility.
6. Does a player have adequate size and strength?
Taking the summer off from baseball is becoming an increasingly population option for players who are undersized or weak, but more polished on the baseball skill side of things. If you're bigger and stronger, you can withstand a longer season. If you're not, you need to work to address your biggest window of adaptation. More and more coaches seem to be moving in this direction in recent years, as we have dozens of players who move for the summer just to train at one of our Cressey Sports Performance facilities, and the numbers grow considerably each year.
7. What's a player's mental state at the end of the college season?
It might surprise some of you to hear that regardless of talent level, most college and professional players are essentially sick of baseball by the time the last few weeks of the season roll around (assuming they aren't in a playoff scenario). You never want a player to burn out on baseball, so college players need to ask themselves whether they'd rather be on buses in the middle of nowhere in mid-July with their arms dragging, or at home with their families and friends, training and possibly even pursuing an internship. What seems like a great idea in May often winds up being a miserable reality two months later. It all depends on the player and his frame of reference.
Increasing Your Options
In their book, Decisive, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss how we often make bad decisions because we try to turn each one we encounter into "this OR that." Instead, they argue, we should be trying to determine how to have "this AND that." I think this same logic can be applied to summer baseball.
Coaches and players can dramatically improve the likelihood of a summer ball experience being productive by making players are placed on teams where they can thrive. There needs to be good coaching and access to gyms to keep training during the summer season. And, they need to monitor innings and pitch counts, and educate players on staying out of trouble and on task. Showing up in the fall unprepared is not an option. And, just as importantly, it may mean these players need to start a bit more slowly with fall ball after taking the month of August off from throwing.
Players can also play a portion of the season, or opt to find a league where they might only pitch 3-4 innings once a week. The rest of the week can be planned around training to prepare for the fall season. This is a very popular option among those players who have moved to train at Cressey Sports Performance during the summer, as both our facilities are located near multiple summer baseball leagues in which pitchers can get innings. The days are free for training, and all the games are at night; it's a great developmental set-up.
Players might also opt to simply take the summer off altogether, giving themselves two months off from late May or early June (depending on post-season play) through the middle of August. They'd then start a throwing program to be ready for the start of fall ball, effectively making their "throwing year" September-May/June. The summer months would effectively be an off-season devoted to strength and conditioning that would prepare them for the 8-10 months of throwing that would follow. This option affords two significant, but often overlooked benefits:
a. The overwhelming majority of throwing would be done with the college pitching coach, so players wouldn't be as likely to learn bad habits in the summer while on their own.
b. The most intensive strength and conditioning work would take place when a pitcher isn't throwing. This would ensure that mobility, rotator cuff strength, and scapular control would improve as fast as possible. Improving in these three regards is generally always going to be at odds with throwing.
This final option seems to have some statistical backing, too. Of the college first round draft picks (including supplemental rounds) from 2010-2012, only 68% (50/73) played summer ball (typically Cape Cod League or Team USA) in the previous summer.* And, I suspect that we may have even had some players who would have been first rounders, but slipped in the draft after an injury that may have been exacerbated during summer ball. Conversely, I'm sure there are guys (particularly hitters) who helped their draft stocks by playing summer ball the year before they were draft eligible, as well as ones who benefited greatly from playing in previous years. There is no one right way to approach the decision, and deciding to play likely affords greater benefits to hitters than pitchers.
We really don't know the answers, but these numbers certainly lead us to wondering if we've been asking the right questions. The big one is clearly, "If you're already throwing from September through June, is there really much to gain from continuing to throw in July and August?" When I hear it phrased that way, the answer is a big fat "NO," but I also realize that not all throwing during that September-June window is created equal.
Managing the college pitcher is one of the more challenging responsibilities in the baseball world, as the competitive season is a series of hills and valleys in the life of a student athlete. Additionally, there are numerous NCAA regulations and traditions to keep in mind. As examples, Cape Cod League Baseball might be the single-best example of what baseball really should be like, and many players have always dreamed of playing for Team USA in the summertime. So, we have decisions that must be made on not just physiological factors, but also emotional ones as well.
The truth is that I've seen players make dramatic improvements via each of these three proposed avenues, and I've seen them select these courses of actions based on a number of factors, from burnout, to injuries, to family issues, to academic endeavors.
This article proposed some answers, but more importantly, I hope it introduced some questions that need to be asked to arrive at the right answers for each player.
*A big thanks to CSP intern Rob Sutton for helping to pull together these numbers for me
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I love writing features with multiple installments because it really allows me to dig deep into a topic of interest. It's like writing a short book, with each blog being a different chapter. That said, here were a few of my favorite features from 2012 at EricCressey.com:
1. Quick and Easy Ways to Feel and Move Better - This weekly series was largely put forth by Cressey Performance coach Greg Robins, and it includes five tips for taking your nutrition and strength and conditioning programs to the next level. I contribute here and there, but the majority of the praise goes fully to Greg. Here are the five most popular posts from this series in 2012:
Here's a little sample of the kind of content Greg kicks out each week:
2. Coaching Cues to Make Your Strength and Conditioning Programs More Effective - I started this (ongoing) feature in early 2012, and it was a huge hit. Apparently, people love the idea of having some cues they can use in place of having a qualified coach right there with them. Here were the ones we ran this year:
3. Increasing Pitching Velocity: What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It - This three-part series was very popular with my baseball audience, as preparing the body for an appropriate stride is key to pitching success.
If you've read my baseball content on this website for any length of time, you've surely noticed that I'm a firm believer that no two pitchers are built exactly the same. Rather, they all develop velocity via different combinations of athletic qualities - or miss out on velocity gains because they don't possess some of these qualities.
To that end, a while back, I gave a presentation down in Texas to a group of a few hundred pitching coaches on this very topic, and it's now being released. Check it out:
Both electronic versions and DVDs are available, but only for a short time - and at the current 75% off discount. So, don't delay; check it out here now.
Also, on a related note, for those who don't know that I publish a free baseball-specific newsletter, you can subscribe to it in the opt-in box below (you'll receive a free copy of the Cressey Performance Post-Throwing Stretches, too):
I guess I'm joining in the discount madness this holiday season, even if I didn't have to do any planning! Here are some options for your holiday shopping at EricCressey.com:
1. Whip: What it is and How You Get it - This was a presentation I did a while back at Ron Wolforth's Pitching Coaches Bootcamp, and it's now available for sale individually. In the presentation, I talk about factors the influence whether you increase throwing velocity and how strength and conditioning programs can have a dramatic impact - either positive or negative - on whether one develops the whip needed to throw harder. You can either watch this online or get it as a DVD.
2.20% off all Physical Products at MikeReinold.com - This sale includes Functional Stability Training and Optimal Shoulder Performance, along with many of Mike Reinold's other products. Just enter the coupon code BLACKFRIDAY2012 at checkout to get the discount.
3. 15% of all Products at RobertsonTrainingSystems.com - This sale includes Assess and Correct, Building the Efficient Athlete, and Magnificent Mobility, along with many other products from Mike Robertson. The discount will automatically be applied at checkout.
We don't put products on sale very often, so be sure to take advantage of these offers before they expire at the end of the day on Monday!
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With the off-season at hand, I thought I'd type up some random thoughts that have come up in conversations with professional, college, and high school players over the past few weeks as they've wrapped up their seasons and transitioned to off-season mode.
1. Arm care drills don't really provide arm care when you do the exercises incorrectly. When you do eight exercises for three sets of 15 reps each every single day, but you do all the exercises incorrectly, you’re really just turning yourself into 360 reps worth of suck.
2. Piggybacking on #1, if you think you need 360 reps of arm care exercises per day, you really need to educate yourself on how the arm actually works. Also, when you eventually realize that you probably don’t even need ¼ of that volume to keep your arm healthy, you should definitely pick up a new hobby with all that newly discovered free time. Maybe you’ll even wind up kissing a girl for the first time.
3. In the battle to increase pitching velocity, all anyone seems to talk about is how to increase arm speed, which is a function of how much force can be produced and how quickly it can be applied. So, we focus heavily on long toss, weighted ball programs, and mound work to try to produce more force. The inherent problem with this strategy is that it ignores the importance of accepting force. I'll give you an example.
Imagine two people side-by-side holding slingshots, each of which has the same thickness rubber band. They both pull the band back with the right hand and hold the other end with the left. One guy has a limp left hand and his left forearm "gives" as he pulls the band back, and the other guy keeps the left side firm. They both shoot the rock; which one goes farther? Obviously, it's the one with the firm front side; that stiffness enables the arm to accept force.
This is a common problem with many young pitchers who haven't built a foundation of strength, as well as advanced pitchers whose velocity dips over the course of a season, usually when they lose body weight. If your lower-body strength and power diminishes, you'll collapse on that front side and leak energy. And, you'll commonly miss up and arm side.
Basically, you need to be strong eccentrically into hip flexion, adduction, and internal rotation - which is why the glutes are so important for pitching (check out this post from a while back for more information on the functional anatomy side of things). Think of pitching with a weak landing leg as throwing like a guy with a slight hamstrings strain; in order to protect yourself, you flop instead of planting.
4. Has an accomplished marathoner every thrown 95mph? Actually, has an accomplished marathoner ever done anything athletic other than running?
5. We definitely need to get John Clayton to cover MLB instead of the NFL.
Baseball hasn’t seen this kind of talent in a non-player since this Fenway Park security guard put the Terry Tate on this deserving schmuck:
6. It amazes me how many baseball players don’t take care of their eyes. They are your livelihood, people! Yearly check-ups are a good start, but if you’ve heard some of the stories I’ve heard about how terrible guys are with taking care of their contact lenses, you’d be astounded. Example: I once had an athlete come in with terribly red eyes, so I sent him to see my wife, Anna, who is (conveniently) an optometrist. He informed her that he’d been putting his contacts in the same solution at night for two weeks. That’s like reusing the same bath water for 14 days – except the eyes are worse because they’re more prone to infection.
7. Why do professional teams spend anywhere from $484,000 to $30,000,000 per year on a single player, yet try to save money by letting clubbies feed all their minor leaguers pizza, fried chicken, PB&J, and salami sandwiches on white bread?
8. This kid has a full scholarship to train at Cressey Performance whenever he opts to pursue it.
See what I just did there? It wasn’t baseball-related at all, but I just tied it in.
9. Strength and conditioning has “changed the game” with respect to early sports specialization as it relates to baseball development. Kids can get away with specializing earlier if they’re involved in a well-rounded strength and conditioning program because these programs afford as much and, sometimes, more variety than playing a traditional sport. This approach to development does, however, depend heavily on the self-restraint of players, parents, and coaches to get kids 2-3 months per year without a ball in their hands. And, they need to seek out opportunities to play pick-up basketball, ultimate Frisbee, and other random games.
10. If you’re already taking 150 ground balls per day during the season, do you really need to do extra agility work? This is like a NASCAR champ hitting up the go-karts on the way home from the race track.
11. The other day, I read a review in the International Journal of Athletic Training that focused on the different biomechanics and pathology of various pitching styles. The authors (Truedson et al) made a strong case for modifications to training programs - particularly with respect to core stability - based on trunk tilt angles at ball release. Overhand and three-quarters guys tilt away from the throwing arm, sidearm guys stand upright, and submarine guys tilt toward the throwing arm. Folks have long discussed the concept of posture from a mechanics standpoint, but I haven't seen anyone who has utilized this information to modify an intended training outcome from a strength and conditioning standpoint. Obviously, you could easily make the case that submarine pitchers need more rotary and lateral core stability than all other pitchers.
Lateral core stability exercises teach you how to resist lateral flexion; in other words, your goal is to avoid tipping over. These drills may start with basic side bridging drills and progress all the way up through more advanced TRX drills and 1-arm carrying variations. Rotary core stability exercises educate folks on how to resist excessive rotation through the lumbar spine. Examples include drills like landmines, lifts, and chops.
Sidearm pitchers are much more upright with the torso, so they likely need more anterior core than rotary/lateral core stability. Of course, you're still going to train all three.
Anterior core stability exercises teach the body to resist excessive lumbar spine extension, and encompass a variety of drills, starting with dead bug, curl-up, and prone bridging activities. In prepared individuals, they progress all the way up through more advanced exercises like reverse crunches, stability ball rollouts, and TRX flutters and fallouts.
Finally, the overhand and 3/4 guys - which are obviously the largest segment - likely just need an equal dose of the three approaches.
That concludes this little glimpse into my mind as we enter the off-season. I'll probably wind up doing this again every 4-6 weeks as I have discussions on various topics with our pro guys as they return.
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Babe Ruth hit a ton of homeruns in spite of being a seemingly out-of-shape fat guy. I've seen more than dozen pitchers throw well above 90 mph without even being able to vertical jump 23 inches.
What gives? Well, these athletes are just incredibly efficient – and powerful – in the transverse and frontal planes. Would being an elite sprinter make one a successful hitter or pitcher? Of course not, yet most strength and conditioning coaches train their rotational sport athletes as if they were trying to elevate them to elite status in a sagittal-plane dominant sport. They assume that general exercises like squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts will simply carry over once an athlete starts throwing or hitting.
And, to some degree, they do carry over because of the involved structures and systemic training effect, but I think that there's a way to tighten up the learning loop.
People think I'm crazy when I say that we don't Olympic lift our baseball players. We also don't do much vertical jumping. At the end of the day, jumping high doesn't really matter that much. Rotating fast and moving laterally quickly does, though, so we focus our power-oriented work on rotational medicine ball drills and lots of laterally-directed jumping/landing, and supplement it with lifting and sprinting.
I reiterated these thoughts a few weeks ago with my post, Why Baseball Players Shouldn't Olympic Lift. This kicked off some heated debates, so I thought I'd contact Graeme Lehman for an interview on the topic. As a brief background, back in 2010 - just a few months after I had the aforementioned article published - Graeme informed me that he was actually in the process of researching this very topic for his master's thesis. Today, we're fortunate to have him here to discuss his findings and their practical applications.
EC: Thanks for agreeing to do this interview, Graeme. Can you start off by telling me a bit about both your baseball and educational backgrounds?
GL: First of all, thank you for asking me to do this interview; it is an honor to be a guest on your site, which I have used as an educational resource for years.
Baseball has always been my sport of choice despite growing up in Edmonton, Alberta during the 80s with the best hockey team ever assembled playing in my back yard (five Stanley Cups in seven years). I was fortunate enough to secure a scholarship to play baseball in North Dakota, but the school I attended didn’t have a kinesiology program, so I chose the major that I thought would afford me the best chance of getting a job, a degree in business administration. Ironically, and perhaps fatefully, my business degree got me a job as the manager of a small personal training studio. One day a trainer didn’t show up and I was thrown into the fire.
This first experience in a strength coach setting fueled a new found desire to educate myself about the world of exercise science. I read everything I could get my hands on including all of the articles that guys like you, Mike Robertson, Chad Waterbury, Mike Boyle wrote for T-Nation. I was hooked, and in 2006, I became a CSCS, and just one year later I was enrolled in a graduate school at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Dr. David Behm’s Kinesiology program.
Since my collegiate days in ND, I have been both a baseball coach and strength coach for various individuals and teams including two years as the S&C for the UBC Thunderbirds. I have also continued playing in various men’s leagues in order to test out my own theories and keep chasing the dream hoping to become the next Jim Morris.
In case you’re trying to follow along with the various places I lived, they were:
1- Edmonton, Alberta (cold)
2- Jamestown, North Dakota (cold & windy)
3- St. John’s, Newfoundland (cold, windy and wet)
4- Vancouver, British Columbia (wet)
Living in these less than ideal climates has really made me excited about the work you do and the results you get in snowy Hudson, Massachusetts.
EC: How did you wind up deciding to pursue this research study, and what was the hypothesis that you were testing?
GL: My initial reasoning was quite simple: I wanted to help baseball players throw harder. As a strength coach, I thought that improving lower body power would be one of the best ways to achieve this goal. This led me to question: “what kind of lower body power can be improved in order to have a better chance of carrying over from the weight room to the baseball diamond?”
In the past, scores from traditional tests like vertical jump, broad jump and 60-yard dash times have not had any significant correlation to throwing velocity (Spaniol 1997). This made some sense because I have known some guys that I wouldn’t call “athletic” but could still throw gas. Mechanics obviously play a huge roll, but there is some research that stress’ the importance of lower body power in creating throwing velocity.
MacWilllams et al. (1998) showed that higher levels of force production by the back leg in the direction towards the plate led to higher wrist/ball velocity. While Matsuo et al. (2001) showed that what happens to a pitchers front knee between the time the front foot hits the ground and the time the ball is released is the key differentiator between “low” and “high” velocity throwing groups. Those that had the ability to extend their knee rather than going into further flexion threw harder.
So, it’s pretty easy to see that each leg is performing independent actions in a number of planes which don’t carry over to traditional bi-lateral sagittal. Thus, the principal of specificity was not taken into account and I know from your research, Eric, that you hate it when this principal is ignored.
It became obvious that we should be including tests which look at independent leg action, different planes of motion along with different kinds of strength (concentric, isometric, isometric).
EC: What kind of subjects did you have participating in the study, and what challenges did you face in dealing with them?
GL: My subjects were all male college level baseball players from two different teams. In total, I had 42 subjects who were approximately 19.8 years old and 183.3 cm tall and weighed 83.1 kg.
The biggest challenge was to create a list of tests which covered a wide spectrum of lower body power qualities to complement traditional running and jumping tests, which I also included. Each test also had to be easily reproduced by any strength or baseball coach in order to make this information user-friendly.
EC: Please describe your methods and the results you attained.
GL: We split up the athletes into left and right handed subjects and we measured throwing velocity was in two ways:
(1) Stationary throwing - similar to a pitcher throwing from the stretch.
(2) Shuffle approach - similar to a third basemen making a strong throw across the diamond.
This gave us four different groups. The throwing velocities from each group were correlated against the results of each lower body power test along with height and weight, looking for any significance. While there were was some correlation to body weight and med ball throws in one or two of the groups, only one test batted 1.000: the lateral to medial jump. This was the only test that was performed in the frontal plane.
Here is what this test looks likes. Stand on one leg then jump towards your midline in the frontal plane. Land with both feet together at the same time and take the measurement from the closest body part (lateral edge of the inside foot) to the starting line.
Since the lateral to medial jump score of the same side leg to the throwing arm (right leg for righties) went 4 for 4 in showing a positive correlation in each group, we made the conclusion that power is plane specific.
This was one of these “duh” moments because it makes obvious sense. If I can have more energy going towards my target, I have a better chance to transferring more energy up the kinetic chain to my throwing arm. If the rules didn’t stop me I would crow hop every time I pitched (like a Trevor Bauer warm-up) pitch trying to get as much as energy as I can going towards my target.
The pitching coach in me wants to warn against the young pitcher reading this and going out and trying jump towards the plate in order to boost their fastball. While it is important to initiate energy towards your target you need to be strong enough to capture and transfer that energy towards. If you aren’t strong enough on the front side you will exhibit what we in the business call an energy leak, just like the “low throwing velocity group from Matsuo’s study.
EC: Okay, these are all well and good, but let’s talk practical applications. What can coaches take away from your research to immediately make their baseball strength and conditioning programs better?
GL: I think this helps us make smarter decisions in what we need to add/emphasize in our programs, and what we can subtract/deemphasize. Basically, we need to add more exercises that will improve frontal plane power and subtract some of the exercises that don’t. For example, hang cleans and drop jumps might help increase vertical jumping ability, but if goal is to throw 90mph these might not be the best use of our limited amount of time and energy.
The hard part about training the frontal plane is that your options are limited by traditional weight training. We need to think outside of the box like Bret Contreras did with his hip thrust in trying to improve running speed. Exercises that I would say to add or emphasis would be band resisted lateral jumps and lateral sled dragging since they are both performed in the frontal plane.
On the flip side, if we spend time working on creating more energy, we also have to think about how we can absorb it and ultimately transfer it to the baseball. This makes me think that single-leg training is very important, so we need to emphasize qualities like concentric strength for the back leg and eccentric strength for the lead leg.
EC: How about future research? What do we need to study next in order to build on these findings to continue to improve our understanding of long-term management of overhead throwing athletes, particularly pitchers?
GL: The next step would be to create a long-term study where a group of experienced baseball players train for 4-8 weeks. One group would include some frontal plane movements and the other wouldn’t. Test both pre and post throwing velocity and you’ve got another study. I wish I had the resources to do this, but I also don’t feel very ethical having some young baseball players not using these any frontal plane movements.
I think that these results also point to the fact that throwing a baseball is a full body movement. If we can get our pitchers throwing more like athletes and harness the power created by the lower body, we can eliminate some stress from the throwing arm keeping more baseball players in the game.
EC: Thank you very much for your great insights. Where can my readers find more from you?
GL: Thank you again for having me. I have a blog where I translate some of the geeky exercise science research related to baseball into Layman’s terms (cheesy use of my last name but it works). My goal there is to cover the gaps between the research lab, weight room and baseball field so that more players and coaches can benefit from all the information that is available.
You can also find me at Inside Performance, which is an awesome indoor baseball training facility in North Vancouver (possibly the rainiest place in the world) where I work as a S&C coach.
MacWilliams, B, Choi, T, Perezous, M, Chao, E, and McFarland, E. Characteristic ground reaction forces in baseball pitches. Am J Sports Med 26: 66-71, 1998.
Matsuo, T, Escamilla, R, Fleisig, G, Barrentine, S, and Andrews, J. Comparison of kinematic and temporal parameters between different pitch velocity groups. J Appl Biomech 17: 1-13, 2001.
Spaniol, FJ. Predicting throwing velocity in college baseball players. J Strength Cond Res 11: 286, 1997.
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In the first half of this two-part installment on why pitching velocity changes during the course of a season, I outlined 9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season. As you'll appreciate after reading today's post, there are actually a lot more ways by which pitching velocity can decrease over the course of a season. Let's examine them individually:
As I discussed in my first book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, strength is an important foundation for power. And, taking it a step further, power is certainly an important part of pitching. As the season goes on, many guys just don't get in the quality weight room work they need to maintain strength, and power on the mound tails off.
It goes without saying that if you're hurt, you won't throw as hard. This isn't just a shoulder or elbow thing, either; sprained ankles, sore hips, tight lower backs, oblique strains, and stiff necks can all wreak havoc on velocity. If something is bothering you, get it fixed before it causes you to develop bad habits.
4. Loss of mobility
When people hear the word "mobility," they typically just of tissue length. However, mobility is simply one's ability to get into a desired position or posture. In other words, it's a complex interaction of not just actual tissue length, but also strength/stability, tissue quality, and kinesthetic awareness. If you don't continue working on mobility drills, static stretching (when appropriate), foam rolling, and your strength training program, one of the components of this equation can suffer.
Obviously, as I wrote previously What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, stride length is the best example of this phenomenon. However, what happens at the shoulder is another great example, too. One who loses thoracic mobility or scapular stability may stiffen up at the glenohumeral (ball-and-socket) joint; it's possible to gain range of motion without even stretching at the "stiff" joint!
5. Excessive workload
This is the time of year when a lot of guys start hitting all-time highs for innings in a season. And, with the games getting more important at the end of the high school and college seasons, pitch counts often rise when the innings really matter. It's very simple:
Fatigue masks fitness.
If you're dragging and the velocity is down, a short-term reduction in throwing volume is often the quickest path to getting velocity back - particularly in pitchers who are throwing more innings than ever before. Throwing an easy flat-ground instead of a bullpen between starts is one way to stay fresh, or you may opt to alternating higher pitch counts with shorter outings. If I hear about one of our high school pitchers who has an exceptionally high pitch count (105+), I usually tell him to make sure the next one is in the ballpark of 80 pitches. At that age, arms always seem to be dragging if kids go over 100 pitches in back-to-back outings.
6. Cumulative effect of bad throwing programs
This is best illustrated by a "hypothetical" example that actually happens far too often.
a. Pitcher makes great velocity gains in an off-season with comprehensive throwing program that includes long toss.
b. Pitcher goes in-season and encounters pitching coach that doesn't believe in long toss as part of a throwing program.
c. Pitcher has a velocity loss.
This scenario doesn't just happen because a specific modality (long toss) is removed, but also because of the effect it has on a pitching routine. This, for me, is why it's so important to have conversations with pitchers on what throwing programs they've done in the past. What's worked? What hasn't? It's all about tinkering, and rarely about overhauling.
These researchers divided a collegiate pitching staff into two groups of eight pitchers over the course of a season, and each group did everything identically – except the running portion of their strength and conditioning programs. Three days per week, the “sprint” group did 10-30 sprints of 15-60m with 10-60s rest between bouts. The endurance group performed moderate-to-high intensity jogging or cycling 3-4 days per week for anywhere from 20-60 minutes.
Over the course of the season, the endurance group’s peak power output dropped by an average of 39.5 watts while the sprinting group increased by an average of 210.6 watts. You still want to distance run?
Of course, there are still the tired old arguments of "it flushes out my arm" (much better ways to do that), it clears my head (go see a psychologist), "it keeps my weight down" (eat less crap, and do more lifting and sprinting), and "it helps me bounce back better between starts" (then why are so many players in MLB living on anti-inflammatories?). The system is broke, but instead of fixing it based on logic, many coaches continue to change the oil on a car with no wheels.
8. Insufficient warm-ups
While there are definitely some outstanding opportunities out there to develop in the summer, the truth is that summer baseball is notorious for sloppy organization. Guys are allowed to show up ten minutes before game time, do a few arm circles, and then go right to it. If you're walking directly from your car to the mound, don't expect your velocity to be too good in the first few innings.
9. Cumulative effect of altered sleep patterns
Early in my training career, I realized that missing sleep the night before a training session really didn't have any effect on my next training session. However, if I had consecutive nights of little to no sleep, it crushed me. I know of a lot of people who are the same way.
Now, imagine an entire season of red-eye flights, 3AM bus departures, and going to bed at 1am every night. Beyond just the sleep deprivation component, you have the dramatic change in circadian rhythms that takes place. Just head over to Pubmed and look at the hundreds of studies examining the health impact of working night shifts (shift work disorder); you'll see preliminary research linking it to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a host of other issues. I firmly believe it's one of many reasons injuries in baseball are on the rise - and certainly one potential culprit when velocity declines as a season progress.
10. Pitching off a crappy mound
Many players wind up pitching off terrible mounds during summer ball, and when the mound isn't groomed nicely, you get into "oh crap, I don't want to get hurt" mode with your landing leg. If you aren't comfortable landing, you shorten your stride, or reach for a "safe" part of the mound, messing with your mechanics in the process. Additionally, velocity is going to be lower when the mound height isn't as elevated; it's just how gravity works.
11. Mechanical tinkering for the bad
In part 1, I noted that mechanics changes in the summertime can be a source of velocity improvements. They can also, however, be a reason for guys losing velocity. Not all changes are new changes, and it's important to be careful about overhauling things on the advice of each new coach you encounter. Repetition is important, and it's hard to get it if you're always tinkering with something.
Dehydration can have a dramatically negative effect on strength and power. Most athletes are chronically dehydrated at rest, and certainly during pitching outings in the summer heat. Hydration status is an important thing to monitor if you want to throw gas.
13. Throwing to a new catcher
Being comfortable with the guy who is catching your pitches is a big part of success on the mound. When the catcher is constantly changing, there is more hesitation - especially if his pitch-calling tendencies are different from those of your previous catcher. If you're constantly shaking him off, it'll mess with your pace on the mound and slow you down.
14. More erratic throwing schedule
One of the biggest adjustments a pitcher will ever have to make is switching from starting to relieving or vice versa. While going to the bullpen can often lead to an increase in velocity, it can make other guys erratic with their delivery, as they've learned to rely on the pre-game period to get everything "synced up."
Meanwhile, thanks to an increased pitch count, guys who go from the bullpen to the starting rotation sometimes see a drop in velocity. As examples, just compare John Smoltz or Daniel Bard out of the bullpen to what they have done in the starting rotation.
The only thing tougher than making that switch is to constantly bounce back and forth between the two, as it really hurts your between-outings preparation. How you prepare to throw seven innings is considerably different than what you do if you're just going to go out and throw 10-15 pitches.
These are only 14 reasons velocity may dip, and their are surely many more. Maybe your girlfriend cheated on you with the bat boy and you got distracted, or you decided to just throw knuckleballs. The point is that - as if the case with many things in life - it's a lot easier to screw up (lose velocity) than it is to thrive (gain velocity). Plan accordingly!
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Everyone wants to improve pitching velocity, but unfortunately, the answer to the question of "how" is different for everyone. To that end, I pulled together a quick list of 101 strategies you can use to improve pitching velocity. They aren't the same for everyone, but chances are that at least a few of these will help you. I'd encourage you to print this off and highlight the areas in which you think you can improve.
1. Optimize mechanics (this could be 100 more ways in itself; I will leave it alone for now).
2. Gain weight (if skinny).
3. Lose weight (if fat).
4. Get taller (shorter throwers can’t create as much separation, and are further away from homeplate)
5. Get shorter (taller throwers have more energy leaks).
38. Change footwear (guys usually throw harder in cleats).
39. Throw less.
40. Throw more.
41. Pitch less.
42. Pitch more.
43. Politely ask your mom to stop yelling, “Super job, kiddo!” after every pitch you throw.
44. Do strength exercises outside the sagittal plane.
45. Take all the money you were going to blow on fall/winter showcases and instead devote it to books, DVDs, training, food, and charitable donations. If there is anything left over, blow it on lottery tickets and sketchy real estate ventures, both of which have a higher return-on-investment than showcases in the fall and winter.
46. Switch from a turf mound indoors to a dirt/clay mound outdoors.
51. Improve glute activation so that you can fully extend your hip in your delivery.
52. Stop thinking that the exact workout a big league pitcher uses is exactly what you need to do.
53. Subcategory of #52: Remove the phrase "But Tim Lincecum does it" from your vocabulary. You aren't Tim Lincecum, and you probably never will be. Heck, Tim Lincecum isn't Tim Lincecum anymore, either. You can learn from his delivery, but 99.9999% of people who try to copy his delivery fail miserably.
54. Read more. This applies to personal development in a general sense, and baseball is certainly no exception. The guys who have the longest, most successful careers are usually the ones who dedicate themselves to learning about their craft.
55. Stay away from alcohol. It kills tissue quality, negatively affects protein synthesis, messes with sleep quality, and screws with hormonal status.
56. Incorporate more single-leg landings with your plyos; you land on one leg when you throw, don't you?
57. Be a good teammate. If you aren't a tool, they'll be more likely to help you when you get into a funk with your mechanics or need someone to light a fire under your butt.
58. Respect the game. Pitchers who don't respect the game invariably end up getting plunked the first time they wind up going up to bat. Getting hit by a lot of pitches isn't going to help your velocity.
59. Train the glutes in all three planes (read more HERE).
60. Remember your roots and always be loyal. You never know when you'll need to go back to ask your little league, middle school, high school, or AAU coach for advice to help you right the ship.
61. Get focal manual therapy like Active Release.
62. Get diffuse manual therapy like instrument-assisted modalities or general massage.
63. Make sweet love to a foam roller.
64. Throw a jacket on between innings to keep your body temperature up.
65. Pitch from the wind-up.
66. Drink magical velocity-increasing snake oil (just making sure you were still reading and paying attention).
67. Pick a better walkout song.
68. Get on a steeper mound (expect this to also increase arm stress).
69. Train hip mobility and core stability simultaneously.
70. Get around successful people in the pitching world and learn from them. Find a way to chat with someone who has accomplished something you want to accomplish. If you hang around schleps who complain about their genes and have never thrown above 75mph, though, expect to be a schlep who throws 75mph, too.
71. Pick the right parents (sorry, genes do play a role).
Q: I read your series, A New Model for Training Between Starts, and love the ideas you introduced. Since eliminating distance running between outings, I've noticed a big difference in how I feel and how I pitch. I did have one question about the weekly rotations you outlined in Part 2. What happens if I have an extra day between starts due to erratic scheduling or just a rain out?
A: This is a great question - and one I have received several times - so I'm glad I'm finally getting around to answering it here on the blog!
I usually look for guys to do a "bridge" training session. Basically, these sessions are all about leaving the gym feeling refreshed; you work, but not so hard that you're exhausted.
In the typical in-season baseball strength and conditioning program we use with professional pitchers on a five-day rotation, here's how we'd schedule it:
Day 0: pitch
Day 1: challenging lower body lift, push-up variation (light), horizontal pulling (light), cuff work
Day 2: movement training only
Day 3: Single-leg work, challenging upper body lift (less vertical pulling in-season), cuff work
Day 4: low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits only
Day 5: next pitching outing
However, if the next outing isn't until Day 6, we will integrate one of two options:
The first option would be to simply split the Day 3 training session into two shorter sessions: one upper, one lower. These sessions might only be 10-12 sets in all. Then, Day 5 would be the low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits.
The second option would be to keep the strength training component as-is, but perform some medicine ball circuits on Day 4, then use Day 5 for the low-intensity dynamic flexibility circuits.
Both options keep you training hard without interfering with the subsequent pitching outing. Particularly in professional baseball, there are more days off early in the season, so it's important to be able to roll with the punches like this.
At the college and high school levels, the 7-day rotation is usually implemented. If a pitcher starts on Day 0, I like to see him strength training on Day 1, Day 3, and Day 5, with Day 5 being a lower-intensity lift (Days 2 and 4 are movement training, and Day 6 is low-intensity dynamic flexibility). If there is an extra day on the end, we simply treat our Day 5 lift like we did the Day 3 option in the 5-day template from above; it can either be split into upper and lower body sessions, or we can do it as-is, and add medicine ball circuits on Day 6, taking Day 7 for dynamic flexibility before starting again on Day 8.
That said, as in my experience, guys rarely get that extra day in high school and college; they're more likely to have their starts pushed up. In this case, we just drop the Day 5 lift.
Getting training sessions in between starts is incredibly important, but that doesn't mean that one must be rigid in the scheduling of these sessions. In fact, one must be very flexible in tinkering with that scheduling on a week-to-week basis to make sure that guys are getting in their lifts, but not at the expense of their performance on the mound. Hopefully this blog provided some strategies you can employ when weather or scheduling throws you a curveball!
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