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 email@example.com - but don't delay, as spaces are limited and we'll be capping the group size.
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With baseball athletes being the largest segment of the Cressey Sports Performance athletic clientele, it seems only fitting to devote a "Best of 2016" feature to the top baseball posts from last year. Check them out:
This was my first post of 2016, and it turned out to be one of my most impactful. A cool follow-up note on this: one of the suggestions I had to reduce pitching injuries was to push the high school season back in warm weather states, and here in Florida, they actually moved it back two weeks for 2017. I doubt my writing had anything to do with it, but it's nice to see things moving in a positive direction.
The lat strain is becoming far more prevalent in higher levels of baseball as pitchers throw with more and more velocity. In this lengthy article, I discuss mechanisms of injury, diagnostic challenges, prevention strategies, and longer-term prognoses.
Earlier this week, the New York Times published Joe Brescia's article, For Yankees' Sabathia, It Appears Less (Weight) is Less (Success). It stirred up quite a bit of controversy among those "in the know" in the baseball world, particularly those with a knowledge of how the body actually works. As is often the case with articles targeted toward the lay population, this piece didn't delve into the specifics in too much detail, so I thought I'd use this post to do so. Be sure to read the article before proceeding, if you haven't already.
The Body Mass - Pitching Velocity Relationship
To begin, research has demonstrated a clear relationship between body mass and pitching velocity, so this is at least a question that has to be asked. However, I think it needs to be answered fairly - via a compilation of anecdotal reports and actual research. And, most importantly, nobody except CC Sabathia knows how he feels at different body weights - and certainly nobody can speak to his injury history better than he can. Instead, we got some heavily dated and biased opinions with some cherry-picked interviews by Mr. Brescia.
The problem with cherry-picked interviews in this realm is that they always seem to fall back on a sample size of just a few pitchers. "Greg Maddux did this, so everyone has to do this." The problem is that not everyone has Greg Maddux's abilities with respect to pitching location, movement, and sequencing. Other guys need to make it up with athleticism, especially in today's game - where fastball velocities blow those of yesterday out of the water. The game has changed dramatically; it's played with faster throwing, running, and swinging velocities than ever before (one of MANY reasons for the increase in injuries, contrary to what Lou Piniella and Leo Mazzone seem to think) - and if you want to compete at the MLB level, you don't have the option of not pushing your body to be better. With that in mind, we have to look at what the majority of players have done to get to improve their bodies. To speak to Piniella's assertions, players don't get hurt or fall off in performance simply because they train; these problems occur when they train incorrectly, whether it's poor exercise technique, excessive volume, imbalanced programming, inappropriate loading, lack of attention to mobility and soft tissue quality, or any of a host of other factors.
I've devoted my career to helping players get better and stay healthy by avoiding these common errors. To that end, at Cressey Performance, I work with over 100 professional players each off-season on top of a large college, high school, and middle school clientele - so I feel that I'm in a good position to give valid anecdotal evidence in the context of this weight gain vs. weight loss discussion.
While weight gain is almost universally beneficial at the younger ranks, as kids get past ages 17-18, things shift a bit. As an example, in our professional pitchers crowd, I'd estimate that about 70% can really benefit from gaining weight. Roughly 20% are at a good weight - and need to focus on improving body composition rather than actually making the scale go up or down. Finally, only about 10% need to actually lose weight.
As it relates to throwing, weight gain is a perfect example of the Inverted-U curve. In his latest book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell writes,
Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. There's the left side, where doing more or having more makes things better. There's the flat middle, where doing more doesn't make much of a difference. And there's the right side, where doing more or having more makes things worse.
In other words, there is a weight that helps performance, but gaining more doesn't help past a point. Here's what the inverted U looks like graphically, with body weight on the x-axis and performance on the y-axis:
The 40 pounds Tim Collins has put on at Cressey Performance since he was drafted have had a profound impact on his pitching velocity, as he's gone from 82mph to the mid-90s. So, as you can imagine, I look to take advantage of this weight gain window whenever possible.
The Body Mass - Pitching Stress Relationship
Unlike examples like Collins, I don't think Sabathia is a candidate to thrive with weight gain. You see, pitching is a combination of absolute and relative strength and power. From an absolute standpoint, more body weight equates to more force to push off the mound, and more momentum moving downhill; that's why gaining weight can have such a profound impact on pitching velocity.
On the other hand, from a relative strength and power standpoint, you eventually have to "accept" all the force you create. We know that there are substantial ground reaction forces taken on by the front leg, and research has demonstrated that they are (not surprisingly) directly impacted by body weight. Additionally, according to 1998 research on professional pitchers from Werner et al., at ball release, the distraction forces on the shoulder are approximately 108% of body weight. You could also make the argument that these forces are even higher now, as average fastball velocity has crept up significantly since 1998, and the subjects in that study averaged only 89mph. As is the case with body weight increases, as arm speed rises, so do shoulder distraction. With this research in mind, there should be no question that carrying extra body weight at this critical instant in the delivery wasn't helping his cause:
And, at risk of playing Monday Morning Quarterback, if you look at his recent injury history, you shouldn't be surprised. He had torn meniscus in his right (landing) leg repaired in 2010, and bone spurs removed from his left elbow in 2012. Both are ball release/deceleration mechanism injuries to passive restraints. In other words, they take place because the active restraints (muscles and tendons) can't keep up with the workload placed on them. If you can't keep up with shoulder distraction forces, you only have two options, when you're in panic mode and trying to get big league hitters out:
1. Let your arm fly off your body.
2. Crank your elbow into more aggressive extension, increasing the likelihood of bony injury (loose bodies) or protective adaptation (spurs).
Clearly, gaining weight won't do much for his longevity - and, to be fair, the New York Times piece did discuss that. I'd also argue that it'd make it more difficult to field his position and run the bases during interleague play. Plus, his fat loss will make any future diagnostic tests - MRIs, x-rays, etc. - more accurate, should he encounter additional musculoskeletal problems. Here's what radiologist Dr. Jason Hodges had to say when I interviewed him five years ago:
By far, the biggest limitation is obesity. All of the imaging modalities are limited by it, mostly for technical reasons. An ultrasound beam can only penetrate so far into the soft tissues. X-rays and CT scans are degraded by scattered radiation, which leads to a higher radiation dose and grainy images. Also, the time it takes to do the study increases, which gives a higher incidence of motion blur.
I also found it interesting that there was no mention of the reduced risk of chronic problems like heart disease and diabetes; I give him a ton of credit for getting the weight off so that he can be a healthy role model for his kids (not to mention fans who've witnessed his transformation).
Your velocity doesn't matter if you're on the disabled list...period. However, we have to ask the question of whether CC's velocity drop in 2013 was really just a function of him losing weight.
Finding the Right Body Weight to Maximize Velocity
If there are two thing I've learned over years of working with pitchers, it's that no two deliveries are alike, and every body is unique. What works for Steve Cishek (6-6, 220lbs) won't work for Tim Collins (5-7, 170lbs).
Beyond just height and weight differences, some guys have more joint laxity than others. Each pitcher has a unique injury history. Some throwers have more retroversion in their throwing shoulders, or a larger valgus carrying angle at the elbow.
I could go on and on about these individuals differences, but the point is that it's dangerous to assume that all guys will respond exactly the same to a given stimulus - whether it's a mechanical adjustment, modified throwing program, added athleticism, a change in body weight, or something else.
On the body weight side of things, I've had a few years to develop a sample size of where pitchers seem to fit in best weight-wise. Obviously, there are individual differences in body weight distrubtion, limb length, and body composition, but we can generalize a bit if you think about the average build of a professional pitcher. Being about 220-225 pounds for a 6-3 pitcher, as an example, seems to be a sweet spot. If their weight drops, so does their velocity. If their weight climbs, they don't necessarily benefit - and may actually feel worse.
By contrast, go to someone who is 6-5, and 240-245 pounds seems to be a good spot - so you could make the argument that each inch equates to about 10 pounds. At 6-7, I'd estimate 260-270 pounds. This is something that's been reflected in my conversations with the really tall guys I've trained over the years:
Really tall guys simply don't thrive with weight gain like shorter guys do.
While there are obviously exceptions to this rule, in the 6-7 and above pitchers I've encountered, we're usually focusing a lot more on improving body composition (dropping some body fat while gaining muscle mass, even if the scale weight doesn't change). It all depends on their starting points - but I can't say that I've ever pushed hard for a guy to go from 250 to 270 pounds.
I should also note: interpreting online height/weight listings in MLB pitchers is tricky, as guys are always listed about an inch tall without a change in body weight. Plus, they are rarely updated - and guys don't grow much after they enter pro ball, but they do gain weight. As an example, Felix Doubrant is currently listed at 165 pounds by Yahoo Sports, but ESPN.com and MLB.com have him at 225 pounds.
Obviously, there are exceptions to the "norms" I just set forth. As an example, Cishek is more comfortable slightly lighter than typical 6-6 guys because he drops down and throws across his body, landing really closed off. This gives him more deception and movement, but also requires a lot more mobility and athleticism than a big donkey who just stands upright and throws downhill. That same argument could be made for Jered Weaver and Andrew Miller, who are both listed at 6-7, 210 pounds.
Based on what I've heard and seen in his delivery, Sabathia is also a super athletic guy - and you can tell from the way he really gets down the mound. I'd argue that he's better off at 270; it's a happy medium between velocity and health, in my eyes - and that's the Holy Grail of pitching we're always working to find.
The Mathematics of Sabathia's Weight Loss
According to the New York Times piece, Sabathia has lost 45 pounds over the past two years - effectively bringing him from 315 to 270 pounds. If these numbers are accurate, he lost 14% of his body weight over the course of 24 months - and that's certainly a notable reduction that has to raise his eyebrows.
However, those eyebrows are only raised if you look at things in absolute terms. A 14% loss for a 6-3, 225-pound pitcher would be 31.5 pounds - and would certainly equate to a huge drop in velocity. However, that 225-pound pitcher wasn't starting out from a point of what could actually be classified as obesity. The 45-pound drop brought Sabathia back to a more normal range, whereas the 31.5-pound drop would put a 6-3 pitcher far too light to thrive. Unless he's got an insanely quick arm, it's not going to work.
This parallels my own experiences in cutting weight as a competitive powerlifter. Losing 5-10 pounds would lower my lifts dramatically, but I knew guys in the 242-, 275-, 308-pound weight classes (and super heavyweights) who could do it in a matter of minutes without noticing a thing. The heavier you are, the less sensitive you are to changes - especially when they happen over the course of two years.
Heavy people (especially taller ones) who diet don't experience the serious lethargy and lack of satisfaction lighter-weight dieters notice because of the total amount of calories that are still being taken in. I remember talking to a world-class bench presser who wanted to stay above 350 pounds to shorten the distance the bar had to travel while pressing. He told me he was drinking three gallons of Powerade a day on top of his normal diet just to keep his weight up - and was absolutely miserable. He also couldn't go for a 1/4 mile walk without his lower back tightening up. So, we can kill off the myth that CC was starving himself to take the weight off; he was probably just making better food choices - which actually meant he probably ate a higher volume of food.
Regarding mechanical changes that occur with significant weight gain or loss, I simply haven't seen it. I've put 25 pounds on guys in off-seasons on countless occasions, and can't ever recall someone saying it interfered with their mechanics. I've also had guys lose that same amount, without ever complaining about it throwing them off. It's a much more dramatic change at these lighter weights, too. Losing 20 pounds during an off-season when you're 320 pounds doesn't dramatically change your mechanics. And, even if it did, a high-level, intelligent athlete like Sabathia would sort it out, particularly with the video analysis resources at his fingertips.
In fact, I'd actually argue that his weight loss would improve his ability to get to the positions he needs to be successful with his delivery, as Sabathia lost a lot of abdominal fat.
When you carry a lot of weight in your midsection, there is a tendency to slip into lumbar extension (lower back arching) to counteract it. This is one reason why pregnant women often have back pain; beyond the mechanical impingement on the posterior aspect of the spine, the muscles of the anterior core are excessively lengthen as the pelvis tips forward and rib cage slides up. CP pitching coordinator Matt Blake and I discussed this common fault in our recent series, Understanding Trunk Position at Foot Strike (part 1, part 2, and part 3). A larger belly would shift a guy like Sabathia into a more extended (arched) posture - similar to what we see with Lincecum on the right - as opposed to to the more neutral core positioning we see on the left with Zach Greinke.
Greinke is older and has thrown more innings over the past two years than Lincecum, yet his average fastball velocity this year was 1.5mph higher. According to Fangraphs (Lincecum vs. Greinke), since 2007, Lincecum has dropped from 94.2mph to 90.2mph, while Greinke has dropped from 94.0mph to 91.7mph. This is one of many factors that may contribute to Greinke's ability to sustain his velocity better than Lincecum has, but I'll take a neutral core posture and clean drive line over the long haul over a heavily extended one - and that's where CC's larger abdomen was shifting him.
Finally, from a common sense standpoint, I don't think anyone would call 6-7, 270 pounds "light" - especially when we're talking about a guy who still looks pretty damn intimidating on the mound. His body weight is fine, people - as much as that doesn't sell controversy in the New York Times.
How, then, do you explain his loss in velocity? Read on.
Fatigue Masks Fitness
As the Lincecum vs. Greinke example demonstrates, getting older and throwing a lot of innings means a velocity drop. Sabathia's average fastball velocity is consistent with this trend, going from 94.7mph in 2005 to 91.1mph in 2013. Let's have a look at the active leaders in innings pitched (courtesy of Baseball Reference):
As you can see, Sabathia is an outlier. He was among the youngest on this list (if not THE youngest) to make the big leagues - and he's certainly the only one with a track record of sustained success without missing considerable time due to injury.
Throwing a baseball is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, and CC Sabathia has done it at the highest level more than anyone else on the planet over the past 13 years.
It's virtually impossible to compare him to anyone on this list in terms of both innings pitched, admirable health, age and consistently. The only four parallels who can help for the sake of this discussion are Dan Haren, Josh Beckett, Jake Peavy, and Mark Buerhle.
Haren is the same age as Sabathia and also made his MLB debut at age 21. While he's averaged 186 innings per year over the past 11 years, he's thrown 729 innings (almost four full seasons worth) less than Sabathia, who has averaged 213 over the past 13. Haren's average fastball velocity has declined from a peak of 91.9mph in 2005 to 88.9mph in 2013.
Beckett, like Sabathia, was an absolute stud in his early 20s and threw a ton of innings over his first decade in the big leagues - but his 149IP/year rate can't touch CC's because of the amount of time he's spent on the disabled list, especially in light of this year's season ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. He is a good comparison for Sabathia in terms of velocity, though, as Beckett's average fastball velocity dropped from 94.7mph in 2006 to 91.4mph in 2012 (his last full season).
Jake Peavy is the same age as Sabathia, but got to the big leagues a year later than CC, and like Beckett, Peavy has missed too much time with injuries to really be a valid comparison (averaging 162IP/year). Peavy's average fastball velocity drop has been more subtle - 92.5mph in 2007 down to 90.7mph in 2013 - but you have to wonder where it would be if he'd thrown over 800 innings more during that time period - as Sabathia has.
Buerhle is a bit different, though, as he's averaged 205IP per season over the past 14 years - making him the only guy who can touch Sabathia's streak of longevity and performance. The main difference? Sabathia throws a lot harder than Buerhle, and that's a lot more stress. Make no mistake about it: you don't pull your hamstrings if you don't run fast (even Lou Piniella's strength and conditioning approach supports that) - and the same applies to pitching. Still, Buerhle's average fastball velocity has dropped from a peak of 87.1mph in 2004 to 84.2mph in 2013.
I've often heard that many front office people in baseball consider the prime of a player to be age 26-31. It's the point at which increased knowledge of the game coincides with peak athleticism and recovery ability. After 31 - as each of these examples shows, things start to decline. It stands to reason that power pitchers like Beckett and Sabathia, who rely heavily on athleticism, will fall off faster than those like Buerhle and Peavy, who rely more on location and movement. I'd also add that those with considerable congenital laxity (loose joints) will fall off the fastest (more strength = more stability = better force transfer) - and based on what I've seen of Beckett and Sabathia, they are both freakishly flexible. Getting old sucks.
What do these examples - and literally hundreds more in guys who weren't even close to as successful as Sabathia - show us? Fatigue masks fitness. If you throw a ton of innings (impose fatigue) and get older (reduce recovery capacity), your performance suffers. We saw it early this season after Justin Verlander's heavy workload in the playoffs last year. And, this is true of every single sport in the history of mankind.
That is, of course, unless you're CC Sabathia, in which case it's only because you lost some fat, at least according to a few of Brescia's cherry-picked interviewees. To me, it's proof that there are scenarios where professional athletes can never win with the media. Sabathia should be lauded for taking control of his health - and for taking the ball every time his team needed him to do so, pitching in some cases on three days rest. We hear complaining all the time about how today's pitchers are soft and can't do what the pitchers of yesterday did. How about praise for a guy who has made more sacrifices on the mound for his teams than anyone in MLB over the past 13 years?
And, who is to say that he would have pitched at all in these past few years if he hadn't taken the weight off? If he'd come back and reaggravated the meniscus, then everyone would have been calling him too fat to perform. There's literally no way to win without having the ability to predict the future - and that's why you have to apply common sense, anecdotal evidence, and research - none of which support the idea that being over 300 pounds is healthy or productive for a pitcher.
I, for one, am a huge CC Sabathia fan and think he can be a successful pitcher at this body weight given the right management in the years to come. It's unfair, however, to expect him to throw 200+ innings per year in perpetuity and not anticipate a velocity loss to ever kick in.
And, more specific to the New York Times piece, it's incredibly shortsighted and borderline irresponsible to even attempt to to blame it on weight loss - which in all likelihood was necessary for him to continue to be able to perform at a high level in spite of the insane physical demands placed on him.
Note: A big thanks goes out to Matt Blake for the great photos from Right View Pro, and to the good folks at Fangraphs.com, who provide awesome stats info in the baseball world.
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Today is part 2 of a collaborative series on a key portion of the pitching delivery from Matt Blake and me. In case you missed part 1, you can check it out here. In today's installment, Matt delves into the mechanical side a bit deeper and introduces some drill work and examples of where trunk position can go astray.
In order to understand where this extension at landing is coming from and how we can control it in the throw, we have to look at it with a more global perspective and realize that there were preceding movements that were driving this pattern into the landing position.
In part one, we used a picture of Tim Lincecum to exemplify a heavily extended position, but one thing you’ll notice is that the foot positioning in his stride pattern is actually driving a lot of the extension in the torso at landing. If we take a look further back in his delivery, you’ll notice that he has a considerable front leg swing that pulls a lot of his weight forward, causing him to land closed off. In order to keep the segmental separation unfolding efficiently through his target line, he is forced to include more extension in his throw. Here is a brief clip with a couple markers throughout the delivery to highlight the movements in question.
The issue then becomes that the same leg swing Lincecum uses to create power in his stride pattern is also what makes it susceptible to inconsistency, because of the timing and degree of pre-stretch it requires to make the driveline efficient. Ideally, you would just be able to tell Lincecum to straighten out his stride line, and the problem would be solved. Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. He has been using a stride pattern that is front leg swing dominant with a closed orientation at landing for years to help create the necessary tension it takes to throw the ball 95mph. So, to that end, he’s nearly cemented these patterns – for better or worse.
With that in mind, sometimes it’s easier to give a pitcher some drill constraints to help find the tension in a different manner before they get back on the mound and try to recreate the new line of tension for which we’re looking.
In this case, we’ll introduce some simple drills to close the kinetic chain down a bit and move through a progression that goes from static in nature to a more dynamic and athletic movement pattern. Ideally, we’d cue our way through each drill depending on where we need to alter the individual’s line of tension until we’re able to repeat the new motion at full speed on the mound.
To give you an example of one of the more static drills in our “lead-up” sequence to help set the pattern in place, here is a simple demonstration of the “stride drill” with a three-step progression.
In this example, the intensity was obviously low for the sake of demonstration, so some of the variables of the throw are not exact. With that said, we do also use this drill in a more explosive capacity during some of our weighted ball and velocity drill series in order to turn up the intent and attempt to create some hand speed.
To give you an example of what this looks like in an amateur pitcher with an excessive extension pattern that may lead to some inconsistency, here are three videos depicting the wind-up and then corrective stride drill work:
Stride Drill with Load
Obviously, these drills aren't quite where we want them to be yet, as there is still plenty to correct, but that was the idea: I want you to see where most “live-arm” high school athletes are before they acquire an efficiency of movement. This athlete, in particular, has pretty good stuff and works about 86-89mph with this particular delivery. If he can control his feet a little better and know where his weight is positioned, he can control his pelvis and rib orientation in the stride phase, and he’ll be able to create some cleaner sequencing.
One the flip side of that, I want to emphasize with an athlete like this is that, yes, I do want him to throw hard with intent, but I also want him to be in positions to compete in the strike zone on a consistent basis. These don’t necessarily have to be competing interests if we understand how our movements can work together and not fight each other. The main point ends up being that these drills, if cued properly, are attempting to have him consider more efficient movements, and in turn, a more stable and centered delivery.
At the end of the day, as much as we want to control extension in the delivery, by having a strong anterior core that can help limit the amount of hyperextension we get in the lumbar region, most high level throwers have some level of extension in their sequence. The key for me is getting the athlete to understand if it’s excessive or if it’s controlled extension that we can managed within normal limits on a consistent, repeatable basis. If it’s not, we need to be able to find the corrective measures to bring it under control.
In Part 3, EC will cover some core stability exercise progressions he utilizes to help athletes build stability in these positions. In the meantime, if you'd like to learn more about how we manage throwers, be sure to register for one of our Elite Baseball Mentorships. The next one will take place December 8-10.
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There may not be more perplexing phenomenon in the baseball world than a pitcher with a case of the yips. For those of you who aren't "down with the lingo," this term refers to an extended period of time when a pitcher simply can't throw the ball where he wants to throw it. And, the yips can certainly extend to position players, as there are countless instances of catchers mysteriously struggling to throw the ball back to the pitcher, and infielders who can't make clean throws to first base - in spite of years of doing these things successfully. Perhaps the two most noteworthy cases of the past few decades were Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch, who were both forced to change positions because they couldn't overcome the issue.
Clearly there is a heavy psychological component to this issue - and that's a big part of how the yips have historically been managed. Whether it's visiting with sports psychologists or chatting with pitching coaches, the powers that be aim to modify the thoughts that go through the pitcher's head prior to throwing. And, there's certainly nothing wrong with that approach, as it's clearly part of the problem. However, in today's article, I want to view the yips through a bit of a different paradigm.
One thing that nobody ever seems to mention is that the yips don't happen in high school players. Why? It's because the frame of reference is different. You see, high school kids don't throw enough strikes normally for us to even perceive when something is out of whack. I've spoken with a ton of professional pitchers and they universally agree that they weren't able to repeat their mechanics consistently until they were in the 18-20 age range. Until that point, their bodies were changing dramatically and they hadn't had sufficient throws under their belt to master the pattern and consistently repeat it. Plus, they were pitching off different mounds each time out, and the quality of the mound can have a dramatic impact on one's delivery. With these factors in mind, I think we can all agree that the yips are a problem confined to the college and professional ranks. If a high school kid or pop star is missing wildly, we just chalk it up to poor skill or inexperience.
Drawing parallels in other sports proves to be difficult, though. Among athletes who need to accurately project an object from a consistent release point, you just don't see the yips outside of baseball players. Quarterbacks don't get it, and I've never seen a track and field thrower accidentally fire an implement into a terrified crowd. Olympic archers and biathlon competitors don't miss targets by large margins, and I've never heard of a tennis player whose career ended from double faulting over and over again. Certainly, if all these issues were purely psychological, we would have found cases of the yips across other sporting disciplines, right? There simply have to be examples of other professional athletes' minds being so jumbled that tens of thousands of reps worth of motor control and precision would be seemingly wiped clean from the slate, right?
Nope. It doesn't seem to work that way. So what is so unique about pitching, then?
Stress and adaptation to that stress.
You see, throwing a baseball is the single fastest motion in all of sports - and that means serious stress on not just the arm, but also the rest of the body. Additionally, the Major League Baseball season is among the longest in professional sports - lasting from mid-February to some point in October (depending on post-season play) - and eight months is plenty of time for things to go in the wrong direction as players may get more and more detrained.
Rotator cuff strength drops over the course of the season. Scapular upward rotation diminishes. Tissue quality gets "gunkier" with each throwing session. Some players lose hip, shoulder, and elbow range of motion. Others acquire more ligamentous laxity and become increasingly unstable. Body weight may drop, and lower body strength and core stability fall off. And when these issues collectively build, elbows, shoulders, lower backs, and any of a number of other areas may even become symptomatic.
To be clear, what I'm saying is that guys don't magically forget how to throw strikes after tens of thousands of reps. Rather, their bodies often let them down and don't enable them to physically get to the positions needed to repeat the mechanics to which they've grown accustomed. They're like the teenagers who are growing into their bodies all over again.
If you need further proof, check out this great study from Kibler et al. Researchers noted that in the tennis serve, a 20% decrease in kinetic energy from the hip and trunk means the shoulder must generate 34% more velocity to get same force to the racket. It's safe to assume that the stress of pitching in this context is even higher because arm speed must be greater. If you're 10-15 pounds lighter and have lost a bunch of your lower body strength, how can we know if your issues are purely psychological and not physical? In attempting to maintain velocity and compete, you have to compensate in any of a number of ways - and that's how physical problems quickly become mechanical and psychological ones.
As another example, it's not uncommon to see pitchers get hurt when they've been quickly transitioned from relieving to starting roles without adequate time to build up their pitch counts. And, I wouldn't be surprised if the incidence of the yips is much higher among those who don't get hurt. When you throw fatigue in the mix, altered mechanics (whether they appreciate it or not) are the only way guys can continue to try to compete. This is one reason why it's so important to bring guys along slowly and methodically with this transition.
When we see a guy who is struggling with his command or velocity, the first thing we ask is, "Is he hurt?" Yet, when he responds "No," nobody ever asks if he feels fatigued or weak. So, maybe it's a paradigm that needs to shift? I can remember chatting with a major league pitcher a while back roughly 2/3 of the way through his season. He told me he'd had outings when he had absolutely no idea where the ball was going, and had actually developed a new pitch by accident because his mechanics were so off. Not surprisingly, the evaluation I then performed revealed a lot of things he needed to address physically - and he was clearly fatigued. Nobody had even touched them, though, because his velocity, command, and numbers were good. This is like refusing to change the oil and tires on your car proactively because it seems to be running fine. Maybe the yips are just the equivalent of breaking down on the side of the road after ignoring those routine service appointments?
With all these factors in mind, I think it's safe to say that there is a definite role for physical shortcomings and both acute and chronic fatigue in the development of the yips. It just may not be easily "diagnosed" because a) symptoms may be absent and b) many athletes aren't assessed appropriately when they're doing well, so there isn't a standard against which to compare.
Here is where I think so many players have struggled to overcome the problem. They think that throwing more to "re-master" their mechanics is the way to fix the problem. In throwing more, two things happen:
1. If each throw isn't right on the money mechanically, they're simply re-engraining those problems.
2. With each passing throw, they're imposing more fatigue - especially when those throws are off the mound (and if you want to re-master your mechanics, you want this level of true specificity).
Conversely, my first suggestion to athletes with the yips is always to simply take the ball out of their hands for 7-10 days. I think it's important not only because it's a chance to acutely avoid reaffirming bad habits, but more because it's a chance to temporarily remove fatigue so that one can build up strength and stability in the right places, improve tissue quality, and normalize body weight. When that happens, "muscle memory" can kick in.
Imagine driving your car after someone has adjusted all the mirrors, moved the seat up, lowered the steering wheel, messed with the alignment, and changed all the pre-set radio stations. It feels brutally awkward in spite of the fact that it's the same car you've had for years, and you might even be a danger on the road. This is what pitchers often feel and look like at the end of a long season if they haven't been managed correctly on the physical side. If you fix all these issues with the car, it goes back to feeling normal; you don't just forget all those years of safe and "natural" driving. You wouldn't just call your driver's education instructor for a pep talk and then hop back into the funky new version of your car, would you? The only differences are that you can easily recognize everything that's out of whack with a car, and a quick tune-up at the mechanic only takes a few minutes. Conversely, it's hard to self-assess physically, very few people truly understand how pitchers should move, and physical adaptation takes time.
This isn't a knock on sports psychologists or pitching coaches, as they are absolutely, positively a huge part of the process with getting a pitcher with the yips back on track. However, it'd be extremely ignorant to overlook the pronounced physical adaptations and detraining that often take place with pitchers - and how this might interfere with one's ability to repeat mechanics that until that point had become second nature.
A lot of you will read this article and think that it doesn't apply to you. And, while you may not have experienced the yips yourself or in one of the players you coach, my hope is that this article effectively served as a call for you to establish baseline evaluations of movement quality. If there isn't a thorough preliminary assessment against which to compare when things go south, you're really just guessing about how much is physical, psychological, and mechanical. If you're not assessing, you're assuming - and if assuming worked, this wouldn't be a problem that had shaved years off a lot of careers.
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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.
Here's this week's list of recommended strength and conditioning reading:
9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season - One of the big stories of the first month of the MLB season is that Justin Verlander's velocity is down. It's to be expected, given that he he started his off-season throwing program later in light of the heavy workload during last year's season and playoffs. Still, it's good to know why some pitchers see their velocity go up during the season.
Baseball 2013: Here Come the Flamethrowers - The Wall Street Journal did a pretty good job with this article, which details how advances in science - from training techniques to video analysis - have helped to push pitching velocity higher and higher in MLB with each passing year.
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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.