Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 1
Wednesday, November 5th, 2014
Courtesy of Cressey Performance
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I assume you’ve heard that there seem to be a lot of pitchers getting hurt lately. Well, in light of the media spotlight recently shining on the injury epidemic we’ve been watching evolve over the last few years, I figured there’s no better time to contribute to this discussion.
This media attention has discussed a plethora of incredible information regarding some of the most relevant research and statistics pertaining to these arm injury rates. You can see experts call into question usage rates among amateur pitchers, pitch selection among youth/amateurs, recovery rates, mobility deficits, too much or too little strength, length of season, delivery flaws, and a host of other factors. In short, there’s clearly no one right answer in solving this issue, as there are just so many variables in this multi-factorial problem, and as a result, it is quickly making Tommy John the most famous pitcher of all time for all the wrong reasons.
This is probably exacerbated by the fact that I can almost guarantee you every single MLB pitcher whoever existed would fall into one of the categories deemed “detrimental” to healthy development at one point or another during their career. I’m sure they’ve been at risk of throwing too much, pitching on short rest, having a red flag in their delivery, lacking necessary range of motion, etc. It’s all part of the game, unfortunately. Beautiful game, isn’t it?
So, if this is the case – and I’m sorry to sound so negative about the future of this game and the problem that we’re currently experiencing – but this injury issue has way more to do with our society at large and the values we’re pushing into the game of baseball than simply little Johnny throwing too many pitches in his Babe Ruth game or throwing 95mph when he’s 17.
It’s not too dissimilar from the global climate discussion we’re having (apologies in advance if you don’t believe in global warming), where we seem to understand what the problem is and potentially what some of the solutions are. However, because these issues have huge monetary implications and there are large organizations and cultures set in their ways behind a lot of this, it’s very hard to change the direction of this tsunami that’s been building out at sea and is now crashing onto our shores.
Percentage Growth of ASMI Youth/High School UCL Reconstruction Surgeries (Original Article)
In order to narrow the discussion, though, I’m going to try to pick a couple key points out to help give the general population something to chew on and digest without burying them in a sea of research, stats and mechanical jargon. In my mind, there are two main social factors that are fueling this:
1) the burning desire as a culture to see and reach for more velocity at every level of development
2) the digital age giving us enough information to be dangerous in so many different ways
I can promise you neither of these will be going away, so we better learn how to manage them effectively.
When I talk about this insatiable desire for velocity at every level of development and this information age, I’m encompassing a lot of different thoughts. It could be Johnny Rocket throwing 70mph in the Little League World Series at 12yrs old while being broadcasted to the world on ESPN, or it could be the fact that we have a generation of fathers armed with a Pocket Radar at the backstop, and an Ipad in the dugout with up-to-the-minute strike % rates at all of Little Billy’s games.
Once these players get out on the travel ball circuit, online scouting resources do their fair share to rank every single player/team that comes through their tournaments and showcases, so every kid knows where he stands against his peers. Like it or not, this encourages them to make it to as many events as they can, regardless of the time of year, which we know from the research carries a larger injury risk as well. These issues are a microcosm of this media blitz, and are simultaneously creating our greatest strength and becoming our biggest weakness.
Now, don’t get me wrong, these same reasons can also be tremendous developmental qualities, by allowing for more information to be processed, we can speed up the developmental curve. We know that fastball velocity is an important predictor of strikeout rate and success at any level of baseball. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t we want to speed up the developmental curve in an attempt to throw harder?
With that said, I’m sure there are people out there who point the injury bug finger at me in thinking I offer “Pitching Lessons” all year round, or point it at Eric Cressey for developing these athletes into physical monsters too soon, which allows them to throw the ball harder than the human species is supposed to do so. So, if we’re going to frame the discussion, we need to look at the process for how these athletes are being developed, because I think this becomes the crucial determinant.
We have to have a big picture look at how we get Johnny Rocket to sustain his standard deviation of dominance at each level or how we get little Billy to have enough fastball so he can move from level to level and stay in the game he loves to play. But, if everything is causing problems, and you can’t play too much because you’ll get hurt, and if you don’t throw enough, you won’t be any good…How do we shepherd these athletes from level to level until they reach the promised land of the Big Leagues? Ultimately, it comes down to a few main principles for me.
At CP, we’ve had a lot of tremendous athletes and baseball players come through our doors ranging from Little Johnny Rocket at 10yrs old all the way to Curt Schilling on his last go round in the Big Leagues and everything in between. The three qualities that have resonated through all of the successful athletes regardless of level are – general athleticism, competitive instinct and an above average fastball that they can command.
I’d also include a caveat that the ability to be consistent and adhere to a plan is the glue to these qualities. We’ve had good athletes who were great competitors who sucked at simply showing up, or following the program as it was written, etc…and, it’s ultimately what keeps them from being reliable performers. It’s what can separate a guy who doesn’t have natural athleticism from a guy who doesn’t make the most of his athletic talents. Our most diligent and successful athletes don’t just randomly disappear for three weeks, or skip their warm-up for the heck of it. This can be a major separator if you’re willing to show up day in and day out and be diligent about executing your process.
Now, this may sound overly generic, but I think it’s important to consider what falls in each bucket and how it affects each developmental stage.
If you’re looking at the youth level – say 10-14 year-olds – who ends up pitching the most? Typically, your best athletes (because they’re coordinated enough at that age to throw strikes), or the kids who throw the hardest (because they generally miss more bats). Often, these two categories occur in the same kids, too, so they’re extra likely to throw every inning of every game. I don’t think anyone would question that.
The same begins to take shape when you look at who gets recognized at the high school and college level. The best pitchers again end up being the guys who throw the hardest and strike the most guys out, and ultimately, end up with the college scholarships and are drafted the highest.
At the minor league level, there’s less of an emphasis on winning games, but there is definitely a premium placed on competing in the strike zone with an above average fastball in order to advance at each level through the system, regardless of organization. Finally, you have your big leaguers, who have made it to where everyone wants to go, and in this day and age, its few and far between the guys that don’t have premium stuff or aren’t voracious competitors with at least “average” stuff. Mark Buerhle and Jamie Moyer are the 0.01% of professional pitchers who were able to compete with below average fastball velocities, but they were able to compete at every level – including the big leagues – by relying on good movement, changing speeds, and impeccable command. So how does this factor into our greater discussion? You have to find what each athlete does well and find a way to maintain those strengths while filling in the weaknesses. You’d be foolish to give guys on opposite ends of the spectrum – say, Aroldis Chapman and Jamie Moyer – the same developmental plan.
If you bring that thought further down the developmental chain, and have a 12yr old who throws hard, but doesn’t have a “sound delivery” or isn’t a good athlete, he probably needs to work really hard on his general athleticism first to provide a sound movement base for him to repeat his delivery. This can mean playing another sport, such as basketball or soccer, or simply riding his bike or playing at the park with his friends. It doesn’t mean he needs to engage in the 10,000 hours theory and practice pitching more. Could this help? Sure, but is it the best long-term solution or does it attack the greatest window of adaptation? I doubt it. If anything, he just needs to keep playing catch with his dad, brother, or a buddy and continue throwing a lot on his own to learn more about himself, but pitching in more games is just going to exacerbate the problem. Games are fun, and obviously one of the principles of long term success is developing that competitive spirit, but with what we know about the stress of throwing a baseball and what happens to kids who throw hard at an early age, this kid is seriously at risk for hurting himself down the road, if he doesn’t find other ways to develop.
Too often, we see parents who think that the best way to get Johnny to become Nolan Ryan is to bring him to the local pitching instructor and get him signed up on the local travel ball team. Also, obviously, he still has to play with his town buddies, so now he’s on multiple teams, etc. This is not the answer. Let Johnny figure out a world of movement and compete with different people in different venues and you’ll be surprised what that does for his confidence and motor control. Having the ability to relate to other social environments, and physically move through different patterns will drastically shape Johnny’s ability to repeat his delivery and create force in the throw in healthier ways. With that said, below, I’ve provided a “Developmental Lifespan” for how successful athletes have generally progressed in their athletic focus:
Up to Age 10 – Complete fun, wide variety of activities
Ages 11-15 – Multiple (3+) organized sports with “seasons,” integration of strength and conditioning
Age 16-17 – Hone in on 1-2 sports
Age 18+ – Specialization
When they do play baseball, let’s not worry so much about velocity just yet, but let’s focus on establishing good daily routines – sound warm-ups, arm-care processes, and movement patterns – as well as focusing on the yearly calendar. These will have long-term implications for the athlete’s health and continued progress – and I’ll focus specifically on these things in Part 2, so stay tuned!
In the meantime, if you’re looking for more detailed information on long-term management of throwing athletes, be sure to check out our Elite Baseball Mentorships. The early-bird price for our June mentorship is May 15.