Long-Term Baseball Development: Part 2

Monday, May 12th, 2014

In the first installment of this two-part article, I outlined the problem with respect to youth baseball injuries, discussed some of the causes, and emphasized the need for age-appropriate, individualized training programs over the course of the “baseball lifespan.” Today, I want to look closer at this step-by-step developmental process.

I think it’s paramount to first teach young pitchers about rhythm, tempo and direction in the throw, before they learn how to just “air it out.” If they understand how to play catch with intent and focus for every throw on a daily basis, the velocity will usually take care of itself. One way to do that is to use drill constraints to create feel for these qualities, such as in this stride drill progression below:

If the velocity doesn’t begin to develop as you matriculate into your adolescent and teenage years, you have to begin to ask why? Is it a problem with athleticism, strength, delivery issues, or something else? Typically speaking, it will be a little bit of all these, but it’s not usually because the kid isn’t trying to throw the ball hard enough. More often than not, the players that I see getting hurt at a young age have an excessive amount of effort in a poorly sequenced throw, and no awareness for how to take care of their body or how to explain to an adult/coach what they’re feeling when they throw. They need a larger framework to understand movement, so they can understand what feels good and what doesn’t outside of simply throwing to get better.

If you can teach these kids simple concepts regarding core control, how to do a proper lunge, or how to do a proper un-weighted shoulder external rotation, you’ll go a long way towards opening up pathways to throw the ball harder. A great example of this is the exercise demonstration below, which you could certainly use to help educate your athletes:

They don’t need to know what joint centration is, or why adhering to certain muscular length/tension relationships are essential in creating force and resisting fatigue, but they’ll be able to feel it and move towards these positions more frequently on their own. To be honest, we very rarely even use a radar gun at our facility, and without trying to sound conceited, we have some of the hardest throwers in the country at every level of development. It all starts with a foundation that adheres to movement quality over quantity. Owning a routine that allows you take care of your body on a daily basis by taking inventory of tissue quality and adhering to a thorough warm-up and recovery process every time we throw is essential at every level of baseball. Something as simple as implementing the use of a foam roller on a day-to-day basis could go a long way in aiding this process.

Once the athlete understands movement quality, then we can begin to layer on force production, whether it be through a more general application like strength training or a more ballistic action like throwing a baseball. They need to understand how the force is generated, and where it’s dissipated; if they can’t decelerate or disperse what they’re producing, it’s unusable. There’s a laundry list of athletes in every town who threw harder than their peers, but couldn’t use it because they couldn’t throw strikes or couldn’t avoid pain. And, it’s not unusual to see the guys who don’t throw strikes to be more likely to end up in pain, because it’s a byproduct of having reckless motor control, which creates more stress by hitting joint end ranges more frequently, and in turn, creates more tissue damage than you’d see with a strike-thrower with a higher level of coordination.

As the athlete continues to advance through the high school and college years, there only comes more societal pressure to perform at a high level, so, if you don’t have a sound base of movement, you better bear down now. This 16-20 age group is probably the most at-risk population because of how strength really begins to come into the mix, how the wear and tear of poor deliveries and overuse in the youth development systems start to reach threshold, and the increased level of exposure at year round events fuels the fire. This is usually when the majority of players begin to realize that they want to be baseball players and start to specialize in the sport at a higher rate, and with that comes an even more detrimental aspect: not clearly identifying your developmental calendar.

If baseball is the only sport you play in the HS/college years, it’s essential that you understand what the year-long developmental calendar looks like. If you don’t, and you live in a warm weather region, you could theoretically start playing “spring season” games in January for your HS or college team and play into May/June. Once that season’s done, you would naturally transition right into your summer season, whether it be travel ball or a collegiate summer league and play another 45-60 games through July/August.

Once that season is over, the HS players who would normally shut it down and play another sport are now inundated with showcases and camps from every different angle, as well as fall leagues that run into November. The college athlete has his fall season, which is usually another six weeks of competitive baseball activity somewhere between September and November, and that leaves us with the window of November to January. This is where we’d normally be dormant, but now we have showcases and tournaments to attend to make sure the scouts and schools know who we are. And, college coaches are reluctant to shut pitchers down less than 10-12 weeks out from the start of a season.

Is it really a surprise that pitchers are getting hurt?

If you don’t step back and be sensible about this developmental process, your train will get derailed somewhere, so you have to set some clear boundaries.

For all of our athletes, it starts by encouraging them to get the ball totally out of their hand for 8-12 weeks of no-throwing each year. Now, this might sound excessive to some, but it still leaves you approximately 300 days of the year to work on your throwing. If you can’t get better in the other 300 days, you’re probably misusing this other 8-12 weeks anyways!

Aside from that, we typically try to adhere to keeping our high school pitchers under 100 competitive innings on the mound, and hopefully more like 80. So, as a HS athlete, if you compete from Feb/March until July/August as your two main competitive seasons, that allows you to shape your September-Feb/March in a multitude of ways. If college camps/showcases are an important aspect of your development so you can reach the next level, then make sure you give yourself adequate time to prepare for them. Going 0-60mph in these events is a recipe for injury, as we know the kids who attend more showcases end up getting hurt at a higher rate. If you’re aware of this and use the lead-up time and structure your throwing schedule properly, and understand the drastically different warm-up component at these events, you can likely head off some of these issues.

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If you’re a college athlete, you have to consider where your most important development is going to come. Obviously, the spring is a constant, but depending on how many innings you throw, and what level of development your college team offers, the fall season may be more important than simply adding another 60 innings in a summer league. So, you have to weigh out what makes more sense. Take the summer months and work on your strength base, while allowing your body to recover from a heavy workload, so you can be ready to continue developing in the fall; Or, play competitively in the summer for increased exposure and in-game development in a competitive summer league and then take the fall off from throwing. Too many times guys will throw 80+ innings for their college team in the spring and then another 50+ in the summer and now you’re carrying 130+ innings into the fall, which is a crucial time for your college pitching coach to develop your throwing ability or work on pitching skills in a controlled environment unlike the spring schedule or even the consolidated winter build-up.

The pro side might be the most cut and dry schedule wise, because you’re typically starting spring training in Mid-Feb/March and playing until September/October. It only becomes a little murky when you consider that some prospects have to attend instructional leagues in September/Oct or play in the Arizona Fall league, leaving a smaller window of off-season development. They may also need to pay bills so a winter league becomes more attractive. With that said, they have a nice window of time from September through February, which is crucial for them to get the ball out of their hand for an extended period of time and get their cuff strength back, while working on a general foundation of movement before they start the slow build-up back towards the season.

Obviously, there are some different concerns in the world of professional development where you’re constantly weighing the risk/reward for implementing certain training stimuli on both the strength training front and throwing program design side of things since these guys are generally already very successful at their craft. But, with how long their season is, and how quick they ramp up bullpens in spring training, it becomes essential they make good use of their window from September through February to avoid being a victim of the early season wrath we see unfold every year, as depicted by the charts below (click to expand):

chart
Sources: Epidemiology of Major League Baseball Injuries and
Incidence of Injuries in High School Softball and Baseball Players, respectively.

We could obviously go on and on here and not cover all of our bases on specific developmental concerns, so it’s important we reiterate the main driver behind all of this.

We’re going to continue to have arm issues in the sport of baseball if we insist on pushing the boundaries of the human species to see how much performance we can get out of these players. The money in the game is so large, and velocity has become such a huge component of success for these players and organizations, that the industry of baseball from top to bottom will constantly be looking to develop more of it.

The only problem is that the means for attaining this beloved velocity needs to be individualized and it’s such a complex recipe that goes beyond what you’re looking at in the present moment. It keeps every outing on short rest or poor warm-up before a cold rainy start on file, so you need to follow the body of work as best as you can to know where the next step needs to be for each athlete. Too many people are treating this like it’s a sprint from one MPH checkpoint to the next.

Slow down, be sensible about the developmental process, and just realize that this day and age, if you want to throw hard, there’s enough information out there to point you in the right direction. The key to all of this though, isn’t necessarily who can simply throw hard anymore, it’s who can stay on the field the most consistently while doing it, and for some reason, people don’t seem to be as willing to listen to that information.

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.


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