If you’ve paid any attention to the MLB season this year, you know Craig Kimbrel’s name. He’s the flame-throwing closer in the lights-out bullpen of the Atlanta Braves, also featuring deadly setup man Johnny Venters.

Craig KimbrelCraig Kimbrel has the ninth-highest fastball velocity amongst all relievers in the big leagues in 2011, just ahead of Jason Motte of the Cardinals and right behind Brandon League of the Mariners. According to Fangraphs’ pitch values, Kimbrel has the fourth-best slider amongst relievers, behind his teammate Johnny Venters – who features the best slider in the game.

So you know that Kimbrel and Venters are both lights out and have lightning in their arms. But what you might not know is that this dynamic duo almost never came to be: Kimbrel’s foot was broken into pieces at age 18. Heading into that injury, Kimbrel was throwing in the upper 80′s and had a commitment to a junior college. So how did he get to become one of the hardest-throwing relievers in baseball?

There are three great points that Joe Lemire’s article brings up, and they are:

Optimizing Top-Half Mechanics Through Backchaining

When Kimbrel broke his foot and was unable to walk, let alone throw a baseball from his feet, he took to throwing long toss from his knees:

Unable to put weight on his foot, much less pitch, Kimbrel arrived at school and took to long tossing from his knees. Soon, he was able to cover the length of a football or soccer field.

“It’s kind of weird to say that breaking your foot is the best thing that could happen to you, but it seems like it ended up working out that way,” said Kimbrel, who is now the closer for the wild-card-leading Braves and a virtual lock to win NL Rookie of the Year honors. “It helped me understand how I move my upper body. Once I started using my lower body, it all came together.”

The understanding and strengthening that came with Kimbrel’s forced isolation of his upper body and lower body led to dramatically improved performance.

Kimbrel learned how to optimize his arm action through what is commonly called “constraint training,” where part of your body is intentionally held back (constrained) in order to get an athlete to focus on a specific part of a movement. Too much constraint training can constitute “part training” where the partial movements are never integrated into the full movement, but not doing any at all will confuse an athlete. Trying to explain the nuances of arm action or ball release while a pitcher is going through his full mechanics off a mound is impossible.

By having a built-in constraint, Kimbrel forced himself to figure out how to throw a baseball with enough force to cover a football field from his knees, which is even one hell of an accomplishment for a guy from his feet! When Kimbrel could integrate his more efficient arm action into his previous lower half mechanics, he saw a big jump in his fastball velocity.

Importance of Training Year-Round

In Lemire’s article, he says:

Kimbrel, who played both baseball and football at Lee High in Hunstville, Ala., said he previously weight-trained only in summers and falls for football and would lose all that he gained during winters and springs; at Wallace State he trained year-round.

This is extremely common amongst prep athletes and really not all that rare in the professional ranks, either! You have many organizations telling athletes to take 6-12 weeks completely off of training, which robs them of a ton of valuable training time and also causes atrophy in the body. Resting for no reason is atrophy, pure and simple. It’s one thing to tell 9 year olds to stop throwing baseballs in the winter because of growth plate fracture concerns and another thing to tell a 17 year old heading into his senior year of high school to simply lose 3 months of training time. That could be the difference between a college scholarship and completely washing out of post-secondary baseball entirely, and it’s irresponsible.

Doing What it Takes to Make it

Kimbrel was a decent high school pitcher going to a junior college, throwing in the upper-80′s. He suffered a traumatic injury that most people would simply sit on the sidelines for and wait until it healed, hoping to get back into fall ball where their velocity would undoubtably be in the low-80′s at best. Then the hypothetical person in Kimbrel’s shoes would probably get passed over a starting spot and get stuck in the back of the bullpen for his freshman year – a huge blow to his chances to make pro or Division-I baseball by wasting a full year of junior college.

Instead, Kimbrel went to the field and threw baseballs out of a bucket across a football field. And I’m sure there were times he didn’t have a partner to throw to, and he threw a bucket of baseballs across the field and hopped on some crutches to pick them up afterwards.

That kind of obsessive dedication to practice is what it takes to turn a decent player into a big leaguer, and it exists in few individuals. If you don’t have it, you won’t make it unless you are god’s gift to throwing a fastball – and chances are good that you aren’t if you’re reading this blog.

Next time you skip batting practice or long toss in favor of hanging out with friends or playing Xbox, think about what others are willing to do to take your job.

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