Casey Weathers was the first round pick of the Colorado Rockies (8th overall) in 2007 after putting up incredible numbers at Vanderbilt – striking out 75 over 49.1 innings while allowing fewer than one hit + walk per inning pitched. Casey was throwing 95-97 MPH at the time with a wipeout slider, and was tagged as a fast-mover. In his first full season in Tulsa (AA), he was off to a good start, striking out a ton of hitters and getting very weak contact with his ERA hovering just around 3. He would hit 100+ MPH on several outings in the hot weather. He’d also throw in the 2008 Olympics for the United States, taking home the bronze medal for his efforts.
Things were good, until his command started to desert him, and it finally happened – his elbow hurt after throwing a pitch. He had an MRI done on his arm by the team doctor, which led to the following report:
There has been interval development of increased signal and poor definition of the mid to
proximal fibers of the anterior bundle of the medial collateral ligament compatible with
ligament rupture. There is mild edema in the adjacent flexor digitorum superficialis
muscle compatible with mild muscle strain injury.
Rupture of the anterior bundle of the medial collateral ligament as well as a mild strain
of the adjacent flexor digitorum superficialis muscle.
For those not aware what that means, it’s not good news. On October 20th, 2008, Casey Weathers had a follow-up meeting with Dr. Lewis Yocum to receive the official bad news, and eleven days later had his ulnar collateral ligament replaced. Tommy John surgery had struck yet another pitcher.
The Dark Side of Tommy John Surgery
On a late night rant about elbow reconstruction surgery, I said this:
The idea that TJ surgery is this simple 100% success rate operation is probably the most disgusting thing about the recent conversations.
— Kyle @ Driveline (@drivelinebases) May 16, 2014
Casey was one of the unlucky ones; the ones who don’t magically throw harder and have no problems after having major surgery on a body part that they lean on to earn a living. This is more common than you think – remember Kris Medlen? Ryan Madson? Jack Armstrong? Daniel Hudson? Andrew Brackman?
When you drill holes in the bone, cut into the soft tissue, and perform reconstructive surgery, serious complications can occur. We accept this as a fact of everyday life when it comes to major surgery on other body parts, like our heart or even rotator cuff, but many believe elbow surgery is this simple procedure that has no issues that come along with it. These people are wrong, and spreading this sentiment is very, very dangerous.
Casey complained of post-operative pain and obtained another MRI in March 2009, which found:
There is very mild bone edema along the graft tunnel in the ulna. Posterior to the intact graft there is a
small fragment of bone along the posterior inferior margin of the medial epicondyle
separated 2 mm from the condyle at the expected origin of the posterior band and in part
involving posterior bundle humeral attachment. There is surrounding granulation and/or
inflammatory tissue. There is adjacent remodeled sclerotic margin with mild deformity of
the adjacent tip of the medial malleolus again posterior to the graft. These changes are
best appreciated in entirety on coronal 17 sagittal 07/06. Linear band of soft tissue
inflammation and scar tissue extends along the posterior margin medial epicondyle as
well with elevation of the capsule 1-2 mm from the bone in this location, likely post-
Summary: Casey had a lot of post-operative problems with his elbow, primarily a bone spur that started to develop.
Throughout 2010, his rehabilitation continued to progress slowly. Casey would have a PRP injection in his elbow before the season, which did little to improve the situation. Casey wouldn’t throw in a game until late 2010 – nearly 20 months post-operation. And when he did, he would feel pain near the ball release phase of the delivery, and was walking a lot of guys despite his velocity nearly fully returning.
The list of pitchers who lose enough proprioception from elbow to fingertips is long and varied, yet Casey was – and others undoubtedly are – branded “mentally weak” for being unable to throw strikes.
However, research in the Driveline Sports Science lab shows that forearm fitness, endurance, and strength are strongly correlated with command. During elbow surgery, the flexor-pronator mass is sliced open, and during rehabilitation, it atrophies as the elbow is immobilized for months on end. Is it any wonder that so many athletes who have had Tommy John surgery return only to find their ability to throw strikes has completely abandoned them – despite the fact they may feel no different?
After pitching in 2011 and 2012 with ridiculous walk rates (including 53 free passes in 34 innings in 2012) and pain in his forearm, Casey had an MRI and exploratory surgery to confirm that the bone spur in his elbow was near the posterior aspect of the anterior bundle of the UCL, and though little to no damage was done to the UCL, this bone chip was causing serious issues in Casey’s arm. The loose bodies were removed and Casey would undergo rehab yet again, missing all of the 2013 season.
The Chicago Cubs notified Casey they would not be renewing his contract, and Casey signed with the San Francisco Giants for the 2014 season.
Teamless in Seattle – Work Begins
Though Casey took the 2013-2014 off-season seriously and trained very hard through his rehab period, he would show up to the Giants camp without his trademark velocity – throwing just 89-91 MPH and topping out at 92 MPH. His command wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t good either, and he was swiftly cut from the roster.
Casey’s teammate at Vanderbilt (Caleb Cotham, Yankees) had trained remotely with me over the 2013-2014 off-season and Caleb highly recommended that Casey email me for more information and to see if I could help restore his velocity.
On March 27th, Casey fired off an email to me stating his history, unsure of where to go from here. I responded that he was welcome to train here and that we just had two unaffiliated professionals leave our facility (previously with the Nationals and Phillies), so it was a good time to get some individual attention. After going over the training plans and fees, Casey committed to training here for an indeterminate amount of time with the minimum being around 2 weeks of full-time training. He expressed his fear of regressing back to having elbow pain once again, and I assured him that our program was first developed to help reduce short-term pain and hopefully ingrain long-term health, and through those methods, we believed velocity would be more easily developed.
So, knowing that he had two elbow surgeries – one just a few months prior – I naturally took it easy on him on his first day, right? Not exactly. Here’s what I said in an email to the Driveline Baseball Email List:
On day one, I had him throwing Driveline Elite Weighted Baseballs and Driveline PlyoCare Balls and took tons of high-speed video and radar readings of his throws. What the data revealed was obvious to me after thousands and thousands of repetitions of watching pitchers throw and marrying it to real research – Casey did not adequately control the direction, timing, and magnitude of extension of his pitching elbow. Further probing revealed that Casey had issues with hyperextension of the pitching elbow, which made total sense.
Yes, you read that correctly, I had Casey throwing one and two kilogram PlyoCare balls as well as 9 ounce weighted baseballs on the first day he was here. (After taking video of him in our biomechanics lab and showing him the lengthy warm-up / arm care protocol we have, of course.)
The look on his face after I told him to throw weighted baseballs as hard as he possibly could was pretty funny. Casey wasn’t argumentative, however, and he completed his first round of Ballistic Efficiency Testing, clocking a whopping 93 MPH on a maximum effort pull-down with a regular five-ounce baseball.
Not too impressive. But the spread of velocities told me something in addition to the high-speed video and four-camera synchronized video I shot – Casey was holding back. He was able to throw overloaded baseballs at a velocity far too close to a regular baseball, yet his underload throws were fairly standard. The arm strength was there – the reciprocal inhibition is what was killing him.
I showed him video of him in the Futures Game, of his draft video coming out of Vanderbilt, and the video we shot in the lab. I told him that he needed to be like the guy at Vanderbilt with just two mechanical tweaks that could be felt using our overload/underload training program using wrist weights and various weighted implements – so we started undoing all the “take it easy” programming he got in pro ball and started reprogramming his central nervous system using specifically crafted drills, including hundreds of throws at submaximal intensity of underload baseballs to develop the correct relationship between his throwing hand and his throwing elbow.
Restoring the velocity of a pitcher like Casey is a lot easier than it is to develop in a 16 year old high school pitcher. I told him on day one that I was extremely confident that we’d restore his velocity to close to what he was throwing at Vanderbilt, and if he continued to train using our methods, that he should be able to return to full strength while maintaining a healthy mechanical pattern. At this point, he was all for it.
He would throw a bullpen to one of my clients, Brendan Illies (Puyallup HS). In the bullpen, he sat 90-92 – not appreciably better than he was in Spring Training, but at least this was an indoor bullpen session and should expect to be better outdoors against hitters. Still, I wasn’t banking on it, and neither was Casey. He would show up 5-6 days a week to train individually and in a group setting with my other clients, many of them high schoolers. Every day he came in, he learned something new – rebounders to develop force acceptance, tons of use on the Marc Pro for electrical muscle stimulation, hundreds of reps using PlyoCare balls to develop proper mechanical patterns, and lifting a bunch of free weights to maintain his strength levels.
Then we’d evaluate and test, over and over again. Iteration is the key to success in our program, and Casey would be no different. His velocity began to pick up, and ten days after he began training here, progress was coming along:
— Casey Weathers (@caseymweathers) April 19, 2014
Not satisfied with those numbers, we scheduled another velocity testing day four days after the +10 day marker to officially cap off 2 weeks of training, and breakthroughs started to occur:
That’s more like it – 98.7 MPH isn’t too bad at all. Casey was throwing more often and with more intensity and never once complained about significant arm pain. Sure, he’d have the tweak here or there, but I reminded him that’s when he was regressing back into a painful pattern, and overloaded implements helped him explore the limits of those mechanical issues. When Casey was at his best, he was ripping off near 110 MPH underload throws at my face:
After a few indoor target sessions to work on his command – which was getting better all the time through proprioceptive improvement and virtually NO work on it specifically – I felt confident that he could throw to hitters and be successful. Through the gracious help of Coach Wiese at Puyallup HS, I arranged for Casey to throw to volunteers from Puyallup HS who were on their way to an undefeated season in the SPSL 4A league and earning themselves a top-25 national ranking in the process. I told Casey these kids could be a pain in the ass and that he should go right after them, after all, more than a handful of them had significant Division-I scholarships to schools like North Carolina, New Mexico, Washington, and Oregon State. He made some disparaging comments about the Pac-12 and ACC (being a former SEC closer, of course), but smiled and took the mound.
His command was significantly better than expected, and while his slider was a work in progress (watch the above video for one particularly nasty slider from the rear view – sorry, Adam Stump), his velocity had jumped up from the 89-91 MPH range he was at in Spring Training, touching 96 MPH.
We went back to work to develop arm strength and durability in addition to trying to eke out some more velocity gains. At this point, I emailed the various local scouts that I knew as well as some scouting directors I was friends with and told them about Casey’s resurgence. More than a few organizations were interested, and some fairly important people came out to see him at his last live hitters session (once again versus Puyallup HS) where his slider was incredibly sharp and he sat 94-95 MPH.
The End of the Beginning
Casey would return home with a parting gift in his travel bag – a full set of Driveline PlyoCare Balls, Elite Weighted Balls, and Jaeger Sports J-Bands for at-home training (all available in the Driveline Velocity and Arm Care MegaKit).
— Kyle @ Driveline (@drivelinebases) May 3, 2014
I sent him his remote training program so he could continue to work hard, and we stayed in frequent touch over a period of two weeks. I opened up a channel with his agent, Mark Pieper of Relativity Sports, as well as other scouts who previously expressed interest in Casey’s progress, until the inevitable happened – Casey would sign as a free agent on May 16th, 2014, with the Tampa Bay Rays – joining the organization that has treated his former Vanderbilt teammate so well, David Price.
I couldn’t be more happy for Casey. He truly embraced the facility’s motto – Rest is Atrophy – and set a great example for our high school athletes. He was ready to discard everything he thought he knew about training and was very open-minded about the entire process, asking tons of questions along the way to further his own understanding of the material in addition to simply training very hard to get better.
Whether or not Casey succeeds in professional baseball – and I’m betting he’ll do just fine – he’s already proven that velocity can be developed and restored safely, despite the fact that few coaches and trainers in the professional ranks think it can happen. And even if they believe it can happen, they sure as hell don’t think “weighted baseballs” are the way to do it, especially with guys who have had arm surgery (two, in Casey’s situation).
I look forward to seeing Casey this coming off-season to continue to work, especially alongside our ragtag group of professionals like Trevor Bauer. The crowd will be bigger this time around, but the spirit of the facility always remains the same – and that’s the real reason our program works.
Here’s what Casey had to say about his training time at Driveline Baseball – presented totally unedited:
I was nervous at first to start an intensive program like Kyle’s. After 2 elbow surgeries and Chronic elbow pain, how would my arm hold up to throwing weighted balls at maximum intensity? Within two weeks all of my concerns had been alleviated. Kyle has an advanced understanding of the research that is available in the biomechanics and pitching community. It impressed me even more how incredibly driven he is to continue to learn.
Kyle’s program brought me back from a guy scared to throw because I didn’t want to agitate my arm, to throwing with full intent every day and more volume than I had since 2007 in college. I spent the majority of my career protecting my arm and not using it. It felt great to actually practice with athleticism and purpose again. I really feel like Kyle gave that back to me and more.
He went above and beyond what a pitching coach could do for a player. I can’t thank Kyle enough for breathing life back into my career. I will continue to work with Kyle because I truly believe in the benefits of the program.