Control Problems on the Mound? It’s Not Always “Mental.”

How many times have you heard these lines?

  • “It’s a mental issue.”
  • “He has the yips.”
  • “He lost the ability to throw strikes.”
  • “It’s all in his head.”
  • “He’s mentally weak.”

They’re catch-all phrases that hope to capture the essence of why a pitcher like Daniel Bard can put up these kinds of insane runs:

It’s generally assumed that pitchers like Bard simply lose it mentally and can’t throw strikes because of some ephemeral issue that no one can pinpoint. Let me state for the record that this kind of thing DOES happen, but very often it’s actually an underlying physiological issue, not a mental/psychological one (or at least one rooted in those areas). Daniel Bard can still throw 95+ MPH – just like a handful of my pro clients who were throwing at their top velocities despite spraying the ball all over the place. None of them reported pain, soreness, or weakness – so it couldn’t be physical, right?

Unfortunately, that’s not how it always works.

First, let’s take a closer look at just how hard it is to throw strikes.

A Matter of Timing

Throwing a five ounce baseball with raised seams to a catcher at a target of your choosing is not exactly the easiest thing to do, yet the actual physics-to-performance marriage goes largely unexamined. Here’s two slow-motion videos shot from the side and overhead to capture the two main planes that the arm’s trajectory is on (capturing internal rotation, elbow extension, and trunk rotation). Aaron West is on the left, Taiki Green is on the right.

Aaron West vs. Taiki Green

The distal wrist of the pitching arm (and therefore, the ball) is on a weird curvilinear path around the body that is very individual to the pitcher in question. However, for simplicity’s sake to understand the basic geometry behind throwing strikes, we’ll make the arm path a simple circle below:

Tangent Arc

Imagine the black circle is the arm path and the blue line with points A and B is the ball’s trajectory. This is a line drawn tangent to the arc, and this is how a ball is thrown from the arm path. A line drawn tangent to a circle has only one point of intersection (inflection point).

So, now that the basic geometry lesson is over, here’s how it relates to throwing a baseball at a target – a baseball is ejected from the hand at a “release point” that has just one point of intersection with the hand (the moment of separation between the baseball and the hand, usually the middle finger). Now imagine that the circle above is rotating at something like 4500 degrees per second (internal rotation) but is also being deformed at up to 2500 degrees per second by increasing the radius of the circle (elbow extension), and you have a good idea of just how difficult it is to “repeat” your mechanics. (Take a look at an interactive display – change the point on the circle just slightly, and see how much the tangent line deviates.)

Actually, when you think of it that way, how is it even possible to repeat your mechanics? How is it possible that professional pitchers can hit their target on a somewhat regular basis? Mathematically, it seems to require superhuman reaction speeds and timing ability.

Physiologically, the body is one hell of a weapon.

Proprioception is Everything

Your body has the ability to automatically and unconsciously sense and control motor units in a complex way to perform incredibly difficult tasks – like ballistically ejecting an object at 90+ MPH towards a target with some degree of precision. Your body uses a set of levers (bones), pulleys (muscles, tendons, ligaments), and a central processing unit (brain, nerves installed in the muscles) to coordinate everything together to make minute changes that are impossible to consciously repeat. This is the genesis of the so-called “10,000 hour rule” as made popular by Outliers, and the MUCH better book by Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated.

Proprioception is the sense of the relative position of various body parts in relation to one another, usually while they are being moved. This is a generally automatic function of the body – you don’t think about firing the muscles of the upper leg in relation to the lower leg while you’re walking, nor do you think about expanding your chest manually when you breathe. When the body is damaged, there may be a temporary loss of proprioception, but the feedback given to the nervous system generally makes quick adaptations and allows for quick recovery.

For healthy pitchers, this is why we do a lot of overload/underload training using wrist weights, PlyoCare balls, and Driveline Elite Weighted Baseballs. By forcing the body to adapt to new stimuli through similar ranges of motion (and with vastly different ballistic profiles), the motor units of the pitching arm become more efficient.

However, for injured pitchers, it’s a completely different story – and that includes both pitchers who were previously injured and are now healthy in addition to pitchers who are injured but display no symptoms of injury.

Rebuilding Proprioception Through Rehabilitation – Early Intervention is Key

Rehabilitation of previously injured pitchers is far more complex than sending them to physical therapy after surgery and “returning to function” based on strength and skill tests. A pitcher who has had UCL graft/replacement (Tommy John surgery) will now have holes drilled in his arm plus a brand new tendon in place of the original ligament, not to mention severe cuts to the pronator/flexor mass that were required to get to the connective tissue in the first place.

Tommy John

Retraining the pitcher’s proprioceptive ability is similar to what we do with our healthy pitchers, though the focus is generally more on partial and constraint movements that get backchained into the full throwing motion. By using overloaded drills to help force the body to feel the proper movement patterns to more safely generate velocity, we can start the primary programming of the interval throwing program off with an accelerated pace. It is critical that when the athlete starts interval throwing that he immediately starts these simple and safe drills, because the minute a pitcher picks up a baseball, he will revert to primary programming – even if that programming is detrimental to his arm’s health. Furthermore, primary programming is not always applicable, because leftover proprioceptive sense believes the ligament is in one place, the forearm flexors have sufficient strength, the biceps work in a certain way…

Get where I’m going with this? Is it any wonder that a pitcher who seems “healthy” after surgery has ridiculous control problems? It may partially be due to psychological fear of getting on a mound and “cutting loose,” but often it is due to proprioceptive failure. Remapping the proprioceptive senses is incredibly important, and one that is often lost in the physical therapy world. Even if the PT uses Bosu Balls or other unstable surfaces to work on proprioceptive sense, these are not sport-specific and have little to no carryover to ballistic training.

Rebuilding and Regaining Control

For athletes who have microtears in their ligaments or otherwise damaged tissues that they cannot feel – ligaments have poor blood supply and innervation – this can have a serious negative impact on their ability to throw strikes. The proprioceptive mapping of how to throw strikes may be on one setting but cannot adequately adjust to the new situation of slightly damaged tissue that presents no symptoms to the central nervous system. This is why pitchers who have destabilization of the elbow tend to display control/command issues well before their UCL ruptures, even if their velocity does not significantly drop in the process.

Close monitoring of these markers should be done by all professional teams, and athletes themselves should integrate proprioceptive remapping exercises into their training.

The next time you think your favorite pitcher has simply “lost his marbles” and has developed “Steve Blass disease,” consider that maybe he has a serious injury that is simply asymptomatic. Just because he doesn’t feel pain doesn’t mean he’s not hurt – and that’s one of the most frustrating things any athlete can go through.

College Training Sessions – Spots Open

This summer’s been an absolute blast so far – with Trevor Bauer doing well in the big leagues (throwing strikes, velocity staying up), two of our HS kids being drafted (Drew Rasmussen and Gage Burland), three of our Oregon State guys being drafted (Jace Fry, Ben Wetzler, and Scott Schultz), and our facility expansion adding 5,000+ square feet, it’s been awesome.

College summer training sessions are well underway, with many college arms currently in the facility with others planning on attending after summer ball wraps up. Here’s a quick video I shot from a recent workout that shows off the serious and the lighter side of our training:

You’ll note the guy in yellow hitting 99 MPH on a pulldown – I’m afraid to say that’s underselling it, since Joe Mello of Lewis-Clark State actually hit 100.6 MPH after that!

Joe Mello - 100 MPH

If you’re interested in joining our Elite Pitcher Program for a week or two in the summer, don’t hesitate to contact us for more information. We’d love to have you out here.

Summer 2014 Training Period – News and Notes

The high school season is nearly complete, with Driveline athletes still looking to dominate at 2A (Elijah Hill – Tumwater HS), 3A (Taiki Green, Zach Lewandowski, Grant Townsend – Bonney Lake HS; Drew Rasmussen – Mt. Spokane HS), and 4A (Brendan Illies, Tyler McDowell, Lane Griffin, Jacob Hegland, Tim Reynolds – Puyallup HS) conference playoffs still underway. We wish them all the best and hope for some 1-0 games!

Summer training period is about to start on the first week of June, and we are having two all-hands / open house meetings at the NW Sports Center / Driveline Baseball complex in Puyallup, WA. These are free to attend and will be on the following dates/times:

  • Monday, June 2nd: 7 PM – 8:30 PM
  • Tuesday, June 3rd: 4 PM – 5:30 PM

We’re extremely excited to talk about the new changes to the Elite Pitchers Program as a culmination of a ton of research and experimentation we’ve carried out over the fall/winter off-season training period and finalized over the spring school ball period. Some of the changes include:

  • Expansion of our training facility downstairs – adding 5,000+ square feet to our training area
  • New PlyoCare drills to maximize arm durability and optimize ball release pitching mechanics
  • Serious baseline testing and evaluation - iteration is the key word here
  • A more comprehensive strength and conditioning program involving free weights
  • Unlimited use of batting cages/tunnels as well as turf fields for position player work
  • Regular visits from Division-I pitching coaches from the Pacific Northwest and all around the nation

Take a look at some teaser screenshots of our programs:

Workout Demo

We’re also proud to announce that Oregon State finished with the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Division-I baseball tournament with a combined record of 42-12 and winning the Pac-12 outright. Oregon State’s pitching also dominated, with Driveline client Ben Wetzler taking the Division-I ERA title home with a ridiculous 0.76 mark (Jace Fry would finish #15 in the country) while Oregon State as a team finished #2 in ERA and #6 in WHIP in the entire country:

Oregon State Rankings

If that’s not enough to make you want to join the Elite Pitchers Program, we’ve got a truly unique spin that no one else can offer – we are now distributing programs, videos, and research data on computer tablets that are provided for use in the facility DURING workouts:

Tablets Driveline

Yes, that’s right – we have four tablets that are connected to the Internet running Android, and every single one of them connects to the cloud and automatically downloads all new client video shot in the Driveline Sports Science lab, placing video files under specific client folders. From the tablets, videos and workouts can be sent to any email address for at-home analysis or referral to college coaches and pro scouts.

All of this is available for just one low monthly cost and includes:

  • Unlimited use of the Driveline Baseball facility
  • Unlimited use of Driveline PlyoCare and Elite Weighted Baseball sets
  • Unlimited use of the weight room, turf field, batting cages, and pitching tunnels
  • Unlimited use of the tablets and video lab for in-depth analysis of your pitching mechanics and weight lifting form
  • …and so much more

We’ll be open five days per week here, and we’re expecting about 15-25 college arms training here from all over the country, including athletes from North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, California, Oregon, Hawaii, and British Columbia.

You won’t want to miss this. Request more information by emailing kyle@drivelinebaseball.com, or better yet, show up to one of the all-hands / open house meetings on Monday or Tuesday (shoot us an email if you plan on attending).

Professional Testimonials

I’ve been on the phone non-stop for the past two weeks setting up our winter training sessions for our professional athletes, which will include more than a handful of pitchers AND catchers with big league experience committed so far – and it’s only May! We’re capping our registration for pro athletes around 25-30, so if you want to sign up for the winter training sessions, please email me at kyle@drivelinebaseball.com ASAP.

Here’s what Casey Weathers had to say about our  training program after he ended up signing with the Tampa Bay Rays (read more about his comeback: The Reinvention of Casey Weathers – Restoring What Tommy John Took):

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.

While we strongly believe in our product and our services, it’s the hard work and crazy dedication of athletes like Casey that really show how successful our program can be.

Join us today. We’re always getting better, one day at a time – just like we ask our clients to do.

By |May 29th, 2014|News|0 Comments

Handling a Loaded Gun – Dealing with High-Velocity Pitchers

Matt Harvey. Jose Fernandez. Stephen Strasburg. Jameson Taillon. Lucas Giolito.

Those are just a few of the young fireballers in recent history who have had serious elbow issues. Pundits are quick to blame a whole rash of things – showcases, travel ball, an emphasis on velocity, pitching mechanics, and so many other topics. Teams come out of the woodwork and say how responsible they were in handling a young prospect, limiting his pitch counts and innings pitched in a season as if those are heavily predictive of a pitcher’s propensity for injury (they aren’t) and to shout to everyone: “We’re doing our job to keep them healthy – it’s really just a mix of bad luck and abuse as a youth pitcher that are causing the problems!”

Lucas Giolito

I’m not buying it. With a growing list of professional pitchers that we work with (as well as organizations we’ve done consulting work for), we know for a fact that the vast majority of modalities that can help keep a pitcher healthy are underexplored or totally ignored in professional baseball.

For example, a baseball team could collect tons of proprietary data on pitchers by installing a four-to-six camera system using off-the-shelf high-speed cameras and custom software to study the pitching mechanics of their guys as well as all of their opponents. From the qualitative data (discounting the real possibility of true on-the-fly markerless biomechanical analysis), studies could be performed to test the predictive power of certain angles and kinematics expressed in the delivery. If nothing else, this treasure trove of data would prove to be useful for the organization’s pitching coaches.

Additionally, studying recovery ability of pitchers is not something that is well-accepted at the professional level. There is a significant amount of training done to help strengthen the shoulder and rotator cuff, and as a result professional baseball is seeing fewer and fewer debilitating injuries to the scapular-shoulder complex. However, there has been a rash of elbow injuries that have been skyrocketing in recent years, and much of this has to do with the fact that little public research has been done on protecting the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL). There exist strong markers for elbow fitness that can be done both in-game and between games to judge the fitness level of the pitcher’s lower arm to see what the propensity for injury may be. Additionally, few (if any) teams have a good elbow strengthening program that helps to ingrain less stressful pitching mechanics without overt focus on changing the pitcher’s mechanical pattern – the ability to increase the fitness of the muscles that help dynamically stabilize the elbow while simultaneously tweaking a pitcher’s mechanics to reduce valgus stress would be a very useful tool indeed.

By handing professional baseball a bunch of very hard-throwing young pitchers, we are giving them the ability to get more guys out and to produce massive surplus value in pre-arbitration years. However, it’s like handling a loaded gun without knowledge of how to safely use it and how to care for the maintenance of the weapon. Is it any surprise that we see more and more injuries as a result?