Velocity Training: Perfecting the Overhead Medball Throw

Plyometric training is a key component to developing explosive power that can be applied to the throwing motion. This revelation is nothing new – coaches have been using medicine ball drills for years, but a vast majority of athletes miss the boat when it comes to performing these movements properly, losing out on some of the biggest benefits of these exercises. Not only that, many athletes have no clue how to progress medicine ball throws once they have mastered the basics – do you add weight? Do more reps? Let’s cut through the crap and make you an expert on one of the most effective medball drills for pitchers that you’ve probably been doing wrong:

What We Know:

  1. Elite level throwers effectively transfer their bodyweight from back leg to front leg, while minimizing energy leakage up the kinetic chain.
  2. Front leg bracing and upper body extension out over the front leg are positively correlated with elite velocity.
  3. The more seamlessly leg drive can transition into hip rotation > lead leg bracing > explosive torso flexion/rotation out in front, the higher the exit ball velocity will be.
  4. Maxing out each segment in the kinetic chain not only requires a certain level of mobility at the ankle, hip, thoracic and shoulder segments, but it involves the athlete feeling comfortable enough getting in extreme positions that often test the end ranges of their mobility.
fernandorodneyseparation

Elite velocity requires athletes being comfortable not just getting into positions that test the end range of their mobility, but rapidly generating force from these positions.

 

Enter the overhead medball throw:

This overhead medball progression is not a substitute for actual skill practice, but it will help teach basic weight shift, full extension of the rear leg and torso at release, along with training the throwing specific musculature in coordinated and ballistic fashion.

–A properly performed medball throw does these 3 things–

  1. At some point, all of the weight should be over the back leg. The torso should be “stacked” or in a slightly extended position
  1. During weight shift, the hips lead the way. The torso should lag behind until foot plant, as energy flows from the ground up, “one vertebrae at a time,” with the goal of releasing the ball out over the front foot.
  1. While accelerating the ball forwards, keep the elbows flexed to 90 degrees or more, palms facing in. It should look like an overhead soccer throw, not a watermelon being flung from a catapult.

Progression #1: Static Split Stance Slam

Start in split stance with weight on back leg and arms fully extended overhead. Drive from the hips and finish out front.

Progression #2: Rock Back Slams

Start with ball extended out in front, rock back to rear leg and accelerate ball from the ground up.

 

Progression #3: Walk-Into Slams

Start with stride leg forward, step into throw while keeping upper body sequencing.

 

Progression #4: Run and Guns

Description: 10-15 foot run up, maintaining proper sequencing and explosiveness.

 

What not to do:

  • Do not go excessively heavy on medball throws. It’s a body positioning, explosiveness and energy transfer drill, not a strength exercise. As a 6’3” 215lb professional pitcher, I tend to use a 2kg ball, never exceeding 3kg on these. For youth athletes, a 1-2kg ball should suffice. When athletes start getting into 4, 5 or even 6kg balls, movement quality and speed tend to suffer, negating many of the benefits of the exercise.
  • Do not throw the ball with zero intent. While your first few throws can and should be done at less than max intensity, once you have the feel for the weight shift and the positions that day, gear up and let it fly. Plyometric exercises done half-speed lose meaning, because the entire point is to build explosiveness and the stretch-reflex response within the targeted tissues.
  • Do not sacrifice movement quality to throw hard. Your intensity must still be properly sequenced and applied. A full effort throw should look smooth and fluid up until the final “pulldown” phase of the throw as the torso begins extending out over the front leg. Again, let the lower half initiate the movement towards the wall, and feel the energy flow from bottom up before letting it fly.

Understanding Internal Motivation – Driveline Baseball’s History

On occasion, this blog can get a bit too heady with the science jargon and lack of personal feel, and I don’t want it to turn into that. So today, instead of talking about the issues that typical players have, I’ll try to relate to you the challenges I’ve faced to show you that there are plenty of doubters and haters in all areas of the game.

When I first started Driveline Baseball, I had recently been fired as a coach at Roosevelt HS. I remember it fondly, because the head coach of the Varsity had gone 1-19 with his program and the Junior Varsity similarly only won a single game. Meanwhile, my assistant Jacob and I won nearly half of our games on the Freshman team despite the roster being gutted by the JV program. The reason given was: “I want to bring in more guys who played at a higher level.” Nice reasoning, considering how well that worked for the guys above me…

The first post to this site was in 2009. I smile when I read the quick blurb I wrote and marvel in the fact that it’s already been four and a half years – it seems like it was just yesterday, but it also reminds me of the fact that I started off in my North Seattle townhome garage, training a pair of high school athletes.

Power Cage: The Garage

The humble beginnings

While I worked during the day as a slave to a desk as a software developer, I read as much as I could on training – ordering books from Amazon, pilfering studies from PubMed, and iterating my training logs with the small group of kids I had (fewer than 5 at this point). It was a stroke of luck that my partner Jacob received a set of weighted baseballs from 4-11 oz. from Frozen Ropes incorrectly when he was trying to get a 2 lb. ball for drills we had integrated into our throwing program. At this point in my life, I hadn’t thought much about weighted balls in that range of weight, but I decided to give them a test run. I could go into massive detail on the free study groups I ran and research groups I had to herd, but suffice to say the results were so good that we eventually became well-known for that kind of training and eventually designed and had our own types of weighted balls manufactured.

At about this time, my pitching mechanics blog (Driveline Mechanics) had been shut down by SB Nation because I had stopped updating it. Some readers loved what I did, but many others hated me, resorting to pretty mean insults and accusations that I had never studied biomechanics in college and had never played the game, so I was a nobody – a fraud. I had lost faith in what I was writing and let the crowd get to me – it would be the last time I would let this happen. Interestingly enough, at least one company out there plagiarized my hypotheses and now sells draft analysis services based on my writings from 5+ years ago – with no change in philosophy.

Our First Facility

We had a small breakthrough in 2010, moving our meager equipment into the North Seattle Batting Cages and partnering with their organization. Our weight room was the size of a chicken coop, about 10 feet x 20 feet, but we trained hard and loved it all the same.

GHR / Back Extension

Despite being listed as a coach on the facility website, I was overlooked – constantly. I had never played professional baseball and my last gig was being fired as a coach of a bad high school team, and we hadn’t yet turned out any athletes. The first guy to 90 MPH was Joe Marsh; I remember it like it was yesterday. I couldn’t believe that we had finally done it, yet I still had people telling me I would amount to nothing. All the while I was doing this (and losing money, mind you), I was working my full-time job during the day, which I really despised. But I needed that money to feed my family, and with a son on the way, I couldn’t afford to straight up lose money full-time.

At this point, I knew I would have to partner with a larger facility with an established base of players to expand. Through the help of one of my Internet fans (whose son now trains with me), I ended up becoming the head trainer at RIPS Baseball in 2012.

RIPS Baseball – Lessons Learned

RIPS Baseball

RIPS Baseball

I worked at RIPS Baseball and helped them move facilities from 2012-2013, meeting a way more serious group of baseball players. Some of my training ideas were well-accepted, though others were not. One of the parents of the athletes encouraged me to manufacture my own line of weighted baseballs, which ended up becoming an incredible success and was the cornerstone of the Driveline Baseball Online Shop. However, it was here that I started to meet coaches who stopped necessarily ignoring me and started actively undermining our business.

Driveline Baseball started to attract better and better talent, including athletes like Michael Fairchild (Asuza Pacific University) and Chris Carns (Decatur HS, committed to Seattle University), both RIPS Baseball players. Michael increased his top fastball velocity to 93 MPH and Chris touched 92 MPH while training with me (neither train with me at the time of this writing), and word started to spread – yet all the while, doubters shifted their attack from “it doesn’t work” to “Kyle will hurt kids arms.”

The last statement really hurt me. I had suffered very painful arm injuries while pitching in my past, and I knew that if I was to coach athletes, that injury prevention HAD to be at the top of mind for everything we did. When our first athlete suffered a shoulder injury (sidelined him for six weeks), I invited his Physical Therapist to visit my training facility and evaluate what we did. He was incredibly impressed by all the detail we took in screening athletes and trying to keep them healthy! He did give us some great ideas moving forward; ideas that persist today.

When Trevor Bauer (Indians), Jack McGeary (Dodgers), and Ryan Chapman (Mets) flew to Seattle to work with me, the reaction from my fellow coaches was not one of happiness for me, but rather jealousy and confusion. “Why would these professional athletes work with him,” they no doubt thought.

Pro Studying

What we did – and still do today – is so different from the paths that other coaches take that they simply cannot process it in their minds. I make no excuses for this and I will not apologize. Simply put: Our results are better than theirs, and this is the ultimate source of frustration for them.

Given that reaction, I knew I had to find my own place, because the acrimony was reaching new levels.

Our Own Place

After being ousted from RIPS Baseball, I interviewed with Mike Brooks at the NW Sports Center in Puyallup, WA, and eventually struck a deal to take some unused upstairs space. Our business was still breaking even – at best – so we couldn’t afford much, but Darren Larson (owner) and Mike worked with me and we figured it out. It was this move that absolutely skyrocketed our business potential.

Biomechanics Lab

No longer hamstrung by fellow coaches and bureaucracy, my research took off. My biomechanics lab became fully functional, I installed a synchronized four-camera system to analyze pitching mechanics with the click of a mouse, I got EMG sensors to evaluate training efficiency of our exercises, and most of all, the results continued to accelerate. Through it all, clients that I thought were fiercely loyal would abandon me, coaches in this facility would look up at our training space and tell their kids to never visit me, and high school coaches would hold vendettas against my players because they simply feared what they did not know – and ultimately, they were scared that a 30-year old could gain so much traction so quickly in their hotbed of baseball talent – the South Puget Sound League.

The release of The Dynamic Pitcher – the elite book on training youth pitchers – was incredibly successful, blowing all my expectations out of the water in the first two weeks of sales.

I started consulting with an MLB organization after a year of negotiations and also started consulting for a major Pac-12 baseball program which leads many categories in pitching as I write this blog post. Players across all levels love the program that I design for them, even if their teammates think they are weird.

So, what’s the message? All of my successes have been born out of a process of iteration – constantly hypothesizing, testing, evaluating, and beginning the cycle anew. The haters from five years ago are no longer around, and even if they are, I feel no need to hunt them down and shove their nose in my success. The last point is why I am often called an “anti-motivational” speaker; I believe that if you are in need of YouTube motivational videos or enemies to prove wrong, you will never be successful.

I got into this business after reading Moneyball, like so many other baseball nerds. But what I took from the book was far more powerful and far more spiritual than simply understanding the value of walks and seeing the beauty of sabermetrics (which I love, for the record). No, what brought me to tears and frustrated me to no end was reading Scott Hatteberg’s chapter – the fact that this big league player was nearly erased from history without getting a second chance despite his obviously useful toolkit. For every Scott Hatteberg, I reasoned, there must be so many more that fall through the cracks without a real chance at developing as a big league baseball player.

I know for a fact that we can help pitchers who have fallen by the wayside or who never got their careers started on the right foot – the results speak for themselves. However, most of organized baseball does not see it this way. And what drives me is the knowledge that this Holy Grail of Pitching Development – turning non-prospects into prospects, restoring the life of a former big league arm, and developing amateur talent – is attainable in my lifetime, and that I could really change the game of baseball.

Like Brad Pitt channeling Billy Beane said in the movie adaptation of Moneyball:

I’m not in it for a record, I’ll tell you that. I’m not in it for a ring. That’s when people get hurt.

Will I rejoice if the college team I work for wins the NCAA National Championship? Of course, I will probably throw some stuff around the office in joy. And if the MLB team I consult for wins the World Series with some of the pitchers that I helped develop, I will be incredibly happy.

But I didn’t get into the game to win a championship. I got into the game to change it. And so my advice to all the struggling high school, college, and pro players who can’t seem to find their way in this game (and it’s easy for that to happen given the quality of coaching out there), I leave you with this: You don’t play this game for the haters, your dumb coaches, the scouts who don’t like you. You play this game to iterate, to get better every single day, to become a better version of yourself every time you look at yourself in the mirror. In my experience, when you focus internally on why you got into this game and why you want to continue in it, great things eventually happen. Do not let others dictate your future, no matter how unorthodox your methods may be.

I leave you with a truly anti-motivational quote that I like to use from time to time when I am feeling particularly negative towards this game:

The average man will die, will not have a Wikipedia entry, and no one will remember him because he has done nothing notable with his life. So why let these men affect what you do?

Why We Don’t Teach Equal and Opposite (Or a Firm Front Side)

There are a lot of over-simplified cues when it comes to pitching mechanics in the hopes of making the art of throwing 90+ MPH with precision a simple task. Obviously this isn’t the case, considering how few people can actually do this, despite a massively growing industry of pitching instruction and coaching.

As far as we’re concerned, universal cues range from cute and worthless to terrible and worthless. There simply aren’t any good universal cues that involve positioning the body in specific areas and spaces, because not everyone has the same proprioceptive system. No two pitchers feel the same way about throwing a baseball, and no two pitchers have identical anatomical structures.

Let’s talk about two major cues that we’ll never use, and why.

Equal and Opposite

So first of all, the idea that pitchers that throw hard and throw strikes have equal and opposite arms can be immediately discredited by this image:

Jensen Lewis

This is Jensen Lewis, who pitched a few years in the big leagues as the setup man for the Cleveland Indians, and he threw 90+ with this unequal arm setup at stride foot contact (SFC). Others include Jake Peavy and even Greg Maddux (gasp).

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Anecdotally we’ve shown that “equal and opposite” isn’t a law when it comes to pitching mechanics. Scientifically and mechanically, it doesn’t make a lot of sense either. The combined high-speed GIF below is of David Robertson and Yu Darvish – frame rates not equal, I know. Watch their glove arm in respect to the throwing arm carefully.

Scapular Separation

What is the biggest thing that pitching coaches always talk about to improve velocity? Hip/shoulder separation, right?

Hip Shoulder Separation

But what’s so special about the hips and the shoulders? What about other corresponding body parts? After all, the kinetic chain is best optimized when the preceding body part is fully decelerated before the next body part in the chain is accelerated. (Think about elite pole vaulters and their strong block with the pole.)

How about… scapular separation?

Look above at Robertson and Darvish. Watch how their glove arm and throwing arm scapulae “disconnect,” as discussed in a previous blog post on our site: Disconnected Pitching Mechanics, a Good Thing? Their glove arms and throwing arms have a vast amount of separation despite throwing from two totally different postures – and both of them finish with strong rotation around the upper spine and a “glove pull” that doesn’t resemble a…

Firm Front Side

This is David Roberston after deceleration/recovery:

David Robertson

Not much of a firm front side, right? Same with Yu Darvish. But that’s how Robertson and Darvish are both able to gain good “extension” towards home plate – which is really just forward rotation of the shoulders – and throw the ball with less casting of the pitching arm:

Yu Darvish Forward Rotation

The “glove-blocking” firm front side pitching myth absolutely kills shoulder angular rotational velocity, which is by far the most important component in creating the 90+ MPH fastball. When you use standard 30 frames-per-second (FPS) video or take stills from Google Images, yeah, it absolutely looks like there is a glove block and the chest goes to the glove. But that’s not what’s actually happening – that is just a stop on the trip! Nolan Ryan didn’t have a strong block with the chest out front after deceleration:

Nolan Ryan

Aside from killing velocity, control problems can be created and/or made worse by the idea that we should finish with a firm front side and/or a good fielding position (I won’t even get into that garbage argument). When the glove arm deceleration is not sequenced properly in the pitching delivery, residual acceleration will pull the cervical spine (neck) around and off line from the target. While gaze tracking studies don’t show that locking the eyes on the target has anything to do with throwing strikes (yet another myth), pulling the head off line prematurely will vary the release point and screw up a finely-tuned sense of proprioception, which basically any “hands-on” mechanical cue will do. Additionally, stopping the deceleration short by finishing in a good position and blocking the front side will unnecessarily stress both the anterior/posterior shoulder as well as the muscles of the neck.

Trevor Bauer wanted to discuss this issue when he trained at my facility, so we took a bunch of high-speed video of massive improvements in this regard. After working on the disconnection of the glove arm scapula away from the pitching arm scapula, he was able to reproduce an excellent high-level pattern that should set him up for vastly improved control, velocity, and health:

Trevor Bauer

(That’s a two-pound medball in Trevor’s left hand to overload the proprioceptive map, and pro client Jack McGeary in the background.)

By the way, his testimonial on our training methods:

Besides being one of the best follows on Twitter, the knowledge I picked up from Kyle has and will continue to prove invaluable in my pursuit of becoming the best pitcher I can be. His understanding of what movement patterns and training modalities lead to a healthy and durable pitcher is truly world class.

As Paul Nyman once said, “we are only capable of seeing what we are capable of seeing.” Tom House disciples and advocates of the towel drill will look at the above image and see a firm front side and a glove blocking pattern, while those who believe in the power of rotation will see a nearly-perfectly decelerated glove arm that allows Trevor to keep his head on-line with the target.

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    Locating Up in the Zone – Better for Amateur/Recreational Pitchers

Locating Up in the Zone – Better for Amateur/Recreational Pitchers

Pitchers at all levels of the game are told to locate their pitches in the bottom half of the zone so they can get hitters to swing over the top of the pitch and produce ground balls. As everyone knows, ground balls are the best way to prevent runs, since you can’t hit ground balls over the fence and it’s tough to hit them into the gaps for extra bases. Apologies to all coaches of youth, high school, and many college pitchers, but: You’re wrong. Pitchers should locate their fastballs and breaking balls in the top half of the zone to get the most success when competing against average youth, high school, and most college hitters.

Ground Balls: Be Careful What You Wish For

It’s happened to everyone – including me – you get a ton of ground balls, your defense boots the ball around, you end up giving up 1 or 2 earned runs but a plethora of unearned runs. When your coach comes and pulls you from the game, he says: “Nothing you could have done, kid. Defense just didn’t play behind you,” pats you on the butt, and tells you to get your running in.

Kyle's May 14th Start

Bad luck. Or was it?

Your teammates apologize for booting that easy ball in the hole, for not picking that ball at first base, and dropping that easy double play opportunity. Being a good teammate, you say “Ah, it happens. Get ‘em next time.” Then while running your poles, you reflect on how particularly unlucky you were that day. If only Bobby hadn’t lost that ball in the sun and Roger didn’t sail that ball from shortstop, you would have gotten out of that long inning. But were you unlucky? Think about it: You did everything you were supposed to – get a few strikeouts, not walk too many, and got a lot of ground balls. And what were you rewarded with? Hasn’t this happened before? What if you got fly balls instead? Don’t hitters swing and miss on your fastballs up in the zone – and when they make contact, don’t they often go for fly ball outs? How many home runs does the entire school have, anyway? Four? But what’s the team batting average – .380? Here are the two major reasons you want to get ground balls at the MLB level:

  1. Sluggers often hit fly balls over the fence.
  2. Defense at the MLB level is insanely elite.

Think about those reasons for a minute. Do either of those reasons apply to your high school league? What do you think the average HR rate on fly balls is in your league? I guarantee it’s not 11%. (MLB Average HR/FB rate.) We’ve already established defenders at the HS/College level are orders of magnitude worse than the Dominican and Venezuelan infielders of MLB (to say nothing of the local product), so why are you applying a heuristic to a completely different game?

Tons of data and a shattered myth after the jump…