Ben Brewster is a left-handed pitcher on the University of Maryland’s baseball team, where he earned his spot by dominating his senior year of high school at The Park School. Ben recorded 88 strikeouts over 42.2 innings while walking only 11 guys and allowing just 3 earned runs his whole season. It didn’t come easily, though – Ben was a soft-tossing lefty as a sophomore in high school and trained his ass off to get to where he is today.
It’s a pretty long interview, so it’s split up into two parts. Be sure to read through it all!
Kyle Boddy (KB): Let’s start this interview by talking a little bit about where you’re playing baseball now.
Ben Brewster (BB): Sure. I actually came to Maryland unsure about whether or not I’d be playing baseball here. I was sidelined for most of my junior year of high school with a back injury, and as a result missed out on a lot of recruiting opportunities. I ended up deciding on Maryland because of the in state tuition, academic scholarships and #3 ranked kinesiology undergrad program. I ended up having a pretty good spring and decided to sign up for the June recruiting camp at Maryland. I pitched well and was offered a spot on the team after throwing 3 innings at the camp.
For me, there’s nothing more exciting than being a part of the team that redefines what Maryland baseball is all about, which from this point on will be winning. There are some great young and energetic coaches here fully dedicated to making all of us players the best that we can be. It’s been an entirely positive experience so far and every bit what I’d hoped college baseball would be.
KB: In June 2007 as a high school sophomore, you were throwing low-70’s. Today, you’re in the mid-80’s with your best bolt and pitching Division-I baseball in a tough conference. Mechanically, did you make any major changes?
BB: Freshman year of high school I didn’t really pay any attention to mechanics or conditioning my body. I was about 6’1” 150lbs and throwing maybe 73 on my absolute best fastball. I began to work on my mechanics a bit, but didn’t really know what I was doing. I also began to weight train, though I was equally clueless about what I was doing. Nonetheless, I persevered and somehow managed to get up to 6’2” 165lbs by the next year, hitting 81 mph from my near-sidearm delivery.
The summer before my junior year I decided that the awkward, jerky sidearm delivery I had would ultimately limit my potential. I decided that if I wanted to be successful I had to eventually throw 95 mph, and I certainly wouldn’t throw 95 from that arm slot.
I began to completely obsess over reworking each piece of my mechanics starting with the arm action and working backwards down the kinetic chain. To give you an idea, I spent 3 months doing arm action drills just to make sure my arm action was perfect. I video taped hundreds of throws, I radar gunned… and I was making progress… in a sense.
On the one hand, I had improved tenfold in many of the isolated drills I was practicing. I could snap throw 70-75 mph without moving my feet or turning my shoulders. That kind of velocity is just stupid for a drill like that, but I began to notice something. The more pieces of the delivery that I incorporated, the more I struggled to put everything together. From power position type drills without a lifting the front foot I could throw 82 mph, and yet both on the mound and with a running crow hop I struggled to consistently hit 83 mph (hit 85 mph on occasion).
What I failed to realize was that a lot of the drills I’d been doing worked in isolation but failed to carry over to the full delivery. Most 90 mph throwers probably couldn’t snap throw 75 mph like I could, and yet, I was the one who struggled to bring any appreciable velocity from the mound. What I needed was to spend more time just throwing and less time on drills.
My senior year was coming up so I decided to keep things as simple as possible – I’d pitch from a slide step and only out of the stretch. After all, the windup doesn’t really have much purpose and most pitchers can throw just as hard from a slide step if they load the hips right.
I started out the season in that 81-83 range, hitting 85, and by the end of the season had become comfortable enough with my mechanics that I was sitting 83-85 hitting 87 mph once or twice.
My mechanics regressed a little bit over the summer, and this past fall I underwent some arm action changes that led to my arm slot dropping a little below sidearm. These changes led to a drop in velocity, although I actually experienced some pretty good success against hitters from the angle. Recently, the pitching coach and I are working on raising my arm slot back up to slightly above sidearm and working on having both a slide step and a leg lift delivery. This appears to have my velocity back in the mid 80s, and that will undoubtedly improve as I get more comfortable with the higher leg lift.
KB: We all know that mechanics and technique can only take you so far. You’ve gone from a “lanky” 6’1″ 150-pound pitcher to a “big” guy at about 210 pounds at virtually the same height! What have you done in the weight room and on the kitchen table to make this happen?
BB: First off, I can’t take credit for the 60 lb gain over 4 years – that would be ludicrous. I grew about 2 inches over this time, and untrained, would probably be around 6’3” 170lbs currently. Still, I will take credit for about 40lbs of that, about half of which was gained over this past September thru December.
My lifting progress was painfully slow compared to what it should have been in the beginning. First off, I had thought it would be a good idea to run cross country in the fall my freshman year, and so I stuck to that commitment the fall of my sophomore year as well. I began weight training the summer before my sophomore year, and following a good program too (WS4SBIII by Joe Defranco – a 4 day upper/lower max effort/dynamic split). There were so many mistakes that I made, but the biggest ones were that I didn’t know how to do a lot of the exercises with good form, I didn’t know anything about post-workout nutrition, I didn’t realize workouts were not supposed to exceed 60 minutes, and most importantly, I got nowhere near as many overall calories as I needed.
I actually thought it was a halfway decent idea to strength train for baseball and train for the cross-country season simultaneously, so I would do a few distance runs a week and also bike to and from the gym each day, which was about 12 miles round trip. Little did I realize my goals were completely opposing one another. (Sound familiar? –Kyle) So my piece of advice #1 would be pick a single goal or focus and follow it, don’t try to work towards 5 different things at once in your training.
This leads nicely into my next piece of advice, which is that you can’t bulk and also stay lean at the same time in an efficient manner. Any strength coach will tell you this, and I can speak to it now from my own experience as well. Still, there is this fear among what defranco calls the “skinny bastards” that they are going to get fat and lose their abs if they bulk up. The best thing I ever did for my strength was to forget about this notion and just go absolutely apeshit with my nutrition plan, tracking my calories and making sure I did whatever it took to stay on pace to add 1-2lbs a week of bodyweight.
Before, I would try to make sure everything I ate was super clean and just not eat or skip a meal if I wasn’t able to get “clean” food. Sure, I stayed lean, but I also didn’t get big or gain any appreciable amount of weight. Bulking can be relatively clean, but you’re fooling yourself if you think that you can gain 20 lbs on a college meal plan and not put on a few pounds of fat.
The general rule of bulking, in my experience, is that if you aren’t gaining that 1-2 lbs per week, you’re not eating enough. If you’re gaining more than 2 lbs a week, you’re eating too much and going to be putting on excess fat. For most guys who are on a rigorous training schedule, this means shooting for somewhere in the 3,500-5,000 calories/day range. 4,000 calories was plenty for me to gain weight when I weighed under 200lbs, but now I need to take in quite a bit more than that to continue gaining weight on my current training schedule.
KB: I know you are a firm believer in long toss. Can you tell us a bit about your long toss program and how it has changed over the years?
BB: I’ve always believed in the theory behind long toss, but hadn’t actually followed a structured long toss program before this year. One of the great things about long toss is the instant feedback you get – that you can see how far the ball traveled and have an idea of how efficient that throw was. I did a lot of my structured max effort throwing in high school during the offseason using a tripod radar gun, which offered similar direct feedback. You could say we long tossed during the high school season, but it wasn’t true long toss. We had about 5-10 minutes to throw before practice and most guys went out to 120 feet or so.
At Maryland we long toss about 2 times per week, and I’ve seen some pretty good gains on this program. I’ve been able to work out to 300+ feet on my best days (approximately a 90 mph throw) and eventually hope to be able to see similar velocities from the mound. To give you an idea of where I hope to be a year from now: 87-89 mph hitting 90 mph from a sidearm- low ¾ arm slot.
The keys of the program are basically to listen to your arm and move out slowly until you reach your max distance, then move back in at whatever rate your arm is telling you, keeping the same intensity from that max distance throw on each rep. Finish from 60 feet with your best bolt, trying to throw the ball through your partner’s glove.
KB: What other “unorthodox” training methods have you experimented with, and what have the results been? Have you thrown weighted baseballs or done advanced plyometric work?
BB: In the grand scheme of things, I’m still a novice trainee. I’ve only been training seriously for about 4 years and haven’t had much of a need to fool around with “advanced” training protocols. I’m only now beginning to approach what I consider an intermediate level of strength and fitness.
I’ve thrown weighted balls before, and I actually feel there is a lot of benefit to be had there. I personally stayed in the 4-9oz ball weight range, and I didn’t feel comfortable throwing anything heavier than the 7oz ball from my full delivery. Still, the weighted balls have two main benefits in my experience. The first is that they “teach” you how to put more effort into your throws. For example, it’s typical if you gun a player throwing a 5 oz ball, then gun him throwing a 6 or 7 oz ball, and then have that player throw the 5oz ball again he will have picked up a couple mph just by learning how to apply more intent to his throws.
The second benefit to weighted balls are that they “clean up” your arm action, for lack of a better term. If a player pushes a 5 oz ball or has a weird hitch in his arm action, or whatever, those inefficiencies are going to be exaggerated when the player increases the weight of the ball. This idea applies to a lot of things – sloppy form or inefficiencies in a movement pattern are revealed when the load increases. You may be able to round your back and get away with it in a 135lb deadlift, but if you try to deadlift with that kind of form with 400lbs on the bar, the inefficiency in your movement pattern will be exaggerated.
KB: What goals are you setting for yourself through 2011? How about through the end of your collegiate career?
BB: I would like to be a Javier Lopez or Brian Fuentes type of pitcher – 88-90 mph sidearm delivery with a hard slider and a sinking/cutting changeup. I’m also aiming to be able to command all three pitches in any count. Some lifting goals that I hope to meet by the end of my college career: 38 inch vertical jump (34 currently), 220lbs bodyweight (210 currently) and <10% body fat (in the 10- 12% range currently), 450lb back squat (380lb 1RM currently), 275lb hang clean (235lb 1RM currently- no straps), chin-up 3RM +80 lbs (+55lbs currently).
Thanks a lot, Ben, and we at Driveline Baseball wish you all the best!