This post from our Coaches Series was written by Justin James, Assistant Coach at University of California, San Diego. He took over there in January 2017, having coached the previous two seasons at Point Loma Nazarene University.
I took over the pitching staff at UC San Diego in early January 2017. We would go on to post a 44-19 overall record, runner-up in CCAA Conference Tournament, win the NCAA Division II West Regional, win 4 games in the D2 World Series, and finish as the National Runners-up. The finish matched the best in program history, while the 44 wins were second-most of all time. Our staff produced a final team earned run average of 3.67, 24th in the nation, fourth in the West Region, and third-best in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA).
The staff posted six shutouts, tying the CCAA lead. All four of the complete games and both of the individual shutouts came during the NCAA Championship/Postseason. Kyle Goodbrand moved on and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays.
In a previous blogpost I wrote, we covered how I was going to implement the pitching plan and the Driveline approach. To say it worked would be an understatement. With that being said, it took trust, also known as buy in, from everyone on staff. Does that always happen? No. However, within the first month of implementation and explaining the “why” while letting the individual pitchers re-organize themselves with guidance and a plan, the improvement took off. Our Driveline approach has given me the most peace of mind in three main areas: Health, development and adjustability.
As we all know, health is a major concern with all athletes but especially pitchers currently. Prior to joining the staff here, we had a few guys banged up with various degrees of elbow discomfort, which is not uncommon with a pitching staff. As the season went on, we lost one of our starters who previously had TJS for a total of a one week period, and we took a very cautious approach since it was only halfway through the year at the time. We eventually had a pitcher with a disk problem that sidelined him all spring, but other than that, we were healthy and durable.
Although there are always many factors in health and injury, our daily Driveline protocols made a profound difference. Several previously injured staff members mentioned several times their arms had never felt better. In fact, they increased their previous workloads, and in some cases doubled their time on the mound. From there it was all about tweaking the intensity, volume, and overall plan to meet each individual’s needs. Durability, strength, and health played a large part in our team’s success, without a doubt. In the post season, our starters averaged 7.13 innings per start with no missed starts, including 4 CGs (2 in WS). Being able to go deep in big-time games against the best offensive clubs in the country was a testament to their daily training.
Pitching needs to be the strongest late in the season and peak at the right time. The chart below shows our improvement and sustained velos of our whole staff and a few individuals who showed significant gains as our season went into June. As you can see, we improved or at least held our ground when it counted most.
Whether at a new new or familiar school, there are going to be many challenges for coaches and players: for example, weather, fatigue, class schedule, road trips, and more. You need to start with a solid foundational plan to work off of in order to make adjustments—sometimes on the fly.
I started off with a 7-day foundational plan that we’ve based everything off of (You can tweak your specific needs and wants from the HTKC sample programs). Our guys by the end of the first month were familiar with the daily routine and didn’t want to go back to the old way of preparing, warming up, cooling down, or recovering. I knew we were in good shape when that was happening. No matter what the situation was, our guys bought into getting their work in no matter where they were or what was going on. Here are a few proud moments as examples. It would have been easy to just wait till tomorrow to get their work in…instead they adjusted on the fly.
Another adjustment had to occur when we were on the road. Since we couldn’t fly with five shoulder tubes or plyo walls, we used 2-4-lb. plyoballs for Shoulder Oscillations. Also, after getting advice from Travis Hergert at NIACC, we purchased three gymnastic mats for portable plyo walls. (These were initially held up by hooks that ripped but fixed with Jaeger Bands!) We simply hooked/constrained the mat over chain link to make sure we got our daily plyos in without destroying the home team’s field or fence. I was, and am, hesitant to ever go against someone else’s windscreen or padded wall without permission, so this gymnastics pad became a part of our road-gear assignments.
Finally, we had to be flexible and adjust our mandatory movement preps. At home, we use three different hurdle warmups for flexibility and mobility. On the road, we can’t travel real hurdles, so we simply bring ten cones that simulate a hurdle and use some cues to insure the movement is done correctly and with the intended full range of motion. Here are a few examples of adjusting on the road…
Our pitching program uses many aspects of the Driveline training approach. It’s a holistic approach to training healthy pitchers—with not one element being more important than another. Our staff trusted that the dynamic warm-up all the way to the cool down after throwing were vital to their success. Even when we didn’t know what the future held, we stayed diligent and consistent.
Looking back on the past six months of the season, it’s obvious that this approach worked for our pitching staff. We stayed healthy, competed at the highest level, developed and improved as the season went on, and more importantly created consistent habits that all pitchers should possess. Our staff felt stronger and more durable than ever before when it counted the most. Relievers bounced back quicker and were more consistent because of it. Our starters were better prepared to go deeper into games that mattered and could execute even after the long season of innings had piled up. They simply all greatly improved themselves because of the daily approach and protocols.