As a father of two kids who want to play the game of baseball at a high level and as the Director of the Driveline Academy who trains its ~200 players, I cannot in good conscience act as if throwing velocity does not matter. Because it absolutely does.
If you look at the continually rising velocity floor at the high school, collegiate and professional levels and come to the conclusion that the most likely pathway to success for young baseball players with dreams of playing at higher levels of competition is optimizing for something other than velocity development as a primary focus of throwing training, you are ignoring basic facts about the performance attributes that define the best players at any level, and as such are doing your players a disservice.
Velocity is a Basic Truth
The question is not whether throwing velocity is important, because that is a basic truth of the game of baseball, both historically and in the present day. Velocity has been, is, and always will be vitally important to baseball, as it is a fundamental part of so many different aspects of the game.
What does bear considering is how the relevance of and desire for increased throwing velocity pertains to youth players. Why optimizing for velocity at the youth stage is a more optimal developmental pathway than the conventional one: focus on throwing strikes now, and wait (hope) for the velocity to come…later.
(No one seems too specific about when exactly this “later” is supposed to be, which may explain why so many HS age amateur players are desperate for velocity training at their particular level.)
We can elevate this discussion about optimal focuses in youth throwing training by accepting that throwing velocity is a core component of any player’s ability in the game of baseball, and should be treated and trained as such.
We can then pivot to understanding why throwing velocity development is specifically important for youth players, and further explain the structure of how to train for velocity development. When to do it, how to do it, and how to effectively mix learning to throw hard with all of the other things that we want youth players to learn at this specific stage of their baseball development.
Why Velocity Training Now?
Throwing velocity is good, and for any given baseball player—at any given level—their ability to perform the fundamental tasks of any position is improved if they can throw the ball harder.
Because so many defensive tasks on a baseball field are consistently time dependent, being able to throw the ball harder gives players more margin of error for any—and everything—that takes place prior to the throw. Whether we are talking about catchers trying to throw out a runner on the basepaths or outfielders trying to get a ball back to the infield, being able to throw harder is always good because it takes less time.
It’s important to consider the specific application of this idea to youth baseball, because there is often an inclination to frame youth velocity training as developmentally inappropriate.
The perception is that youth players do not yet have “good” mechanics, and so throwing hard at the youth stage is an unnecessary and secondary concern to the primary demand of throwing strikes and or “locating”. Baked into this is the stance that youth players should not make velocity development a focus because doing so can expose them to some amount of additional injury risk due to the perceived deficit in the current state of their throwing mechanics.
I would offer in opposition two facts about youth players:
1. Whether you like it or not, they are oftentimes going to throw as hard as they possibly can in competition, as that is generally what competition demands. Again, whether we are talking about youth pitchers who have to throw hard because they lack the strength to get the ball to the catcher without doing so, or youth position players who are operating against the previously stated time constraints, the circumstances of the game are going to dictate their output—and that output is usually going to be high, relative to the player and the task.
2. Specific to throwing mechanics—whether you like it or not, at a biological level youth players are unlikely to be able to master the configuration of numerous mechanical checkpoints that are typically thrown at a player without taking motor output off of the table in order to do so.
We have talked about this on multiple occasions and will note it again: athletes—née people—take motor output off of the table when trying to solve for internal cues or configurations of their bodies. This is decidedly not good in a sport that depends on deploying a maximal amount of motor output in a minor amount of time.
When we create training environments for youth players where success is dependent on the correct execution of any number of mechanical checkpoints, we are training players to move slowly, which is not good if we want youth players to develop Skills That Scale to keep them competitive in the game over time.
If we accept those two things as being true, then the suggestion that it is inappropriate to throw hard prior to the acquisition of “good mechanics” due to injury exposure is also broadly invalidated. If it were to be true, then we would have substantially more arm injuries in our sport than we already do, not only with players whose acute and chronic volume of throws are outside of their ability to tolerate, but with all youth baseball players—in addition to kids throwing footballs, frisbees, skipping rocks etc.
Simplifying the Task
When it comes to youth players, we have the opportunity—because these players’ throwing patterns are still largely in flux—to have their throwing mechanics be defined by their intent level and output.
By significantly narrowing their number of movement solutions, this “mechanics defined by output” approach can actually help athletes in their search for movement mastery, because it limits the choices (as in different ways to move their bodies) that they can apply.
Knowing what we know about youth athletes—that they are not small adults, and as such lack the motor control, coordination and proprioceptive awareness relative to how they will present as older athletes—task simplification is a benefit to youth athletes as they continue to firm up and master their throwing mechanics over time. It environmentally removes non-efficient and low output options as possible movement solutions that they will become accustomed to deploying.
This does not mean that youth players trained in this fashion are going to present as something that they are not. We can accept there will be bumps allow the way learning how to move fast and throw hard. But by simplifying the task demands (throw hard in and around the zone of the intended target) and the number of movement solutions available (eliminating the low intent ones), we are giving youth players a simplified developmental landscape to train and perform within.
In a macro view, the push to have youth players not focus on velocity acts to kick the proverbial can of velocity and output development. From a pre-pubescent point in time, there are little to no potential negative consequences for failure in competition (unless the player is not able to tolerate that failure on their own and receives no differing context from the adults in the ecosystem and as such chooses not to keep playing as a way to emotionally protect themselves) to a later point in time where the stakes are undoubtedly going to be higher.
So, if the choice is to develop throwing velocity at the youth level in a responsible and structured fashion, and by doing so, have our youth athletes’ throwing patterns shaped and developed by a desire for them to be as efficient and powerful as possible, OR to develop velocity later, when due to the increase in playing level there is a roster spot, scholarship offer or a job on the line, the benefits of using the youth level to focus on velocity development seem pretty clear.
We know that the well studied S.A.I.D. principle can be incredibly informative to the way that any athlete’s patterns adapt over time, so we want weaponize that concept for youth throwers during a period of time where their movement patterns are very much still in development, and specifically impose training demands to facilitate the desire to throw the ball hard, because throwing the ball hard is good—now and forever.
Stress & Risk Of Injury
We should also take the time to specifically confront one of the most significant concerns about any high intent throwing, youth or otherwise: risk and exposure to injury.
Is there a good reason to worry about risk of injury when having youth players do high intent throwing? Yes.
Is there a good reason to worry about risk of injury when youth players are pitching? Yes.
Is there a good reason to worry about risk of injury when youth players are making high intent throws in the field? Yes.
Is there a good reason to worry about risk of injury when youth players are making high intent throws trying to get the ball to a base before a runner? Yes.
The simple reality is that if we were to take away high intent throws, shuffle step throws, crow hop throws, pulldowns or simply pitching from youth players, it is not as if all risk of injury or high intent throwing situations would unilaterally disappear. Throwing the ball hard is what the game will all too often dictate.
If we can acknowledge that high intent throwing is a feature, not a bug, of any youth baseball game and that this activity is going to always carry some degree of injury risk, then the smart thing to do is acknowledge this risk. Help players get acclimated to these non-negotiable demands of playing the game. We then can think about the above questions regarding injury exposure, drastically simplify them, then use those answers to guide our focus training.
Is there a good reason to train a player to throw at or above the level of intensity the game dictates? YES.
Is there a good reason to train a player to throw at or above a volume of throws they will have in a game? YES.
We are preparing players to throw hard in games because they have to by throwing hard in training because we choose to. If we want to train in a way that is in realistic consideration of the demands of playing the game, that means that we have to expose players to likely scenarios that the game will present.
The Difference Between In-Game and Training
The difference between the in-game demand of high intent throwing and choosing to train for high output throwing is that when we program high intent throwing for youth players, we are doing so on a specific schedule, with a specific volume, at specific intervals. We are in control. We know what is coming and we train accordingly, which I will strongly posit is truly a strategy for arm health, as opposed to a needlessly risky form of training, simply because it maps directly to what the game demands.
In a qualitative sense, relative to the risk of injury, we know that these two activities—pitching and high intent throwing—are much more similar than they are dissimilar because it’s already been proven. Whether we are talking about the ASMI study on weighted balls that measured the stress on the elbow between pitching and crow hop throws or our own studies on the same topic, the differences in forces at the joint during the pull-down or crow hop throw and pitching are “small but statistically non-significant”. So, if we are going to wring our hands at the thought of potential injury exposure when youth athletes are performing structured high intent throwing drills, then we should do the same when they are pitching, because the two activities are inherently more similar than they are disparate.
All of these concerns about injury are predicated on the idea that there is a finite amount of acute stress generated in the throwing motion that if exceeded will result in injury. And while this may be directionally accurate if carried out to an extreme degree, we are proposing that we can introduce and acclimate young athletes to the type of stress and stimulus—that again is equal or similar to what they will experience in a game—by training in a progressive and structured fashion that periodizes this stimulus over time. By doing so we no longer have to fear the stimulus given from pitching, high intent throwing or any other similar activity, because players have already experienced and been adapted to it.
How And When To Schedule High Intent Throwing
As we noted in our How Does Driveline Academy Start “Doing Driveline” blog article, spending a dedicated amount of time establishing levels of throwing fitness and workload is an absolutely necessary precursor for any kind of high intent throwing. What this means structurally is having players take at least a month to on-board for both proficiency of our core throwing drills, acclimate to throwing overload and underload PlyoCare balls, and during that time try to orient for as much technical proficiency in drill execution as possible. While it is highly unlikely that we will “solve” or “fix” any player’s throwing mechanics after four weeks of three throwing sessions per week, we should still feel confident that this focus on proper warm up before throwing, block chaining the development of efficient throwing motion mechanics in our drill series, and consistent post throwing recovery will adequately set the floor for the high intent throwing to come.
During this period where we focus on arm care and drill proficiency, we want to be incredibly strict about throwing taking place outside of our program, as in a perfect world we want there to be none whatsoever. We want players to be following the on-ramp program when they are in the gym with us three times a week, and when they are not we want them to sleep well, eat healthy foods and that’s it.
So assuming that this 4 week on-boarding process has gone off without any significant hitches (absences, existing arm issues making it advisable to taking more time to progressively increase players’ rate of perceived execution during plyo throwing or any kind of supplemental long toss) we should be ready to throw at high intent.
Prior to our “event” of high intent throwing, we are still going to check the same standard boxes that we usually do. That starts with some kind of dynamic warm up, J-Bands, Wrist Weights and throwing PlyoCare balls. It’s important to note that when it comes to throwing Plyos on a high intent throwing day, we do want to avoid “blowing it out”—meaning that players are feeling good, are ready and excited to really throw the ball hard, and they end up expending a disproportionate amount of training economy in this warm up phase, leaving not as much (or potentially not much at all) left over for our high intent 5oz baseball throws.
Because of this, we tend to be a little more flexible when it comes to the overall volume and intent level when throwing plyos prior to our high intent throws. Yes, we do want players to generally go through the entirety of our PlyoCare drill progression and the different constraint positions, but we can be a little flexible when it comes to the overall volume and intent.
Having access to any kind of radar device to measure ball velocity is incredibly helpful here, as if we already know a player’s baseline PlyoCare velocity numbers by tracking them during on-boarding, monitoring their output against those existing numbers allows us to have players work up to an output level—and rate of movement speed—to the point that we are not only comfortable that players are ready for high output throwing, but that we’re excited for how they’re going to perform.
Once we are comfortable that players are warmed up and ready for high intent throwing, the process is fairly simple. We give players a very broad target to aim for (some kind of radar gun, or the person holding the radar gun, on the other side of a net is a great solution), some amount of space prior to the target that they will use to build up momentum, and all the freedom in the world within that space to turn that momentum into a full body proximal to distal sequence that is going to result in a high intent throw.
As outlined in Hacking The Kinetic Chain Youth, we want players’ first high intent throws to be at around 80% RPE, and then absolutely send it for the rest of the throws. Along the way we can and should make determinations about the number of total throws that a player should execute by measuring their output.
Generally, so long as we see output (velocity) increasing, we should be fine to allow them to continue to throw—with the exception of any throws where their output dropping is a result of an overall sequence failure—until their velocity plateaus or otherwise stops dropping. While HCKTY recommends 4 sets of 4 throws for 16 throws each, what we have encountered with the Academy this year and the way that players have been affected by COVID, causing them to miss a year of training, games or both, is that we are generally capping players at somewhere less than 10 high intent throws total.
Well-Executed High Intent Throws
For our youth players, a well executed high intent throw will generally have these basic characteristics:
- Creating some amount of forward momentum toward the intended target
- Bracing or blocking that forward momentum effectively within the overall throwing sequence
- The player throwing the ball as hard as they can in the general vicinity of the target without sailing, spiking or otherwise throwing the ball in a location where it will throw off the accuracy of the radar device
And you will see any number of faults along the way:
- The aforementioned errors in throw location that lead to the radar reading being off
- Players who are not able to effectively brace with their lead leg the momentum they’ve created
- Players who are not able to master the transition between moving toward the target and getting the front shoulder and pelvis closed (basically, having the belly-button perpendicular to the intended target area)
In addition to these, you’ll also likely see other general failures that come with players learning how to not only move at a high rate of speed, but while also throwing a baseball.
At the conclusion of the high intent throwing session, you’ll follow standard protocol for all throwing sessions—high intent or otherwise. Players should have at least a full day of rest following high intent throwing, then go through their recovery throwing program on the next day of training, because in order to perform this kind of structured high intent throwing program over a period of 4-6 weeks, it is vital that we maintain this commitment to periodizing throwing volume and intensity.
Throwing Hard Is Good
The overall process of movement adaptation and skill acquisition is oftentimes an arduous, messy and frustrating process. This is just as pertinent to having a player throw a bullpen in March as it is to having a player perform a high intent throw in January. There is one significant difference, however. Throwing a bullpen generally means throwing strikes, and it’s important to not lose sight of the basic fundamental complexity of that task for young prepubescent children.
With high intent throwing, however, we are driving toward maximal output with minimal restrictions for how the output is created. Doing this well presents the same child with a play space that is inherently devoid of boundaries, where they are challenged to try to move very fast and are rewarded for their outputs. In addition to the basic fact that it is fun for kids to move fast and throw hard, we can also feel confident in the relative value of a player being able to perform this task well. It’s encouraging to see their outputs increase knowing that it will improve their capability in any other throwing environment.
I feel reasonably confident that no one has ever looked at sprinters training and made broad accusations that the development of maximal running speed was going to have a negative influence in the athlete’s ability to walk or jog. We can have the same confidence in the value of this training methodology for the athlete’s overall development as a baseball player as well.