By Chris Langin, Pitching Trainer
“Why don’t you just play basketball?”
This question followed Thomas Ruwe growing up. There’s not exactly a surplus of 6 foot 7 inch human beings in the state of Nebraska, and given an unimpressive start to his baseball career, the hypothesis was he wasn’t participating in a sport that best leveraged his genetic gifts.
“The main reason I didn’t play basketball is because I never really loved it,” said Ruwe. “Another reason was I had a chest condition that affected my breathing. I had to have surgery on it before my senior year of high school. They literally put a metal bar in my chest and it stayed there until my second year of junior college.”
If the video doesn’t do it justice, the statistics, or lack thereof, suggested that Ruwe’s baseball career wouldn’t last long. He had one career varsity outing during his high school career and a fastball that never eclipsed 75 miles per hour.
“There were a lot of frustrations in high school,” said Ruwe. “It seemed like I was always battling some sort of injury. I really was not very good. The only reason I even had a varsity outing was because I couldn’t play on junior varsity as a senior.”
Ruwe in College
For most, after getting one sympathetic varsity outing in their high school career, the thought of playing college baseball wouldn’t even register. Ruwe had two things going for him, though.
For one, he was 6’7” and still growing. Second, and perhaps most vital, colleges are always in need of extra bodies to contribute toward their tuition costs.
“I remember going on a few college visits, but I wasn’t getting recruited for baseball. I was just going to see the campus and potentially walk on. Eventually, I reached out to the coach at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa. The coach sat me down and told me if I came there I would have to work my tail off because I would get redshirted immediately.”
Ellsworth was coming off a 17-win-season and couldn’t foresee a way that Ruwe could help them the following season. Ruwe, having literally no leverage to play elsewhere, enrolled at Ellsworth and began his college career.
“The first year at Ellsworth was full of a lot of realizing how much I needed to improve in order to compete at the junior college level. I only threw around 74 mph my first year.”
Following the redshirt season, Ruwe finally got an opportunity to display his talents in the spring of 2015. He managed a 9.85 ERA and walked 29 batters against 23 strikeouts in 28.1 innings pitched. His fastball velocity was in the high 70’s.
“I had a lot of walks and gave up a lot of runs, but for some reason I was adamant I could play at that level.”
He followed up that 2015 campaign by breaking his back into two places. As a result, he spent six months in a back brace. Ruwe wouldn’t throw a single pitch during the 2016 season. Every time he pitched during his third season his back got a little more sore.
“It wasn’t until my mom came and watched me throw in front of some scouts that I realized I had been pushing it too far,” Ruwe said. “I came off the mound and tried to sit in the dugout and essentially collapsed from pain in my back.”
Now a 4th year sophomore, Ruwe transferred to the University of Nebraska-Kearney and managed to earn a $1000 scholarship.
“When I got to UNK, I was just happy to be there. Happy to still be playing the game. I don’t think coaches had a lot of expectations for me… hell, I had little expectations for me,” Ruwe said.
During 2017, Ruwe was healthy enough to pitch, but was rarely needed. He wasn’t on the travel squad most weekends, and he once again walked more hitters than he struck out. He put up a 10.54 ERA.
Through four years of college, Ruwe’s best two seasons were likely the ones he spent redshirted. He had a career ERA north of 10, had walked 40 batters against just 33 strikeouts, and had suffered significant injuries.
“Ruwe was anywhere from 82 to 87 and struggled to throw strikes consistently,” said Andrew Riddell, who pitched with Ruwe at Nebraska-Kearney. “He was coming off previous back surgeries and couldn’t do the same workouts as the other guys on the roster and didn’t throw many innings at all. I thought his career would be over after college, as did many more.”
Touching 90 miles per hour
In 2018, he finally had some success, putting up a 4.35 ERA and striking out more batters than he walked for the first time in his career. He touched 90 for the first time during that fall, though he still sat around 84-86. Nonetheless, he was 23 years old. His story seemed destined to max out as going from a junior college walk on to an average Division II reliever.
“In the fall of my second year at Kearney, I would be ecstatic about throwing 88 and the prospect of touching 90 seemed a lot more intriguing, and I started putting more value in that. This may or may not have been because my college teammate Chris Langin—who was also my roommate—was into Driveline and their products early on, but to be honest I was still skeptical of the program at that time,” Ruwe said.
Nebraska-Kearney’s baseball program was cut following 2018. Ruwe transferred to Missouri Western for his 6th and final season of college. He put up his best season, striking out 41 against just 10 walks. Which is what you’d hope for from someone 2-3 years older than the average player on the field. He converted from reliever to starter halfway through the season, but suffered an arm injury right before the conference tournament.
“Once I got to Missouri Western, it was another challenge getting acclimated to a new program and a new pitching coach,” said Ruwe. “My arm slot slowly got lower and lower. We didn’t really use radar guns at Missouri Western, so I never really knew exactly how hard I was throwing. On the rare occasion we pulled it out, I was around 84-89.”
Following the arm injury he suffered prior to the conference tournament, Ruwe was pulled aside and told in no uncertain terms to “pitch through it,” seeing as he wouldn’t have a career after college.
“By the time I left Missouri Western, I had a busted arm and a busted love for baseball… but I stood on the field at the conference tournament and promised myself I wasn’t done yet,” Ruwe said.
Unfortunately, Ruwe wasn’t coming off a mild case of elbow inflammation. He was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL during the summer. He got a Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) injection, which you aren’t exactly guaranteed to come back from, and wouldn’t be ready for 100% intensity for six months.
He was now 24-years-old, had a partially torn UCL, topping out at 91 on the best of days, and was coming off an average season against a bunch of 21-year-olds at a Division II school in the Midwest.
While he was adamant that he would continue trying to play following the conference tournament, some realities of life were becoming apparent.
“It really was a back and forth trying to decide if it even made sense for me to continue. I debated it a lot and there was a period where I almost decided it wasn’t for me. I worked on my family farm to help my dad in the summer. I didn’t find out what was wrong with my arm until the middle of June.”
As cliche as it sounds, Ruwe felt there was still “something whispering in my ear that I wasn’t done yet.”
Training at Driveline
“After saving up every bit that I could and a few frantic conversation with Julianne (now his wife) and Chris, I purchased my Driveline subscription and prepared to drive across the country with not much more than a dream and a belief that there was more left for me to give in my baseball career.”
In March 2020, Ruwe began his training at Driveline. It started off great; he hit 92 for the first time in his career.
A look @ruwe_1995 getting out the pen and paper during his biomechanics meeting today. Was up to 92.9 when he assessed! Former Teammates in college and now building a trainer/trainee relationship. pic.twitter.com/hBftXS5wzE— Chris Langin (@LanginTots13) March 20, 2020
But before the end of his first week, the COVID-19 pandemic closed down the Driveline facility.
“I was at Driveline for three days and had gotten one lifting session in when Chris called me and told me that Driveline was shutting down to in-gym athletes because of COVID policies. I went to train with an old summer ball teammate in the area who had a place for me to sleep and we trained together for a month while I waited to see if Driveline would open back up.”
“I drove back home to continue training at the facility in Fremont, Nebraska with Steve (his trainer since high school),” said Ruwe. “There I saw 95 off the mound for the first time in my career. In an empty gym, with no music playing, just a few high schoolers holding radar guns and Steve recording. I was performing my drop steps and walking windups as part of my online training with the annual plan and sending videos to Chris.”
Remote trainee @ruwe_1995 letting it eat in his last mound velocity. I remember him getting extraordinary amounts of dopamine when he’d touch 88 in pens 2 years ago..— Chris Langin (@LanginTots13) May 6, 2020
up to 94.6 and looking for more #Not95tho #BLOCK pic.twitter.com/nWKnobWgqr
During the summer, Driveline opened up a pop-up shop in Arizona. Ruwe traveled there and finally threw on radar tech for the first time in his career. There, Ruwe had his first pleasant surprise in his career. He was possibly the best in the world at spinning a fastball.
It still wasn’t all that good.
“We got to see my numbers on Rapsodo for the first time and learned that I could spin the ball really well. However, I was missing out on a ton of vertical and horizontal break because my efficiency was hovering around 70%. I was missing out on close to 1000 RPMs, rendering the skill of being able to spin the ball that well rather useless.”
The pitch didn’t have what you’d call “useful” cut for a fastball. It wasn’t getting true glove side action (think Corbin Burnes), much less relative cut (think Max Fried). While he could spin the ball over 3000 RPMs, he was getting less total movement than the average big league pitcher. Even when he maxed out in velocity, at 94-95 mph, he was still throwing a pitch that graded out nearly 50% below the average big league fastball.
The good news? You can’t really teach someone to impart that much raw spin on a fastball. But, you can teach them how to put a higher proportion of that spin towards useful movement. While getting the velocity up to a level that could get him signed was still of chief interest, we kept a keen eye on how his spin efficiency was progressing on the heater. A good portion of throwing economy went towards reps with Rapsodo feedback, providing cues that would enhance his efficiency.
We knew his raw RPMs would go down a bit, as inadvertent cut increases raw RPMs on fastballs (controlling for velocity change). For reference, of pitchers that averaged over 2500 RPMs on their four-seamers in 2021, the average spin efficiency was 84%, 8% below the big league average of 92%. But again, maximizing raw spin isn’t the end goal for maximizing the effectiveness of a fastball.
“That became a big goal, along with putting on more weight,” said Ruwe, “My lowest hanging fruits, if you will.”
The Washington Driveline opened up again in July 2020 and Ruwe could finally get his strength assessment in.
Historically a “hard gainer,” Ruwe had struggled for years to put on weight. His back issues had prevented him from doing many core lifts that most pitchers had no issues executing. Despite being 6’9”, his bodyweight wasn’t reliably above 200 pounds throughout his college career.
“I have always been trying to gain weight, but for so long I was also growing and wasn’t done developing into my adult body until I was almost 23,” Ruwe said.
When Ruwe went through his first strength assessment in July of 2020, his Squat Jump Peak Power (strongest correlator in HP dataset to velocity) of 4,770 watts was more than a standard deviation below his peers in the 90+ mph group. His force plate numbers were rather pathetic, with absolute and relative strength ranking in just the 2nd and 3rd percentile respectively amongst 90+ mph peers.
“I got back to Seattle after a month in Arizona and was putting more training economy into the weight room. I gained about 10 pounds and was moving really well down the mound during my lower intensity throwing. I used to think gaining weight was super difficult because I wasn’t eating enough.”
Ruwe tried lots of things to gain weight, downing chocolate milk and eating ramen every night.
“The game changer was when I started tracking my calories and made it a priority,” Ruwe said. “Knowing that my weight gain would have a big correlation to my gains on the mound…It forced me to own it or go home.”
Just 77 days later, he had gained nearly 1,000 watts on his jumps. His peak power had gone from being comparable to an average 19-year-old junior college pitcher to being firmly in the middle of the 90+ group. He had gotten up to 97 on his grey drop steps during his “end of week” throws.
“They gave me 3-5 throws to “let it eat” at high intensity at the end of each week, and I really looked forward to that. Other than that, they delegated everything towards getting stronger in the weight room.”
His relative and absolute strength improved significantly as well. Relative to 90+ mph throwers, Ruwe went from being in the 3rd and 2nd percentile in absolute and relative strength to the 57th and 33rd percentile over those two and a half months. A quick peek at his radar chart speaks for itself.
Based on our HP database, even if Ruwe were to not have had any improvements to his throwing mechanics, we’d expect a 2.9 MPH gain just because of the gains he made on the high performance side.
“The biggest thing in the weight room strength-wise was never running another pole since college,” Ruwe joked. “Realistically, just being on a schedule that was conducive to my throwing volume was the biggest thing. Prior to Driveline, I never prioritized recovering and didn’t match up my throwing well with my lifting.”
About a week before his September retest, on August 29th, Ruwe had a career changing day. During his “end of week” throws, he was feeling pretty good (and to be honest, he made a few more throws than the five he was prescribed, but dammit if it wasn’t for good reason).
He took home four velo records at Driveline. The 225g step back, and all the drop step records except for the 450g ball. While it wasn’t a baseball, he saw triple digits on the radar gun for the first time in his life.
“Seeing triple digits light up on the radar gun for the first time was a top three feeling in my life, behind marrying my wife and my first professional save,” Ruwe said. “Getting my name on the record wall at Driveline was kind of the culmination of so much hardship and struggle and finally seeing some actual evidence of the work paying off.”
Would it translate?
Following the conclusion of Ruwe’s strength phase, it was time to see if the velocity would convert to the 5 ounce baseball off the mound.
At this point, enough moderate intensity Rapsodo work had been done that he was no longer inadvertently cutting his fastball. There were still issues with it, specifically that it was in the “dead zone,” but his spin was significant enough to offset some vulnerabilities that come with that type of fastball. Nonetheless, every tick he could get on his fastball would be needed to get signed.
In his motion capture retest, he destroyed his previous personal best off the mound. He sat 95-96, peaking at 96.8, just a tenth of a tick below the record in the lab for 230+ pound pitchers.
Compared to his initial motion capture in March, he saw significant improvements in nearly all variables that are associated with increases in velocity—specifically, his kinematic velocities.
Throughout his first athlete meeting, the biggest points of interest were improving elbow flexion and hip-shoulder separation.
3-13-2020: Max: 103, FP: 85
9-10-2020: Max: 120, FP: 98
Elbow Extension Angular Velocity
3-13-2020: Max: 2370
9-10-2020: Max: 2650
Elbow flexion plays a moderate role in enhancing a pitcher’s ability to increase the velocity at which they extend their elbow. Ruwe increased his max elbow flexion by 17 degrees. Throughout the entire dataset, the r value between max elbow flexion and max elbow extension angular velocity is 0.33. When looking at intra-athlete correlations, the r value is still 0.18. That’s enough to emphasize it given its teachability and its impact on increasing elbow extension velocity, one of the stronger correlations to ball velocity in the entire dataset.
Ruwe also increased how much shoulder external rotation (layback) he got in the throw. While it’s foolish for anyone to try to say exactly which portion of the training improved this, we know that external rotation is extremely valuable for producing ball velocity, as it allows the athlete to apply force to the baseball for a longer period of time.
Ruwe certainly wasn’t hurt by his increase in elbow flexion here, as it is generally easier to get into more external rotation when pulling back a shorter lever. His elbow flexion improved at max ER as well, when that would appear to be most useful for enhancing this range of motion.
Admittedly, and an excellent case study in the need to be vulnerable in your initial assessment, Ruwe actually lost hip-shoulder separation despite throwing four miles per hour harder. While his drills were tailored towards enhancing this separation, it didn’t happen. With the history of his back issues, it’s possible that his back was a limiting factor. That said, he found another way to generate elite velocity despite being told 6 months prior that improving hip-shoulder separation would be vital in his pursuit of 95+.
This points to the value of self-organization rather than prescribing exact mechanical changes. If the athlete sees improvement without improving mechanically in departments you inferred would aid in their velocity development, your priors should be updated.
At the end of the day, the gains in the weight room likely attributed to most of the improvement in Ruwe’s velocity during that 6-month window.
Showcasing for scouts
After a couple weeks of getting back a feel for the slope, Ruwe was ready to showcase his arsenal. He had just turned 25 and the 2020 MLB off-season had begun. Despite the unbelievable gains he had made over the last 6 months, he still needed to put on a clinic to have a chance at getting signed.
MiLB teams were getting cut, and the lack of a minor league season didn’t offer any opportunities for pitchers in organizations to pitch themselves out of a job. His college statistics were brutal, and nobody knew what his command would look like with an additional 10 miles per hour behind his pitches.
After generating some initial interest by sitting 96-97, a Brewers scout was sent to watch Ruwe pitch a week later. Everything clicked, with him sitting 96-97 again, and setting another personal best in velocity, this time at 97.9.
Top Heaters from @ruwe_1995 yesterday. Came to Driveline in March and set a PR at 92.9 during his motion capture… things seem to be going… well.— Chris Langin (@LanginTots13) October 26, 2020
Reliably ~29-3000 RPM's on the Fastball during this + previous bullpens. @FlatgroundApp pic.twitter.com/KZXySP5SZu
“Throwing in front of the Brewers scout was a mix of emotions. I was excited that a scout finally, for the first time in my career, took interest in me. It was also nerve-racking because that was the only team looking into me.”
A week later, Ruwe had created a bit of leverage with his performances. With multiple teams in the running, he wound up signing a professional contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.
The kid who couldn’t break 90 miles per hour two years prior, and was recovering from a partial UCL tear a year ago, was now inking an affiliate contract at 25-years-old with a $20,000 signing bonus.
Getting out of the Dead Zone
While the impossible had happened for Ruwe, there was still work that needed to be done to increase the probabilities he could climb up the system.
That started with fixing that dead zone fastball.
“Chris had mentioned his concerns with my fastball profile previously, but felt to make changes we’d need a decent amount of time in a stress-free environment. Seeing as I was trying to get signed, that wasn’t the time to make that change,”
To get Ruwe out of the dead zone, he’d have to change the spin direction of his fastball. Re-patterning the throw like this is seldom practical. The benefits that come with a more over the top slot (for those stuck in the dead zone) are quite obvious—and, undoubtedly, more people would attempt this if success rates were high. Anecdotally, significant manipulation of anterior trunk tilt like this often leads to an unnatural movement for an athlete, thus risking a decrease in velocity.
However, when you’re 25-years-old and not anywhere near a prospect, you have little to lose. This made Ruwe an optimal candidate for experimentation.
Torso anterior tilt essentially “sets” up an athlete’s arm slot. The more extended they are at foot plant (over the heels), generally the higher their release height. In the GIFs above, the athlete’s respective slots are decided by their torso position at foot plant. As the torso rotates towards the plate to deliver the ball, the arm will follow behind, with the eventual result being an arm slot that stays on that same plane throughout release.
Our data fits this logic. Nearly 20% of the variability in vertical break between athletes in our database can be explained by their torso anterior tilt at foot plant.
Given Ruwe’s history of being nudged toward a sidearm delivery, there was some confidence that selling out for a higher three-quarters slot was a possibility. To date, his velocity was increasing with the more traditional three-quarter slot he was throwing from. His release height, because of his 81-inch height and 86-inch wingspan, was already relatively high (~6.3-6.4 feet) relative to big league averages (6 feet), which presented no unique benefits for his current fastball characteristics.
Looking at historical MLB data, and controlling for intra-pitcher changes in release height, a linear model would project that an increase of 1 inch in release height would cause an increase of 0.25 inches of vertical break on average.
The ultimate practical example is Justin Verlander.
Verlander improved the whiff rate on his fastball considerably, with no drastic increases in velocity, spin, or spin efficiency. The spin direction of the fastball had simply adjusted upward an additional 15-20 minutes, resulting in nearly three extra inches of carry.
After an off-season of video feedback, Rapsodo feedback, and cueing, Ruwe was able to reliably achieve the desired shape during bullpens and live at-bat settings. However, the real challenge would be whether he’d be able to maintain the profile during the season.
Prior to heading out for his first professional season, Ruwe shattered one more plyo record, this time reaching back for 101 on a grey step back.
“To see where he is at now and how far he has come is unbelievable,” said Ridell. “He definitely isn’t the same pitcher who was struggling for innings at a Division II University in Nebraska… he deserves everything that his hard work has got him.”
Now it was time to compete, for the first time in 2 years.
His first season got off to a cold start. He was in A-ball, 25-years-old, and couldn’t get anybody out.
Ruwe was sent to the extended site after his first 6 outings in Low-A. His velocity was back down to the low 90’s and he was struggling to find the strike zone.
“If there was a definition of a roller coaster season, it was my first one in pro ball,” Ruwe said.
After the six-outing pit stop and getting recalled from extended, he began making quick work of hitters, striking out 27 against 9 walks over 15 and a third innings pitched. That was enough to earn him a promotion to High-A.
The success carried over to High-A, where he struck out over 42% of the batters he faced. Hitters had an OPS. of .481 against him in his nine outings in Vancouver. Ruwe put up a 42% K rate and a 1.92 FIP after being recalled on June 25th. Both were 95th percentile across A and High-A relievers with at least 25 innings over that stretch.
His stuff had returned as well. While in Vancouver, his average fastball velocity was 94.3, reaching as high as 99 on the stadium radar gun. His four-seam characteristics were also exactly what we intended them to look like when making the arm slot change.
During his time in Vancouver, his spin rate would’ve ranked 1st among major league pitchers. His 21.6 inches of total movement would be amongst the top 5, behind Jharel Cotton, Demarcus Evans, and Michael Kopech.
The pitch was synonymous with the Verlander profile discussed earlier. Ruwe’s average release height was 82.5 inches, and he induced 19.3 inches of vertical break on average. The velocity was 94.3.
Verlander’s averages? 82.8 inch release height,19.5 inches of induced vertical break, and 94.8 miles per hour.
The ball flight characteristics of the pitch were good for a stuff+ of 165, 65% above a big league average fastball. The pitch had tripled in stuff from the time it was first thrown at Driveline Arizona.
He paired that with a sweeping slider, which averaged 14 inches of sweep at 81 miles per hour, good for a stuff+ of ~130 relative to big league breaking balls.
Of Ruwe’s 49 strikeouts, he got 24 of them with the four-seamer, and 25 with the slider.
Despite the success at High-A, Ruwe is still headed towards a make or break year with the Blue Jays. He’ll be 26-years-old without a single Double-A inning to his name.
If he can finish the story, and accomplish his dreams of becoming a big leaguer, he’ll be amongst the most unlikely of the 22,000 that have donned a big league jersey.
“Throughout this journey, there were a lot of places I wanted to give up, or actually, maybe some places people would think I should have given up. If there is anything I have learned, it’s that believing in yourself and having a solid support system can get you as far as your dreams will carry you. Getting to where you need to be is listening to the voice in your head telling you to try one more time.”