Finding the “optimal” arm action

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Each pitcher has their own unique arm action. Like a fingerprint or signature, no two pitchers arm actions will look exactly the same. There are a very large number of degrees of freedom (essentially an infinite number of them) that go into determining what a pitcher’s arm action will look like, but for simplicity we group these arm actions into different movement patterns that are easier to understand. One example of this is grouping arm actions by length, i.e., how “long” or “short” an arm action is. By length, I basically mean how far an athlete “reaches back” towards second base with the ball during the delivery. A “long” arm action in this case would be one in which an athlete fully extends his/her throwing elbow towards second base during the delivery, and a “short” arm action would be one in which the athlete’s elbow remains fairly flexed up until ball release. Obviously, there is a whole continuum here and an athlete could have an arm action that is between long and short, but for the sake of discussion let’s just think about these two extremes.

A look around the MLB will tell you that there are pitchers at both ends of this continuum (and everywhere in between). Some guys, like Trevor Bauer or Lucas Giolito, employ very short arm actions (yet still throw very hard), whereas others, like Luis Castillo or Justin Verlander, have longer arm actions. If you’ve read my blog in the past, you probably heard me talk about how many aspects of pitching mechanics are highly individual. What works best for one guy might not work at all for another guy, and vice versa! As always, finding what works best for you will likely take some trial-and-error, and the arm action is no different. But are you just stuck wandering blindly through this trial-and-error process, or are there guidelines to follow in order to get started? Below, I’ll talk about one such guideline that can help you find your optimal arm action length.

 

Timing/sequencing with the rest of your delivery

The throwing arm must be in the right place at the right time in order for an athlete to throw hard and throw without pain. If the arm is late relative to the hips and torso, the rapid external rotation of the shoulder will place a significant load on the elbow (and specifically on the ulnar collateral ligament – the UCL). If the arm is early, the athlete will often end up “pushing” the ball towards home plate in order to compensate, which can also result in increased loads on the UCL, as well as lower ball velocities. It’s clear, then, that whatever arm action you choose must get your arm “on time”, or more specifically, get the arm to get into the high-cocked position at the time of stride foot contact.

As I’ve discussed with my trainer John Snelten at Prime Athletics, some athletes can maintain a very long arm action and still sync it up perfectly with the rest of their delivery. These are the Verlander’s and Castillo’s of the world that I mentioned earlier, and are able to repeat their mechanics to a very high degree of precision regardless of how far they bring the baseball away from their body. This takes a combination of elite athleticism and thousands of repetitions to achieve, and some athletes are able to pull it off. However, some athletes run into timing problems when their arm actions get long, and end up either pushing the ball or dragging their arm when this happens. Often times these athletes can benefit from shortening up their arm action using different constraint drills (as I will discuss below), as it allows them to time up their arm better with the rest of their delivery.

 

Ways of changing an arm action

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So let’s just say for the sake of argument that you have been running into some timing issues because your arm action is long: how would you go about shortening it? There are a few different training modalities that could be useful in this case. One way of addressing this problem is by using overload implements (weighted baseballs or weighted plyocare balls heavier than a normal 5 oz. baseball) in order to shorten it up. The way that they work is summarized in this Driveline article, but basically the heavier stimulus makes it more difficult to get away with inefficient movement patterns. Throwing a heavier object makes it hard to extend the ball completely towards second base, for example, unless the arm times up perfectly with the rest of the delivery. Thus, weighted balls are certainly a valid approach to shortening an arm action.

Another approach involves using connection balls, first developed by the Texas/Florida Baseball Ranch. These can be used in a variety of ways, but essentially you can hold the ball with your forearm and bicep and prevent your arm from becoming too long (if you are trying to avoid that). The way they work, as Randy Sullivan discusses here, is that the bicep and forearm are forced to push against the ball in order to hold it in place as you throw, thus generating a shorter (and often times more efficient) arm path. One point of caution here, however, is that if an athlete is not experiencing any pain or any other issues with a longer arm action (i.e., if his arm action is still efficient), then forcing an athlete to adopt this shorter arm action could do more harm than good.

A third way to shorten an arm action is to do drills in which you have a short window of time to throw the ball. Catchers often have extremely efficient throwing mechanics overall, and in particular short and efficient arm actions, due to the constrained amount of time they have to throw runners out. The body often self-organizes to meet the demands of the task at hand, and in this case a catcher’s mechanics self-organize to become shorter and more efficient in order to gun down runners. We as pitchers can learn a lot from this in our drill work! By doing drills like quick picks or double plays, we are forced to get rid of the ball quickly, and inefficiencies in the arm action are often cleaned up as a result. Self-organization is a powerful thing!

 

Training update

The concept of arm action length has been an important one for me over the past few weeks of training. A few weeks ago, I was experiencing some elbow pain when I was throwing a bullpen, and after looking at some video I decided to try experimenting with a shorter arm action. I’ve began working with a connection ball and introducing more timing-constrained drills, and have seen pretty good results so far! Although I haven’t gotten back into maximal intent throwing yet, I’ve been able to throw harder on my 60%, 70%, 80%, etc. throws, which is always a good sign.

You might be able to see what I mean in the above video. My arm action was very long to begin with, and so the process of shortening it and making it more efficient is going to be a long one, but I can already see some fairly noticeable differences in comparison to what my mechanics looked like a few weeks ago. My arm does still essentially fully extend behind my body, but my elbow very quickly flexes and by the time of stride foot contact I am actually in a pretty good position to apply force to the baseball. Hopefully, these changes will continue to transfer over to higher intensity throwing when I work back into that again.

In the weight room, things have been continuing to go well. I’ve been working in a lot more speed-strength work on bench press and deadlift, and although I haven’t been able to measure my bar speed (unfortunately there is no tendo unit or anything like that at Prime), I’ve felt pretty quick at the weights I’ve been using (315 on hex deadlift and 135 on bench for sets of 2 speed reps). I’ve also been incorporating some anterior-loaded single leg squat and lunge variations for my lower body work. I worked up to 205×6/side on anterior loaded reverse lunges, and 185×4/side on anterior loaded Bulgarian split squats. I’m pretty happy with how this summer has gone in the weight room so far, and am looking forward to seeing how it translates to the field this season.

Image credits: https://www.southsidesox.com/lucas-giolito

https://thestartingnine.wordpress.com/2015/11/30/texass-best-baseball-players/

https://plus.drivelinebaseball.com/product/driveline-leather-weighted-baseballs/

 

Dealing with a downswing in training results

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For this post, I wanted to talk about an important topic that pretty much any high level thrower (or athlete of any kind) will run into at some point: what happens when you encounter a downswing or “hole” in your training? For baseball specifically, what happens when an athlete’s velo dips by a few mph seemingly out of nowhere? Logically, the follow up question to this is how do you get out of the hole once you get into it? As I’ll talk about at the end of this post, I was (and still am to some extent) in a pretty major hole for about a month and a half from the end of May through the beginning of July in which I wasn’t able to get above 86-87 in my bullpens, although my velo has finally started to come back up in my more recent pens (up to 88-89, which isn’t where I want to be but is a lot better).

Downswings or holes like this are often difficult for athletes to deal with both physically and mentally, because they can arise seemingly “out of nowhere” and can be caused by a number of different factors. As I talk about in one of my previous posts, we as humans like certainty in our lives, especially in the context of training, so it can be hard for us to deal with these sudden setbacks and downswings when they inevitably occur. What’s the best way to deal with one of these downswings, and eventually get back on the upswing again? It depends heavily on the circumstance, as I will talk about more below, but one of the most important things to do is to stay the course mentally. If you approach each training day with the same outlook and intensity regardless of what your recent results have been, you are much more likely to dig yourself out of holes sooner rather than later. I’m certainly not the only one who’s been through holes like this, and I remember listening to Casey Weathers talk at Driveline last summer about the hole he was in during one of the last offseasons of his career, down 5-6+ mph from his peak velo. He ended up not only getting out of the hole, but actually setting the (since broken) mound velo record at Driveline of 98.9 that same offseason! My point is that these holes can happen to anyone, and that you shouldn’t freak out if you’re down a few mph from your previous max, especially at the beginning of an offseason. With all this being said, I want to go into some more detail about the different ways that a velocity dip can occur, and what to do in each case. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but I think it should cover most cases:

Fatigue buildup/insufficient recovery

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This is a big one that is often overlooked by guys, and can be a major limiting factor if you do the same. Quite simply, if you are not recovering completely from the training that you are putting your body through, then you are not going to make progress and are actually going to be “overtraining.” As Ben Brewster discusses in this article (there is a part 2 article as well), this can take the form of throwing and/or lifting fatigue buildup, as well as not getting sufficient food, sleep, etc. Athletes who manage their throwing and lifting fatigue optimally (as well as get enough food and sleep) allow their bodies to actually grow and become stronger in response to the training stimulus, but athletes who don’t recover sufficiently in between heavy lifting and/or throwing days will actually regress in the long run. Fortunately, it is easy to correct this problem if you find yourself struggling to recover! Either eat or sleep more if you aren’t doing that already, or just scale down the total volume of lifting or throwing you are doing if it is too high, all of which are really easy to do.

There are a couple of reasons why this fatigue buildup can happen to guys. One reason is because a guy just doesn’t care very much, and so he doesn’t get enough sleep, stays up late playing video games, eats a lot of junk food (or doesn’t eat enough food at all), and ultimately just wastes his time. If you’re a player reading this you’ve almost certainly had teammates like this at some point. The other reason is the exact opposite: a guy cares a lot and is so invested that he tries to go “above and beyond” in the weight room (or on the throwing floor), and as a result ends up doing more than what his body can recover from. Guys like this (I know I have been one in the past) need to realize that their body only has a finite recovery ability, and that doing more is not necessarily always better.

Mobility

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Mobility is another area of “low hanging fruit” in my opinion when it comes to getting out of a training hole. Doing a 30-minute mobility assessment or something of that nature to check for any glaring deficiencies can really help get an athlete back on track to performing their best. There are so many areas that could be immobile and holding a guy back from throwing as hard as he possibly could, and finding and fixing these issues can lead to very rapid progress. For example, an athlete’s hip mobility could be preventing him from getting into a hip/shoulder separated position at stride foot contact, or an athlete’s tight scaps could force him into an inefficient arm action. A mobility assessment (and subsequent corrective exercises) can save a lot of time and frustration trying to figure out why a guy is down a few mph.

Throwing mechanics

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Last but certainly not least on this list is mechanics. Unlike the first two categories that I mentioned, finding and fixing mechanical issues can be extremely difficult. For one, there is still so much about pitching mechanics that we don’t know, and one of the things we do know is that the “optimal” set of mechanics is going to vary significantly from person to person…compare Chris Sale’s mechanics to Fernando Rodney’s!  This makes it very hard to nail down exactly what mechanical flaw is holding an athlete back in some cases. Fortunately, though, with motion capture (mocap) technology being used at more and more facilities (like the motion capture lab at Driveline), this task is becoming a bit easier. Nonetheless, it still remains challenging even with mocap, and even once a mechanical flaw has been identified, it is often times even harder to correct it, because chances are your body has been using the same mechanical patterns for years! Everyone’s body responds differently to different cues, constraint drills, etc., and this is what makes changing throwing mechanics such a difficult task. If identifying and correcting mechanical inefficiencies were easy, then so many more athletes would throw 90+, 95+, 100+, etc., but what makes these benchmarks exclusive is that developing an optimal (or near-optimal) set of mechanics is a truly difficult task.

Training update

It’s been awhile since my last post, so I want to catch you guys up with what’s been happening! I chose to write about training downswings for this post because I was stuck in a really long downswing from May-June, as I talked about at the beginning. I wasn’t really moving well, I was having some arm pain, and my velo was down, despite all of my strength numbers being at all time highs. I took a look at some video and noticed a couple of things mechanically. First of all, I picked up on the fact that my arm action had a sort of “hitch” in it, in that I sort of just reached back and extended my arm completely and then quickly folded it up into position at stride foot contact. I also noticed that my hip/shoulder separation was still not great and had a lot of room for improvement. Here’s the video I am referring to:

I’ve attacked these two areas specifically over the last few weeks of training, and I did see a gain in velocity (I was up to 88-89 in some recent pens). I’m going to continue to work on these areas and introduce some more constraint drills, and hopefully see some more progress!

Image credits: https://bearwiththebull.wordpress.com/2016/01/13/crazy-stupid-stock-market/

https://www.p2sportscare.com/elbow-pain-pitchers/

https://aspirefitnessnj.com/3-fitness-tips-to-improve-your-golf-game-this-off-season/

http://www.johnpaciorek.com/?p=395

Individualization in training: thinking outside the box

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Many athletes out there look for a “quick fix” in training. They are drawn to claims like “add 5 mph in 5 weeks,” but in reality you can never be certain of results like this (which I talk about in this post). It is very possible to do one of these “add 5 mph” programs on the internet and either plateau or lose velo, and you really shouldn’t trust anyone who “guarantees” that you will make progress. Aside from being scams to take your money a majority of the time, these programs miss the fact that every athlete is different. Instead of putting everyone on the same “cookie-cutter” program, any good coach or trainer should put each individual athlete on a program that is optimized for him or her. For example, if player A can’t squat his own bodyweight but player B can squat 405 for reps, player A and player B shouldn’t have the same strength program!

Thankfully, there are a lot of good programs out there that take individualization into account. Some of the facilities I’ve worked with in the past (and continue to work with now in some cases) that do a good job of this are Driveline Baseball, Prime Athletics, and the Florida Baseball Ranch, and there are many other excellent training facilities throughout the U.S. as well. This article on Driveline’s blog goes into more detail about their assessment process and how they use data to build individualized programs for each athlete. It’s safe to say that Driveline (and the other facilities I mentioned above) do a good job of accounting for each athlete’s specific needs.

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I believe that many athletes stop here though, when there is another “layer” of individualization that goes beyond just some assessment process or program. This “layer” that I am referring to is the freedom that an athlete has to make small modifications to his or her program through experimentation, as well as trial-and-error. Often times, an athlete will see a program written out and think that they must do this exact program verbatim, without any small deviations being possible. I don’t think that this is the best approach in a lot of cases because it robs an athlete of the ability to think critically about how to optimize his/her training and try things that may help in getting closer to this “optimal” program. If an athlete just blindly follows a specific program to a “T” with absolutely no thought for himself/herself, then the athlete looses a lot of freedom. While it is certainly possible to make progress doing this, it is very unlikely that you will progress as fast as possible, since this program as written is unlikely to be the truly “optimal” one for you.

If, on the other hand, you are willing to “branch out” and experiment a bit, then you could indeed find (or come closer to finding) the “optimal” program for you. This is often more difficult, however, and requires a lot more deep thought about exactly what specific drills, lifts, corrective exercises, etc. work best for you. This is the biggest reason why I believe many athletes shy away from doing this very much, because they would rather not have to deal with this trial-and-error process. It is certainly a lot “safer” to just follow your program as written, but in my opinion there is a lot more to be gained by being creative and trying different modifications that might work better for you.

 

Specific examples

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I’ve talked a bit about why this “branching out” from a program is important, but what really matters is how it can be applied to specific scenarios. One of the simplest examples is modifying plyocare drills (or other throwing drills) to better match what you are specifically trying to work on. Let’s say you are trying to improve your lead leg block, but your hip/shoulder separation is already pretty solid. In this case, it might make sense to add a few reps to rocker throws, and take away a few reps from roll-ins. This might sound very simple and straightforward, but this is already a step towards creativity and a step “outside the box” of the written program! The next “level” above this is actually changing certain aspects of the drills themselves in order to suit your needs. If, for example, you need to work on some aspect of your arm action but are struggling to get a feel for it from the constrained motion of a standard pivot pick-off throw, then you might try incorporating a full arm action or experimenting with different ball weights to see what kind of an effect it has. Tread Athletics has a few YouTube videos on the topic, and this one on roll-ins is a really good example of how this trial-and-error process can look (at one point in the video Ben discusses how he struggled to get the feel for a traditional roll-in and developed a “stationary roll-in” as a substitute when he was in college).

This creativity doesn’t need to be limited to throwing either: strength routines, warm-up routines, mobility routines, etc. can all be modified! Rob Hill, who is a trainer at Driveline that I met when I was there last summer, talks about this in this tweet. As you can see, Rob is trying out a bunch of random med ball throws that aren’t written down in any kind of program or tracking software. By allowing himself this freedom to experiment with different med ball variations, he’s creating some pretty athletic movements on these throws! The point here isn’t that you have to do the exact med ball drills that Rob is doing, or even that you have to modify your med ball work at all, it’s just that a lot of good can come from experimenting and thinking outside of the box in this way. John Snelten, owner of Prime Athletics (which is where I train now that I am home), also loves to experiment with all kinds of different training methodologies and approaches. Recently, he’s been working in a lot of blood flow restriction (BFR) to recover from hard training, and has noticed a significant benefit. Again, the point isn’t that you have to do BFR, just that you should always be open to trying out new and different training modalities.

 

My week of training

This idea of experimenting and thinking outside the box is pretty relevant to my training right now (and it pretty much always is), as I’ve been working in a few different drills/modifications within the past week or two. One new drill that I’ve been experimenting with a bit is the drop back (with both a med ball and as a plyocare drill on certain days). I first saw this drill on Kyle Rogers’s twitter (in this tweet), and it’s helped me get the feel of hip/shoulder separation down a bit more. It’s still not all the way there, but I think I have a much better idea of what I am trying to feel thanks to a conversation I had with my Driveline online trainer Dean Jackson. Dean basically suggested after looking at the video below that my torso is actually rotating on time, but my hips are rotating late and not opening up at stride foot contact. If you look carefully, you’ll probably be able to see what I mean (pause the video when my front foot hits the ground and see where my hips are).

Dean suggested that I should focus on roll-ins as the main fix for this, but I’ve also found that drop back throws have been helpful, and I’ll probably want to get them “officially” added into my program soon. This video was taken last Friday (6/21), and so I haven’t had a ton of time to work on this, but even in this past week there have been some positive signs. This past Friday (6/28), I had a mound velo with 4, 5, and 6 oz balls, and I was throwing my 4 and 6 oz balls harder than in previous weeks (my 6 oz was up to 85 and my 4 oz was up to 90), although my 5 oz was still stuck at 86. What’s weird is that in previous weeks my 6 oz is typically 3+ mph below my 5 oz, and my 4 oz is typically the exact same speed as my 5 oz, so hopefully my 5 oz goes up next week.

On the strength side, things are going very well, and I hit PR’s on all 3 lifts over the course of the past week or two (bench 215×3, squat 295×3, hex bar deadlift 485×3). I’ve been doing back squats instead of front squats recently because I’ve noticed front squats put a lot of pressure on my wrists and I also am generally unable to progress them very quickly, whereas back squats do not have these issues. The nice thing about strength training is that progress is generally a lot more consistent, whereas throwing training can involve long plateaus and drops in velocity at times. Ideally, these strength trends will continue, and my throwing will rebound soon!

 

Image credits: https://www.si.com/edge/2014/05/21/10-key-weight-training-exercises-mlb

https://twitter.com/drivelinebb/status/1047562944136077313

https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2015/05/explaining-the-elbow-spiral-in-the-pitching-delivery/

Nutrition Basics: Calorie Intake and Food Selection

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Major league baseball players, and really players at any high level (professional, college, etc.), are getting bigger and stronger than ever. As Ben Brewster writes about in his book Building the 95 mph Body (with data originally from this paper), the average MLB player has about 190 lbs. of lean muscle mass. In other words, the average MLB player weighs 190 lbs. without counting their body fat! Given that these are some of the hardest throwing (and hardest hitting) athletes in the world, it’s safe to say that body mass, and lean mass specifically, are extremely important for performance (not to mention injury prevention). With this in mind, how does an athlete go about adding lean mass?

The answer is not very complicated at all, and it really just comes down to following a few simple principles, which I will go into below. Basically, in order to gain lean mass, athletes must eat enough calories, expose their bodies to a training stimulus, and adequately recover from that stimulus. Assuming that an athlete is already exposing their body to new training stimuli on a regular basis (i.e., adding weight to the bar each week if they are a beginner or changing sets/reps/lift variations on a somewhat regular basis if they are more intermediate or advanced), and adequately recovering from training (i.e., sleeping 8 hours/night, avoiding overtraining, taking advantage of other recovery modalities, etc.), which could honestly be the topic of another post, then this really boils down to nutrition. The most important aspect of nutrition, by far, is eating enough calories, but beyond this food selection is also important.

 

Calorie intake

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Calorie intake is really the basis for any successful nutrition program. If an athlete doesn’t eat enough calories, then he is simply not going to gain weight (and could even lose weight!). It’s really just a simple physics problem: calories are a measure of how much energy that your body can extract from the food that you eat. If you eat more calories than you burn on a daily basis (i.e., a calorie surplus), then the excess energy must go somewhere, and in fact it ends up being stored in your body as either fat or muscle (more on this later). Similarly, if you eat fewer calories than you burn, the extra energy you are expending must come from somewhere, and your body either loses fat or muscle (more on this as well) in order to account for the energy difference.

This all sounds great in theory, but how do you determine how many calories you need to eat on a daily basis in order to gain, lose, or maintain weight? Admittedly, there is going to be some trial-and-error here, but a good place to start is using some kind of a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator, which estimates how many calories you would burn if you never got out of bed on a given day. From here, this blog post on Driveline’s website recommends multiplying your BMR by 1.5 in order to get a good starting point for your maintenance calories, assuming you are training regularly. To gain or lose weight, you need to eat above or below this number, respectively. There is likely going to be some trial and error involved in figuring out your own maintenance calorie number, since everyone’s body and metabolism are different, and so you may need to adjust the calories up and down as necessary.

Now that you have your maintenance calorie count, how many calories above (or below) this number should you eat in order to gain (or lose) weight? This is a more difficult question to answer and varies a lot from person to person, and is also heavily dependent on your training status (i.e., whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced trainee). You can play around with going above or below your own maintenance calories by a given amount and see what rate that you gain/lose weight, respectively, but this will likely require a lot of trial and error. In Building the 95 mph Body, Ben Brewster goes into a ton of detail on this topic, and I think that the book is an excellent (and affordable) resource for guys looking to gain muscle mass or cut fat. It’s sufficient to say, however, that the higher you go above the maintenance calorie number, the less “efficient” your weight gain will be (i.e., a larger percentage of your gains will be fat, as opposed to muscle). Similarly, if you are cutting weight, the farther below the maintenance calorie number you go, the more muscle mass you will lose (in addition to fat loss). For this reason, I recommend doing some research (or buying Ben’s book) and finding out how quickly you can gain or lose weight without adding too much fat or sacrificing muscle mass.

 

Food selection

Vertical diet

Ok, so let’s assume you’ve calculated your maintenance calories, determined how much of a calorie surplus or deficit you want to eat, and bought a scale to track your progress. How do you choose the foods you eat within these calorie constraints? There are a lot of different approaches on how to answer this, but any good diet or nutrition program should consider how to optimally scale both micro- and macronutrient intake. I’m a big fan of Stan Efferding’s nutritional approach, known as the vertical diet. This diet essentially involves eating a “horizontal” foundation of micronutrient-dense foods and then building up “vertically” with macronutrient-dense foods (primarily red meat and white rice) as needed in order to meet a certain calorie count. The main goal of the diet is to improve digestive health and allow athletes to get the most out of their food, which should translate to performance benefits.

There are a lot of other diets/nutrition plans out there as well (e.g., ketogenic diets, paleo diets, vegan diets, etc.), and it is important to keep in mind that certain diets may work better for certain athletes than others. For example, one of my teammates and closest friends at Caltech has issues digesting red meat, but I’m able to eat red meat 7 days a week and be completely fine! Plus, there can be certain outside restrictions on what foods may be available to begin with for some guys. Cost can be a major restriction, and if you are a collegiate athlete reading this then you might also be restricted by your school’s meal plan. All this means is that you have to be adjustable with your diet in order to fit the constraints you are dealing with, keeping in mind that calorie surpluses or deficits ultimately matter a lot more than following your diet to a “T.”

 

My week(s) of training:

I posted my review paper last week, but it’s been awhile since I last gave you guys an update about how my training is going. I’ve basically just been back home (in Lake Forest, IL) for about a week or so now, and have been training and throwing bullpens at Prime Athletics. I’m still looking to hopefully find a summer team at some point, but my velo has been down slightly in the past couple of weeks, due to what looks to be a hip/shoulder separation timing issue (i.e., rotating my torso early or “flying open”). You might be able to see what I mean on this video from last Monday at ~80% effort (look at how my shoulders turn a little bit early and I “push” the ball to home as a result):

I’ve been working on this for a week or so now, and my velos are coming back up a bit, but I want to wait until they are at least around where they were during the season before I try to find a summer team to play on. One big change I made is going back to the pre-pitch setup I used during the season, in which I rotate my back foot counterclockwise on the rubber in order to “force” myself into a more separated position (see this video for a more detailed explanation). Experimenting with a more conventional setup during the first few weeks of the offseason didn’t really produce great results, but going back to this unconventional setup actually helped a lot and is definitely something I am going to continue to play around with. On the strength side, things have been going pretty well, and I have been back in a calorie surplus/weight gain phase for the past few weeks. I pulled a new hex bar deadlift PR of 485×3 on Monday, and all of my lifts are up compared to the beginning of the offseason. This makes sense, though, because last offseason when I went on a calorie surplus all of my lifts also went up by a significant amount. Hopefully this trend continues!

Image credits:

https://www.cbc.ca/life/thegoods/cowboy-steaks-1.5032383

https://stanefferding.com/products/vertical-diet-peak-performance-detailed-program-notes

Pitching Arm Injuries: Biomechanical, Physical, and Training-related Factors

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It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because my last few weeks of the year at Caltech were pretty difficult and I had a lot of work to do, but thankfully the term is over now and I can get back to posting more regularly. This week, I want to make it up to you guys with a (very) long post! Linked below is a PDF file of a review paper that I just finished for my technical communication class. In the paper, I discuss how arm injuries are multi-factored and complex, and provide several variables that are related to injury risk. I do go into a bit of technical detail about certain things (elbow and shoulder biomechanics in particular), but the introduction and figures should (hopefully!) define all of the key terms you need to know. I’m not claiming to be an expert on any of this, I’m just trying to summarize a lot of the literature that’s already out there. With all of that said, here is the paper!

Throwing mechanics and RPE

Biomechanics picture joe marsh

Every throw anybody ever makes, from warm up tosses to max effort 0-2 fastballs, has some kind of rate of perceived exertion (RPE) associated with it. This RPE is essentially what percentage of “max effort” the throw feels like to the thrower, and ranges from 0-100%. This is an extremely important concept in baseball, as pitchers can’t just throw at 100% RPE every time they pick up a ball (without eventually getting injured), and so understanding how to incorporate RPE into a training program is critical. A good program not only needs to manage RPE on a day-to-day basis, it also has to consider weekly, monthly, and even yearly timescales and adjust accordingly to make sure an athlete isn’t building up too much fatigue in a given time period. The problem then is developing an athlete’s optimal throwing program within these constraints of RPE management. I won’t even go into how strength, mobility, injury history, etc. play into this equation, but it’s safe to say that this is extremely complicated!

There are many ways of solving this problem, and due to all of the variables involved the solution for each athlete is going to be highly individualized. However, there is one important consideration in solving this problem that I believe is often overlooked by a lot of players and coaches (myself included until recently!), and that is how an athlete’s mechanics change at varying RPE’s. A lot of people in baseball assume (incorrectly) that an athlete’s mechanics at max effort or game intensity are going to be the same as they are at lower intensities, when in reality a lot of critical movments can change. As I’ll discuss more below, I recently had a conversation with my Driveline online trainer Dean Jackson about this exact topic, and he referred me to this series of tweets by Joe Marsh. Joe did a biomechanical analysis of a given thrower and noticed that at low intensities, certain aspects of the throwers mechanics were very different compared to higher intensities.  Here’s a GIF of the athlete below (green is an 86 mph throw, and red is a 71 mph throw by the same athlete). As we can see, the 86 mph throw has significantly more torso counter rotation at stride foot contact than the 71 mph throw, as well as lower kinematics velocities overall (which is what one would expect…note how the green arm “catches up” to the red arm):

Biomechanics gif Joe Marsh 2

So, what are the implications of this? Joe’s analysis only looked at one particular athlete, and it is possible that different biomechanical variables change for different athletes at lower vs. higher intensities, but it is fair to say that we shouldn’t expect an athlete’s 60% and 100% RPE mechanics to be identical. Joe’s athlete had less torso counter-rotation and scap loading (shoulder horizontal abduction) at lower intensities, which makes sense given that these variables are correlated with velocity, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this is a common trend among throwers. Either way, one needs to consider how mechanics change at varying intensities when designing a program, and that it might be better to work on certain mechanical changes at higher intensities as compared to lower ones. Obviously, it is pretty tough to work on your mechanics at max effort, and it is possible that certain changes can be made even at 50-60% intensity, but for movements like torso counter rotation or scap loading, it might be better to work at higher intensities (e.g., 80%+). This adds a new layer of complexity to the problem of designing a program, as athletes that have a specific mechanical inefficiency to work on might be better off doing this at a higher RPE (or not), so a good program must be designed with this in mind while still maintaining reasonable RPE loads over longer timescales. Due to the fact that every thrower’s mechanics are different, a certain degree of trial and error is necessary in order to figure out what RPE’s are best for each individual athlete (and for each mechanical inefficiency).

Another important consideration of this is command training and pitch design work implications. For command training, it is clear that the goal is to command the ball well at game intensity, so it makes sense to use higher intensities (70%+) when doing command work, as Bill Hezel points out in this blog post. This isn’t to say that command work at lower intensities is useless, but the issue with it is that command is such a precise skill that any small variations in mechanics can lead to major changes in where the ball ends up going (with one important caveat that I will discuss below), so by training command at lower RPE’s (and therefore different mechanics), it is more difficult to transfer this to game intensity. There is a similar issue in doing pitch design work at lower intensities, although the way it manifests itself is a little bit different. As Michael O’Connell discusses in this blog post, the spin efficiency (essentially, the component of the angular velocity of the pitch in the plane perpendicular to the direction of travel, which is critical in determining how the pitch actually moves) of different pitches can actually change with RPE. Therefore, if you want to work on developing a curveball, throwing a lot of curveballs at 70% RPE might not be the best way to do it, because your mechanics at 95% RPE might be a bit different and could influence the spin axis of the pitch. Therefore, in general it is better to do command and pitch design work at higher intensities in order to maximize the carryover to actual games, while managing RPE well on a day-to-day, week-to-week, etc. basis in order to avoid fatigue buildup as much as possible.

long toss

With all of this in mind, there is an important caveat that I want to discuss when it comes to variability in pitching mechanics. Not all variability is bad, and we actually need some kind of variability in order to have stable mechanics over the long run. As Randy Sullivan from the Florida Baseball Ranch discusses in this blog post, by adding variability to your mechanics through training modalities like long toss, your arm gains the ability to adjust when small fluctuations inevitably happen over the course of a game or season. Randy goes on to discuss a dynamic systems theory approach to pitching mechanics, which could honestly be a topic for another post, but essentially his point is that certain movements in the pitching delivery (the attractors) should be trained to be stable, whereas other movements (the fluctuations) should be allowed to…fluctuate. Thus, if certain core movements/attractors of the delivery are changing at different RPE’s (e.g., torso counter-rotation), then it wouldn’t be wise to try and specifically train these movements at lower intensities. However, if other movements (fluctuations) will indeed fluctuate during a game, then they should be allowed to vary in training, and long toss does exactly this. Therefore, while some game-specific work is necessary, making every throw off a mound 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate is misguided, and will prevent your mechanics from actually being adjustable in a real game.

 

My week of training

This past week was the first week of offseason training for me, and I’m taking a few weeks of deloading on the throwing side, meaning that I’m not going to be throwing at over 70-80% intensity (on the lifting side, though, I’m ramping back up from in-season to offseason loads). As I mentioned earlier, I noticed this exact movement pattern of not counter-rotating my torso at lower intensities in my own mechanics last Friday (see video above). Initially I was a bit worried, especially because the stresses on these throws were a bit high given that they were only at 50-60%, but after talking with Dean and looking up the tweet from Joe that I mentioned earlier I realized this sort of makes sense. I still think my torso counter-rotation could use some work (and it’s sort of been an ongoing issue this past season, even at higher intensities), but now I know not to necessarily expect it to be perfect at lower intensities.

The plan moving forward is to stay on this deload block for the next few weeks, and then work into bullpens after that, eventually getting into live at bats after I get back home from school. I mentioned this in my last post, but the goal for this offseason is to develop more mechanical and mental consistency through live AB work, but also have the ability to train full time, as opposed to playing in a summer league and limiting my development window a bit. I also am strongly considering spending another month or so at Driveline at the end of the summer, and getting live AB work in there as well as an assessment to build a better plan of attack moving forward. I’m excited for the summer and for these next few weeks of training leading up to it, and I think it’s a big opportunity for me to really turn a corner.

Image credits:

https://virtualpitchingacademy.com/

https://twitter.com/TheJoeMarsh/status/1105585161368854528

Training expectations and the lack of certainty

Pulldown

In this week’s post, I want to go in a direction that’s a little bit more philosophical than previous posts, and talk about training, what is reasonable to expect, and why it is impossible to ever be certain of results. A lot of what I’m about to say is based off an excellent speech by former first round draft pick Casey Weathers that I mentioned in my last blog post (and that I actually saw in person when I was at Driveline last summer), along with my own thoughts and ideas. A lot of guys approach training with the (flawed) mindset that they are expected to obtain some kind of result with certainty. For example, a weightlifter might expect to add 50 lbs. to his squat over the course of a 3 month period, or (as a more relevant example) a college or high school pitcher might expect to go from 85 mph to 90 mph if he comes and trains at Driveline (or insert your favorite facility here) for a summer.

In reality, however, this just…isn’t how the world works. There are so many variables outside of your control when it comes to training (e.g., you could be suffer some kind of freak injury one day, or your body might not be able to adjust to some particular mechanical cue for whatever reason), and at the end of the day the results of a particular period of training are inherently probabilistic. Sure, if you’re a 6’3’’, 160 lb. high school junior sitting 72-75, and you decide to start an integrated strength/velocity/mobility/etc. program, you will with very high probability gain velocity, but it’s not a guarantee! A major point of Casey’s speech was that nothing is certain from a results perspective when it comes to training, no matter how hard you work or how well you account for all of the variables in your control.

This would have probably been a bit of a shock to me if I had heard the speech when I was in high school (or younger), because I thought that the hardest workers always prevailed over those who were lazy, regardless of natural talent. It just seemed fair to me at the time, and I thought this was how the world had to work. In reality though, sometimes natural talent, good genetics, and good luck just…win. As unfortunate and unfair as this may sound, it’s the truth! It is possible to do everything right from a training perspective (e.g., follow an integrated strength, throwing, and mobility program, sleep 8+ hours/night, consume more calories than you burn, etc.) and still be passed up by another pitcher who doesn’t do any of these things, but has superior genetics and “freak” athleticism. If this is true, then what is the point of training, and how can you rationalize it to yourself?

Casey weathers 107.8

Further into Casey’s speech, he brings up how all of the work he put in to becoming the best player he could be gave him “the most honest evaluation of himself that he could possibly get.” Even though Casey never made it to the big leagues, he’ll never look back later on in life and wonder “what if” when it comes to his baseball career, as he did everything in his power to put himself in the best possible position to succeed. This was probably the biggest takeaway for me, and is how I like to think about training. Because there is so much that is out of your control, all you can do is optimize all of the variables within your control, and hope that this results in you becoming an elite player. In other words, success and hard work are not as directly related as we would all like them to be, and indeed certain players can do everything in their power to become the best player that they can be and still fall short of their goals. But the point of training to your maximum capacity is that this is the only way to know what you’re truly capable of. Even if you fall flat on your face and come nowhere near the big leagues after many years of training, at least you will know that you couldn’t have done anything more, and will never have regrets or “what if” moments about your career later on in life.

This idea is echoed in one of my favorite podcasts by Ben Brewster, who I’ve mentioned in several of my previous posts. Ben talks about how important it is for him to be able to “rest easy” at the end of his career (which will hopefully be later rather than sooner), knowing that he will have exhausted all of his resources and optimized all of the training variables in his control. This to me is the best way to look at training, and really at life in general, as there are so many other applications of this mindset. Success is never really guaranteed in any area of life, but by working to your maximum capacity at a given pursuit, you will not only maximize your chance for success, but also achieve certainty even if you fail. As Casey puts it in his speech, hard work guarantees you honesty, and is the only way to truly answer the question of “how good am I?” once and for all, in baseball and in life.

 

My week of training

There wasn’t really a whole lot that was noteworthy for me this week, as I didn’t pitch at all in our final series against Chapman last weekend. It’s been awhile since I last showed any video of my mechanics, but I’ve essentially just been maintaining a similar focus as the last time that I talked about them. The only one change I’ve been working on a bit is staying looser with my arm and allowing for a longer arm action, as opposed to forcing a shorter one. I’ve noticed that I’m able to throw harder with less effort on days that I’m able to do this well, although on days that it out of sync I end up down a few mph. This looser arm action feel will definitely be something to work on going into this offseason. I was a bit shocked when I looked at this throw on video actually, as my arm action isn’t as long as I thought it was going to be based on feel, but sometimes things look a lot different on video compared to how they feel live.

 

End of season review

redlands.jpg

I thought the topic of training uncertainty was appropriate for this post given how this past season went for me. I’m sure there were many athletes out there who worked harder than me this past offseason, but I definitely put in a lot more hours and took training a lot more seriously than I have in previous years. I changed my eating habits to make sure that I was actually gaining weight and putting on muscle mass, I made sure that I was getting 8+ hours of sleep (almost) every night, and I spent a lot more time reading and learning about various aspects of training than I ever have before. And despite all this, I probably had the worst season of my life this past year. As I talked about in my last post, success is never guaranteed, and even though I trained harder than I ever have before, I knew that this type of a season was always a possibility, regardless of how much I wanted to avoid it. Anyways, here’s what my final line was:

Final stats: 9.0 IP, 8 H, 21 R, 19 ER, 23 BB, 14 K, 13 HBP, 19.00 ERA, .242 BAA

This is obviously a season I would like to put behind me, but even so I think there are a lot of things to learn from and improve upon for next year. I think the reason why I struggled so much was that I was unable to get myself into a consistent physical and mental state every time I took the ball. As the season went on, I had to make a few mechanical adjustments (in order to stay healthy) and mental adjustments (as a result of poor performances), as opposed to keeping everything as consistent as possible. I had a conversation with my Driveline online trainer Dean Jackson about exactly this topic last week, and he essentially told me about what he did prior to a game in order to get into a consistent physical and mental state. He not only established certain mechanical “checkpoints” as he went through his warmup, he also established the same mental state every time (for Dean, it was the mentality of the underdog, but for different guys this mental state might be different, and the mechanical checkpoints also might be different). This allowed him to produce more consistent results on a game-to-game basis.

A part of me thinks that this season’s struggles were rooted in the previous offseason as well. I spent the entire offseason dealing with elbow and bicep pain, and I really couldn’t get through very many high-intent days without this acting up somehow. This led to me trying a lot of different mechanical cues in an effort to fix things, and even though some of them stuck, it felt like my body tended to revert to old habits a lot of the time, which made progress slow. What I’m excited about this offseason is the fact that I finished the year healthy (for the first time in college!), and am hopeful that I’ll be able to nail down a specific set of mechanical cues and checkpoints that can keep me healthy and lead to greater consistency in the long run.

So what’s the plan moving forward? In the beginning of the season, I was hoping to get into a summer league, but based on how this season went I don’t think I’m going to go that route anymore. Instead, I’m planning on throwing live AB’s back home at Prime Athletics this summer, and working on finding consistency in a more controlled environment. While this isn’t what I originally wanted to do, I think there is a lot of potential for development this summer in terms of being an all-around pitcher, not just a thrower (although I do plan on doing some kind of velo work as well), and there will still be opportunities going forward to be seen by scouts once I have a better handle on my mechanics and mentality. Either way, I’m really excited for this offseason, and I think that I’m in a really good position to improve and shock some people in 2020.

Image credits:

https://www.mlb.com/news/indians-casey-weathers-can-throw-108-mph/c-167882016

https://www.drivelinebaseball.com/2013/05/frustrations-with-fastball-velocity-gains-understanding-the-long-run/