The velocity loss phenomenonby Kyle Boddy
June 02, 2011
One of the top prep arms in the 2011 MLB draft, Dylan Bundy has instructed the Royals and the Pirates to draft someone else.
Bundy told the Pittsburgh Pirates, who own the No. 1 pick, and the Kansas City Royals, who pick fifth, that he’d prefer they not use their pick on him, according to the source. Seattle (picking second), Arizona (third and seventh) and Washington (sixth) all advocate long toss. Bundy’s older brother Bobby plays for Baltimore, which chooses fourth.
Trevor Bauer (UCLA) shares the same sentiments, and I've already written about his unorthodox workouts.
Dylan Bundy has been known to long toss over 300 feet and has a grueling workout on top of that as well, including boxing-style workouts to strengthen his rotator cuffs and internal rotators:
As a result, teams are scared to draft a guy like this in the first round. Both Bundy and Bauer have very strong and unorthodox workout regimens that teams balk at, fearing they might hurt their arms. They worry that lifting too much weight, throwing too far, doing too many explosive speed and agility exercises, and pitching too much will either cause arm injuries or a severe drop in effectiveness.
And what do they base these fears on? Absolutely nothing. There exists no research that shows that training hard will result in a loss of velocity or an increase in possibility of an arm-related injury. None. Research by Dr. Fleisig about youth pitchers does show this:
The study concluded that participants who pitched more than 100 innings in a year were 3.5 times more likely to be injured. By the 10th year of the study only 2.2 percent of the study participants were still pitching and 5.0 percent had suffered a serious injury requiring surgery or retirement from baseball.
However, this was a study conducted on 10- to 14-year olds, not mostly-biologically mature high school pitchers. (And guys who throw 90-plus are generally far ahead of their peers in a biological maturity sense.)
But consider this duplicity: Teams are afraid of pitchers who work very hard to achieve elite plus-plus velocity, but praise guys like Doug Fister, who recently added a few ticks to his fastball. How did he do it?
"I have been putting in a lot of work in the weight room," Fister said. "I’ve spent a lot of time lifting, conditioning and throwing. So, yeah, I feel a lot stronger this year. I’m in good shape. We’ll see where it takes us."
However, there's the case of this current MLB pitcher who is a giant injury case:
He’s special in that he plays long toss every day, and it’s not even the normal long toss. It’s almost an extreme long toss. He probably throws the baseball about 280 to 300 feet. For the most part you see guys go out—the longer guys—200 feet, maybe 225 feet.
In his case, he throws the ball with a lot of height—he really gets a lot of air under it—and what he’s accomplishing is not only strength, but also extension. It’s a bit far, but hey, you can’t argue with the success he’s had.
Except... that's Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners, the current Cy Young winner.
Velocity Loss Phenomenon
It's often said that pitchers are drafted with a certain velocity on their fastballs, and then it spirals downwards until it stabilizes. However, Josh Kalk showed that pitchers tend to increase their fastball velocity until about 29 years of age, then start to lose it. But if high-value prep/high school pitchers tend to be babied when they enter the pros, why is their velocity decreasing—if this is even true?
Let's take a look at the first-round prep arms that reached the majors over the past few years and check their early scouting reports against their current fastball velocities. We'll use mid-summer months (July 2010, typically) to estimate their fastball velocities, as fastball velocities for starting pitchers tends to be lower at the beginning of the year, and we want to exclude this bias if possible.
It's important to note that by using only pitchers who reached the highest rank (MLB), we're actually introducing a selection bias that favors the best pitchers. There will undoubtably be many prep arms that don't reach the big leagues due to declining velocity, injury, or just ineffectiveness.
Chris Volstad (Palm Beach Gardens HS), 16th pick overall: Video shows him sitting 92-94 MPH with his fastball. In July 2010, Volstad's sinker (faster than his average four-seam fastball) averaged 90.7 MPH.
Michael Bowden (Waubonsie Valley HS), 47th pick overall (Compensation A): "Plus FB velocity." "Similar to Roger Clemens." Video shows him throwing 92 MPH with his fastball in game situations. From June, 2010 through August, 2010 as a reliever, his average four-seam fastball was 90.2 MPH. Remember that starters who are converted to relief generally have higher fastball velocities than they did as a starter.
Clayton Kershaw (Highland Park HS), seventh pick overall: Reportedly sat (not reached) in the mid-90s in high school. In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 92.0 MPH.
Jeremy Jeffress (Halifax County Sr. HS), 16th pick overall: Reportedly sat in the high-90s and reached triple digits on multiple occasions. In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 95.2 MPH.
Kyle Drabek (The Woodlands HS), 18th pick overall: Said to have the best arm in the draft with a mid-90s fastball. In July 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 93.4 MPH.
Rick Porcello (Seton Hall Prep School), 26th pick overall: Touched 96 MPH on many occasions and sat 94-95 "very comfortably." In July, 2010, his average four-seam fastball velocity was 91.0 MPH.
This is by no means an exhaustive list or conclusive study, but it does seem to lend anecdotal support to the theory that prep arms that are drafted high tend to lose velocity as they become professionals when many pitchers in the pro ranks are doing the opposite—gaining velocity.
So what's the root cause of the velocity drop? I personally believe that it's the fearful nature of the teams to wrap their investments up tight and not allow them to work hard. Both in theory and in practice, this makes absolutely no sense.
Guys like Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy did not come out of the womb throwing at elite velocities—Bauer at 93, Bundy at 98 (touching 100). They worked their butts off by throwing a lot of long toss, lifting weights, and doing whatever it took to develop into a front-line pitching prospect.
The same can be said of guys like Stephen Strasburg, who came out of high school throwing 90 MPH and developing into an elite flamethrower through very hard work and dedication in college, only to be curtailed in the pro ranks.
Here's a startling thought: What if the hard work and unorthodox training methods they employed to become MLB-caliber pitchers might be something they should continue doing while they're in the pro ranks? And perhaps organizational players who have middling velocities should also think about adopting these types of programs!
A hypothetical: Let's say your average organizational non-prospect pitcher in a system is at a low risk of injury but has virtually no chance to break into the big leagues. And let's further assume that strenuous "unorthodox" training (as demonstrated by guys like Fister, Tim Collins, Hernandez, Bundy, Bauer, Tim Lincecum...) will lead to a slight increase in injury risk but will also increase their fastball velocities.
We know that fastball velocity is positively correlated with strikeout rate (which seems obvious, but is worth restating), and that strikeouts lead to pitchers becoming more valuable and effective.
What would it be worth to an organization if just two average non-prospects developed into prospects that moved up just one level of competition? What would it cost to implement such a plan across all the minor leagues?
I asked the first question to an unnamed MLB executive when talking about training methods and our biomechanical labs, and he responded, "A lot." He asked me the second question, and I told him, "Not very much."
We see organizations like the Seattle Mariners making strides with Dr. Marcus Elliot's program (one that likely influenced Doug Fister's workouts). Who will follow suit?
Kyle Boddy is the owner of Driveline Baseball and Driveline Biomechanics Research, both in Seattle, Washington. At his facility, he's melded statistical analysis, strength & conditioning, prehab/rehab, and advanced biomechanical analysis concepts to develop improved efficiency, durability, and fastball velocity of baseball pitchers. He can be reached via email at email@example.com and found on Twitter: @drivelinebases.
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