The 39-year-old who won’t give up on his dream

The writer is the owner of the Seattle-based “Driveline” companies, which train athletes.

Andrew McNally is a 39-year-old father of three living in suburban Puyallup, Wash. Like most people, he has a day job—real estate appraisal—and spends a lot of time taking care of his family. And yet:

Last May 20, I received an email from him. He told me a little about his background and his injuries—and his desire to play professional baseball again.

Professional baseball? A late-30s guy with a litany of injuries to his shoulder? Sure, he had a lot of experience in pro ball—pitching in the minors for the Cleveland Indians, throwing for the Australian Olympic team in 1996, playing a few years of independent league baseball—but it was a long shot. Furthermore, the teenagers and 20-somethings I work with balk at how much effort it takes to make it even at the lowest levels of the minors. Yet Andrew said his goal was to “shatter all the records set by oldest rookie pitcher in the major leagues.” (He amended himself a bit later when he realized that Satchel Paige‘s records would probably be pretty tough to break.)

I told him I’d work with him, but that the road would be long, hard, grueling, and frankly, extremely boring. Training to be the best baseball player one can be is usually filled with boredom, a fact all fans can relate to when they watch Josh Beckett pitch a meaningless game in June with runners on base. Andrew said he would do whatever it took to get there.

He sounded genuine, but I had heard the speech “I’ll do whatever it takes to pitch at the next level” on more than one occasion. Almost everyone I’ve worked with, and told what they’d have to do to get there, eventually bailed because of the ridiculous amount of work they’d have to put in, so I no longer get too excited when people say they have an infallible work ethic.

Andrew would live up to his promise.

The beginning: Andrew’s history

Before he was a family man living in western Washington with crazy aspirations, Andrew was a pretty good amateur baseball player. He pitched for his hometown team, the Perth Heat in Australia, and had enough success to earn a spot on the University of Hawaii’s baseball team.

While playing for the Rainbow Warriors as a freshman, Andrew threw 137 innings, walked only 26, and was second in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in ERA, though he was left off the All-Conference team. He would eventually be named to the first team All-America squad that year.

In 1994, Andrew pitched in the Baseball World Cup (the World Baseball Classic’s predecessor), appearing in two games and finishing with an 11.74 ERA. He would then redshirt his junior year so he could pitch for the Australian Olympic team in 1996, allowing 10 hits and four walks over 2.2 innings.

By the time he finished college, Andrew was second in the school record books for most innings pitched in a career with 382. He’s in third place for career strikeouts at UH with 304 batters fanned, and does not appear on the career walks leader board. He is also the leader in earned runs allowed in a career, 205. All these records still stand.

Andrew’s fastball sat at 88-90 mph, and he threw a curveball and change-up as his secondary pitches. While his control and command were good, when you combined his raw stuff with what he did in the WAC, World Cup and Olympics, few people could look at the total package and think that he’d be destined to pitch professional baseball. Making matters worse, Andrew is listed on Baseball-Reference as a 6-foot tall righty, but every time I’ve stood next to him, he looked quite a bit shorter than me—and I’m 6-foot. For these reasons, Andrew went undrafted in 1997. However, a Seattle-area Cleveland Indians scout saw enough to throw him a bone and signed him to a minor league contract in 1997.

Professional baseball: The start

A strange thing would happen when he went to short-season A ball: He’d make a huge stride forward in performance. While pitching for the Watertown Indians, Andrew would appear in 23 games, throwing 31.1 innings, and striking out 37 batters while walking only 13. Better still, he only gave up 6.6 hits per nine innings; his biggest problem in college had been giving up too much hard contact. Andrew was improving significantly by vastly improving his strikeout numbers while maintaining his plus command/control.

The Indians saw enough to promote him to the full-season Single-A team in Columbus, where he’d split closing duties with former light-hitting Seattle Mariners first baseman/DH Greg Pirkl.

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(Seriously.)

Andrew would appear in 38 games, nabbing eight saves and posting nearly identical ratios from his short-season stint. Over 45 innings, he had 53 strikeouts and just 19 walks, a 2.79 K/BB ratio. He finished with a 3.00 ERA and felt good about continuing his professional career.

Then Indians GM Mark Shapiro released him. The team considered him “unprojectable,” someone who could get minor league hitters out but still behind the big time prospects the Indians had in their organization—primarily flame-throwing closer David Riske.

I asked Andrew if he was ever told if he’d be released if he didn’t throw harder, or was given any indication he’d be released. He said: “No. I was never given a reason why I was released other than that they had no room for me to move up. This was in the late ’90s when the Indians were stacked at every level.”

Andrew on the extent of the training he received in Cleveland: “They had a strength and conditioning coach that would be available for the players at the gym as well as at the field for conditioning. I don’t recall working on pitching mechanics. We did meet after every game or series to discuss performance and pitch selection.”

Andrew looked around for a place to play and caught on in the very tough Northern League (now part of the North American League), pitching for the Allentown Ambassadors. At the time, the Northern League was equivalent to Single- or Double-A affiliated baseball, which would have been a step up for Andrew. He responded by appearing in 17 games, throwing 28.1 innings and sporting a 1.91 ERA. He would give up no home runs in 1999 and walked fewer batters, though he also struck out fewer.

However, the reason he pitched only 28.1 innings is because he had terrible pain in his shoulder. Shut down for 10 days in June, Andrew resumed throwing and initially had no pain, but when he would step on a mound to pitch competitively, the discomfort returned. He had an MRI, which indicated a labral tear and fraying of the rotator cuff.

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Surgeries and complications

He headed to see Dr. James Andrews in August of 1999 to have his shoulders assessed. Andrew would have a classic case of Glenohumeral Internal Rotation Deficit (GIRD) with 120 degrees of external rotation in abduction in the right arm, but just 45 degrees of internal rotation.

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In his left arm, he had 70 degrees of IR and 90 degrees of ER. While the total motion of his shoulders was nearly the same, he had very poor IR range of motion in his throwing arm, which is not uncommon in pitchers. Dr. Andrews explored his shoulder with an arthroscope and found only little fraying of the rotator cuff in the supraspinatus tendon—no full-thickness tears that would require major reconstruction. However, Andrew had a severe type-III superior labrum anterior-posterior (SLAP) lesion which needed to be repaired, and he was judged to have excess laxity in his glenohumeral joint.

Dr. Andrews performed the common thermal capsular shrinkage (capsulorrhaphy) method, which looks something like this:

Thermal capsular shrinkage, while a “standard” surgery for overhand-throwing athletes, is still very controversial. Research indicates that a significant portion of people who undergo this operation have unsatisfactory results. In one case study, 37 percent of all patients reported poor results! [Note 1 below] Additionally, shoulder range of motion in external rotation, internal rotation, and abduction can suffer as a result of these procedures. [2]

While this might be the “point” of these surgeries, the truth is that by grossly limiting shoulder external rotation in a baseball pitcher, you are shortening the distance over which the baseball can be accelerated, making it harder for the post-op pitcher to regain his lost velocity. Additionally, research indicates that pitchers who have a wider gap between passive external rotation and dynamically achieved maximum external rotation in the baseball delivery may be at higher risk for shoulder injuries. [3]

When I asked Andrew if he was given an alternative to thermal capsular shrinkage, he said “Not really. They went in to repair the labrum and then decide what else needed to be done while inside the shoulder. I didn’t know exactly what was done until after the surgery.”

Andrew was rushed back to competition in 2000. He would throw only 1.2 innings before needing to go back to Dr. Andrews to have his labrum repaired again. In 2001, he was completely ineffective—his stuff suffered too much from the surgeries, poor rehab, and rush back to competition. He was out of professional baseball.

Training: The return

A decade later, Andrew would get in touch with me.

He said his arm felt good for the first time in 10 years and that he wanted to see how hard he was throwing off a mound. I scheduled a bullpen session with him, getting one of my college athletes to catch him while I manned the radar gun.

Andrew warmed up and started playing catch with Eli, his catcher for the day. He eventually got on a mound and started throwing at close to 100 percent intensity. His stuff was… underwhelming. I had his fastball at 70-72 mph, and while he had the best command of any college or pro pitcher that I’d worked with, his fastball was way too soft.

You could tell his curve was a real weapon at one point in his career, and he flashed a plus change-up, but nothing could overcome the fact he was throwing softer than every high school freshman I had in my program. I told him the velocities and told him that it was likely that he’d be able to throw harder with some real work, but that a shot at pro ball was very unlikely.

I put him on our massage table, where I checked his shoulder flexibility, and found that he had an unbelievably tight posterior capsule in his throwing arm. I was shocked: If I had examined him with no prior knowledge of his history in professional baseball, I would have thought he was a desk jockey with terrible seated posture.

Almost all baseball pitchers have crazy laxity in external rotation and severely reduced internal rotation, but Andrew was the first I’d seen to have below-average flexibility in both his external AND internal rotators. After asking more probing questions about his medical history, I found out the specific details of his shoulder reconstruction, which explained the terrible mobility in his shoulders.

When I reviewed his pitching mechanics on high-speed film, I was astounded at how poor his maximum external rotation (MER) was for a former professional pitcher. He was barely getting 161 degrees of MER, which was less than every single college pitcher I had examined!

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I told Andrew what he’d have to do to reach his goals. He’d have to pay serious attention to a detailed prehab flexibility/mobility program, he’d have to lift heavy weights at the gym frequently, he’d have to start a long toss program that incorporated under/overload baseballs, and he’d have to travel the 45 minutes to Seattle to throw frequent bullpens and get progress check-ups.

He said he didn’t have anyone he could throw long toss with in Puyallup, but that he’d figure it out and that he was looking forward to training hard.

I outlined a long toss and weighted baseball program for Andrew, and he faithfully stuck to it. He’d travel to the local ballfield at night alone and throw long toss into a fence 300-plus feet away. After he finished his long toss, he’d throw baseballs as heavy as 11 ounces and as light as four ounces to increase the strength and endurance in his pitching arm.

Every morning he’d wake up and head to Competitive Edge, the local gym, and get his workout in before going to his day job.

Andrew regularly updated me with his progress, and after every cycle of long toss and weighted baseballs, he’d ask for more strenuous training programs, reporting that his arm had never felt better. I told him to come into my facility to throw a bullpen to check on his improvement, impressed that he had stuck with hard training for a few months. He was touching 78-80 mph in July, so we put him on a more aggressive training program.

He would come back in October, still fighting the good fight. This time, Eli was on campus at his college, so I caught him. His fastballs were topping out at 83-84 mph. Progress was slowing, so we decided to change his routine and introduce some experimental weighted ball training concepts that I hadn’t fully tested. However, we were both confident in the program and knew that he’d have to do things differently if he was going to be in the low 90s again.

Andrew was throwing a five-ounce regulation baseball over 300 feet in long toss and was throwing an 11-ounce baseball for multiple reps every other day. His arm started off sore, but as he adapted to the increased stressors, he felt better than ever.

In January, it was time to see how well his hard work paid off. Here’s what his bullpen looked like (pitches in order: two-seam fastball, cutter, change-up, curveball):

(Yes, that’s me exclaiming in the background because of the ridiculous movement his pitches had.)

But it was time to cut to the chase: I pulled out the radar gun and he let some fastballs fly at 100 percent intensity. I got him sitting at 87-88 mph and touching 89. After seven months of hard training, Andrew had restored nearly all of his lost velocity!

When I asked him how our training compared to his experience with Cleveland, he said: “I was given an offseason strength, conditioning, and throwing program to follow with the Indians. Although this program did assist in getting me ready for spring training and the season, it did not help with specific mechanical issues that I may have had at the time.”

Finding a place to play

Andrew contacted the Cleveland Indians scout who originally signed him, and the scout was excited to see him throw again. When Andrew threw for him, the scout was very happy with what he saw—he estimated his fastball was touching 90 mph again. At age 39, Andrew was throwing as hard as he was when he was 25, with the outstanding command/control that never left him. Furthermore, his secondary pitches were judged to be big league ready.

The scout wanted to see him again, and this time brought along a current Angels area scout. The Angels scout was just as impressed with him, but wanted to see him another time to see how consistent he was.

When Andrew threw the third time, his fastball velocity was down to 88 mph. Still, both the scouts were interested. They couldn’t sign him on the spot and invite him to minor league spring training, but they urged him to play independent league baseball or pitch for the Australian national team with the hopes of catching on near the All-Star break. They said if his fastball velocity was consistently 90-91 mph, he’d have no problem finding work.

So today, Andrew is in Australia, throwing for his old teammates and coaches, looking for that chance to pitch professionally again. He’s going to start another cycle of weighted baseball training and long toss after he throws his bullpens for scouts Down Under, and wants to be throwing 92-93 mph by the All-Star break. His maximum external rotation is still very poor—the shoulder surgeries limit what he can do—but we’re hopeful that with some mechanical changes, he’ll be able to improve on that, increasing the distance over which the baseball can be accelerated, giving him that 2-3 mph boost he needs.

Simply compare Trevor Bauer‘s high-speed video below to Andrew’s video from this month, and you can see how much untapped potential exists in Andrew’s arm:

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Says Andrew: “Once I am confident that I can perform at 100 percent, I hope to get an opportunity to play for a professional organization with the goal of pitching in the big leagues.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while working with Andrew, it’s that I will never put any goal beyond his reach.

References & Resources
[1] Prospective Evaluation of Thermal Capsulorrhaphy for Shoulder Instability. D’Alessandro et. al. – http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/32/1/21.abstract
[2] Shoulder capsule shrinkage and consequences on shoulder movements. Gagey et. al. – http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15021158
[3] Relationship between maximum shoulder external rotation angle during throwing and physical variables. Miyashita et. al. – http://www.jssm.org/vol7/n1/7/v7n1-7pdf.pdf (PDF)

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