The fear of unorthodoxy: a new model of player development

In my last article—Pitching mechanics, the uncertainty of data, and fear—I talked a bit about Trevor Bauer and his “unorthodox” pitching mechanics. The video below will outline what Trevor’s training methods were when he came out of high school and committed to UCLA:

This article in the LA Times details the “weird” things Trevor does to develop himself as a pitcher.

Bauer designed his own workouts, four of them. He plays Hacky Sack with baseballs and does a hop-skip-and-jump power throw on his first warmup pitch before each inning. He and his dad once soaked baseballs in water because “we heard that Cuban kids threw coconuts to build arm strength.”

Bauer trains on his own, alternating four workouts. One day he will snake his way around cones working on agility, the next he might flip 200-pound tires to build strength. He throws medicine balls, weighted softballs and uses a chin-up ring—all designed to maximize explosiveness.

Trevor’s methods are certainly a little different compared to the average traditional pitcher, but these concepts are well-embraced in other sports like football, basketball, and soccer. It’s only regarding baseball—and, in particular, pitching—that a wary eye gets cast towards “unorthodox” training.

Just twenty years ago we had baseball players avoiding weight training because they thought increased strength and power would hurt them on the baseball diamond. After the explosion of steroid use in the majors, we now know this to be completely ridiculous.

The players that used steroids did so because it provided an anabolic effect and drastically cut their recovery time down, meaning they could work harder and more frequently in the gym, batting cage, and pitching mound. They didn’t take these compounds for the heck of it!

Brian Oates owns Oates Specialties>, a company that produces athletic training supplies. Trevor Bauer uses their shoulder tube to provide a dynamic warmup for his shoulder and to get a rhythmic stabilization effect. Here’s what Oates heard on TV when Bauer was on national television during the College World Series:

Both Nomar and Robin soon let me know their true and utter ignorance as to the things Trevor was doing. After his first dominating performance against Florida, Robin Ventura made the comment that Trevor was “only allowed to do all those things because he is so good.” Implying that if he was not the ace of the staff there is no way he’d get away with doing all of those things.

Are you kidding me? Robin you have it backwards. The reason Trevor is so good is because he does all of those things. Do you think he is just doing them for fun? To occupy his time before a start? Give me a break!

But this pales in comparison to the conversation Nomar Garciaparra and Mike Patrick had after Trevor pitched eight phenomenal innings against TCU to lead his team to the championship series against South Carolina. Nomar was once again discussing the many “odd” things that make up Trevor’s routine. He then said that Trevor would not be able to continue with his exercises in professional baseball.

Nomar expressed that when an organization invests a lot of money in him he will have to follow the organization’s instructions more closely because he could get hurt doing stuff like that. It took his fellow announcer, Mike Patrick, the guy in the booth without any professional baseball experience, to have the intelligence to bring up the fact that maybe Trevor is who he is because of the many “quirky” exercises. Wow, what a revelation.

Sadly, this is common throughout baseball as the level of competition becomes more difficult. As Ron Wolforth put it, “If you do what everybody else does, you are going to get what everybody else gets.”

The approach taken by most MLB teams to developing their players is extremely shocking. I detailed this on my site in September 2010, talking about Hunter Pence. Look at these “back squats” done by Hunter Pence and listen to the coach’s rationale for using a Smith machine over free weights:

My comments:

Listen to the coach – he says that because some players don’t speak English, they use the Smith machine. It’s “safer.” Well, a few things:

-The Smith machine is not safer. By translating extraneous movement in the sagittal and coronal planes into “productive” force, you remove all semblance of athletic carryover with the Smith machine. It does not mimic natural human movement whatsoever.

-Training the glutes is important, and to do so requires going to parallel. I certainly agree. However, Hunter Pence’s squats are not parallel and are not being done with free weights, rendering them all but useless.

-Players do not speak English very well, and so you stick them on fixed-motion machines that are simple to learn but transfer very little to the baseball diamond. Perhaps instead of making your strength and conditioning program much worse for the sake of non-English speaking players, you could…hire a translator and actually staff your weight rooms throughout various levels of affiliated baseball?

MLB coaches and managers are in denial that professional baseball players are athletes that require intense training rooted in the latest principles of exercise science and kinesiology!

According to the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), elite pitchers experience an average Shoulder Proximal Force of 1265 Newtons (N) during their pitching delivery. One kilogram (kg) applies a downwards force of approximately 9.8 N, so 1265 N is roughly equivalent to 129 kg (283 lbs.) of proximal force on the shoulder.

It only makes sense to prepare the body for these high forces that the shoulder experiences, and doing light resistance-band exercises and mobility work (the extent of the “training” many professional pitchers get) won’t cut it.

Heavy weight training or high-velocity medicine ball training can help the body adapt to these forces without generating the stressful rapid elbow extension that occurs in pitching. Elite pitchers also experience an average Maximum Elbow Proximal Force of 1150 N, so it’s not just the shoulder that needs to be trained properly!

Real player development

Player development for “organizational players” (the politically correct term for “non-prospect”) in the minor leagues consists of giving them a place to play and a place to work out. Everything else is on them to figure out by trial and error how they might be able to improve themselves.

Even high-caliber athletes like Matt Diaz are doing off-season workouts like P90x, which is completely ridiculous. P90x is a very well-marketed workout routine that is sold by radio jocks and TV infomercials. It “works” because in exercise science, everything works.

If you take someone who hasn’t done any real workouts and have them do something stupid (but mostly harmless) like P90x, some markers of progress will improve like body fat ratios and physical looks. I talked more about this in my article P90x For Baseball:

Problem Four: Isolation-based training—which P90x is—has little carryover to athletic competition.

While P90x can lead to building instabilities and promote dysfunction through isolated movements, I’m not terribly worried about the injury factor that it can absolutely lead to in baseball players (particularly pitchers). Why? Because P90x uses movements that necessitate low resistances, and so not much is getting done.

Remember above, we talked about how the shoulder and elbow experience over 200 lbs. of force on them in various ways during an elite pitcher’s delivery. Nothing comes close to that in P90x due to the low resistances used, and the basis of the program—which has been around for decades before P90x, I promise you—is a reasonable general conditioning program, but not appropriate for specialized athletes like baseball players!

Player development requires a few different stages. How you treat Justin Verlander is going to be radically different than how you treat a five-year journeyman right-handed pitcher who throws 88 MPH and is about to head out of professional baseball for good.

Verlander needs programs that are going to maximize his velocity throughout the season and keep him healthy, which will generally be hands-off type programs involving lower resistances and conservative exercise selections. The five-year journeyman about to be cut needs to train more aggressively to get his fastball velocity up over 90 MPH and can thusly take more risks.

However, this dichotomy is all but ignored at every level of baseball. You have 13 year olds copying Albert Pujols’ workout from a magazine and thinking that it’s what will get them to the show, and you have journeymen baseball players doing what their elite brethren do. Needless to say, this doesn’t work. The less genetically gifted need to work way harder than the ones who have lightning in their arms!

Prove it!

Since we live in a “put up or shut up” world, here’s a regular day in the office at Driveline Baseball / Driveline Athletics:

And some of the results in the off-season:

Alex M, 13 years old: +2 MPH
Travis T, 13 years old: +5 MPH
Ted W, 16 years old: +8 MPH
Eli M, 17 years old: +6 MPH

We have another pitcher who I am confident will go from sitting at 82 MPH to touching 90 MPH this off-season as well.

Using science: too weird

As you saw in the video, our guys use heavy overload baseballs and underweight baseballs. They train with heavy barbells and dumbbells. They do vertical jumping, broad jumping with bands attached to them, and push weight sleds. All of these exercises have research that backs up their positive contributions to bat speed, arm speed, and overall athleticism.

So why is it looked down upon? The answer is simple: There are some genetically gifted athletes that get to the show without doing any of this, and if that’s the case, this type of work isn’t going to help.

Moreover, pushing big weights around and jumping with bands attached to your hip just looks…dangerous. Yet Dr. Avery Faigenbaum—the subject matter expert on youth weight training—has shown that weightlifting is less dangerous than most other youth sporting activities, including soccer! Research simply does not support the myth that these “dangerous” activities have a negative impact on athletes of any kind.

Proper training for baseball athletes is looked at from a weird angle for many of the same reasons that clubs were afraid of sabermetrics before rec.sport.baseball took off, and later, the publication of Moneyball.

But things are changing. Dr. Marcus Elliot’s training programs are now implemented in the Seattle Mariners organization, where they’ve taken out all fixed-weight machines and replaced them with free weights, cable machines, and medicine balls. Their guys do a lot of plyometric and agility-based work, and they analyze the athletes using force plates to figure out where their areas of deficiency are.

This is the new underexplored field, and it’s chronicled in this article by Jack Z. himself:

How big? The team wrapped up their physicals earlier this week and some of the data is in. The average height and weight for the Mariners? 6’3″, 226 pounds. For the visual, the closest to average, I repeat average, is Felix Hernandez.

“Without a doubt,” Zduriencik answered when asked if this club’s physical makeup was an indicator of the direction he wanted to go in putting together his organization. “The one thing that I thought was important, and I said it to all of our guys, is we need to get physical.”

“Obviously you need baseball players and you need athletes, and there are certain positions on the field where size is going to be what it is, but I believe that physical players, that guys when you come in and look at this group and go, ‘Hmm. OK, I see it,’ I think it is a reflection of what we are trying to do.”

Zduriencik stressed to me that they are not just going after size, but athletes as well, and it goes beyond signing. It has to be developed.

The times are changing. Player development will be the next frontier to be better-explored as teams look to maximize payroll dollars, and teams like the Mariners and Red Sox are getting ahead of the curve now.

Only one question remains: who will write the next Moneyball?

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Comments

  1. Allen said...

    The basic gist of the article, IMHO is: “baseball at every level gets X wrong and is intolerant of change…but I get X right!  Conveniently, I have a business/product that can provide you with the correct way to do X!”

    Everything you say might be entirely 100% true, but due to the conflict of interest, I have trouble taking you seriously.

    Maybe your way of doing things is great, and maybe it’s not.  But how seriously can I take you, understanding you are not an impartial, unbiased source?

    At the very least, I think your conflict of interest should be clearly stated at the beginning of the article.

  2. Kyle Boddy said...

    Allen:

    I think that’s a legitimate comment. I do have a conflict of interest!

    I try to back up all my statements with facts and research. Here are some studies by Dr. Coop DeRenne that indicates that over/underload baseballs can improve release velocity:

    http://www.thecompletepitcher.com/weighted_baseballs.htm

    And here’s a study done on the effect of upper body training on release velocity:

    http://www.maxxtraining.com/aa3.pdf

    In “The relationship between power and lean body mass to sport-specific skills of college baseball players,” the conclusion was:

    “CONCLUSION: Results suggest that strength training programs designed to improve baseball player’s performance should emphasize increasing leg power, rotational power, and LBM.”

    I’ll try to include more research studies and resources in my future articles. Thanks!

  3. eric errickson said...

    Hope you get a better responce than Mike Marshall to different training approaches.  Seems to me that you have a well thought out program.  You need data, but so does everyone else…

  4. Kyle Boddy said...

    I obviously disagree – my first article detailed that I owned a biomechanics lab and training facility – but I will do a better job stating those things at the top of the article.

  5. Kyle Boddy said...

    Good question! Impossible to know, of course. We’d love to do a controlled study, but we don’t yet have the resources, so simple case studies will have to suffice at the moment.

    On our website, we offer free training in exchange for research study opportunities.

  6. Dave T said...

    I agree with Allen

    It doesn’t matter if research backs up your conclusions, since you run a business involved athletic training you need to state so at the start not at the end of the article. 

    The conflict of interest, not stated explicitly except in the comment section, presents a serious authenticity issue.

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