Coaching High School Pitchers: Dropping the “Hammer”

By Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja)

It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” –Abraham Maslow

Too often, coaches can tend to be one dimensional, focusing on one aspect of pitching as the key to success. To some, almost all problems can be solved by one particular cue or mechanical adjustment or letting the pitcher rest or whatever they were taught years ago, depending on their own mindset and biases. In short, for many coaches and pitchers, the only tool they have is their personal “hammer,” so everything they see is a nail.

Most coaches would agree that every pitcher is different and unique, but they tend to try the same cookie cutter approach when developing pitchers. To properly get the most out of your pitchers and build your pitching “stool,” you need to have many different tools at your disposal, one for each part of the job.

 

  1. Mechanical focus/velocity

Pitching velocity is dependent on almost an infinite number of factors, and nearly all are unique to each pitcher. The concept that velocity cannot be taught is outdated–it most certainly can be. However, every pitcher creates velocity based on his individual movement patterns, mobility, flexiblity, strength, genetics, etc.

 

The fallacy of emulating high level pitchers or just teaching what you were taught (ie, one size fits all mechanics) is: what may cause one pitcher to throw hard may not work for me. To the extreme, 5’10” Billy Wagner’s mechanics would not work for 6’10” Randy Johnson nor vice versa. However, to me, there is value in studying overall movement patterns of successful pitchers and finding how different pitchers move to create velocity and tailoring it to your own style and make-up.

An important concept to remember is the Bernstein Principle of training: The body will organize itself based upon the ultimate goal of the activity. In the end, there are almost limitless ways in which each pitcher’s body may be different and unique. The best coaches understand this and create drills that allow pitchers to use their own movement patterns and personal strengths to create velocity, giving specific goals of the drill. Coaches must constantly be learning and be open to new drills.

Among the drills that I see as most beneficial in creating velocity are medicine ball drills, weighted balls, wrist weights, as well as lower half focused drills that allow the individual to shape the drill based on his strengths and weaknesses. [See Driveline Baseball’s Hacking the Kinetic Chain, Lantz Wheeler’s Core velo belt, and Paul Nyman’s and Ron Wolforth’s work, for example.] If we focus on general movement pattern drills instead of positions, we allow each pitcher maximize the velocity components for his own biomechanical make-up. Additionally, overall strength and conditioning and gaining of “mass” while maintaining mobility and flexibility must be a focus—building a house (working on drills) without putting in the work on the foundation (building the body) is a sure way to fail.

  1. Control

The control aspects of the game are also overlooked, until game time, when the coach or pitcher gets frustrated by walks. Every throw in practice should be treated as an opportunity to learn motor movements and work on proprioception, even when warming up. Have a purpose with every throw, not just in bullpens. And remember, little adjustments make big differences. You can’t even feel a .5 degree adjustment, but .5 degrees means around 6” either way at the plate. That’s why repetition and constantly having a purpose must be stressed at all times on every single throw or movement. Focus on the “feel” of each throw, how the ball came off your fingers, what your mental “cues” were, etc. and try to repeat it. Also don’t forget to try to recreate in game pressure, since often that is the wildcard in your ability to hit your spots.

  1. Injury reduction

Similarly, there are numerous factors involved in the arm injuries.

“It’s multifactorial,” Dr. Gambardella, chairman of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic said about ligament tears. “There are so many variables that are involved here that it gets very difficult to really come up with the best way to prevent injury to the ligament.”

The idea that because a pitcher successfully pitched a long time in the Majors his mechanics are “safe” for everyone is highly flawed. For example, this position may be quite “safe” for this man (Daniel Browning Smith) due to his great flexiblity, but for me, it might cause extreme ligament and tendon damage.

Instead, because injuries are multifactorial, focus on injury prevention should be holistic. Focusing on any one area without looking at the overall picture is suboptimal. Mobility work, strength and conditioning, as well as elimininating stressful mechanics must be invovled. If a pitcher is having pain after throwing, that’s a good start for exploring what should be changed. However, just changing things because that’s what someone else did successfully or it’s not how you did/learned it, is a recipe for failure. While Nolan Ryan’s mechanics were relatively “safe” for him, it ignores the fact that he also was a huge advocate for strength and conditoining. In fact, Ryan said “There’s no way I could have recovered quickly, or been as durable, without a firm base of strength from lifting. Lifting helped me be more consistent.” Ryan’s mechanics may not be safe for a pitcher who is not in the same overall physical condition or have the same mobility/flexibility as he did.

In addition, there are two laws adaptation for body tissue, one hard and one for soft tissue. Wolff’s law states that bones will adapt to loading, while Davis’ law states the same for soft tissue such as ligaments and tendons.

I see too many pitchers and coaches who think “rest” means don’t do anything in your down time. Proper recovery and arm conditioning needs to be stressed. Things like weighted ball rebounders, regular and reverse throws (again, weighted balls), and wrist weights as well as overall strength work can develop proper movement patterns and also allow both bones, ligaments and tendons to strengthen over time. The idea of coddling pitchers (or “Xbox recovery” where you sit and play video games on your day off) is dangerous and may lead to more injuries. As Kyle Boddy at Driveline has said: “Rest is Atrophy.” Similarly, I’m very interested in Dr. James Buffi’s work looking at the way muscles protect the UCL and other ligaments (it seems intuitive that muscles can absorb some of the stress otherwise borne by ligaments and tendons). Ignoring strength, conditioning and mobility work because you’re worried about injuries seems to be more likely to cause injuries than prevent them. Focus should be more on active recovery and off and in-season strength and conditioning instead of shutting pitchers down between starts.

Note this trend in Tommy John surgeries, with a spike in March, when pitchers start their season. One reason may be that too much rest in the offseason may cause weakness in bones, ligaments and tendons, not allowing them to endure the stress that comes with throwing.

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Chart from March Sadness, Grantland, March 19, 2015

  1. Mental game

Even the best pitchers have times of doubt.

As a coach and a pitcher, the mental aspects of the game are as important as the physical aspects. A good coach should be part psychologist, protecting a pitcher from these negative thoughts that stand in the way of his athletic performance. A top pitcher must work on the mental game as much as the physical game in order to let his athleticism shine.

By shouting instructions from the bench each pitch or not protecting your pitcher from performance-impacting pressure, you are failing to allow your pitcher to be put in a position to succeed. And as a pitcher, you must master this aspect of the game to be successful. In the end, a talented, healthy pitcher with no confidence or mental game is worthless to your team.

When shouting directions or mechanical cues to your pitcher, think about how would this work out for your golf game:

The mental game also is comprised of the drive of a pitcher to improve and practice, and prepare for the outing. To me, it’s inseparable from the other legs of the stool—it impacts velocity, control and injury prevention. In fact, it may be the biggest impact a coach could have, supplying the nails and glue that keep the stool together, creating the work ethic and confidence necessary to help a pitcher become the pitcher that he is destined to be.

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