There’s a saying that real gains are made in the off-season…
And generally speaking, this is true. 9 times out 10, the off-season represents the best opportunity to work on your mechanics, improve your overall strength, mobility, flexibility, and implement an effective throwing program for increasing velocity.
And that’s all well and good… but about when that ship has sailed? The other day I got an email from a baseball dad asking for some advice regarding his son, a college pitcher. His son has been pitching well, having good success, but is a bit frustrated that his velocity seems to be maxing out at 86-88 MPH.
And while plenty of guys would be envious of that kind of velocity, this kid is 6’3”, 210 lbs. and has been at 88-89 in the past. Realistically, there’s no reason this pitcher shouldn’t be throwing 90+ when he puts it all together.
Now his situation is a bit unique, since he’s also coming off a pretty significant arm injury, which limited his ability to train as aggressively as he could have this winter. So in his case, my advice was was pretty simple.
He’s a freshman. This year should be about getting a full, healthy season of pitching under his belt. Once that objective has been met, there will be plenty of time for enhancing velocity.
But there are a lot of guys out there in similar situations (minus the injury part, hopefully) who want to know how they can bump up their velocity. So first we need to ask the question…
Is it possible to increase velocity during the season?
The short answer is absolutely yes.
In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for guys to see their velocity go up over the course of the season, even at the big league level…
I did a quick screen for 2012 fastball velocities over at fangraphs.com (very cool tool if you ever want to research this sort of thing) and a number of guys, including Justin Verlander and David Price, were throwing significantly harder in June than they were in April last year.
Of course, you’ll also see pitchers who tend to lose velocity as the season wears on. There are a ton of factors that go into why pitchers gain or lose velocity during the season…
I considered going into detail about all of those things here, but it just so happens that Eric Cressey has already done a heck of a job of that. So for more on that, be sure to check out his articles on the topic:
Among the reasons he gives for gaining velocity during the season, the two biggest in my opinion are increased external rotation and improved mechanical efficiency (or what he refers to as “Optimization of mechanics.”
Increased External Rotation: Studies have shown that pitchers develop more external rotation over the course of a season, and with the link between external rotation and velocity, it makes sense you’d see velocity go up a notch. But read this post before stretching your arm out to max external rotation.
Improved mechanical efficiency: Guys may have worked over the off-season to improve their mechanics, but sometimes it takes a while to implement those mechanics effectively at game intensity.
This isn’t necessarily due to direct tinkering with mechanics during the season (in fact, in most cases I wouldn’t recommend a major mechanical overhaul while pitching in-season). Sometimes it’s just finding your rhythm and getting things synced up while in the heat of competition.
Why it might go the other way…
Among the top reasons he gives for velocity dropping over the course of a season, the big ones for me are: Weight loss during the season, too much distance running, and a loss of strength… but the list goes on.
Another big one I’d actually add to his list would be a lack of proper arm care and conditioning during the season.
I remember when I showed up to camp my first year with the Indians after just completing my college season. My arm felt great, but after testing my shoulder strength they actually shut me down for 3 weeks based on how weak things were in there.
No injury to speak of, no arm pain at all, but a pretty alarming level of weakness and fatigue. This was a big wake up call. I thought I’d done a good job with my arm care in college… in reality, it wasn’t even close to what it should have been.
Okay, so we’ve looked at some reasons velocity can go up during the season, and some things to be wary of that can cause your velocity to drop. But now we need to ask another very important question…
Should gaining velocity be a focus during the season?
As is often the case, the answer to that question depends on a number of factors. So before making velocity gains a priority this season, here are some important things to consider…
Some problems with trying to increase velocity during the season:
1. Pitching is about more than throwing hard:
For guys pitching in at the college, pro, or even competitive high school level, the main goal is competing and getting the job done. And when it comes down to it, that means commanding your fastball, changing speeds and attacking the strike zone. As one of my coaches liked to say, “I’ve never seen the radar gun get anybody out.”
It’s also important to realize that working on things to increase velocity (which usually means training hard in the weight room, making mechanical adjustments, and implementing an aggressive throwing program), can interfere with your ability to do all of those other things well.
So if the most important thing right now is getting hitters out, focus on those other things first. Sometimes the added velocity will come on its own, for some of the reasons mentioned above.
2. Trying to light up the radar gun can lead to overthrowing:
You’ve probably seen this plenty of times. Guys get in a jam or want to impress a coach or scout in the stands and they wind up “muscling up” and overthrowing. As a result, they tense up, which usually leads to a loss of momentum and actually decreased velocity and control.
Overthrowing can also lead to a host of other problems. In addition to what I just mentioned, you tend to see guys get sloppy with their mechanics, leading to greater fatigue and increased stress on the throwing arm.
3. Tinkering too much with your mechanics during the season can lead to inconsistency, and you’re less likely to make changes that stick:
When it comes to your pitching delivery, you’re dealing with movement patterns that have been ingrained over years through countless repetitions. Expecting to make big changes that stick while also trying to compete is usually an uphill battle.
Lantz Wheeler at BaseballThinkTank.com wrote a nice article on this topic, definitely worth a read.
Now with all those things considered, it would seem the clear cut answer is that no, velocity gains shouldn’t be a goal during the season. But not so fast…
For many young pitchers, time (the race against the clock) is a major concern.
You only have so many years (sometimes months) to get your velocity where it needs to be to garner the attention of college coaches and scouts.
And while you don’t want to do things that will hurt your performance and your team, you probably don’t want to put off making mechanical changes that can help you gain velocity and could be the difference between pitching at the next level or not.
The best situation for working on increasing velocity “in-season” is usually with your summer league or travel ball team, where things tend to be more about development and gaining exposure (getting in front of college coaches and/or scouts).
And when you’re younger, sometimes those mechanical adjustments are easier to implement since you don’t have the years and years of ingrained movement patterns the way you do at the college or pro levels.
But even at those higher levels, sometimes you can find mechanical adjustments that are powerful yet subtle enough so you can implement them without a complete overhaul.
I’ll give you a couple quick real-life examples…
1. College pitcher gains 3 MPH with one simple fix:
A few years back when I was working as the pitching coach for a division I college program, we had a young pitcher with a ton of potential. He was 6’5”, 220 and strong as an ox. But he was also stiff as a board with his delivery.
But pitching from the stretch he actually moved pretty well and threw harder than he did from the windup. Mainly this had to do with his intent – from the stretch, he focused on getting loaded up quickly and driving down the mound…
He was basically leading with his shoulders. With a minor adjustment (getting him to lead with his hips better to move down the mound more powerfully) he went from throwing upper 80’s to hitting 92 MPH… in a matter of minutes.
2. Cubs 2012 Minor League Pitcher of the Year:
Last year I wrote about Cubs pitching prospect, Nick Struck, and how a mechanical adjustment he made mid-season really turned his season around.
In his case, it was actually shortening his stride – not something I typically recommend… most young pitchers could benefit from a longer stride, not the other way around.
But it’s a good example of how every pitcher is different, and how you can make a subtle mechanical adjustment during the season in a way that can help, not hinder, your performance.
You can check out the interview I did with Nick by clicking here: Why a Longer Stride Isn’t Always the Answer
So to sum up… CAN you gain velocity during the season? Absolutely.
But more importantly…
SHOULD you try to gain velocity during the season? Not necessarily…
It all comes down to understanding your unique situation and where you are in terms of your development. What are your goals, what are your short-term and long-term objectives? Get assessed, know what you need to work, and develop a plan that makes sense for YOU!
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