Velocity School: Where Pitchers Pay to Throw Harder


But in 2014, his shoulder ached. His velocity fell sharply, and hitters hammered his mistakes. He was sent to the minors, traded to the Chicago Cubs, then dealt to Houston, where he barely pitched. With the blessing of the Astros — whose general manager, Jeff Luhnow, has toured Driveline and consulted with Boddy — Straily went to Driveline after the 2015 season to strengthen his shoulder. He knew that harder throwers always get more chances, and hoped to raise his minimum velocity back to respectability.

“If I would have just walked into Kyle’s and said, ‘Make me throw 95,’” Straily said, “he would have said, ‘All right, there’s the door, we’ll see you later.’”

From Driveline, Straily said, he simply wanted a foundation, so he could map out his ideal delivery to put his arm in its strongest, most stable position. The adjustments have turned around his career: In the two seasons before starting Boddy’s program, he went 1-4 in the majors. In the two seasons since, he is 23-17, and he said his arm was never sore.

“The most important stuff is the boring recovery work,” Boddy said. “They do tons of stuff that you would do in rehab if you get injured.”

Bauer has never had an arm injury, and believes hard throwers can stay healthy if they move properly. Though he has trained with Boddy since reaching the majors in 2012, his work before that, with Wolforth, helped put him on the path to dominance at U.C.L.A., where he struck out more than 11 hitters per nine innings and became the No. 3 overall draft choice in 2011.

Wolforth started his business in 1993, and a decade ago, he said, teams viewed him as a pariah. He could help pupils throw hard enough to get signed, but mainly built pitchers who could win teddy bears at carnivals, not actual games. In that case, he thought, what was the point?

“There was real criticism: You get a Wolforth guy in 2008, he’s going to throw the ball through a carwash and not get it wet, but I’m not sure he could throw it over the white thing,” Wolforth said. “And now, when we send a guy up, not only can they throw it over the white thing and throw it hard, but they can also recover, and their pitch ability goes very high. We have shifted our emphasis and broadened it.”

Today, Wolforth said, he spends more time teaching mechanics, secondary pitches and command than teaching velocity. He consults with about half of the major league teams and has helped rejuvenate the careers of several wayward pitchers, including at least two former Cy Young Award winners.

When pitchers suddenly throw harder, Wolforth said, they must also learn the right way to decelerate in their follow-through; using Volkswagen Beetle brakes on a Maserati, he said, invites disaster. Wolforth believes that with a comprehensive, individualized program, all pitchers can find their maximum velocity. But that is only part of what they need.

“The radar gun doesn’t tell us if they can pitch or not,” Wolforth said. “It’s a very simple, snap way to tell something, and sometimes it’s not the best way, but people like it because it immediately gives you feedback and it’s comparable.”

The Indians, in particular, have embraced some of the strategies used by Wolforth and Boddy. Four of their starters — Bauer, Josh Tomlin, Mike Clevinger and Danny Salazar — use weighted balls in their training, but Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco do not. Every pitcher has a program specifically tailored for him.

Yet even the most carefully scripted training does not always work. Salazar, who missed two playoff rounds last fall because of a forearm injury, spent time on the disabled list this summer because of elbow inflammation. He is the Indians’ hardest-throwing starter, with a fastball averaging about 95 m.p.h., but now he is in the bullpen, an afterthought in Cleveland’s 21-game winning streak entering Thursday.

Photo

Kyle Boddy, the founder of Driveline, applying sensors to the upper body of Anthony Brady, a relief pitcher at the University of Northern Colorado.

Credit
Michael Hanson for The New York Times

But Curveballs Count, Too

As velocity rises, the theory goes, so do pitching injuries. Both are up this year. But simply blaming velocity may be too simple. Throwing too hard, too often, with improper mechanics, at too young an age — all of those factors can damage developing ligaments and tendons. And the best predictor of future injury is past injury.

Yet it would also be wrong to scold amateurs for pitching to the radar gun. They are only following the new rules of the game.

“Velo is king, at least in the draft process, amateur ball and up into minor league ball,” Bauer said. “Once you get to the big leagues, and you’re here, getting outs and stuff like that is king. But up until the big leagues, velo is king, and in the minor leagues, guys that have poor results but throw really hard get a lot more opportunities than guys that have really good results but throw 86 or 88.”

With so many hard throwers, House said, the traditional starting pitcher, as we know the role now, will soon cease to exist. Future staffs, he predicted, will be made up of 12 pitchers throwing three times a week, with nobody working more than 45 pitches per game or going more than once through the lineup.

To some extent, this is happening. In the last World Series, no starting pitcher got an out past the sixth inning. Only 15 pitchers threw 200 innings last season, the fewest ever in a nonstrike year. Teams eagerly draw from the deep well of hard throwers stocking their farm systems.

“When I first got called up, the pitchers they were going with were guys that were 88 to 92, with sink and cut — veteran guys that could spot it up,” said Houston catcher Brian McCann, a 13-year veteran. “Over time, we’ve realized that the prospect in Triple A that throws hard is a way more uncomfortable at-bat than the other guy.”

Of course, hitters would not be in the majors if they could not connect with straight fastballs. And while velocities are rising, pitchers are actually throwing fewer and fewer fastballs. Just 55.6 percent of all pitches have been fastballs this season, the lowest figure in the 16 seasons tracked by FanGraphs.

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