By: Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
Let’s be honest here, baseball can be a pretty tired game at times. Case in point: A guy flips a bat and half of Major League Baseball loses their collective mind.
Sure, the nostalgic lore of “America’s Past-Time” can be quite charming, especially when read in a book or viewed in a film. But, in reality, certain aspects of the game are actually rather archaic.
When at it’s absolute worst, that old-fashioned baseball mindset can even become dangerous.
The increased discussion regarding athletic injuries - particularly when it comes to young people - remains heavily focused around contact sports such as hockey and football. Of course, the devastating effects being caused by head injuries and concussions do require greater urgency. However, the propensity to dismiss baseball as somehow ‘not dangerous’ because of its lack of contact is, quite frankly, scientifically ignorant.
According to a 2012 article published in the Journal of Sports Health, it is estimated that 5% of youth pitchers experience an arm injury that will either require surgery or force them to leave the game within 10 years. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons further warns that UCL reconstruction (commonly known as “Tommy John” surgery) has increased ten-fold among young baseball players within the last decade.
These trends are typically linked with the phenomenon of kids specializing earlier, and therefore putting added stress on their bodies through repetitive baseball training year-round.
But if you’re one of those young, eager athletes seeking to make a run at The Show, there’s no need to panic or give up the game quite yet. Most people in the scientific community believe that any adverse effects can be easily mitigated with proper training techniques, guidance, and consistent monitoring.
The problem lies in getting some of the elite programs to buy-in - because baseball can be a difficult game to change.
One organization that has sought to bring baseball-specific training into the 21st century is the Ontario Terriers - an “elite baseball program committed to preparing aspiring players for the rigours of collegiate baseball both on and off the diamond”.
Led by principals Mike and Nicole Tevlin and Rick Johnston, the Terriers have already integrated a novel, scientific approach in order to improve player performance and reduce the risk of injury.
Recently, the three Terriers execs sat down with the Canadian Baseball Network at the Baseball Zone, an indoor training facility located in Mississauga, Ontario, and home of the Terriers organization.
“Part of what we’ve done around here lately is we’ve become more connected to that world of sports science,” Mike Tevlin said. “Things are changing. All of a sudden kids have to throw harder and we want them to do it without hurting themselves ... High-school guys don’t think they’ve got a chance with either the draft or college if they aren’t throwing 90 [miles an hour].”
This, the Tevlins and Johnston admit, can come with added risk.
“I think if you’re in good shape and you’ve done all the right training you can throw 92 without hurting yourself. You just have to know what you’re doing. A lot of guys don’t.”
In order to build-up arm strength in safe and controlled manner, the Terriers have enlisted the help of Dr. Carmine Filice, founder of The Performance Lab which focuses on sports science and biomechanics to create training programs that better track athlete performance.
“[Dr. Filice] can take a guy and make him go from 85 to 90 miles an hour, without hurting himself,” Tevlin says. “He’s monitoring them, he’s not trying to make their chest 46 inches around.”
The focus on controlled baseball training, not just weight-lifting or cardio, is one of the key caveats of the aptly-named “Baseball Zone”. Immediately upon entering the 15,000 square foot facility, you’re greeted by a large mural showcasing the more than 80 colleges and pro-teams that past Terrier players have graduated to.
“Sure it would be nice if the facility was five-times bigger,” Tevlin joked, “but we don’t need anything bigger because we’re focused on skills. And I can tell you that when [Toronto Blue Jay] Edwin Encarnacion was here in November for a charity event, he looked around and said ‘this is exactly what you need’.”
Even for somebody who may be less familiar with the game, it’s not hard to see why the Blue Jays superstar spoke so highly of the facility. With seven fully retractable hitting cages, state of the art pitching machines, and an on-site Sports Specific Training (SST) fitness centre, the Terriers organization preaches individualized, functional training specific to the game of baseball.
Putting each player through the same, standard training process assumes that they all have the same strengths and weaknesses - which is something neither the Tevlins nor Johnson agree with.
“Terrier players are individually tested on certain weaknesses, so that we can have programs specific to that person,” Nicole Tevlin said.
“We try and individualize everything,” Mike Tevlin added. This, they believe, is why Dr. Filice’s expertise can give them such an edge.
“He’ll bring his gear to the facility and measure a pitcher’s angles, velocities, and motions. And he compares all those numbers to a pro’s,” Nicole Tevlin said. “He’ll get them to do chin-ups, and can monitor what muscles are weaker just through that. The kids get better, stronger, and less likely to be injured, all at once.”
Johnston, who aside from being the Director of Baseball Operations also coaches the Under-17 team, explained that the players are constantly being monitored and tested throughout the season.
“They get an initial test [to establish a performance baseline],” Johnston said. “Then they get a pre-Christmas test and another one eight-weeks apart, followed by a fourth and final test."
The constant monitoring not only helps to avoid and identify potential injuries, but it also allows the Terrier coaches to create fluid programs that cater to the needs of each individual player.
“Dr. Filice will then work with Courtney - the director of the SST centre at the Baseball Zone - and they’ll work out a program for that player,” Mike Tevlin said. “There could be 20 different programs at once."
According to their website, SST is focuses on “No B.S.” training for serious athletes. It uses strength and conditioning programs to target muscle-groups related to a player’s specific sport.
“After [a program is developed] the players are basically monitored every week," Tevlin said. "Courtney knows exactly what they’re trying to work on, and she can correct any inefficiencies.
“When a player leaves here [to college], the development is kind of over ... So we, along with Carm at the Performance Lab and SST, are trying to get these kids to be self-sufficient when they leave. And be good at baseball.”
Well, if the mural at the front of the Baseball Zone is any indication, whatever the Terriers are doing seems to be working.
At the very least, a lot of young arms will thank them for putting their trust science.