By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
The military has a rule about soldiers discussing religion and politics in the mess hall -
Don’t do it.
Their reasoning is simple: Everybody has an impassioned opinion on those topics, and everybody thinks their own opinion is right (meaning everybody else’s is wrong).
It is therefore not uncommon for these incendiary discussions to escalate into shows of bravado involving much yelling and chest-beating, if not a fist fight or two.
In baseball - which, if you haven’t noticed, can be an equally insular culture at times - there are also topics that, for the safety of everyone at the table, should be barred from all dinner-time conversation. Such topics include:
The designated hitter.
Barry Bonds’s home run “record”.
And the ubiquity of the radar gun.
Sit even the most educated and well-read baseball coaches down at a bar and you’re bound to get disagreement on each of those issues. Of course with the designated hitter and the Bonds debates, these individual differences of opinion are of very little consequence (other than maybe a thrown barstool or two).
But for those on the forefront of player development - in particular those tasked with developing baseball’s young pitchers - opinions regarding velocity and the radar gun are serious business. Remaining uneducated on the issues surrounding velocity, and the risks that come with trying to increase it, can have dire consequences resulting in crushed dreams or worse - debilitating injury.
Thankfully, there are those in the youth baseball world who care deeply about this issue, and seek to take every precaution possible to protect the arms of the future. It is this mentality that leads them to constantly ask the ever-important question:
Is the radar gun literally hurting baseball’s youth?
For Terriers head pitching instructor and director of high performance programs, Ryan “Magic Man” Armstrong, remaining on the cutting edge of the velocity debate - in particular the scientific literature surrounding it - has been one of his program’s top priorities.
A former pitcher at Texas State University who now holds an Associates Degree in Kinesiology, Armstrong understands the nuances of velocity training more than most. And although he and the Terriers organization are not naive regarding the need for pitchers to add speed to their fastballs, they believe the ethical thing is to lean to the side of caution wherever there is scientific uncertainty.
“It’s an open ended discussion,” says Armstrong regarding the velocity debate. “Obviously I can only speak to what we do, but we are, especially with the younger ages, very cautious with radar guns.”
In this way, Armstrong’s job takes the form of a critical balancing act - maximizing his pitchers’ potential for success at the next level while also mitigating the physical risks associated with increased velocity.
“It’s not that we don’t understand that for the next level [velocity] is really important. And at times it’s a very good metric for college or pro scouts. But it has to be done responsibly, and I see some of that being a question mark in my mind around baseball.”
The difference an extra five miles-per-hour on a fastball can make to a pitcher’s success is irrefutable. And despite what the Tom Glavine and Mark Buehrle fan clubs may want you to believe, it’s the fact that faster pitches are generally harder to hit that makes velocity training so important.
In the book The Physics of Baseball, Dr. Robert Adair, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Physics at Yale University (who is also unfortunately a massive Red Sox fan), writes that the average Major League fastball crosses home plate in roughly 400-500 milliseconds.
Considering the human brain takes 150 milliseconds just to process any sensory stimulus (studies have conclusively shown that’s the time it takes to blink on command), a batter effectively only has three-tenths of a second to judge the pitch and send the signal from his brain that tells his muscles to move and swing the bat.
Given that this pitcher-batter drama plays out over such infinitesimal timeframes, the advantage of a few extra miles-per-hour should be obvious.
According to Dr. Adair, if a 90 MPH fastball was thrown at the exact same time as a 95 MPH fastball, the 95 MPH pitch would cross the plate a full three feet ahead of the 90 MPH pitch (traveling from the pitcher’s hand to home in just .41 seconds).
For Armstrong and the Terriers, they believe that drastic leaps in velocity can be learned, and learned safely. And indeed they have helped many young pitchers (even those at the senior level whose bodies are more developed) make such improvements.
According to the Terriers website, Armstrong has helped numerous young athletes raise their fastball velocity to the ever-important 90 MPH benchmark.
“Velocity is something that you definitely acquire,” Armstrong says, “... [but] if you’re just providing a quick solution by handing them something that’s not necessarily the whole picture, I don’t think it serves them well in the long run ... It’s like if you have a car and you only soup up the engine - well what about the steering? What about the brakes? You might go really fast, but if you crash you’re in big trouble.”
In other words, Armstrong is making what should be an obvious point - What good is a pitcher if he’s injured?
Unfortunately, Armstrong also knows that there are those in the industry who choose to forgo caution in the favour of quick results (most of which never pan out anyway). He even recounts, with obvious frustration, of hearing about coaches who bring radar guns out to practices for their 9-year-old kids, something the Terriers organization would not fathom.
Of course he doesn’t believe that anybody is doing this with bad intentions, however he admits that the pressure on young pitchers to throw hard is leading to new ethical dilemmas within the sport.
“Some of the things you hear about going on in baseball around this area or otherwise is a little concerning. If you understand a bit of the physiology like I do, and then you add a guy like [Terriers program consultant and sports scientist for The Performance Lab, Dr. Carmine Filice] who understands the issue to whatever degree possible, you realize how some of these modalities could be detrimental, and are possibly leading to future problems for young people.”
The need to increase velocity in order to have any shot at continuing in the sport has even led to the scandalous trend of young pitchers - some as young as 14-years-old - undergoing elective Tommy John surgery to replace otherwise healthy ligaments in their throwing arm. Feeling as if the surgery is inevitable to a career pitcher, they choose instead to just ‘get it over with’.
Tommy John surgery (otherwise known as Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction) is an invasive surgery where a ligament in the pitcher’s elbow is replaced by a tendon taken from elsewhere in the body. It often requires a year of rehabilitation before the player can pitch again.
“That’s troubling to a person like me,” Armstrong says of this new trend, “... If you’re having an elective Tommy John surgery at 14-years-old, for you and your family baseball is the least of your concerns in my opinion. We also try to talk to our kids about things like that. Have them understand why they would make the decision to do what they would do. If a kid said to me, ‘I’m going to have an elective Tommy John surgery at this age’, I’m going to say ‘Well, why would you want to do that? What is the plan from there?’ There really isn’t any good reason to do something like that at that age.”
Armstrong’s policy is to maintain an open line of dialogue between him and his players, as even he admits that the science is far from settled. Despite the game’s best efforts, there is still no universally accepted way of keeping pitchers healthy while also maximizing their production, even at that Major League level where teams have entire departments devoted to this issue.
“Science is involved more than it has ever been,” Armstrong admits. “But as you can see, some of these guys [at the Major League level] with the best science and the best of intentions are still coming up hurt. So if you could find a model that is both durable and gets people out, I’d say that’s the million dollar question.”
On May 29, 2017, there were 180 Major League players on the disabled list. Of those 180 injured players, 115 of them were pitchers (65%). (The percentage of pitchers on the long-term DL was even higher.)
Considering pitchers usually only take up roughly 50% of the spots on a 25 or 40-man roster, it’s clear that pitching is the position where players are most vulnerable.
For obvious reasons, most people will hopefully view an invasive surgery like Tommy John as a last resort, and the relative acceptance of such a practice in the baseball community as extremely concerning. However, Armstrong believes that even less intrusive methods of increasing velocity require the same amount of moral scruple and scientific inquiry.
This is why Armstrong has never been one to jump on the latest pitching “fad”, choosing instead to allow the scientific community to do a proper analysis so that he - in conjunction with the scientists the Terriers work with at The Performance Lab - can decide if it’s something they feel safe integrating. And even when a program passes those checks, there is no guarantee a certain player will be allowed to participate in the program, as each individual pitcher must undergo an assessment prior to starting any velocity training.
“Any player that is going to be doing any of these exercises, like a weighted ball, they have to be cleared. It’s not just buying some kit off the internet. You have to do more than that.”
Weighted baseball programs, as some Blue Jays fans may remember, were credited with rejuvenating the career of high-school teacher turned All-Star reliever Steve Delabar (who was recently suspended 80-games for a positive test in the minor league drug program).
But these programs can also be very dangerous if not properly monitored. And it’s here where Armstrong’s Kinesiology background comes in handy.
“The reality is if you don’t understand the anatomy of what you’re doing - taking a heavier implement and throwing it really hard is going to force the external rotation of the shoulder a little bit more. It’s going to increase “layback” ... the problem is, if you don’t understand that particular person’s shoulder capacity and mobility, you could be causing a problem.”
A quick google search of these weighted ball programs will be sure to include a myriad of caveats and disclaimers, with most explicitly stating that players should undergo a professional assessment before beginning, and that nobody under the age of 14 should participate.
But there are also many testimonials too, and if done with the correct supervision, they can be very successful in boosting a pitcher’s velocity.
“People used to think that we were opposed to weighted baseballs,” Armstrong recalls. “We’ve never been opposed to weighted baseballs, it’s just something that we didn’t know as much about, even though [other programs] were doing it and believed in it, and some of the stuff they said was really right on. That’s good, but again, the other thing is the lack of other people reviewing [the research].
“We’ve done things differently over the years, sure. Because we’ve learned and adapted ... if somebody says weighted balls are good, I’m going to say ‘Well what does the world say about it? What do coaches in different fields say? What does science say? You take a holistic look at that topic and then you figure out if it’s right for what’s going on in your world.”
Armstrong is more than fine with being labelled as unconventional, because he knows he is doing right by his players in the long-term. And although velocity continues to become the most sought-after metric for young pitchers, he’s going to continue doing things the ethical way.
“There’s no magic bean ... With the information age you can read about a fabulous velocity program with no consequences. But there’s no shortcuts to being great at something.”
Follow Tyler on Twitter: @TylerJoseph108