Turning Up the Heat — Safely

Pitcher throwing ball

Rock Bridge High School baseball player Jack Fischer throws a weighted ball during a recent Throwing Velocity Program session at MU Health Care’s Human Performance Institute.

One after another, the young athletes at MU Health Care’s Human Performance Institute rock forward, then back, before firing a ball into a padded wall. Invariably, they immediately spin around and check the monitor hooked up to a radar gun in the back of the room.

Pitching well requires control and guile, but there is no substitute for speed. Turning up the heat — safely — is the goal of HPI’s new Throwing Velocity Program.

“We’re always trying to take a science-based approach to improving athlete performance and increasing injury prevention,” said Aaron Gray, MD, the HPI medical director. “A lot of times in sports medicine, there are types of exercises or programs that can do both. Sometimes ACL injury prevention can increase performance and decrease injuries. When we think of pitchers, it can be the same.”

Aaron Gray, MD

Aaron Gray, MD

The Throwing Velocity Program is led by a current University of Missouri athlete who has trained at the Driveline Baseball center in Kent, Wash. Driveline is known for a data-driven approach to baseball — among its proponents is the Cleveland Indians’ tech-obsessed pitcher Trevor Bauer — and HPI’s program uses many of those ideas.

The classes are for all ages and meet three times a week — Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday afternoons — for 90 minutes. The first half of those workouts is devoted to throwing-specific exercises. The athletes warm up with wrist weights, elastic bands and wiggling sticks called shoulder tubes. Then they start throwing squishy balls that range in weight from 3.5 ounces to 4 pounds. A regulation baseball weighs 5 ounces.

The second half of the workouts, led by HPI head trainer Garrett Buschjost, focuses on general physical preparation. The program began in November and will continue until late February. It will go on hiatus during high school and college baseball seasons before resuming again.

“We get a lot of baseball guys, and we wanted to be on the cutting edge,” Buschjost said. “There are going to be team sports like football, basketball and soccer, that are going to require some of the same movement mechanics and skill sets, so some of that training is pretty general and pretty similar. But there are sports that are very specific in things that they need, and baseball is one of them. That is something we wanted to bring a different approach to that we knew no one else in town had.”

Backed by Research

Several Rock Bridge High School baseball players are in the Throwing Velocity Program. Rock Bridge coach Justin Towe believes it can safely improve their performance.

“There is research and science behind it,” said Towe, whose sons Wyatt and Tyler participate. “It’s not a program that just popped up overnight. It’s been around for a while with a lot of success for kids not just trying to throw harder but for arm injury prevention. All of those factors are intriguing.

“The big thing in baseball is: Who can throw the hardest? Most kids at all levels don’t work the right muscles to throw the ball harder but also to prevent injuries. This program does both. By strengthening muscles you don’t usually work, it’s preventing injury but also giving you additional velocity.”

The program isn’t just for pitchers or even baseball players. Softball position players, football quarterbacks, track throwers or athletes in any other sport requiring overhand throws could also benefit. Pitchers are an obvious target audience, though.

According to the baseball statistics website FanGraphs, the average Major League fastball in 2017 was 92.9 mph, more than 3 mph faster than the average from 15 years ago. The game is evolving toward pitchers throwing harder for shorter stints. That mind-set is filtering down to the college level. Throwing a fastball 90 mph can open doors to Division I college scholarships. But throwing harder puts more stress on elbows, which makes injury-prevention a key piece of any training program.

“Strength and conditioning and sports medicine are equally important,” Gray said. “If we have a healthy athlete who is not strong and fast and can’t throw hard, that’s not good for a team or a coach. If they’re really fast and really strong, but they’re injured and broken down, that’s not good either.

“One of the exciting things about HPI is we’re able to work on athlete performance and injury prevention in tandem, then we can study that. We can see how the pitchers’ strength and throwing velocity improves, and we can also track and make sure they are staying healthy.”

To learn more about HPI’s Throwing Velocity Program, contact Garrett Buschjost at BuschjostG@health.missouri.edu.