Velocity School: Where Pitchers Pay to Throw Harder
By Tyler Kepner
Sept. 14, 2017
KENT, Wash. — Trevor Bauer is the son of a chemical engineer. Those are the genes he inherited. An engineer, Bauer explained, will consider a problem, develop a process to solve it, then implement, evaluate and adjust until finding a solution. Nothing is untrainable.
Bauer did not want to be a chemical engineer, though. He wanted to be, and still wants to be, the best pitcher in baseball. He succeeded on the mound as a boy in California, yet his peers who threw harder, even by a little bit, made the best travel teams and attracted more attention.
“I was like, ‘O.K., I’m tired of those people getting opportunities over me because I don’t throw as hard,’” Bauer said recently, in the Cleveland Indians’ clubhouse at Fenway Park. “Why don’t I throw harder?”
Bauer threw 78 miles an hour as a high school freshman. The summer after that season, he visited a coach in Texas, Ron Wolforth, to do something about it. In a few years, Bauer became a hard-throwing first-round draft pick and was soon in a major league rotation.
For most pitchers, from sandlots to stadiums, velocity has never been a decision. Anything else in pitching can be learned — from teammates, coaches, even books. But nobody teaches a fastball, it is said; either you throw hard or you don’t.
Dan Straily, a starter for the Miami Marlins, listed his pitches on the bench before a recent game. A college teammate taught him his slider. A major league teammate taught him his curveball. A minor league coach taught him his changeup.
“And then everyone throws a fastball,” Straily said. “I’ve thrown the same four-seam fastball forever.”
Yet Bauer and Straily have shown that the fastball can be taught — by building a better one, in Bauer’s case, or restoring a missing one, in Straily’s. Neither has been an All-Star, but both have become durable, dependable starters, the kind worth millions to teams. Without the baseline of a respectable fastball — 94 miles an hour for Bauer, 90 for Straily — they probably could not survive in the modern game.
Bauer and Straily have both worked with Kyle Boddy at Driveline Baseball’s training center here, where Bauer expanded on the lessons he learned from Wolforth at the Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, Tex. Neither Boddy nor Wolforth pitched professionally, but they have built thriving businesses by teaching each pupil to maximize — safely, they insist — his body’s capacity for throwing hard.
They symbolize, and have helped fuel, the speed game baseball has gradually become. According to FanGraphs, the average fastball in 2002 was 89 m.p.h. It has crept higher in each of the last seven seasons, to 92.8 m.p.h. Rising velocity is changing the sport, and all but shutting out pitchers who can’t keep up.
“One hundred miles per hour is the new benchmark,” said Tom House, a former major league pitcher and coach who founded the National Pitching Association, which runs camps and clinics nationwide. “I think in the next five to eight years, most pitchers, to sign a pro contract, are going to have to show 97, 98, and touch 101, 102. That’s where the research is going.”
That is why, under morning clouds in late June, dozens of young pitchers — mostly on break from college programs — strode purposefully around the parking lots of Driveline’s modest home at an industrial park near Sea-Tac Airport, holding kettlebell weights over their heads or wiggling long sticks (called shoulder tubes, for warm-up and recovery) in front of their chests. They were some of the many aspiring pros who work with House, Wolforth, Boddy and other coaches who can help them throw hard enough to be noticed.
And yet, if they do not know it already, they will soon learn that velocity alone is not enough to succeed at the highest level. The game is too intricate and filled with too many hitters who can adjust. But without that velocity, the rest may never come into play.
“There’s a floor, like: ‘You have to throw this hard, and if you don’t, then you’re not a big leaguer,’” Boddy said. “But people take it way too far. It’s only important insomuch that you need it to get past the gate.”
Weighted Balls, Fancy Cameras
Boddy has several units at his complex, including one to store Driveline’s inventory of brightly colored PlyoCare balls, weighing from 3.5 ounces to 4.4 pounds. (Standard baseballs are 5 to 5.25 ounces.) In another unit, while one pitcher works in a screened-in bullpen, others fire the weighted balls, from close range, at padded walls. Still another unit acts as a laboratory, with 12 high-speed cameras surrounding a mound, capturing biomechanical data while a cluster of computers tracks every movement in intimate determination.
“When you go watch the video,” Straily said, “you can see the hair on your finger.”
Officials from at least 10 major league teams have toured the facilities. Tony Cingrani, a reliever traded last month from Cincinnati to the Los Angeles Dodgers, spent a week at Driveline last fall to analyze his pitches in real time, study the spin of his slider and get a template for his off-season workouts. Dodgers starter Brandon McCarthy visited, too, after experiencing sudden, unsettling bursts of wildness late last season. He said he was drawn to Boddy’s approach.
“It’s scientific, but it’s also just very raw and aggressive,” McCarthy said. “It’s lift-heavy, try to throw hard, less of the art of pitching and more just getting after it. There’s also some science in what they’re doing in terms of pitch development, and I like that it’s an independent place that’s not tethered to a team, where you have to take one person’s philosophy. You go there and you can tinker and play. They’re open to studying everything.”
Boddy pitched in high school, but his arm always hurt and no one could tell him why. He worked as a software developer at Microsoft but was endlessly fascinated by the science of pitching, and probing the secrets to arm health and potential. He started Driveline in 2008 and now works with more than 500 pitchers a year.
The fastest pitch on record is 105 m.p.h., by Aroldis Chapman as a rookie in 2010. Boddy said the maximum, someday, will most likely be 107 to 110 m.p.h. — but more significantly, the velocity bell curve will continue shifting to the right. That is, more pitchers will cluster around 95 m.p.h., meaning that virtually all pro pitchers must be selected from that group. And some will become disposable, a trend that is already evident.
“There’s tons of guys that throw 95-plus, and their average career is like a running back in the N.F.L.,” Boddy said. “They pitch two or three years and then they’re done.”
Boddy tries to stay ahead of this evolution by equipping pitchers with the fastball to compete and the understanding of their craft’s physiology. He hangs the jerseys of his major league clients on the wall behind the bullpen netting: Bauer, Straily, Detroit’s Matt Boyd, Kansas City’s Ryan Buchter and others.
When Straily visits, he said, young hopefuls look at him in awe because they envy his status. He envies them, too, he said, for how hard they throw. Yet Straily knows something they don’t: how to get outs in the majors, without fear. A 24th-round draft choice by Oakland out of Marshall University in 2009, he arrived in the majors in 2012 and started in the playoffs the next October.
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.