In the first half of this two-part installment on why pitching velocity changes during the course of a season, I outlined 9 Reasons Pitching Velocity Increases Over the Course of a Season. As you’ll appreciate after reading today’s post, there are actually a lot more ways by which pitching velocity can decrease over the course of a season. Let’s examine them individually:
1. Body weight reductions
This is far and away the most prominent reason pitchers lose velocity as a season goes on. In fact, it’s so big a problem that I devoted an entire blog to it: The #1 Cause of Inconsistent Pitching Velocity.
2. Strength loss
As I discussed in my first book, The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, strength is an important foundation for power. And, taking it a step further, power is certainly an important part of pitching. As the season goes on, many guys just don’t get in the quality weight room work they need to maintain strength, and power on the mound tails off.
It goes without saying that if you’re hurt, you won’t throw as hard. This isn’t just a shoulder or elbow thing, either; sprained ankles, sore hips, tight lower backs, oblique strains, and stiff necks can all wreak havoc on velocity. If something is bothering you, get it fixed before it causes you to develop bad habits.
4. Loss of mobility
When people hear the word “mobility,” they typically just of tissue length. However, mobility is simply one’s ability to get into a desired position or posture. In other words, it’s a complex interaction of not just actual tissue length, but also strength/stability, tissue quality, and kinesthetic awareness. If you don’t continue working on mobility drills, static stretching (when appropriate), foam rolling, and your strength training program, one of the components of this equation can suffer.
Obviously, as I wrote previously What Stride Length Means and How to Improve It: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, stride length is the best example of this phenomenon. However, what happens at the shoulder is another great example, too. One who loses thoracic mobility or scapular stability may stiffen up at the glenohumeral (ball-and-socket) joint; it’s possible to gain range of motion without even stretching at the “stiff” joint!
5. Excessive workload
This is the time of year when a lot of guys start hitting all-time highs for innings in a season. And, with the games getting more important at the end of the high school and college seasons, pitch counts often rise when the innings really matter. It’s very simple:
Fatigue masks fitness.
If you’re dragging and the velocity is down, a short-term reduction in throwing volume is often the quickest path to getting velocity back – particularly in pitchers who are throwing more innings than ever before. Throwing an easy flat-ground instead of a bullpen between starts is one way to stay fresh, or you may opt to alternating higher pitch counts with shorter outings. If I hear about one of our high school pitchers who has an exceptionally high pitch count (105+), I usually tell him to make sure the next one is in the ballpark of 80 pitches. At that age, arms always seem to be dragging if kids go over 100 pitches in back-to-back outings.
6. Cumulative effect of bad throwing programs
This is best illustrated by a “hypothetical” example that actually happens far too often.
a. Pitcher makes great velocity gains in an off-season with comprehensive throwing program that includes long toss.
b. Pitcher goes in-season and encounters pitching coach that doesn’t believe in long toss as part of a throwing program.
c. Pitcher has a velocity loss.
This scenario doesn’t just happen because a specific modality (long toss) is removed, but also because of the effect it has on a pitching routine. This, for me, is why it’s so important to have conversions with pitchers on what throwing programs they’ve done in the past. What’s worked? What hasn’t? It’s all about tinkering, and rarely about overhauling.
7. Cumulative effect of distance running
This 2008 study might be the greatest research that has ever been performed on baseball players – mostly because it reaffirmed my awesomeness by proving me right: Noncompatibility of power and endurance training among college baseball players.
These researchers divided a collegiate pitching staff into two groups of eight pitchers over the course of a season, and each group did everything identically – except the running portion of their strength and conditioning programs. Three days per week, the “sprint” group did 10-30 sprints of 15-60m with 10-60s rest between bouts. The endurance group performed moderate-to-high intensity jogging or cycling 3-4 days per week for anywhere from 20-60 minutes.
Over the course of the season, the endurance group’s peak power output dropped by an average of 39.5 watts while the sprinting group increased by an average of 210.6 watts. You still want to distance run?
Of course, there are still the tired old arguments of “it flushes out my arm” (much better ways to do that), it clears my head (go see a psychologist), “it keeps my weight down” (eat less crap, and do more lifting and sprinting), and “it helps me bounce back better between starts” (then why are so many players in MLB living on anti-inflammatories?). The system is broke, but instead of fixing it based on logic, many pitching coaches continue to change the oil on a car with no wheels.
8. Insufficient warm-ups
While there are definitely some outstanding opportunities out there to develop in the summer, the truth is that summer baseball is notorious for sloppy organization. Guys are allowed to show up ten minutes before game time, do a few arm circles, and then go right to it. If you’re walking directly from your car to the mound, don’t expect your velocity to be too good in the first few innings.
9. Cumulative effect of altered sleep patterns
Early in my training career, I realized that missing sleep the night before a training session really didn’t have any effect on my next training session. However, if I had consecutive nights of little to no sleep, it crushed me. I know of a lot of people who are the same way.
Now, imagine an entire season of red-eye flights, 3AM bus departures, and going to bed at 1am every night. Beyond just the sleep deprivation component, you have the dramatic change in circadian rhythms that takes place. Just head over to Pubmed and look at the hundreds of studies examining the health impact of working night shifts (shift work disorder); you’ll see preliminary research linking it to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and a host of other issues. I firmly believe it’s one of many reasons injuries in baseball are on the rise – and certainly one potential culprit when velocity declines as a season progress.
10. Pitching off a crappy mound
Many players wind up pitching off terrible mounds during summer ball, and when the mound isn’t groomed nicely, you get into “oh crap, I don’t want to get hurt” mode with your landing leg. If you aren’t comfortable landing, you shorten your stride, or reach for a “safe” part of the mound, messing with your mechanics in the process. Additionally, velocity is going to be lower when the mound height isn’t as elevated; it’s just how gravity works.
11. Mechanical tinkering for the bad
In part 1, I noted that mechanics changes in the summertime can be a source of velocity improvements. They can also, however, be a reason for guys losing velocity. Not all changes are new changes, and it’s important to be careful about overhauling things on the advice of each new coach you encounter. Repetition is important, and it’s hard to get it if you’re always tinkering with something.
Dehydration can have a dramatically negative effect on strength and power. Most athletes are chronically dehydrated at rest, and certainly during pitching outings in the summer heat. Hydration status is an important thing to monitor if you want to throw gas.
13. Throwing to a new catcher
Being comfortable with the guy who is catching your pitches is a big part of success on the mound. When the catcher is constantly changing, there is more hesitation – especially if his pitch-calling tendencies are different from those of your previous catcher. If you’re constantly shaking him off, it’ll mess with your pace on the mound and slow you down. If he does cool stuff like this for you, though, you’ll probably throw 130mph.
14. More erratic throwing schedule
One of the biggest adjustments a pitcher will ever have to make is switching from starting to relieving or vice versa. While going to the bullpen can often lead to an increase in velocity, it can make other guys erratic with their delivery, as they’ve learned to rely on the pre-game period to get everything “synced up.”
Meanwhile, thanks to an increased pitch count, guys who go from the bullpen to the starting rotation sometimes see a drop in velocity. As examples, just compare John Smoltz or Daniel Bard out of the bullpen to what they have done in the starting rotation.
The only thing tougher than making that switch is to constantly bounce back and forth between the two, as it really hurts your between-outings preparation. How you prepare to throw seven innings is considerably different than what you do if you’re just going to go out and throw 10-15 pitches.
These are only 14 reasons velocity may dip, and their are surely many more. Maybe your girlfriend cheated on you with the bat boy and you got distracted, or you decided to just throw knuckleballs. The point is that – as if the case with many things in life – it’s a lot easier to screw up (lose velocity) than it is to thrive (gain velocity). Plan accordingly!