December 23, 2015
Behind Driveline Baseball
Above the mesh net lining the rear wall behind Driveline Baseball’s full-length mound sits The Judge. It, along with several other radar guns scattered across the facility’s stations, is the ultimate arbiter for the pitchers honing their craft below. The gun renders judgement on every effort and throw, illuminating progress and shaming every half-assed repetition for all the trainers and professionals to see. There’s nowhere to hide, especially during pulldowns, the showstopper amidst a series of monotonous weightlifting, bandwork, muscle isolation drills, and warm downs.
The pulldown is a refreshingly simple drill: grab a ball, run towards a target, and throw it as hard as possible.
For the players, this is the fun one. A typical day consists of five hours of drills, strength training and other exercises. There’s nothing glamorous about shoulder oscillation routines, or firing weighted balls into a concrete board until you’re too tired to do it anymore, scrutinizing every movement and sweating every damn detail all winter long. By contrast, the pulldown is a time to let loose and measure progress.
In a starkly exaggerated crow hop, Casey Weathers half-sprints, half-skis his way toward the wall. Approaching his destination, he sets, extends, and fires just a few feet from the net, his efforts punctuated by a booming grunt audible above the thrash metal blaring throughout the gym. The Judge decrees that Weathers has just thrown a 4 oz. ball 110 miles per hour, by far the hardest toss of the day. “I fixed the gun!” Weathers yells as he jogs back towards the mound amidst oohs and ahs from the handful of assembled pitchers and trainers.
One player is in no mood for backslapping. Until that moment, Trevor Bauer had paced the group. Throwing with Weathers, Cody Buckel, and Eric Sim, Bauer’s fastballs had regularly produced triple-digit readings from The Judge, topping his groupmates’ best efforts comfortably. But when the screen flashed 110, Bauer stomped off the mound before Weathers could celebrate. He didn’t yell but his feelings were clear: he was second, and he was pissed.
Bauer has only a few minutes and a handful of tosses to reclaim king of the hill. Despite all of the effort he’s exerted throughout the day, he manages to summon more. His throws reach 105, 106, 109, even. But for as fast as he runs towards the plate, and as much extension as he generates from his 6-foot-1 frame, he can’t bribe The Judge to surrender that elusive extra digit. The drill ends, and even though Weathers voluntarily scraps the 110 reading as a glitch, Bauer sulks out of the room.
Welcome to the competitive world of training at Driveline Baseball.
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One of the best and most progressive pitcher development programs in the world is owned and operated by a college dropout who barely played ball growing up. Kyle Boddy was never destined to train pitchers and he didn’t fiddle with PITCHf/x between economics classes at Baldwin Wallace. His only coaching experience above Little League—a brief stint as the C-team skipper at Roosevelt High in Seattle—lasted just two years. He may be the ultimate outsider, but he’s also helped three major-league teams develop their throwing program, and he has the sport’s attention as he pursues pitching’s white whale: getting pitchers to throw harder with fewer injuries.
Baseball is not an easy industry to break into. Aside from Ivy League grads with STEM degrees, the game’s front offices and player development units are predominantly staffed by former players, a group often leery of outsiders. Even amateur coaches and writers are skeptical of someone without playing experience. It was into these frigid waters that Boddy jumped, extolling the virtues of biomechanics and touting a high-intensity throwing program that sounded too good to work. Neither his ideas, nor his take-it-or-leave-it personality, found traction immediately. If high school coaches, college coaches, big-league organizations and baseball writers share one thing in common, it’s that members from each group told Boddy he didn’t know shit.
The problem lies less with Boddy’s lack of knowledge and more with the unfamiliarity of what he’s selling. Weighted balls and plyometric bands aren’t industry standard equipment and it’s rare to read one of his blog posts without encountering technical phrases (‘reogranizing proprioception’) that will send even plugged-in readers scrambling to Google. Relevancy is difficult when a significant part of your intended audience can’t speak your language, and even today, Driveline’s development program is hardly mainstream.
But Boddy’s experiences have given him a valuable, make-do-with-what-you-have perspective. While teams battle each other to acquire external talent, Boddy’s interest lies in developing what’s on hand. “It sounds cliche, but I read Moneyball when I was 21 or 22,” Boddy says. “The stats were interesting, but it was really the player development stuff that got me because it wasn’t written about. You know? It’s all ‘we found Scott Hatteberg!’ Well, shouldn’t the focus be on developing Scott Hatteberg?”
And so Boddy started developing pitchers. He devoured books on pitching mechanics, biomechanics, injuries and anything else he could get his hands on. He pored through medical journals and even enlisted research help from an engineering student at the University of Washington in an effort to construct the perfect delivery. He never made it quite that far, but eventually he grew comfortable enough with his knowledge to charge local amateurs $50 for an hour-long coaching session. He gave one-on-one lessons for a short time before, in typical Boddy fashion, determining “this is stupid,” and shifting to a different model. Renting from a local batting cage, he found space just large enough to build a mini-pitching facility and a weight room for group training sessions. His initial clients were young amateurs but as his program expanded, he attracted college players and a handful of professionals, lured by the dream of learning to throw hard. Over time, Boddy’s amateur and professional clientele swelled and he earned enough business through training and merchandise to open his own facility.
At Driveline, players have to embrace foreign equipment, new drills, and a demanding work schedule. Drills require players to throw weighted balls—a form of ballistics training that enhances muscle strength and endurance by specifically targeting muscles in the elbow and shoulder—at max intensity from several angles. Pitchers also use surgical resistance bands and muscle isolation tools (such as the shoulder tube) to stretch and loosen their arms. These technologies are used in just a handful of organizations, even though they condition throwing muscles more quickly and effectively than regular baseballs and some traditional weight lifting programs.
It’s worth mentioning that Driveline’s program, particularly with respect to weighted balls and high intensity training, don’t have universal support throughout the game. Steve Connelly, the pitching coach for Oakland’s Cal League affiliate in Stockton, has a few concerns, particularly in the long run. “The arm can only handle so much stress during the year,” Connelly says. Granting that a high-intensity weighted ball program can increase velocity for some players, he’s very concerned that the cumulative effects of throwing so often will eventually lead to an injury. He’s also far from convinced that a program like Driveline is the best way to develop velocity, even in the short term. Emphasizing the importance of adhering to a quality strength and conditioning program, Connelly would also prefer to see his pitchers perfect their delivery, optimally aligning their upper and lower halves to generate additional torque while still throwing strikes. “You can gain velocity through repetition, and learning to repeat your delivery. Why put yourself in a situation where you put too much stress on your arm?”
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To succeed at Driveline, players have to want to work. Gyms around the country profit from no-show members, but Driveline turns away about 20 percent of professionals looking to join. A competitive, hard-working culture is vital for the program’s success, and players with negative attitudes or poor training habits never get in the door. “A big complaint among minor-league pitchers is that they play with guys who don’t care, or who take pro ball as a gift,” Boddy says. That kind of environment sucks.” Boddy is no alchemist; gaining velocity and building strength are products of 25-hour work weeks, not a get-gas-fast scheme.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Driveline’s pitchers are a smart bunch. Only a handful of clubs use the drills or tools that can be found at Driveline, and to learn about the program, pitchers have to conduct plenty of research on their own. For many, that means stumbling through technical blog posts and in some cases, contacting Boddy for advice. For Boddy, and the sake of his clients, that’s ideal. “The guy who actually wants to learn and is somewhat of an intellectual, that’s the guy you want.” Counter-intuitively the program’s inaccessibility and difficult learning curve is an advantage. Or as Boddy puts it, “your marketing earns you the clientele you deserve. The guy who wants to gain 5 mph in three seconds is going to get two sentences into one of these blog posts and be like, fuck this.”
To train at Driveline, pitchers have to demonstrate that they’ll put in the work required to succeed, and the business model tailors to this objective. Boddy eschews private lessons in favor of a system where players work out as much as possible. “With one-on-ones, you’re basically incentivizing the player to not come in. You’ve ingrained this idea, ‘when I see you, I owe you money.’ I’d rather they pay me $200 a month and just abuse the resources.” That approach may prevent Boddy from reaching a larger audience of professionals, non-native speakers in particular, but it ensures that anyone working in-house embraces the workload required.
It’s also conducive to letting pitchers train in packs. That matters a lot, Weathers says, characterizing Driveline as friendly but competitive. To illustrate his point, he alludes to the day he first threw 100 mph with a 4 oz. ball. “The first time I ever broke through, Caleb Cotham and I were going against each other. He broke 100, and I was like, I gotta do something here. I gotta catch him.” Boddy relishes the format. His program thrives when everyone works at peak intensity, and the atmosphere incentivizes his pitchers to train to their limits. “Even with the most motivated people, that adrenaline doesn’t really kick in until you see someone else do it,” Weathers adds. “It pushes you every day. Not just on the fun stuff, but also the small details.”
The discrepancy between Driveline’s innovative training techniques and the more conservative approach many teams take stems from attitudinal differences in the costs and benefits of strength training. For many big-league clubs, the fear of injury leads them to baby pitchers by restricting long toss, prescribing low-intensity shadow drills without a ball, and limiting their strength training. “With a lot of teams, you pick up a weighted ball, and they’re like, nah you’re not doing that,” says Weathers, who has pitched for five big-league organizations. “In pro ball, it’s protect yourself, protect yourself, protect yourself.”
But protecting yourself means different things depending on who you ask. Conservative teams have identified throws and repetitions as a cause of injury. To limit injuries, they limit throws, and instead focus their developmental program around improving command and control rather than building velocity. Driveline’s approach is different. In drills that optimally target the ulnar collateral ligament, rotator cuff, labrum and relevant leg and core muscles, players build their bodies to withstand the rigors of throwing hard 100 times or more in a single outing. By enhancing the strength and durability of these muscles and ligaments, the thinking goes, the less likely they will be to stretch or tear in games.
The approach has paid dividends, at least initially. Boddy estimates that over 90 percent of players compliant with the throwing program gain velocity, and that among both professional and amateur players, their internal injury rate is low. None of the pitchers who have trained with Driveline have suffered a major injury while they were working out, and in-season injuries have been rare. Time and future research will tell how effective Driveline is at preventing injuries: with all of the variables involved, we can’t objectively measure their injury prevention against other programs yet. Still, Boddy considers it encouraging that up to this point, his pitchers have consistently boosted their velocity without systematically breaking down.
Boddy is cognizant of the correlation between velocity and arm injuries and he doesn’t pretend he can prevent Tommy John surgery. “I’m not so arrogant to believe that we develop velocity the “right way,” he says, making air quotes over the final two words. “But I think we’re open minded and we do a lot of research. I don’t know anyone else who has a Trackman and a brain helmet,” he says, referring to the EEG helmet his players use to monitor stress and brain activity while they train. “From a macro perspective, I’m very concerned about injuries. We haven’t defeated the problem, and I don’t know if it is a defeatable problem.”
Still, it’s one that’s always at the forefront of Boddy’s mind, particularly considering his clients. For the professionals at Driveline, an arm injury is almost a prerequisite to joining the island of misfit toys. Weathers has two Tommy John surgeries and too many walks on his resume. Matt Boyd, another client, has arm surgery on his ledger. Many of the high schoolers and college players who train at Driveline are recovering from some malady or another, from damaged shoulders to balky elbows. Other pitchers, guys like Buckel who have lost their fastball, or players new to pitching like Sim, want to train in an environment where they can develop without an undue risk of an injury. Injury prevention and rehabilitation is important to Driveline, and a necessary focus for any program that pushes arms up to their limits.
Driveline’s goals extend to command as well. Boddy doesn’t promote command improvement like he does velocity enhancement—he posts a tweet like this once a month or so—but control and command are developmental objectives as well. The program doesn’t just teach pitchers to extract as much velocity from their bodies as they physically can; rather, their training conditions them to throw hard within the constraint of throwing quality strikes. Driveline guys incorporate more effort into their deliveries than most pitchers, but the number of repetitions they take helps them commit their motions to muscle memory. “We do a lot of differential training, a lot of weighted ball training for command,” Boddy says. “We also do brain research to test how effective certain drills are.”
Additionally, players go through flat ground work, differential ball training and visualization techniques to streamline their deliveries and release points. Every drill is taped, offering players the opportunity to analyze their progress and identify how conducive their delivery is to throwing strikes. Boddy knows Driveline still has work to do: “We have fixed command problems, people have gotten better, but also some people have gotten worse. Limited data shows that it works but we need a larger sample size.” In proof of point, he nods to Weathers, who posted the best walk rates of his career as a 30-year-old last season, and Cotham, who topped off an impressive minor league campaign with one walk in ten big-league innings. Weathers backs the command program at Driveline, crediting the program for helping him improve his arm action. Even in conceding room for improvement, Boddy is optimistic about the future of command training at Driveline: “There’s a big difference between what we can do, and what we have done.”
That last statement applies to Driveline’s trajectory as a whole. Boddy’s program and beliefs, confined to the fringes of the player development industry just a few years ago, now merit consideration from coaches and executives throughout the big leagues. This includes development coaches from teams that aren’t completely on board yet. Garvin Alston is now Arizona’s bullpen coach, but he spent the previous 11 years in a developmental role in Oakland, an organization that does not use a weighted ball program. Today, Alston is cautiously intrigued. “I’m not opposed to them,” he says. “But I think there’s a time and place, and that’s in the off-season.” He doesn’t think everyone would benefit from them and like Connelly, he’s concerned about injuries. “For all the players who develop velocity, there are plenty of guys who get hurt. But if that’s part of a guy’s routine, and it works for him, then great.” Like many throughout the game, he sees the potential benefits of a high-intent weighted ball program like Driveline’s, even if he’s wary of diving in too deep.
And yet, after speaking with Boddy and watching players train at Driveline, it’s clear that the program has a bright future. Like Alan Jaeger’s long toss program, which overcame similar resistance from those inside the game, weighted balls and high intensity throwing drills could soon become staples of pitching development programs around the league. Driveline is not alone in promulgating a progressive throwing regimen—famously, Scott Kazmir regained his velocity following a similarly innovative regimen at Ron Wolforth’s Baseball Ranch—and both here and elsewhere, disciples of weighted balls, long toss and max intent throwing will only grow. Boddy estimates that a third of the organizations throughout the league have a weighted ball program and that number will probably increase in coming years. Particularly among role 20 and 30 types, adding velocity can tangibly improve a player’s career prospects, even if doing so increases their chances of sustaining an injury. For many teams and their players, that trade-off will prove too alluring to ignore, particularly if long-term injury concerns ultimately prove overblown.
When it happens, the velocity required to pitch and succeed in the big leagues will only increase alongside. Once it becomes common for pitchers to learn to throw harder and more accurately without putting undue damage on their shoulders and elbows, everyone will jump at the chance to improve. Some teams have already embraced weighted ball and maximum intent programs, and in time, a noticeable velocity gap will emerge between the clubs that train this way and those that don’t. Eventually though, that chasm will congeal and the fleeting competitive advantage associated with it will dissipate. At that point, the only PSA left will be for the hitters: you better learn to hit 98. You’re going to see it a lot.