“Assess Don’t Assume,” is a great phrase that I heard a long time ago form one of the coaches that I look up to the most, Eric Cressey. He and Mike Reinold were doing an assessment of an overhead athlete and they were talking about assessing athletes before making assumptions based on how they move or function. This is something that we still to this day at CBC live by.
This year in our elite summer program we had a hitter who we were trying to get to drive the ball in the air with a little greater loft. This particular athlete had the ability to drive the ball all over the field at velocities that far exceed 90 MPH. The one thing that was suffering in spite of his great velocity was his distance. Upon assessing the athlete even at velocities over 90 MPH he wasn’t hitting balls over 330 feet all that consistently. The biggest part of his game that we wanted to affect was his exit velocity, we wanted him to leave our summer program regularly hitting balls over 100 MPH. Secondly we would like to see him drive the ball in the air a little more with his increase in exit velocity. Before making any swing changes we assessed him and noticed that he had trouble externally rotating his back arm (left) and we also noticed that he had poor thoracic spine rotation. Based on these findings it became apparent that his swing path was so steep because he was unable to lay back this let arm to let the barrel lay into the zone. Instead he was pushing the bat through the zone in front of his body which made his path extremely steep and to the right. This led me to believe that this was the reason for his consistent negative attack angle on our Blast Baseball sensor.
Due to his consistent negative attack angle (swinging down) this in part led to his launch angle (angle of ball coming off the bat on a vertical axis) being very low. Anything that was hit any higher than the back of the cage 14’ high was actually an oblique collision. Due to his attack angle being negative and the ball coming off of the bat in a positive (upwards) direction this was creating minimal exchange in power between the bat and the ball. This is similar to a car hitting the back tail light at 40 MPH and causing the car to spin out as compared to hitting the car head on at 30 MPH. Even though the second collision is lesser in speed it certainly makes up for it in energy transfer from one object to the other due to the solidness of impact.
Based on his assessment we went to work on fixing his restrictions in thoracic spine mobility and lack of external rotation in his back arm. This was achieved through exercises and warm ups that activated the area that we wanted to affect. Throughout the entirety of this program the athlete conducted the warm up and mobility exercises prior to stepping in the cage and hitting. These movement prep exercises helped to prime the athlete for what we wanted to have happen.
These exercises included: Quadruped thoracic spine rotations, bench thoracic spine mobilizations, supine elbow elevated external rotation holds, and band assisted Duffin rows. These exercises were the first phase of the program (4 weeks). Based on his progress we adjusted the second phase (4 weeks) of his program and prescribed exercises accordingly.
After the 9 weeks that the hitter was here we saw his exit velocity go from 91.8 to 103.0. But perhaps the biggest factor that benefited from these drills was his distance. He ended the summer routinely hitting balls over 390’ and maxed out at 405’. The best part about this was that we actually didn’t make very many swing changes throughout the summer. Instead we freed his body up to work in a fashion that allowed for greater distances. By his back arm being better able to lay back and slot the bat into the zone he was able to take his attack angle from an average of -2.8 to +9.9 which allowed him to transfer more energy from the bat into the ball upon collision which increased his exit velocity and distance.
As a side note, ultimately we would like to see the attack angle and launch angle be within 10 degrees of one another. With the two numbers being closer together rather than farther apart it allows for a greater redirection of energy from the barrel into the ball. When we see the two numbers being greater than 10 degrees apart we often do not see velocities that are within the max for the individual. This is what is referred to as an oblique collision, as coined by Alan M. Nathan.
This was one of the best transformations that I have been a part of due to it being a more organic swing change. The instruction didn’t necessarily come from me, we just allowed his body to get into a better position to carry out the goal which was to drive the ball with greater velocity in the air.
Start with the foundation in mind.
“USE YOUR LEGS!!” is usually what some unruly parent yells at their kid when things are not going well for them on the mound. I’ve heard it numerous times and to be quite honest, I do not think that using the legs more will help the kid in this particular situation. Not that I do not think the parent is wrong, they are actually right; using your legs more efficiently will probably produce better results. But, it’s not what you think. I guarantee you, 99% of you are thinking of pitcher using his massive legs to “push off” and “drive” down the mound. While creating this momentum towards the plate is extremely important, it is not the most important facet of using the legs.
The most important leg to use when pitching is the front leg. Yes I said it, it is the front leg or lead leg. According to a study done by Fortenbaugh, Fleisig, and Andrews, the lead leg is highly correlated to higher pitching velocities. They reference another study done by Tomoyuoki Matsuo where he found that “significantly more lead knee extension angular velocity near the time of ball release (BR) in the high-velocity group” vs. the low-velocity group. “They hypothesized that a properly flexed knee at FC (Foot Contact), approximately 38 degrees to 50 degrees, stabilizes the lead leg for trunk rotation.”
As you can see, the lead leg is important, but why? The prevailing theory is force. Force is produced from the momentum of the back leg (et al Matsuo) but it needs to get to the ball or throwing wrist. The front leg is actually what accepts the force from the momentum of the back leg and helps transfer that force up the trunk, into the upper body, and out through the arm during rotation. A stable, solid front leg is what helps the trunk rotate around the hip.
How do we achieve this action?
There are many different ways to get this front leg to extend or straighten up. What we do here at CBC is a drill called “Lead-leg blocking.” This drill is done in the half-kneeling position and the athlete tries to push the front leg back in to his body and create a way to rotate around the front leg. It’s a very short drill and does not take too much thinking.
Breaking this drill down a bit, you can observe what we mean by front leg knee extension. Ryan’s front knee angle begins to expand. It goes from an anecdotal 90 degrees to closer to 145 degrees at the end. This is the knee extension that is discussed in the study above. This drill helps our athletes see the benefit to pushing your front leg into the ground and producing force up the kinetic chain.
Another way to affect this aspect is strength. The front leg needs to be able to accept and transfer the force back up in to the trunk and into the arm. So what strength exercises need to be done? Always start with the meat and potatoes of squats and deadlifts. These are crucial to strength development. If you do not know how to do these exercises, do a quick search on YouTube and no less than a million videos will come up. Supplement those with single-leg variations like reverse lunges, Bulgarian split-squats, and lateral lunges. Use dumbbells and kettlebells with these exercises.
The last couple exercises to do are more body weight. One is called a heiden, which is an outstanding movement because it teaches us to produce force as well as accept it from our glute muscles. We can also use medicine ball variations which are fantastic in teaching young pitchers how to achieve rotation in the lower half and transfer it in to the upper half of the body.
Lastly, let me be absolutely clear: strength and mechanical improvements are what are most important here. Medicine balls and heidens are fantastic, but only if you have achieved sufficient strength gains. They should not be used as the main component. If your workout looks closer to a Total Fit Mommy Bootcamp, then you are wasting your time. Grab some dumbbells and get to work. It is scientifically studied that lead leg extension is important to velocity. If you do not have the proprioception or strength to achieve it, then you need to change your workout or your coach.
Director of Pitching
Chapman Baseball Compound
Chapman Baseball Compound is a 3,000 square foot facility where we specialize in baseball development specifically in the areas of: hitting, pitching, catching, and mental training.