This is the first of several articles written by coaches who have implemented Driveline Baseball’s programming at their schools. Travis Hergert is the head coach at North Iowa Community College. In 4 seasons with Hergert at the helm, the NIACC baseball program has a 152-81 record, and won 3 Region IX Regional tournament championships, 3 North Plains titles, and 3 trips to the NJCAA World Series.
Three years ago, I was at a crossroads as a pitching coach. I was in a rut in terms of developing pitchers and how to increase velocity and enhance the ability to keep them healthy. Another key factor I wanted to find the ability to teach was feel. Feel for stuff, command, off-speed, etc.
I came across articles from Driveline Baseball and I was hooked. I saw the use of weighted balls and how to reach in and tap the ability to throw the ball harder. After researching hours on end and looking at how we could implement it with our pitchers, I bought a set of PlyoCare Balls and weighted balls and we went to work.
Year 1 – Laying the Foundation
Before going into our off-season (October – December) we put our pitchers through high speed video from 3 different angles and put them through a functional movement screening to see any inefficiencies or mechanical issues that need to be addressed before intense training in throwing or weight lifting. This time was also critical to teach pitchers the proper recovery protocols to build the arm back up after our sessions.
High Speed Side View Example
A plan was created for each individual as to how we were going to get them prepped for weighted balls. We spent 2-3 weeks on each individual to remap arm path with pivot picks, connection work and posterior strength. During that time our pitchers were also in the beginning stages of our lifting program. Our strength coach Mark Vrba does an outstanding job getting our players to move tons of weight via squats, bench, dead-lifts and cleans. During this time we were trying to build up the internal motor for our pitchers.
After we felt the pitchers were fully prepared with a foundation of proper movement we began to “On-Ramp” our pitchers with weighted baseballs. All velocities were recorded. We charted the max velocity of each ball for each session (See chart below.) Some pitchers missed a session periodically due to sore arm, sickness or another type of injury (sprained ankle.)
We began the first two weeks going November 12, 17 and 21. Pitchers threw in a ‘Run and Gun’ fashion. 3 throws with the 5 oz (regular ball) 4 throws with the 6 oz with the first throw at 75-80%, 3 throws with the 5 oz, then finishing with 4 throws with the 4 oz with the first throw at 75-80%.
NIACC Year 1 Run N’ Gun Throws
Note: Pitcher #8 Sprained his ankle and missed some sessions.
Diagnosing and Correcting Mechanical Issues with Pulldowns
In our first tests, it was difficult for some of our pitchers to get the foot work down. Some had poor lead leg blocking action and could not handle the amount of speed generated from the run into the throw. To help with this, we did some turn and burn work during the other days to help with controlling momentum into the lead leg.
Focused front leg work with Turn and Burn
After two weeks of on-ramping, we increased the volume of throws. Pitchers would throw a 5 oz at 100% effort 4 throws, the 6 oz 5 throws with one throw at 75-80%, the 5 oz at 4 throws and the 4 oz at 5 throws with one throw at 75-80%.
Some pitchers were held out of the first week to focus more on some type of movement pattern with in their delivery that we looked at with the Run N’ Guns or in specific movements filmed during drill work. A few pitchers took some added days off between sessions due to some arm fatigue.
After our 8 weeks of total work, we took to the mound and threw a final 15-20 pitch bullpen that included both fastballs and breaking balls. Velocities were up for most across the board. We took their best velocity from our fall scrimmage outings and compared the final bullpen velocities.
One of the issues we found with some pitchers was the lack of velocity jump from the regular 5 ounce ball to the 4 ounce underload ball. Pitchers were having trouble with the increased arm speed and were releasing the ball sooner and not getting proper deceleration. We worked heavily with the 3.5 ounce plyo ball in the week off between sessions to feel the movement and get better output.
Driveline has mentioned previously how throwing underloads is learned through practice, not an ‘artificial acceleration of the arm’.
Not only did most velocities increase, we also saw much better command and feel to 2-seam fastballs and changeups. Correlation of weighted balls training and heavy power lifting must also be noted.
Year 2 – Expanding the Velocity Work
In our second season of off-season training, we were able to begin the training process a few weeks sooner than the previous year. Pitchers, again, were taken through the same pre-training process – Video analysis, functional movement screenings, and an on-ramping program. This on-ramping took place towards the end of our fall season and we did an initial velo test of run n’ guns before beginning the program. This allowed us to get into more 7 ounce and 3 ounce balls.
Note: Pitchers 1, 2 and 3 are the same pitchers from Year 1.
Some impressive numbers for sure. Especially from the pitchers in the second year of the program.
In the second half of the off-season program, we began to throw the 7 and 3 ounce balls.
Notes: Pitcher 1 experienced some elbow tendonitis
Pitcher 2 struggled with the feel of arm path we were trying to achieve. We went strictly plyo ball work and football to achieve arm path.
Pitcher 23 strained his bicep (drop down/sidearm guy).
When adding the 7 oz ball and added volume of throws, we saw pitchers that were lacking strength gains in the weight room be the pitchers that would be gassed when going back to the 5 ounce ball after overload throws. Not only does the program teach guys how to throw with intent, but also how well conditioned you have to be in order to maximize output in the entire series of throws.
The final bullpen was thrown after a week of deloading and one session of plyo velo. Unfortunately, we lost the recordings of that session.
I think the most fascinating part was pitchers 1 and 3 in the jumps that they had made from year 1. Pitcher 25 also had gone through the program on his own during the summer before his arrival.
Year 3 – Building Organization and Culture
Year 3, we felt we were much more organized in how we were going to implement our fall plan and transition that into the off-season.
The fall season was implementation of the mobility work, movement prep and plyo throwing that was much more specific in movement. Here is an example of what a typical 3-day plan looked like.
After a 2 week shut down from throwing and adjustment to our off-season weight program, we took slow-motion video of each pitcher and took them through a Functional Movement Screen with a local PT.
For 2 weeks, most pitchers followed this routine, though some had prescribed movement specific throwing work, extensive movement prep in scapular region or shoulder, or lower half work identified in the videos. Here are examples of the prescriptive movement prep drills.
Scapular Mobility Work
Lead Leg Blocking Activation
The 7 week plan took us into our final pen. In year 3, we were much more organized in the execution of the plan. Below daily execution plan for each day.
It should be noted that at the December 1 date, we began flat ground command work to down catchers. Also, after on-ramping phase, pitchers would use 9 ounce ball up to 75 feet at low effort level to help the arm warm-up and to get good stretch into external rotation.
Notes: Pitchers 16, 18, 20, 25, 26, 28 went through the off-season program in year 2.
Pitcher 35, a freshman, was coming off elbow surgery in May (bone chips.)
Incorporating Plyo Velo Testing
A huge piece to the off-season training that I believe is very underrated is the plyo velo testing. We like to take our pitchers from flat ground first, then to the mound. We want to feel the movement pattern in the lower half, hips, torso, shoulder and throwing arm. This is where misconceptions in differentiating the “weighted baseballs” and “plyo care balls” can bring some clarity to the off-season program.
Technique is vastly important, but letting your athleticism takeover is also key.
Notes: Pitcher 40 was coming off shoulder soreness. We found he lacked internal rotation. He went through extensive mobility work before beginning the program.
Pitcher 41 was plyo work only. Weighted ball run and guns were not conducive to his delivery work and goals we had for off-season.
Pitcher 42 tested Roll-ins to see how progress was being made in shaping a new arm path. He had some scapular mobility issues that was not allowing proper shoulder rotation that ultimately lead to an elbow strain during the fall workouts.
Pitcher 43 – A redshirt freshman transfer that was 13-14 months removed from surgery. We used a heavy workload of reverse throws, pivot picks and roll-ins to help remap arm path. He blended this with his prescribed long toss.
Looking Back Over 3 Years
Our final assessment of the three years is that weighted ball throwing is more than picking up the balls and chucking them. It is an important component to our pitchers overall health and development. What is also interesting is how some pitchers learn the importance of recovery, or lack thereof in the beginning.
Some think recovery is a “day off.” It is much more than that. As pitchers increase intensity of throwing and volume, recovery must increase. Results don’t lie with recovery. In the year 3 sessions of bullpens, we didn’t see a huge spike in velocity, but we did see consistent velocity.
Another factor in this session of bullpens and the feedback we got from our pitchers was how they a felt a bit fatigued and had felt could have been a tick or two better. I point to our week before of an intense week of weights and some pitchers need a good week of “deloading.” Also, half our pitching staff had been sick 2-3 days prior to the bullpens.
Another critical aspect of our off-season development in our program is creating a culture of competitiveness. When pitchers are dueling it out, the competitive level rises. They are not only competing against each other and the radar gun, but they are competing within themselves.
We measure everything for a reason. We want to show progress, but also create a culture of guys competing every day. When they walk into our locker room and see they numbers, they want to catch the guy ahead of them.
I get asked all the time, “How does this help them execute pitches and compete on the mound?”
To me, through the ability to shape the arm path through the training elements, pitchers are able to not only develop velocity and arm strength, but overall feel for stuff.
Breaking balls become sharper, change-ups become nastier. We develop a lot of the arsenal through In-season workloads in what we call Max Intent bullpens. I speak more to this with examples in another blog.
On top of all that, we move a ton of weight. We want our pitchers to be physical in the weight room and gain strength in order to make the gains we want on the mound.
In 2015, we won a school record 49 games and went to our second NJCAA Division II World series in three years. That staff struck out 371 batters and walked 221 batters in 484 innings.
In 2016, we won 47 games and went to our third world series. That staff featured 4 NCAA Division I signees. They struck out 471 hitters, 218 walks in 459 innings. The ace of the staff was pitcher #14 that won 11 games and recorded 92 strikeouts. The drop-down closer, pitcher #11 recorded 11 saves and 27 K’s in 34 innings of work.
Driveline protocols work, period.