In today’s era of advanced analytics, regardless of whether you love it or hate it, velocity and spin rate are currently awarded top priority by some when evaluating pitchers. Advances in technology and devices like Rapsodo, Trackman and Pocket Radar have made it possible to quantify velocity and spin rate and make player evaluations less subjective. These technologies are accessible to scouts, coaches, parents and kids.
Improvements in arm strength and velocity can be achieved through several different methods in young, developing baseball and softball players. In most athletes, gains are achieved through physical growth, skill acquisition and overall strength development. Many in the field of performance training and athletic development believe that the most important of the three is overall strength development. Growth rate and physical size and stature are primarily determined by genetics and there is little one can do to alter them. Strength and skill development, however, are interrelated. More strength can have a positive impact on skill development, and lack of strength can have a negative impact. Strong, fit athletes are physically prepared to perform the volume of skill work needed to improve throwing mechanics. How fast an athlete throws can be limited by his/her throwing mechanics. When mechanics break down, improvements in velocity stop. Thus, overall strength development is essential when it comes to improving throwing mechanics and subsequently throwing velocity.
Many of today’s young, developing athletes are chasing the dream of more velocity by participating in year-round competitive leagues and/or velocity improvement training programs without first developing a sound strength/fitness base. Research has shown that year-round competition is a leading cause of arm and shoulder injuries among young baseball and softball players. It has also shown there is a high risk of arm and shoulder injuries among those that perform high volume and/or high intensity long-toss and/or weighted ball throwing programs without establishing a sound strength/fitness base, proper throwing mechanics, adequate arm and shoulder strength and shoulder stability.
Improvement takes time. There are no quick fixes and no magic bullets in athletic development. Some commercial and many on-line programs focus on quick gains, rather than long-term development and progressions. Likewise, many training programs don't address the importance of arm and shoulder strength and stability. Most of the focus is skill related or velocity driven, which can yield an athlete who is skilled, but not durable due to the physical demands being far greater than what their body's can recover from over an extended period of time.
The best analogy I can give is related to building a race car. Say you build a car for timed short track racing, but instead of racing in that type of race, your car has to compete in an off-road race. While your car may do really well on portions of the race, how do you think it will perform overall? Probably not very well because it doesn't have the tires, suspension or engine required to run that type of race and would likely break or crash under these conditions. Although it may be a bit of an exaggeration, many young pitching arms are being built in a similar manner. Rather than being developed with long-term health and performance in mind, they are being built to perform well for the short-term goal of being recruited by a college program or drafted by a professional organization. By no means is it bad to want to show well in order to be recruited or drafted. The problem is, when the primary goal is solely to increase velocity and manipulate spin rate, you are essentially putting a big engine in a car that needs a good suspension and tires first in order to finish the race.
Most adolescent athletes are not conditioned to handle long duration, high volume, high intensity and/or high force. It takes puberty and years of physical growth and appropriate workloads for connective tissue (muscles, tendons and ligaments) and joints to get strong enough to handle the repeated high volume and high intensity stress of throwing a baseball. If development is ignored and skill training and competition are rushed, there is an increased risk of tissue and joint overuse and injury (e.g., tendonitis and UCL strains and tears). Overuse injuries can be hard to overcome at any age, but especially among the young, due to the structural and biomechanical changes in the developing body. Players can’t improve if they can’t practice, train or play because of an injury.
When young athletes have the opportunity to develop physically through a long-term development program based on strength, recovery/self-care and functional speed/power, they can, not only increase velocity, but do it in a way that will prepare them to win a lot of races, not just one. You can’t microwave improvement and success. Long-term athletic development is the key to high-level, sustained performance.