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Written on April 24, 2013 at 3:24 pm, by Eric Cressey
The words "baseball" and "summer" have traditionally been virtually synonymous. While the phrase "The Boys of Summer" initially referred to the Brooklyn Dodgers, it's now a term that is applied to all baseball players. If you play baseball, you do so in the summer; that's just how it's always been.
However, as you may have noticed, the game has changed dramatically since the Brooklyn Dodgers took the field. Arm injury rates are sky-high at all levels of baseball. Average fastball velocities are at all-time high, too. Pitchers don't just throw fastball/curveball/change-up anymore; we're also seeing cutters, sliders, and splitters now. And, perhaps most significantly, baseball players are specializing in this one sport alone earlier and earlier - meaning they're showing up to college with more accumulated wear and tear on their bodies, even if that wear and tear is only a blip on a MRI or x-ray, as opposed to actual symptoms.
These factors all build to the question: is it time for a paradigm shift with respect to the baseball calendar?
Both professional and high school baseball players align well with respect to high school ball, as neither of them play fall baseball. The minor league season runs March-September, with the big league season extended by a few weeks on both ends. The high school season generally begins in February/March (with warm weather high school teams starting in January) and wraps up in August. The college season, however, is an incredible challenge. Why? I think this email I received last year from a well respected college pitching coach sums it up their unique scheduling challenges extremely well.
College training schedules and NCAA limitations make it very hard to develop kids properly:
-We have roughly 6 weeks of fall practice – team building, evaluation, some scrimmage
-After that, we have roughly 6-7 more weeks of training time before Thanksgiving and Christmas. We are limited to 2 hours of skill instruction per week: hardly enough time to make good adjustments.
-A 4-week break for Christmas – usually training takes a back seat to holidays, travel, and general laziness. -We have a 2-week period once school starts to get back into the flow, followed by a 4 week period of practice before 1st game. Biggest goal here is to build a pitch count/base. -We play 4-5 games per week from February to hopefully June -Summer ball, for those who need it: this is where it would be great to take time off, get back into the weight room, skill building. BUT, it costs money for summer school AND the NCAA does not allow us to work with our players (skill-wise) during summer school. Plus, we are usually out working hard on recruiting.
-A 4-week break for Christmas – usually training takes a back seat to holidays, travel, and general laziness.
-We have a 2-week period once school starts to get back into the flow, followed by a 4 week period of practice before 1st game. Biggest goal here is to build a pitch count/base.
-We play 4-5 games per week from February to hopefully June
-Summer ball, for those who need it: this is where it would be great to take time off, get back into the weight room, skill building. BUT, it costs money for summer school AND the NCAA does not allow us to work with our players (skill-wise) during summer school. Plus, we are usually out working hard on recruiting.
Essentially, I am saying that the rules and demands of HS, college, and pro ball are all quite different, yet coaches at each level strive to develop their players. It’s hard to know, based on the unique qualities of each level, what is right and wrong [in terms of time off from throwing].
If it is complete shutdown, then let’s use a hypothetical situation. If I have a pitcher for 4 years and give him 3 months off from throwing per year, I have lost 1 full year of developing his pitching. That seems like a lot of time off…
Here, we realize the challenges that college pitching coaches and their pitchers face:
When does a college pitcher get time off?
The fall is a crucial developmental period for all pitchers, but particularly for incoming freshmen. Most of these freshmen pitchers are coming off "career" highs in innings from their senior years (and subsequent summer ball, in many cases). This is one of many reasons that you see so many schools encouraging freshmen to arrive early; it's not just so that they can take summer courses, but also so that they can't get overused in summer leagues. With the premier prospects who are drafted, there used to be incentive to pitch in the summer to "raise their price tag," but with Major League Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement moving the signing deadline up to approximately July 15 (from August 15) and players signing much more quickly as a result, there really isn't much benefit to playing summer ball, if you're an incoming freshman stud.
This is a particularly important decision to make, as many freshmen struggle during fall ball. I've had lengthy conversations with two of the best college pitching coaches in the country about how they absolutely expect all their freshmen pitchers to see significant velocity drops during the fall. They're adjusting to the increased throwing workload, as well as life on a new campus and a more rigorous academic challenge. Effectively, they take a step back in order to take two steps forward when the winter/spring rolls around. It's important that freshmen show up to campus expecting this drop-off, so it helps to show up fresh rather than dragging before the challenges begin.
What about the summers between freshman/sophomore, sophomore/junior, and junior/senior years, though? I think it goes without saying that there are a number of factors that must be considered:
1. How many innings did a pitcher throw during the spring?
Tyler Beede has been a Cressey Sports Performance athlete since his early high school years, and one of the many reasons he was a first-round draft pick our of high school in 2011 was the fact that he'd never thrown more than 80 innings in a year. He didn't sign, but instead went to Vanderbilt. In his first season there, Tyler threw 71.2 innings - but he also put in a lot of work in the fall season to prepare for that season. He long tossed, threw bullpens, and worked on a curveball at a time of year when he would have normally been playing football or just training. This was "necessary volume" that helped him develop as a pitcher, but it also dictated that some innings probably ought to be subtracted off the tail end of his competitive year, so he opted not to play at the Cape.
Instead, he put in a great summer of training at CSP, gaining 18 pounds of good weight and lots of usable strength. He started his fall throwing program in mid-August and had a great velocity jump during fall ball. He went on to be a finalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award in 2013, dropping his ERA by over two runs as compared to the previous year. There are a ton of factors that contributed to these improvements - fantastic pitching coaches, unique throwing programs, an additional year of experience in the SEC, adjustments to living on campus, etc - but the work he put in during the summer of 2012 was definitely a big contributing factor.
Had Tyler sat on the bench for most of the spring season of 2012, though, he would have been a great fit for summer ball, as the spring season would have effectively constituted "time off." Everyone is different.
2. What is the development potential at the summer ball option?
This is the big white elephant in the room that no college coaches will ever talk about publicly. While there are some outstanding opportunities to improve at summer baseball options, there are also a lot of places that are just a field and a bunch of players and coaches. In other words, players sometimes don't exactly thrive. One prominent pitching coach told me last spring, "Summer ball is getting less and less developmental every year. We're sending guys out for it less and less."
Think about it: you have a combination of new coaches, new (host) families, new geographic regions, new teammates, and long bus rides. There are rarely athletic trainers on hand for games, and only a select few teams carry strength and conditioning coaches. Even still, players may want to execute their strength and conditioning programs, but have no gym access in a remote geographic region where they don't have their own transportation. Roughly half of their meals will be pre-game PB&J sandwiches and post-game pizza while on the bus. In short, I'd argue that it's a lot easier for things to go wrong than it is for them to go right.
What's actually somewhat comical is that most college coaches will tell recruits who are drafted that they'll develop better in a college program than they would in minor league baseball if they decide to sign. Yet, that previous paragraph essentially describes minor league baseball to a T, and players are sent in that direction all the time!
Long story short, if you're going to ship off to play in a league and location unfamiliar to you, you and your coach better do your homework. All that said, please don't take the preceding paragraphs as a gross stereotype; there are a lot of fantastic summer ball coaches and experiences out there. You just have to find them and make sure they're in the right system and matched up to the right kids if you're going to call it a great developmental option.
3. What is a player's risk tolerance?
Mark Appel was selected eighth overall in the 2012 draft, but opted to return to Stanford for his senior season. While he'd played summer ball after his freshman and sophomore seasons, Appel opted not to after his junior year. Why not? His risk tolerance changed. He only threw 69 innings as a freshman in 2010 and needed to pitch in the summer that followed to continue to improve. In 2011, he got more innings, but also needed to demonstrate he could be effective against the best college hitters in the country that summer to improve his draft stock. Once you've already been a top 10 overall pick and the NCBWA National Pitcher of the Year, though, there isn't much more to prove in the college game, so summer ball would pose an unnecessary risk. It worked out well, as Mark went on to be the first overall pick in the 2013 MLB Draft.
Obviously, this is a unique case, as very few throwers will reach this level of success. However, it is a great perspective from which we can appreciate it's not always appropriate to just "ride the horse that got you here." Baseball development is an exception. Summer ball might be a great option for a pitcher with a clean injury history, but not someone with a partial ulnar collateral ligament injury in his recent history. A lot of smart baseball people believe you only have a certain number of pitches in your arm, so you should use them wisely.
4. What are a player's long-term aspirations with baseball: experience or outcome?
Not everyone is going to be a Mark Appel or Tyler Beede. In other words, college baseball may be the end of organized, non-beer-league baseball for a lot of pitchers. In these cases, summer ball is about having fun and enjoying the game before you run out of time to do so. I'm all for it for these individuals. One has to decide whether it's about experience (having fun playing summer ball) or outcome (becoming a better player). These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, though.
5. Does a player need to pitch or throw?
Some pitchers need in-game pitching experience to develop, while others simply need to build up arm speed. There is a big difference. The former dictates the summer ball is likely a necessity, while the latter can be accomplished via a number of different means. Building arm speed might be a function of long toss, weighted balls, or just taking time off from throwing to build up strength, power, and mobility.
6. Does a player have adequate size and strength?
Taking the summer off from baseball is becoming an increasingly population option for players who are undersized or weak, but more polished on the baseball skill side of things. If you're bigger and stronger, you can withstand a longer season. If you're not, you need to work to address your biggest window of adaptation. More and more coaches seem to be moving in this direction in recent years, as we have dozens of players who move for the summer just to train at one of our Cressey Sports Performance facilities, and the numbers grow considerably each year.
7. What's a player's mental state at the end of the college season?
It might surprise some of you to hear that regardless of talent level, most college and professional players are essentially sick of baseball by the time the last few weeks of the season roll around (assuming they aren't in a playoff scenario). You never want a player to burn out on baseball, so college players need to ask themselves whether they'd rather be on buses in the middle of nowhere in mid-July with their arms dragging, or at home with their families and friends, training and possibly even pursuing an internship. What seems like a great idea in May often winds up being a miserable reality two months later. It all depends on the player and his frame of reference.
Increasing Your Options
In their book, Decisive, authors Chip and Dan Heath discuss how we often make bad decisions because we try to turn each one we encounter into "this OR that." Instead, they argue, we should be trying to determine how to have "this AND that." I think this same logic can be applied to summer baseball.
Coaches and players can dramatically improve the likelihood of a summer ball experience being productive by making players are placed on teams where they can thrive. There needs to be good coaching and access to gyms to keep training during the summer season. And, they need to monitor innings and pitch counts, and educate players on staying out of trouble and on task. Showing up in the fall unprepared is not an option. And, just as importantly, it may mean these players need to start a bit more slowly with fall ball after taking the month of August off from throwing.
Players can also play a portion of the season, or opt to find a league where they might only pitch 3-4 innings once a week. The rest of the week can be planned around training to prepare for the fall season. This is a very popular option among those players who have moved to train at Cressey Sports Performance during the summer, as both our facilities are located near multiple summer baseball leagues in which pitchers can get innings. The days are free for training, and all the games are at night; it's a great developmental set-up.
Players might also opt to simply take the summer off altogether, giving themselves two months off from late May or early June (depending on post-season play) through the middle of August. They'd then start a throwing program to be ready for the start of fall ball, effectively making their "throwing year" September-May/June. The summer months would effectively be an off-season devoted to strength and conditioning that would prepare them for the 8-10 months of throwing that would follow. This option affords two significant, but often overlooked benefits:
a. The overwhelming majority of throwing would be done with the college pitching coach, so players wouldn't be as likely to learn bad habits in the summer while on their own.
b. The most intensive strength and conditioning work would take place when a pitcher isn't throwing. This would ensure that mobility, rotator cuff strength, and scapular control would improve as fast as possible. Improving in these three regards is generally always going to be at odds with throwing.
This final option seems to have some statistical backing, too. Of the college first round draft picks (including supplemental rounds) from 2010-2012, only 68% (50/73) played summer ball (typically Cape Cod League or Team USA) in the previous summer.* And, I suspect that we may have even had some players who would have been first rounders, but slipped in the draft after an injury that may have been exacerbated during summer ball. Conversely, I'm sure there are guys (particularly hitters) who helped their draft stocks by playing summer ball the year before they were draft eligible, as well as ones who benefited greatly from playing in previous years. There is no one right way to approach the decision, and deciding to play likely affords greater benefits to hitters than pitchers.
We really don't know the answers, but these numbers certainly lead us to wondering if we've been asking the right questions. The big one is clearly, "If you're already throwing from September through June, is there really much to gain from continuing to throw in July and August?" When I hear it phrased that way, the answer is a big fat "NO," but I also realize that not all throwing during that September-June window is created equal.
Managing the college pitcher is one of the more challenging responsibilities in the baseball world, as the competitive season is a series of hills and valleys in the life of a student athlete. Additionally, there are numerous NCAA regulations and traditions to keep in mind. As examples, Cape Cod League Baseball might be the single-best example of what baseball really should be like, and many players have always dreamed of playing for Team USA in the summertime. So, we have decisions that must be made on not just physiological factors, but also emotional ones as well.
The truth is that I've seen players make dramatic improvements via each of these three proposed avenues, and I've seen them select these courses of actions based on a number of factors, from burnout, to injuries, to family issues, to academic endeavors.
This article proposed some answers, but more importantly, I hope it introduced some questions that need to be asked to arrive at the right answers for each player.
*A big thanks to CSP intern Rob Sutton for helping to pull together these numbers for me
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