In the world of baseball, the significance of throwing velocity has reached new heights, becoming a prerequisite for high-level play. Mike McFerran, the Director of the Wake Forest Pitching Lab, emphasizes the shift in focus, stating, "If you want to play high-level baseball, you have to throw hard. It’s a prerequisite now." This emphasis on velocity has trickled down from the majors, transforming the game and necessitating a scientific approach to training.
The significance of velocity is rooted in the physics of the game. When facing a pitch, a batter has a mere 200 milliseconds to make a crucial go-no-go decision. At the point of release on a 90 mph fastball, the batter only has 400 milliseconds to make that decision. As velocity climbs over 90 mph, this decision window significantly narrows, underscoring the importance of speed in the game.
The MLB has touted incredible increases in velocity over the last decade, with the mid-to-high-90s now feeling like what the low 90s used to be: normal (HA!). Yet perhaps the rise in velocity is even more impactful and astounding at the collegiate level, with the average Division 1 fastball velocity now rising to 89.2 mph, with top-end programs like LSU and Tennesse boasting averages of 94.4 and 93.4 mph, respectively, it’s clear to see the need for speed is real.
Yet, there is this constant back and forth of whether the velocity is here to stay, whether this is just a fad, and what about the development of the art of pitching? The truth is, it matters more than anything; just re-read what Wake Forest is telling you with that quote, or check out this quote from a high school athlete on one of our YouTube videos.
Understanding the optimal throwing speed at different ages is crucial for parents guiding their young athletes in their recruitment and playing careers. Over the past several years, we have sent more than 450 high school baseball players on to play at the collegiate or professional level. We looked back at the data we had collected on all of them and determined their average and peak velocities during each stage of development. Here is what we compiled.
Now, compare these numbers to the current collegiate average fastballs at each level of college.
Look at how tight those spreads are between the three divisions!
Research has not been able to prove that velocity is a direct cause of increased injury at any level. However, from experience, I assure you that the harder you throw and the younger you are, the greater your risk for injury. But this seems unfair, considering we just discussed how important it is to have thrown hard at specific ages in order to progress to the level needed to get into college.
Success always comes at the cost of managing risk!
So, how do we effectively manage our risk?
There are essentially three reasons athletes get hurt from throwing, and no, BAD MECHANICS ARE NOT ONE OF THEM. In fact, the better your mechanics are, the more likely you are to throw harder, thus, increasing your chance of injury!
Better mechanics = greater risk of injury! IF NOT PROPERLY MANAGED!
If the athlete is young (pre-puberty), there is a good chance that his bones have not ossified yet. Therefore, they run a very large risk of applying too much stress to a given area (elbow and shoulder) that can cause fractures to the growth plates (which are still open) or damage to the attachment sites of ligaments (as they are often stronger than the bones at this stage of development) resulting in avulsion fractures. Now, the difficulty with an athlete that is pre-puberty is their ability to develop muscle (lacking androgen hormones) and the impact this could have on their overall body mass and ability to absorb and decelerate force. While strength is not directly related to overall muscle mass, as we are all aware, muscle mass certainly plays a role. With that said, the development and retention of strength for all ages mentioned above from both a total body and shoulder and forearm perspective is likely the largest factor affecting injury potential. The ability to generate velocity is, yes, aided by the overall force you can produce, but is much more reliant on the body's capacity to transfer energy (essentially be coordinated with throwing) than it is reliant on overall strength. This implies that while strength is a part of the energy (velocity) producing process, it is much more critical in the energy-absorbing process (which will ultimately prevent injury). This is an important aspect to understand, as the third reason most athletes get injured is poor workload management. This means the athlete was succumbing to the effects of fatigue, and their ability to absorb or decelerate rotational velocities weakened. Interestingly, even fatigue is just an expression of failing strength.
Here is a quote from Paul Skenes, 1st overall pick in the 2023 MLB Draft, when asked why he thinks velocity is on such a rise.
“A lot of it, I think, is that strength and conditioning has just gotten so much better,” said Skenes
In conclusion, strength is not only the key to velocity but also the linchpin for preventing injuries. Guiding your young pitcher through a balanced regimen of strength development and workload management ensures a safer and more successful journey on the pitcher's mound.