VIERA, Fla. - Around July of last year, veteran right-hander Clay Hensley had one foot out the proverbial door, ready to step away from baseball and move on to the next phase of his life. Now he’s in Nationals camp, pitching well and battling for a spot in Matt Williams’ bullpen.
That in itself sounds like a cool story, but tales like that aren’t unique to Hensley. There are countless players throughout spring training facilities in Florida and Arizona who are trying to work their way back to the big leagues, veterans who have considered retirement but are hoping for one last chance to crack a major league roster and prove they can still perform at the highest level.
What makes Hensley’s story different is that just six months ago, the now 34-year-old right-hander couldn’t top 81 mph on a radar gun.
The guy who once posted a 2.16 ERA in 68 games with the Marlins in 2010, throwing in the 88-91 mph range, had lost velocity and strength in his arm due to a series of injuries, most recently a torn flexor mass in his forearm last year. Hensley was tired of seeing his velocity drop, he was tired of getting hit around in the minors, and he was tired of not feeling like he should, physically.
“I was kind of willing to try anything at that point,” Hensley said. “It was like either I was going to give it a shot or I was probably going to just end up retiring. I’m 34, been playing a little while. Last couple years, my velocity has dipped quite a bit. I was like, ‘Maybe my arm just kind of ran its course.’ “
As somewhat of a last-gasp effort, Hensley reached out to his neighbor Tom House, a former big league pitcher and pitching coach who has become somewhat of a guru when it comes to throwing mechanics and ways to keep the arm sound despite how unnatural it is to be throwing a baseball with such force over and over.
House suggested Hensley try out his throwing program, which has pitchers warm up using a set of weighted balls. The balls aren’t meant to be thrown, but instead held onto throughout the throwing motion.
Hensley started the program, and six weeks later, with the minor league season close to over, he took off for Texas and suited up for the independent Atlantic League’s Sugar Land Skeeters, willing to give his baseball career just one more shot.
“I basically went out to Sugar Land, and I told my wife, ‘If I fire an 81, I’ll catch the next flight home,’ ” Hensley said. “I was basically going out there to see if I was going to continue to play or retire. And the first game, I was like 86-87 (mph). The next game I was like 88-89. And then we were on the road somewhere and I was hitting 91. I hadn’t done that in like two years.
“I was asking the guys on the team, I was like, ‘This (radar) gun’s juiced.’ And then we would go to another field and it would be 90. And then we’d go to another stadium and it’d be 90. So I was like, ‘I guess we’ve got to keep playing now.’ “
Hensley isn’t the first pitcher to have success with House’s throwing program. In fact, word of the program is starting to spread quickly throughout the baseball world, and even throughout the major leagues.
A couple of years ago, HBO’s “Real Sports” profiled current Blue Jays reliever Steve Delabar, a former Single-A pitcher who thought his career was over after fracturing his elbow during a game. Delabar became a high school baseball coach and wanted to try out House’s system before putting his players through it, only to see his arm strength return and his fastball velocity jump up to 96-97 mph. Delabar made the American League All-Star team last year.
Hensley’s next-door neighbor in the Nats clubhouse, Drew Storen, uses House’s weighted ball system, as well. The two can be seen most mornings on the field at Space Coast Stadium about 20 minutes before workouts begin, going through the program side by side along the right field line.
House’s program is based off the theory that tennis players - who when serving go through a similar arm motion to pitchers - have far fewer shoulder and arm injuries than pitchers because they don’t release the racket. It’s not as much the arm motion that causes injuries and wear and tear on the arm, House believes, but the actual act of releasing a baseball time after time. With House’s program, pitchers do everything as they normally would on the mound, but just don’t let go of the ball.
“You’re doing a throwing motion without a lot of the trauma,” Storen said. “Which is one of those things that at first, I didn’t really know what to think. And then I tried it, and it was amazing how much quicker my arm strength came up. It’s just a lot more comfortable way to warm up or throw or strengthen.”
The balls used in House’s program (modeled at right by Storen) come in six different weights - 2 lbs., 1 lb., 6 oz., 5 oz., 4 oz. and 2 oz. - and then some pitchers also use a towel, as well. (Just for the sake of reference, a regulation major league ball weighs around 5 oz.) The heavier balls are meant to strengthen the muscles that pitchers use on their throwing path, while the lighter balls and the towel are meant to rewire the pitcher’s body to go fast again.
Hensley starts with the heaviest ball and works his way downward, doing five reps with each ball. He then repeats that process doing the drill two other ways. It works out to 90 throws overall.
“It’s actually a really good program in the offseason because you can do this program without actually throwing a baseball,” Hensley said. “And then when the time comes that you are ready to throw, in January or something, to get ready for the season, it doesn’t feel like you’ve never picked up a baseball before. ... The whole theory behind it, I’ve bought into. And it’s something that’s kind of worked for me to this point.”
“It’s just been amazing,” said Storen, who lives in Indianapolis in the offseason and benefits from being able to strengthen his arm without needing to find an indoor facility big enough for him to long-toss in. “Once I heard the reasoning behind it and I did it, it just kind of clicked, ‘This makes a lot of sense.’ And it’s something that, like I said, I think has been very beneficial.”
After having success in his stint with the Sugar Land Skeeters, with whom Hensley allowed just one run in 14 1/3 innings, it was time to try and latch on with a major league organization. Hensley kept following House’s program and throwing bullpen sessions, when one day he crossed paths with Nats ace Stephen Strasburg, whom he had known for a couple of years, at a gym in Carlsbad, Calif.
Hensley was throwing a bullpen session when Strasburg came into the facility, and having nothing else to do, Strasburg decided to watch his golfing buddy throw a bit.
“I was probably going just to hang out, but he was in there throwing, so I was watching him,” Strasburg said. “My buddy was catching. He catches me all the time, but (Hensley) was blowing up his thumb with his sinker. He could see some really good movement late on it. So I thought, shoot, he looks really good. My dad talks to (Nats vice president of player personnel) Bob Boone all the time. So I just texted my dad. He gave Bob Boone a call and Bob Boone called me like five minutes later asking about it.”
It didn’t take long for Boone to then reach out to Hensley.
“I probably wasn’t 10 minutes out the door, and they called and they were like, ‘I don’t know what you just did, but apparently we need to come watch you,’ ” Hensley said. “So Bob Boone came down and watched a bullpen. And he was like, ‘I need to get somebody else to come out here to confirm what I’m seeing.’ “
The Nats had scouts watch Hensley throw two more times, and when Hensley’s agent informed them that he had scheduled a workout for 20 teams at USC in the coming days, the Nats told Hensley to cancel the workout. They were ready to sign him to a minor league deal with an invitation to big league camp. Thrilled, Hensley accepted the offer.
“I don’t know if it goes down as quickly as it did without Strasburg calling,” Hensley said. “So it was kind of cool how it all worked out.”
Hensley realizes that the Nationals have very few bullpen jobs up for grabs this spring, and he realizes that there are a lot of guys in camp competing for those spots. You could argue that there are as many as 11 pitchers in camp who have at least some chance of earning one of what are likely two open relief jobs.
As a guy who has been playing professional ball since 2002 and has spent parts of seven seasons in the big leagues, Hensley knows how this all works and the odds stacked against him. But he also knows a few other things, as well.
“I know my arm feels great,” Hensley said. “I’m not as sore as I used to be at times in spring training. ... I probably right now feel just as good if not better than I did in 2010 going into camp with Florida when I had that good year out of the bullpen. So I’m really looking forward to seeing how this plays out this season.”
Hensley isn’t sure whether any more velocity will come back as he continues to work with the weighted balls, but he’s interested to see what happens in the coming months. He knows that Delabar came back from his injury throwing harder than he ever had thanks to House’s throwing program. And since Hensley has only been using the weighted balls since late July, he feels the radar gun could continue to tick upwards when he’s on the mound, as well.
Regardless of what happens next, Hensley is just enjoying being back in a big league environment and feeling like himself again. After years of battling injuries, seeing his velocity drop and his major league career slip away, Hensley is reveling in this latest opportunity.
“Six months ago, I was going to retire,” Hensley said. “And just being out here, being in the mix, I’m just having a blast out here. So I’m gonna kind of let (the competition this spring) play itself out. If I’m healthy, which I am now, I think the chips will fall where they fall. I’m not gonna concern myself with things I can’t control.
“I’m just having fun right now. All this is just kind of icing on the cake.”