In the winter after the 2018 season, one where left-hander John Means pitched to a combined 3.72 ERA between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, Means felt he needed to make improvements to both make the major leagues and stay there.
Means went to P3 Premier Pitching Performance facility in St. Louis that offseason. For this interview in 2020 spring training, before the pandemic shut down baseball for months, Means did not mince words in terms of how that facility helped him starting in 2019.
“It saved my career,” he said.
A fastball that once sat in the 88-91 mph range on the farm, could now touch 93, 94 and 95 mph. During a 2019 season that saw Means make the All-Star team and finish second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting, he put up solid numbers. He posted a 3.60 ERA, a 1.14 WHIP and a .234 average against. That ERA was the lowest by a Baltimore starter since Wei-Yin Chen at 3.34 in 2015.
Can other pitchers do what Means did over a winter and an offseason? Can they add a tick or two to their fastball? Do the Orioles encourage their pitchers to try and do this and do they recommend where they go and how they go about it?
I recently posed these questions to the Orioles pitching coach/director of pitching Chris Holt.
“When you look at the state of today’s game, velocity is just such a huge component,” said Holt during a one-on-one Zoom interview. “If you don’t have it, you are kind on the outside looking in. The average velo, even in the early 2000s, was for right-handed pitchers in the 88.5 to 90 mph range. And that’s jumped to 93, 94 mph with the advent of all this training.
“When it comes to players trying to operate under the average velocity, it just makes things a bit different with how they have to perform. It really becomes a command-dependent performance as opposed to a stuff-dependent performance.”
What follows here are some questions and answers with Holt on this topic and the full Zoom interview can be viewed at the end of this entry. In a few days, I will post more with Holt discussing pitching performance centers and the club’s feeling about them.
Can a pitcher improve his velocity over the winter?: “The short answer is for many yes, and then for others who have already been working at their top velocity ranges, the answer is they don’t necessarily need to. They just need to sustain what they have been doing, but in short, for guys that need to develop velocity, there are things that pitchers can do and have been doing for, you know, the last 10 to 15 years as the industry has learned more and more information and resources have gotten better.”
What are the things they can do?: “Well, it ranges anywhere from guys going to their facilities at home in the offseason or matriculating to a Driveline Baseball or a P3 are two examples of places that we’ve experienced guys going and having some successful results with training and velocity gains. And a lot of these things will come down to a player’s own interest and desire to improve those aspects, so velocity being one of those things, certainly there are options and places for guys to go.”
Are there many different ways for pitchers to add velocity or do one or two things outweigh others?: “There is a recipe for most guys, but usually there are one or two things that really influence a guy’s ability to improve his velocity. And so, for certain players, it is a strength issue. For other players, it can be an arm path, an arm efficiency, an arm action efficiency fix for them. Basically, when you look at the velocity equation, what a player can generate in terms of force and then deliver efficiently and consistently over a period of time is where a guy is looking to go.
“I’ll digress for a second. A lot of guys over the years have been interested in throwing weighted balls. I’ve seen a lot of guys gain short term velocity using weighted balls, but they don’t sustain it, because the delivery over time kind of regresses to the mean, if you will. So what we’re looking to do with anybody who is working to gain velocity is look for long-term delivery efficiency and hold on to those things that actually contribute to consistency with how they generate velocity, not just a short-term training effect. Weighted balls are a training tool, but it’s not a magic bullet.”
If a pitcher looks to go to a facility to make some improvements, does the organization need to sign off on this?: “It’s important to distinguish between major league pitchers and minor league pitchers. And so, for minor leaguers, oftentimes gaining velocity is a key component to their development. And so, if a player is routinely in the 90 to 92 mph range, certainly it benefits them to uptick that floor and that ceiling, and it benefits all the rest of their repertoire as a result.
“With major league pitchers, certainly we can turn an eye to that, but it’s not something that we would necessarily pressure a guy to do. It’s really more along the lines of, you know, what is it that you’re doing well and what is it that you need to do more consistently well? Sometimes velocity can be in that conversation, and so it’s not that we as an organization say, ‘Hey, you need to go gain velocity,’ but certainly it benefits you if you do, and we want to make sure that you have the right resources and a responsible training method to do that.”
Can there be a downside to any of this? Are there times the club would discourage a player from something like this for some reason or reasons?: “I don’t think that we would ever tell anybody that working to gain velocity is a bad idea, but there comes with that a certain amount of responsibility for how you’re going to train for that. You know, being in a place where the information is good, doing a motion capture at a pitching lab such as Driveline or a host of other places. You really want to be working with good information to go about that training. Whereas, if a player comes to me and says, ‘Yeah, I just bought a set of weighted baseballs and I’m going to go throw these a lot,’ but doesn’t really have a plan with how to develop velocity or improve the delivery efficiency, that would not be what I would consider to be a responsible plan. So we want to encourage guys to train the right way, but also do it with a plan that is going to yield the results that we want and not at increased risk of health issues.”