Pitching hopefuls have long been-flocking to a ranch outside of Houston, Texas, with a long-track record of helping kids to throw hard, develop their arms and bodies sustainably, and to get drafted or even make the Major Leagues.
We spoke with long-time pitching trainer Ron Wolforth from his Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, Texas, where he has been continuing to give pitching lessons in private sessions, while adjusting to the new normal of carefully cleaning and distancing. Despite the coronavirus lock-downs, Wolforth reports that interest has actually peaked, because a lot of high school and college guys who would usually be training are looking for places to train and throw.
Nowadays, the coronavirus is wreaking havoc on everyone’s lives, including those of major league, minor league, and college baseball players. With the MLB season suspended and college baseball spring games cancelled, players face the dilemma of staying in shape while they wait it out. This poses a new threat to athletes, but one related to the threat of arm injury for all players, especially pitchers.
According to Wolforth:
“Soft tissue needs a period of time for adaptation for the stresses of the season. That’s why Spring Training is so valuable. Now that it has been interrupted my fear is that when the MLB resumes play athletes soft tissue will have atrophied. It’s the same for college and high school athletes whose arms are even more susceptible to injury.”
Wolforth has some important tips on what athletes can do during their off time to prevent injuries and stay conditioned. He also has some terrific overall advice on what it takes to become a great pitcher and how to both take care of your body and condition your mind for the task.
Ron Wolforth is health and durability and performance coach, who focuses on training young pitchers, while making sure the shoulder, arm, and body are being taken care of. They go hand in hand:
“Everyone wants to throw harder – the question is always – how do we do that? Sure we can use techniques for velocity enhancement like training with a weighted ball or strength coaching or long tossing. But any sort of gain will not be able to be sustained without health and durability.”
Wolforth, a self-described “below average college baseball player by any measure but with above average aptitude” lives and breaths pitching and working with young athletes. Wolforth is a trained kinesiologist, and comfortable talking to trainers, orthopedists, and doctors. At the same time, he’s a baseball guy and loves talking to little league coaches. Being able to do both well means that he can occupy a unique niche.
Part of his credibility comes from his long history of working with established Major League pitchers like Justin Verlander, Trevor Bauer, and Barry Zito:
“Trevor Bauer is probably the one that made The Ranch famous. He’s a very unique guy, obviously. He started with us as an 8th grader who threw 78 MPH and was truly one of the worst athletes I’ve ever seen, but he was so diligent and intelligent and purposeful and diligent. He told us early on he was going to be our first 100 MPH thrower as an 8th grader.
Of course, Scotty Kazmir, who we helped get back. Chien Meng Wang spent a year with us. Barry Zito, another very unique guy, who is now a song-writer in Nashville. Fascinating guy.
Colin Poche, a reliever with TB, is one of our new guys. Robert Dugger, who currently pitches for the Miami Marlins. Debuted last year and was having a wonderful Spring. He also started with us as a young kid and was told through high school he wasn’t going to pitch college. Great arm, but a smaller guy. I told him to stay focused and stay with the process and I told him he’d pitch Division 1, and he did. Now he’s gone and made the Majors – that’s not predictable, but here he is.
People always ask about what its like to work with a Justin Verlander, or Barry Zito or Trevor Bauer, and its great – its fun. But I get more joy honestly out of working with 16-20 year old kids who are on their way – they are less guarded, skeptical, cynical. Young people like that are just ready to be coached and they’re driven and want to get better and they’re so open. I gotta tell you, I don’t work a day in my life. I love what I do. I know it seems like we’re in the baseball business, but we’re actually in the dream business. To be able to be around baseball – I played the game in college – to play the game a little bit longer is just awesome.”
According to Wolforth, young athletes and their parents need to be focused not just on throwing harder, but on sustainability and consistency. That is a lifelong long-term pursuit:
“The reason Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer and on and on are so good is because they’re good on a regular basis. Look at guys like Mariano Rivera or Derek Jeter. I loved watching them. Jeter didn’t do anything tremendously well. He did everything well, and consistently solid over and over and over again. There were a lot of shortstops with better range or better arms or more power, but he was a first ballot Hall of Famer because he was so good on a regular basis. I think a lot of young people miss that – they try and get the velo and its unsustainable if you’re not healthy and durable.
What we try to do at the Ranch is really instill that mindset, because what a lot of people try to do is take shortcuts or hack the system or silver bullet.”
Like most experienced coaches, Wolforth is quick to admit that he’d much rather talk to kids about all of these issues than with parents.
One of his big themes is that long-term success takes consistency and consistency takes time:
“Kids seem to get it. But Dads? They’re especially are bad. We have parent meetings all the time in our Boot Camp where I take the parents aside and I will say ‘Alright. Let’s say I had this brand new little enhancement program and it’s guaranteed to get your young man throwing 5 MPH faster how many would be thrilled with it and of course all the hands go up, but then I say well what if I told you that at the end of that his arm is going to be worse off and he’ll have real trouble with recovery and he’s going to be very inconsistent because his arm is killing him a great deal of time, have I done you any good? And they all kind of looked at me and say no. So exactly. We have to make sure that progress is done in a way that gives health and durability. That’s how exceptionalism is built. It must be built on a really solid foundation. And that takes time.”
Another theme is the importance of the mental part of the game, a player’s mindset.
“It starts with your mindset. In any competitive endeavor, you can never just go straight up – that’s true in business or academics or music or sports. So things are – at a certain point – going to “go sideways.” If you don’t understand that, you may panic or try to go a different route or get frustrated, disheartened, discouraged and that ends up being the thing that stops you.
What we tell our young people all the time is that mindset it so critical. Whenever our young people make an improvement in velo – I always do this – I pull them aside and say wow you just added 2 MPH in a month – “If you just continue at that pace, by the time you’re 20 years old, you’ll be throwing 132 MPH.” They look at me and start to laugh and I go “And that will be a record.” And I’ll say that’s not possible is it, and they’ll say no and then I can say “So, if next month you only gain ½ MPH, that’s OK.”
Mindset it so important, and I think that’s why someone like a Derek Jeter is special. They do take the long approach on this and as long as they are trending up, that’s what matters. Justin Verlander, who is a client of mine, is another one. He absolutely views it this way. That is as important as anything physical.”
The second part, of course, is physical heath and durability. To Wolforth, that means “making sure you look holistically at the body including mobility and flexibility.”
As an example, he notes that young athletes know themselves well. If you stop to ask them, “How many of you view yourself as more mobile and flexible than strong and stable vs the opposite?,” they know.
According to Wolforth, the answer to that question is almost always 50/50 or close. His advice is to use that information when building your process: you need to spend more time on the thing you’re not as good at.
This is, of course, not usually how it’s done. The world generally designs things – including training regiments – as one size fits all. Wolforth doesn’t think that makes any sense, and he makes a compelling point:
“Let’s say I’m trying to get into Harvard or Yale and my grades are A History, A English, C Science. Do I spend the same amount of time on each. Or do I get a tutor in Science to try to bring it up to an A? You have to hyper-personalize what you focus on.”
We seem to be seeing an ever-increasing raft of arm injuries and Tommy John surgeries, both for Major Leaguers like Yankees ace Luis Severino and Red Sox ace Chris Sale, as well as college and even high school pitchers.
Coach Woolforth has an insightful take on the state of arm injuries in baseball, with an important and practical take-away for pitchers of all ages and abilities.
“What we have is the perfect storm. First, velocity is measured and coveted. I’m sixty years old, and I had no idea how hard I threw before I got to college. I didn’t know. All of the sudden, you put a radar in with 12 or 16 or 18 year olds and they know. As soon as you covet velo, you get more stress on arms.
Second, our young people nowadays are really good at video games and with their thumbs but don’t climb trees and ride bikes; they are weaker at functional strength.
Third, they are playing WAY more games. My son, who is twenty-two and is a catcher in the Reds Organization, he played lots of different sports growing up. He may play 100 games a year. For me, I played catch with my Dad, Sandlot, and if your arm got tired, you went out and played outfield. It was not adult-sponsored everything. Now they have pitching lessons and physical therapists – we had none of that growing up. This has to be part of the problem because pitching coaches look at it in a narrow framework and may not be understanding the entire process. Guys like me – pitching coaches – are part of the problem. The problem is young people come into their lesson and then pitch in games and they think they have it covered. The training is off. The narrative about over-use isn’t true. If it were, that would mean that if you limit over-use, you solve this. It’s not true.
What many don’t understand – but which I focus on – is the significance of the ramp-up – from coming off rest to throwing full speed to a batter or with someone watching (full bore). In MLB, it’s been very steep. It needs to be longer and more gradual.”
According to Wolforth, the classic point that proves this is looking at what part of the year is the most common part of year to get an arm injury that requires Tommy John surgery. The most common part of the year for these injuries – by far – is in March and April:
“Think about it. If it was overuse that was the bugaboo, this would be in September and October. Those months actually have the least TJ injuries. So it is not overuse. March and April is when a pitcher comes off of rest and has to ramp it up and they know they have to face MLB competition and their soft tissue is not ready. That’s why the most dangerous moments for a professional pitcher are March and April.
Baseball is starting to understand the danger and starting to throw earlier and earlier at a very low volume and let that soft tissue improve.”
His advice – to professionals and to kids and to everyone in between – is to extend the ramp-up period and make sure you have longer periods of throwing to acclimate the arm and soft tissue.
As for the impact of COVID-19 and the suspension of baseball activities, Ron’s advice to athletes who are trying to stay in shape – and who also may soon be called to ramp up their baseball activities quickly – draws on this same point:
“This is most oft-asked question I get, nowadays. I am actually very fearful of this and here’s why: Especially for youth ball like high school and college, they started their ramp up and then shut everyone down. At some point, we are going to come back, and the season will be resumed. The problem is – what are we doing between now and down. Folks who are shut down are shut down.
I’m afraid that we’re going to have a bunch of kids who are now starting to throw in say early June and then playing in games two weeks later. There’s going to be a raft of injuries because the soft tissue in the arms are unprepared.
To prevent this, what we are recommending to our people is that even during the shutdown it is important to keep throwing and we suggest a cycle of light day-medium day- heavy day twice a week, so you have 2 heavy, 2 light, 3 medium days in a seven day cycle. We are giving professional pitchers the same advice to cycle in purposeful throwing, so that when we do get the “all clear,” they are primed for that ramp-up period.
Photo Credit: Ron Wolforth (with permission)
About Ron Wolforth
Ron Wolforth (www.TexasBaseballRanch.com) is the founder and CEO of Texas Baseball Ranch in Montgomery, Texas. A long-time pitching trainer who’s been a consultant for numerous Major League Baseball organizations and NCAA baseball programs, Wolforth has written five books on pitching. His latest is Pitching with Confidence: A Parent’s Guide To Giving Your Elite Pitcher An Edge. Known as America’s “Go-To Guy” on pitching, Wolforth has created groundbreaking training programs. Since 2003, 121 of his clients have been drafted by MLB teams. In that same period, Wolforth has helped 425 pitchers break the 90 miles-per-hour barrier. Wolforth and his Texas Baseball Ranch have been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPN the Magazine, Men’s Journal, Baseball Digest, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.