Health the building block of a great young pitcher

What’s the most important component in developing a junior college pitcher?

Some coaches would say velocity. It’s a flashy number, and scouts salivate over pitchers who throw hard.

But the first thing Iowa Western Community College assistant coach Rob Allison, who heads player development for the Reivers, looks at with new pitchers is health.

“Especially with a lot of these high school kids, I don’t think health is always the priority it should be at that level,” Allison said. “These kids have thrown a lot of innings and there’s a lot of miles on the tires. We need to identify where they are health-wise and that sets us in a certain direction while we’re working with them.

“I think developing guys, regardless of goals, is a day-to-day process. Especially with building guys up and keeping them healthy, but also other skills. A five mile-per-hour jump is not something that’s going to happen in a day, week, or month. At least not consistently. But if we can program a guy, acclimate them and get them into a routine, it’s easy for us to get incremental development and improvement.”

Research backs up Allison’s assertion that health is the first building block with young pitchers.

In a 2013 study, the American Sports Medicine Institute said 18-year-old pitchers should be limited to 105 pitches a day to help avoid injuries. ASMI discourages the use of radar guns and promotes resting one week between 100-pitch outings.

Allison said one of the first things the Reivers coaching staff focuses on is removing the emphasis on velocity.

“I think a lot of guys, especially younger guys, base their success on velocity,” Allison said. “It doesn’t help that some coaches fall into the hard, harder, hardest trap of velocity. With all that going on, these kids are ready to celebrate when they hit 90 miles per hour. But I think the most important thing at the juco level is being able to throw two or three pitches well.”

The focus is on mechanics. After health has been established, Allison said it’s key to identify what kind of pitcher is being coached.

To Allison, there are generally two types of pitchers. There are “physical tool guys,” pitchers who had a lot of velocity and used to it overwhelm high school competition, but never really learned how to pitch. Those pitchers are taught to pay extra attention to small details, and the overriding focus is on fine-tuning mechanics.

“The reality of these guys is you’re teaching them how to pitch, not how to throw,” Allison said.

The second type of pitcher is a guy who might not have all the physical tools, but has learned to work the strike zone out of necessity.

Allison said the key with these pitchers is physical development.

“The other type of guy you get are the ones who are physically immature and they need to get bigger, stronger,” he said. “They’re more likely to know how to pitch because they weren’t able to overwhelm guys in high school, so they had to learn other ways to get guys out. Once you get those kinds of guys into junior college and into the weight room and working out every day, they really start to develop.”

After the initial development period comes fastball control. Allison said developing command in a fastball is the first major hurdle pitchers hit. If fastball command isn’t mastered, nothing else will develop correctly.

“You might be able to run him out there with smoke and mirrors for an inning and bring him back before anyone can figure it out,” Allison said. “But any coach worth his salt is going to tell you the same thing, you need a kid who is comfortable not only working in and out, but up and down. If you don’t have the (fastball) control, you’re really spinning your wheels.”

Developing a change-up is next. Allison said it’s a pitch that typically needs refinement because players who throw a good fastball don’t get guys out when they drop velocity. Allison said a change-up in high school can “speed up bats,” but when a player reaches the junior college level, batters are used to hitting fastballs traveling more than 90 miles per hour. A quality change-up can corkscrew hitters when they’ve timed the fastball.

But it’s one of the most uncomfortable pitches to throw for young pitchers.

To counter this, Allison said the Reivers force pitchers to play catch with a change-up grip to develop a feel for it.

“It’s absolutely a feel pitch and all about building comfort,” Allison said.

A talented junior college pitcher might add a slider or curveball to his repertoire, but without the building blocks of health, mechanics, strength, command and a change-up, development can be slowed.

“They say numbers don’t lie, but especially when it comes to pitching, sometimes they do,” Allison said. “A guy could be pitching really well and a couple calls don’t go his way, or the defense isn’t showing up behind him.

“We try to look at the whole pitcher and not just the speed on his fastball. Velocity can be nice, but we’ve won a lot more games at JUCO with guys throwing 84-87 miles per hour than we ever have with guys throwing 92-95 miles per hour.”

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