Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning

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High Hard Should You Throw?

By Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E

The obsession with pitching velocity appears to be here to stay. Everyone from Little League to MLB seems to be consumed with it. While MLB scouts sit in the stands with radar guns, it’s not uncommon to see parents and coaches of one or both competing teams checking pitch velocity with Pocket Radar Guns.

The purpose of this post is not to encourage or discourage this fixation on velocity. The goal is to present average and ranges of velocity for different age groups and discuss factors that can enhance and reduce pitching velocity during different phases of player development to help players, coaches and parents set realistic goals for the future.

In a 2022 video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UvtfcMVhKzs), Dan Blewett, former professional pitcher and baseball academy owner, presented average pitching speeds for players from ages 8 to 18. He also explained what many considered to be low and high pitching velocities and how much velocity players can expect to gain each year. According to Blewett, the number one age-related factor in determining how hard a pitcher will throw is developmental age, not chronological or birthday age. Developmental age is how physically developed a player is for his/her chronological age. On every youth and high school baseball and softball team, there are players who are big for their age, small for their age and average for their age. Because the bigger, more developed players experienced puberty earlier, they have more muscle mass, better leverage, more strength, and can run faster and throw harder than smaller, late developing players.

Size matters, especially among younger players. A 5’ 11” 150 pound 13-year-old is physically more developed than a 5’ 3” 100-pound teammate and will run faster, jump higher, throw harder and hit farther regardless of how much the smaller teammate works out and practices. According to Blewett, players cannot out run their developmental age. Because improving velocity is a slow process, late developers often get discouraged when they can’t throw as hard as their more developed teammates.

Adaptation takes time. Late developing players who work hard, train properly and receive good coaching can make progress. Some in sports science believe that players can expect to gain 3-4 mph each year that they play. Gains, however, are not linear. A 12-year-old can’t expect to gain 3-4 mph every year until he/she graduates from high school. Players can have big jumps in velocity during growth spurts, plateaus when their mechanics breakdown and decreases following an injury. The path to max velocity is filled with ups and downs. It’s not uncommon for high school and college pitchers to experience 5-6 mph increases in velocity in a year in which they grow 4-5 inches, gain 15-20 pounds and iron out their mechanics. Gains in the following year, however, can be much less or non-existent. Improvements are not linear and you can’t microwave progress. Progress occurs when you have good mechanics and your body is physically prepared to handle the volume and intensity of work needed to improve performance.

How hard should 8- and 9-year-old players throw? While on-line posts suggest that an 8-year-old should throw 36-42 mph and a 9-year-old 37-50 mph, there is no reason to be concerned with velocity in this age group. Kids in this age group usually play in a dad’s pitch league and most would be unable to throw 3 strikes in an inning. The goals should be to have fun, love the game and learn how to throw and catch, not to see how hard they can throw.  (http://baseballstrength.org/youth-sports-throw-and-catch/)

How hard should 10 and 11-year-old players throw? Kid’s pitch usually starts at age 9 or 10 and velocity should continue to take a backseat to control. Some say that kids at this age should be able to throw 44-54 mph, but at what cost? Kid’s pitch games usually consist of too many walks, too many wild pitches, too many passed balls, too many hit batters, too few strikes and very few balls put into play. Kids have fun when they are able to hit, run the bases and make plays in the field. Even if a kid were able to throw 44-54 mph with some degree of control, most 10 and 11-year-old hitters would not be able to make contact at these speeds. So, instead of having a walk fest, you have 80-90% strikeouts and the pitcher and catcher are the only ones to touch the ball. Players on both sides of the ball can’t learn the game and have fun if the pitcher dominates the game.

How hard should 12 and 13-year-old players throw? For early developers, puberty starts to kick in around ages 12-13, a little later for late developers. Early 12-year-old developers, because they are physically bigger and stronger, throw 57-61 mph. Late developers usually throw less than 55 mph. Advanced 13-year-olds often throw 61-64 mph while late developers throw less than 60 mph. The field dimensions also change dramatically for this age group (http://baseballstrength.org/performance-requirements-in-12u-vs-13u-baseball-gene-coleman-ed-d-rssce-and-jose-vazquez-pt-rscc/). 12U players move from 70-foot bases to 80-foot bases and from 50-foot mounds to 54-foot mounds when they move up to 13U. Since approximately 75% of kids in all sports, including baseball and softball, drop out between the ages of 12 and 14, this is a critical age for ensuring that players continue to develop the skills needed to perform at the next level, love the game and have fun.

Whatever velocity advantages early developers gain in these age groups are often off-set by the increase in distance between the mound and home plate. Unless they see a dramatic increase in velocity between the ages of 11 and 12 and 12 and 13, these pitchers are sometimes like Hall of Fame pitcher, Lefty Gomez, who at the end of his career said, “I’m throwing the ball just as hard as I ever did.  It’s just not getting there as fast.”

How hard should 14-year-old players throw?  Fourteen-year-olds typically throw 65-69 with the goal of getting into the 70s by the end of the year. Most 14-year-olds will be playing on a 60/90-foot field for the first time with dimensions similar to what high school, college and professional athletes compete on. The mound is 60’ 6” from home plate, 6.5 feet farther than 13U, and 10.5 feet farther than 12U. The bases are also 10 feet farther than 13U and 20 feet farther than 12U. The increase in the distance between the bases and between pitcher’s mound and home plate can be major challenges because most kids don’t grow physically and athletically in the same proportion as the skills needed to run, field, pitch, and throw at the new distances (http://baseballstrength.org/14u-baseball-performance-requirements-by-gene-coleman-ed-d-rssce-and-jose-vazquez-pt-rscc/).

The primary goals at this age are to get stronger, refine mechanics, locate the fastball and develop a reliable and effective off-speed pitch. Even those who reach 70 mph will not be able to throw the ball past most good hitters. Age 14 is another critical time for retention. According to Turtle Thomas, long-time Texas Rangers minor league coach, “Fourteen is a critical time in a young boy’s life. He is often distracted by fumes – car fumes and perfumes.”

How hard should a 15-year-old throw? Most 15-year-olds are freshmen in high school, throw 69-77 mph and play on the freshman team. Those with above average size and strength who can approach or reach 80 mph, locate their fastball and throw an off-speed pitch for a strike have a chance of making the JV or varsity.  Regardless of which team a 15-old makes, he/she has to continue to get stronger, locate, change speeds and throw strikes. “Just take the ball and throw it where you want to. Throw strikes. Home plate don’t move.” – Satchel Paige

How hard should a 16-year-old throw? Most kids are out of puberty by age 16. They are bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic and look more like an adult than a kid. The average player throws between 73-78 mph and those who throw 80-plus begin to attract the attention of college scouts, especially if they have a large frame, are over 6’ tall, weigh 190 pounds or more, have good mechanics, throw strikes and can locate. Bigger bodies with above average velocity have the potential to reach higher max velocities than smaller ones. Sixteen is the time to start to learn how to transfer the strength and power developed in the weight room to the pitching mound and playing field.

How hard should a 17-year-old throw? Most 17-year-old players are high school juniors with 3 years of high school and 3-4 years of travel ball experience behind them. Junior year is a big recruiting year for college coaches. Average players often throw in the upper 70s and low 80s. Larger, more physically mature players can reach 85-87 mph. This is another critical period in a player’s development, especially for those who throw hard and want to impress college scouts by striking out every opposing player. Pitchers don’t have to blow hitters away at this age. The goal should be to show coaches and scouts that you know how to pitch to win games with the stuff that you have. If a pitcher has slightly above average velocity and is successful, many college coaches believe that it is easier to add 1-2 mph to someone who can pitch than it is to teach someone who throws 90 how to pitch.

How hard should an 18-year-old throw? At age 18, players are often as big as they are going to get in high school. They are stronger, have better body control, better mechanics and throw harder. Older players can use improvements in size, strength, body control and mechanics to squeeze out an additional 1-2 mph during their senior year. Smaller, less developed players throw in the mid-to upper 70s, larger players throw 81-84 mph and fully developed players can reach the upper 80s and lower 90s.

If you throw in the low 90’s and have control, you will probably dominate most high school hitters. If you can’t control your fastball, the extra velocity won’t guarantee success. It will, however, encourage the opposition to take pitches, run up your pitch count and take advantage of your walks, hit batters and wild pitches. “Regardless of your level of play, your first job is to give your team a chance to win, not to see how many you can strikeout.” – Mel Stottlemyre, Sr.

What if you want to pitch in college? You don’t have to throw in the upper 90s to attract the attention of college coaches1. The pro scouts will be circling those who throw 95-plus. While DI coaches are looking for right-handed pitchers who consistently throw 87 to 95 mph or faster, the standards decrease at lower levels of competition. DII coaches recruit pitchers who consistently throw 85 mph or faster, and DIII and junior college coaches recruit those who consistently throw 82 mph or faster. The criterion for left-handed pitchers is typically 2-3 mph slower at all levels.

What about the pitchers who throw 90-plus in high school? While there seems to be an increasing number of high school pitchers with 90-95 mph fastballs, they are the exception, not the rule. They are “outliers”. In a normal population of pitchers, approximately 34% of will throw one standard deviation faster than average; 13% will throw two standard deviations faster than average 2% will throw three standard deviations faster than average and less than 1% will throw more than three standard deviations faster than average. If, for example, the average velocity for a 16-year-old is 76 mph and the standard deviation is 3 mph, 34% of the population will be able to throw 79 mph; 13% will reach 82 mph, 2% will throw 87 mph and less than 1% will reach 90 mph. The top 1-2% are exceptions, i.e., “outliers”, and you should not compare yourself to them. If you need to make comparisons, compare yourself to the average and ranges for your age group. If you are average or above, you are on track and should keep working. If you are at or below the lower range, e.g., 73 mph for 16-year-old, put more effort into your strength/power workouts, clean-up your mechanics and train and throw with more intensity.

What about pitching mechanics? Proper mechanics are important at all ages, especially if you are trying to increase velocity. Volume is the number of throws per day, game, week, month, season and year. High volume pitching can stress the arm and shoulder, especially if your mechanics are bad. Bad mechanics can lead to compensation and arm and shoulder dysfunction. A basic rule in conditioning is – “never add stress to dysfunction.” Performing a lot of throws (stress) with bad mechanics (dysfunction) is like trying to run with a rock in your shoe. Over time, it will create a blister, abrasion, cut and/or injury that will cause you to stop moving forward. In order to continue moving, you have to stop and take the rock out of your shoe, i.e., back down the volume and improve your throwing/pitching mechanics.

When trying to increase velocity, how much you improve is limited by your mechanics. “When your mechanics breakdown, progress (improvement in velocity) stops.” – Nolan Ryan. Don’t get so carried away with trying to improve velocity, that you fail to establish a solid base (proper mechanics) from which you can effectively train.

Baseball players at all levels are great at compensating for dysfunction. “Adding stress (extra bullpens, long toss, weighted balls, etc.) to dysfunction (bad mechanics), will not remove the dysfunction. It will usually make it worst.” – Loren Landow, Strength Coach, Denver Broncos.

According to Frank Dick, British Athletic Federation Director of Coaching – “If your mechanics are not right, everything after that is compensation and sooner or later the wheels fall off. So, make sure your mechanics are excellent first and constantly refresh them to keep them that way.”

Final word on velocity. “The best in the game build useful velocity. The question is – “how can I execute my fastball?” Velocity can get you in the door, but executing pitches, keeps you in the game.” – Scott Emerson, Oakland A’s Pitching Coach Emeritus.

Reference

  1. Coleman, AE and DJ Szymanski. Strength Training for Baseball, Human Kinetics, 2022.

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Gene Coleman, Ed. D., RSCC*E, FACSM has over four decades as a head strength and conditioning coach (Astros 1978-2012) and strength and conditioning consultant (Rangers 2013-2020). He is Professor Emeritus in the Exercise and Health Sciences Program at the University of Houston – Clear Lake and Website Education Manager baseballstrength.org.

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