This is going to be a quick story. A few years ago in 2009 I was getting ready for the spring season. In early December I threw my first full-speed bullpen and had the radar gun on to see where I was at, just to get a baseline. I wasn’t putting too much stock in it, as it was my first pen, but it was good to see what I was working with at the start. I threw 87-91 and was pleasantly surprised. I knew it would come up a handful of miles per hour in the next few months, as it always does, so that let me optimistic that I might be completely above the 90mph mark. Cool, I thought.
Fast forward one month, and I was sitting 84-86. I was throwing as hard as I could, but it just wouldn’t go. My arm didn’t hurt, and I wasn’t, seemingly, doing anything differently. I got concerned as this dry spell of pansy velocity lasted a solid 2-3 weeks. I couldn’t shake it.
So, I recruited this old pitching coach who did lessons at the facility (I was in Baltimore at the time) to watch me. I had a good handle on my own mechanics, but maybe I was missing something. I was.
“You’re stopping short – holding back. I know you think you’re throwing as hard as you can, but you’re not – your arm is slowing down early.”
I thanked him for his analysis and made a plan. What was this plan, you ask?
My next bullpen was for the radar gun, and I told my catcher to set up down the middle and be ready for anything. I told him I didn’t care where it was going – I was basically going throw myself down the mound and let that ball go as hard as I could possibly throw it. If my arm exploded, so be it. But, I was surely NOT going to slow my arm down early. I still remember this pen vividly and how reckless and out of control my body felt. I also recall being completely exhausted when I was finished. This was just the point – I had been too much in control, and my velocity was suffering for it.
It went great – I absolutely wore my catcher out. I basically peppered him at the head with the occasional low missile almost hitting him in the junk. I wasn’t pitching to him, I was just throwing, and trying to downright hurt him (if I’m being honest). I reminded my arm and my body what 100% truly was, and after that bullpen it was very clear that what I was doing for the previous week was NOT 100%. 90% maybe. Probably more like 85%.
That day I gained 5 miles per hour and was right back around the 90mph mark where I should have been the whole time. I didn’t get stronger, didn’t “refine” my mechanics or any of those typical fixes. Rather, I just removed the filter that I didn’t realize I had. I was holding back trying to spot all of my pitches and be accurate, and once I stepped back from that and got a reminder to throw full bore all the time, I was good.
This problem never happened again. Why? Because my first two or threw bullpens of the year are always 100% max-effort, “I don’t care at all where it goes” bullpens. I wake my arm up, get to full-speed, and then learn to harness that speed and corral it into the strike zone. Just food for thought as bullpens get near for almost everyone.