No body part has been as scrutinized, analyzed and mythologized as the baseball pitcher's throwing arm.
Pitching is a full-body movement, but a healthy arm is imperative for delivering pitches with velocity and command. As such, those who train pitchers must balance helping them get better with keeping their arms healthy. It's a simple concept, but there's far from a consensus on the best way to go about it.
Kyle Boddy—owner of Seattle-based Driveline Baseball—could be on the right track. Home of the self-proclaimed "World's Best Pitching Training Program," Driveline takes a unique approach, which includes extensive use of weighted balls and max-effort throws known as Pulldowns. Every drill performed within Driveline's walls is monitored by a radar gun, and players often compete to see who can light up the highest digits. While that might sound like a recipe for injury, Driveline has helped a number of injury-plagued players revitalize their arms.
"The most common case we get is a pro pitcher with a surgically repaired elbow or shoulder. He's healthy in that he's rehabbed, but he was throwing 95 mph before and now he's throwing 90 mph. So yes, he's healthy, but he isn't competitive. We have to push this guy to get him back to 95," Boddy says. Driveline's ability to produce healthy, hard-throwing hurlers has attracted a number of pro players, including Trevor Bauer and college powerhouses like Oregon State and Vanderbilt.
How does Driveline manage to keep players healthy while they grind their way through a high-intensity program filled with 90-minute workouts? They make recovery a priority. "Our guys are training harder than your average baseball pitcher," Boddy says. "Potentially, that's putting themselves at more risk, but 60 percent of any athlete's training program is recovery. We have three days a week dedicated to recovery."
Those recovery days include the use of a bevy of tools and techniques, none of which is more important than a portable electrical stimulation unit called the Marc Pro. The Marc Pro has become invaluable not only to Driveline, but to much of the baseball world. According to the company's official website, 27 MLB teams currently use the Marc Pro. Here's why it is revolutionizing pitcher recovery at every level of baseball.
The Science of EMS
To appreciate why the Marc Pro is such a useful recovery tool, you first must understand what electrical muscle stimulation does. Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is simply the act of eliciting a muscle contraction with electrical impulses. The roots of using EMS for sports performance goes back to the 1960s, when Soviet sport scientists began using it to elicit greater strength gains from their athletes. In recent years, EMS has caught on as a recovery tool.
Here's how it works: electrodes are attached to the skin close to the targeted muscle groups. Once activated, the EMS begins to stimulate muscle contractions. When muscles contract, nitric oxide is activated in the bloodstream, which naturally causes the blood vessels to open up and increases the efficiency of oxygenated blood flow to the muscles. This helps the muscles flush out waste and deoxygenated blood and take in nourishment and nutrients quicker and more efficiently.
But many EMS units are available for purchase online, and many of them don't carry the hefty $650 price tag of the Marc Pro. What makes the Marc Pro worth it?
According to the company, it's their patented dynamic decaying waveform. With a traditional EMS unit, muscle contractions are sudden and severe—you feel the muscle get grabbed and then quickly released, in what is known as a "square waveform." The Marc Pro's dynamic decaying waveform grabs the muscles and gradually and gently releases it. From their official website: "Marc Pro's waveform used in combination with a long pulse duration allows for non-fatiguing muscle contractions, which is critical for recovery." Sounds like mumbo jumbo, but there's logic behind their claim.
The harshness of square waveforms can quickly fatigue the muscles. So while you might at first be reaping the recovery benefits of EMS, extended and repeated use tires out your muscles before you achieve the full effects. That's not the case with dynamic decaying waveforms, which create non-fatiguing muscle contractions.
This means your muscles can experience the full benefits of EMS without getting fatigued, allowing for more frequent use and better results. Regular use of the Marc Pro has also been found to aid in angiogenesis—the creation of new blood vessels inside a muscle—which means more capacity for increased blood flow. A 2011 study found that a three-week period of using the Marc Pro five days per week led to a greater amount of circulation over time. "This additional increase or reserve was possible because the consistent use resulted in new additional vessels in the area (angiogenesis), giving more capacity to the region," the study's authors wrote.
The benefits of the type of active recovery offered by the Marc Pro are immense, leading to quicker gains, improved conditioning and a decreased chance of injury.
Putting It to the Test
The issues of improper recovery are more apparent for baseball pitchers than for other athletes, because tissue fitness plays a major role in stabilizing joints and tendons in the throwing arm. Decreased command and velocity are two immediate signs a pitcher hasn't properly recovered. When a guy just doesn't seem to "have it" on a given day, inadequate recovery could be the culprit.
"[You'll see] an almost immediate decrease in velocity. Command is also a lot worse. That's usually the first thing we see—if [a player] has tiredness in their arm, their command goes," Boddy says. "You'll also see higher incidence of cramping, higher incidence of strain and [the player] is way less likely to be able to finish a session strong."
When Boddy first heard about the Marc Pro, he was skeptical about its value as a worthwhile recovery tool. "I'm always interested in stuff that works, but sports and baseball specifically are full of gimmicks," Boddy says. A strong endorsement from Dave Coggin, a California-based pitching coach, helped convince Boddy to give the Marc Pro a try.
He signed up for a payment plan and began using the unit at Driveline with players who gave him positive feedback.
"Subjectively, the feedback was less pain and less soreness, they felt they bounced back quicker. That's what they all subjectively said," Boddy says. But that wasn't enough to convince Boddy, who wanted to see if the data actually indicated improved recovery before he invested in more units. "In our work, we're pretty big on objective data. So I said ok, they all love it, but let's try to do some tests," he says.
On Mondays during the off-season, pitchers at Driveline typically throw an extended bullpen session. Boddy decided to split the pitchers into two groups—one would use the Marc Pro for 15 minutes after their session, the other would not. To measure the effect that the Marc Pro had on recovery, Boddy tested the pitchers' grip strength and internal rotation power—two markers linked to worse command and a higher chance of injury. When he compiled the data, the results were clear: the pitchers who had used the Marc Pro recovered faster. "The differences were significant. Grip strength was restored much quicker in athletes that used the Marc Pro for at least 15 minutes in a local area, and internal rotation power improved as well," Boddy says.
His clients' subjective reports had now been supported by objective data, and Boddy was sold. Driveline now has eight Marc Pro units, and Boddy say it's the most used recovery device they own. The Marc Pro helped Casey Weathers, a prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization, overcome multiple arm surgeries to throw a baseball 108 mph this past winter.
"It's not a miracle machine, but it really does help reduce soreness and get recovery right," Boddy says. "I personally think it's extremely valuable." Driveline's recovery protocol typically calls for 15 minutes a day using the Marc Pro. This video outlines how they arrange the pads on a pitcher's throwing arm:
If you're interested in learning more about the Marc Pro, head over to their official website.
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock