The Need for an Off-Season
As I find myself in the middle of the summer I think back to the many baseball games I played throughout past summers. Whether it was Little League All-Stars, select teams in high school, or the summers in college playing in New England, North Carolina, and Cape Cod, I spent a hefty portion of my life playing ball during the summer time. This is far from rare as the common thought in baseball is that if you are serious about the sport you will play year around. Summer ball into fall ball into the regular spring season and so on.
There are valid reasons behind this occurrence. For starters it allows a player to get more at bats and innings at his position. As important as it is to play the game and become more baseball savvy by experiencing different situations in games, I do not agree with this philosophy for pitchers. The act of pitching is one of the most demanding and stressful activities in all of sports. A pitcher needs a period of time away from game situations where he can concentrate on things beside simply getting a hitter out.
Like I mentioned before, I played year around baseball most of my life. But I took three summers off from competitive baseball to focus on training and working out and they were without a doubt my most productive summers. During these summers I increased my velocity from 87 to 90, from 91 to 94; and after my last summer training I had my best college season and signed with the Seattle Mariners. I made more velocity gains as well as molded myself into a better athlete during these 3 summers than the rest of my baseball life combined. For those wondering, these summers were after my senior year of high school, sophomore year of college, and after my "first" senior year (I red-shirted) of college. I mention this because I was not undergoing any significant growth spurts or puberty, which many people often try and associate with velocity gains.
A pitcher wears down over the course of a season. Even if it doesn't show up in decreasing velocity it will most likely show up in decreasing strength, explosiveness, and athleticism. This is due to the fact that a pitcher, for the most part, cannot train as hard during a season. Because of the physically demanding nature of the activity of throwing 100+ pitches at max effort every 5 or 6 days, much of what a pitcher does during the season is focused on recovering for the next outing, not making gains in athleticism and explosiveness which is necessary if you want to increase velocity.
During a season a pitchers main concern is getting hitters out. This is great but it often will lead you to stall out in terms of your stuff. I say this because I know that every coach on every team is focused on the now and getting hitters out right this second, they don't want you to work on new things even if it could lead to better velocity down the road. Coaches always want you to get a hitter out right now and if you can't then you might not be pitching for a while. Sometimes getting a hitter out today is not nearly as important as pushing the envelope and working on something that will pay dividends to you later on. This is another reason taking some time for yourself is so important.
Now many will argue that there is no substitute for "mound time." Sure, a pitcher needs innings to get a feel for throwing his pitches to hitters in a game. A pitcher needs to learn how and what to throw during certain situations. And then there is the one you hear all the time, "You need to get out there and pitch so you can be seen by scouts." These comments have truth to them to a certain extent. However, if you are a low 80s guy then there isn't much point in getting "mound time" or being seen by scouts. You won't be pitching much longer at that velocity as most colleges will not sign you and you definitely do not have a shot at professional ball.
Unless you are perfectly content with your velocity and off-speeds (if you are then you better be throwing mid to upper 90s with a Koufax hammer) then I would be willing to bet you would get more return on your time if you spent a summer (or fall if you are in high school) challenging yourself with a training program than pitching. Think about how much different your life would be if you dedicated your summer to improving your athleticism and molding yourself into better shape, thereby becoming a more dynamic pitcher and increasing velocity, for example, from 83 mph to 88 mph. You would change your baseball world. Even if you are already at 88 mph and you took it to 91mph, now you are possibly looking at the draft instead of just college.
Just to be clear, when I say take a summer "off" from playing ball I don't mean head to the lake or beach and become a bum. I'm talking about working 3 hours a day 5 days a week with a lot of sweat and hard work. I personally spent those life-changing summers at the Texas Baseball Ranch with 30-40 other baseball guys who were there to push me and challenge me to set new personal records everyday. It was hard and at times I didn't want to do it but I did and I think I became stronger mentally from those summers. Much stronger than I ever had become during the course of a season.
It is possible to still pick and choose certain tournaments or showcases if you absolutely feel as though you need to throw in front of scouts. There is no problem in doing this as you can tailor your workouts up to this outing and then once it is over get back to training. I just believe that too many players, parents, and coaches feel as though playing year around is the only way to get to the next level, which is certainly false. If you work hard and become an upper 80s or 90 mph guy then the scouts will find you. Trust me, how do you think players from po-dunk high schools and small colleges get drafted. Scouts have their ear to the ground and know about guys who have talent.
I would encourage everybody to take a look at training for a summer and laying off games for a few months. It is nearly impossibly to train for increased velocity during a season since your main concern is recovering from your last outing and therefore everything becomes maintenance. If you play year around and are in maintenance mode all the time then you will lack any real improvement in your stuff. All athletes need a period of time when they can push themselves to new levels of speed, strength, and athleticism and this can only truly be done when they focus not on playing their game but on their own abilities.
Just remember, guys like Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, and Trevor Hoffman didn't make it to the big leagues throwing low to mid-eighties. They were low to mid 90s guys when they were called up. So if you plan on pitching at the next level, whatever level that may be, I wouldn't be as concerned about being a "polished" pitcher but instead on having the most dynamic, explosive stuff that you can possibly have.
Until next time,