Jan 29, 2015
Speed Development in Baseball

By Todd Brown, CCS

With college baseball teams around the country engaged in off-season strength and conditioning work, now is a good time to evaluate speed training methods. So what’s your philosophy and what drills are you using? Todd Brown recommends taking a scientific approach to examining the sport’s speed and agility requirements.

Speed development entered the game of baseball somewhere in the early 70s with “Boots” Garland and the Dodgers. The inception was slow to spread throughout the league, but in a study released in 2007 on training modalities used by professional baseball strength coaches, every team reported they are using some form of speed development training.

Primarily, form running, the agility ladder, and base running drills were implemented to enhance game-specific speed. While these modalities do have their place, I ask: is there a better way to implement such drills? Are they supported by exercise science and conventional wisdom, or do they contradict sport appropriate needs?

Form running is a popular training method used in many sports and for athletes of all ages. It is an essential element in regard to the underpinning of correct technique in sprinting. While it should be utilized as a starting point, form running must be eventually progressed to higher-speed drills and full-speed running.

Low-speed form running allows an athlete to feel basic movement patterns and creates opportunities for adjustments–more so than high-speed form running. However, low-speed form running by itself will not enhance sprint speed. After all, a hitting coach would not have his hitters swing the bat at a slow speed during drills and then expect a hitter to make contact with an 95 mph fastball in a potentially game winning situation. Nor would a pitching coach ask a pitcher to throw half speed over and over again, and then place that pitcher into a game and expect precise pitches at top speeds.

So while form running does have its place, coaches and strength trainers need to understand its place within a progression. It is important to know that it isn’t the specific drill that makes an athlete better, but it’s the progression up to, the placement of, and the progression away from it that ensures enhanced performance.

Agility ladders have made their way into baseball only over the last several years. The agility ladder is designed to improve an athlete’s ability to move at moderate to high speeds while changing direction quickly. So what baseball-specific skills does agility training target?

Many coaches and strength and conditioning specialists would say agility is needed during double plays, pitchers fielding a bunted ball, and rundowns when a base runner is caught between bases. All three of these plays use agility, but the occurrence of these plays is extremely rare.

According to Major League Baseball, in 2006, each team averaged .95 double plays per game. That’s less than one per game, per team, and this doesn’t take into account how many involved the second baseman to receive and throw the ball. Secondly, bunting took place between innings one and nine only 3.1 percent of the game. Again, this did not distinguish what percentage the pitcher fielded. Rundowns occurred in less than one percent of all of the games in the Major Leagues. Even with these low statistics, baseball players are continually put through agility drills most of which are executed while using an agility ladder.

In my opinion, the agility ladder doesn’t do much to increase agility or quickness in baseball players. The drills that are used violate the law of exercise specificity.

Generally, the ability to execute a ladder drill increases due to the learning curve of the foot pattern. There is movement, but not appropriate movement patterns that apply to the game of baseball. One would not hope to improve a right-handed pitcher’s velocity by throwing left-handed. Again, the pitcher is moving in a manner that is inappropriate to the activity during competition. Virtually the only published information (Impellizzeri out of Switzerland) that has been seen with ladders is increased linear speed over 30 meters while executing multiple unique arm patterns in conjunction with foot movements in adolescent male soccer players. This is just another example of trainers misusing information and attempt to bridge a tremendous gap.

In review, speed development in baseball is vital, and could be the difference between winning and losing a game. While this remains true, it should not be misdirected. Speed development should be appropriate to the demands of the game and multifaceted to include not only base running, but also the defense.

Todd Brown, CCS, is a sports science consultant working in south/central New Jersey. He has worked with Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and Women’s Professional Soccer. He can be reached at: [email protected]. FEEDBACK Mr. Brown, While you say that speed ladders do relate to baseball related movements you do not offer any drills or suggestions that you think would relate to the game of baseball. Quick feet are a necessary skill in other aspects of the game. Regards, Bill Hennig

Mr. Hennig, I do not feel that ladders have their place in baseball above roughly 13 years old (depending on training age). Please refer to the information provided by various authors such as Drabik, Sharkey, Grosser and Guzalowski in regard to sensitive training periods for males and females. The ladders do have their place in regard to coordination and/or balance, but have never been shown to improve “quickness” or foot speed in baseball. Thank you for your comment, Todd

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