By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Staff Writer
Baseball purists like to wax poetic about watching former Atlanta Braves pitcher Greg Maddux paint the corners with wizardry and spin complete games in less than 100 pitches. The realists of today’s high school baseball recruiting understand, however, that pitchers who throw 82 miles-per-hour and get a bunch of ground ball outs simply aren’t in high demand.
These days, velo is king. Velo, meaning velocity. College coaches are, more and more, looking for guys who can light up the radar gun. It’s simply the evolution of the game of baseball.
The downside of this new trend in the sport is the dramatic increase in arm injuries, particularly ulnar collateral ligament, or Tommy John, surgery. In Major League Baseball, as of 2018, more than 25 percent of the league’s pitchers had undergone the surgery, and in 2017 nearly 87 percent of all games played featured at least one pitcher who had the surgery. High school pitchers between the ages of 15 and 19 are even more susceptible to arm injuries.

Last spring, as a high school senior, Jack Leiter of Delbarton was throwing in the mid- to upper-90s and he’s now a freshman at Vanderbilt University, one of the top teams in NCAA Division I. (Glory Days photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


“Twenty or thirty years ago, you might have had 10,000 guys across the country throwing 90, and now we have 40 guys within 30 miles, so you’re talking about hundreds of thousands of guys throwing that hard,” said Mike Adams, a former Holy Spirit star who now runs Baseball Performance Center in Pleasantville, along with former St. Augustine Prep outfielder Ed Charlton. “The numbers are higher, so obviously the injuries are going to be higher as well. When you are throwing a baseball you’re always at a risk for injury, so our goal is to minimize that risk as best we can. People think (injuries) might just be a problem in their area, but MLB organizations have the best staff, the best doctors, trainers — the best everything — and they have 25 guys a year getting Tommy John surgery. There is no answer to it, but it’s just trying to take whatever steps you can to stop it.”
What people don’t understand about Maddux, Adams said, is that when he first came up to the big leagues he was a power pitcher. He mastered his control and became so good at fooling hitters with spin and location, that’s what he became known for throughout much of the latter half of his career.
“People always talk about Greg Maddux and Bartolo Colon. Greg Maddux threw 97 in his prime and Colon threw 100. Those guys threw hard and learned how to pitch like that, they didn’t get (to the majors) by throwing 82, which is something I think people miss. Velocity is not the only thing that’s important. Velocity is important and command is important, we’re not saying one is more important than the other, you need both. But velocity definitely matters,” Adams said. “If you look up Bartolo Colon in the 1999 All-Star Game, he was throwing 100 miles per hour. He learned how to pitch like that after 15 years in the bigs. He didn’t get there by throwing 83.
“When you get to college you have to be close to a finished product,” Adams continued. “They’re not going to give a scholarship to a kid who is going to be a project. If you’re a kid who spots the ball up well but only throws 83, you’re not going to get a scholarship offer and hope to turn into 93 with good command. Colleges are looking for tools. Sometimes you get a guy who throws hard but is wild, and they get to college and get 40 games under their belt and figure out how to pitch and throw strikes.”
Charlton agrees. He said BPC’s goal when it comes to pitchers is to get them to throw harder, but also to accomplish increased velocity in the safest ways.
“This is the direction the game is going. Everything is faster, guys throw harder, so what are you going to do, just not throw hard? We deal with it with the college guys, their coaches want guys who throw harder, so what are we supposed to do, not allow guys to throw harder because it might put them at risk? That’s why you just take all the precautionary measures you can. It’s just the way the game is going. Everything is faster. Watch a big league game, every guy coming out of the bullpen is throwing 95-plus. It’s insane. Before, you might have had 10 guys in the league who could do that, now every team has 10 guys who can do that. It’s just the way the game is going. It’s not that we’re pushing it, but guys watch the guys on TV and they are like, ‘wow, this guy throws gas. I want to throw hard,’” he said. “That’s the way to get your foot in the door now. It’s not can you go out and throw a complete game and get guys out. That will get you somewhere, maybe, but to really get your foot in the door you have to show you can throw it.”
It may not be what parents of high school players want to hear, but being able to throw hard is huge when it comes to college recruiting. College baseball teams typically have only around 10 full scholarships to divide among 25 rostered players, and a good portion of that scholarship money — just like in college softball — is going to pitchers.
“For college coaches, it’s easier to teach a guy command and how to pitch. You only have four years and a limited number of days to work with him, so they are like, OK, let’s get this guy who is big and throws hard and work with him from there instead of saying, OK, let’s get this guy who throws 82 and hopefully we can get him up 10 miles an hour in a year. That’s a big ask. It takes time to build velocity,” Charlton said.
Baseball Performance Center is doing everything it can to educate high school pitchers on how to stay as healthy as possible, and to that end they have brought on Dr. Ryan Buccafurni, a physical therapist who operates Integrity Physical Therapy’s office in Northfield.

Jayson Hoopes, a 2019 graduate of St. Augustine Prep, was throwing in the low 90s by the time he graduated and parlayed that into a scholarship offer from the University of Virginia. (Glory Days photo/Dave O’Sullivan)


“I know injuries are going to happen, and we’re taking an objective, scientific approach to try to minimize it. That being said, injuries are going to happen. The biggest predictor of elbow surgery is velocity. If a kid throws hard, there’s a chance for UCL surgery. We’re trying to take the best research we know to help minimize that risk. Unfortunately, injuries happen and they are not 100 percent preventable,” Buccafurni said. “Using science and the research that is out there, we’re using data and we’re making plans based on data and science. In the old days they were using their gut and what they thought was right. Real vs. feel, we talk about that all the time. As long as we’re using the data and making the best choices we can based on science. That’s where Mike takes the lead. I’m trying to make sure they have the shoulder and spine mobility to be able to get them to do what Mike wants them to do.”
Buccafurni said training facilities like BPC have to deal with backlash from parents who sometimes may be quick to blame the facility if their child does end up with an arm injury. But Buccafurni said that reaction is misguided.
“I think there is a myth that if a kid gets hurt they look at the training facility like it’s their fault. But nobody looks at how the kid was managed since he was 6 years old to age 16, and if a kid has to get Tommy John surgery at 17, oh, it must be because of the facility he trains at. I think it’s very simplistic to blame the facility and I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. “I know that goes on in the community because I hear it, but it’s not fair. There are so many factors that can contribute, it’s not a facility that’s trying to take all measure possible to keep these kids safe.”
The reality of the future of high school baseball recruiting, Charlton said, is that college coaches will be looking more and more for guys who can throw the ball hard. That’s evidenced by a kid like Mainland junior Chase Petty, who last fall, after he starting hitting close to 95 miles-per-hour this past summer, received a scholarship offer to the University of Florida, and is now squarely on the radar of every Major League Baseball team.
“We talk about where the game is going, as a hitter, if you stand in the box and have a choice between two guys to hit off of — a guy who throws 100 or a guy who throws 88 — who are you picking? You’d rather hit off a guy who throws 88 every time no matter how much his ball moves or how much he pounds the zone,” Charlton said. “It’s still a way more comfortable at-bat rather than facing a guy who throws 98. Coming from that side of it, velocity matters.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays