Why are some players able to throw gas without mass?
Nathan Garza is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Oral Roberts University baseball team. When I asked him about his thoughts on the topic of mass = gas, he brought up a specific athlete he works with on the baseball team. At 130 lbs., this kid doesn’t really catch your eye at first glance. What makes him stick out is what he does on the field. Despite weighing nearly less than 100 lbs. under the MLB average for a pitcher, this kid has a fastball that touches 91 miles per hour.
If that isn’t enough, Garza tested this kid in a non-countermove vertical jump where he took the stretch shortening cycle away from him. He jumped 39 inches. To give you some perspective on this, Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf – arguably the most physical athlete in the entire draft – jumped 40 inches with a countermove at the 2019 NFL Combine. Garza’s kid might be skinny, but you can’t convince him he isn’t strong. He just isn’t strong in the way we typically think of strength. We’ll get into this more in a few.
At TCU, Dechant has two specific pitchers who are able to run it up to 95 and 96, respectively. One weighs in at 165 pounds. The other weighs 177 pounds. These kinds of players might seem like outliers, but they’re actually more common than you think. Below is a list of elite MLB pitchers who sit well below 215 lbs:
Out of the five hardest average fastballs in 2020, two were owned by players who weighed 195 lbs. or less. One of them was Wheeler. The other was this guy:
In 2020, deGrom’s heater was a full 1.2 mph harder than any other qualifying starter. Thirty-three of his pitches were thrown 100 mph or harder. He weighs less than all but two of Dechant’s baseball players at TCU. If we look beyond the scale, we realize this is no coincidence. There are some things that deGrom does exceptionally well that allow him to throw gas with much less mass.
To Dechant, two things stand out:
If we were to sum up guys like Stroman, deGrom, and Pedro using a single word, one stands out: Efficient. They have an elite movement signature which allows them to produce more force per pound than anyone else in the world. There’s no wasted movement or unnecessary tension. They move to and through strong positions and sync up their body beautifully – in Dechant’s words – so the right segments are speeding up and slowing down at the right times. If they only have 175 pounds to work with, they’re getting all 175 transmitted into the ball at release.
Having mass and leveraging mass to create velocity are not the same thing. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re using it well.
The best arms in the world might throw from different slots, angles, and postures, but they all share a key characteristic: The arm takes a specific path around the torso where the humerus, forearm, wrist, and hand all work in the same plane around the spine. This is called arm efficiency – and the best all have it.
Mass might play a role in creating velocity, but pitchers like deGrom, Pedro, and May are physical proof it’s only one thing. You don’t have to weigh 200 lbs. to throw a baseball 95 mph, but you do have to move really well. If the mass you put on doesn’t help you do this, we get situations like the one we started with.
This is where putting our faith into mass = gas becomes a big problem.
Why can adding mass hurt performance?
Let’s go back to Garza’s athlete from above. If that young man at 130 lbs. were to walk into most strength rooms across the country, you’d likely get an overwhelming consensus he needs to get stronger and put on some pounds. This might sound great in theory, but there can be some significant consequences to this approach without context. These start with the system controlling motor function: The Central Nervous System (CNS).
Building out a quality training program requires you prepare that athlete holistically for competition. This preparation involves the CNS as much as it does the muscles. If you’re not stimulating the CNS in ways that mirror the demands of throwing a baseball 95 mph, you’re not properly preparing that athlete. Exercises like bilateral squats and and deadlifts might help your legs get stronger, but they don’t even come close to reciprocating the CNS demands of pitching a baseball. If we spend the majority of our time training our CNS to move maximal loads at submaximal speed, our CNS is going to adapt accordingly. Garza said it best: “You’re pulling their CNS in two different directions.”
If we spend the majority of our time training our CNS to move maximal loads at submaximal speed, our CNS is going to adapt accordingly. (Nathan) Garza said it best: “You’re pulling their CNS in two different directions.”
Garza’s athlete from above doesn’t throw 91 because he can deadlift a house. He throws 91 because he has an incredibly efficient CNS. If you don’t train these things, they don’t just hang around. You lose them. This is part of the reason why the young man from above had a sharp decline in performance. Training the CNS to move heavy stuff slow does not teach it how to move light stuff fast. When the training demands don’t match the demands of competition, performance suffers.
If we go to the connective tissue level, additional mass can negatively impact the amount of force you’re able to produce. This is something Buffi talked about: Not all added mass is created equal. Lean muscle mass can generate force and torque. Fat mass cannot. While adding muscle mass can help, Buffi noted it can also have an adverse impact on the ranges of motion used to throw a ball 95 mph. This, in his experience, can become a problem.
“Sometimes, when players add a lot of muscle mass, they actually reduce range of motion because the muscles are bigger and take up more space,” said Buffi. “Adding more muscle might increase the ability to create force and acceleration… but it might reduce the distance and time over which you can apply that force. So, there could be a trade off here between the magnitude of force production and the amount of time over which you can apply that force.”
This can also have a subsequent impact on movement quality. If the mass you’re putting on doesn’t help you move to and through good positions, you’ve just created a barrier to performance. This barrier becomes tough to break – especially if you try to attack it using the same movement signature. There’s a really good chance our kid from the beginning ran into this problem. The positions and ranges of motion he was once able to access were no longer at his disposal. He thought he was doing a good thing by adding muscle mass, but what he put on ended up getting in his way. If the body changes and the movement solutions don’t, something is going to break until they do. In this case, it was his elbow.
Alright, so let’s recap.
We know where mass equals gas comes from and the pitfalls of looking at linear equations when it comes to rotational athletes. We have a pretty good idea why adding mass can help or hurt a player’s performance. We also know about some things that make athletes with less mass able to throw gas. However, we still have a poor kid with a barking elbow and in need of some help. Where exactly do we go from here?
Well, it depends – but there is one thing we do not want to do.