By Dev K. Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- Weighted baseball training programs are becoming increasingly popular, and are reported to increase pitch speed
- There is very little available scientific evidence to support the claims, and some increasing evidence that the training programs can lead to increased rates of arm injury
- At this time, we’d recommend caution if you’re planning to enroll your child in one of these programs
Over the last several years baseball pitching at all levels from professionals to youth leagues has become increasingly dependent on pitch velocity and power.According to Pitch/FX data, the average fastball velocity in MLB has gone up each year since tracking began in 2008, from 90.9 MPH to 93.2 MPH in 2017.
Previous studies have shown both a correlation between increased pitch velocity and increased elbow stress and elbow injury rates. It seems that injury rates continue to increase with a strong correlation to increased average pitch velocity.
This intense focus on pitch velocity has resulted in the development of several speed enhancement programs. These have become increasingly popular with youth and high school baseball players looking to enhance their playing potential. One of the most popular forms of speed enhancement programs utilizes underweight and overweight baseballs.
These programs have been reported to improve throwing mechanics, arm speed, and arm strength, resulting in enhanced pitch velocity. But there is very little scientific data to support this. A recently published systematic review analyzed the available published scientific literature. In spite of the intense interest in this area there is very little high quality evidence that we can lean on. At this time we simply don’t have the answer to whether weighted baseball training programs are safe or effective.
Most of the studies did in fact show an increase in pitch speed for the participants in each of the various training programs. However because of these substantial differences in the way each of the training programs was conducted, it is impossible to determine what is the “best” method of doing this type of training.
The more difficult question to answer is whether these programs are safe, especially for the young pitcher with open growth plates.According to the authors of the systematic review, new data are emerging suggesting that there could be a high rate of injury with these training techniques. They concluded that it’s likely there is a “safety envelope” of training program parameters within which positive adaptive changes can be realized and beyond which the risk of injury outweighs the benefit. Unfortunately, the limits of such an envelope are currently unknown.
The emphasis on improving pitch speed at all levels of the game is not going away, and most likely these types of training programs aren’t either. So should you encourage your young son to participate in one of these programs? My feeling- shared by every orthopedic surgeon I’ve asked- is that we wouldn’t recommend any of these programs until there is additional safety data available. Until then, our best recommendation would be to focus on safe and effective means of improving pitch velocity through improved leg strength, core strength and flexibility, shoulder flexibility and strength, and better pitching mechanics.