KENT, Wash. — The epicenter of baseball’s velocity movement smells like a gym, looks like a high-end camera store and sounds like an out-of-sync kick drum, the arrhythmic beat provided by the thump-thump-thump of weighted baseballs being flung against a padded wall.
In a batting cage outfitted with high-speed cameras, data-tracking units and video monitors, a succession of pitchers pump full-throttle fastballs into catcher’s mitts — then consult with an iPad-wielding coach to go over the results — while other athletes lift weights off to the side and still others hurl color-coded balls weighing between 3.5 ounces and four pounds (a standard baseball weighs five ounces) into the wall from point-blank range.
To understand how velocity has taken over the sport — with the average fastball in Major League Baseball rising nearly 4 mph in the past 18 years, creating a cascade of changes to the essential nature of the game — Driveline Baseball is as good of a place as any to start.
A bleak industrial park about 20 minutes south of Seattle — with neighbors ranging from a plumbing company to a wine importer to a company that manufactures and sells hydraulic lifts — is a strange place to find baseball’s most successful and influential biomechanics laboratory.
Driveline’s mission, according to founder Kyle Boddy, is “data-driven player development.” But in terms of where it fits within baseball’s shifting landscape, Driveline is best known as “that place where pitchers disappear for the winter and show up the next spring with a few extra ticks on their fastballs.”
Driveline didn’t invent velocity — or “velo,” in the industry vernacular — but it has done perhaps as much as any other entity in existence to cultivate and hone it.
“Velocity is the number one thing,” said the 36-year-old Boddy, a former collegiate pitcher, Microsoft software developer, competitive weightlifter, professional gambler and Hardball Times blogger who started Driveline in 2008 and now serves as its chief technology officer. “We don’t shy away from saying that. You hear all this stuff about, ‘You don’t have to throw hard; you just have to learn to pitch.’ It’s not true.”
The average pitcher who throws 85 mph or higher, according to Boddy, gains 2 to 3 mph after training at Driveline. “And there are examples of guys coming here at 75 miles an hour in high school and then four years later they’re throwing 97 to 99,” he said. “That happens. It’s not common, obviously.”
As recently as five years ago, few had even heard of Driveline, but its influence now stretches across the game, from its bullpens to its coaching staffs to its front offices. A half-dozen major league teams contract with the company as consultants — the only two Boddy will name are the Chicago White Sox and Philadelphia Phillies; the others prefer to remain unidentified. And Driveline counts more than 50 big leaguers as clients — led by Cleveland Indians ace Trevor Bauer, who, armed with a new change-up developed over the winter at Driveline, went 4-1 with a 2.45 ERA before a couple of stumbles in May.
At Driveline’s “scout day” in January — held to showcase its roster of free agents, college players and independent league clients looking to sign with big league organizations — more than 40 scouts and executives from 20 major league teams packed Driveline’s already-cramped facility to watch 19 pitchers throw bullpen sessions. According to Boddy, eight of them received signing offers.
Meanwhile, Boddy, a natural contrarian bordering on a gadfly, has come to be seen as an oracle for baseball’s influential analytics community, his tweets and his blog posts at Driveline’s website devoured by those cutting-edge folks hungry to know where the game is heading next.
“He’s naturally curious, and he’s not willing to accept ‘Just because’ as an answer,” said Baltimore Orioles right-hander Dan Straily, an early Driveline advocate. “Like, ‘Why do you do this?’ ‘Well, I’ve always just done that.’ ‘But why?’ ‘Well, just because.’ Kyle’s not willing to accept that answer.”
Straily, 30, is a typical Driveline success story. He first trained there in the winter after the 2015 season, when a sore shoulder and deteriorating mechanics led to his fastball dropping to the 88- to 89-mph range, resulting in his spending the majority of that season getting battered around in Class AAA. After a winter at Driveline, he showed up for spring training in 2016 throwing 92 to 93 mph — pain-free — and went on to the best season of his major league career, going 14-8 with a 3.76 ERA for the Cincinnati Reds.
“Since then, I’ve made maybe 90 starts,” he said, “and I can honestly say I’ve never come in the next day and said, ‘My arm hurts.’ ”
Indeed, pure velocity on its own is of no use unless it can be cultivated without injuring arms — what good is it to throw 100 mph if your elbow is going to explode? — and it is at that intersection of performance and health that Driveline’s true battle is being waged.
Achieving maximum efficiency
At a computer desk ringed with three large monitors, Anthony Brady — whose official title is Driveline’s “biomechanist and lead motion-capture technician” — moves to the edge of his chair and points excitedly to the middle screen.
“Right there!” he said.
On the screen, a three-dimensional skeleton is making a pitching motion, its movements representing an animated version of those taken from a minor league pitcher who recently underwent a biomechanical evaluation at Driveline — which involves stripping to a pair of shorts and making a series of pitches on a mound ringed by 15 high-speed cameras recording at 240 frames per second, while wearing 47 markers recording precise movements and measuring such things as the pitcher’s “trunk tilt,” “elbow flexion,” “scapular retraction,” “horizontal abduction” and “Varus torque.”
This particular skeleton belongs to a 5-foot-8, 155-pound pitcher with a 98-mph fastball — which would seem to be a near-impossibility biomechanically, except this particular pitcher possesses “freak athleticism,” the skeletal representation of which on the computer screen excites Brady the same way the discovery of a new planet might an astronomer.
“See this move right here?” Brady said, slowing down the skeleton’s video delivery. “His hips rotate forward while his whole trunk is still rotating back. Most people create a max level of separation when they land, and their hips go, and then their trunk goes. Instead, this guy, his hips open while his trunk is still going back. So he’s creating additional separation. It’s freak athleticism — it’s hyper-mobility.”
From a distance, it can appear Driveline’s entire purpose is little more than helping pitchers put up impressive numbers on the radar gun, as in the many YouTube videos of its pitchers taking running starts — a drill known as “pulldowns,” “crowhops” or “run-n-gun” — and throwing their entire bodies into full-effort heaves that have clocked in at up to 107 mph.
But in truth, Driveline’s “holy grail,” according to Boddy, is not velocity itself, but “efficiency” — defined as “how much velocity you can produce per normalized unit of stress.” In other words: how fast you can throw without exploding the ligaments and tendons in your arm.
To achieve that efficiency, Driveline employs a squad of trainers, coaches, “biomechanists” and developers, and an array of equipment ranging from the weighted PlyoCare balls to high-tech Rapsodo and HitTrax data-tracking systems (to show spin-rate and axis), Motus compression sleeves (to measure elbow torque), OptiTrack high-speed cameras, Keiser pneumatic exercise machines and K-Motion vests for “biofeedback training.”
Naturally, Driveline’s methods and philosophies have their critics, from old-school organizations that don’t buy fully into the data-driven approach (Boddy names the Washington Nationals as a “bottom-five” franchise in terms of progressiveness) to sports doctors who equate added velocity with added risk of injury.
In one influential study completed in 2018 at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham, Ala., and led by former Boston Red Sox trainer Mike Reinold, researchers found that while a Driveline-styled velocity program involving weighted balls could produce a “statistically significant” increase in pitch velocity, it also resulted in a 24 percent higher injury rate.
“If a guy gains three miles per hour from an offseason program,” said Glenn Fleisig, ASMI’s research director and a co-author of the 2018 study, “he’s going to be more at risk [of injury].”
Boddy doesn’t dispute the study’s findings, but he said the injury risk can be mitigated through proper biomechanical analysis, instruction and proper rest-and-recovery practices — all of them important factors in Driveline’s quest for the “holy grail” of efficiency.
“We know that pitchers who gain velocity are probably going to experience greater forces [on the elbow and shoulder],” he said. “So you should do things that can mitigate those forces, which means mechanical changes. Which is why our own studies show no increase in force — because we do a lot of biomechanical training. … The [ASMI study] said as velocity goes up, forces go up — I agree with that. But the question is: How can we not do that? We can instruct people to not do that. It’s not a given that they have to go hand in a hand.”
Brady, the Driveline biomechanist, knows that firsthand. He first came to Driveline in the summer of 2016 as a struggling pitcher for Division III University of Puget Sound and a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor whose career was down to last chances.
“I was throwing in the low 80s, and my arm hurt every day,” he recalled. But after 3½ months at Driveline, he said, “I came out of here throwing in the low 90s and was completely healthy. I went from barely playing on a D-III school to playing on a mid-major D-I school [the University of Northern Colorado]. The last bullpen I threw at Driveline, my second pitch off the mound, I hit 90.6 [mph]. I said, ‘I haven’t hit 90 in five years.’ ”
While at Northern Colorado, Brady completed a master’s degree in biomechanics, and with his playing days over, he came to work at Driveline. Several of the company’s employees, in fact, are former clients.
“It fosters a lot of buy-in,” Brady said. “It’s hard to see what’s going on here and not want to be involved.”
The room in which Brady and three associates crunch data — “Where the real nerd stuff happens,” Boddy said, with a tinge of envy in his voice — is cramped and dark, because the nerds prefer to keep the lights off. Stenciled onto the wall, barely visible in the dim glow of computer lights, is a quote from Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist:
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”
‘It’s giving people a chance’
“I love the nostalgia of the game,” Boddy said unironically.
Confronted with the contradiction in that statement — because Boddy is arguably among the people most responsible for obliterating baseball’s aesthetic links to its past — he nodded and added, “I’d agree with that.”
Largely because of the rise of velocity, today’s game — with record numbers of strikeouts and home runs, a leaguewide batting average at a 47-year low and fewer balls in play than ever before — bears little resemblance to the one Boddy fell in love with as a child in Cleveland in the 1980s.
“I remember seeing Roger Clemens pitch, sitting at 93 to 95 [mph] the entire game. It was unreal,” he said, adding, “Now, that’s every right-handed starter in the game.”
He said those words without regret. The strikeout is king now, and that’s not a bad thing. He roundly rejects the notion that balls in play necessarily translate to excitement. “I like the game where it’s at,” he said. “I don’t find grounding out to second base 40 times a game very exciting at all.
On an afternoon in early April, in the first week of the major league season, Driveline was packed with independent league players and college players training ahead of the June draft. Seeing Bauer succeed with the Indians is great publicity for Driveline, but nothing is as satisfying to Boddy as helping an independent league pitcher —whether a former big leaguer trying to climb his way back, or a 21-year-old kid trying to make it in the first place — get a shot with a major league organization.
“It’s great for us to be at the major league level, and to make an impact there,” he said, “but to me, the impact should be made at the lower levels, enabling people who would otherwise not get a look. To me, the technology isn’t ruining baseball. It’s giving people a chance who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance.”
Boddy is also doing his part to help hitters level the playing field against all of those fire-breathing pitchers, with their fastballs fueled by Driveline velocity-training and their breaking pitches computer-designed and developed in Driveline’s lab as if they were test-tube organisms. In recent years, Driveline has branched into coaching hitters, using the same data- and camera-driven training methods.
“The pitching has outpaced the hitting lately,” Boddy said. “But it’s cyclical. Hitters are always going to be behind, because pitchers initiate the action. But we’re going to see it tilt back eventually.”
Boddy doesn’t see Driveline — and its many competitors and collaborators — as ruining the game of baseball, as some would claim. If he has helped convert the craft of pitching from an art to a science, well, maybe it needed more science and less art in the first place.
He may be a mad scientist, and he may have unleashed upon the sport a monster, one that’s measured in miles per hour and devours wooden bats. But at least for now, the monster hasn’t destroyed the entire city.
“The game’s not worse,” Boddy said. “It’s just different.”