FORT MYERS, FLA. – Ryan O’Rourke was driving the Massachusetts Turnpike, heading to Boston a couple of months ago, while having a phone conversation about his pitching motion. What he heard was so insightful, O’Rourke said, “I had to pull over at a rest stop, just so I could focus. That conversation changed my world.”
Kyle Gibson sat in a gym with Twins strength coach Perry Castellano in Plant City, Fla., last December, skeptically absorbing a presentation about how he could rid his back and shoulder of the nagging soreness that afflicted him throughout the most disappointing season of his professional career. Four hours later, Gibson said, “it’s like it all vanished. It was unbelievable. I said, ‘Wow, this is the real deal.’ ”
If they sound like product endorsers, well, maybe someday they will be. But for now, Gibson and O'Rourke are simply veteran pitchers searching for new ways to find health and success, and open-minded about where they might find them. Which is why O’Rourke now heaves a set of weighted balls as part of his training, and Gibson perches a giant yellow ball on his shoulder while he warms up.
“It wasn’t easy at first, because there’s a lot of modern thinking about the throwing motion and I’m more of a traditional baseball guy,” Gibson said. “I had to open up a little bit to accept new ways of thinking. And I’m glad I did.”
The Twins will be, too, if the nontraditional techniques produce more strikes, fewer runs and healthier pitchers. Pitching coach Neil Allen observed Gibson’s methods over the weekend, and was as excited about his pitchers’ passion as his workout.
“If it makes him feel better about who he is and what he can do, if he shows consistency with it, I’m all for it. He’s feeling really good about his pitching, and that’s what we want,” Allen said. “If he feels it’s going to help him, how can I stand in the way?”
For Gibson, it’s more than a new way of thinking — it’s an entirely new way of delivering the baseball, about as fundamental a change as a pitcher can make. But the 29-year-old former first-rounder decided he had to do something drastic after muddling through a discouraging season that included a month and a half on the disabled list, only six quality starts out of 25, a 5.07 ERA, and discomfort in his back and shoulder that wouldn’t go away. He didn’t make a start all season without anti-inflammatory medication, Gibson said, and he was tired of the constant soreness.
“I was like, OK, I have a choice to make here: Get through spring training, take anti-inflammatories and just try to get through it again, banging my head against the wall,” he said. “Or try something different to prepare for camp. If it doesn’t work out, what have I lost? I’m still getting my arm ready. And it turned out, it was awesome.”
A former college pitching coach at Missouri directed Gibson to Randy Sullivan, who operates the Florida Baseball Ranch, a facility dedicated to keeping pitchers’ arms healthy. Sullivan, a licensed physical therapist, spent an afternoon explaining his techniques to Gibson and Castellano, and putting the pitcher through some demonstration exercises.
The drills are meant to retrain Gibson and alter his throwing motion, so he holds the ball more upright, at an angle of less than 90 degrees, which enables him to reach his release point more directly. That, combined with a de-emphasis on extending his arm after releasing the ball, has dramatically reduced the amount of stress on his pitching shoulder.
And so almost every morning before training camp workouts, Gibson goes through a series of unusual throwing exercises, using a balloon-sized rubber ball, an oversized glove that looks like a stocking cap covering his right hand, and a set of hardballs of varying weights. Keeping pressure on the large ball insures his arm doesn’t extend outward too far. The ball he releases into the giant glove acclimates his shoulder to a shorter post-release extension.
“I know how it looks. I hear about it from the guys,” Gibson said. “It’s not easy, because I’ve pitched the same way for 20 years. But I can feel a huge difference in my shoulder and my back.”
So can O’Rourke, who signed on with Driveline Baseball, another performance academy located just south of Seattle that he first learned about on Twitter. He used a simplified weighted-ball workout last year and said it kept his arm strong. So over the winter, at the suggestion of a teammate on his Venezulan League team, he called Driveline founder Kyle Boddy, who has worked with several major leaguers.
“He blew my mind with how he explained his program. He taught me to ‘think backward’ about how I pitch,” said O’Rourke, who became so dedicated to the workouts, he forced himself to make time for them during a vacation to Las Vegas. “I’m looking for health, to be able to pitch as well on Saturday as I did on Friday. I look at my mechanics from a year ago, I’m much more behind the ball now.”
Of course, neither of the forward-thinking pitchers has faced a hitter yet, as Gibson conceded. “The hitters will tell me if it’s working,” he said. “But if it keeps me feeling good on the mound, I’m pretty confident I’m going to see some results.”
He’s pretty sure the Twins are onboard with his program, too. The first time he met Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, Gibson said, he was doing his specialized workout and Falvey walked over and said, “Did you get that ball from Randy Sullivan?”
Allen isn’t ready to pass out weighted balls and rubber balloons to the rest of the staff yet. But he’s far less skeptical than he was a week ago.
“In all honesty, until we see the results, it’s mostly a psychological [tool],” Allen said. “But I know there is science behind it. If these guys find something that works for them, by all means, I’m going to support them.”