TORONTO -- The sight of pitchers using weighted balls has become a regular occurrence in the Blue Jays' bullpen this year, and now the club has hired the man responsible for the program.
Toronto officially reached an agreement with Jamie Evans last week to join the organization as a consultant. When called upon, he'll work exclusively with the Blue Jays while also continuing his work with amateur athletes.
Evans is one of the brains behind the Velocity Program, which is designed to increase shoulder strength in pitchers through the use of weighted balls. His work has received most of its attention by helping Steve Delabar return from a fractured right elbow, but has since been expanded to a large number of athletes.
"The thing I've noticed about the Blue Jays is how passionate they are about the players, which I thought from a business standpoint wouldn't be the case in pro ball," Evans said. "The other thing I noticed was their willingness to ask questions and ultimately embrace the program.
"They didn't go into this blindly like, 'We saw this work with Delabar, so let's go out and do it.' There were a lot of conversations with the brass from top to bottom. When they decided to go with it I was super excited, and they've been nothing but great -- opened their arms up and have asked me to help in any way that I can."
The Velocity Program is a relatively new initiative that has been tested and approved by the National Pitching Association (NPA). It was credited with helping Delabar make a comeback from a fractured right elbow while also aiding the likes of Brett Cecil, Casey Janssen and Dustin McGowan in various forms.
It involves the use of small weighted balls during workouts while players mimic their throwing motions. Pitchers are put into individualized programs based on various categories such as age, height, weight and overall career workload.
The workout routine is specifically designed for pitchers, but the premise for the program actually came from tennis. Athletes in that sport are able to remain relatively healthy despite the fact that their motion for serves is almost identical to that of a person throwing a baseball.
As more research was done, one theory for the lack of injuries became clear. Tennis players don't release their rackets during serves and as a result there's less stress on their shoulders and arms.
Most pitching injuries take place during the acceleration and deceleration process of the arm/shoulder while throwing a baseball. According to the Atlanta Sports Medicine Journal, when the arm accelerates the shoulder is subjected to a lot of force, which then has to be offset by the muscles responsible for decelerating the movement.
At the moment the ball has been released, it has been accelerated to maximum velocity. That causes tremendous stress and, if the muscles involved are weak or fatigued, then the shoulder joint becomes unstable, which can cause damage. In tennis, the deceleration is different and healthier for the body.
"There's a smooth transition for the arm, because the weight remains the same," Evans said. "The strength is built on the back side and the front side, because it's the same amount of weight on the acceleration and the deceleration that takes place.
"As for throwing a baseball, the decelerator muscles don't get worked because they let go of the ball. So in a baseball situation, it's missing five ounces."
That's why Evans began to create a program that tasks pitchers with going through their throwing motions without actually releasing the weighted balls. The work started four years ago with Evans' associate at the NPA, Tom House, as testing was done on young athletes in California and Maryland.
Through the testing phase, Evans learns what type of weight is needed, how many repetitions should be done and how long the recovery time between each workout needs to be. It's different for every pitcher, but the goal is to have the same end result -- a healthier shoulder that is better prepared to handle the stress it takes to throw a ball at high speeds.
It's called the Velocity Program because it claims to have the ability to help pitchers throw faster. In some reported cases, people experienced gains of anywhere from a couple mph to upwards of 10-15. Cecil is a perfect example of that after having spent last year throwing in the mid-to-high 80s. He's regularly hitting 92-94 mph on the radar gun.
But while the velocity might be a selling point, it was never what Evans set out to achieve. What he was most concerned about was finding a way to limit the type of injuries that derail a countless number of pitchers every year.
"To be honest with you, it's called a velocity program because people will read it because it says velocity," Evans said. "Velocity occurs -- it's a marketing situation -- we know velocity's going to happen, but the first thing that the program was founded on was creating strength between the front side and the back side so that the shoulder works better and more efficiently.
"When the shoulder's stronger, healthier and works more efficiently, the recovery rate goes way down because there's not going to be as much damage done to one side or the other."
Whenever a new workout routine hits the market, it's always met with a great deal of skepticism. The Velocity Program has faced a similar type of criticism. While it worked for Delabar, there have been some debates about whether the effectiveness could be carried over to other athletes. There were similar doubts inside the Blue Jays' clubhouse, but that began to change last year when Evans was brought in to meet with the team.
Cecil became interested, Janssen eventually jumped on board despite an earlier claim of not wanting to be a guinea pig for the program, while the likes of McGowan, Jason Frasor and even the sons of former Blue Jays manager John Farrell all joined in.
Some skepticisms certainly still exist, but nobody could have envisioned the program would have received this much attention over a span of just four years. There might be skeptics, but there are also plenty who will sing its praises whenever an opportunity presents itself.
"All of the things that I've done over the years -- tube work, cuff weights, whatever -- nothing has made me feel as good as doing the program," Cecil said. "We could start getting more and more guys to do it.
"Like all people growing up around baseball, I was told you don't ever throw a weighted ball. You just flick the wrist and that's it. You don't do anything with the shoulder, elbow or anything like that. Obviously that's all been disproven, and weighted balls aren't dangerous as long as you're doing it right. That's what Jamie is for ... he has ways to figure out what kind of workload they can handle."
One thing Evans was adamant about is that he's not going to come into the Blue Jays' organization and change the way things are being done. He went out of his way to praise Toronto's trainers, pitching coaches and player development staff for the work that's already well under way in the system.
Instead, Evans will be there whenever players decide to try something new. The program isn't going to be forced on anybody.
Though the success stories might make more participants jump on board.
During his first stint in baseball, Delabar threw only 89 mph. but he's now consistently hitting 95 mph and has established himself as one of the best relievers in baseball this season with a 1.75 ERA while leading all American League relievers in strikeouts with 47.
Cecil, meanwhile, is throwing harder than he has since college, and on Wednesday night he set a franchise record by extending his streak of faced batters without allowing a hit to 38. Overall, Cecil's ERA sits at a sparkling 1.46, while he's struck out 42 in 37 innings of work.
McGowan is still relatively new to the program, but he has even begun to reap some of its benefits. The 31-year-old threw just 21 innings in the big leagues from 2009-12 because of multiple shoulder surgeries, but he's back in Toronto now and even has a back-to-back outings under his belt in the bullpen.
Injuries will never be completely eliminated from the game, but the goal is to limit the overall number and keep as many healthy shoulders in the Blue Jays' organization as possible.
"Shoulder injuries, arm injuries, in baseball it happens across every organization," Evans said. "Is the program going to prevent injuries? Yeah, I'd like to think it's going to prevent some. Is it going to abolish injuries? No, it's not.
"The sport and the way it's played ... injuries happen. I guess my quest is to limit the amount and severity and if the injuries do occur trying to get the players back to where they were before or perhaps even a bit better."