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One-Of-A-Kind Pitching Lab Helps Wake Forest Find Its Niche

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When coach Tom Walter first sat down with his retiring Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman to discuss the possibility of adding a pitching laboratory for the program, Wellman was direct in his assessment.

“All of our sports programs at Wake Forest need to have something that separates them or establishes a niche,” Walter recalled Wellman saying.

Wake Forest now has a one-of-a-kind college pitching lab for injury prevention and performance enhancement as part of the $12 million Hurd Player Development Center at Couch Ballpark.

Work in the lab already is paying dividends. Morgan McSweeney is a junior righthander from Hudson, Mass., who has had middling success in his first two seasons at Wake Forest.

“The big thing I’m learning with the pitching lab is it quantifies things we are looking at in terms of transferring force and being efficient in your mechanics,” McSweeney said.

Through preseason and early season testing and analysis as well as extensive weight training and mechanical drills, McSweeney has shifted force on to his front leg and gotten the extension desired in his stride while allowing his back hip to fire as his arm moves forward. Additionally, his fastball has ticked up from the low 90s to touching 95 mph.

The genesis for this grand laboratory experiment came following the 2017 season, when Wake Forest fell one game short of making its third College World Series appearance. The Demon Deacons lost in the super regionals to eventual national champion Florida, which featured future first-round righthanders Brady Singer and Alex Faedo.

If Wake Forest was ever to make it back to Omaha, Walter reasoned, it needed to better maintain the health of its pitchers and enhance their performances.

Walter first jumped on board with the explosion of baseball analytics in determining such factors as spin rate. Yet he realized there was more to it than simply deciphering raw pitching data.

Instead of seeking private alumni donations to add personnel, Walter and the university sought a partnership with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. In addition to helping raise $300,000 that was pumped into the pitching lab, Wake Forest Baptist agreed to hire a team physician and a director of the pitching lab.

The foremost pitching labs in the country, such as Driveline in Washington and the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama, served as models for the Wake Forest lab and worked in a collaborative manner to help them.

Since the Wake Forest lab opened in October 2018, some 20 major league teams have visited to see how it works and determine whether it could be replicated at the professional level.

What those clubs found was a team doctor who works at injury prevention and the epidemiology of throwing-related injuries, a director of the pitching lab who facilitates and operates the collection of pitching evaluations, a strength and conditioning coordinator to manage mobility exercises, and a pitching coach who takes input from all of those sources and puts it to practice.

Dr. Brian Waterman is an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where he specializes in cartilage restoration and shoulder/elbow care. When he was at Chicago’s Rush Medical Center he also was a team physician with the White Sox.

His work with the White Sox in examining the value of trunk rotation, fatigue and various pitching mechanics in leading to a higher risk of injury led him to further those studies at Wake.

“I think it means something to the players and their families when (Walter) is able to look them in the eye and say, ‘We will have the best data available to make sure they not only improve their performance over time, but maintain their health and hopefully avoid prolonged time off to injuries or overuse problems,’ ” Waterman said.

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Kristen Nicholson might be the key cog in the operation. She did her visitation for her doctorate at the University of Delaware, where she examined upper extremities, specifically scapular and shoulder blade mechanics.

From 16 high-speed, three-dimensional cameras, a motion capture and an embedded force plate in the pitcher’s mound with reflector markers on the pitchers, Nicholson can study the data and offer solutions to help reduce stress on a pitcher’s shoulder and elbow.

Let her explain:

“During a pitch, ideally the hips rotate toward the catcher or the batter, then the shoulders rotate after the hips rotate. So, that hip-shoulder separation is how far your hips are able to rotate before your shoulder starts to rotate. It’s like a rubber band, the greater that separation, the more energy you are able to produce before the shoulder starts to rotate.

“That’s related to the trunk velocity. If you don’t have much hip-shoulder separation, you’re not going to be rotating your trunk very fast. If you are able to pull your shoulders back away from your hips, then you’re stretching the rubber band and you’re able to rotate faster.

“You can see some of that in a video, but not to the extent that the data shows.”

That information is then presented to Mark Seaver, Wake Forest’s assistant director of sports performance for baseball, who can recommend exercises that both strengthen pitchers’ bodies and prevent injuries. Seaver, who pitched four seasons in the Orioles and Athletics organizations, was twice felled by shoulder surgeries.

“I am jealous of the capabilities that we have, because I wouldn’t have gotten hurt,” Seaver said. “If we can keep these guys on the field, we can continue to maximize their athletic potential and keep them healthy.”

Staff ace Colin Peluse, a junior righthander from Middletown, Del., possessed the highest arm speed with the highest stress on his elbow and the lowest hip-shoulder separation of all the Wake Forest pitchers when the lab began operations. A simple adjustment in his hip mobility has him sporting the lowest stress on his elbow.

“His command is much better and he is able to get to the glove side of the plate better now that his hip mobility is better,” Walter said.

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