Interview with Driveline CEO Mike Rathwell

What’s your baseball background and how did you get involved with Driveline?

My personal story is that I was a very bad catcher who was sick of guys bouncing fastballs off my forearms, so I said you know what? I’m going to pitch too!

In my playing days, what I lacked in talent I would try to make up for in studying, I started training at Driveline and after training sessions, Kyle [Boddy, Driveline President/Founder] and I would tinker around ideas about the business. Two years after that, I came on full-time as CEO.

Mike Rathwell

How do you describe what Driveline is to people who aren’t familiar with it?

We run a baseball training facility that predominately trains college and professional pitchers. The way that I discuss this is two-fold. One, we are a baseball player development company, and the promise that we make to our athletes is that we’re not going to train you with drills we have not tested. We have a reason behind what we are doing and we have very clear performance metrics for them to shoot for. And two, we are completely dependent on what each individual athlete needs. We offer a very complete pitching development system at this point. We’ve done pitch design work like creating a different kind of curveball, helping Trevor Bauer create a two-seam fastball, and we’ve done some work on arm maintenance and health. The whole thing is very adaptable.

Is Driveline an entirely comprehensive training/throwing program or does it offer more of a ‘menu’ for coaches to choose from?

On the team side, it’s definitely more of a menu. We feel like we offer a wide variety of programs and modalities depending on the comfort level of the coach and the amount of urgency the athlete needs. There’s just a fundamental difference in the way an athlete should train, depending on whether they’re a 22 year old college senior without draftable velocity or a six-year big leaguer.

What’s the best way to get started with Driveline?

There are coaches that follow us online and read the blog and want to get going as fast as possible. We tend to pump the brakes on them; it’s more of a culture than it is a spreadsheet-program. The idea of throwing a lot and throwing with intensity needs to intertwine with your team’s culture.

How you do go about deciding what to include in the Driveline protocol?

Everything that we do has to meet a two part test. The first test is that it needs to have some kind of research-based or theoretical backing- why would this work and help a guy get better? That tends to eliminate things like P90X for pitchers, for example. That’s not something that we’ll ever run a test on because it’s unlikely that doing that a lot is going to help more than any other strength and conditioning program.

If there is research showing something, we need to make sure that it works for our population of athletes. That’s when we use high speed cameras, the Motus sleeve, velocity-based sensors. Once it’s been validated, we look at it across a macro scale in terms of what the appropriate amount is, when we should do more, offseason/in season, and so on.

How have you gone about making changes/adjustments to the program?

We’ve touched on that very recently actually, with one of our long-term athletes who was actually just drafted this past year. He was extremely un-athletic and uncoordinated when he was 15, and the program he was doing incorporated weighted ball holds, multiple connection balls, a boxing component…. a lot of those things have been phased out as we’ve determined how we want to approach mechanical interventions and certain training effects in a different way.

What is your stance on weighted ball holds?

We’ve done extensive writings on it on our blog, but the thing we noticed when we looked at high speed cameras of a pitcher and compared it to a weighted ball hold, the mechanical pattern is materially different. Because the athlete knows that they have to hold on, their shoulders don’t accelerate as fast and they end up getting a little more linear, so they essentially rob themselves of the shoulder rotational velocity component. I think it’s solely due to the fact that they know they’re going to have to hold on to the weighted ball all the way through. The other thing is that the forearm is activated all the way through, which is not how you throw a ball. Those are the main things and it’s not that drill isn’t effective, we’ve had a few kids do holds- but we feel like our responsibility is to get someone to a certain level of performance as efficiently as possible, so we have geared ourselves to different modalities like forearm fitness, back shoulder stability and so forth.

What has the overall reception within the baseball community been like?

I think that the industry in general is relatively friendly and open-minded. We’ve been open-sourcing a lot of our research. This past month we posted three new studies that we conducted on athletes here. I think the advantage we have at Driveline is the access we have to elite athletes. The actual research and scientific community doesn’t typically have access to those types of athletes. So if you’re going to take a training population of 15-18 year old kids and run a weighted ball study, to what extent does that transfer to a 24-year old with five years in the minor leagues?

What makes your location (Kent, Washington) unique?

We’re not in a baseball hotbed, so guys really have to decide that they want to come up here, that they want to be there. That makes for a really special environment inside the gym, when you’ve got guys that are training because they want to be here, not just because we’re in their backyard. They push each other very hard every day, and that’s a big reason why they’re been so successful. That critical insight has led to a lot of conversations with coaches in college about culture. It’s one thing to do reverse throws, which is now a very common drill, but it’s another thing to try to beat the guy next to you. The coaches that can create that type of environment tend to have better results.

We are going to be in Washington for the near future; we have a great spot and have just opened up hitting as well. That’s really the future of where we are going, improving our training methodology in a very hyper-competitive environment. I think it’s going to yield benefits not just for the athletes who come up here, but since we share the overwhelming majority of what we find out, hopefully the way we train for baseball will change within the next ten years and we will be some small part of that.

What are the main things coaches should focus in when first implementing Driveline?

Movement quality is number one when rolling out the program. The good news for the college coach is that you have that Fall window where you can be with the guys on a consistent basis. That’s really the time to stress what you’re looking for, regardless of what you’re teaching.

It’s really just eight drills, and we manipulate the weight of the ball, the training load. In terms of things guys have to learn, almost anybody can do it in about a week. The winter time is when you would want to turn over some version of the program and they should be able to replicate it.

I think we are in the beginning stages of really understanding what makes pitchers effective and how to train towards better pitchers, and I am very excited that we’re able to contribute to that field.

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