On a 20-acre ranch deep in the sticks of Montgomery, Texas, pitching coach Ron Wolforth gathers his pupils under the arched ceiling of a 3,600-square-foot corrugated-steel hut. They arrive from all over the country during the off-season, mostly teenagers and minor leaguers, lured by Wolforth's guarantee that he can get virtually anyone throwing 90-plus miles per hour, injury-free. How? Unlike most coaches – die-hard traditionalists who regurgitate decades-old maxims – Wolforth has devised a science-based approach that fuses pitching mechanics with the expertise of orthopedists, surgeons, and strength and conditioning coaches. By retooling a pitcher's delivery to eliminate inefficiencies and imbalances, Wolforth can reduce wear on his arm and engineer peak velocity.
Wolforth's unorthodox methods, combined with the fact that he never played ball beyond a mediocre college career, make him an outlier in baseball's good ol' boy culture.
"According to their logic," Wolforth says, "there should never be a male gynecologist, because they've never had a vulva. Thing is, I've never had anybody spend time at the ranch, see what we do, and leave saying, 'Aw, that's a bunch of crap.' "
Wolforth has good reason to feel confident. The coach has spawned one of Major League Baseball's best prospects in 22-year-old Trevor Bauer – the third pick in the 2011 draft, acquired by the Cleveland Indians last December, who's been training with Wolforth since he was 14. Last winter, several Indians coaches and front-office guys traveled to Texas to meet with Wolforth, including manager Terry Francona; then the organization flew him to spring training to give a presentation, a show of respect Wolforth called "major."
Brent Strom, a big-league pitcher in the Seventies who coaches with the St. Louis Cardinals, is a rare MLB voice who endorses Wolforth's system. "Ron develops velocity, but it's much more than that," Strom says. "He promotes arm health, control, command. He combines all of these different aspects of pitching, trying to overcome a lot of misteachings by uninformed coaches. He's also an excellent communicator, with a unique way of encapsulating information and making it usable."
C.J. Wilson of the Los Angeles Angels, who earned his second All-Star nod last year after training with Wolforth, agrees. "Ron educates way better than other coaches," Wilson says. "He's one of the most well-versed guys I've ever encountered. Usually, a coach says, 'Do this,' and you say, 'Why?' And he says, 'Because I fucking said so.' You're not teaching someone at that point."
Wolforth, 54, prides himself on his ability to synthesize information from several disciplines and make it digestible. He likes to say that he speaks the languages of both "ass-scratching, tobacco-spewing coaches" and "white-jacket researchers." But it took him a long time to become fluent. After graduating from college, Wolforth took a head coaching job with the University of Nebraska girls softball team. Between 1986 and 1991, his teams won three conference championships and took two trips to the College World Series, but Wolforth was more interested in coaching baseball. He moved to Texas to become a private instructor and soon became frustrated by the rampant arm injuries plaguing pitchers at every level.
In 1999, Wolforth had his breakthrough. He began consulting doctors and physical therapists in an effort to understand the damage pitching does to the body. Through this process, he realized that the preachings of pitching coaches the world over – "Drop and drive," "Get your elbow up," "Tuck your glove" – were not specific enough.
"Even at 12 and under, pitchers hear, 'Use your legs, use your hips,' but they don't know how," Wolforth says. "I joke with my guys all the time: 'Marry a pretty, rich girl. I highly recommend it.' But what do you do with advice like that? 'Use your legs' – really? Of course you should. Now, for the first time, you're going to learn how to use your legs."
Based on his research, Wolforth identified 14 areas within the pitching motion where wear and tear are likeliest to occur. Then he discovered that by getting guys to throw more economically, he could keep them healthier and make them throw faster.
While it seems inconceivable that coaches at the game's highest level wouldn't be up on the latest in exercise science,
Wolforth says it's all too true. He blames a pervasive lack of intellectual curiosity within baseball – citing the early reaction against sabermetrics (the use of statistics to analyze rosters), depicted in the movie 'Moneyball.'
"Baseball people look at doctors and think, 'They don't understand baseball,' " he says. "And doctors look at baseball people and think, 'They don't understand elevated distal humerus.' What makes us different is that we feel as comfortable talking to an orthopedic surgeon about a labrum tear as with a physical therapist about a lack of shoulder mobility or a pitching coach about lack of fastball command."
On a chilly February weekend, several of Wolforth's most promising players mill about the ranch. Some watch slow-motion video of their throwing form. Others spread out for a little long-toss (a controversial warm-up where pitchers lob balls back and forth at distances of as much as 400 feet). One of Wolforth's signature exercises is done without a mound, mitt, or even a baseball: He has a pitcher rest a knee on a block, grip a clamp in his glove hand, squeeze an inflated ball in the pit of his throwing arm, and launch a weighted rubber ball into a net. The goal: to improve the fluidity of the "kinetic chain," or connected movements, in a delivery.
Michael Boyden, 22, is a rising prospect with the Washington Nationals, who nearly quit the game before his college team took a trip to the ranch. "This is how you know this stuff works," Boyden says. "I was the worst pitcher out of 11 on the team. I'm the only one who came back to the ranch and the only one who's still playing." Thanks to Wolforth, Boyden's velocity leaped from 86 to 95 mph, and his dream of getting drafted came true. Still, fearful he'd be punished for following unsanctioned advice, he didn't tell the Nationals about this trip.
Matt Graham, 23, a once-surefire pro now trying to live up to his hype with the San Francisco Giants, also keeps his connection to Wolforth under wraps. "You have to do this stuff behind their back, in a hotel room," Graham says of his training drills. Graham began working with Wolforth in the eighth grade and was drafted out of high school in 2009; but several coaches tried to change him, and he came undone. After recommitting to the ranch, he's certain a spot is waiting for him in the Giants' bullpen. "The guys that stay in the majors are the guys that stay healthy," he says. "That's what you get when you come here."
Since opening the Texas Baseball Ranch in 2006, Wolforth says he's had 118 pitchers break 90 mph for the first time in their lives. At his three-day "elite boot camps" ($749), he trains players as young as nine the same way he trains his pros, hopefully breeding a generation of hurlers who'll throw hard for decades. (The camps also net him a pretty comfortable existence in suburban Texas.) He predicts that five to 10 of his players will make the bigs in the next five years; Bauer has already debuted, and Cody Buckel, the Texas Rangers' top pitching prospect, who's worked with Wolforth for six years, is likely next in line.
"The number one thing I want," Wolforth says, "is for these guys to know their movement so thoroughly that they feel comfortable listening to all the voices in pro ball, pulling out advice that might be helpful and then disregarding the rest."