Watching the Tampa Bay Rays' Chris Archer pitch teaches a lesson in balance. Each piece of his windup feels like a separate episode. There's the deliberate leg kick as Archer slowly curls his left knee up and into his chest. After pausing ever so briefly, like a flamingo distracted by a movement from afar, he proceeds with his delivery, unfurling his left leg toward home plate in slow motion before the baseball comes spiraling out of his right hand.
It's an aesthetic masterpiece.
It seems ironic that Archer doesn't look much like a starting pitcher in the MLB. He's tall, nearly 6-foot-4, and in immaculate shape. He resembles a perfect NBA stretch-four, and he runs like a sprinter. He's so quick, in fact, that the Rays have used him as a pinch runner on more than one occasion. He even attempted to steal a base. His athleticism is somewhat restrained when he's standing on the mound, but to those who have worked with him, Archer is a physical specimen.
"It's just awesome to watch him move in space, with the ease of his movement and the fluidity of it," said Scott Pucek, a performance manager at EXOS at Raleigh Orthopedic, where Archer trains. "He's a freak athlete."
Now in his fourth year with the Rays, Archer has become one of the premier young pitchers in the game. At the time of this writing, his ERA is hovering around 2.73, 15th best in the league. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 153 to 31, and his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is a measly 1.01, better than that of Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Garrett Cole. Archer's dominance on the mound landed him his first All-Star appearance in 2015.
Archer's success, as evidenced by his calculated windup, comes from a training routine focused on balance, strengthening his torso, and adhering to the principal of kinetic linking—the idea that a movement in one part of the body effects other areas as well. To create the perfect windup, Archer had to first perfect his body's mechanics.
"Chris is throwing the baseball hundreds of times with maximum effort," said Will Parker, a performance manager and colleague of Pucek's at the same EXOS location. "When we help him develop the stability and strength through his hips into his torso and into his shoulder, he's maximizing the explosion from his lower body, from the ball of his foot, through his ankle, through his knee, through his chest, all the way up through his body. He's not putting too much load on his shoulder and he's not overworking his shoulder. He is using his entire body to efficiently throw the ball."
Parker and Pucek spend a lot of time putting Archer through what they call anti-rotational movements to help him resist some of the forces working against his body when he goes through his windup. To do so, the two trainers have Archer simulate his windup while attached by cable to a Kaiser machine for resistance, or while holding a med ball. They also have him do Rotational Stability Chops and other exercises that make every move Archer performs during his windup a model of efficiency.
"Basically what we're developing [with him] is anti-rotational forces," said Parker. "Yes, he needs to be explosive rotationally, but he also needs to be able to decelerate and resist some of the forces as well, so he can efficiently move."
With all the attention paid to pitch counts and preserving pitcher's arms, Pucek thinks the best style of preventive arm maintenance is making sure the rest of Archer's body is doing what it's supposed to. Pucek and Parker want to make sure they use all the force and power Archer generates while pitching in an efficient manner to lessen the stress and wear and tear on the young pitcher's shoulder and arm.
"I think oftentimes we focus on arm care in our global approach, but really a step before that is looking at how strong and powerful that lower body is and how efficient are the throwing mechanics?" Pucek said. "It's how it relates to the whole body, not just focusing on the arm. If you just think about the arm, it's the last thing that releases the ball, so it's kind of like a whip. You pitch with your legs, you pitch through the ground, you pitch through your hips and you pitch through your torso. So the arm is the final thing. It's the thing we see and focus on as observers, but it really starts from the ground on up."
So far, the work has paid off. Aside from Archer's success on the mound, he's remained injury-free, allowing him to become the star of a loaded Rays pitching rotation. As Pucek and Parker continue to work with the young star as his career moves forward, they want to see him continue to add lean muscle mass to help prevent injury and perform at his peak all season long. For someone as athletically gifted as Archer, that doesn't seem like it will be much of a problem.
"Once, Chris was working on some Single-Leg Split-Squats elevated on a box, and he had a weight vest on while holding 75-pound dumbbells, and he was cranking out sets of 10 reps with perfect, immaculate form," Parker said. "That's 75 pounds in each hand and that's all on one leg. That's pretty impressive for him."
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