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New throwing technique pays dividends for Delabar

TORONTO -- Steve Delabar's remarkable journey to the Major Leagues is more reminiscent of a Hollywood script than a real-life story.

It was just over three years ago that Delabar's career was left for dead when he suffered a fractured right elbow while pitching for the Brockton Rox of the independent Can-Am League. The injury was so severe that Delabar required a metal plate and nine screws to help it heal.

The future looked bleak and Delabar abandoned all hope of one day reaching the big leagues, but all of that changed when Delabar began working out at an academy called Players' Dugout in Elizabethtown, Ky., and was introduced to a workout program that would end up changing his life forever.

"As far as my professional baseball career, it was basically over," Delabar recently said. "There wasn't much I could do at 26, 27 years old. 'Hey, guys, I've never been above high [Class] A. Do you want to give me a Major League job?' It doesn't work like that.

"I did the program because I was going to teach the program. With a broken elbow, I didn't know if I was going to play again. I just wanted to teach this program and help these kids at our academy, and sure enough, it helped me."

Shortly after suffering the devastating injury, Delabar returned home and spent some time as an assistant coach at a local high school.

There had been talk around town about the velocity program, and Delabar wanted to see it for himself. He began working out with his friend and former instructor Joe Newton with the goal of eventually passing along the knowledge of the program to his athletes.

The workout focused on acceleration and deceleration of the arm. It used a variety of weighted balls to strengthen the arm and shoulder while subsequently increasing arm speed at the same time.

What happened next, though, was completely unexpected -- at least in Delabar's case. As the program continued to grow, so did Delabar's velocity. He began reaching upper 80s, then low 90s and eventually began registering some eye-popping numbers that would have seemed impossible even during his days as a pro.

The success became so apparent that Newton asked the Mariners to have a look for themselves. Seattle sent a scout and later that year Delabar found his return path to the big leagues. Delabar made his debut in 2011, and the following year he was traded to Toronto, where he would go on to post an impressive 3.38 ERA in 29 1/3 innings.

"We're talking about a young man that actually broke his elbow, had nine screws and a plate and was rebuilt," Newton said. "He came back, took a year and a half two years off and started this program.

"Then all of a sudden he was having a great year, Toronto wants him. He breaks a Major League record this year striking out four in one extra inning, then comes back the next inning strikes out of the next two. I don't know how anyone can really explain that. I think the program was finally something that came along which could get out of Stevie's tank what was in there."

The velocity program was designed by Maryland native Jamie Evans, who spent three years laying the groundwork for what could turn into a breakthrough for the way pitchers train.

The science of sport is a constantly evolving process. It wasn't that long ago that a torn ulnar collateral ligament resulted in a career-ending injury for pitchers. That changed with the invention of Tommy John surgery, and now not only do players return, but they're often able to do with better strength than they ever had before.

Evans' research focused on finding a reason why injuries in baseball -- especially to pitchers -- were reaching such high numbers. Along the way, he noticed that the motion tennis players use for their serve is somewhat comparable to that of a pitcher throwing a baseball. The difference in tennis is that players often don't have to worry about the shoulder problems that constantly plague ballplayers.

The studies revealed that one theory behind the lack of injuries in tennis is that players don't let go of their racket. Instead of releasing an object, they continue through their wind-up with one fluid motion.

The velocity program set out to find a way to replicate that scenario for pitchers. Weighted balls were used, but instead of having the pitcher release the ball, they hung onto it all the way through the motion. So far, the program has been working wonders.

"They hold onto the tennis racket, and that was kind of implemented into the balls that we use," Newton said. "We started figuring out that if we do certain things with certain kids that the results would happen.

"Tennis players were pretty healthy and our baseball guys aren't, so [Evans] kind of added some things to the program and it became a velocity program. It's a shoulder strengthening program for your shoulder to get healthier and stronger. That's what it actually is, but when your shoulder gets stronger, your velocity is going to increase, and that's what happened."

Delabar is an obvious spokesman for the program, but he's not the only Major Leaguer who has gone through it. The original study involved 10 big leaguers, and for the past couple of years, talk about the workout routine has slowly spread across Major League Baseball.

Kansas City's Nathan Adcock, Philadelphia's B.J. Rosenberg and San Francisco's Stephen Shackleford are now among the other participants, while Newton said there is another group of ballplayers that would prefer not to have their names publicly disclosed.

Just like with any new program, there are skeptics. Ballplayers often are creatures of habit, and if they're already taking part in a workout routine they like, they're unlikely to change. But for those who are seeking out alternatives, the velocity program has become an enticing option.

The health and performance study of the velocity program is scheduled to be published in medical journals this spring. The more accepted it becomes by the medical professionals then the more likely the numbers of ballplayers taking part will continue to grow.

"We're going into our third year with the velocity program," Newton said of his academy. "We had 19 kids the first year, we had well over 300 last year and we felt like our numbers are already way over that this year.

"We've implemented it in several academies across the country under our supervision. It is going very, very well. The numbers we are getting back is great. The healthiness of their shoulders has improved, and that's always been the No. 1 goal in all of this."

Toronto Blue Jays, Steve Delabar