Extreme Weathers: Indians hurler hits 108 mph

March 18th, 2016

Casey Weathers, yellow sneakers flashing, takes a few running steps and a crow hop before hurling a baseball with all his might into a sock net, which is a mere 30-ish feet away from his release point. A radar gun reading gets spit out on a monitor mounted on the wall: 107.8 mph.

"I got really fortunate in the last year," says Weathers, 30, who battled bad luck and injuries for the better part of five seasons. "I basically got signed by the Indians off a pull-down video."

Gif: Casey Weathers Radar Gun Throw

The "pull-down" drill is so named because it comes from the end of the second phase of pitching guru Alan Jaeger's long-toss regimen, in which, after "stretching out" to 300-foot throwing distances, pitchers "pull down" to the comparably minute distance at which their final throws are made. But at Driveline Baseball in Seattle, where Weathers has been training for parts of the last two years, the drill is used as a once-weekly "max-intent" stress test to see just how hard a pitcher can throw.

"I played outfield growing up, so I do more of an outfielders throw," says Weathers, a 2007 first-round Draft pick who battled back from said arm injuries to strike out more than a batter per inning across two Minor League levels in 2015. "You try to beat your score every time and get as much velocity as you can.

"I can definitely get some translation to the mound as far as getting arm speed, but it's all about the confidence for me. I've been through all these injuries, and now I can throw a ball at max intent at very high output and I'm fine. That's the biggest confidence thing for me. I can prepare my body to do the things I need to do to compete during the season."

To some extent, hitting 108 mph seems crazy when you consider that the fastest pitch tracked by Statcast™ in 2015 was 103.9 mph, by Aroldis Chapman, but that's how much a crow hop can help as compared to just throwing off of a mound. The momentum gained from a running start also helps explains how Carlos Gomez was able to hit 103.1 mph while throwing out Joe Mauer at the plate last September, and how Kevin Kiermaier topped 100 mph.

It was November 2014 when Weathers caught Cleveland's eye with a "pull down" of 105.8 mph, seven years after he was taken eighth overall in the 2007 Draft, two picks ahead of San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner.

Max Velocity Pulldowns - 105.8 MPH | Driveline Baseball

But it was also six years after Weathers' first Tommy John surgery and just one year since the revision that removed a bone spur the size of the tip of his pinky from his repaired UCL.

Indians director of player development Carter Hawkins, who caught Weathers at Vanderbilt University, already knew his work ethic and desire to get better. But the pull-down video showed Hawkins that Weathers was finally healthy and in top shape.

"Seeing the intent with which he was throwing in that video basically answered that question," Hawkins says. "We knew at that point that the physical part wasn't a limitation, and we were excited to bring him on board and start the process of translating the arm strength to in-game execution."

Weathers struck out 75 batters in 49 1/3 innings in 2007 as the closer for a stacked Commodores squad that featured future big leaguers David Price, Pedro Alvarez and Ryan Flaherty. Weathers was throwing 95-97 mph and had a put-away slider that earned him a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, where he teamed with the likes of Jake Arrieta and Dexter Fowler to take home the bronze. And that was the last time his elbow would feel good.

After his first surgery in 2008, Weathers wouldn't pitch for 20 months. Then, he entered a vicious cycle of pitching with pain, which affected his performance. Mechanical fixes that only made things worse. Weathers saw his velocity drop and his control diminish as he was released by one team after another: the Cubs, the Giants, the Rays.

"I always had pain," Weathers says. "I never had a day where I wasn't pitching through something."

Until now.

Take a gander at the Minor League fields at the Tribe's camp in Goodyear, Ariz., and you'll see the chain-link fences lined with pads and the ground littered with weighted baseballs.

Weathers was reintroduced to the somewhat controversial training method of throwing weighted balls while at Driveline, but he had originally learned to throw them under the tutelage of Derek Johnson (who is now the pitching coach for the Brewers) at Vanderbilt. It is no coincidence that the Indians, who have embraced the use of weighted balls, have acquired several pitchers who have trained with Driveline, including Trevor Bauer.

Mostly, Weathers throws a two-pound ball, which he says makes his mechanics more efficient, stronger and healthier, but he also uses lighter balls -- two or four ounces -- which emphasize deceleration of the arm and specifically target a problem Weathers has with early elbow extension. (For context, a regulation ball is five ounces.)

"I think the weighted balls have completely salvaged my career," Weathers says. "There is an underlying remapping that comes with using the heavy balls that helps you to throw strikes. If your arm is working more efficiently, then your line to the plate is also more efficient."

With health and efficiency came velocity, which the Indians saw in Weathers' pull-down video. Cleveland signed him prior to the 2015 season, which Weathers spent in Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Akron. In 49 1/3 innings, Weathers had 55 strikeouts with a fastball that sat in the 95-97-mph range. The one blemish on his stat line was were 4.7 walks per nine, but he'd walked more than a batter per inning in a brief stint in Class A with the Rays in 2014 after not pitching competitively in '13, so even that could be seen as an improvement.

This offseason, Weathers got his pull-down velocity on the cusp of 108 mph. His goals for 2016 are to better command the zone, get ahead in the count and increase his fastball velocity. Weathers is also working on a cutter and a two-seam fastball.

"I don't even know what my big league opportunities are, and it doesn't even really matter," Weathers says. "I feel like this is the best place for me right now in my career to get the most out of my abilities, and that's the main factor, more than getting that cup of coffee. I honestly just want to pitch healthy and be competitive, and I want to be able to prepare to do that, to a point where I'm comfortable and confident when I go out and pitch."

The Tribe is on board with that philosophy.

"Casey has a super creative approach with how he goes about his work," says Indians assistant director of player development Eric Binder. "He's always looking for ways to develop where he's currently at to get to where he wants to be. He's willing to look outside the box and he's willing to partner with us on that approach."

But it's an approach, it seems, that may finally lead Weathers to the big leagues.