Aaron Trunt is a biomechanist at the Sanford Sports Science Institute who has been steering the Augustana Vikings baseball program’s pitchers toward the best they can be.
So far their best has been excellent. It’s not all about biomechanics, of course, but enough of it is to be curious about what is going on at the SSSI in respect to throwing a baseball.
To start with, what does a biomechanist do?
In Trunt’s words: “We talk about the way that the body produces forces and torques and how that can either have injury risk indications or improved performance.”
In other words, the Sanford Sports Science Institute can help pitchers stay healthy and pitch better via improved velocity and reduced arm stress.
Minors to majors
Results are always ultimately going to be the biggest part of the equation with elite athletics. On that count, the Vikings pitchers are doing the job this spring. So is one of their coaches, Caleb Thielbar, who made the amazing jump from the staff at Augustana University to a return — after five years in the minors — to the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins.
By delivering a high level of success, Vikings pitchers and their former coach are demonstrating their time with Trunt and the Sanford Sports Science Institute and Sanford POWER has been time well spent.
“We’ve seen a lot of good progress,” said Thielbar a few hours before a recent game against the Cleveland Indians. “It’s been really cool to see. We’ve had some guys gain velocity. We’ve had guys gain consistency. It’s a really cool thing to see it come full circle.”
The beauty of Thielbar’s own personal example of improvement goes back to before the pandemic. The former South Dakota State standout pitched for the Twins in 2013-15 then spent the next five seasons at various minor-league locations attempting to prove he could still strike major leaguers out.
When he became pitching coach for Tim Huber at Augustana prior to the 2020 season, he appeared to be on his way out of playing professionally himself, but that changed when the Twins called. During last season’s pandemic-shortened campaign he got back to the big-league club, compiling a 2.25 ERA in 20 innings.
Coach becomes student
Throughout his preparation for the 2021 season, and prior to his unlikely return to the majors last year, Thielbar was working with Sanford POWER and the Sanford Sports Science Institute alongside his Augustana pitchers.
He has an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of the work Trunt does because he’s gone through the same process himself.
“When we were able to get all of our pitchers out there, I was kind of a guinea pig for our team,” Thielbar said. “We did a lot with seeing how the process was going to work and how we could make it smoother. Going through it myself definitely helped with that process.”
Even better, as the partnership progressed, the players progressed.
“The shutdown was a blessing in disguise in a way,” Thielbar said. “We were able to make all these changes and we could give our guys tons of time to try to make those changes. We’ve seen a lot of good progress coming out of that.”
Vital in the success for Augustana has been in the trust developed between coaches and players with the SSSI and Sanford POWER staffs. This stuff doesn’t work without enthusiastic collaboration being part of the equation.
“It was a new experience,” said Clay Collison, who took over as Augustana’s pitching coach when Thielbar left for spring training. “As coaches it was cool to see. We have a trained eye specific to pitching but there is a lot of stuff you don’t see without the use of a slow-motion camera and motion capture. We were able to use that. It opened up a whole new world for us in terms of putting guys in the right position to succeed mechanically and succeed as a player.”
What student pitchers say
One of those players is Tanner Brown, an Augustana starting pitcher who threw a perfect game earlier this spring. Over his four years in the program, Brown has added strength via his regular workouts with teammates guided by the staff at Sanford POWER. He has also gained insight into what works — and what doesn’t — when he’s throwing the baseball.
“You go into a room and they hook you up with all these sensors,” Brown said. “There’s a whole room full of cameras. You throw off a mound and a few weeks later they give you this really long sheet of numbers.”
With assistance from Trunt and the Augustana coaching staff he was able to translate those numbers to improved pitching stats. In this case, all those numbers can add up.
“It tells you what you’re good at in your motion and what you’re bad at,” Brown said. “I thought that was really cool. It was ‘You’re really good at this part of your delivery but right here is where you’re kind of slacking and you could improve.’ That’s what my coaches and I focused on — the things I wasn’t good at. We were able to do some corrective activities that helped me throw harder.”
Biomechanics remain an emerging way to get better at sports. Sometimes younger players in the Augustana program are getting their first taste of the potential benefits when they begin their offseason training regimen.
“A few either didn’t know much about it or were a little skeptical,” Trunt said. “When they see the results — how we can pinpoint things with their mechanics and how it can help them — that really flips the switch. They buy in and really dig their heels into the training.”
Tony Lanier is a sophomore at Augustana who is still getting a handle on his abilities on the mound. He’s big and strong and he throws hard so he’s a project worth the time.
“It’s helped me because I never really know how my body moved,” Lanier said. “It was just go out there and throw – whatever was feeling good that day. I know now there are little things I can work on. It’s especially big in the offseason when you take that time to just do more things mechanically and fine-tune things.”
As of May 5, Augustana pitchers had struck out 398 batters in 295 innings. That averages out to more than 12 for a nine-inning game. It means Vikings pitches are missing bats at an accelerated rate.
By being able to make significant progress in the offseason, the Vikings have been able to compete on the national stage with programs that can play baseball year-round. There may be a few things a pitcher can’t do in January in Sioux Falls, but that doesn’t mean they can’t feel better about themselves when it’s time to go outside again.
“Augustana has been working with Sanford POWER for a long time, working with our strength and conditioning coaches,” Trunt said. “That is truly the time to get better – when there is snow on the ground. Since we live in the Midwest, getting out is a little tough so coming here and getting those assessments and being able to train with the prescription from the results has really made a difference for those guys.”
Thielbar credits his work with Sanford for adding velocity to his pitches at an age when that doesn’t happen too often. The program has also given him the information needed to make other adjustments that have eased strain on his hips.
He was, in pitching parlance, a long strider and now he’s a short strider. More importantly, he’s a major-leaguer. Beyond that, he’s become a student of what is going on at the Sanford Sports Science Institute. It can create a better baseball player, or in some cases, revive one.
“All this video and biomechanics has come out during my career,” Thielbar said. “My first three or four years I didn’t even really have much access to video. It wasn’t until about 2013 I’d be able to see myself on a daily basis after every outing. I thought it was great. I can’t get enough of that stuff. It’s been a really good thing for me.”
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