ALTOONA, Pa. – The 2017 season did not go exactly as planned for Brandon Waddell. It was the first time in his life that he was sidelined for an extended period of time with injury. He first went on the disabled list last April with a forearm strain, and the hope was that rest and rehab would fix the problem. After returning in May and making seven starts, he went back on the disabled list with the same injury. The second time around, Waddell received a PRP injection with the hope of avoiding surgery.
Fortunately, there were no structural concerns, and Waddell returned late in the season to help the Altoona Curve claim the Eastern League Championship. The Pirates sent him to the Arizona Fall League, where he worked out of the bullpen. Even with the two trips to the disabled list earlier in the season, he knew he needed to forget about the forearm strains.
“I couldn’t be hesitant,” Waddell said about his return last year. “When you’re out there pitching, you can’t think about it. You can’t be worried about if your arm is going to feel alright. I think it was a little easier coming out of the bullpen and not having to go those four or five innings. I’d go one or two. I still had the same typical days I’m used to recover with a lot less work load. I think that was good in helping to build up those steps to getting all the way back.”
Waddell knew that this past offseason would be essential to getting back to full health and having longevity into a regular professional season. He took the time and the proper steps to assess where his weaknesses were, and he was able to identify different areas that were necessary to improve upon.
“Obviously, first and foremost was taking care of the forearm this year,” Waddell said. “Getting through that — I felt good pitching through the fall league — but strengthening not only the forearm, but everything that is around the forearm that could cause a strain. That was priority number one.”
Those priorities included a few different areas, including the obvious like his shoulder, rotator cuff, and trapezius; however, Waddell identified a few other areas that were just as important.
“Outside of [the obvious], core stability was important, then a big thing for me was hamstring strength,” Waddell said. “It wasn’t something you’d notice on the field, but something that I would notice after starts. It’s kind of overlooked, but a hamstring is a pretty dominant muscle when you’re pitching, especially in your finish. I made those an emphasis.”
After starts, Waddell’s hamstrings weren’t bouncing back the way that they should. At Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston, where Waddell also trained before the 2017 season, a team put together a program that addressed all of these concerns.
“What did you feel this year? What are your goals for next year? What do you want to accomplish in the offseason? You take those goals and have a full body assessment, checking your range of motion, body fat, and anything else you can imagine. He (Ben Fairchild) puts a program together that best optimizes your goals and the foundation you need to carry through a season.”
Each phase of the program lasts about a month, then they re-assess a player’s progress and start the program all over again. For Waddell, they focused on posture, lifting, stretching, mobility, and core stability. They made sure that his shoulders were in place and in the right position while throwing.
“They always make sure you’re on the right path,” Waddell said. “We did a really good job of that through the offseason. For me, it was more about range of motion. I had a lot of soft tissue worked on, which then created a new range of motion once I reached a certain goal. That was the big thing for me, and we did a great job of it. From Spring Training to now, I feel great. No issues.”
Now, Waddell says that the groundwork has been laid for a strong foundation, allowing him to focus solely on pitching and not worrying about injury. Rather, it is all about pitching and making improvements on the mound. The results have been telling.
Holding opponents to a .175 batting average, Waddell has a 2.04 ERA in 17.2 innings to begin the season. Obviously, results are limited so far in 2018; however, Waddell is posting some of the best numbers of his young career. Yes, he is spending parts of his third season in Double-A, but he has yet to reach his 24th birthday and has an opportunity to really showcase his quality stuff in the Curve’s starting rotation.
“This is one of the better times in my pro career that I felt physically,” Waddell said. “I’ve been able to come at guys and have been able to dictate at bats. Not that I wasn’t able to do that in the past, I think I am just able to do that more efficiently now. Experience will play into that, too. I’ve spent a lot of time at this level.”
Waddell is still throwing a five pitch mix, including a two- and four-seam fastball, changeup, slider, and curveball. During his time recovering from injury last season, he took time to address his curveball. This year, he feels that his two-seam fastball has made drastic improvements, especially with command to both sides of the plate. Otherwise, nothing has drastically changed.
“My stuff is good,” Waddell said. “There’s always room for improvement, but I know I can compete with what I have.”
It now comes down to fine tuning himself as a pitcher. The biggest separator between pitchers who get stuck at a minor league level and those who are able to move up, according to Waddell, is consistency.
“That’s my focus — to be as consistent as I can,” Waddell said. “It’s a big separator in my mind. Go out there and know what you’re going to get. Whether that’s in terms of pitches or innings, you know it’s going to be consistent. That’s fine tuning it for me. I’m not trying to get three or four more MPHs on my fastball. I’m more worried about executing at a higher rate, being able to dictate at bats, and be able to go out there and execute a plan.”