Over the past 15 years or so, for various reasons, many of today’s pitching coaches and trainers at the highest levels (and influential levels) have adopted a 120 foot throwing program that places rigid limits on:
1) The distance of throwing (120 feet)
2) The time allotted for throwing (10 minutes)
3) The angle or arc of throwing (keep the ball on a line or linear).
Though many of the College, High School and Travel Ball programs across the country have gravitated toward long toss in the last 10 years many Major League organizations have either not been exposed to the benefits of Long Toss, or have resisted change for various reasons. Despite the proven benefits of Arm Health, Strength, Endurance and Recovery Period that have been validated over 20 years of personal experience, organizations that still subscribe to this repressive, 120 foot throwing program are doing a major disservice to their players, especially those players that have developed a healthy and durable arm through Long Toss. This 120 foot throwing program is in direct contrast with nature because the arm, if given a chance, wants to throw. Like any other muscle, it wants to stretch out, expand,and condition. It wants to be used, not coddled. It wants to grow.
This is what training is all about — to allow the arm to work toward its capacity, or even beyond what we “think” its capacity is. The arm doesn’t want artificial restrictions — it doesn’t want to be limited by a “clock”, a “measurement” or a “line”. This is suffocating and unnatural to the arm.
The best way to find out what’s in the arm is to remove these constraints, and give the arm a chance to grow — to create a forum where the arm, on any given day, dictates how much, how far and at what angle it wants to throw. This process is coined “Long Toss” — the freedom to allow your arm to dictate what it wants to do from day to day. Because there aren’t any artificial constraints put on the arm, it has the freedom, to grow according to it’s plan. And based on many years of experience of training baseball players, working with nature best positions us to find out how healthy, how strong and how durable a players arm can be.
How the 120 Got Started
The following section will address the various reasons why the 120 foot throwing program was “theoretically created”. After each “reason” is addressed, I will respond with an explanation or “comment” section as to why I believe the reasoning is not only counterintuitive, but ultimately, counter-productive to the arms optimum health and potential.
Myth #1) Mechanics: Proponents of the 120 foot throwing program suggest that maintaining proper mechanics is the main reason for “not” throwing beyond 120 feet. Simply put, once a player goes beyond 120 feet, the tendency is for the player to start arcing the ball or throwing uphill, which causes the back shoulder to be lower than the front shoulder and the release point to be “late”. Throwing the ball “on a line” or in a linear fashion keeps the front shoulder from “lifting”, and promotes a consistent release point. This is the major mechanical argument for the 120 foot throwing program because proponents of this theory ultimately think that “arcing the ball” will cause the release point to become inconsistent.
Myth Buster: First of all, if coaches want to maintain a “consistent release point”, they should have their pitchers do all of their throwing off a mound for the rest of their careers. Any throwing, not done on a mound at 60 feet 6 inches, will alter the release point anyway. Besides, what’s the relevance of getting used to a “consistent” release point on flat ground when pitchers throw on a decline? In addition, the consistent release point sets up the athlete to possible over training due to a specific mechanic being performed over and over. (By varying the arch on release the athlete is allowing for more global development, thus invoking the general to specific – an important conditioning principle.)
Secondly, throwing on a line takes the athleticism out of the pitcher. It causes pitchers (who are athletes) to become robotic and less dynamic. Ironically, pitchers actually want some tilt (hence the term “pitchers tilt”) when throwing a baseball because it gives them leverage (if you look at a still photo of most pitchers in their balance point, their front shoulder is higher than their back shoulder).
In addition, the idea that tilting your shoulders causes your release point to be “late” is also misleading. In fact, tilting your shoulders to arc the ball actually works to your advantage. For example, if you come back into your throwing partner from 300 feet (as opposed to 120 feet), once you arrive back at 60 feet, you actually have to have a lower release point and a better downhill angle in order to “compress” 300 feet into 60 feet (assuming that you are not decelerating your arm). You also have to have amazing balance and a relaxed mind. This is also why some pitching coaches will have pitchers throw “uphill” on the back of a mound — to create leverage and teach pitchers how to “get over” their front side.
As far as the release point being “altered”, when you make throws at different increments beyond (and including) 120 feet, you develop more feel and touch from different distances. This is called getting to know your arm. It’s nice to know what it feels like to make throws at 60 feet, 120 feet, 180 feet, 240 feet, 300 feet and so on — and to learn how to make adjustments with your release point at these various distances. When the arm is free to throw at different angles pitchers (players) actually become more in tune with their release point because they are developing a feel for throwing.
Remember, baseball players make throws from different places on the field. Wouldn’t it be helpful to have practiced throws from these different increments? Wouldn’t pitchers thrive on ” PFP ” and position players thrive on defense had they learned how to gauge different release points for different throws? Wouldn’t they actually have a better feel for their release point because they’ve practiced it?
This is why Quarterbacks don’t make all of their throws on a line. As important as accuracy is to them, they also need the feeling and touch to throw the football from different release points — whether it’s a short out, or a deep pass down field. Could you imagine what would happen to a quarterback’s arm if he was not allowed to throw the football beyond 30 yards, or not allowed to arc the football because he was told that would alter his release point? Another example can be found in the sport of basketball. The free throw is a drilled skill – same set up, release point etc. But once play starts that skill is out the window. The strength required shooting a three point and even a half court shot is totally different. Ever heard of a basketball overuse shoulder injury? So why put such limits on the baseball/softball player.
Finally, for health purposes, by keeping the ball on a line, shoulder muscles actually experience less range of motion. This prevents the arm from experiencing the flexibility that is gained by throwing with arc at different angles. Another conditioning principle is to do full range of motion in performance of exercises. This is why strength training got a bad rap in training athletes early in its evolution. Many body builders would apply limited range of motion techniques to gain hypertrophy and shape in training the muscle. Body builders in the late 70s and early 80s became strength coaches and advanced this unfortunate practice. Now to be athletic, full range of motion is what it’s all about. So why limit range of motion in throwing?
Myth #2) Work Load: Pitchers can get the necessary work load at 120 feet — e.g. they can get the conditioning they need at 120 feet.
Myth Buster: Many of the 120 foot throwing programs not only restrict “how far” a player can go out to, but “how many” throws a player can make each day. Again, in many of these major league throwing programs, the amount of throws are based on time. In Spring Training for example, 10 minutes is often the amount of time allocated for players to throw. I’m not sure who came up with the idea that 10 minutes was a sufficient amount of time to prepare an arm, but again, this is very restricting to an arm that may want to throw for 15, 20 or 30 minutes. This also creates the possibility of presenting a “false positive” because it has built in limitations that violates the conditioning principle of progression through proper overload. This principle states that in order to make physical gains proper, planned progression in the load needs to be practiced. The devil is in the detail – how much, how often, etc.
Again, how does anyone know (other than each individual pitcher) how long, or how many throws that pitcher wants to make on any given day. Shouldn’t we allow the arm to dictate what it wants to throw from day to day?
From many years of experience of dealing with both pitchers and position players, it is very clear that when arms are given a chance, the capacity of their workload actually increases by allowing them to throw more, not less. Simply put, if given the freedom, the arm will condition itself to whatever it’s capable of producing. That means, 15 minutes of throwing has the chance to turn into 20 minutes of throwing, 20 minutes into 30 minutes, and so on. 120 feet has the chance to turn into 220 feet, and 220 feet into 320 feet. Again, the arm will acclimate itself to conditioning in the same manner a marathon runner will train his or her body (legs) to run 27 miles. But, could you imagine what would happen if a marathon runner was only permitted to run 1 mile per day?
Ultimately, a greater work load also leads to greater strength, endurance and intimacy with the arm. When you spend more time throwing, you get to know your arm better. In time, the arm will dictate in and out of season how much it wants or needs to throw.
Ironically, the more that these restrictions are lifted, the more the arm will tend to want to throw. This is quite apparent in Japan, where long time player and manager Bobby Valentine has been quoted as saying that most of his starters throw 200 pitch bull-pens in the Spring, 90 pitch bull-pens the day before their start, and have their best fastball in the ninth inning the next day (Note: Daisuke Matsusaka not only threw 103 pitches in his second bull-pen session in Spring Training with the Boston Red Sox, but he is legendary for throwing 300 pitch bull-pen sessions with the Seibu Lions. Prior to his signing with the Red Sox this winter his physical showed a “whistle clean” MRI on his shoulder).
Myth #3) Overthrowing/Overuse: This is one of my favorite reasons to comment on because the 120 foot program is predicated on the notion that you only have “so many throws” in the arm.
Myth Buster: Well, you may assure yourself that you only have “so many throws in the arm” if you condition the arm at 120 feet for 10 minutes. This is called “under training” — it’s how your arm begins to acclimate itself to a reduced workload. Ironically, by throwing less you are teaching your arm how to maintain this workload, and ultimately, reduce the “amount of throws in the arm”. When you make minimal deposits (through under training) and take large withdrawals out, a baseball players arm is vulnerable. When pitchers are exposed to more aggressive throwing in bull-pen and game situations, it becomes dangerous. Quite simply, your work load is not prepared to handle it – again the conditioning principle of progression through proper overload applies.
Throwing “a lot” is why batting practice pitchers seem to have the healthiest arms on the field — they throw all the time, year after year. When our pitchers get into shape, it becomes quite clear that their arms respond better to throwing more, not less. This is also evidenced by one of the most respected and successful pitching coach’s in our generation, Leo Mazzone, who also believes in pitchers throwing more, rather than less (Note: Nolan Ryan has stated that he averaged 160-180 pitches in 1974, including a 235 pitch game against Luis Tiant, who threw 14 1/3 innings against him that night. Ryan pitched until he was 46…Tiant, until he was 41).
The idea that there are only so many throws in the arm stems from a major misconception that we can “get more out of the arm by using it less”. The truth is, the arm responds best by being utilized rather than sheltered (e.g. Regeneration vs Degeneration).
Myth #4) Velocity: It’s been said by some 120 foot proponents that you can’t gain velocity by throwing beyond 120 feet. That throwing longer distance does not play a role in increasing velocity.
Myth Buster: As discussed earlier, if according to the laws of physics a 90 mph pitch will travel approximately 300 feet and a 95mph pitch will travel approximately 350 feet it’s safe to say that velocity does increase as distance increases.
This doesn’t mean that if a pitcher is innately unable to throw 95mph, that we can “create” 95mph. What it does mean is that whatever is innately in the arm can be tapped into through throwing longer distance. For example, if a pitcher throws 80 mph and has never thrown beyond 120 feet, some people may assume that 80mph is all that is in the arm. If, through training however, that same pitcher was “stretched out” to 300 feet, then we know according to the laws of physics that this pitcher gained approximately 10mph.
In other words, for a pitcher that throws 75mph (and has been limited to 120 feet), he may eventually throw 90mph just because he was able to stretch his arm out to 300 feet. In short, if we can turn 120 feet into 220 feet, or even 320 feet through training, the arm will reflect that velocity based on distance…and physics.
The point is that players can dramatically increase their velocity through throwing longer because they can “tap” into resources that are otherwise dormant. Ironically, the opposite is true of a player who routinely Long Tosses. If his arm has been stretched out to 300 feet or more, once he’s put on a 120 foot throwing program his arm will begin to display the characteristics associated with that distance — namely, less range of motion, less endurance, less velocity, and poorer recovery period.
Over the past 20 years of working with baseball players, I can tell you that if you take the time and distance constraint restrictions off a player, quite simply, their arm will have a chance to grow and evolve naturally. What’s in the arm can reveal itself when we get out of its way. When we learn how to listen to and trust the arm to be our guide, it will tell us what it wants to do from day to day. Over time, this process allows the arm to maximize its strength, endurance and recovery period; over time, players tend to be more athletic and intimate with their arms. And yes, even mechanics can be benefited through proper training.
The arm will find it’s home if given a chance. By removing time and distance constraints, only the arm knows what it’s capable of doing. Only then will the arm have a chance to realize it’s potential.
Summary: “It’s not about who’s right — it’s about getting it right”
Why are there so many arm injuries occurring at alarming rates in the U.S.? Why does such a small country like the Dominican Republic represent approximately 10% of all players on Major League rosters? Why are 40% of all minor league rosters (as of 2006) comprised of foreign born players? Why are there so many more signings of “well conditioned, hard throwing” pitchers from the Far East (who are clearly not as “big” in stature)? Why do these other countries seem to produce so many players with strong, durable and healthy arms (until they come to the U.S. )?
Well, I can assure you, it’s not a coincidence. From the research I’ve done, based on the training “culture” of the Dominican and Japanese players it is clear that players from these countries not only long toss far distances, but their throwing sessions last for a much longer period of time. This form of “training” makes complete sense because their arms are not restricted by time and distance constraints. There’s no one telling them how often, how far or how hard to throw. Quite the opposite — their arms are free to grow because they become an extension of nature. Their arms are given life, rather than having life taken away. And what’s in their arm can be found.
It’s time for the proponents of the 120 foot throwing program to ask themselves, why are we training players at 40% of their capacity at the professional levels, and conservatively, 50% at the high school and collegiate levels? Why are we having players throw for the same amount of time and distance, as if all arms are built the same? The arm is like any other amazing organism. If given a chance, it has plenty of room to grow. Now it’s time to go beyond 120 feet. Taking the next step to 121 feet is the hardest because it’s the first step, but a necessary step if the optimal development of your players arm health, strength, endurance and recovery period are at stake. Future issues will provide you with how to break through the 120 foot barrier.
Acknowledgements: (I would like to thank Ken Kontor for his contribution to this article along with Jim Vatcher, Ron Wolforth, Brent Strom, Jerry Weinstein and Rob Bruno for playing an instrumental role in writing this article).
Source: Performance Conditioning
Published: May 2010
By: Alan Jaeger