Source: Arizona Republic
Published: June 2011
By: Nick Piecoro
Less than an hour before he would start games for UCLA, right-hander Trevor Bauer would be deep in the outfield gap, heaving a baseball so high and far that it practically would bring rain back down with it.
Bauer’s adherence and conviction to playing long toss, not to mention the extreme distances at which he throws, make him something of a poster child for what is a growing and controversial trend among young pitchers. And by drafting him, the Diamondbacks officially announced their affiliation in the great long-toss debate.
On one side, there are those who consider long toss essential to building and maintaining arm strength, who talk about how old-time ballplayers always used to air it out, who say long toss is nature’s way of allowing the arm to do what feels right.
On the other side are those who see a pitcher’s mechanics change when they begin to throw from beyond 150 feet and wonder how this could be a good thing. They know the arm can only go so long before it tires and wonder why those finite throws shouldn’t be used to more closely simulate pitching.
Like any great baseball debate, both sides are dug in, unwilling to change, and some big league teams are left wondering about the best way to proceed.
Long toss has deep roots
Bauer traces his long-tossing ways back to early childhood, when at age 4 or 5 he would catch ground balls or fly balls hit by his dad and throw them back. At age 10, he attended his first long-tossing camp run by Alan Jaeger, an independent pitching coach based in southern California, and has been doing some form of Jaeger’s program for 10 years.
“People look at it as building arm strength, but really what I look at it as is maintaining health,” Bauer said. “I think that’s why my health has been so good and I’m able to throw so much. I attribute it to long toss.”
Among those Jaeger has worked with are Barry Zito and Dan Haren. Zito, like Bauer, is known for long-tossing at extreme distances, even on the days he starts.
Advocates say players have been long-tossing before anyone even called it long toss, but that big league teams began to reel them in during the late ’80s and early ’90s, synching throwing programs for rehabbing pitchers up with those for healthy pitchers.
“You had this perfect storm of paranoia and kids making a ton of money and it led to a total shift toward conservatism,” Jaeger said. ” ‘If we keep it at 120 feet I’m not going to get fired’ is what it comes down to.”
Jaeger describes his career-long struggle with rigid big-league organizations as “20 years of frustration,” but he is heartened by the change he has seen at the game’shighest level, a snowball that seemed to get rolling when the Nolan Ryan-led Texas Rangers began to push their pitchers with a more-aggressive throwing regimen that includes long tossing.
“It’s a radical shift,” Jaeger said.
He said when he met with the Rangers in 2009, there were three clubs – the Oakland A’s, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals – who were open to long toss, 25 teams that limited throwing to 120 feet and a few teams in the middle.
“Right now,” he said, “there are about 15 organizations that promote it or allow you to do it.”
D-Backs on board
The Diamondbacks are among those teams. One of their top pitching prospects, left-hander Tyler Skaggs, is a Jaeger disciple, and Jerry Dipoto, the team’s vice president of scouting and player development, and minor league pitching coordinator Jeff Pico were long-tossers during their playing careers.
“We don’t have any problem with it – in fact, we encourage it,” farm director Mike Bell said. “We stopped short of forcing guys to do it. It’s something we’d like to see happen organically, where guys see other guys doing it who are having success and they start pushing themselves a little and start throwing longer.”
Then there are clubs like Kansas City Royals. Though the industry perception is that they never allow their pitchers to long toss, Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said they aren’t that inflexible, though, ideally, they would prefer their players not throw from beyond 150 feet.
“If a player needs to go longer, we’re going to let him go longer,” Picollo said. “You’ve got to know players’ limitations. At what point is there a mechanical breakdown in their throwing motion? That’s more of what we’re concerned with than distance.”
Dick Mills, an independent Scottsdale-based pitching coach, echoes those concerns, wondering why a pitcher would spend time doing something that he says isn’t going to make him a better pitcher.
“The only thing that’s the same between pitching and long toss is the ball,” said Mills, who pitched briefly in the majors with the Red Sox and whose son, Ryan, pitched at Arizona State. “It would be like a tennis pro going out and taking the net away and then practicing without the net and working simply on hitting the ball as hard as they could. Well, as soon as you put the net up that changes everything you’ve done.”
Medical evidence inconclusive
The medical science world has even weighed in, though somewhat inconclusively. Glenn S. Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute, conducted a study with 17 college pitchers, tracking them with cameras and sensors as they played catch from 120 feet, 180 feet and when they threw as far as they could.
As expected, their mechanics began to change when they aired it out, a finding people on both sides of the debate used to bolster their case.
“On the one hand, people see the breakdown of mechanics and think it’s dangerous,” Fleisig said. “The other people say, ‘But you’re applying more force, so it’s a good exercise for training because you’re trying to push people to get more out of their arm than they normally can.’ ”
Fleisig, who works alongside renowned Birmingham, Ala.,-based surgeon James Andrews, is aware of the uncertainty within big league front offices.
“In the last few years, we’ve received a lot of questions about long toss from major league teams,” Fleisig said. “I honestly don’t know if it’s good or not to train with more force. Maybe it is good to strengthen the arm or maybe there’s more risk involved than it’s worth, so I leave it up to them.”
Teams likely will continue searching for answers, especially since it seems more young pitchers are entering pro ball with long-tossing backgrounds.
“It’s the age of specialization,” Picollo said. “The kids who are 18, 20, 22, they were the front end of the era we were going through, so I think it’s become more of an issue.”
Bauer says he plays long toss in the off-season four times a week, scaling down to three times a week during the college season. He’s likely have to scale down further in pro ball, where he will have to pitch on four days’ rest instead of six. His sessions typically include distances up to 380 feet.
But the Diamondbacks, whose philosophies overlap with Bauer’s, aren’t expected to implement any major changes to his routine, part of the reason he was so glad to be drafted by them.
“I’m happy to be here in an organization that encourages it,” Bauer said. “I won’t have to fight that battle.”