By: Mychael Urban
The tree, much like a young Geisha girl’s feet shoved into unusually small shoes, would never reach its intended growth capacity.
Both are examples of natural development being stunted, unnaturally.
This, says Alan Jaeger, is the plight of pitching arms in America — and, by extension, many arms in Major League Baseball.
Jaeger, an independent coach/mental-game guru whose throwing program preaches — above all else — the benefits of old-school long toss and throwing more as opposed to less, is focused on changing that.
“Everybody in baseball, at every level, wants to get the most out of — and do what’s best for — their players,” he says. “So I’m not going to criticize anyone. But at the same time, many of the methods being used these days are running counterproductive to that goal.
“What we’re doing, what we’ve been doing for a long time and with great success, represents a dramatic departure from today’s norm. It’s a sensible, logical and proven departure, but it’s a departure nonetheless.
“And, without help from the baseball establishment, I’m worried it’ll remain just that.”
What does all of this have to do with baby Redwoods in greenhouses and Geisha girls? Everything, Jaeger suggests.
The throwing program that Jaeger, 42, finds baffling is found throughout the game, at every level. Pitchers play catch starting at about 60 feet, extend to 90, and the distance is capped at either 120 or 180 before the pitchers work back to 60 feet — all typically within 10 minutes — while minimizing the arc of each throw.
“It’s used by many of the Major League organizations, which naturally has trickled down to amateur baseball,” Jaeger says. “This program is in direct contrast with nature, because the arm, if given a chance, wants to throw.”
The throwing program of Southern California-based Jaeger Sports, founded in 1991 and since sworn by among scores of big league pitchers, including former Cy Young winner Barry Zito of the Giants, three-time All-Star Dan Haren of the D-backs and Joel Zumaya of the Tigers, represents the Great Redwood allowed to reach its full potential.
The centerpiece and lightning-rod element of Jaeger’s program, which has more than its fair share of critics, is something most baseball players start doing as soon as they’re able — playing catch at long distances for long periods of time.
Jaeger’s students are encouraged to air it out up to 350 feet, without a clock or toss-number limits.
“The best way to find out what’s in the arm,” Jaeger says, “is to remove the 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 is long toss at its best — the freedom to allow your arm to dictate what it wants to do day-to-day.
“Because there aren’t any artificial constraints put on the arm, it has the freedom, like a tree in nature, to grow according to its 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 player’s arm can be.”
Thanks to the Texas Rangers, Jaeger’s approach recently received a significant endorsement from within the “establishment.” Fed up by his club’s lack of success and health on the mound in recent years, and convinced that it was time to break from the status quo training methods pervasive in today’s game, president Nolan Ryan essentially issued an edict:
No more babying of arms. It’s time to stop pampering and start pushing.
“I think organizations started erring on the side of caution,” Ryan told Baseball America this spring, “and maybe it worked against them, and they weren’t getting their pitchers prepared or getting out of them what they should be. … And unless you’re willing to explore that, I don’t think you’re getting the maximum amount of your investment out of these kids.”
Thus, Jaeger was allowed to spend some time at the Rangers’ Spring Training camp in Surprise, Ariz., roaming about in an effort to get a better understanding of what had been done in the past, and what needed to be done going forward.
With the tacit approval of Ryan and the authorization of Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, Jaeger soon thereafter was sent to work with prospects at the club’s academy in the Dominican Republic for six days.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time with Nolan, but obviously I’m not doing anything with the Rangers if he’s not signing off on it,” Jaeger says. “There are a lot of people with the Rangers that I did spent a lot of time with that made it all happen, but my gosh, to have Nolan Ryan — a living legend — support and encourage and embrace what we’re doing? It’s just huge.”
Asked what “sold” him on Jaeger’s philosophy, Daniels says, “Alan is a high-energy guy with a passion for keeping players healthy.”
Daniels also notes that long toss has been around forever, so it’s not like anyone’s re-inventing the training wheel here. But Jaeger’s approach, which includes the use of surgical tubing for pre-throwing exercises that promote blood flow, took the Rangers’ program to a “different level.”
“We’ve just taken the long-toss program and worked it into all our pitchers’ routines,” Daniels says. “Our guys have done long toss in the past, but this is more structured. Some of our guys go to 200 feet, some to 300. Each guy has their comfort zone. No one is asked to do anything they’re not capable of.
“We have been more regimented in the [Dominican Republic] and at our lower levels with the program, teaching the Ranger way of doing it. Hopefully it will become part of their routine as they continue to develop and move to higher levels.
“We hope this has enabled us to stay healthier throughout the season.”
So far, so good. According to Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine, pitching injuries are down system-wide.
Jaeger estimates that as many as 25 big league organizations are opposed to the air-it-out approach; he suggests their approach is better suited for rehabbing injured arms.
“Somehow, though, this approach got adopted for healthy arms,” he says. “Why on earth would you rehab a healthy arm? It’s crazy. Instead of giving players the freedom to throw according to the individual needs of their arms, they are being forced to throw according to someone else’s arbitrary set of rules, which places extreme limits and constraints on the arm.
“They are putting these arms in harm’s way. Like any other muscle, the arm wants to stretch out, expand, and condition. It wants to be used, not coddled.”
Some teams allow some flexibility at the higher levels of the organization, but they’re still among the many teams that don’t ascribe to the notion that more throwing is better. Boston’s brass, for instance, recently had it out with Daisuke Matsuzaka over training methods after Matsuzaka complained about being too limited between starts.
And very few teams let their pitchers throw anywhere near the lengths at which Jaeger allies such as the Rangers, A’s and a handful of other teams do.
“I think 300 feet is extreme; I don’t see any sense in it,” says Kansas City pitching coach Bob McClure, a former big league reliever. “When I played, I’d go out to 200 or so and work back, and when I was with the Angels, Mark Langston and Chuck Finley liked to throw long; Finley would practically go foul pole to foul pole. We have some guys here and at Triple-A, older guys who came from different organizations, who’ll go out to 200 feet or so, but not for long. I keep a pretty close eye on it.
“We actually do very little flat-ground throwing at all. Most of the work we do is on the mound. I mean, suppose you let a kid stretch it out to 300 and he comes up with a bum shoulder? It’s an individual thing.
“For some guys, long toss hurts.”
Not for Zito. Not for Haren. Neither of them has missed a professional start due to an arm injury — ever — and both have been working with Jaeger Sports since they were in college.
“When I first hooked up with Alan, it was after my freshman year at [UC] Santa Barbara, and my arm was absolutely killing me,” says Zito. “That was 1998, and I’ve never felt that way again. Jaeger’s a huge part of me staying healthy.”
Haren, Jaeger says, skipped summer ball after his first two seasons at Pepperdine University to work with him.
“We would go out to Pierce Junior College and long toss and just have a good throw,” Haren says. “I still do that between starts, and even before starts. I’ve taken this program and molded into my own and still use it to this day.”
So does Zito, who’ll do his tubing work and throw out to 300 feet in the outfield before heading to the bullpen before his starts.
“It’s basically throwing to warm up instead of warming up to throw,” Zito says. “It just makes you feel so fresh and loose.”
Zito also credits his return to truly long toss — following a year-and-a-half without it after signing with San Francisco — for the sudden return of his typical velocity at midseason last year. Radar readings of his fastball last June were as low as 82 mph. In his most recent start, the lefty hit 90.
“I don’t want to say what other teams or people are doing is dumb, or wrong or anything like that,” Zito says. “But Alan has a track record of keeping guys healthy, and if more guys and more teams would really give what he’s preaching a serious look and implement it with conviction, I’m pretty sure you’d see fewer pitchers with injuries.”
Meanwhile, Jaeger continues to network, searching for the next team to give him a chance to prove the merits of his methods.
“Health is really the goal, for all players at every level,” Jaeger says. “And with improved health, it’s certainly reasonable to expect that improved performance will follow.
“And let’s face it — performance is everything in the big leagues.”
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.