By: Alan Jaeger
“I’ll start playing long toss in January. If I can throw it 200 feet, I try to throw it 300 feet. I don’t stop at 120 feet, I throw it as far as I can.” – Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves
Kerry Wood, Matt Morris, Kerry Lightenberg, Alan Benes, Paul Wilson (twice), Jason Dickson, Jeremi Gonzales, Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, Ben McDonald, Jeff D’Amico, Jason Bere, Mike Grace, Jeff Wallace, Mike James, Roger Salked , a who’s who of extremely promising pitchers struck down by a major arm injury — and that’s just the beginning.
Coincidence? I don’t think so.
For every famous case, ala Kerry Wood, there are those lesser known examples where arms are breaking down before they have the opportunity to reach the Big Leagues… to sign a professional contract… to step foot on a college campus… to finish their high school careers.
In your hometowns, you will find the Dan Oppermans and Darren Kerkreits of the world. First round draft picks that you may never hear of. The Drew Pearces (Cal Berkeley) and John Phillips (UCLA) — promising college pitchers that never got the chance to play pro ball. The Joel Zamudios (Monroe High) and Justin Dunns (St. Francis High), high school pitchers who can only hope that their careers can be preserved.
“Last year (1998), three pitchers from my team all had major arm surgery (two “Tommy Johns,” one major shoulder reconstruction) on the same day.” – Anonymous Member of a Division I power
The numbers are mounting and the Dr. Frank Jobe’s, Dr. Lewis Yocum’s, and Dr. James Andrew’s of the world are getting busier. As a baseball community, it’s time to WAKE UP. There’s a serious flaw in our system, a weak link in our development of baseball players’ arms, and it’s undermining their futures.
“Without the opportunity to long toss the arm isn’t able to gain the strength, length, and endurance it needs. Your arm will eventually reject you.” – Seth Etherton, Cincinnati Reds, Former 1st Round Draft Choice
There are many reasons a pitcher’s (baseball player’s) arm breaks down, why a ligament in the elbow detaches, all or part of the rotator cuff tears, or the shoulder needs to be reconstructed.
These could be the result of poor mechanics, a lack of monitoring [a relief pitcher at a Division 1 program told me that he threw in 14 consecutive games. Later that year he had Tommy John surgery], throwing with pain on a vulnerable arm, throwing too many pitches in one particular outing, throwing too many breaking balls, not enough recovery period time between games, or throwing curves in Little League.
The good news is that most of these problems are obvious and can be corrected.
What really alarms me is a seemingly growing trend that is not so obvious, and perhaps, even more responsible for a deteriorating arm and a career threatening arm injury. And it comes in an era when our levels of instruction and technology are at a all time high. This growing trend is what I refer to as “short toss” (as opposed to “long toss”), a throwing regimen where players are advised not to throw beyond 120 feet.
The 120-Foot Phenomenon
“You do not clone pitchers. If an individual chooses to long toss, that’s fine. You don’t give him a distance. Why there’s a limit on 120 feet I do not know.” – Leo Mazzone, Pitching Coach, Atlanta Braves
When I think in terms of a baseball player’s arm being deprived of throwing beyond 120 feet, I immediately feel a tight, tense, short and rigid sensation from my shoulder to the tips of my finger, the opposite kind of qualities I would use to describe a healthy arm or a healthy muscle.
When I think of a healthy arm I think of such characteristics as stretch, loose, length, strength and endurance. Qualities that are hard to attain when we’re shortening, rather than, lengthening our arms.
I’m not sure who started it or where it came from, but it seems that in recent years this 120 foot theory has taken root at every stage of the development of baseball players. It seems to have become the rule rather than the exception.
“Actually, I realize that throwing 300 feet isn’t such a bad idea…in fact I used to do it myself, but the manual says to stay at 120 feet, so you must stick by it” – Head of player development for a Major League Organization to his first round pick after player pleaded with him to do a long toss program in the off-season
The idea originally behind the “short toss” was that if you keep a player at 120 feet, he’ll throw the ball on a line. This theoretically will serve two purposes: 1. The player will be able to keep his shoulders level (avoid “dipping”) 2. The release point will stay in similar place because there is minimal change in the arc of the ball
Some even suggest that this “short toss” will save the players’ arms by reducing the amount of throws they make.
“You make a living throwing a baseball so we encourage them to throw as often as possible.” – Leo Mazzone
Mechanical reasons aside, there are two other major contributing factors to the evolution of the 120-foot throw: 1. Timed throwing 2. The influence of Major League Organizations
Timed throwing occurs because coaches are often pressed for practice time and pitchers have to be at a certain station by a specific time. But, may I ask, how do you time throwing? After all, isn’t the amount of time that you need to throw a personal thing? Should your arm become a casualty because the bell rings or you need to go out and shag?
Off-season training programs given out by certain Major League Organizations have contributed to the short toss phenomenon by specifically stating not to throw beyond 120 feet in the off-season (which then tends to carry over into Spring Training). They do this in order to insure that pitchers have a structured throwing program in January/February and that they come to camp under the same homogenous throwing program. But how can one regimen be good for all players? Players are unique, players have different needs. Many need a lot of time or a lot of distance to get properly conditioned.
The reality is that not throwing beyond 120 feet just so you can keep the ball on a line prevents the arm from getting stretched out, loosened up, and opened up to it’s potential. It deprives the arm and muscles of much needed length, extension and stimulation. It inhibits the growth of the arm by placing boundaries and limits on the arm. And for what reason? Because coaches value keeping the ball on the line. Because coaches have a packed practice plan and Major League Organizations have to keep everyone at a distance. But what could possibly be more important than the health and longevity of a pitcher’s arm?
The arguments against long tossing are that the back shoulder dips a little and the release point is slightly altered. Before we go any further, let’s take a look at these two misconceptions.
Pulling Down: Reinforcing A Lower Release Point
“The pull down phase of the long toss has actually solidified my release point on all three of my pitches, especially my curve ball.” – Barry Zito, 2002 Cy Young Winner
When a player throws beyond 120 feet, granted, there does comes a point where his front shoulder must lift slightly and the release point is slightly altered. This must be done in order to get the much desired stretch and distance that the arm needs to build length, strength, endurance and health. It is unavoidable.
But the irony is that the same slight adjustments that are created by the lifting of the front shoulder and the altering of the release point are actually regained and reinforced at a lower release point as the player works his way back in from the desired distance (pull down phase). This is because when you begin to take a 250-300 foot throw into 150, 120, 90 and eventually 60 feet, the release point must get lower. This occurs because the pitcher must learn not to decelerate the arm as he gets closer and closer to his partner. In other words, he must take the arm action of his maximum throw that day (i.e. 250 feet) and pull it down into 60 feet.
A 300 foot throw at 60 feet (without decelerating the arm) will force pitchers to finish through their release point on a downward plane without trying to throw hard. Concentration skills are developed because the pitcher must learn to pick a very low focal point to pull down through (i.e. his partner’s shoe), otherwise the ball will end up going a long way over his partner’s head. There is no way around it.
A number of additional benefits take place when a 300 foot throw is correctly compressed into a 60 foot throw:
1. The arm can generate natural arm speed and strength because the arm is throwing through a stretch. 2. The player must learn how to lower, and ultimately accelerate, through his release point. 3. The mind must learn how to concentrate and finish through a specific focal point (accuracy). 4. The looseness and power of an arm that’s been properly stretched out into a shorter throw (60 feet) takes sound mechanics, balance, rhythm and concentration, which translates into further reinforcement for a pitcher in a game situation.
“I think long toss is a great way to build your arm up, to get in shape to throw off the mound.” – Greg Maddux
So the pull down phase actually helps to reinforce a lot of the same principles that are critical for a pitcher on the mound: loose arm action, maximizing arm speed and strength through a properly stretched out arm, acceleration (finish) through a lower release point, maintaining concentration, balance and composure. A far cry from the criticisms of those who discount throwing distance.
The trade-off is simple. Promote health, length, strength, acceleration, and endurance by long tossing. Promote a shorter arm, tighter muscles, minimal endurance and vulnerability to arm injuries by throwing short distances.
Realizing Your Potential
Put a four-foot snake in a five-foot cage and its expansion is limited. Put that same snake in a twenty-five foot cage and an opportunity of growth presents itself.
My experience from working with pitchers is that if they can throw in the low to mid 80’s they can easily build up to throwing a baseball 250 feet. If they throw from the mid to high 80’s, they can build up to 250 to 300 feet. Pitchers who throw in the high 80’s to low 90’s should be able to build up to 300 feet without any problem. If we use 300 feet as a model for the potential distance a college or professional pitcher can throw, than a 120 foot throw equates to 40 % of that pitcher’s potential distance.
That means his arm is only stretching to 40% of its capability. Now forgive me if I’m having a hard time with this, but how can it make any sense to suppress the arm’s need to expand? I mean, why do we stretch before we play any sport? Isn’t it to enhance our performance, to give us agility and flexibility, to avoid injury? So then why is it okay to stretch our arm to only 40% of its need? Would a sprinter only stretch 40% of his hamstrings before running a 100-meter race? Would a hockey goalie stretch only 40% of his groin before a game? Would a golfer enter a long drive contest after stretching just 40% of his back?
“If you don’t stretch your arm out, you are more susceptible to an injury. I know that from experience.” – Rudy Seanez, Boston Red Sox
The point is that a pitcher who throws a baseball 80 to 100 miles an hour without properly stretching his arm puts himself in jeopardy. It may not be obvious because 120 feet is just far enough to feel like a stretch, but it is not a real stretch. It is not the kind of stretch that the arm truly needs to open up, lengthen out and establish a base.
“Organizations, coaches, etc. discourage pitchers from throwing or put so many limitations on them as to what they can do because they feel that they will get blamed if there is a breakdown.” – Leo Mazzone
Can you tell I’m frustrated? Wouldn’t you be if you put a pitcher into a training program to stretch, strengthen and condition his arm, only to watch his arm regress because he’s been put in a throwing program that does not allow him to exceed 120 feet? Or worse, to watch him spend a year and a half rehabilitating his arm after a major arm surgery because he wasn’t given the proper time or distance that is necessary to keep his arm healthy.
I haven’t seen the throwing program at every High School, Junior College and four year College. I haven’t seen every Major League’s off season throwing manual. But I have seen enough and heard enough over the past several years to be alarmed. If we don’t make an adjustment soon, we are going to continue to see this growing trend of major arm injuries. In other words, shattered dreams and broken hearts.
“Long Toss is a very important part of conditioning and training for everyone.” – Dr. Lewis Yocum, Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic
For those coaches who subscribe to distance throwing, to some form of long toss, I can only say that you are doing your best to insure that your players are optimizing their arms and staying healthy. For those of you who have subscribed to the theory of the 120 foot toss or timed throwing, I hope that you will take this article to heart and reevaluate your throwing program.
We are, after all, all dedicated to the same thing: the well-being and success of our players.
Note: I would sincerely like to thank Atlanta Braves Pitching Coach Leo Mazzone and his pitching staff and all of those players who have contributed to this article and cause. – Alan Jaeger