In Article

Source: ESPN The Magazine
Published: February 2011
By: Tim Keown

 

Out of answers, Tim Alderson chose questions. Where do you go when there’s nowhere to go? What do you try when you’ve tried everything? Alderson decided to go back to the beginning, where everything made sense, where everyone knew who he once was and what he could still be.

He needed, mostly, to escape the cacophony of advice that overlapped and contradicted until it became just an unintelligible hum in his head. He needed to rid himself of the frustration and helplessness that swarmed around him when his body refused to act as it once did. The rigors of professional baseball seemed to have drained all his natural athleticism, and he needed to ask one question of a man — maybe the only man — who could provide an answer.

Like much of this story, the path to this question was painful, even heartbreaking. As he stood on the mound last fall at Horizon High in Scottsdale, Ariz., a former first-round draft pick who was once handed a bonus check for more than $1 million as down payment on the future of his right arm, he asked his high school coach a simple question: “Will you be honest with me?”

Eric Kibler said that he would, and Alderson began to throw. The righthander is a sculptor’s idea of a pitcher: 6’6″ and 217 pounds, with long limbs and big hands. As a high school pitcher, he was “an absolute beast,” according to Kevin Rhoderick, a Horizon teammate and Cubs *farmhand. He threw as hard as 93 mph, with a big hammer curve and the command of a vet. The combination caused one scouting report to ask, “Big league closer?” The Giants selected him 22nd overall in the 2007 draft. He went 13-4 in his first full year of pro ball and was traded to the Pirates in 2009 straight up for All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez.

Kibler was now faced with the task of exhuming that guy. As Alderson threw, Kibler looked for a reason to believe the solution to *Alderson’s poor 2010 season, which included a 6.03 ERA and a demotion from Double-A Altoona to Class-A Bradenton, could be found by mining the success of his past.

Alderson was back because he could no longer fool himself. His 2010 season was not a fluke; it was part of the gradual erosion of his effectiveness and velocity. His motion, once quirky but fluid, now resembled the movement of an awkward kid learning a complicated dance step. Runners would be on base, and he’d find himself fretting about the placement of his feet or the height of his leg kick. “I couldn’t even play catch without feeling uncomfortable,” he says. And on those *occasions when he threw a pitch that felt pretty good, he’d steal a glance at the radar-gun reading and see “84” cackling down at him.

Sadly, Alderson’s situation is not unique. The path that brought us to him started with a question: Why do so many of baseball’s highly prized young pitchers, free of health problems, lose significant velocity during their first few years in professional baseball? Madison Bumgarner, Andrew Miller, Brad Lincoln, Rick Porcello — even Tim Lincecum — all lost zip as young pros. Some have adapted and recovered, some have not.

As a prep star, Alderson cruised at 92-93 mph. He struggled to reach 87 last year. “At 86-87, there’s no fear in the mind of the hitter,” Alderson says. “At 93, guys have to respect your fastball, so your breaking stuff works better. It’s a whole different mentality.” And so he came home to throw for the man who always had answers, and Kibler’s heart broke a little more with each pitch. Gone was the explosiveness that had scouts and general managers buzzing four years ago at this very same field. His fastball had almost no life, and his curveball was flat.

Frustrated, sad, angry, Kibler didn’t say much. Inside, he thought, I know they’ll say I’m just a high school coach, but I’ll never understand it: Why do they take the athlete out of the athlete?

Alderson finished his bullpen session. The look he gave Kibler suggested he knew what was coming.

“The truth?” Kibler asked.

“The truth.”

“You were a better pitcher when you were a freshman in high school.”

That may seem like rough treatment for a 22-year-old, but Alderson knew he could no longer live in denial. “It was so hard to go back and throw for Coach Kibler,” Alderson says. “Everything we’d worked for, everything he *developed is gone. It’s hard to look at myself and think, I was a better pitcher when I was 15.”

THERE IS NO shortage of theories to explain the lost-velocity trend among young power pitchers. The reflexive response is to blame increased workload. Although some college coaches overuse big arms, for the most part, amateur pitchers make one start per week. In comparison, pro hurlers start once every five days, which *compresses recovery time.

Pirates minor league pitching coordinator Jim Benedict says physical *maturity is the main impediment to *Alderson’s velocity: “He’s heavier now, and the way he threw wasn’t going to fit a bigger man. He had a unique *delivery in high school. It was way away from fundamentals and way away from the foundation we teach. It wasn’t going to work anymore.”

Scouts use the term “projectable” to define a body like the young Alderson’s — long and slender, with room to grow. Projectable bodies fill out and get stronger, and the weight and muscle bring a stronger torso and more velocity. Is it possible that Alderson’s projectability could have been so badly misjudged? Or could it be that professional baseball is behind the times when it comes to training pitchers?

“These organizations have convinced themselves a loss of velocity is normal,” says Alan Jaeger, an independent pitching coach who trains some of the biggest arms in pro and amateur baseball. “It’s built into their thinking: Draft a kid who’s throwing 93-94 and assume he’s going to be 90-91 after his first year. I contend he should be 95.”

Jaeger’s training includes a long-toss program that encourages pitchers to play catch from as far away as 350 feet before “pulling down” to 60 feet. Perceived by some traditionalists as extreme, Jaeger’s methods have gained traction over the past few years with professional organizations. Jaeger worked with the Rangers’ minor leaguers in the Dominican Republic, and the team — led by Nolan Ryan — then extended his program to everyone. The Rangers’ recent success in developing young power arms has earned Jaeger an audience with several big league clubs.

Most organizations, the Pirates included, employ a structured, one-size-fits-all throwing routine commonly known as the 120 program. Each day begins the same way, with pitchers lining up next to cones that are 60 feet apart. They throw for 10 minutes from each of three distances: 60, 90 and 120 feet. Throws are to be kept on a line to mimic game conditions. The Pirates adhere to the 120 program, but Benedict says there is room for individualization if a pitcher presents a compelling reason. Jaeger says it shouldn’t matter because the 120 program defies logic: “It’s the baseball equivalent of getting Michael Phelps out of high school or college and then telling him, ‘Okay, Michael, here’s the deal: You get to do one 50-meter breaststroke and one 50-meter *freestyle. That’s it.’ It makes no sense.”

Alderson threw long toss several times a week in high school. Miller, a prized lefthander from the University of North Carolina recently signed by the Red Sox as a reclamation project, threw 97 mph and was known for long toss in college. Last year he barely topped 90. And Lincecum, who hit 98 on the radar gun routinely at the University of Washington, credits a return to a long-toss routine for saving his season (and for putting 3-4 mph back on his fastball) after a difficult August.

Critics of extreme distance throwing contend that it puts undue strain on the arm and say the upward arm angle needed to throw a ball 350 feet alters a pitcher’s mechanics. “Believe me, if long toss were the answer, we’d have everybody throwing 500 feet,” Benedict says.

But evidence suggests that rather than being dogmatic about one method over the other, throwing programs should be as individual as the pitchers themselves. Jaeger disciple Mark Rogers threw 100 mph as a Maine high schooler and was taken by the Brewers with the fifth pick of the 2004 draft. After two years in the Brewers’ 120 system, Rogers had two shoulder surgeries and missed the 2007 and 2008 seasons; after rehabbing and resuming the 120 program, he topped out at 87 mph. At that point, he consulted the Brewers and asked to be free to resume Jaeger’s program. “After my second surgery, I had to take my career into my own hands,” Rogers says. “To get the most out of my arm, I needed to throw more. I was lucky the Brewers allowed me to individualize my workouts so I could get back to the highest level.” While the other pitchers in the Brewers organization, along with hundreds of other hurlers throughout baseball, throw from the cones for a time dictated by a stopwatch, Rogers works his way out to more than 300 feet. Almost two years later, he is once again the Brewers’ top prospect and made his major league debut at the end of last season. In a minor league game, he threw 101 mph. “I don’t know how you gain velocity throwing from 120 feet,” Rogers says. “I know it works for some guys but not me. You can’t push the ball 300 feet. You have to get extension, use your body and use your legs, all the things that make you a pitcher.”

The 120 program is more structured at the minor league level than in the big leagues, and one of its supposed benefits is to preserve the health of valuable young arms. In the Pirates’ case, it appears to have had paradoxical effects. In a nine-year span (1999 to 2007) the club selected seven pitchers in the first round, and five of them suffered major arm injuries. In contrast, the Rangers are on record as saying their injuries are down since they adopted Jaeger’s program.

There is talk that some agents may discourage 120 teams from drafting their long-tossing clients. And over the past two years, by Jaeger’s estimate, 12 organizations have loosened restrictions and adopted some form of distance *throwing. “For the first time in 20 years, I’m sensing progress,” he says.

BACK IN SCOTTSDALE, Alderson spent a good part of the off-season throwing with Rhoderick, another link to his dominant past. (Alderson has also been playing basketball to regain the athleticism he feels he lost while adhering to *Pittsburgh’s strict throwing regimen.) And like Kibler, Rhoderick was on the receiving end of one of Alderson’s questions during their first workout: “Will you tell me what you see?”

The first time they threw, it took Rhoderick fewer than 10 throws to answer the question. “Dude, it’s obvious,” he said. “You’re pushing the ball. *Relax and pretend you’re throwing darts.”

They continued to throw, no cones or stopwatches, and Rhoderick watched as Alderson relaxed and began to resemble the guy he knew in high school as he aired it out. “I could just tell he’s getting back to that stage where he thinks, No one can touch me.”

Alderson didn’t betray much emotion while throwing, but later that night he called Rhoderick. He was excited, and it was clear he had something important to tell his friend.

Rhoderick had one thought: He must have met a new girl.

Instead, a nearly breathless Alderson said, “Dude, I can throw a baseball again.”

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