Published: May 2011
By: Greg Schaum
This is an article about how the cutting edge training programs available to amateur players (via schools like Vanderbilt, Rice, UCLA, Texas, Fullerton, Stanford, ASU, and others) well educated high school programs, the internet, and independent coaches is outdating many of the throwing programs at the professional levels. More specifically, this is an article about a belief system at baseball’s highest level that’s in need of change. And for those organizations that aren’t willing to change with the times, compromising their ability to draft the best possible pitchers due to their lack of awareness of how pitchers, by in large, are now training. (see the correlation with with this years list of projected 1st round picks and how many of them come from a long toss background *list at bottom)
New Age of Information, Resources
The internet is a powerful tool and kids, as well as their parents and coaches are using it to identify cutting edge, technical information and training programs that offer alternative methods to bringing success that may not otherwise be available in many professional organizations. One of these training programs that has made a huge impact on pitchers from a health, strength, endurance, and recovery point of view is Long Toss. While long toss is not a new training regimen per se, it has become popularized over the last decade and seen huge gains thanks to the success of many players, including multiple Cy Young award winners. It has become widespread and taken on a lot of sophistication – several top pitchers in the 2011 draft are long tossers (by definition, a pitcher is a “long tosser” if he trains by throwing the ball at least 250 feet) The problem is that many professional organizations cap their pitchers at 120 feet. (which, ironically is the same distance that pitchers “rehab” their arms post surgery) It is my belief, and the belief of many others ( see below, Alan Jaeger, Eric Cressey, Ron Wolforth, and Dr. Marcus Elliott) who have years of experience of training arms at the highest levels that placing “restrictions” on a players arm – especially if he has grown up on long toss – has been a key reason why so many pitchers have either suffered a significant loss in velocity, or have broke down. When a player has acclimated his body and arm to a throwing program and that program has been the catalyst to him having a well conditioned strong arm, and is part of the players make up and belief system, asking him to change to a program that contradicts how the player has trained his whole life is asking for trouble. To me, this is the equivalent of taking a bear out of the wild and putting it in a cage. That bear simply will not flourish out of the wild.
Behind the scenes
In an interview I did earlier this year with Alan Jaeger of Jaeger Sports who has been training and developing arms through long toss for over 20 years, and has consulted with the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks, had this to say:
“It seems that the professional baseball community began to lean on the medical community for input into “throwing programs” once Tommy John and shoulder surgeries became part of the vernacular in the 80′s, leading into the 90′s, and post-surgery throwing programs (basically rehab) were created. This, along with the rise of amateur draft signing bonuses, and the substantial rise in player salaries (also early 90′s) created an atmosphere whereby throwing programs became very “guarded” “conservative” and “controlled”. The net result of these variables was the integration of throwing programs that are essentially “rehab” programs – controlled or timed increments of throwing at 60,90, and 120 feet and often limited to 10 minutes. Because “time” and “parameters” were put on the throwing programs, other areas of throwing seemed to get micro -managed as well, and all of a sudden there were pitch counts, innings thresh holds, and some pretty radical changes in the game….Rehab programs are great for post surgery-but they are very limiting and regressive to arms that want to train and develop.”
Another a huge proponent of long toss is one of the top baseball trainers in the country, Eric Cressey co founder of Cressey Performance , added:
“I understand every pro team wants to protect their investment and I understand that they prefer to use a very evidenced based approach whenever possible, but even if the research hasn’t clearly proven it, I see a direct carry – over to long toss in terms of controlled flexibility and offering great benefits. I’m convinced that teams could see greater benefits by paying closer attention to off – season strength and conditioning adherence than by limiting long toss. In all of my years I have had only one guy who did not like long toss and he really never dedicated himself to doing it correctly. It’s helped guys tremendously”
Rangers join the fight:
Long tossing also found validation from the likes of a pretty good pitcher named Nolan Ryan. Ryan, the Rangers team President, brought Alan Jaeger in as a consultant for the organization.Some of those results were documented in an article by Jonah Keri who is also the author of the book The Extra 2%
“The Rangers sent Jaeger to the Dominican Republic to work with the Dominican Summer League to teach their pitchers the new long-toss regiment. The plan worked like a charm. The team raced to the best record in the league, with no major pitching injuries all season. But, the Rangers did not merely challenge the 120 foot long-toss convention at the rookie ball level. Last spring when Jaeger flew to the team’s training complex in Surprise on his own dime to see what else the Rangers had done,, he could not believe his eyes. “They were crow-hopping like we were crow-hopping.” Jaeger beamed. “They were throwing the ball with arc, using our principles. I watched guys pushing 300 feet, which is practically unheard of in other places. I almost cried.” With that the Rangers became one of the first teams to actively promote the use of long-toss. The A’s, Cardinals. Twins, and Nationals also promote the use of long-toss. Several recent clubs recently lifted their restrictions on long-toss on the heels of the Rangers success.
The Gospel is spreading and since Jaeger worked with the Rangers in 2009 approximately 10 more teams have either promoted, or have lifted the restrictions on long toss, including the Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Braves, Tigers, Angels, Phillies, Giants, Padres, and Rockies.
Ron Wolforth, who runs the Texas Baseball Ranch which has helped 98 pitchers touch 90 MPH, has seen 52 of their athletes get drafted since 2003, these are his thoughts:
“In my opinion, it is a paradigm problem, an intellectual disconnect. What a vast majority in professional baseball, and some of the most progressive minds seem to miss is that pitching is very simply a very specialized form of throwing. The components that would help one develop into an electric, powerful, healthy and durable thrower are the exact same components that would assist a young man to develop into an electric, powerful, healthy, and durable pitcher.
Our mantra at the Texas Baseball Ranch is to become a prolific pitcher…one must first become a prolific thrower. Throwing begets pitching. It is not the other way around.
Several people have made money and gained stature by attempting to sound like the smartest guy in the room and scaring the living daylights out of people with regards to long toss and pitch counts…very much like a MIT professor in the 60′s who claimed the bumblebee could not possibly fly. This is not rocket science, it is really common sense. Most athletes these days are not overused or over stressed, they are under prepared. Professional baseball typically behaves in many ways that I would classify as anti-training. Long distance running…60,90, and 120 throwing programs…these protocols actually retard progress, not enhance it.”
One size fits all approach is lazy
Dr. Marcus Elliott was hired by the Seattle Mariners in March 2010 as the Director of Sports Science and Performance. He is also a Harvard trained physician and the founder of P3 (Peak Performance Project).
“As far as I can tell the 120 foot rule is based entirely on rehab protocols that were designed to give recovering athletes a progressive structure as they stretched their arms out. As such, it was never intended to be the basis for a performance project. That alone undercuts its application for healthy, non rehabbing arms. As someone who has trained extensively in sports science and then in medicine at Harvard Medical School, I think I am in a unique position to address this issue.
Capping or limiting development to some pre-set maximum load, volume, or distance never makes sense and is exactly the opposite of the front edge trend in all professional sports, which is towards more personalization. We have spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars on technology that we use almost exclusively for personalizing our training protocols for each athlete. I can give you endless examples of very good MLB players that we work with who play the same position but need opposite things. The one-size-fits-all approach is easy for the coach, but is never the right approach if you are committed to your athletes, and it’s about to die at the highest level of sport. This is just one example that should be shut down.
The most fundamental dictum in athlete development is that you ask systems to stretch themselves slightly beyond their current level, thus stimulating adaptation of that system. If a kid can throw a ball controlled, relaxed and cleanly with reasonable mechanics over 300 feet and you only let him throw out to, 120 or 180 feet, you are taking away an effective adaptation tool. This is especially true with kids who have grown up around a long toss program. To see kids who are drafted in the first couple of rounds have these tools taken away from them at the next level makes absolutely no sense.
We now have a pretty clear picture of the systems that are needed in MLB. These include things like lower body power, horizontal force, high level of elasticity in the trunk, hip mobility, scapular-thoracic stability/mobility etc. However, I see long toss as a bridge form building all of these systems, to now connecting them all and getting them online to create easy and repeatable velocity. Long toss gives players direct feedback of ball trajectory/distance on whether they were able to create more summated force in throwing reps – this is very valuable. Also, deceleration forces have generally been found to be lower in long toss than on the mound throwing, potentially meaning less wear and tear. We have had many examples of MLB players who long toss regularly with great success. Generally, these players are allowed to long toss in whatever organization they play in. In the last 2 years we have had 3 active pitchers win the Cy Young who are all driven by long toss.
To me, maybe more impressive is seeing the gains some kids have had with building lower body power, horizontal drive, and these other systems they need AND combining it with long toss. We had a kid (Dylan Axelrod) who was released from his MLB team, got a job in independent ball, trained extremely hard by airing it out from 320-330 feet and at the end of the off season and was picked up by the White Sox because he was throwing 95 toward the end of the season. He was named the organizational pitcher of the year in 2010.
However, we also have MILB players who have been shut down in their organization from long toss and in those cases have to decide whether they sneak away and do it on their own or lose it. I have been very impressed by the number of very young pitchers who come to us and air it out as far as possible. It is a trend that is building, no doubt!
As I said, problems with long toss include kids losing their mechanics, looseness, or ball action in search of distance. We rarely see this, but they do happen. We note that spin on the ball will greatly affect trajectory and length, so that a pitcher who throws 95 with big action may not throw as far as a kid who throws 92 with straight backspin.”
Injuries will happen but can they be prevented
Regardless of whether or not you are long tossing you still need proper mechanics. Spencer Witte who co-founded Classic Baseball, LLC and has done injury risk analysis for three major league teams said, ” Can mechanics help us determine whether a young player will be injury prone or durable? Absolutely. With pitching you have to know what to look for. Our company quantifies every aspect of the pitching motion and then provides risk analysis on hundreds of the draft’s top pitchers. Last year, we had 30 out of 240 pitchers that we identified as low risk. Since, then we’ve had a quad strain and a car accident but otherwise, not a single low risk has ever experienced upper body injury, pre-draft or post-draft. On the other side of things, we’ve had upward of a dozen high risk post-draft injuries.” So, mechanics are clearly important. And yet, regardless of a guys throwing motion and regardless of what throwing practices got them to the professional ranks, organization’s across Major League Baseball are prescribing a very careful menu of less throwing distance.
Cookie-Cutter Approach is good for cookies
What can be done about this? Well, for one, a young pitcher could tell a team not to draft him. But, is this realistic or fair to expect a kid to tell a team that is his pathway to a dream to not draft him? That seems unrealistic and that seems unfair. But, that is exactly what is happening in the 2011 MLB draft. Some pitchers, and their advisors are starting to take note of an organization’s policy prior to the draft. They have identified those teams and told them that their throwing program is not negotiable. Trevor Bauer, UCLA’s all time leader in wins, has made it clear that he has been training a certain way since he was 12 and he is not going to change his core principles. He recently told Baseball America, “I think the cookie-cutter approach is good for cookies”, he says, “but not really good for pitchers.” One person said it best – “he is Greg Maddux’s head on the body of Tim Lincecum.” For his part, Lincecum was legendary for his long toss distances at the University of Washington, and plenty smart himself. Many teams passed on Lincecum because they did not buy into his program, a couple of Cy Young’s later and a World Series championship ring I would guess that person that passed on him is a little less comfortable in his seat.
The Chris Gruler effect:
At the individual level, we have mentioned how many young pitchers throughout baseball have begun to sneak away – literally sneaking out in order to throw long toss. They do this because it is their career on the line and they do not want to end up resigned to the same fate as Chris Gruler. Gruler, a terrific HS arm was the 3rd overall pick in the 2002 draft. He went to the Reds and then proceeded to rack up a grand total of 92.2 innings over parts of four minor league seasons. Gruler had been a long toss freak in high school dedicating himself to the program and he credited this program for his 97 MPH fastball and rapid rise in the draft. He believed in stretching out the arm and throwing as much as possible. When he began his minor league career he was told to stop long tossing and not go beyond 120 feet – basically being put in a cage and throwing in timed increments at each distance, 12 minutes to throw, 3 minutes at each step. Every single pitcher was treated this way even though all of them were different. He lost muscle memory and conditioning and his velocity began to tumble. How was he going to inform his employer, the Cincinnati Reds that he needed to break their program and go back to his program? He knew he needed to air it out and throw more, he didn’t say anything and now he is just a number in a long list of casualties.
Consistent with this notion, an advisor of one of the players in this years draft said, “to me it is crazy that a pro team would tell a player to stop throwing. This kid became the payer he is because of this program. The idea of not throwing is bizarre and out of touch and frankly, wrong. Also, away from the program idea most HS pitchers are also the best player on their team playing positions like CF,3B, or SS and when they are not pitching are throwing every day. They go pro and stop throwing…Really?”
A lot of good science and hard data underlies the fact that times have changed with regard to the development of a well conditioned arm. It’s now past the time that we remember that professional pitchers are still athletes and they must be treated as such. 120 foot organizations have had their chance, and this damaging addition to the game deserves to be recognized for what it is: a limitation, and it deserves to be tossed out.
Here is a list of 14 of the top 25 ranked pitchers in this years draft according to Baseball America as of 5.1, that have confirmed that long toss (beyond 250 feet) is an essential part of their training program. ( Information was not available on 10 of the other 11 top rated pitchers)
Gerritt Cole, UCLA
Sonny Gray, Vanderbilt
Trevor Bauer, UCLA
Dylan Bundy, Owasso HS, OK
Archie Bradley, Broken Arrow HS, OK
Matt Barnes, UCONN
Taylor Jungmann, Texas
Daniel Norris, Science Hill HS, TN
Tyler Anderson, Oregon
Henry Owens, Edison HS, CA
John Stilson, Texas A&M
Joe Ross, Bishop O’Dowd HS CA
Tyler Beede, Lawrence Academy Mass
Robert Stephenson, Alhambra HS CA
*Jackie Bradley, JR CF South Carolina- I mention him because long toss is just not for pitchers. Bradley has a cannon for an arm and was clocked at 100 mph in high school He has maintained his program and told me he threw a foul pole to foul pole throw in Omaha out of the stadium.