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Why arms regressed when “rehab” programs became the protocol for healthy arms

“Despite the value of the golden age of orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, rehabilitation programs and strength and conditioning coaches, as an industry, since 1989, injuries are not going down”

Stan Conte, Senior Director of Medical Services, Los Angeles Dodgers

It was the perfect storm.

The landscape of baseball was going through a dramatic change as elbow and shoulder surgeries were becoming a common practice in the late 1970’s, and into the 80’s.  Renowned orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, performed the first Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) replacement surgery on Tommy John in 1974, and just two years later, the first rotator cuff surgery on Steve Busby.  These surgeries not only opened the door for countless players to resurrect their careers, but they also opened the door to a brand new field in the baseball community — rehabilitation.

When a player has an elbow or shoulder surgery he will typically go through a number of post-surgery, rehabilitative stages, including a healing phase, clinical work (strength and conditioning) and eventually, field work (throwing).  These stages are overseen in large part by the physical therapist or trainer, whose role is to get the player from the operating table back to the playing field.

This marked the first time in baseball history that the medical community played a prominent role in baseball operations (it was also around this time that strength and conditioning coaches were being hired).  And this influence was about to get stronger as the late 80’s turned into the 90’s.

The Rise in Salaries, Amateur Draft Signing Bonuses

Ironically, the medical community’s influence on baseball was happening at a time when baseball salaries and signing bonuses were rising exponentially.  For example, in the 1985 Amateur Draft, #1 overall pick B.J Surhoff received a $150,000 signing bonus, and just 5 years later, 1990 #1 Overall pick Brien Taylor received $1.55 million.  This was also reflected at the Major League level, where multi-year contracts were going through the roof — in 1985, the highest paid player annually was Eddie Murray at $2.5 million, and in 1992, Barry Bonds at $7.29 million.

There was a huge paradigm shift in a short period of time as players were making significantly more money than ever before.  A baseball player’s arm (especially pitchers) took on new meaning as there was so much more at stake — and this put even more emphasis on the medical community’s role of “keeping players healthy” and “preventing them from breaking down”.

Spring Training, 1996 — The first sign of a “Throwing Program”

“In the 60’s and 70’s, there wasn’t a throwing program — the closest thing to it was long toss.  The more you threw, the better your arm got”

— Tom House, PhD, Pitching Coach/Performance Analyst

When I played baseball in the late 70’s and 80’s, I don’t remember there being a “throwing program”.  Throwing was purely an instinctive act — it was something you just did according to how your arm felt.  And not so ironically, the more I threw the better my arm felt.

But I wasn’t alone — this seemed to be a common theme amongst players and coaches I’ve spoken with across a number of generations and cultures.  And this makes complete sense because it is in the inherent nature of an athlete to push his or her limits — to see how fast you can run, how high you can jump and how far and hard you can throw a baseball.  The idea of someone putting a time or distance constraint on me throwing a baseball would be like someone telling me to conserve the amount of steps I walk each day so I don’t “hurt my feet” — inconceivable.

Thus, to my surprise, in 1996 I went to one of the Spring Training Complex’s and saw something that I couldn’t comprehend — I saw players lined up on the foul line throwing out to their partners, who were in line with “cones”, about 60 feet away.  The players were ordered to make a specific amount of throws (or for a specific amount of time) to their partner at this increment, and then they were ordered to move back to 90 feet, and eventually 120 feet, repeating the same process.  Once this was completed, the players were then ordered to come back toward their throwing partners at 90 feet, and eventually 60 feet also for a predetermined amount of throws (or time).  In all, this “program”, which evidently doesn’t take into consideration that players come from different backgrounds, routines, body types and arm strength, lasted approximately 10-12 minutes, and all of the players were limited to 120 feet.

Considering that one of our pitchers, who that was on the field that day, had spent 6 weeks with us prior to Spring Training regularly training at distances of 300-330 feet, this was quite a shock to me (not to mention the pitcher).  This was the first time in my life I had experienced a “throwing program”, and I didn’t like anything about it.

The Inception of “Throwing Programs”

“The 120 ft program is a model that was developed a couple decades ago for rehabbing throwers.  This is important, but it wasn’t created with an interest in athlete performance or maximal development”

— Marcus Elliot, MD, Director of Sport Science and Performance, Seattle Mariners

With each passing year (I’ve been to Spring Training for 16 straight years) it became clear to me that this “throwing program” had become part of the culture.  This one size fits all, 60-90-120-90-60 foot throwing program, or some slight variation of it was what I saw at most of the Minor League, Spring Training complexes that I visited.  I had a very hard time understanding this concept, especially at the developmental stage of a player’s career.  And it became much more upsetting when the majority of the professional players that we trained in the off-season to throw distances ranging from 300-360 feet (a 90 mph fastball at 35 degrees elevated will travel approximately 300 feet) were losing velocity, endurance, feel and recovery period as a result of this “program” (not to mention the tremendous frustration the players had of having their throwing routine, athleticism and comfort zone taken away).

So naturally, I became motivated to find out where, why and how this “program” came into being.  And for the past 16 years, that’s what I’ve done.  I’ve asked questions, and more questions.  I’ve talked to players from all different levels, and all different nationalities including Japan and the Dominican Republic. I’ve spoken to coaches, scouts and front office people who have been around this game for decades.  I’ve spoken with doctors, trainers and physical therapists.  And the answers were confirming what I sensed all along — players were being grossly under-trained.

The research I’ve done for this particular article has helped put a face on the chronology of events that have led to the inception of the “throwing program”, thanks to the feedback from some of the top experts in the medical and baseball fields, including Dr. Louis Yocum (Los Angeles Angels and Kerlan/Jobe Center), Stan Conte (Director of Medical Services, Los Angeles Dodgers), Kevin Wilk, PT, DPT  (the original Rehabilitation Coordinator, ASMI), Dr. Glenn Fleisig (Research Director ASMI) and Tom House, PhD,  (Pitching Coach/Performance Analyst), most of who were around prior to the “throwing program’s” inception.

The Research

According to Dr. Yokum and Kevin Wilk, the rehabilitation throwing program was “created and devised by the medical community in conjunction with input from baseball people”.  This rehabilitation throwing program was designed to last approximately 6-8 weeks (it of course varies based on the type of surgery, and the individual).

A typical rehab program starts out very slowly, and focuses on building a solid base before adding volume and distance over a period of time.  For example, a player may start out on day one at as little as 10 feet, make 15 throws, and by the end of six weeks, may be out to 120 feet for 100 throws (sometimes “time increments” are used in place of the volume of throws).  The progression of events are simply based on normal theories of training — start out slowly and build a solid base, and add to this base by slowly and progressively increasing the workload (distance, volume and/or time).

This all made perfect sense  — once this post-surgery, throwing rehabilitation phase was completed, the plan was for players to return to their team, and begin the “training” phase for their  arm.  It was at this point that the medical staff had finished their job — pitchers (players) were ready to be handed over to the baseball people so they could go back to their normal baseball activity.  At least in theory, that’s what was supposed to happen.  But a funny thing happened on the way to the “training phase” of throwing.

A Rehabilitation Mentality Versus A Training Mentality

“There is a huge distinction between a Rehab Program and a Conditioning Program — they have two different purposes”

— Stan Conte, Senior Director of Medical Services, Los Angeles Dodgers

Both Dr. Yokum and Kevin Wilk mentioned that the “rehab” phase is designed to get players back into shape and best positioned to return their organization (school) and transition to “normal” throwing activity.  But somewhere along the way the “training” mentality began to take on the form of the “rehab” mentality.

Part of this was because the rehab program did such a great job of positioning the arm to “return” to normal baseball activity, it could almost be seen as a means to an end.  But there were other factors involved, including:  1) Structure — due to the “structured” nature of this throwing program it was easy and convenient to implement for the masses, 2) Format — due to its format, there was a step by step procedure that could be followed from Day 1 through the completion of the program, 3) Medical Backing — because it was medically based it had the medical community’s “stamp” at a time that the value of a player’s arm was becoming magnified, 4) Conservatism — conservatism replaced spontaneity as many baseball coaches (pitching coaches) were concerned about losing their job if a player broke down on their watch, so it was “safer” to keep players at a shorter distance (that was backed by the medical community), and 5) “The Science of Mechanics” — whether it was due to the medical influence of being anatomically “correct” when throwing a baseball, or simply the evolution of how athletes were being studied and trained, pitching coaches seemed to be going through a renaissance of “perfecting” mechanics around this time.  Terms like “bio-mechanics” and “kinetic sequencing” were becoming popularized in the baseball culture, and pitching mechanics seemed to take on more of a one size fits all mentality.

The need to have “perfect mechanics”, which among other things, suggested that pitchers throw with level shoulders, helped strengthen the rehab protocol of capping the distance at 120 feet, because, quite simply, perfect mechanics would “break down” beyond 120 feet (pitchers would then need to start arcing the ball beyond 120 feet, “theoretically” causing their front side to “lift” and their release point to be “late”).  But as you will see in the next section, throwing the ball on a line is not only a potential detriment for throwing mechanics, but more importantly, an unhealthy way to warm up the arm.

The Mechanical Myth: Linear Versus Arc Throwing

“Arcing the ball is perfect from a training perspective — it opens joints up and leads to greater range of motion”

— Tom House, PhD, Pitching Coach/Performance Analyst

As we saw in the last section the idea was that if pitchers threw the ball on a line or in a linear fashion, they would be in an anatomically “correct” position mechanically, and would reinforce a consistent release point.  Essentially, this mentality led to coaches instructing their pitchers to “take the arc” out of the ball.  Thus, even the hardest throwers, who, with training would otherwise be able to throw distances as far as 330-400 feet (95-100mph at a 35 degree angle) would probably not be able to throw the ball much beyond 120 to 180 feet on a line.

Though throwing the ball on a line sounds great in theory (for mechanical and release point consistency), it actually creates some drawbacks.  First and foremost are health concerns and this starts with limiting the arm’s range of motion.  This is because throwing the ball with arc from a bio-mechanical point of view promotes greater range of motion (internal and external rotation) and joint threshold — and extended arc throwing (long toss) facilitates greater ground forces (similar to the effort in a performance setting on a mound) and a decrease in GIRD (Glenohumeral-Internal-Rotation-Effect), according to studies done by Dr. Tom House.   GIRD increases as joint threshold and internal rotation are restricted.  These sentiments of the benefits of arc throwing were also supported by Stan Conte, who stated that “throwing the ball with arc decreased distractive forces on the joints.”

In lay-man’s terms, when you are free to throw the ball with some air under it (from the first throw on), you are allowing the shoulder muscles to “open up” and stretch out at different angles, slowly and progressively.  Linear throwing targets a much narrower area, and doesn’t position the arm to gain full range of motion.  Thus, as players move out further away from their throwing partner, the “effort” put into the throw with arc has more of a feeling of stretching and “extension”, and is optimally positioned for the more demanding, explosive downhill throwing on the way back into their throwing partner.

The reality is that the harder you throw a baseball the more stress you are going to put on the joints, ligaments and muscles of your arm — that’s unavoidable.  Considering that pitcher’s aren’t going to try and throw “easier” anytime soon, it is of extreme importance to position the arm in the safest and most optimal manner for aggressive and explosive throwing.  That’s why throwing the ball on an arc from the onset is crucial — it stretches the arm out in the safest and most optimal way prior to explosive throwing.

Linear throwing, albeit a rigid proposition, was also a sign of the times.  Though it takes the athleticism out of the athlete and the freedom out of the arm, it went hand in hand with the structured mentality of the times.  And it helped pave the way for the “rehab” mentality to become more of the “normal” mentality for preparing arms.

The Dangers Of Training Healthy Arms On A Rehab Throwing Program

“Cookie cutters are for cookies”

— Trevor Bauer, Pitcher, Arizona Diamondbacks

In a very short period of time, relative to the amount of years this great game of baseball has been around, the instinctive approach of “getting loose” and throwing according to the feel and “instincts” of the body was being replaced by format, structure and procedure.  Throwing by listening to the body was replaced by throwing according to someone else’s program.

Clearly, the medical community plays an important role in the repairing and rehabilitation of a baseball players arm.  But where I believe the baseball community lost its way is when they began to mistake the format for “rehabbing” an arm for “training” an arm.  Whether this was due to the significant rise in salaries in the early 90’s,  the medically based influence of the 80’s and 90’s or the inception of linear throwing, the reality is that pitchers were coddled and pitching coaches had to answer to their bosses and the medical world if a pitcher’s arm broke down.

This was the perfect storm, whereby the natural growth of an arm was stunted by a new set of rules.  These rules, intended for rehabilitating the arm, became the protocol for healthy arms.  Thus, a dangerous scenario ensued, whereby arms were being “trained“ in 2nd gear (120 feet), and then asked to perform in 5th gear in game situations.  It should be the other way around — arms should be trained in 7th gear, per se, to perform in 5th gear.  This is the basis for training in any sport.

Does this mean that a player can’t be successful by “only” training at 120 feet? Of course not.  But if a player is used to training at 300 feet or more and they are put on a restricted throwing program (120 feet) you can expect their fall to be severe.  It’s simply a shock to the system and in my opinion, the quickest way to destroy a well conditioned arm.  In the words of Dr Yokum, “if a player was used to training at 300 feet, and was then put on a throwing program that capped him at 120 feet, I would expect him to lose range of motion”.  Losing range of motion doesn’t sound good to me in any language.

Ultimately, removing the word “program” from throwing program is the first step.  The arm doesn’t want to answer to a manual or book (unless it‘s going through rehabilitation).  It wants to answer to itself.   And until those people in the baseball community, who support a restricted throwing program, come to this understanding arms will continue to regress, rather than progress.

Change is in the Air: Long Toss — The Trend of Today‘s Pitchers

“Nothing prepares a thrower for the exact loads of baseball except throwing maximally, and nothing provides the high level feedback of a well-constructed long toss program. The ability to get direct feedback on how to most efficiently connect from the ground through the hand while not overloading/over stressing the rotator cuff muscles are the two pieces that anchor me as a long toss advocate. The fact that limiting throwers to 120 feet is still a discussion in baseball amazes me”

— Dr. Marcus Elliot. — Director of Sport Science and Performance, Seattle Mariners

Fortunately, change is in the air.  The structure and format of “throwing programs” popularized in the 80’s and 90’s has given way to training again.  This transition has been occurring for several years now, but has been especially evident in the past few years based on a number of observations and occurrences.  It was 4 years ago that the Texas Rangers began to implement long toss as part of their organizational philosophy with great success.  Within one year of going from essentially a restricted throwing program to long toss, Rangers Assistant General Manager Thad Levine told MLB.com that “pitching injuries are down system wide”.

Whether it was the benefits that were gained by the Rangers, the notoriety that has followed over the past 4 years, or the growing interest in long toss, other clubs have begun to be more proactive with long toss in the past few years, including the Arizona Diamondbacks, Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and Seattle Mariners (other teams, like the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Nationals and Oakland A’s had been promoting long toss prior to this period).

At the grass roots level, the transition began even earlier, as evidenced by the prominent role long toss has played at the High School and Collegiate levels.  This can be validated by a sample of the following highly respected college programs from across the country that promote long toss, including: U of Arizona, Arizona State, Air Force, Appalachian State, Bethune-Cookman, Fresno State, CS Fullerton, Iowa, Mississippi State, Missouri, New Mexico State, North Carolina, Oregon, Rice, Samford, Sam Houston State, San Diego State, Seton Hall, South Carolina, Texas, TCU, UC Irvine, UCLA, U of San Diego, U of San Fransisco, UC Santa Barbara, Vanderbilt and Washington.

To further validate this movement I’ve confirmed through personal interviews, observations and various sources that of the top 50 projected pitcher’s in this years MLB Draft (2012), 28 of 32 are long toss practitioners (I was unable to track down 18 pitchers).  The majority of them long tossed between 330-350 feet, with some getting out as far as 400 feet.  The list includes: Mark Appel, Kyle Zimmer, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Chris Stratton, Lance McCullers, Lucas Sims, Ty Hensley, Matt Smoral, Lucas Giolito, Max Fried, Shane Watson, Zach Eflin, Pierce Johnson, Walker Weickel, Ty Buttery, Nick Travesio, Hunter Virant, Nolan Sanburn, Alec Rash, Jake Barret, J.T. Chargois, Chris Beck, Pat Light, Chase Dejong, Martin Agosta, Brady Rogers and Mitchell Traver.

I also interviewed or sourced 17 of the top 21 pitchers from the 2011 Draft who are also long toss advocates (300 – 400 feet), including Garrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Daniel Norris, Chris Reed, Tyler Beede, Sonny Gray and Matt Barnes.

Clearly, the trend amongst college programs, professional organizations and most of the top rated arms in the past two draft suggests that long toss has become a common practice in today’s culture.  The reality is that the information (internet) and training that are available to today’s pitchers and coaches are unlike any other generation.  They are, generally speaking, better educated and better trained then ever before.

That’s the good news.  But what still concerns me is that you have many of these well conditioned pitchers entering high schools, colleges and professional baseball being grossly under trained and under conditioned by a “rehab” program.  This “de-conditioning” of the arm is the single greatest reason why a pitcher’s arm will break down.

Conclusion: Let The Horse Out Of The Barn

Remove the word “program” from throwing program and the arm will grow and evolve

In the Dominican Republic, baseball is like a second religion.  Kids grow up throwing a lot because they play a lot.  It is an instinctive act.  And long toss has also played a prominent role in their culture for decades.  And yet, this small country of only about 9 million people, represents 11% of all active Major League players, and approximately 25% of all active Minor League players, as of 2012.

Yet, prior to the 1980’s you could easily argue that the United States was on the same playing field as the Dominican Republic.  But where one culture has continued to do what comes naturally, another one has been programmed by a “new set a rules”.  And it wasn’t until throwing programs were formatted, quantified and restricted did you begin to see the effect on arm’s (ironically, pitch counts became necessary to match this level of under conditioning).  The net result of programming arms has been staggering in terms of the effect on dreams ended, and financial losses (baseball injuries have risen 2-4% since 1989, and from 2008 thru 2011, Major League baseball lost a total of 1.9 billion dollars in salaries due to players being on the disabled list according to research done by Stan Conte).

The irony is that the Dominican Republic is not a country that has been exposed to a “throwing program” nor is there a medical study that players are told to follow (ironically, some of the MLB Organizations that have built Academies in the Dominican Republic are bringing over these structured throwing programs).  Their arms are positioned to grow because there isn’t a “program” in place.  The horse is not put in a barn…it is free to run.

For a healthy arm, there isn’t a “throwing program” — throwing is a feeling, and a very personal one that places a premium on listening to your arm each day.  The arm will tell you what it needs from day to day.  And if a player truly gets to know his arm well, and allows it to stretch out and breathe (like any other muscle group) it is best positioned to develop and stay healthy.  And after 20 years of being on the field and training arms, I’ve seen this approach translate into many benefits, including better health, endurance, strength, command, mechanics and recovery period.

Ultimately, the arm will thrive when the higher intelligence of the body can be felt and trusted, rather than told what to do.

I would like to thank my partner at Jaeger Sports, Jim Vatcher, along with Dr. Yokum, Tom House PhD, Stan Conte, Dr. Marcus Elliot, Eric Cressey, Brent Strom, Kevin Wilk and Dr. Glenn Fleisig for their input in writing this article.

Alan Jaeger, along with his partner Jim Vatcher, have worked privately with many professional players including Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Trevor Bauer, consulted with a number of Major League Baseball Organizations including the Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Houston Astros, and several High Schools and Universities including National Champions Arizona (2012) and Cal State Fullerton (2004).

For more information about Jaeger Sports and other articles on their throwing programs, mental training programs or products (Throwing Program DVD — Thrive On Throwing, J-Bands, and Mental Training Book — Getting Focused, Staying Focused), please visit their website at www.jaegersports.com or contact Jim Vatcher at 310-665-0746.  You may also download a free version of the throwing/mental training programs at: https://www.jaegersports.com/press_articles.php, and view our throwing/mental training programs by going to youtube.com, keyword “Jaeger Sports Throwing Program“, and/or “Jaeger Sports Mental Training”.

Addendum to “The Origin of Throwing Programs”

Linear Throwing: The Mechanical Myth

Throwing Uphill To Promote Better Downhill Mechanics, Athleticism and Feel

“What goes up, must come down”

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that throwing the ball on a line isn’t even the most ideal way to train an arm for mechanical reasons.  Even though the health benefits are a priority in throwing the ball with arc, there are actually several reasons why throwing uphill can actually promote a number of mechanical benefits for downhill throwing.

For starters, when a player is able to throw with arc he is developing a better feel for the baseball, and feel for his body.  For example, as a player moves further away from his throwing partner, he has to learn how to gauge his release point at different intervals.  Though 60 feet may not seem much different from 70 feet, once a pitcher makes his way out to his maximum distance of per se, 200, 250, 300, 350 feet,  the gradual increase in distance forces the player to be an athlete, and to adapt and familiarize himself to the different release points required at these different distances.

The net result is that a player must get very intimate with his body (mechanics) and release point in order to, for example, hit his partners chest at distances ranging from 60 to 300+ feet.  Not so ironically, when the player does get out to his maximum distance, he’s using his body in a way that best simulates the mechanics that is going to occur on the mound in his most aggressive form.  In other words, when a pitcher is throwing the ball, with arc, at his maximum distance he is actually promoting the initial sequence of his mechanics (loading) that are closer to who he is on a mound, when he is in game speed (this can also be simulated on the way back in toward his throwing partner in the “pull down” or downhill sequence).  This is because almost all pitchers go “up” before they go down on a mound (unless you throw like Randy Johnson , Jake Peavey, side arm or submarine).  Pitching coaches have actually given this a name — a “pitchers tilt”.

When done correctly through training, throwing the ball uphill forces the pitcher to learn how to translate this uphill throwing into downhill throwing (on the way back into his throwing partner).  Where some pitching coaches see the uphill throwing as a detriment mechanically (and the end point of long toss), it is actually used as a positive to promote an even better downhill plane then if you were to throw the ball on a line from start to finish.

The Pull Down Phase

The reason this occurs is because of what is called the “pull down” phase of long toss.  Pulling down is the second phase of long toss, or the “coming back in toward your throwing partner”.  It is the reason why pitchers can actually train themselves to have a better downhill plane because they threw the ball with arc (uphill) on their way out.

The pull down phase works as follows — once a player has been properly stretched out to his furthest point on a given day, he is then asked to come back in toward his throwing partner “approximately 10 feet per throw”.  Essentially, a player that gets out to 300 feet in his long toss will end up 60 feet away from his throwing partner in 24 throws (10ft x 24 throws equals 240ft).  The idea is that the closer the player gets to his partner, the lower the angle has to be because the player must follow two rules: 1) he must maintain the exact effort of his furthest throw (e.g. 300 feet) all the way back into his throwing partner, and 2) he must miss lower than higher all the way back into his throwing partner  (the ball must be chest high or lower for position players, and knee high or lower for pitchers from 90 feet and in).

This provides two major benefits: first, the player must learn how to maintain the same effort of his furthest throw into shorter and shorter distances (acceleration), and secondly, he must learn how to get his body organized so that he can compress his maximum distance (300 feet) into shorter and shorter distances (eventually 60 feet).  The big payoff here is that the arm is learning how to take the benefit of optimal stretching and extension into explosive throwing.  Because the body and mind have to learn how to be quiet, calm and relaxed to pull this off, it teaches the body how to organize itself in the most mechanically sound way.  In short, you can’t take a 300+ throw, and “pull down” into 60 feet (without decelerating), and have the ball end up and ankle height without optimal mechanics, and an optimal downhill plane.  This is the beauty of the pull down phase.

Ultimately, uphill throwing promotes a better downhill effect on the release point, especially if the player can understand what it means to not decelerate — this may take time for them to understand (most players decelerate as they get closer to their throwing partner because they either are new to this concept, or they ease up simply because they don’t want to overthrow their partner and play chase all day).

The Physical and Mental Benefits of the Pull Down Phase

These two principles of the pull down phase — “maintaining the same effort of the furthest throw” and “missing lower than higher” promote a number of other significant  benefits, including mental consistency and physical repeatability.  Mental consistency because it takes a lot of focus to maintain the same intention and effort of taking 300 feet into 200, 150, 100 and eventually 60 feet without decelerating the arm and having the ball end up at chest height or lower repeatedly (a typical focal point for a pitcher once he gets into the 70 foot range would need to be shin height or lower because we want the ball to end up at knee height or lower).  Once a player gets back to 60 feet or so (if it’s not too dangerous), he can then work on repeating his mechanics by having 3 constants: 1) a focal point (shin height), 2) maintaining the effort of furthest throw (not decelerating), and 3) committing to the focal point (intention).

Compressing 300+ feet into 60 feet, and having the throw end up consistently at knee height (without decelerating the arm) best positions the player to have ideal mechanics, because he can be athletic, he can use his mind to his advantage and he can learn how to repeat.  Also, a player can’t cheat to pull this off — the front side cannot fly open, nor can the head…the balance must be optimal or the arm will lag…the mind must be quiet, patient and focused…and the player must learn how to get out over his front side, with great extension (lower release point) if he is to compress this massive distance into such a low end point.  In short, he is learning how to translate the angle of throwing uphill into a benefit for throwing downhill.

In mechanical terms, you are teaching the body a new dynamic that is not promoted in linear throwing — you are teaching the body how to organize itself into a mechanical action that not only replicates the explosive nature of a pitcher on a mound in a game environment, but a mechanical action that supports a pitcher getting his release point out in front at a lower angle compared to the release point that is created by throwing the ball consistently on a line (this flat ground extension also teaches the pitcher how to work harder to get over his front side because as pointed out by TCU‘s Kirk Saarloos, “the mound isn’t there to bail you out”).

Most importantly, you’re doing this “practice” on flat ground, in an environment where the arm was optimally stretched out from a health perspective and best prepared for explosive, downhill throwing.

Ultimately, linear throwing is a rigid proposition, filled with flaws and misconceptions.  It takes the athleticism out of the athlete and the freedom out of the arm.  It teaches the body to be robotic when pitching is such a dynamic movement.  It is one of the most prominent reasons why arms have regressed over the past 20 years.

Side Bar — Post Rehab Advice For Pitchers

Why the end of rehab marks the beginning of training

“A pitcher should not get near a mound until he has finished his “post rehab”, throwing program”

Most rehab programs usually take about 6 weeks to complete.  This is typically the point in which a pitcher has built up his throwing distance to approximately 120-180 feet, and is now ready to return to “normal baseball activity”.  As we saw in the previous article, this is “normal” because it is consistent with the format that has been established by the medical community for the past 30 years or so.  Thus, when a pitcher completes his rehab, from my experience, it is either presumed or prescribed that a pitcher is “cleared” to get back on a mound.  And this makes sense on some level because 120-180 feet became the new normal for healthy arms, so it would follow that once the rehab was completed, it essentially doubled for the “training” too, and it would make sense for a pitcher to begin his mound work.

The problem is that a very important stage was skipped.– the “post-rehab” training.

When players have been referred to us, “post rehab”, we don’t let them get near a mound until they get into what we call “post-rehab” shape.  In short, rehab does a great job of building the pitchers base, but there needs to be a lot more stacking of the base until the arm is ready for the more demanding effects of throwing off of a mound.  This training phase may take an additional 3-4 weeks of arm conditioning/long toss before we’d want a pitcher near a mound.

This window of training (additional conditioning) between rehab and mound work is critical, and often misunderstood for pitchers who have completed the rehab program, and think they are ready to get on a mound.  Pitchers simply must go through another phase of training and conditioning/long toss prior to getting on a mound if they truly want their arm to have the best chance possible to be healthy, strong, durable and have ideal recovery period (which becomes a critical component of maintaining health) once they return to the mound.

Naturally, this phase will be different for everyone.   But it is critical that a pitcher first goes through this next phase of training before getting on a mound.  Unfortunately, many of the rehab programs that cap out at 120-180 feet, will also begin to integrate bull-pens along the way (usually toward the end of the rehab program).  For a pitcher that never threw beyond 180 feet, it would then make sense to continue with the protocol laid out by the rehab program.

However, if you were a long toss pitcher prior to surgery, than it’s important to first stretch your arm out to distances that are probably similar to pre-surgery distances.  However, only stretch your arm out to distances that are comfortable.  You may find that you don’t initially get out as far as you did pre-surgery.  That may not be unusual, but perhaps you’ll get back to that distance a year or two down the road (note: a couple of respected doctors/trainers I spoke with suggest that it may not be ideal to long toss out to pre-surgery distances, especially immediately following shoulder surgery).

Regardless, the arm should feel good as you gradually build up to your furthest distance over time.  If you do this right, it should actually feel like a massage to the arm.  That‘s a sign that you are adding distance and workload (reps) at the right pace.  You should also notice that your recovery period is getting significantly better.  Otherwise, back off and return back to your distance/workload from the previous day, when there wasn‘t a problem with how your arm felt, or recovery period.

Eventually, once you find that you are reaching your maximum distance (this occurs when you have a number of throwing sessions in a row and your maximum distance is basically the same) it is at this point that you are ready to come back into your partner in a more explosive way, “downhill” (the first 2 weeks or so is to simply stretch the arm out to post-rehab distances by throwing with arc as you move away from your throwing partner).  This second phase or what we call the “pull down” phase is a sign that your arm is not only completed stretched out and well conditioned, but it’s ready for aggressive throwing on flat ground.  Once you can repeat this process of getting out to your furthest distance and pulling down at least 3 days a week (with great recovery period), you are now ready to get on a mound.

Again, it’s a process of listening to the arm each day, allowing distance and quantity of throws to come naturally.  It should feel good to the arm, or else, simply back off.  But the message is clear — stay away from a mound until your arm has been best positioned to open up (extended) to further distances then your rehab protocol, and your quantity of throws (workload) has increased a great deal as well.  Thus, don’t just focus on extending your distance each day — focus as much, or even more, on building up your workload (quantity of throws).   Ultimately, we have found that pitchers getting more reps in a safer environment (flat ground) is as crucial to building up endurance, strength and improved recovery period, as anything else.

There‘s just no need to get near a mound until your arm has been built up to it’s optimal conditioning state.  And for most pitchers, this isn’t even close to the stage they are at when they complete their rehab program.  As a result, once you do get on a mound, your recovery period and maintenance should be optimal, as should your ability to stay healthy.

Source: Collegiate Baseball Magazine
Published: September 2012
By: Alan Jaeger

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