Long-toss routines gaining traction across MLB
More ballclubs willing to let pitchers air it out to reduce injuries, increase effectiveness
SARASOTA, Fla. -- In a town without stoplights, in a pasture without crops, the young boy reached into the bucket of balls placed beside him, reared back and aimed for his daddy's glove.
The ball arched high into the northeast Oklahoma sky. If it landed in the glove, perfect. If it overflew its target, they'd start the drill all over.
This was how Dylan Bundy, then just seven years old, first learned about long toss -- the throwing program he believes has helped secure his status as one of the top prospects in baseball.
Bundy was out to 120 feet at that early age, and the distance has increased considerably in the time since. These days, he'll air it out as far as 350 feet as part of his pregame and between-starts prep work. He believes this practice builds up the back of his shoulder, maintaining his durability and his high-voltage velocity.
"It always felt good as a kid to see how far you could throw the ball," said Bundy, who is currently MLB.com's No. 2 overall prospect. "And it still feels good to me now."
But there are plenty of people in the game who aren't quite so comfortable with the thought of pitchers airing it out at extreme distances.
With scant medical evidence to support or oppose it, long toss is a hot-button issue among executives, coaches and developmental gurus. On one side of the argument are those who believe it's a solution to the injury epidemic that has led to Major League teams spending more than $1 billion on disabled pitchers over the past five years; on the other are those who see it as another way to prematurely blow out an arm.
"There are a lot of different methods out there," said Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "Some of them, I think, are a little bit dangerous. Because kids see some of the stuff that goes on, then try to do it and end up hurt.
"I understand building arm strength through that process, but somebody has to be there to monitor the effort. Otherwise, you're doing more damage than good."
Watch this YouTube video, and everything seems fairly normal at first. Two ballplayers playing catch, standing 10 yards apart on a football field. They're throwing free and easy. Nothing to see here.
Then they drift out to 20 yards apart. Then 25, then 30. Each throw following a high arc, each motion looking loose and relaxed.
It's when the throws start to eclipse 50 yards that what you're watching begins to look like an optical illusion. The young man on the left side of the screen does a little crow hop, then releases the ball from the 37-yard line on one side of the field to the goal line on the other -- a distance of about 190 feet. Then he's at the 20-yard line, propelling the ball 240 feet. Farther and farther he drifts, all the way into the end zone, his throws eclipsing any "Hail Mary" you've ever seen on such a field.
By the time the exercise is over, he's throwing the ball 360 feet, and your shoulder throbs just watching it.
The player, though, feels no pain, and that's the lesson Alan Jaeger hopes to convey through this video. The Los Angeles-based independent pitching instructor wants you to understand that the arm is an organism that requires blood flow and range of motion to achieve the extent of its capabilities, and the goal of extreme long-toss drill are to, in his words, "break through false limitations."
"Some just want to see how far they can throw it," Jaeger said, "but our job is to condition their arm the best we can. Long toss is the best way to do it. Opening the arm up and stretching it out at different angles. You're preparing the arm and conditioning the arm so that when you do get to explosive throwing, it's been freed up and stretched out in the most optimal way."
Working as a personal trainer and consultant since 1991, Jaeger has had several professional pitchers subscribe to his program, including Barry Zito, Dan Haren and Andrew Bailey. Newly acquired Indians prospect Trevor Bauer, whose particularly lengthy long toss from foul pole to foul pole has become the stuff of pregame legend, was once a student of Jaeger's.
"It's about warming up to throw," said Bauer, MLB.com's No. 17 overall prospect, "instead of throwing to warm up."
But while individual cases are compelling, it's the team-wide application in certain organizations of the long-toss beliefs espoused by specialists like Jaeger and Texas Baseball Ranch proprietor Ron Wolforth that could become a game changer.
"Organizations are stepping outside themselves," Jaeger said, "seeing what's going on out there and incorporating it."
Ever-escalating salaries have prompted many changes in how teams rest and rehabilitate their pitchers. For a time, aggressive long-tossing went the way of 300-inning seasons and 200-pitch outings. In general, teams restricted their pitchers to straight-line throws at a maximum distance of 120 or 130 feet, a program similar to those employed in Tommy John rehab.
But the constant search for the next competitive edge, or the existence of a market inefficiency, compels clubs to find new ways to draft, develop and integrate their talent. And in the long-toss realm, the Texas Rangers were one of the first clubs in recent years to buy into the benefits of a more aggressive approach.
It began at the 2008 General Managers Meetings, where Jaeger got the ear of Jon Daniels and the Rangers brass. The Rangers were coming off another in a series of miserable years from a pitching perspective. A rash of injuries and ineffectiveness rendered them with the worst team ERA in the Major Leagues. Suffice to say, the reasons to embrace a change far outweighed the reasons to stick with the status quo.
"We just weren't very good," Daniels said. "We were as open-minded as possible."
The Rangers agreed to a trial run with Jaeger's program with their Dominican Republic summer team managed by Jayce Tingler. The success was instant, as that team posted the best record in its division and the best staff ERA in the league, with, most notably, no major injuries on the pitching staff.
By the spring of 2010, the Rangers have implemented the program system-wide.
"Since '08," Jaeger said, "they've become a dominant organization with a lot of power arms. Granted, a lot of that talent is because they've done well in the international market and drafting. But if they had a 120-foot program in place, maybe a large percentage of those guys would have regressed from an arm-strength or health standpoint."
The Rangers encourage their pitchers to throw as far as they can, provided they maintain proper form and technique. Where pitchers once were instructed to wait out a dead-arm period, now they are encouraged to long-toss their way through it in between outings. Where once the Rangers were restrictive, like so many other teams, now they are decidedly proactive.
In the three years before the long-toss program was implemented, the Rangers' staff ERA was a combined 4.83. In the three years since, it's 3.90. How much of that is tied to the long toss itself is anyone's guess, but the Rangers consider it a key contributor.
"When you do it right, it forces you to do certain things mechanically to stay on line and stay in a power position," Daniels said. "The bottom line is our guys like it."
Other organizations have followed suit. A reasonable estimation, based on discussion with front-office types, is that about half the teams in baseball have lengthened their long-toss program at the Minor League level, Major League level or system-wide in the past five years.
The Angels are one such team, and it doesn't hurt that their GM, Jerry Dipoto, was an aggressive long-tosser during his playing days.
"We look at all the information and styles and ideas," Dipoto said. "It's still very early in the process of introducing this type or style to professional baseball, so we'll see where it goes. But by and large, most of those players associated with it have been healthy.
"Now, could they have been healthy sitting on a couch throwing the ball? I don't know. But it's logical that if you keep the arm moving and keep a degree of looseness and flex in the shoulder joints, the mechanics of throwing become easy."
While it isn't difficult to find such logical train of thought from long-toss advocates or anecdotal evidence of the benefits of long toss from the Bundys and Bauers of the world, what does the medical community say?
Truth is, not much, and therein lies the problem.
There have been no quantitative scientific studies at the Major League level that offer a clear idea of how long toss affects conditioning and training. A mid-1990s study by Dr. Michael Axe, an orthopedic surgeon, found a direct correlation between velocity and distance. In other words, the pitchers tested who threw at longer distances were the same pitchers who threw the hardest on the mound.
But that study was conducted on adolescents, not adults, and it still doesn't necessarily support the oft-expressed notion that long-tossing can be used to increase velocity.
A subsequent study in 2011, completed by the American Sports Medicine Institute (a group that includes renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews), came back with mixed results. That study found that the hard, horizontal, flat-ground throws used in long-tossing do have "biomechanical patterns similar to those of pitching and are, therefore, reasonable exercises for pitchers." But the study also cautioned that "maximum-distance throws produce increased torques and changes in kinematics."
In other words, aggressive long-tossing can lead to dangerous habits if not performed properly.
That's the message opponents of long-tossing seize upon.
"Why would you practice mechanics that are totally different and will not help a pitcher during a game?" former Red Sox pitcher Dick Mills asks in one of his YouTube coaching videos. "And why would you practice throwing mechanics that are clearly more stressful where the arm does most of the work?"
|"Every organization I've been with, when I got there initially, they limited our pitchers to 120 feet. I say, 'Well, if we limit our position players to 120 feet and we have a man on first and a ball hit to right-center, we'd need three guys to get it to home plate.'"|
|-- Rick Peterson, Orioles director of pitching development|
Orioles director of pitching development Rick Peterson is familiar with both the medical studies and the counter-arguments, and that's why the O's cut no corners with regard to proper technique. During Spring Training, Peterson conducts a biomechanical analysis of his players' long-toss throws. The goal, he said, is "making sure your stride length, bend-of-knee-at-foot contact, bend-of-knee-at-ball release, angle of your hips and angle of your shoulders are all consistent with what you do on the mound."
Peterson said this analysis last year compelled the Orioles to tweak the technique of Bundy, one of the organization's most prized possessions. Peterson offers a similar program to young pitchers who upload video at his website (3psports.com), which works with ASMI to conduct motion analysis.
While the O's eagerly latched on to Peterson's program, there's no question that the industry, as a whole, has been slow to embrace extreme long-toss techniques.
"I don't know what it takes," Peterson said. "I think it's going to take more science to get people to really embrace it. Every organization I've been with, when I got there initially, they limited our pitchers to 120 feet. I say, 'Well, if we limit our position players to 120 feet and we have a man on first and a ball hit to right-center, we'd need three guys to get it to home plate.'"
Further scientific study is one way to coax agreement on the positives or negatives of long toss. But in what is essentially a copycat industry, there's no substitute for the influence of glaring example.
That's why the baseball world is watching the likes of Bundy and Bauer so closely. For better or worse, these prominent prospects have become the poster boys for a movement that has clear momentum. The list of pitchers selected in the first round of last year's amateur Draft was littered with long-toss practitioners like Kevin Gausman (Orioles), Kyle Zimmer (Royals), Max Fried (Padres), Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Mark Appel (Pirates, unsigned), Nick Travieso (Reds), Chris Stratton (Giants) and Lucas Sims (Braves).
A pitcher like Zimmer, who joined a Royals organization known to be among the more restrictive in terms of long toss, forces clubs to reshape or rethink their procedures, at least on a case-specific basis.
"Some guys, we give a little more flexibility to," Royals GM Dayton Moore said. "One size does not fit all. If you try to script it out in a way that it's the same for everybody, you're probably making a mistake."
While there are varying opinions on the value of long toss, Moore's sentiment seems to be one shared by most clubs.
"One guy's routine works for him? OK, let us adjust," said Twins GM Terry Ryan. "We're trying to make people better, not trying to cookie-cut people. Every guy we've got is a different body, different arm action, different stride."
What's important, though, is not letting a player's routine cause adverse mechanical effects. That's where the value is in the type of analysis advocated by Peterson.
"This is based off Dr. Andrews' research," Peterson said. "It's not like this is Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss, you know?"
The hope is that some particularly impressionable kid doesn't watch Bauer throw the ball foul pole to foul pole and instantly try to imitate him, without following proper protocol and maintaining proper mechanics.
If a young pitcher is eager to incorporate long toss into his routine, the recommended course of action, it seems, is to do as Bundy did, slowly building up a tolerance, listening to what his body is telling him and making the necessary adjustments if or when a mechanical assessment dictates it.
Assuming such a program is followed properly, long-toss devotees are entering an industry increasingly open-minded about the practice, even as debates rage about its benefits.
"If you feel comfortable with it," Bundy said with a shrug, "why change it?"