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March 30, 2010

Long Tossing

Can It Be The Cure To Pitching Injuries?

by Gary Armida

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Major League Baseball is more or less a standardized industry. Everything a player does can be quantified in some manner. Since the dawning of the information age, teams have trended toward statistical analysis as it gives more definite, calculated answers rather than general feelings that can often lead to overvaluing a player. Unfortunately, that precision hasn’t translated to on-field performance, as gut instincts still rule when it comes to pitcher conditioning. For pitchers, those gut instincts have led to an epidemic of pitching-related injuries. According to statistics compiled and confirmed by Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll, Major League Baseball has spent more than $500 million in salary on injured pitchers the last two seasons. It is apparent that the majority of teams are just following the herd rather than researching methods to keep pitchers healthy. The result of this lack of exploration has led to the epidemic that Carroll describes.

Allan Jaeger, of Jaeger Sports, believes he has the program that can save pitchers from injury while increasing their velocity. Jaeger’s program is rooted in a traditional baseball exercise, long tossing. Since the early days of baseball, players have been long tossing. Most performed long tossing because they believed it strengthened their arm. Jaeger agrees. "If muscles are inactive for a long enough period of time, or aren't used close to their desired capacities, the life is taken out of them. When muscles are given proper blood flow, oxygen, and range of motion, they are free to work at their optimum capacity. A good long-toss program is the key to giving life to a pitcher’s arm."

While Jaeger isn’t employed by a MLB team, he has worked with numerous pitchers who are in the major leagues and also worked with the Rangers during spring training in 2009. "Allan has worked with some of our coaches. We have incorporated parts of his program into our long-toss program," said Thad Levine, the Rangers' assistant general manager.

The key aspect of Levine’s statement is "parts of his program." That is the exact problem with pitching conditioning; nobody seems to agree on one program.

Jaeger is a proponent of having pitchers throw as far as they can. Many of his students throw from 360 feet. His program seems extreme to most major-league teams and coaches, as the common practice is having pitchers throw from 120 feet. Jaeger believes that 120 feet limits a pitcher’s ability to reach his potential.

"Over the past 15 years of working with baseball players, I can tell you that if you take the time and distance constraint restrictions off a player, quite simply, their arm will have a chance to grow and evolve naturally," Jaeger said. "Over time, this process allows the arm to maximize its strength, endurance, and recovery period; over time, players tend to be more athletic and intimate with their arms. And yes, even mechanics can be benefited through proper training when long tossing."

Jaeger represents one side of the long-toss paradigm, but he faces significant opposition in MLB. One front office executive, who asked not to be identified, sees many problems with throwing from the seemingly extreme distances.

"When long tossing, we typically try to limit our distance in order to assure our pitchers are using proper mechanics," the executive said. "When you throw a far distance, you are throwing the ball at an angle that you would never throw during a game."

Not surprisingly, Jaeger vehemently disagrees, saying, "First of all, if coaches wanted pitchers to maintain a consistent release point, they would have pitchers throwing from the mound all the time. Any throwing not done off of a mound will alter the pitcher’s release point. When the arm is free to throw at different angles, pitchers actually become more in tune with their release point because they are developing a feel for throwing."

Because both sides want to help maintain pitcher health and allow him to reach his maximum potential, there should seemingly be more common ground. However, as with everything in pitching practice, too little research is utilized when forming programs.

"There's nothing approaching standardization," Carroll said. "Problem is, neither side seems to have the right answer. It's a lot of hit or miss rather than trial and error. If we did have some sort of scientific method, we would be way ahead now!"

For the present, standardization seems quite elusive, but if the American Sports Medicine Institute has anything to say, Carroll may get his wish for a program based on research that can be confidently adopted by major-league organizations. The debate about the application of long toss isn’t just reserved for doctors and executives. Major-league pitchers also have a variety of viewpoints. Al Leiter, a 19-year veteran who is now an analyst for MLB Network, utilized long toss throughout his pitching career.

"There would be certain days when I wanted to throw it as far as I could," Leiter said. "You can’t put a number on the distance. As long as the mechanics are sound, distance can’t be a set, universal number."

Leiter believed long toss helped him maintain arm strength and health. Many pitchers agree with him. However, some, like Greg Maddux, didn’t always want to long toss during the season because of a fear of developing bad mechanics. Given the rationale behind the origination of the long-toss program, one has to believe the ideology is sound.

Long Toss Origins

Essentially, a formal long-toss program was born out of the rehabilitation process. "Let’s say a pitcher just had Tommy John surgery or has a sore shoulder and is on shelf. Physical therapists will start a program with rubber tubing (exercises). Then there is a flat-ground, interval (throwing) program for adult baseball, which starts at 45 feet, and then proceeds to 60, 90, 120, and currently 180 feet. After that program, a pitcher will start throwing off the mound," Dr. Glenn Fleisig, the research director of ASMI said.

The fact that long toss was an integral part of a rehabilitation program illustrates the ancillary benefits of long tossing. Long tossing will help pitchers strengthen their arms. It will help build endurance. It stands to reason, as the purpose of a rehabilitation program is to develop strength in a muscle. Long toss builds that strength. Long tossing benefits pitchers in their quests to remain healthy, pitch longer, and possibly throw harder. Jaeger’s complete throwing program includes the rubber tubing stretching program and the gradual increase of long-toss distance. His distance is double ASMI’s rehabilitation program. There, for many, lies the controversy.

Distance and Velocity

One of the obvious benefits of long toss is the strengthening of the pitching arm. While many teams still fear throwing longer than 120 feet, studies do indicate certain benefits from throwing at longer distances. Dr. Michael Axe, an orthopedic surgeon, has worked with the famed Dr. James Andrews and Fleisig by researching safe, effective methods to ensure the health of young, developing pitchers. In fact, the doctors will be working together on a new committee, which will study current practices and recommendations for pitch counts for amateur players.

Axe conducted a study in the mid-1990s about the impact of long toss. His findings indicate that there is a direct correlation between velocity and distance. In short, the pitchers who threw longer distances were the ones that also threw the hardest on the mound. Does this mean that Jaeger is on to something? Perhaps, but Axe expresses caution when making that conclusion. "It (distance) doesn’t equal velocity. It equals ability. People who throw farther, throw harder. It’s a simple physics formula."

But the correlation between hard throwers and distance does lend some credence to Jaeger’s program. If it doesn’t completely validate his program, it does indict major-league teams that are still adhering to the 120-foot principle. Jaeger’s contention is that his long-toss program will help increase velocity. Axe, however is less enthusiastic about that type of impact with long toss.

"I don’t know if it will help him to throw faster, but it will build endurance and his speed," Axe said. "It is a means to an end. A pitcher has an innate talent. Long toss can predict how fast he throws, it can strengthen the arm, and it is tool to rehabilitate the arm."

Strengthening the arm…rehabilitating the arm…building endurance.

Those phrases all seem to be the mission statement of major-league pitching coaches and organizations. It seems that long toss would be one of the few universal tools in the game. It’s not because so few have the wherewithal to utilize it properly. By analyzing ASMI’s research and Axe’s research, it is quite possible that teams are failing to condition their pitchers properly with their 120-foot policy.   

Proper Long Tossing

The Brewers' Rick Peterson is one of the few pitching coaches in the game today that has developed his program based on the scientific principles and studies from Andrews, Fleisig, and ASMI. Long toss is a part of his training regime. "The best activity for building arm strength is long-distance throwing," Peterson said. "With Dr. Axe’s study that the hardest throwers throw the farthest in mind, long-distance throwing builds strength, which therefore increases endurance and better long-term velocity."

Why is long toss so important to a coach, whose major-league staffs have shown above-average durability and results and fewer injuries than the norm?

"When you are conditioning a pitcher, you want to give him functional work," Peterson said. "That is, you want him to condition his muscles being used when he is pitching. Long toss is as close as you are going to get."

Fleisig agrees, "The best training for baseball pitching is baseball pitching. If you train from a mound at maximum effort, your muscles and neurological system would benefit. That being said, you cannot train from a mound (continually) because you would get hurt. You want a training program that is similar, but different enough to simulate pitching. A long-toss program is a good part of conditioning."

Jaeger agrees as his program is based on those very practices.

The remaining issue for long toss is the proper execution. What distances are appropriate? How should a major-league pitcher or even an amateur pitcher execute the long-toss exercise? For Peterson, his program is based on ASMI’s research.

"The proper execution of long-distance throwing is when a player takes a crow hop and throws the ball as far as he can within his delivery. 'Within his delivery' means proper delivery with about 80-90 percent effort," Peterson said.

Peterson’s assertion of "as far as he can" does validate Jaeger’s program. Jaeger doesn’t force his pitchers to throw at 360 feet but simply wants them "to unlock the arm’s natural potential through long toss."

But, there are potential dangers with throwing distances out of a pitcher’s normal range. "Good long toss is when you throw with proper mechanics and with a little arc. Most important, you don’t compromise your arm path and you make sure that you have the proper finish," Leiter said.

Peterson agrees, but adds, "I want to know the angle of a pitcher’s knee is when his foot makes contact with the ground. I want to make sure that the pitcher is throwing as close to his pitching delivery as possible. Everything we do trains the pitching delivery."

With the general consensus of the sports medical community and the practical application of the long-toss program by Peterson and certain other major-league coaches, there is just one remaining question: Why are many teams still having their pitchers long toss at 120 feet? If the ASMI rehabilitation program has injured pitchers long tossing at 180 feet to rehabilitate, why are healthy pitchers limited to 120 feet? The answer lies in the same area that continues to hold pitching back in not only the major leagues, but in amateur levels too. The answer is fear.

"Progressive thinking is almost absent in baseball," Carroll said. "There’s almost complete ignorance at the field level."

Simply, most teams are not doing anything other than monitoring pitch counts and innings limits. Those, however, are about the end result. Proper long toss is one of the tools that can help decrease injuries.

Fleisig has hope that teams are becoming more progressive in terms of looking at methods to prevent injuries: "Teams have essentially two staffs at work, their medical staff and coaching staff. The medical staff works with team medical problems and rehab. The coaching staff works separately from the medical people, often at odds. Some teams are trying to have their medical staff and coaching staff work together now. It’s an improvement. We are seeing the trend in the right direction. For instance, at our annual ASMI Baseball course, some coaches and front office people are attending whereas it was once attended by just medical personnel."

The trend may be going in the right direction, but judging by the amount of pitching injuries, it is far too slow.

Proof Coming?

With more teams investigating methods to keep their pitchers healthy, long toss will be a key topic. It has already proven valuable. It is time to standardize the application. For now, research is limited, but Fleisig’s team at ASMI is currently completing a study on long toss. Fleisig’s team studied a group of college pitchers, whose biomechanical data was recorded after long tossing from distances of 90 feet, 180 feet, and as far as they could throw. The biomechanical data will show how the body reacts to the throwing distance. This data could help determine a proper distance for all pitchers or for each individual pitcher. The data could give fearful teams the necessary tools to increase their long toss program.

Closing Thoughts

Baseball is still essentially in the dark in the area of pitching conditioning and development. Very few coaches are open to the ideas that ASMI and the science field can provide. The old school mentality of "men throw" hasn’t worked; pitch counts and innings limits haven’t stopped pitching-related injuries. One can draw the conclusion that the injury epidemic is a result of poor conditioning. Long toss is a conditioning tool. If it is proven to help injured pitchers, healthy pitchers should utilize it.

 When one views Jaeger’s young pitchers throwing 360 feet apart, the first reaction is horror. It doesn’t look natural for a baseball to be thrown in that manner. But, once the shock wears off, many of Jaeger’s training principles are based on the findings of ASMI. Perhaps he has taken them to an extreme, but most experts (ASMI, Peterson, and Leiter included) agree that 120 feet shouldn’t be the limit. In fact, most will say that 120 feet isn’t allowing for the benefits that come with long tossing. However, Jaeger's quest to abolish the 120-foot rule or even the 180-foot rule will have a difficult time getting his message through because he is not affiliated with a major-league club. It will take someone like Peterson to continue to lead the cause of using biomechanics and science when it comes to pitching conditioning. His pitching staffs have a history of performing above their projections. More importantly, they have stayed healthier than average under his program. Peterson’s practical application of ASMI’s findings and use of biomechanics will help Andrews, Fleisig, and Axe findings bust through the years of traditional pitching methods that lead to injuries. Long toss, evidently, is part of that battle.   

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