In Part II of my series on the long toss debate, we took a look at some of the benefits of long toss. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re sold on long toss and want to make it a part of your regular training regimen. Well that’s great, but during the winter months that can be a bit of a problem.

See, one of the limiting factors when it comes to long toss is you need the right training environment. Key requirements:

  • Open space: A big field or open space so you can really open it up (up to 350 ft)
  • Decent throwing weather… tough to long toss when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.
  • Daylight (unless you have access to a huge indoor turf field). With the sun rising later and setting by 5pm, good daylight can be tough to come by during the winter months.
[h5]So what do you do when you can’t long toss?[/h5]

If you like long toss, that’s great. I’m all for it if you’re smart about it and it doesn’t take away from improving other aspects of your pitching. But when it comes down to it, all you really need for an adequate throwing program is a bucket of baseballs and a net.

Here are some things I used to do during the cold winter months:

My brother and I worked out a deal with the local high school Athletic Director who let us use the gymnasium to throw in the early morning before school started. We couldn’t go past 120 feet, but it was better than nothing.

One winter I lived in Hoboken, NJ and didn’t have a throwing partner nearby, so I set up a net in my garage and did my full throwing program from no more than 10 feet away. Caveat: one day a week I would drive 30 minutes to the local baseball facility to get my throwing in at a full 60 ft.

One off-season I got an apartment in FL with my brother so we could throw outside during the winter. But even then, our schedules didn’t always line up. So there were plenty of days where I would just get a ball and go seek out the nearest supermarket or Home Depot and throw against the wall near the loading dock in back.

So if you like long toss, fine that’s great, it’s just not always practical. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get your throwing in.

Bottom line, if you’re committed, you find a way. No excuses.

[h5]Here are some guidelines if you’re forced to throw inside this winter:[/h5]  
Warm up to throw, don’t throw to warm up: It’s easy to get warmed up when it’s hot and humid. In the winter you’ve got to work a little harder, but it’s critical. Sometimes when you’re throwing into a net or a wall on your own there’s a tendency to rush through it without setting aside the appropriate amount of time to get your body heated up. Don’t make this mistake!

Ease into it: Similar to the early high-arc phase of long toss, build up to full speed gradually to set the arm up well to throw max effort safely. Again, avoid rushing. Once your arm is really feeling good, then you can start letting it go.

Use step behinds: Throwing this way helps you simulate long toss and get some of the same benefits (throwing with good momentum, getting your arms and legs in sync).

Use a radar gun for instant feedback: One of the biggest benefits of long toss is the instant feedback it provides. To throw far, you have to throw hard. Using a radar gun can give you that same kind of instant feedback to know when you’re implementing more efficient mechanics.

So if you can’t get outside to throw this winter, don’t use it as an excuse to not get your throwing in. You can still get plenty of quality throwing done when the environment is less than ideal. And as you get closer to the start of your pre-season, make sure you’re spending more and more time pitching on the mound.
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This summer I was sitting outside watching my two year old play in our front yard. She’d given me one of her toys to hold, a little plastic animal, and noticing her bucket (she’d been playing with a pail and shovel) about 15 feet away, I decided to play around and take a shot. To my surprise, it went right in on my first try (it gave her a good laugh, too).

I’m a strong believer that there’s far too much early specialization when it comes to youth sports today. But that’s a bigger discussion and probably warrants an entire series of articles all its own.

Today I just want to discuss how playing other sports as a child can make you a better pitcher. I’m focusing on basketball because a) it’s what I know, and b) it relates directly to the way most people think about accuracy and good mechanics.

With pitching, we as coaches and parents tend to place a lot of emphasis on mechanics. And for good reason… you need good mechanics to throw hard with consistency. But when it comes to accuracy, thinking too much about mechanics is a recipe for disaster. It’s tough to throw strikes when you have 5 people yelling at you:

“Bend your back!”    “You’re flying open!”    “Get your arm up!”
[h5]How are you supposed to focus on hitting the glove
when you’re thinking about where your arm is?[/h5] Growing up I played a lot of basketball, and I kept playing all the way through high school. The age of specialization was coming, but hadn’t fully arrived. We had a hoop out back, and I spent countless hours out there taking shots from all over the blacktop. And I developed a pretty good outside shot.

Are good mechanics important in basketball?

Sure. Good form certainly helps, it just isn’t emphasized the way it is in baseball. When a player misses a shot, how often do you hear a coach blame poor mechanics? A coach might have you practice hitting 50 free throws, but he’s not critiquing you after each miss. “Bend your knees! Use your legs! Get your elbow in! Extend your arm!” …at least not if he’s a good coach.

Focus on the desired result: When you practice a shot in basketball, focusing on the path you want the ball to take, imagining it go through the net, is usually a lot more effective that thinking about having good form. Repeating a shot over and over allows you to get the feel for it. Sure, a mechanical adjustment might help if you are wildly inconsistent. But overall, just finding what works and getting that feel and repeating it is the better approach. Why should pitching be any different?

Why are some players such awful free throw shooters?

Free throws are the only time you shoot when the game is stopped. You’re not in your natural rhythm. In short, there’s too much time to think. Players start thinking about things like mechanics and past negative outcomes and get into what I call right-brained thinking. But often, you see the same player make that shot in the natural flow of the game, no problem.

The same principles apply in pitching… You’re out there alone on the mound, nothing happens until you throw the ball. If you can stay loose and in flow, you give yourself the best shot at executing a quality pitch. If you start worrying and obsessing about mechanics, you don’t have a shot.

Now I’d never practiced that shot with the toy outside before that moment, so how did my body know what to do? Simple. I wasn’t worried about mechanics.

I’ve been throwing, tossing, shooting things all my life – baseballs, basketballs, footballs (heck, you can also throw in there tennis balls, apples, rocks, snowballs and a slew of other objects light enough to hold and toss). I know what throwing a heavy object feels like, I know what throwing a light object feels like.

Now if I took that same shot 20 times, would I make it every time? Not a chance. Was luck involved? Maybe. But the point is, I made the shot without giving an ounce of thought to mechanics or where my release point needed to be. I just felt the weight of the toy, and my mind told my body exactly what it needed to do to throw it in the bucket.

You’ve probably had experiences like this before. Ever make a wild basketball shot, or throw a crumpled up paper into a trash can? How did your body learn how to do that?

The mind/body connection is more powerful than most people realize. Doctors and scientists don’t even completely understand how it works, but there’s no denying it. And you enhance this connection when you play more than one sport.

This is also one of the benefits of long toss. You learn how to hit a target from different distances. It takes you out of the confines of the pitching delivery – you can stop thinking “I need to have perfect mechanics” – and gives you instant feedback. You can read more about that here: The Long Toss Debate (Part II): The Benefits.

So are good mechanics important for pitching? Absolutely. Are mechanics the biggest cause for control problems? Not exactly, but they’re certainly a factor.

But here’s the bigger question: Will thinking about mechanics make it easier to throw strikes?

Absolutely not.

Mechanics are important for power and consistency. But once you commit to making the pitch, you have to just trust your mechanics, focus on your target, and execute the pitch.

Here are some quick tips for developing a solid, repeatable delivery, so that when it comes time to compete, you’re not thinking about mechanics.

  • Use good drills: Drills are helpful for training different aspects of the pitching delivery. BUT, and this is important…
  • Stick with drills that train good movement patterns (rather than focusing on positions!) There are a ton of bad pitching drills out there.
  • Repeat your delivery: Repetition breeds consistency. This can include mound work (bullpen work) or what’s sometimes referred to as dry work or shadow work (basically practicing your delivery without a ball). If using a towel helps give you the feel for practicing your delivery with something in your hand, that’s fine too, just make sure you use it this way.

Bonus tip: Practice your delivery with your eyes closed.
It will really help you hone in on what your body is feeling.

[h5]When working on control and command, emphasize FEEL over mechanics.[/h5] Throw one low and away – how did that feel? Repeat it. Now throw one inside – how did it feel? Repeat. The same way repeating your delivery improves consistency with your mechanics, repetitive “target practice,” so to speak, will improve control and command.

Instead of focusing entirely on one specific skill like pitching, I encourage young athletes to play other sports. The challenges and unique demands of each sport will improve motor coordination, body awareness, and make you an all around better athlete. And being a better athlete will make you a better pitcher.
[hr] Special note: While I’ve had the idea for this article for a while, aspects of it were heavily influenced by an article I read recently on BaseballThinkTank.com. Lantz and his team do a great job – if you’re not familiar with it, you should add it to your list. After going back to re-read that article, I’m embarrassed by some of the similarities, so wanted to make special note of that here. Here is the link: Discover Why Pitchers Can’t Throw Strikes And How It Can Be Fixed In 5 Minutes!

 

 

In Part I of this series on long toss, we took a look at the broader debate: the Believers, the Naysayers, pros and cons… As promised, Parts II and III will dive deeper into each side. Today we’ll take a look at some of the arguments in favor of long toss, and why the Believers feel it’s an important component of a pitcher’s training regimen.

[h5]1. It helps you throw with your entire body, getting your mechanics in sync[/h5] Generally speaking, long toss means getting your feet moving, either with a shuffle, crow hop or step behind. This helps build momentum and rhythm, and gets your center-mass moving towards your target (all things you should be doing in your pitching delivery). An issue I see with a lot of young pitchers is a tendency to become mechanical and stiff when they get on the mound, because they think they need to have “good pitching mechanics.”

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine, a Division I pitching coach. He told me about their shortstop who had an absolute cannon, but when they asked him to pitch he was awful – wild with no velocity. So he got the kid on the mound and started flipping him balls, asking him to throw as if he was turning a double play. The result? All of a sudden he was throwing gas, and strikes to boot!

Put simply, when you get your your body moving aggressively towards your target, your arm is forced to keep up. And when you start stretching it out to greater distances and really get your feet moving, your body naturally finds more efficient mechanics, helping get your arms and legs in sync.

Nolan Ryan, one of the first big supporters of long toss, has called this “getting gathered,” basically getting his legs under him and throwing with his whole body.

The key is, once you get the feel for throwing with good momentum, how do you bring that natural athleticism and explosiveness into your pitching delivery? This is something we’ll discuss more when we take a look at the Pulldown Phase.

[h5]2. It helps condition the arm, building arm strength and endurance[/h5] One big benefit promoted by the long toss Believers is the idea of long toss as a means for conditioning the arm, improving durability and overall arm health. Nolan Ryan discusses this in a Baseball America article about his use of long toss and live BP with the Rangers organization (one point worth noting is that Ryan estimated his own “long toss” reached “somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 feet,” a far cry from the more extreme long toss practiced by many of today’s pitchers).

Here’s what some other long toss advocates have to say:

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

Greg Maddux: “I think long toss is a great way to build your arm up, to get in shape to throw off the mound.”

Dylan Bundy: “I like to stretch it out (the day) after a start and usually two or maybe three times a week…
I feel like that is the best way to throw hard and feel good in all your starts. If you throw 30 to 45 minutes of long toss, you should be able to complete a game easy.”

Felix Hernandez: “I do it every day… I can’t imagine not doing it. I’ve done it since I was a kid throwing with my brother in Venezuela. Some days I’ll go and throw 300 feet, easy. Some days I won’t. It all depends. But I definitely think it makes me better.”

Much of the rise in popularity of long toss can be attributed to Alan Jaeger’s work and his success with his Thrive on Throwing program. And in recent years, more and more high school and college programs have been making long toss a part of their conditioning program.

This article on the Russell County High School (Seale, Ala.) baseball program (originally published in Collegiate Baseball, 2005) talks about how the team used long toss as a big part of their conditioning, helping produce 6 pitchers who could throw 90+ MPH, a team ERA of 0.77, and zero arm injuries.

Another great (and more recent) Collegiate Baseball article centers on the durability of the 2012 champion Arizona pitching staff. The Wildcats’ 3 starters threw 5,675 Pitches and 16 Complete Games (same amount as the entire SEC conference), yet “not one starter experienced elbow or shoulder pain through the season. In fact, no pitcher on the staff has suffered an elbow or shoulder injury the last three years…”

Now it’s important to note that neither of these success stories point to long toss as a sort of magic bullet, but rather as a piece in the puzzle. The Arizona program, for example, credits a four pronged approach, including 1) a long toss, bullpen and running program, 2) a strength and conditioning program, 3) post-practice and game care of pitching shoulders and 4) mental conditioning.

[h5]3. Long toss gives you instant feedback[/h5] Along the same lines of point #1 (getting your mechanics in sync), one benefit of long toss is the instant feedback it provides. The farther back you go, the harder you have to throw, and you can see and feel instantly when you are implementing more efficient mechanics.

Dr. Marcus Elliot, Director of Sport Science and Performance for the Seattle Mariners, has taken a very progressive approach to conditioning – here are some of his thoughts:

“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.”

That first phrase also relates directly to velocity – you could just as easily say nothing trains a thrower to throw harder than throwing maximally. To throw far, you have to throw hard, and your body begins to know what that feels like.

And that’s the big key for me when it comes to long toss and the direct feedback component. Just working on developing “clean mechanics” doesn’t teach that intent to throw hard.

The other big direct-feedback benefit has to do with command and feel. If you’re off with your release point, the impact is magnified when throwing long toss. You can see it, feel it, and learn what you need to do to get the ball back on track.

For some pitchers, long toss helps them find their arm slot since it allows them to really see the movement on the ball, and they can adjust with each throw to get that consistent slot.

[h5]4. The Pulldown Phase[/h5]

The Pulldown Phase is specific to the Jaeger method of long toss (often referred to as “extreme long toss”), where guys stretch it back gradually, and then work back in with harder throws, essentially pulling that arc down and throwing on a line. The first phase is about opening the arm up, the Pulldown Phase is about max effort (or close to it) throwing and bringing that 300 ft throw into a 60 ft delivery.

During this process, as his partner gets closer and closer, the pitcher is forced to get his release point out in front more, and he regains the feel for “getting on top of the ball.”

Dylan Bundy: “I’ll get out to about 320 or 350 feet and I don’t really strain the arm at all. We throw it high to put less stress on the arm, but just kind of get it loose. Once we work it back in, you start throwing more on a line to get the release point back.”

Barry Zito: “The pull down phase of the “long toss” has actually solidified my release point on all three of my pitches, especially my curve ball.”

When you do long toss with this Pulldown Phase, your body learns what it needs to do so you can get on top of the ball. Then in a game situation, if you’re missing high in the zone, you have that feel and it’s easier to make the adjustment and get the ball down.

Bringing that explosive, max-effort long toss throw back into a 60 ft delivery is really critical when it comes to maximizing velocity off the mound. This is something a lot of guys struggle with. It’s not uncommon for guys to throw 300+ ft long toss, but not break 90 MPH off the mound. That’s why learning to create that same sort of momentum in your pitching delivery is so important.

Demonstration of the Pulldown Phase (around the 4 minute mark)

[h5]5. It’s a great way to deal with Specificity, Variety and Pattern Overload[/h5]

One big argument you’ll hear from the Naysayers is that long toss isn’t specific enough to the act of pitching. That as you stretch it out and begin to throw on an arc, your release point changes, and your mechanics begin to change with it. Dick Mills, for example, seems to be of the belief that pitchers should spend all of their time pitching, and that any time throwing away from a pitching mound is time wasted. We’ll discuss his views, (along with the other Naysayers) more in Part III.

There’s something to the argument. Nothing is better for developing the specific skill of pitching than actually throwing on the mound. But you don’t need a PHD to realize it also places extreme stress on the arm, and if you spend all your time throwing on the mound you’re bound to break down.


Shh, don’t tell anyone… Pitching is not very good for your arm

Dr. Glenn Fleisig: “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.”

This is where we get into something called pattern overload. It’s beyond my scope of expertise, but here is a great article by Paul Chek if you really want to dive into the subject. In laymen’s terms, the more you train or perform the same movement pattern over and over, the greater the risk of injury.

Eric Cressey: “Symbolically, long toss is to pitchers what plyos are to sprinters: specific, but just general enough to make a profound difference… 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”

In addition to giving the pitcher another way to train to throw at high intensity (without the same exact stresses as pitching), incorporating long toss into your routine also adds a little variety and breaks up the monotony of the standard 60/90/120 throwing program. Over the course of a long season (not to mention off-season or pre-season), this is a very real factor to consider. You need to stay motivated and committed in your throwing.

[h5]Okay, so that’s a look at the Believers’ point of view… So what’s my take?[/h5]

To me, long toss clearly has some benefits, and the success of so many pitchers and programs speaks for itself, but you have to be smart about it. Some things ton consider:

You better be conditioned: Max-effort throwing of any kind increases stress on the joints, so it’s important train properly. Dylan Bundy can throw 30+ mins long toss because he’s a beast with an insane work ethic.

Is it the best use of your time? If you can’t command your fastball at 60 ft, you’re probably better off doing more bullpen work to develop feel and command of your pitches.

Context matters: It can be great for conditioning, but aggressive long toss as part of your pre-game routine doesn’t make much sense to me. Why do you want to fatigue your arm prior to pitching, which places the highest demands on it? In your warmup you want to wake up and activate the muscles, not max out before you even take the mound.

Mechanics matter: If you’re delivery is a mess at 60 ft, the problems will be magnified at 300 ft, increasing the risk of injury.

Does it really help increase velocity? Long toss itself doesn’t increase velocity… but it does train the intent to throw hard, an important factor for increasing velocity. This is the single biggest benefit to long toss as a training method, in my opinion. But this can also be accomplished at 60 ft, heck even 20-30 ft with a backstop and a bucket of balls (a radar gun can help if you need that extra motivation and instant feedback).


One way to simulate long toss when you’re stuck inside
So what are your thoughts on long toss? Drop a comment below!

[hr] Other Sources:
“Making the Case for Long Toss in a Throwing Program” – Eric Cressey

“Rediscovering The Lost Art of Long Toss” – Alan Jaeger
Originally appeared in Collegiate Baseball Magazine May, 1999

“Going long to help keep pitchers healthy” – Doug Miller, MLB.com

“Dylan Bundy on long toss, expectations and working with a former MLB catcher” – Steve Melewski

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