One of the things I love about playoff baseball is getting to see great pitching and guys rising to the occasion on the biggest stage possible. If you didn’t get a chance to see Barry Zito pitch Friday night in game of the NLCS you missed a gem. With his team facing elimination with their backs against the wall, Zito stepped up with one of the biggest performances of his career.

What stood out from Zito’s performance was just how he was able to be so dominant, making big league hitters look silly without possessing what most would consider dominant “stuff.” Too many young pitchers think it’s all about velocity and being able to throw the ball by the hitter. But performances like the one Zito had in game 5 prove there’s much more to pitching than just throwing hard. So here is a short list of things every pitcher can learn Zito’s game 5 performance.

[h4]1. Locating and changing speeds is more important than a 90+ fastball[/h4] Watching the way Zito moved the ball around the plate and kept hitters guessing was truly a sight to see. Very rarely do you see a guy with mid 80’s velocity blow a fastball by a big league hitter up in the zone, but Zito was able to do it regularly. Here’s what Art Wellersdick wrote in his article on BleacherReport.com:

“Last night was a clinic in changing speeds and location. He had several swinging strikeouts on high fastballs, something a pitcher with an 84mph fastball only gets away with if he’s dominating the bottom half of the zone with every pitch and every speed he can feature.”

[h4]2. The art of pitching is upsetting hitter’s timing[/h4] Despite an 85 MPH fastball, Zito kept hitters off-balance all night. Velocity is impressive, but too many pitchers think it’s the only thing that matters. I remember one pitcher in the minors who, after having a rough year, said, “Well if they were hitting my 93 MPH fastball I guess I gotta come back next year throwing 97.” Yeah, maybe that would help… but I wanted to shake him, “you throw 93! That’s enough, what you need to do is work on pitching – that means locating and changing speeds!”

Here’s what Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny had to say about Zito’s game 5 performance:
“That’s what pitching is,” said. “You don’t have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off-balance.” – source: Barry Svrluga – Washington Post

[h4]3. Force contact – Make them hit your pitch[/h4] A big part of the art of pitching is keeping the ball off the fat part of the bat. This doesn’t mean nibbling and being afraid to throw the ball over the plate. Instead it means pounding the strike zone, being aggressive and getting ahead in the count. When you work ahead and move the ball around the plate, you’ll get hitters to hit the pitch you want – Zito forced the Cardinals into 10 ground outs and 12 fly balls Friday night.

Work ahead, keep hitters off balance, force contact.

[h4]4. Never quit on yourself[/h4] Barry Zito has a caught a lot of flack over the last few years. After his years as a rising star with the A’,s the Giants signed him to a huge $126 million contract in 2007, with the years to follow being what can only be characterized as a colossal disappointment. In 2010, things got so bad the Giants even left their high paid starter off the playoff roster.
It would have been easy to cave under the weight of all the criticism, hang his head, give up and stop giving it everything he had. Instead, he rededicated himself.

Here’s what his catcher Buster Posey had to say about him after game 5:
“I see how hard he works, no matter if he’s struggling or doing well. He puts in the time off the field. His preparation is second to none,” – source: Larry Fine, Reuters

Keep working hard, be prepared, and when your time comes, good things will happen.

[h4]5. Commit to getting better in the off-season[/h4] Take a look in the mirror, assess your weaknesses, and work to eliminate them in the offseason. Speaking about getting left off the playoff roster in 2010, Zito said, “Well, you know, it was certainly a huge blow just personally to be left off that roster. …But you’ve got to be professional, you can’t pout… I worked on a lot of things that off-season, came back stronger for it, I think.” – source: mlb.com

If you’re looking to get the most out of your off-season training, start by thinking about what you can do to become a more complete pitcher. Velocity is important, but so is changing speeds and locating your pitches. Examine yourself, set clear goals, and come up with a plan. One of the first things you should do this off-season is assess your weaknesses.

If you live in the CT/NY area, strength coach Josh Heenan and I will be conducting full Pitching Mechanics, Strength & Flexibility Assessments this off-season.

If you’re not in the area, you can easily submit a video for motion analysis, and I would highly recommend checking out the Assess & Correct program. Stay hungry.

title photo source: nbc.com

[h5]The First Thing Every Pitcher Should Do Before Their Off-Season Workouts[/h5]

This is one of my favorite times of year here in the northeast. Leaves are changing color, there’s a cool bite in the air, and major league playoffs are in full gear. If you’re a young pitcher, your summer league is a distant memory, and while a lot of kids play fall baseball, that too is coming to a close. And after that last pitch is thrown and you put the spikes away for the winter, you’ve officially entered into one of the most critical times of year for any pitcher… the Off-Season.

As a former minor league pitcher, I can tell you what you do in the months that follow can make or break your career. And that’s because real gains are made in the off-season. During the season, your focus is on performing at your best and doing everything you can to maintain your strength and stay healthy. Making meaningful strength and velocity gains means pushing yourself to the limit, and that’s tough to do when your body’s already dealing with fatigue and the demands of pitching week in, week out.

But before you dive into plans for your off-season training, let me make some recommendations:

  • Give your arm a rest.  Overuse is one of the biggest contributors to injury, and studies confirm that kids who pitch year round without a break have much higher rate of arm injury. According to one 2006 study, leading researchers found, “Adolescent throwers who pitched more than eight months per year were five times more likely to be injured compared to those who pitched less.”
    -Olsen SJ, Fleisig GS, Dun S, Loftice J, Andrews JR. “Risk factors for shoulder and elbow injuries in adolescent baseball pitchers” – Am J Sports Med. 2006
  • Spend some time playing another sport or working on strength and agility. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to stick to throwing off the mound 365 days a year. Becoming a better athlete will make you a better pitcher.

Generally speaking, a month or two away from throwing a baseball will do your arm some good and allow you to come back to pitching recharged and ready to go. And there plenty of ways you can improve as a pitcher that don’t require throwing a baseball.

Now before getting all Gung-Ho about your winter conditioning, I want you to think about the # 1 thing every pitcher should do before beginning their off-season training:
[h4]Get to Know Your Weakest Link![/h4]
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. You’ve probably heard it a million times, but as with most clichés there’s some real truth to it. You can apply that phrase to just about any aspect of pitching. Every pitcher has weaknesses, things they could do better. Maybe you have trouble locating your fastball or getting your breaking ball over for a strike consistently. Maybe you could work on your mental approach and maintaining a positive pitching mindset when things are going against you. Maybe you have a flaw in your pitching mechanics that could be hurting your velocity and control.

It applies to your mechanics: The pitching delivery is a total body movement involving your entire kinetic chain. When you consider the speed of the movement (from the height of your leg lift to ball release takes less than second!), it’s easy to understand how a breakdown or inefficiency at any point in that chain can wreck the whole thing.

It applies to your conditioning: Good mechanics alone can’t eliminate the risk of injury. In fact, since good mechanics allow you get generate more force and velocity, the hardest throwers put the most stress on their arms. The only way to handle those stresses is through a well designed strength and conditioning routine.

Eric Cressey had a great post on his site recently, definitely worth checking out: Pitching Injuries and Performance: Understanding Stride Foot Contact and Full External Rotation

[h5]What do Michael Jordan, Greg Maddux, and Mariano Rivera have in common?[/h5]

…Well, I mean aside from being among the greatest to ever play their respective sports/positions. Like all great athletes, they each understood the importance of addressing their weaknesses, facing them head on and turning them into strengths.

Michael Jordan: When Jordan came into the league he was considered a one dimensional player – a great scorer and dunker, but he couldn’t play defense or threaten with his outside shot. He committed to becoming the best defender he could be, and in his fourth season was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Did he stop there? No, he kept looking for weaknesses, areas he could improve, and developed his signature fade-away jump shot. He looked at what people considered his weaknesses and worked like crazy to turn them into strengths.

Mariano Rivera: It’s easy to forget, but when Mo first came up, he was a strikeout machine who relied an explosive four seam fastball. The ball jumped on the hitter at the last second, nobody could touch it. It was amazing to watch. But he soon realized that all those swinging strikes meant more pitches and more stress on his arm. If he wanted to be available to pitch every day, year in year out, he’d be better off forcing contact and getting outs on fewer pitches. So he developed that filthy cutter and became the most dominant closer in the history of baseball. But he didn’t stop there. Eventually, hitters started to cheat on the cutter. So late in his career he developed a new pitch, a hard sinking/tailing two seamer he could throw to keep hitters honest.

Greg Maddux: Considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of his era, Maddux was a master at commanding his fastball and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance. But success didn’t come overnight. A few years into his career, after experiencing some success, he realized something was holding him back from achieving pitching to his full potential: negative thoughts and self doubt. So what did he do? He sought out sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman and worked on strengthening his mental approach. The result? During the four year span from 1992-1995 Maddux won 4 consecutive Cy Youngs while posting a 75-29 record with a 1.98 ERA.


(watch 3:20 minutes in where he starts talking about his mental approach)

My point is, the greatest athletes in the world didn’t get that way by accident. Talent helps, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. The world is full of talented failures. The great ones set themselves apart through a commitment to excellence and a burning desire to be the best they can be. They take the time to know their weaknesses, and tackle them head on.
[h4]So how do you get to know your weakest link?[/h4]
It begins with Self-Assessment. Take some time to step back and reflect on your season. What could you have done better, what could you work on this winter to become a more complete pitcher next season? Assess all areas of your game, your mechanics, your mental approach, your control and command of your pitches.

And part of the process should include assessing your overall strength and flexibility. Something I see all the time with the kids I work with is a lack of the overall strength and mobility needed to perform a powerful pitching delivery. Now is the time to examine yourself, determine what you need to work on. That way you can come up with a plan to get the most out of your training this off-season.

This off-season, I’m partnering with Strength & Conditioning Coach Josh Heenan to offer complete Pitching, Strength & Flexibility Assessments for all of my pitchers here in CT. You can learn more about Josh here. If you’re interested in getting your own Full Pitching Assessment send me an email: Phil@BetterPitching.com.

If you don’t live in the NY/CT area but think you could benefit from this kind of assessment, you can send me a video for a full Pitching Motion Analysis. Also, If you don’t have access to a strength coach like Josh, who really knows his stuff, I highly recommend checking out the Assess & Correct program.

[h5]Can’t We All Just Get Along?[/h5]

The long toss debate has been getting more attention lately, and it seems like things might be coming to a head. You’ve got some guys that swear by it, claiming it helps build arm strength and increase velocity. Others flat out reject it, claiming it puts too much stress on the arm and leads to bad mechanical habits. Even the Wall Street Journal weighed in with an article earlier this year about the new crop of young pitchers who’ve grown up with extreme long toss as part of their throwing routine (if you missed it, was actually a pretty good little piece, and if you read it online you’ll see a nice fiery debate between Dick Mills and Dan Blewett – a couple stubborn SOB’s). Meanwhile, some MLB organizations go so far as to ban long toss completely. As a young pitcher, parent or coach, all the conflicting opinions can all be overwhelming – who are you supposed to believe?

First lets make sure we understand what we’re debating. If you found this site, you probably don’t need much explanation. But for those who may be unfamiliar, long toss is exactly what it sounds like: the practice of throwing over long distance, well beyond the 90-120 ft. range of more conservative throwing programs. A variation of long toss (and the most controversial one) is extreme long toss, where pitchers will extend the distance as far as possible, leading to significant arc on their throws. For elite pitchers, this can mean stretching throws out to 350 feet and beyond.

[h4]The case for long toss:[/h4]

The Believers: Some of the most notable advocates for long toss can be found in the ranks of today’s young and rising stars. Two that have been getting a lot of attention lately are the Diamondback’s Trevor Bauer and Orioles prospect Dylan Bundy. Both have huge upside and have been noted for having tremendous work ethic and rigorous training regimens. And there are plenty of others in favor of long toss including the likes of Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan and pitching coach Leo Mazzone, whose Braves pitching staffs were among the most durable and consistent the game has ever seen. Some other big proponents of long toss include prominent trainers and instructors like Alan Jaeger, Ron Wolforth and Eric Cressey.

According to the Believers, some benefits of long toss are:

[circle_list] [list_item]Helps get your mechanics in sync: to throw the ball a long way you need to throw with your entire body. Stated another way, the intent to throw farther leads to more efficient mechanics.[/list_item] [list_item]Helps condition and stretch out your arm: builds endurance and develops better external shoulder rotation (important for velocity).[/list_item] [list_item]Gives you instant feedback: thrown well, the ball goes farther. You can also see the flight of the ball and the effect of arm slot/hand position.[/list_item] [list_item]Helps develop better control – hitting a target farther away becomes more challenging, requiring greater precision.[/list_item] [list_item]And here is the big key benefit that most point to: the pull-down phase – as you bring it back in gradually to 60 ft. this phase teaches your body what it needs to do in order to get on top of the ball and get your pitches down in the zone.[/list_item] [/circle_list] [h4]The case against long toss:[/h4]

The Naysayers: The voices against long toss are fewer these days, but many MLB organizations continue to impose distance limits in their throwing programs. And it’s understandable. With pitching injuries so prevalent, organizations are focused on doing anything they can to protect their investments and keep pitchers healthy. These throwing programs were originally designed for pitchers rehabbing from injuries, limiting the distance to 120 ft. Since organizations view these programs as safe, they simply use them as the guide for all of their pitchers. Today some of the loudest voices against long toss include online pitching authorities Dick Mills and Brent Pourciau.

According to the Naysayers, the dangers of long toss are:
[circle_list] [list_item]Throwing on an arc alters your mechanics and interferes with developing good mound mechanics: when you throw long distance you release the ball more upright behind your front foot vs. getting over your front foot with more forward trunk tilt when pitching.[/list_item] [list_item]Throwing long distance puts more stress on the elbow: more torque on the joints = greater risk of injury.[/list_item] [list_item]Extreme long toss is involves max effort throwing: anytime you throw at full intensity you pushing tendons and ligaments to their limits, increasing the risk of injury. Therefore, max effort throwing should be reserved for throwing off the mound where you can work on pitching specific skills.[/list_item] [list_item]When throwing for max distance, the emphasis is not on good mechanics, making it more likely to fall into bad habits that may put more stress on the arm.[/list_item] [/circle_list] * It’s important to note a 2011 study by ASMI that supports many of these claims.
Here is an excerpt:
“At arm cocking, the greatest amount of shoulder external rotation (mean ± SD, 180° ± 11°), elbow flexion (109° ± 10°), shoulder internal rotation torque (101 ± 17 Nm), and elbow varus torque (100 ± 18 Nm) were measured during the maximum-distance throws.”
You can see their other findings here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21212502

[h4]The Middle Ground:[/h4] Believe it or not, there are actually some calm, reasonable voices amidst all the noise. While I don’t agree with everything Tom House says, I do agree with on his approach to long toss. Rather than putting limits on how far you throw, just go out as far as you can throw comfortably with perfect mechanics. Rick Peterson is another middle ground guy who believes in weighing the benefits and the risks. These two coaches have spent as much time working with ASMI studying injuries and the biomechanics of pitching as just about anyone. Now “perfect” mechanics is a bit of a stretch since we know that throwing long distance means a higher release point and less forward trunk tilt. But by focusing on good mechanics (good balance and strong front side) this approach takes away some of the risk you get with guys trying to just throw the bleep out of the ball, letting their mechanics fall apart and wrecking their arm in the process.

[h4]So should I long toss or not?? Ok, so here’s my official stance:[/h4] Like many things, long toss in moderation has its benefits. Done to excess, it can lead to problems. Drinking a glass of red wine at night (for those of age) can be good for your heart. Drink eight glasses of wine a night and you’re asking for trouble. I’m all for using long toss to condition your arm, build endurance and develop the feel of throwing with your entire body. That said, the 2011 ASMI study can’t be ignored. The bottom line is any time you engage in max-effort throwing you’re putting added stress on your arm, and the altered mechanics when throwing max-distance can amplify this. For this reason, long toss, especially extreme long toss, should not be an every-day thing. But if done the right way, there’s no reason it can’t be an effective part of your throwing routine.


Here are some guidelines for effective long toss:
[circle_list] [list_item]Put the emphasis on throwing with good mechanics. If you don’t have a solid understanding of good mechanics, do not do long toss – I’d also recommend checking out my free eBook “The 14 Biggest Mechanical Flaws” :)[/list_item] [list_item]Stretch it out as far as you can with good control (and good mechanics). If you can no longer hit your target consistently you are throwing too far.[/list_item] [list_item]Begin with a gradual high-arc phase (less than max effort throws) to work back to a comfortable distance. Then begin bringing your throws down on a line.[/list_item] [list_item]Use a crow hop or step behind to gain momentum and get your entire body into your throws.[/list_item] [list_item]Emphasize the pull-down phase: keep your throws on a line as you gradually bring it back in to 60 ft. Feel the adjustments your body need to make to get the ball down, finishing with good forward trunk tilt.[/list_item] [list_item]Finish with at least 10-15 throws at 60 ft. with an emphasis on bringing those elastic long toss mechanics back in to a delivery that will transfer well to the pitching mound.[/list_item] [list_item]Max-effort long toss should not be an every-day thing. Stretching it out to 200 ft or more at a reasonable intensity (80-90% effort) is fine, but when you go out to your max distance throwing at full intensity that’s when you will be risking wear and tear on your arm.[/list_item] [/circle_list]

Update: for Part II: The Benefits, Click Here

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