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[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:


[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]

[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:
[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]
* 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:
[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]

Update: for Part II: The Benefits, Click Here