The Significance of Long-Toss Programs in Baseball
One of baseball’s great unsolved mysteries is the cause of injuries to a pitcher, or more specifically – what is the leading cause for why a pitcher breaks down? There have been many assumptions, over the last 20 or so years, made in an effort to come to a logical conclusion in regards to that question. Organizations have spent a large sum of money, individually and collectively, to find some cause or link and then have made every effort to prevent the breakdown of pitchers every single year.
Even the analysts of the game have gotten in on the action – with one of the more popular theories entering the mainstream over the last handful of years being the “Verducci Effect”, also known as the “Year After Effect”. This simply states that pitchers aged 25 or younger that increase their workload by 30 innings or more from one season to the next are more at risk of breaking down than those who do not. Seems pretty straight-forward and even fairly logical. After all, increasing a pitchers workload beyond what they are used to, have done previously, or have progressively worked towards seems to make sense that an injury would occur as a result.
But let’s look at this from a different approach – one that not too many organizations have really embraced otherwise, save for a small handful relative to their counterparts. What if these throwing programs that various organizations have implemented over the years are actually doing more harm than good? What if these so-called programs are actually one of the direct causes for why a pitcher breaks down in any given season?
Better yet, what is it exactly that an organization has their players do to rehab after an injury – or more specifically, an arm injury that requires them to miss substantial amount of time or even have surgery to repair the damage?
Well, the rehabilitation program in place for pitchers – recommended by doctors – to get their arms/elbows/shoulders back into playing shape is pretty smart. It’s designed to help build the arm back up so that the player is capable of taking their training to the next level once they’ve completed their rehab work.
That rehabilitation throwing program was created by the medical community in conjunction with input from those within the baseball community itself. This rehabilitation throwing program was designed to last between six and eight weeks, but can vary based upon the type of surgery as well as the individual. Generally these rehab programs start off very slowly, with the focus being on building a solid base before adding volume and distance over a period of time. But it really does depend on the player, their physical build, what they need to accomplish, etc.
Generally a rehab throwing program has the pitcher, or player, start off by doing some light throwing from between 10 and 20 feet apart from a partner. They slowly progress to where they can throw from about 60 feet, then 90 feet, and finally top out at 120 feet. There is typically a predetermined number of pitches the player is to throw, which is done for six to eight weeks and that marks the completion of the rehab work to be done by the pitcher, or player, and as long as they are cleared by the team doctor they can resume normal training activities to further build up their arm.
Now again, let me emphasize that these rehab programs were not designed to do anything other than rehabilitate a thrower’s arm, build their strength and range of motion back up to the level suitable to begin their normal training regimen. These rehab programs do not, and were never meant to, improve a pitcher’s overall performance or take their development to a higher level than they previously held.
So now that we’re through with our rehab program we get to move on to our normal throwing program – which is structured in a way to allow pitchers to warm up their arms, increase their strength, range of motion, and just keep the arm in good enough shape to allow the pitchers to make it through an entire season while throwing with the normal intensity they’ve been known to throw with.
What, specifically, is the normal throwing regimen for pitchers in most organizations around baseball?
Well…it’s a program that involves players pairing up and throwing a ball back and forth starting at 60 feet. They’ll do that for a predetermined amount of time before moving out a little further to 90 feet. Once they’ve thrown to one another at 90 feet for a set amount of time they’ll then move out to 120 feet. You would think that a program designed to keep a player’s arm in shape, build up strength and range of motion would have them moving out beyond 120 feet once they’ve completed their throws for however long they’ve been told to. That’s not how most organizations have their throwing programs set up though.
Once players have thrown for the predetermined amount of time at 120 feet apart they will then move back in to 90 feet, and then 60 feet. The variation of this program differs from organization to organization, but it doesn’t differ much at all and seems to resemble, perfectly almost, the rehabilitation programs created by the medical and baseball community almost 30 years ago. The same rehabilitation program designed to get a player ready to train their arm further and build on the base they’ve created for themselves.
What baffles me about these “normal” throwing programs is that organizations are basically using the rehabilitation program formula and have turned it into the end-all-be-all of throwing programs all across baseball. The problem though is that it doesn’t properly prepare a pitcher’s arm for the high intensity workload they’ll likely put themselves through over the course of a season, or multiple seasons as long as they don’t break down before that. These “programs” actually aren’t doing these players much justice and isn’t really helping them develop their arms for the long haul.
Now granted, not every pitcher is going to break down or have a lack of success with this program. But, it’s not something that’s designed to help a pitcher withstand the long-term rigors of pitching professionally over the duration of their careers. It’s nothing more than a misguided attempt to have some structure to how organizations train their players because it’s easier than having to keep track of each individual players own throwing program, or trying to help them with it. As far as I’m concerned, this way of thinking and doing things the past 30 years has been nothing more than the easy way out for organizations.
More recently though, a handful of organizations have been implementing some version of a long-toss program designed to help players, pitchers specifically, build up their arm strength, increase their range of motion, and above all else – get their arm in good enough shape that it can withstand the rigorous workload of pitching in the major leagues. One such organization, the one you could say really helped get the ball rolling on implementing a rigorous long-toss program to condition their starting pitchers to actually work deep into games, as well as the seasons, is the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers implemented a long-toss program when Nolan Ryan came on board as part owner and president of the organization in 2008. Since then the total number of serious injuries to pitchers that required surgery have been down substantially. I looked back at their transactions list for pitchers who were placed on the disabled list and there were just three total pitchers that have had to have surgery since 2009. Let me also clarify that these three pitchers were the ones that had to have surgery to repair damage done related to pitching. There was a fourth, Matt Harrison, in 2009 but that procedure was due to him being afflicted by thoracic outlet syndrome and had nothing to do with sustaining a baseball related injury.
Eric Hurley had to have surgery in 2009 to repair a torn rotator cuff, Colby Lewis had right elbow surgery this past season (2012), and Neftali Felez had Tommy John Surgery this past season as well. That’s the group of players that have sustained baseball related injuries due to pitching since the Rangers implemented their long-toss conditioning program back in 2008.
For comparison’s sake – let’s take a look at the Washington Nationals injury history when it comes to pitchers that have had to have surgery to repair a pitching related injury. The Nationals, mind you, don’t have a long-toss program in place and have one of the more restriction based throwing “programs” in use.
The Nationals have had nine total pitchers being required to have surgery in relation to injuries sustained while pitching since 2008. Over the same four year period the Rangers organization only had three pitchers needing to have surgery due to pitching related injuries. Don’t even get me started on the number of pitchers that landed on the Nationals disable list from 2008 to 2012 with reports of shoulder/elbow inflammation or shoulder/elbow soreness/tightness. It was well above 30 and I made it a point to lose count after that because it was clear that the Nationals pitching program wasn’t doing much in the way of helping to prevent injuries of any kind.
This is in no way me saying that the Rangers approach to their organizational philosophy when it comes to how a pitcher trains (long-toss) is a sure-fire way to prevent pitching injuries, nor am I saying that the Nationals methods are wrong or bad. All I can do is look at the injury related information for these two organizations and make the determination that ever since the Rangers implemented and organization wide change in pitching philosophy (long-toss program over the more rigid and limiting pitching program the Nationals have in place), I believe it is fairly clear that they are on to something.
Because of the Rangers success with this shift in philosophy regarding how you train and develop pitchers at every level, more and more organizations have begun to jump on board themselves. Organizations like the Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, and Toronto Blue Jays have implemented their own variation of the Rangers long-toss program. Even the Washington Nationals have recently converted (to an extent) this past season. And while it is too early to tell the significance of these changes for these organizations who have most recently adopted long-toss as a training and development practice – the results the Rangers have had make them very optimistic moving forward.