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Last week I was privileged enough to join two excellent speakers – Jim Wagner (ThrowZone) and Kenny Kallen (Velocity Sports) – in beautiful Santa Clarita, CA to talk about pitching. We had an excellent turnout, and the Velocity Sports location worked out perfectly.
We also had a considerable hands-on portion, which the athletes loved. We demonstrated a ton of drills and methods that will be in my upcoming velocity development book, including:
- Step-Behind Weighted Baseball Maximum Intensity Throws
- Wall Momentum Drills
- Pivot Throws
- Deep-Squat Reverse Throws
- Advanced Rebounder Throws
I met a lot of athletes who kept in touch with me after the seminar, and I look forward to following the progress of the many pitchers who came out to hear Jim, Kenny, and I speak.
Afterwards, I went to see the world-famous ThrowZone to see where pitchers like Trevor Bauer and Cody Buckel worked out, and it didn’t disappoint!
If you live in the southern California area, you need to talk to Jim Wagner @ ThrowZone and check it out for yourself. It’s got everything you need to develop into the best pitcher you can possibly be.
Thanks everyone for coming out – Jim and I hope to turn this into an annual seminar!
Long toss has become a hotly-debated topic as it pertains to training baseball pitchers and position players alike. Popularized by Alan Jaeger, recent proponents of “extreme” long toss include 2011 MLB draft standouts Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy, who both have no problem getting the ball out there 300+ feet on a regular basis:
If you don’t know what long toss is or need a refresher course, I highly suggest consuming all of what Alan Jaeger has to say about the topic. You can find any number of videos explaining it, but this one is a nice summary of his methods:
The question on everyone’s mind seems to be: Is long toss safe and effective for developing pitching velocity? We’ll try to weigh in – along with our criticisms of how long toss is seen by many players and coaches.
Is Long Toss Safe on the Arm? Does it Work?
Detractors of long toss will immediately rush to ASMI’s 2011 study on the subject, titled Biomechanical comparison of baseball pitching and long-toss: implications for training and rehabilitation (pubmed link). The abstract of the study has this conclusion statement:
Hard, horizontal, flat-ground throws have biomechanical patterns similar to those of pitching and are, therefore, reasonable exercises for pitchers. However, maximum-distance throws produce increased torques and changes in kinematics. Caution is, therefore, advised in the use of these throws for rehabilitation and training.
They say “Aha! See, I told you – long toss doesn’t mimic mound pitching, and therefore is useless! Buy my newsletter and my pitching program!”
Of course, if you have an open mind at all, you’ll see that the conclusion says nothing about that. Additionally, right above the conclusion are the results, which say:
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. Elbow extension velocity was also greatest for the maximum-distance throws (2573°/s ± 203°/s).
Opponents will point at the fancy numbers that they may or may not understand and say “Uh yeah, the mechanical changes are big and the amount of torque is higher on the shoulder. So it’s less safe!”
Well… there’s more than one problem with that argument, but the main one is the fact that increased shoulder external rotation in the pitching delivery is strongly correlated with release velocity. Are they suggesting that throwing harder is a bad idea, too? (Note: ASMI actually does argue this from time to time, which is… interesting.)
The reality is far more complex, as it usually is. If a pitcher wants to throw 90+ MPH, he is going to have to:
- Increase overall strength
- Improve force application technique (mechanics)
- Increase mobility and stability in proper areas of the body
For reasons that should be obvious, these things are best done incrementally for maximum effectiveness and safety. If you take a pitcher capable of 80 MPH mound speeds with dynamic shoulder ER (MER) of 160 degrees and maximum elbow extension velocity (MEEV) of 2200 deg/s but can throw a ball at maximum intensity with MER of 165 degrees and MEEV of 2290 deg/s, isn’t he learning how to apply force to the ball in a controlled manner?
Note that this is exactly the technique that is used in our MaxVelo program – whether it comes from long toss (not much given the winter weather in the Pacific Northwest) or high-intensity weighted baseball throwing – and we have a stellar track record when it comes to velocity development and injury prevention.
An athlete is going to have to safely exceed the boundaries that he has set for himself if he is going to make steady progress, and long toss is just one of many ways that this can be achieved.
My Problem with the Long Toss Revolution
Now, given all that, I still have problems with the long toss “revolution.” Through no fault of his own, Alan Jaeger has created a group of people who think long toss is the end-all be-all of training programs, and the media tends to run with this idea. Media outlets have latched on to the idea that Dylan Bundy and Trevor Bauer perform long toss and that is what makes them weird, or different. The reality, of course, is that Dylan is also squatting 450+ pounds in the weight room while drinking broccoli shakes and Trevor is throwing weighted baseballs and using the Oates’ Shoulder Tube on national TV while pitching for UCLA.
When I spoke to Denver Bundy (Dylan’s father), we laughed about how Dylan’s “workout” is centered around long toss in the media. He told me that Dylan and Bobby (Dylan’s brother) would go out to a baseball field and play “long toss” out to 300 feet and stay there for 40 minutes! They’d be long tossing for over an hour, and then they’d come in, lift heavy weights, throw weighted balls, and finish their workout!
Long toss is not a substitute for other training modalities – it can’t replace an adequate strength training program and it can’t take the place of proper mobility/stability work. Long toss is simply playing catch. You should long toss for the fun of it and the fact that you will self-discover how to slowly change your mechanics to help you apply force to the baseball in more efficient ways than mound pitching and weighted baseball throwing can’t necessarily help you with. But don’t think of it as a panacea or something that replaces your other training – it’s not.
There are a few writers and people out there who criticize me for talking about pitchers’ mechanics without having specific joint loads (kinetics), stating that it’s akin to “guessing” without any merit. Their claims that without a full biomechanical analysis (presumably using three-dimensional modeling), you can’t make any definitive statements about health and efficiency.
Well, as readers of this blog know, I am sympathetic to that argument – so much so, that I invested four years of my life (and many dollars) into building my very own biomechanics lab:
That’s the first iteration of our control object (which you need to film using multiple high-speed cameras to gain an anchoring position) at our old facility in North Seattle.
I’m no stranger to calculating the kinematics and kinetics of the pitching delivery, and I think I’ve learned a great deal by putting many pitchers through it. However, the idea that we must do this to make educated guesses about mechanics is simply wrong.
Understanding the Mechanisms of Injury
As I stated in my article about elbow injuries in pitchers, we do not yet know the definitive cause of UCL rupture (which requires Tommy John surgery to repair). However, research indicates high values of elbow valgus stress is primarily responsible for tension on the UCL and the prime contributor to joint loads about the elbow. Remember, the primary function of the ulnar collateral ligament is to stabilize the elbow while the ulna in the forearm is pulled away from the elbow joint (medial epicondyle).
You can test for this injury by doing an elbow valgus stress test (a video from my alma mater, Baldwin-Wallace College):
In the groundbreaking study by Dr. Werner et al (2002 JSES: Relationship between throwing mechanics and elbow valgus in professional baseball pitchers), Dr. Werner concluded that there were four significant variables that contributed to elbow valgus:
I wrote about these at length in my article about elbow injuries if you’re interested in a more detailed look at these variables and what they actually mean.
Applying it to Video Analysis
Since Dr. Werner’s research (and many additional papers that support her theories) indicates those four variables as being highly significant with regards to elbow valgus stress, if you see a pitcher who displays a high amount of shoulder abduction angle at stride foot contact (SFC), then it’s likely that that pitcher has higher-than-normal elbow valgus stress. While correlation does not equal causation, it’s pretty clear that these characteristics are linked to higher “joint loads” on the elbow.
Simple Physics: Force Application
However, instead of trotting out research papers, let’s think about this from a simple mechanical physics/engineering perspective. I recently posited that Trevor Bauer’s “late launch” (as Ron Wolforth calls it) is inherently more efficient and less stressful on the elbow joint than an “early launch” exhibited by pitchers like Stephen Strasburg, where Trevor’s throwing shoulder is rotated far more into the target before maximum internal rotation angular velocity is reached. Here’s overhead high-speed video to show what I’m talking about:
A realization hit me a few years ago when I spoke to Dr. Murray Maitland at the University of Washington – instead of talking about complex kinematics and kinetics, he illustrated a simple point from an engineering perspective: Force is best applied in lines parallel to the desired direction of trajectory in the ballistic motion. (Of course, Dr. Marshall has been beating this drum for decades now.) This is obvious once you think of it from an engineering perspective – would you build a machine that throws a projectile in a circuitous path where the distal ends of the joints were held together by a pulley, or would you build it where the lever arm applied force in a straight line?
From a slightly more biomechanical point of view, think of it this way: The UCL stabilizes the elbow from being pulled apart as the forearm separates from the upper arm (humerus). If force is applied in a maximum sidearm position with an early launch, this theoretically maximizes valgus stress, while a more vertical delivery reduces it (like Trevor’s, or Roger Clemens’ delivery).
While a true vertical delivery may not be possible (ask Fritz Outman about that, though), getting closer to that should reduce stress on the elbow and possibly increase efficiency and release velocity of the pitcher.
Research tends to back this theory up, as Aguinaldo’s study (Am J Sports, 2009: Correlation of Throwing Mechanics With Elbow Valgus Load in Adult Baseball Pitchers) showed that a later trunk rotation in the pitching delivery and increased elbow flexion near peak valgus/ball release significantly reduced elbow valgus stress.
What You Need to Adequately Study Pitching Mechanics
Ideally, you get yourself a pair of high-speed cameras and film the delivery from overhead as well as from the side, but they’re not cheap anymore (good thing I bought five of them when I could!).
You can still use regular speed video to do some cursory analyses if you get the right angles, but it’s all about setting them up in a proper and repeatable way. I highly recommend getting an overhead shot (something Bill Peterson from RPM Pitching has been telling me to do for years) as well as a view from the side. That will cover all relevant angles that you want to see.
We take regular high-speed video to analyze our pitchers’ mechanics in the MaxVelo program to make sure the cueing is properly done, and I recommend you seek out someone locally to do the same for you – any pitching coach worth his salt will have invested in at least one high-speed camera.
But if you can’t find anyone, our new facility in SeaTac is just minutes from the airport – so come on by!