Home Posts tagged "Baseball Showcase"

Should You Play Fall Baseball?

Today's guest post comes from Cressey Sports Performance Director of Performance, John O'Neil.

We know that playing baseball year-round is a bad idea, but how do you determine if it’s a good idea for youth athletes to skip fall baseball and focus on developing themselves for the spring? Societal pressures – parents, coaches, scouts, recruiters - have dictated that if you’re a player and not doing as much total work as your competition is, you won’t keep up with the curve, but we know that’s not the case. Intelligent work will always trump total volume of work. The tough part lies in the action of identifying which athletes are better off sitting out a supplementary competitive season for the sake of success in the main season. Here are three questions to ask if you’re considering fall baseball and long-term baseball success is your goal:

1) How many innings did you throw during the spring and summer?
2) Are you playing another sport?
3) Are you adequately prepared for success within the fall season?

1) If you’re a pitcher and have thrown greater than 100 innings during the spring and summer seasons, fall baseball is highly contraindicated. A February 2011 study from Fleisig et al. provided the data for us that a youth pitcher, ages 9-14, is 3.5 times more likely to need an elbow or shoulder surgery down the road if they throw more than 100 innings in a calendar year. We can theorize and maybe think that a high school pitcher can afford slightly more innings, or, we could ask the question, what does a high school pitcher really gain out of throwing more than that? If they haven’t attracted recruiting attention in their first 100, you’re either not good enough to pitch at the next level OR have a very poor strategy for exposure. As CSP-FL co-founder Brian Kaplan has often said:

I’m in favor of shutting down pitchers at 100 innings, and I will provide more detail about when 100IP might not be the ideal number in point 3.

2) If you’re currently playing another sport, how does playing baseball as a secondary sport impact your long-term development? What is the goal of fall baseball? If the goal is skill acquisition and repeated exposure in a game environment, how does your commitment to the other sport detract or enhance from playing baseball?

Let’s take the high school soccer or football schedule. Most teams will have some type of organized activity six days per week, leaving one day a week where baseball can be the priority. From a skill standpoint, I would consider it more detrimental to both swing and throwing mechanics to be doing those in a fatigued state. Moreover, not providing the athlete with a true off day for the duration of the fall will lead to a much greater likelihood of an injury in the primary fall sport they’re playing. For position players, how much baseball skill work do you expect to get in only playing on weekends? A typical game might only involve a dozen swings and a handful of plays in the field, and that includes pre-game warm-ups.

If you’re not going to take a day off, maybe work on qualities in the gym that will ensure more long-term success. If you have the time given the constraints of the other sport, get to the cage/field multiple times per week if you feel the need to get more reps at the plate or in the field. Early specialization is not the answer for youth athletes. From a physical preparation standpoint, we know that specific physical preparation (SPP) is only as good as the general physical preparation (GPP) that underlies it. Even if baseball is the long-term primary goal, allow kids to develop GPP through other sports and specialize at the latest possible moment.

3) If fall ball is productive, what are the reasons? There are several: repeated  game exposure can ensure success on a baseball field from a perspective of tension and arousal, as we can’t simulate those in the cage.

However, if the competitive season is already close to six months long, when does the athlete have time to develop other athletic skills that will carry over to success within the competitive season? Fall ball may be a time where you gain exposure to scouts/recruiters, or great for the northeast athlete who only played 30 games in spring/summer. But, if you can’t set the athlete up for success in the short fall season, why bother? Specifically, how much skill work can the athlete get in to be set up for productive game play?

For pitchers, this means getting in multiple throwing sessions per week outside of competitive throwing days within the fall season. It also means that the pitcher needs to have been ramped up and be ready to throw in game situations in the weeks prior to the season, making it tricky when the gap between summer and fall baseball is anywhere from 2-6 weeks. For every week off of throwing, I’d like to see pitchers ramp up for at least an equal, if not a double amount of time prior to getting back out there (one week off = 1-2 weeks ramping, 2 = 2-4, etc.). It doesn’t matter if you’re only throwing a few innings every Sunday. Be prepared to be successful every time you toe the rubber. This is a case where even if the pitcher only threw 50-80 innings – far short of the 100 recommended in point 1 – it’s not a good idea to throw them into the fire if they can’t play catch, long toss, and throw bullpens during the week.

If you fall into the three categories I outlined above, I’d advise against playing fall baseball and instead working on physical qualities that will ensure success from a more long-term perspective. Get to the gym, get stronger, faster, more athletic, work on durability, take time off from throwing, and prepare yourself for a successful spring and summer season.

Who Definitely SHOULD Play Fall Baseball?

If you do not fall into the categories above, you may still be asking if playing fall baseball is right for you. There are two categories of high school players who need to be playing fall baseball if they expect to move on and play at the collegiate level. As outlined above, even these players need to prepare for the fall season as if it were their main competitive season. In other words, they need to be sure they are throwing, taking BP, and training regularly even if only playing on weekends.

1) High School Seniors who don’t yet have a collegiate commitment
2) Players who didn’t play much during the spring/summer seasons

1) If you have a chance to be recruited to play in college, but haven’t yet received the right opportunity for any multitude of reasons, fall baseball can be a last-ditch effort to get in front of coaches and scouts. Many Ivy League and D2/D3 schools recruit well into the fall. Make sure you are picking the right spots, though. Get out to showcases/tournaments/camps where these coaches will actually be in attendance, given that it is your last chance to play in front of them. This will require far more advanced than (definitely) the spring and (usually) the summer season will. You can’t just play in any local weekend fall ball league and expect coaches to come find you if they haven’t already. For senior pitchers, you can be a little more aggressive with your workload during this time because the summer after senior year of high school will most likely be a low workload or complete dead period. For underclassmen, stick more stringently to the guidelines given above.

2) If you are a player that missed significant time during your main competitive season, regardless of grade, fall baseball is a very good idea. This could be in the case of someone who was injured and had to sit out, or, someone who was buried on the bench and only got half the amount of action as some of his teammates. In this case, keeping up with what everyone else is doing in terms of yearly workload is a very important thing. This will make you better on a physical level, as repeated exposure to better pitching and facing better hitters will have carryover to the main competitive seasons. Additionally, your comfort level in a competitive game experience could make or break your ability to play at the varsity high school level in the spring, or your ability to be good enough to get recruited in the summer that follows. Identify the biggest areas of need that will drive your ability to be successful long-term and address them. If you haven’t played in real games very much, this could be the limiting factor.

As you can see, the decision on whether or not to play fall baseball is a very individual one. Be sure to consider all these factors as you make that decision.

About the Author

John O'Neil (@ONeilStrength) is Director of Performance at Cressey Sports Performance-MA. You can contact him by email at joh.oneil@gmail.com and follow him on Instagram.

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Are Pitching Mechanics Really That Repeatable?

The 2011 Major League Baseball Draft class was pretty ridiculous. As I recall, it was ranked as the deepest draft since 1986, and the top 20 picks alone produced established big leaguers like Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Anthony Rendon, Archie Bradley, Francisco Lindor, Javy Baez, George Springer, Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray, Matt Barnes, and Tyler Anderson. Even just looking a few picks later, you see names like Joe Panik, Jackie Bradley, Jr., Michael Fulmer, and Trevor Story – and these are really only the tip of the iceberg. Mookie Betts was a 5th rounder, Blake Treinen was a 7th rounder, Kyle Hendricks was an 8th rounder, Travis Shaw was a 9th rounder, Cody Allen was a 23rd rounder, and Kevin Pillar was a 32nd rounder.

Interestingly, Massachusetts was ranked as the #5 state in country that year, so Cressey Sports Performance was right in the thick of things. As a result, the spring of 2011 was a big lesson for me in managing highly touted prospects – and it set the stage for our draft classes to grow with each passing year thereafter.

Foremost among these prospects was CSP athlete Tyler Beede, who was committed to Vanderbilt and ultimately wound up turning down a large signing bonus from the Toronto Blue Jays as the 21st overall pick. Three years and a Vanderbilt national championship later, he was a first round pick again, and has since made his MLB debut with the San Francisco Giants.

This isn’t an article about that draft class, though; it’s about a lesson I learned during the spring of 2011 that applies to every single pitcher on the planet, regardless of age and ability level – and whether they were even close to being drafted in 2011 (or any year).

Ask any Northeast scout, and they’ll tell you that evaluating any New England prospect is incredibly challenging. Talent is very spread out, so it’s difficult for scouts to even geographically get to all the prospects they want to see. Additionally, it’s hard to consistently see good pitchers match up with good hitters to see how they compete on higher stages. Northeast players are also far more likely to be multi-sport athletes than prospects in other parts of the country, so you’re evaluating athleticism and “projectability” more than just baseball competencies.

Moreover, because of weather restrictions, the season can be very short, so a starting pitcher might only have 7-8 starts prior to the draft. Also on the weather front, pitchers peak later as the temperatures warm up. The first 3-4 games of the season are usually played in 40-something-degree weather, and rain (or snow!) might actually push games back a day or two last-minute, throwing off both the players’ and scouts’ schedules.

Getting back to Tyler, he started his season well, pitching at 91-94mph for the first several starts. Typically, the lines were complete games with 14-18 strikeouts, 0-1 walk, and no earned runs. To give you a frame of reference, between his junior and senior years, Ty went 14-1 with a 0.80 ERA with 189 strikeouts in 96.1 innings – pretty much what you’d “expect” from a eventual first-rounder.

Roughly five weeks into the season, Ty had a Wednesday outing on the road. It was early May and probably about 50 degrees. I was a few minutes late getting to the game, and actually arrived right as he was hitting in the top of the 1st. The parking lot was out past center field, and as I was walking in, Ty drilled a ball to the gap and legged out a triple. A batter or two later, the inning ending and he went right out to the mound.

As I settled in on the left field line, I saw a crew of people get out of the car and all set up not far to my left. Like everyone else at the field that day, I quickly recognized one of them as Theo Epstein, who was still with the Red Sox at the time. He seemed to have so many Red Sox scouts with him that I actually joked to my wife that they must have borrowed the magical car from Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage” video to get them all to the park. They fit in nicely with the 40 scouts and front office guys who were standing behind the plate.

As I recall, that day, Ty threw six innings, struck out 12, and gave up no runs and no walks, with just two hits. One was a double on a ground ball that hit the first base bag, and the other was an infield single. He pitched at 89-90mph most of the game. I might have seen one 91mph fastball. Ty still absolutely dominated overmatched hitters and showed what many people called the best high school changeup in the country, but it was a pretty “blah” outing by his standards. The team won, and we even joked around post-game with Ty and his teammates.

Within a day or two, I had gotten a few texts from scouts. Paraphrasing, they ran the gamut:

“What’s wrong with Beede?”

“Is Beede hurt?”

“Has Beede lost his fire and gotten too comfortable?”

My response was pretty simple: “He’s fine. He’s also 17 years old.”

That Sunday, Ty was in for an in-season lift at the facility. I can distinctly remember our conversation about how – as unfair as it might seem – he would always be held to a different standard than just about everyone else. Expectations of consistency would always be unreasonable, so it was always important to focus on the process and not the outcome. Even Cy Young award winners don’t have their best stuff every time out, but you can’t deviate from the plan for every little hiccup. The secret was to never get too up, and never get too down.

It was in that moment that I think I truly realized that Ty would someday be a big leaguer. Absolutely nothing I said to him came out of left field; he got it.

The next time out, he was back to his old self. A week or two later, in his last start before the draft, he was 93-96mph. He even walked to lead off the game - and then stole 2nd and 3rd as dozens of scouts gasped in terror that a kid with millions of dollars on the line would risk injury. What they didn't seem to realize is that this was all part of being process-driven (competing hard to help the team win) instead of outcome-driven (impressing scouts and getting drafted). Go figure: he led his team to an undefeated season and league championship.

[bctt tweet="Expecting a teenager to consistently perform at a high level each and every week is unrealistic."]

Every geographic climate is different. Every mound is different. Hitting in a week when you’ve had four exams and are sleep deprived won’t be nearly as easy as it is during vacation week. And having the general manager of your favorite MLB team show up to watch you pitch might even impact your performance a bit.

Teenage athletes are still developing physically, emotionally, neurologically, and socially. It’s why I absolutely abhor mock drafts that shuffle players up and down from week to week based on results and – in many cases – feedback from folks who don’t have the knowledge of physiological and psychological variability to even make valid estimations in this regard. 

And, don’t even get me started on companies that are ranking eighth graders ahead of their peers just because puberty kicked in early and their parents are misinformed enough to shuttle them around to showcases all across the country when they should be preparing their bodies for what’s ahead – and enjoying their childhood. 

This entire experience and the countless erratic performances we see from players of all levels - from high school kids who walk the bases loaded to big leaguers who develop "the yips" - has given me a lot of time to think about just how unrealistic some coaches, parents, and fans are in demanding incredible consistency in performance from throwers. If one of the best high school arms in one of the best draft classes in history had up-and-down performances, you can be sure these struggles are going to extend 100-fold to less prepared pitchers.

To further illustrate this point, I did a little digging last week. As I type this, the three hardest throwers in MLB in 2017 have been Aroldis Chapman, Joe Kelly, and Trevor Rosenthal. Modern technology like Trackman can give us a lot more information than just velocity, though. Pitching release point (extension) is one such piece of information that fits in nicely with this discussion. According to a quick look at Statcast reports on the 50 hardest pitches in baseball this year, here is the variance in extension for those three:

Chapman (20 pitches): 6.5 to 7.2 feet

Kelly (9 pitches): 5.7 to 6.5 feet

Rosenthal (4 pitches); 5.5 to 5.9 feet

With a larger sample size - particularly for Kelly and Rosenthal - we'd likely see even bigger gaps. That said, it's important to recognize that a lot of factors can play into this variability. One MLB front office friend of mine commented to me, "There are a lot of park to park variances, so we have to calibrate raw data." Additionally, pitches may be different from the stretch and wind-up, weather factors may impact extension, and accumulated fatigue plays into it as well. And, extension will be different for different pitches - although that likely doesn't factor in here because we're comparing apples (fastballs) with apples (fastballs). The point isn't that any of this data is absolutely, 100% perfectly accurate. Rather, the message that any way you slice it, the three hardest throwers on the planet - some of the guys who theoretically put themselves in the best possible positions to throw the crap out of a baseball - actually deviate a little bit from their "norm" on a very regular basis. "Repeatable" mechanics aren't perfectly repeatable.

Looking further, check out the 2017 Pitch/Fx fastball velocity ranges for these three guys, as per Fangraphs:

Chapman: 95.4-102.1 mph

Kelly: 96.0-102.0 mph

Rosenthal: 95.5-101.7 mph

(we can bank on these "interpretations" of pitches being accurate, as nobody is ripping off 95-96 mph sliders or changeups)

What do these numbers this tell us? Even in the hardest throwers on the planet, there are actually considerably larger variations in pitch-to-pitch mechanics and performance than most folks realize. Every year, the media becomes convinced that a few dozen pitchers in MLB have "lost it"- and invariably, they all figure it out at some point and it all evens out over the course of a season. Remember a few years ago when everyone told us that Justin Verlander was washed up? Yep, he wasn't.

If we were to extend my aforementioned three-pitcher "study" out even further - particularly to a collection of minor league pitchers who haven't had success on par with these three - I'd be willing to bet that we'd see even more considerable variation. And, it'd be huge if we looked at college pitchers, and massive in high school guys (and younger). 

Anyone who has spent time reviewing data from Motus sleeve measurements can attest to this. Even as the accuracy of the readings has improved dramatically and the sleeves have become an incredibly useful tool, the variability from pitch-to-pitch has remained intriguingly high. You'll see different ranges of motion and joint stresses for two of the same pitch thrown 30 seconds apart. 

Where does all this leave us? Well, above all else, I think we can at least appreciate that even in a very specific closed-loop (predictable) action like pitching, there is still at least subtle variance - and this variance becomes even more dramatic as you go from the professional down to the amateur ranks. Sorry, Dad, but your 11-year-old doesn't have "pristine mechanics;" he is just less inconsistent - and likely more physically prepared - than his peers.

Expanding the discussion to higher levels, a thought process that has recently surged among those "in the know" on social media is that velocity and "stuff" are probably even more important than consistently outstanding command (which would theoretically relate to optimally repeating mechanics). This highlight reel of CSP athlete Max Scherzer during his 20-strikeout game last year shows just how many times he missed his spots.

I'm not saying that command isn't important; professional pitchers definitely miss spots a lot less than amateur ones. I'm just saying that all these factors fluctuate more than we appreciate and it's part of that discussion. Interestingly, command is the one of these three factors most impacted by outside factors: umpire interpretation, catcher's receiving, sweaty palms, pretty girls in the stands, and whether Mom is yelling "super job, kiddo!" from the stands.

Expecting teenagers to consistently repeat their mechanics at a high level - particularly during a period of time when their bodies (and brains) are constantly changing - is absolutely absurd. Far more important is preparing their bodies for all the chaos that sports throws at them. This is done with exposure to a wide variety of athletic endeavors in the youth levels, comprehensive strength and conditioning and arm care, and a broad spectrum of throwing challenges (not just mound work!).

That doesn't mean that it will work to just throw a bunch of poop on the wall to see what sticks. This has become a larger issue of late, as countless kids have assumed "throwing with intent" to be "just try to throw hard."

Very simply, here is the most important message I can deliver to any young pitcher:

[bctt tweet="Every throw is a chance to get better or worse."]

Treat every throw like you're playing catch with a Cy Young award winner and want to leave a favorable impression in terms of your attention to detail. Don't give up any throws. Even as a teenager - and regardless of who his throwing partner was - Tyler Beede tuned out the world every time he picked up a ball. He was always working on improving or refining something. It's almost like he understood that inconsistency could always sneak up on a pitcher in the blink of an eye, and he wanted to stay ahead of it. Ty didn't become a two-time first rounder or #1 organization prospect by accident. 

Really, more importantly, the take-home message is to be patient with young athletes and pitching success. Practice consistently and train to handle all everything the sport might throw at them. Still, though, remember that some of the best in the world struggle to consistently repeat their mechanics, so you can probably cut that 17-year-old some slack when he throws a 97 mph fastball to the backstop in an All-American game. And, your 11-year-olds can still have post-game ice cream even if they walk seven batters in three innings of work. Being consistent with anything in athletics is challenging, but if you focus on processes instead of outcomes, you'll never be disappointed.

To learn more about our comprehensive approach to developing high school and college age pitchers, please check out our Elite Collegiate Baseball Development Summer Program. For more information, click here.

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Preventing Baseball Injuries: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

We're at a point in time where just about everyone knows that throwing a baseball year-round is a bad idea. Moreover, we know that it's best for kids to avoid early sports specialization. 

Dr. James Andrews has been outspoken against early specialization and year-round throwing for roughly a decade.

John Smoltz devoted a big chunk of his Hall-of-Fame acceptance speech in Cooperstown to discouraging kids and parents from early specialization and year-round baseball.

JohnSmoltz

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll recently referred to the trend of kids playing only one sport as "an absolute crime."

USA Baseball launched their Pitch Smart campaign - featuring an advisory board of many MLB team doctors and athletic trainers - to prevent overuse in youth baseball.

All the way back in 2006, a landmark study by Olsen et al. clearly demonstrated strong associations between injuries requiring surgery and pitching "more months per year, games per year, innings per game, pitches per game, pitches per year, and warm-up pitches before a game" as well as showcase appearances during adolescence. Overuse is the one factor that predicts injury over and over again in the research.

A 2011 study demonstrated that players in warm weather climates had less shoulder strength and more problematic range-of-motion adaptations than those in cold weather climates. And, speaking from personal experience from having Cressey Sports Performance facilities in both states, it's been far more challenging to develop players in Florida than it is in Massachusetts. There is simply too much baseball competing with general athletic development.

These are just a few examples, too. Hundreds of professional athletes have spoken out against early sports specialization. College coaches have in some cases refused to recruit one-sport athletes. And, there are more anti-specialization posts and websites freely available on the Internet than one could possibly imagine. Yet, the problem isn't even close to going away, and injuries still at all-time highs.

Now, I can understand how some players, parents, coaches, and scouts don't stay on top of the American Journal of Sports Medicine and might have missed this important information. What I can't understand is how they'd miss it when the world's most recognized orthopedic surgeon is speaking out against it. Or how they can miss it when one of the most accomplished pitchers of the last century devotes the biggest media spotlight of his life to bashing early sports specialization. Or how they'd overlook one of the premier coaches in the NFL so vehemently putting down the practice. Or how a governing body like MLB would devote time, money, and resources to a problem that they think will have a significant negative impact on the future of the game beyond just the billions of dollars that are already being wasted on players on the disabled list.

The problem is not a lack of knowledge; the problem is a lack of action and consequences.

When you were a little kid and stole a cookie from the cookie jar - even after your mother told you it was off limits - you got punished for doing so. If you didn't have consequences, you'd keep stealing cookies. Unfortunately, this isn't an option with youth baseball. Really, the only consequence is injury, and it's surprisingly not that great a teacher.

elbows

A lot of kids and parents continue to make the same mistakes even after an arm surgery and extended layoff. They've been brainwashed to think that the only way kids can succeed in baseball is to play year-round to keep up with other kids and get exposure to college coaches and pro scouts. There are too many coaches, showcase companies, and scouting services lining their pockets by lobbying hard to make these false assumptions stick. 

If knowledge ("eating too many cookies is bad for you") isn't working, and it's hard to deliver consequences, what's the next step? You've got to make it really hard to get to those cookies - and they better taste like crap if you do manage to do so. 

Stepping away from this analogy, the big governing bodies that matter need to step up their game. Here are six quick changes that I personally feel could have a profound impact on reducing injury rates across all levels:

1. Major League Baseball needs to implement a high school scouting "dead period" from October 1 through January 1. It is entirely hypocritical for MLB to push PitchSmart, but turn a blind eye when literally hundreds of scouts are showing up for October-December showcases and tournaments that directly compete with the PitchSmart initiative. Most of the highest-profile players aren't even attending these events anymore (advisors know it's an unnecessary injury risk), and there is absolutely nothing a scout would see in November that they can't see in the spring during the regular season.

2. MLB should also mandate that no pitcher can throw in more than three consecutive games - including "getting hot" (throwing in the bullpen, but not entering the game). Some might criticize me for this, but after extensive interaction with relievers at this level, I firmly believe that bullpen mismanagement is one of the biggest problems in MLB pitching injuries. Fans and the media only see the actual number of appearances, but when you factor in the number of times a pitcher "gets hot" without entering the game, you have relievers who are literally throwing over 120 times in a season.

3. The NCAA needs to implement innings limits on freshman and sophomore pitchers. Keep freshman pitchers to 120 innings and sophomore pitchers to 140 (combining the college season and summer ball). Additionally, any pitcher who throws more than 120 innings during the spring/summer should have a mandatory 60-day period of no throwing prior to starting fall ball.

4. The NCAA should also implement a conservative pitch count limit for college starters. I think 130 is a good place to start, and while I still think it's unnecessarily high, it reins in those coaches who'll leave a guy in for 150+ pitches. Sadly, this happens far too often in college baseball these days, and there are zero repercussions (although I do commend ESPN's Keith Law for always calling these coaches out on Twitter).

5. State athletic associations in warm weather climates need to structure high school seasons to allow for athletes to compete in multiple sports. As an example, in Massachusetts, the high school baseball season begins on the third Monday in March, while the first basketball practice is November 30. If a high school basketball player wants to play baseball, he might only have a 1-2 week overlap during that month - and it only happens if his team goes deep into the playoffs.

Conversely, the high school baseball season here in Florida begins on January 18, while the last regular season basketball game doesn't occur until January 30. The state championship games take place February 23-27 - which is roughly halfway through the baseball season! There is absolutely no reason for a high school baseball season (in which teams play about 30 games) needs to start prior to March 1.

CSP-florida-021

That extra six weeks would make a huge difference in getting more baseball players to also participate in winter sports and help to get a baseball out of young hands a bit longer. And, you'd see a lot more players well prepared on day 1 of baseball tryouts because they'd have more off-season preparation under their belts. It would simply force teams to play three games per week instead of two; this is exactly what's done in Northern states (and they'll sometimes play four, if weather interferes).

6. Similar to point #4, state athletic associations should also have regulations on permissible pitch counts for high school arms. I think 115 pitches is a good number.

Closing Thoughts

I should note that I actually think Little League Baseball does a solid job of disseminating information and including specific regulations within the game and between games. The changes - at least in my eyes - should rest with high school athletic associations, the NCAA, and Major League Baseball. Impact will come from the top down.

As you can see, with only two exceptions, I'm much more about managing the competitive year than I am about micromanaging pitch counts. And, the two pitch count recommendations I put out are remarkably conservative and just reaffirm common sense (which, unfortunately, isn't so common anymore). Pitch counts alone haven't proven to be tremendously effective, but do have a place when implemented alongside guidelines for managing the overall baseball calendar.

There is absolutely no reason for skeletally immature middle and high school baseball players to have longer competitive seasons than professional players.

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8 Tips for Not Wasting Away During Summer Baseball

The summer baseball travel season is in full swing, and that means more and more of our athletes are starting 1-2 week trips to play all over the country. This is a really important experience for the majority of players, as it's when they get in front of the most college coaches for the sake of recruiting, and they often head south to face more talented opponents.  There are more college camps taking place, as well as tryouts for the East Coast Pro and Area Code teams.  In short, summer ball is important, and you don't want to screw up in how you approach it, as doing so can mean that you'll miss out on both skill development and opportunites to get "seen" by a coach who'll have you playing at the next level.

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Unfortunately, though, this is also a time of year when a lot of things change for young baseball players.  Instead of five minute drive to school for practice and games, they're hopping on 15-hour bus rides to get to a weekend tournament. Instead sleeping in their own beds and eating Mom's home cooking, they're staying in hotels and stopping for fast food. Instead of having a predictable weekly schedule of MoWeFr games, they might play five in three days. Instead of enjoying moderate Northeast spring weather of 50 degrees in the morning and evening and 75 degrees in the afternoon, they get East Cobb in July, when it's 95 degree weather with 95% humidity. In short, they get a taste of what minor league baseball will be like if they make it that far in their careers!

The end result, unfortunately, is that many players wind up coasting into July and August on fumes because they've lost weight, strength, throwing velocity, bat speed, ninja skills, and overall manliness.  They expected their biggest challenge to be "simply" pitching against a 5-tool hitter or hitting a 95mph fastball, but instead, they get absolutely dominated by the lifestyle off the field. 

Guys who don't handle the summer season well are the ones who stumble back in to Cressey Performance at the end of August, making their first appearance since February.  And, in spite of the great off-season of training they put in before the high school season began, they usually look like they've never trained before, and they're often asking me to help them bounce back from some injury.  Sound familiar?  If so, read on.

Below, I've listed seven tips for avoiding this common summer baseball deterioriation.  You'll notice that many of them are completely to do with maintaining body weight; as I've written before, weight loss is a big reason why performance drops in baseball players both acutely (dehydration) and chronically (loss of muscle mass).  Also worthy of note is the fact that the majority of these tips could also apply to professional baseball.  Anyway, let's get to it.

1. Make breakfast big.

When traveling, breakfast is the only meal over which you have complete control.  You can wake up earlier to make sure that you have a big and complete one, or you can sleep in and grab a stale bagel on the way out the door.  When I travel to give seminars, I intentionally pick hotels that have all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets and I absolutely crush them.  Basically, I'll eat omelets (with veggies), scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit until I'm so full that I contemplate renting a fork lift to get me back to my room.

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This is because things always get hectic at mid-day.  Seminar attendees want to ask questions, get assessed, or just "pick my brain" during the lunch hour.  So, if I get something, it's usually quick and not really that big.  Does this sound similar to how you eat prior to games? You don't want to eat too much, but know you've got to have something or else you'll be dragging by the 7th inning.

If I've packed away a big breakfast, I can power through the day pretty well regardless of what lunch looks like.  Traveling baseball players with day games can do the exact same thing.

As an interesting aside to this, I'm always amazed at how many young baseball players talk about how nobody outworks them, and how they're always in "beast mode."  Yet, across the board, very few players will be "beastly" enough to wake up a few minutes earlier to eat a quality breakfast, always complaining that they don't like to get up early, or that they aren't hungry at that time of day.  Well, just because your stomach doesn't like food at that time of day doesn't mean that it won't benefit from having it.  You think your shoulder and elbow like throwing a baseball? Nope...but they do it. 

[bctt tweet="Working hard isn't just about the hitting cage or weight room; it's also about the kitchen."]

I'll get off my soap box now.

2. Appreciate convenient calories.

Remember that in the quest to keep your weight up, your body doesn't really care if you're sitting down for an "official" meal.  Rather, you might be better off grazing all day.  Mixed nuts, shakes, bars, and fruit will be your best friends when it comes to convenience foods out on the field - or on a long bus ride when you have no idea when you'll be stopping for food.

3. Make the most of hotel gyms.

Let's face it: most hotel gyms are woefully under-equipped.  You've usually got dumbbells up to 40 pounds and a treadmill, if you're lucky.  That should be plenty, though, as you're not trying to make a ton of progress in these training sessions; you're just trying to create a training stimulus to maintain what you already have.  Here's an easy example of a hotel gym workout you can use in a pinch:

A1) DB Bulgarian Split Squat from Deficit: 3x8/side

A2) Prone 1-arm Trap Raise: 3x8/side (can do this bent-over if no table is available, or do it off the edge of your hotel room bed)

B1) 1-leg DB RDL: 3x8/side

B2) 1-arm KB (or DB) Turkish Get-up: 3x3/side

C1) Yoga Push-up: 3x10

C1) 1-arm DB Row: 3x10/side

D1) Prone Bridge Arm March: 3x8/side

D2) Standing External Rotation to Wall: 3x5 (five second hold on each rep)

Another option, obviously, is to try to find a gym near your hotel while you're on the road.  That can obviously be tough if you don't have a car handy, though, so it's always good to have these "back-up" minimalist equipment options at your fingertips.  And, of course, you can always rock body weight only exercises.

4. Have portable training equipment.

You aren't allowed to complain about the lack of equipment in the typical hotel gym if you haven't put any thought into what training implements you can bring on the road with you.  Things like bands, a foam roller, a TRX, and a number of other implements can make your life easier.  I've brought my TRX on numerous vacations with me and it always proves useful. The scenery usually isn't bad, either.

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5. Pack quality training into short bursts.

If you know you're going to be on the road for week-long trips here and there throughout the summer, it's important to get your quality training in when you're at home in your "consistent" environment.  Think of it as managing a bank account.  You make deposits when you're at home with good equipment and quality nutrition, and you're taking withdrawals when you're on the road and the circumstances are less than stellar.

6. Bring noise-canceling headphones.

There's nothing better than when you're dreading a long flight or bus/train ride, and then you fall asleep the second the trip begins, and you wake up to find out that you're at your destination.  That's awesome.

What's not awesome is that every single team in the history of baseball has at least one schmuck who likes to blare music, yell, and dance around at 6AM when everyone else is trying to sleep. Dropping him off and leaving him for dead in the middle of nowhere isn't an option, so you're better off rocking some noise-canceling headphones.

7. Bring a neck pillow.

Falling asleep on a plane or bus and then waking up with a stiff neck is no fun.  Doing so and then having to go out and throw 90 pitches the next day will be absolutely miserable. And, this cool article about research at Vanderbilt University on the negative effects of fatigue on strike zone management over the course of a baseball season should get hitters' attention, too! A neck pillow will cost you less than $20.  It's an absolute no brainer.  Besides, you probably spent double that amount on the 15 silly Power Balance bracelets you own.*

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8. Hydrate!

You know the old saying about how if you sense thirst, you're already dehydrated?  It's especially true when you're out on the field at 1PM in the middle of July in Florida. So, drink plenty of fluids throughout the day.  We know that dehydration reduces strength and power - so you can bet that fastball velocity and bat speed will dip - but did you know that it also negatively affects cognitive performance? In a 2012 review in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, Adan wrote,

[bctt tweet="Even 2% dehydration impairs performance in tasks requiring attention, psychomotor and memory skills."] 

So, if you're a guy who is always missing signs, ignoring your cutoff man, or forgetting how many outs there are, it might be wise to evaluate your hydration status.

Wrap-up

These are just eight tips to guide you as you approach this important summer season, and there are surely many more strategies athletes have employed to make it as productive a time of year as it should be.  That said, I'd encourage you to monitor your body weight on a regular basis to make sure that it's not dropping.  If it is, it's time to get in more calories, hydrate better, and hit the gym.  Good luck!

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More Combine and Showcase Entertainment

I've been very outspoken in the past about my distaste for the baseball showcases.  In fact, my article, Baseball Showcases: A Great Way to Waste Money and Get Injured, is one of the more popular baseball pieces I've written for EricCressey.com.

Apparently, however, the flaws of showcases aren't limited to baseball, though; football combines are equally silly.  Fortunately, breaking down the numbers on high school combines can also be wildly entertaining, as the folks at SB Nation demonstrated with an outstanding article yesterday.  I'd normally include something like this as a "Stuff You Should Read" feature, but this article was so well done that it deserved its own blog post today.  Check it out - and keep in mind that this was intended to be very sarcastic, even though the 40-yard dash times reported are completely accurate.  Be sure to read all the way to the end for the punch line.

--> Comparing NFL and High School 40-Yard Dash Times: A Horrifying Revelation <--

Kudos to Patrick Vint on an excellent piece. Hopefully the word gets out.

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Pitch Count Roundtable: Your Thoughts?

Last week, I contributed on a pitch counts roundtable for ESPN Boston. You can read it HERE.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter in the comments section below, as it is a certainly a heated debate that has come to the forefront in recent years with pitching injuries on the rise.

 

Related Posts

Why Pitchers Shouldn't Do Year-Round Throwing Programs: Part 1 and Part 2
Baseball Showcases: A Great Way to Waste Money and Get Injured
7 Weeks to 7 Pounds of Lean Mass and 7 Miles Per Hour

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Your Arm Hurts? Thank Your Little League, AAU, and Fall Ball Coaches.

I have a policy when it comes to my writing:

If something is going to be controversial and potentially elicit a negative response from my readers, I "sit" on the topic for 24 hours.  During that time, I weigh the decision of whether me publicly writing about something is for the better good - meaning that it'll help people in the long-term even if it makes them recognize that they've been goofing up in the short-term.

I did some thinking on that front last night (actually, for the past several nights), and decided to go through with this blog, as I feel like it's something that every single baseball player, parent, and especially coach ought to read.  So, if you're in one of those categories - or are just a baseball fan who loves the game - please spread the word on what you're about to read, whether it's with a Facebook "recommend," "Tweet," or just a friendly email with the link to this article.

If you've perused my Baseball Content page much in the past, you'll know that I don't try to hide the fact that throwing a baseball is an incredibly unnatural and flat-out dangerous motion.  It's the single-fastest motion in all of sports, and every day, physically unprepared athletes go out and essentially play with fire every single time they try to light up a radar gun - or even just play catch.

Not surprisingly, when you mix physically unprepared bodies with arguably the most dangerous sporting challenge on the planet (the folks in Pamplona, Spain might argue with me, but that's a blog for another day), athletes get hurt.  Arm injuries (like all youth sports injuries) are rising exponentially thanks to not "less athletic athletes" taking part in high-risk sports, but also this participation taking place at all-time high rates thanks to the proliferation of little league all-star teams, AAU teams, fall ball, private pitching instruction, and the baseball showcase industry.  A fantastic study by Olsen et al. in 2006 (must-read for anyone involved in baseball development) clearly demonstrated strong associations between injuries requiring surgery and pitching "more months per year, games per year, innings per game, pitches per game, pitches per year, and warm-up pitches before a game" as well as showcase appearances during adolescence.  The message was very clear: throw too much - especially at a young age - and you're going to wind up hurt.

Unfortunately, though, many people glaze over numbers in studies (if they ever read them), and while they may walk away with the "overuse is bad" message, they don't appreciate what true overuse really is - especially since it's age-dependent.  Fortunately, a February 2011 study from Fleisig et al. showed in no uncertain terms that, in ages 9-14, throwing more than 100 innings per year was associated with a 3.5 times higher risk of elbow or shoulder surgery - or retirement altogether.

To put this into context, I'll first ask you: do you realize how challenging it is to throw 100 innings in a little league season?  Let’s say you start baseball the first week of April (little league) and even manage to play on a summer team that runs through the end of July.  That’s a four month season: exactly what I was accustomed to growing up - at the absolute most.

If you look at the Major League Baseball leaders in innings pitched, those at the top of the list generally throw about 35 innings per month (4-5 starts each). In other words, high-performance, skeletally mature pitchers in the most elite baseball league in the world are on pace for roughly 140 innings pitched over the first four months of the year.  However, there are parents and coaches out there that actually think it's okay to send an 11-year old out there for a comparable number of innings?  It's especially troublesome when you realize that younger kids always throw more pitches per inning than their older counterparts, as they don't have good command and insist on trying to strike everyone out instead of pitching to contact here and there.

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Just think about how hard that is to do.  Major League pitchers throw on a five-day rotation, and Little league games are, at most, twice a week.  If a kid pitches once a week for four months, even if he throws complete games every time out (not something I'd advise, for the record), he'd still struggle to hit 100 innings (16 starts x 7 inning games =112 innings).  Rats!  It's actually tough to overuse kids when the season is kept in check.

So, instead, they add seasons.  Join an AAU team (or seven of them). Play fall ball so that you can rack up another seven innings every weekend.  Be sure to hit up a few college camps on Saturdays and throw as hard as you can so that your Sunday outing in 25-degree weather is extra miserable.  Make sure you see your pitching coach for bullpens as soon as fall ball ends.  Get your registration in early for that showcase that's taking place the first week in January.  Just do some band work and a couple of half-ass stretches and you'll be fine.  Riiiight....good thinking.

At risk of sounding arrogant, I'm good at what I do.  I've devoted my life to keeping baseball players healthy. They comprise 85% of our clientele at Cressey Performance, and I work with millions of dollars of arms every off-season and see players from ages 9 to 50+. I do my best to surround myself with the smartest people in strength and conditioning, rehabilitation, and skill-specific training in and outside of the game.  I managed the first subpectoral biceps tenodesis in major league history. I can talk mechanics with the best pitching coaches around, write strength and conditioning and throwing programs, manually stretch guys, you name it.  I've got two fantastic therapists in my office to do massage, ART, Graston, chiropractic adjustments, and a host of other manual therapy approaches - not to mention great physical therapists nearby who can handle all our complex cases.  You know the only things I, we, or anybody on this planet can't control?

Poor judgment by athletes and their parents and coaches.

And that - no doubt about it - is the primary reason that kids get hurt.  We can do all the strength training, mobility work, and soft tissue treatments in the world and it won't matter if they're overused - because I'm just not smart enough to have figured out how to go back in time and change history. Worried about whether they're throwing curveballs, or if their mechanics are perfect?  It won't matter if they've already accumulated too many innings.

While athletes might be playing with fire each time they throw, the pain presentation pattern is different.  You burn your hand, and you know instantly.  Pitching injuries take time to come about. Maybe you do microscopic damage to your ulnar collateral ligament each time you throw - and then come back and pitch again before it's had time to fully regenerate.  Or, maybe you ignore the shoulder internal rotation deficit and scapular dyskinesis you've got and it gets worse and worse for years - until you're finally on the surgeon's table for a labral and/or rotator cuff repair.  These issues might be managed conservatively if painful during the teenage years (or go undetected if no pain is present) - but once a kid hits age 18 or 19, it seems to automatically become "socially acceptable" to do an elbow or shoulder surgery.

Of course, this isn't just applicable to coaches in the 9-14 age group.  You see "criminal" pitch counts in the high school and collegiate ranks as well, and while they may be more physically mature than the 9-14 year-olds, that doesn't mean that they're exempt from the short- and long-term consequences.

This is why we need the best coaches at the youngest levels.  It's also why we need pitching coaches that understand "managing pitchers" as much as - if not more than - teaching pitching mechanics.  And, it's why coaches need to understand the big picture in terms of what different kids can do at different ages, at different times in the year.

It's also while parents need to be proactive with their young pitchers.  If a coach isn't going to track his innings - and a 9-year-old kid certainly can't be expected to do so - the parent needs to step up and do so.  I've met a lot of parents of kids who have been injured at ages 17-21, and most of them look back with a lot of anger toward coaches at younger levels for overusing their sons.  Hindsight is always 20/20, but foresight is what saves an arm.  Don't be afraid to step up and say something, as you aren't telling a coach how to do his job; you're protecting your kid, just as you would be locking the door at night or making sure he brushes his teeth.

In terms of planning the competitive year, I have no problem with a 9-14 year-old kid playing baseball 4-5 months of the year, as the other 7-8 months per year should be devoted to at least two other sports.  It's basically the "rule of thirds" for long-term athletic development: three sports, four months apiece.  Kids can strength-train year round.

At ages 15-16, I'm fine with kids changing things up and going to only two sports.  Baseball might occupy 7-8 months, but a big chunk of that should be focused on preparation.  So, a kid might start playing catch in November, start his high school season in March, and then play summer ball through the end of July.  August through November would be devoted to a fall sport and fall ball would be altogether omitted, as it was the only idea worse than making Rocky V.  Kids would, of course, strength-train year-round.

At ages 17 and up, it's fine with me if you want to specialize in baseball, but that doesn't mean you should play year-round.  I actually advocate kids only throw for 8-9 months of the year (at most) - which is right on par with what most professional players do.  The only thing that'd be different is that the season would be shifted up a bit in the year, as the high school season usually starts a few weeks before the professional season.  Pro guys get half of October, then all November and December off from throwing.  "Specialized" high school players get August, September, and October off (again, because fall ball is as useful as a trap door in a lifeboat).  Strength training is year-round.

You'll notice that there isn't a single penny spent on off-season baseball showcases.  That wasn't an accidental omission (read here why I don't like them).  If you insist on going to one, pick one between June and early August.

I'm convinced that the next big thing in Major League Baseball's "scouting revolution" is meticulously analyzing what players did when they were younger.  If they are going to draft kids, they want to know that they haven't been overworked for years prior to entering professional baseball.  You're already seeing this taking place in collegiate baseball based more on an assumption: pitchers from the North are getting more and more opportunities to play down South because coaches recruit them (beyond just talent) under the assumption that they've accumulated less wear and tear on their arms.

This piece might have ruffled some feathers.  Kids want to play year-round.  Parents want to make kids happy - and they enjoy watching them play.  You know what else?  Kids love chocolate, and parents want to see kids happy - but that doesn't mean that kids should get a limitless amount of chocolate to consume, right?  You put away the Easter candy this week to stress moderation and look out for their long-term well-being.

Coaches enjoy coaching and want to win - and they may take a commentary like this personally because they're the ones who sent a 9-year-old out for 120 innings one year - and now he's the one having the elbow surgery.  Or, maybe it's the college coach who let a kid throw 160 pitches in a game and killed his draft status because teams know he'll have a shoulder surgery in three years.  Admitting you're wrong is hard enough, but admitting you're wrong and learning from that mistake to help future kids is even harder - but all the more rewarding.

This post wasn't intended to make anyone feel bad, but bring to light an issue (throwing volume) that I think is the absolute most important consideration when taking care of arms.  We can do everything right in terms of physical preparation, but if you throw too much - especially at vulnerable ages - none of it matters.

Again, if you could help spread the word on this, I'd really appreciate it.  And, feel free to comment below; I'm here to help.

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Stuff You’ll LOVE to Read: Valentine’s Day Edition

Sappy title, huh?  Well, the truth is that people around the world will spend loads of money on flowers that will die in the next week - so we'll carry that theme forward with today's list of recommended reading.  Check these out: White Sox, Brewers Lead Injury Prevention Parade - A big thanks goes out to Mike Stare, DPT for sending this article my way.  It's always good to see quantifiable evidence of just how bad injuries in major league baseball have gotten.  One really important thing to consider is that man games (and money) lost to injuries doesn't always paint a true picture of how effective a team's medical staff is.  Teams with good medical staffs are more likely to sign better players in spite of pre-existing injuries (the 2009 Red Sox signed John Smoltz, Billy Wagner, and Brad Penny when they were all coming off surgery, for instance), so they'll understandably have higher rates in spite of the fact that they're doing a lot of things really well.  Muddy waters, indeed. Smith Machine Salaries - Speaking of wasteful spending, this post is about two years old and is very, very sad, but true.  I'm sure it's even worse nowadays. Baseball Showcases: A Great Way to Waste Money and Get Injured - This is timely on a number of fronts, as there are loads of showcases going on right now.  Many of the participants are kids who haven't even picked up a baseball since last August, yet they're throwing full speed in front of radar guns.  Sad. Happy Valentine's Day, everyone; try not to think about all the money you spent on flowers! Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a detailed deadlift technique tutorial!
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Lose Fat, Gain Muscle, Get Strong: Eric Cressey’s Best Articles of 2010

Show and Go: High Performance Training to Look, Feel, and Move Better - This was obviously my biggest project of 2010.  I actually began writing the strength and conditioning programs and filming the exercise demonstration videos in 2009, and put all the "guinea pigs" through the four-month program beginning in February.  When they completed it as the start of the summer rolled around, I made some modifications based on their feedback and then got cracking on writing up all the tag along resources.  Finally, in September, Show and Go was ready to roll.  So, in effect, it took 10-11 months to take this product from start to finish - a lot of hard work, to say the least.  My reward has been well worth it, though, as the feedback has been awesome.  Thanks so much to everyone who has picked up a copy.

Optimal Shoulder Performance - This was a seminar that Mike Reinold and I filmed in November of 2009, and our goal was to create a resource that brought together concepts from both the shoulder rehabilitation and shoulder performance training fields to effectively bridge the gap for those looking to prevent and/or treat shoulder pain.  In the process, I learned a lot from Mike, and I think that together, we brought rehabilitation specialists and fitness professionals closer to being on the same page.

Why President Obama Throws Like a Girl - A lot of people took this as a political commentary, but to be honest, it was really just me talking about the concept of retroversion as it applies to a throwing shoulder - with a little humor thrown in, of course!

Overbearing Dads and Kids Who Throw Cheddar - This one was remarkably easy to write because I've received a lot of emails from overbearing Dads asking about increasing throwing velocity in their kids.

What I Learned in 2009 - I wrote this article for T-Nation back at the beginning of the year, and always enjoy these yearly pieces.  In fact, I'm working on my 2010 one for them now!

What a Stressed Out Bride Can Teach You About Training Success - I wrote this less than a month out from my wedding, so you could say that I had a good frame of reference.

Baseball Showcases: A Great Way to Waste Money and Get Injured - In case the title didn't tip you off, I'm not much of a fan of baseball showcases.

Cueing: Just One Piece of Semi-Private Training Success - Part 1 and Part 2 - These articles were featured at fitbusinessinsider.com.  I enjoy writing about not only the training side of things, but some of the things we've done well to build up our business.

Three Years of Cressey Performance: The Right Reasons and the Right Way - This might have been the top post of the year, in my eyes. My job is very cool.

How to Attack Continuing Education in the Fitness Industry - Here's another fitness business post.

Want to Be a Personal Trainer or Strength Coach?  Start Here. - And another!

The Skinny on Strasburg's Injury - I hate to make blog content out of someone else's misfortune, but it was a good opportunity to make some points that I think are very valid to the discussion of not only Stephen Strasburg's elbow injury, but a lot of the pitching injuries we see in youth baseball.

Surely, there are many more to list, but I don't want this to run too long!  Have a safe and happy new year, and keep an eye out for the first content of 2011, which is coming very soon!

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Making the Case for Long Toss in a Throwing Program

Long toss may have been scorned by quite a few baseball traditionalists, but I am a big fan of it – and our guys have responded outstandingly to the way we’ve used it.  Perhaps it’s just my “1+1=2” logic at work, but I just feel like if you can build up the arm speed to throw the ball a loooonngggg way, then you’ll be able to carry that over to the mound as soon as you get your pitching mechanics dialed in.  And, this has certainly been validated with our athletes, as we have loads of professional pitchers who absolutely swear by long toss (both off- and in-season).

So, you can understand why I got excited when my good buddy, Alan Jaeger – a man who has devoted a big chunk of his life to getting long toss “accepted” in the baseball community – was featured in this article at MLB.com about what a difference it makes - including for the Texas Rangers on their road to the World Series a few years ago.

I was, however, not a fan of this paragraph in the article:

“Former Red Sox pitcher Dick Mills has a business built around teaching mechanics and maximizing velocity, and he is a staunch opponent of long tossing. He has released countless YouTube videos angrily decrying this practice. In his latest, ‘How Long Toss Can Ruin Your Pitching Mechanics and Your Arm,’ he says, ‘Why would you practice mechanics that are totally different and will not help a pitcher during a game? And why would you practice throwing mechanics that are clearly more stressful where the arm does most of the work?’"

Taking it a step further, here’s a Dick Mills quote I came across a few years ago:

“Training will not teach you how to apply more force…only mechanics can do that. And pitching is not about applying more effort into a pitch but is about producing more skilled movements from better timing of all the parts. That will help produce more force. No matter how hard you try, you will not get that from your strength training program…no matter who designed it, how much they have promised you it would or your hope that it will be the secret for you.”

While I agree (obviously) on the importance of mechanics and timing, effectively, we’re still being told that long toss, strength training, and weighted balls are all ineffective modalities for developing the pitcher – which leaves us with what, bullpens and stretching? It sounds like every youth baseball practice in the country nowadays – and all we’re getting now are injured shoulders and elbows at astronomical rates.  Something isn’t right – and the message is very clear: specificity is a very slippery slope.


On one hand, when it comes to mechanics, you need to throw off the mound to get things fine-tuned to achieve efficiency.

On the other hand, research has shown that arm stress is higher when you’re on the mound (there is less external rotation at stride foot contact with flat ground throwing).  Additionally, every pitch that’s thrown is really a step in the direction of sports specialization for a youth baseball player – and something needs to balance that out.  Why?

Well, specializing at a young age is destroying kids.  As a great study from Olsen et al. showed, young pitchers who require surgery pitched “significantly more months per year, games per year, innings per game, pitches per game, pitches per year, and warm-up pitches before a game. These pitchers were more frequently starting pitchers, pitched in more showcases, pitched with higher velocity, and pitched more often with arm pain and fatigue.”  And people think that kid need more work on the mound?  What they need are more structured throwing sessions (practice, not competition) and a comprehensive throwing and strength and conditioning program to prepare them for the demands they’ll face.

But those aren’t specific enough, are they?!?!?!  Well, let’s talk about specificity a bit more.  Actually, let’s read – from renowned physical therapist Gray Cook, a guy who certainly knows a thing or two about why people get injured:

The physical presentation of differently trained bodies often provides a signature of the type and style of activity that developed it. Those who are exclusive in their activities seem more often be molded to their activities, and sometimes actually over-molded. These individuals can actually lose movements and muscles that would make alternate activities much easier.

Specialization can rob us of our innate ability to express all of our movement potential. This is why I encourage highly specialized athletes to balance their functional movement patterns. They don’t so much need to train all movement patterns, they just need to maintain them. When a functional movement pattern is lost, it forecasts a fundamental crack in a foundation designed to be balanced. The point is not that specialization is bad—it only presents a problem when the singular activity over-molds to the point of losing balance.

While there are probably 15-20 awesome messages we can take home from the previous two paragraphs, here’s the big one I want to highlight: it’s our job as coaches to find the biggest window of adaptation a pitcher has and bring it up to speed – while simultaneously keeping other qualities in mind.

If he’s stiff, we work on mobility.  If he’s weak, we get him strong.  If he’s a mechanical train wreck, we get him more bullpens.  If his arm speed isn’t good, we work more on weighted balls and long toss.  If you just take a 5-10, 120-pound 9th grader and have him throw bullpens exclusively, he’ll get better for a little bit, and then plateau hard unless you get him bigger and stronger.

How does this work?  It’s a little principle called Delayed Transmutation that Vladimir Zatsiorsky highlighted in Science and Practice of Strength Training.  Zatsiorsky defines delayed transmutation as “the time period needed to transform acquired motor potential into athletic performance.”  In other words, expand and improve your “motor pool” in the off-season, and it’ll be transformed into specific athletic performance when the time is right.

And, as I wrote in The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual, “the more experienced you are in a given sport, the less time it will take for you to transform this newfound strength and power [and mobility] into sporting contexts.”  This is why professional pitchers can find their groove each year MUCH easier than high school pitchers in spite of the fact that they probably take more time off each year (2-3 months from throwing) than the typical overused kid who plays on 17 different AAU teams.

That said, there’s a somewhat interesting exception to this rule: really untrained kids.  I’ll give you two examples from the past week alone at Cressey Performance.

We had a high school senior and a high school junior who both just started up their winter throwing programs to prepare for the season.

The first told me that he was sore in his legs after throwing for the first time in his life.  Effectively, without throwing a single pitch or really doing any lesson work (or even throwing off a mound), this kid has managed to change the neuromuscular recruitment patterns he uses to throw the baseball.  Strength, power, and mobility took care of themselves: delayed transmutation.

The second told me that his arm feels electric.  Ask any experienced pitcher, and they’ll tell you that your arm is supposed to feel like absolute crap the first 4-5 days after an extended layoff, but it always gets better.  However, when you’re a kid who has gotten more flexible and packed on a bunch of muscle mass, it’s like all of a sudden driving a Ferrari when you’re used to sharing a minivan with Mom: delayed transmutation.

Specificity is important in any sport, but a it really is just the work as far to the right as you can go on the general to specific continuum.  Elite sprinters do squats, lunges, Olympic lifts, jump squats, and body weight plyos as they work from left to right on the general-to-specific continuum to get faster.  So, why do so many pitching coaches insist that pitchers stay as far to the right as possible?    Symbolically, long toss is to pitchers what plyos are to sprinters: specific, but just general enough to make a profound difference.

In a very roundabout way, I’ve made a case for long toss as something that can be classified as beneficial in much the same way that we recognize (well, most of us, at least) that mobility drills, foam rolling, strength training, movement training, and medicine ball drills to be excellent adjuncts to bullpens. In the process of learning to throw the baseball farther, we:

1. push arm speed up

2. train in a generally-specific fashion

3. improve contribution of the lower half

4. realize another specific, quantifiable marker (distance) of progress

5. keep throwing fun

6. train the arm with just enough LESS specificity to help keep pitchers healthy, as compared with mound work

The question then becomes, “Why don’t some pitchers respond well to long toss?”  In part 2, I’ll outline the most common mistakes I’ve seen:

When I told Alan Jaeger that I was sending this article out, he graciously offered to set up a 25% off discount code on his Thrive on Throwing DVD set for my readers. This outstanding DVD set thoroughly teaches players and coaches how to approach long tossing, and Alan has also applied a discount to his J-Bands and his Getting Focused, Staying Focused book for pitchers. Here's a link to the discount page.

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