Lincecum Goes Back To Old Habits
It makes sense that Jeremy Hellickson won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award in 2010. After all, pitching has been the big storyline of the season, with no-hitters, perfect games and Stephen Strasburg dominating the headlines.
In August, though, two of the highest profile pitchers in the game endured setbacks. Strasburg came up with a grimace after throwing a pitch in the fifth inning against the Phillies on Aug. 22, and has Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery.
Meanwhile, Giants righthander Tim Lincecum endured a month unlike any in his so far spectacular four-year career, losing velocity on his fastball and seeing his dominance turn to dust. In August, the two-time Cy Young Award winner posted such ugly numbers at 0-5, 7.82, everyone had a theory as to what went wrong.
That included Lincecum's father, Chris, who famously taught his son his training regimen and old-school pitching mechanics. One piece of advice led to Lincecum resuming a part of his between-start ritual of long-tossing.
Most pitchers long toss, often out to 120 feet, and most major league organizations don't want their pitchers to go longer than that. The Giants, who have a strong track record under general manager Brian Sabean for developing homegrown power arms, are in that club.
But prior to Lincecum's first September start, reporters spotted him throwing long-toss with the grand old man of long toss in the big leagues, Barry Zito. The Giants lefthander already has experienced what it's like when he stopped his long-toss regimen, when he first came to San Francisco. It helped lead to the worst season of his career and diminished velocity, with a fastball that dropped into the mid-80s.
"I got away from it when I first came here," Zito said in a mid-August phone call. "In the middle of '08, I got back into the routine. I used to throw 300 feet five days a week every day. Now it's more like 300 feet the day of a start and 300 feet the second day after a start.
"There's definitely a fraternity of long-toss guys. I throw a lot with Guillermo Mota here, and he likes to get out to 310 (feet), or 330. I know when I face Cole Hamels, if we're pitching on the same day, we're kind of throwing past each other, he'll get out to around 250."
If Lincecum's stuff and results bounce back down the stretch, he'll likely pitch the Giants into the postseason, either as the National League's wild card or as NL West Division champion. His return to long-toss went well—he struck out nine and gave up one run against the Rockies on Sept. 1 and went eight innings to outduel another noted long tosser, Ubaldo Jimenez, in a 2-1 victory. He'll also give the long-toss regimen a high-profile success story.
Zito and Dan Haren rank as two of the most durable pitchers in baseball the last 10 seasons. Neither has missed a start as big leaguers due to injury, and both do many of the same exercises. They're both long-toss mavens who do arm circles, tubing exercises and yoga to prepare themselves to throw.
"When I first got to the big leagues, guys definitely ragged on me for tubing and arm circles and the long toss," Zito said. "When I was in Triple-A, in fact, I had a pitching coach, Pete Rancont, who told me, 'You'll be over that crap in a year.' And Billy Taylor, our closer, really was ragging me pretty good when I first got to Oakland and saw me doing arm circles. But you know, eventually, guys will end up using my tubing bands. It's simple—you warm up to throw, and you throw to warm up.
"I just think as a pitcher, you have to look at it like sprinters do. Sprinters don't just sprint every few days, they run every day. I have heard the theories about pitchers having a finite number of bullets. I just think that's fear-based thinking."
Why Is The Question
Zito has a wrap in his arm action in the back, while Haren has a toe-tap and stab in the back with his arm. Neither has textbook arm actions or mechanics, yet they've been durable.
Strasburg didn't prove to be durable. Some, including Dodgers assistant general manager Logan White, opine that Strasburg's mechanics and arm action—specifically the fact that his elbow gets up over his shoulder as he takes the ball back to begin his arm swing, making the shape of an inverted W—caused his injury. Others believe Strasburg broke down merely because he threw too hard too often at too young of an age. And soon after he got hurt, the Reds brought up Aroldis Chapman, who throws even harder, touching 104 mph in his second relief outing. Can he stay healthy throwing so hard?
The truth is, no one really knows, not definitively, just like it's not certain that Zito has been so durable because of his long-toss and training regimen. Genetics could be a bigger factor in getting hurt, or not getting hurt.
Zito is just happy that more pitchers seem to be allowed to train like he does, despite baseball's traditional, often restrictive culture.
"I definitely feel like long toss is catching on a little more," he said. "It's unfortunate that a lot of organizations have discouraged it; I've heard a lot of horror stories over the years. It feels like that's starting to change."