More Art Than Science

Pitching programs try different ways to find the best approach to developing pitchers

Daisuke Matsuzaka leaned in, checked the runners, got his sign and came set in the stretch. Then the Japanese righthander--in his first spring with the Red Sox after signing a contract worth $52 million--fired a fastball toward home plate.

Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling
He was just warming up, throwing his first bullpen, or side session, of the spring. General manager Theo Epstein and the Red Sox brass watched and monitored Matsuzaka’s entire Feb. 26 outing, which gave catcher Jason Varitek an early workout.

Matsuzaka threw 103 pitches according to the assembled media, and Epstein told reporters that Matsuzaka impressed him with his intensity so early in camp.

“Every pitch had a purpose,” Epstein said. “You almost wanted to videotape it and show it to our young guys in minor league camp on how to get the most out of your practice.”

So what’s stopping Epstein? He’s the Red Sox general manager, has won a World Series ring and has said he wants his organization’s farm system to be a “$100 million player-development machine.” Matsuzaka--who, with his $51 million posting fee to his former Japanese club, Seibu, cost the Red Sox $103 million by himself--clearly trains differently from the Red Sox’ other pitchers. No one else was cranking up 100 pitches in February in Fort Myers.

Why not capture his practice session on tape? Better yet, digitize it, put it on YouTube and share it with the future pitchers of the world.

But the Red Sox don’t train their young pitchers to throw like Matsuzaka, not in terms of mechanics and certainly not in terms of their throwing program, because none of them would be ready to throw 100 pitches in February. Asked directly about Boston’s throwing program, Epstein declined comment, not wanting to divulge the organization’s pitching philosophy, but his reaction to Matsuzaka’s purposeful bullpen session indicates it was the exception, not the Red Sox’ rule. The same goes for other U.S. organizations, and most of them think the same way in terms of divulging specifics about their throwing programs.

Interviews from Arizona and Florida paint a surprising picture of the state of pitching development among major league organizations. No one seems to quite know why American pitchers don’t train like Matsuzaka and instead train more like Ben Sheets, who faced Matsuzaka in the first game of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Already a star big leaguer in Japan, Matsuzaka threw 10 innings and 139 pitches for his home country. Sheets, a minor leaguer on his way to the big leagues, threw seven innings before being removed when he reached his pitch count. While Sheets led Team USA to gold later in the tournament (and Japan lost all three of Matsuzaka’s starts), six years later Matsuzaka is the star hitting 94 mph in his first spring training start, while Sheets and the Brewers are hoping he’ll avoid the disabled list for the first time since 2004.

No one sounds sure if some training methods of the past, when pitchers faced batters more frequently (either in four-man rotations or in live batting practice), worked better than the programs of the present, the ones generated from years of study and with the advantages of modern medicine. What is known is most major league organizations believe in their throwing programs, and don’t like to see pitchers deviate from them in the minor leagues.

If they want to go their own way, they’d better have the kind of track record Matsuzaka brought with him to Boston.

Genesis Of An Idea

There’s no definitive history of “the throwing program,” but pitching coaches and farm directors agree the practice started when major league teams became organizations. In other words, when teams started showing up to spring training with several minor league affiliates in tow in the 1940s and ’50s, organizations had to figure out a way to coach all these pitchers who showed up at the same time. Throwing programs evolved as a way for organizations to get their arms around all those pitchers, to get them to a baseline point so they can progress and be ready to pitch the season.

“Basically the way it was, we’d pitch, rest a day, throw BP, rest two days and pitch again,” says Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, a former pitcher at Southern California and in the Orioles farm system. “Or we’d pitch, rest, throw BP, rest a day, throw a little bit the night before.”

Andrew Miller
If Gillick were preparing to come out of USC in 2008 instead of 1958, he would encounter a different minor league landscape. Pitchers aren’t just farmhands; they’re investments, and often significant ones. The Tigers have guaranteed Andrew Miller more than $5 million. Do you think they want his 6-foot-6 frame throwing live BP from behind an L-screen, or would they rather have him tucked safely away throwing a “naked bullpen” (meaning no batter) on a mound away from the action, under the watchful eye of a pitching coach?

Gillick says he didn’t have a pitching coach until he reached Triple-A, and because coaches cost money, many organizations just started having both a hitting and a pitching coach for their Rookie-level affiliates within the last 10-15 years. “We were always on our own,” Gillick says, “and there wasn’t nearly as much rigidity and structure as there is now.”

Whether structure has been good for pitchers is debatable, but it’s undeniable that major league organizations prize having some rules for their pitchers, and they entrust their roving pitching coordinators to set up throwing programs to institute this structure.

“Most of the pitchers we sign (as amateurs) have no rhyme or reason to the way they train or warm up, especially for the high school pitchers,” says Darryl Milne, a longtime scout and minor league pitching coach who now serves as the Red Sox’ pitching crosschecker. “You’ll see them in the bullpen and they’ll throw a couple of this, a couple of that--there’s usually no continuity or plan. In pro ball, you have to have a structure to help them.”

Twins rover Rick Knapp has been in charge of the organization’s pitchers since 1996. The organization has had more success in recent years with pitchers who got their starts in other organizations such as Joe Nathan (Giants), Johan Santana (Astros), Eric Milton (Yankees) or Carlos Silva (Phillies), not to mention Boof Bonser (Giants), Joe Mays (Mariners) or Kyle Lohse (Cubs).

However, the latest batch of Twins pitching prospects started graduating to Minnesota in 2005 and 2006, pitchers such as Scott Baker, Matt Garza and Glen Perkins, as well as relievers like Jesse Crain and Pat Neshek. The Twins have strength in numbers behind them, and the strength of the farm system is pitching depth and variety. Knapp has to set up a throwing program that can help college-schooled lefthanders and righties like Perkins, Kevin Slowey and Jeff Manship; prep draftees such as righty Anthony Swarzak, lefty Tyler Robertson and righty Kyle Waldrop, and international signees like Jose Mijares (Venezuela), Alexander Smit (Netherlands) and even German righty Ludovicus Van Mil.

It’s Knapp’s job to get all those shapes and sizes--from the 6-foot, 230-pound Mijares to the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Waldrop to the 7-foot-3 Van Mil--on something that can be called the same page without using a cookie-cutter, lowest-common-denominator approach.

“Our throwing program is the key to everything we do,” Knapp says. “The game is tough enough. Our job is to try to make it easier for our guys, to not pile a bunch of stuff on a guy. We don’t want our pitchers to be robots. So our pitching program is all-inclusive.”

That means incorporating many of the basic elements of all throwing programs--throwing bullpens, long-tossing, some kind of conditioning and weightlifting element and mechanics drills. The devil is in the details for each organization.

How Long Is A Long Toss?

Throwing bullpens sounds basic: find a mound, find a catcher and start pitching. But structures of bullpen sessions vary from club to club, with some organizations favoring higher-intensity work, and others leaning toward lower intensity, even with catchers moving in front of the plate so that pitchers are throwing bullpens at 45 or 50 feet instead of 60.

Side work also can depend on how much value pitching instructors put on throwing off flat ground versus throwing off a mound. The Athletics believe strongly in flat-ground work, and pitching coordinator Ron Romanick prescribes distance throwing, or long toss, to help pitchers build stamina, arm strength, arm speed and feel for a changeup. He has tweaked the program over his near decade in the organization with input from former big league pitching coach Rick Peterson, current pitching coach Curt Young and pitching coaches throughout the organization.

“There’s no one set way to throw a baseball,” Romanick says. “We want our pitchers to throw in a way that allows them to command both sides the strike zone with the fastball and allows them to stay healthy. Those are the two primary building blocks. Our distance throwing program is part of a structured program that we think helps build a foundation to have command of the fastball, because it’s all about pitchers having the proper direction to the plate.”

Trying to define long toss, however, is to aim at a moving target. All organizations have some form of long-toss program, but they all vary. Much of the medical research on the subject has steered organizations toward a standard, structured long-toss program that many require for their pitchers, particularly during the season. Pitchers essentially play catch on flat ground, using their regular pitching mechanics, from 60 feet for three minutes, then stretch out to 90 feet and 120 feet again for three-minute intervals before bringing it back to 90 feet to wrap up. Astros pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson said his organization uses 90-foot long-toss sessions followed by what they call a “lift and throw,” which essentially is long-tossing from a stretch position.

“I like that, because it keeps their mechanics very similar to what they get off the mound,” Robinson says. “One of the drawbacks from long toss is the mechanics change in throwing a baseball, and once you get them on the mound, it takes them 10 minutes to adjust to the mound. So we go five minutes to 90, they can stay at 90 and do this lift and throw for five minutes, or they can gradually go back to whatever’s comfortable for them.”

The warmup times can vary, but the key for advocates of this kind of long tossing point to medical research that indicates the strain on elbow (particularly the ulnar collateral ligament) when throwing at distances of 150 or more feet. They also resist calls for pitchers to throw at longer distances because doing so would require a change in the throwing motion. Some long-toss detractors go even further. Former big leaguer Dick Mills has co-authored a book with Dr. Brent Rushall called “The Science And Art Of Baseball Pitching” that calls long-toss work--and basically any kind of throwing off flat ground, any pitching that’s not off a mound and that fails to simulate game pitching--a “waste of time.”

They appear to be in the minority, however, and long-toss devotees had a good year in 2006. Alan Jaeger, president of Jaeger Sports, advocates a throwing program with long-toss sessions that can have the pitcher throwing up to 300 feet or more. The Jaeger program also incorporates tubing exercises (essentially large rubber bands used for resistance training instead of weights), yoga stretching and breathing exercises, to list a few of its elements.

Barry Zito
While the yoga program attracted a New York Times article in February, the long-toss program had its two poster boys on full display last year. Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya cites his work with Jaeger and his long-toss program--he has long-tossed up to 380 feet, according to Jaeger--for helping to improve his velocity from the low 90s in high school to his present 100 mph readings. And Barry Zito, often seen long-tossing in the 250-275-foot range prior to starts during his career with the Athletics, signed the largest contract ever for a pitcher with the Giants in December at $126 million over seven years.

“The theory of limiting guys to 120 feet comes from trainers, but what we’re doing is really pre-hab instead of rehab,” Jaeger says. “We’re trying to make guys healthy enough so that they don’t need to rehabilitate their arms. To me that’s where Zito is the best example, because he’s been the most durable pitcher in the game this decade.

“I just don’t think it’s natural to limit the arm, to limit its capacity. The muscles in the arm want to stretch out, they need vitality, and limiting them to 120 feet just seems . . . it’s just counterintuitive to me. Physics tells us a pitcher who throws 90 mph can throw a ball around 300 feet. Why limit the arm to 40 percent capacity, which is what you’re doing at 120?”

Those are the extremes of long-toss programs. Most clubs fall in the middle, incorporating it in some form into their throwing programs and trying to allow for individuality. The Giants don’t necessarily want 2006 first-round pick Tim Lincecum long tossing from foul pole to foul pole, like he did at Washington, but roving pitching coordinator Bert Bradley says the organization will allow him to throw at distances over 200 feet because he can do so on a line, using essentially the same unique mechanics he uses on the mound.

Tim Lincecum
“Long toss for me is individual,” Phillies pitching rover Gormon Heimueller says. “Every time we have a ball in our hands it has a purpose, and we want the same delivery mechanics no matter if we’re at 60, 90 or 150 feet. We want to be able to get extension in the release out in front, we want backspin and we want carry.

“A few guys get past 180, and as long as it’s under control with carry that’s fine. We don’t force anybody to get back--I want them to go where they can do it right. I want proper mechanics to where they can get it right. I’m all for trying to get the distance you can get properly. If you can do that 300 feet, more power to you. (But) I think the bulk of that should be preseason. I think you get to the middle of the season you’re trying to maintain more than to continually try to strengthen during the course of a season. You’re out there competing and trying to get outs. You’re not building to something--you’re at the point now where you’ve got to produce.”

Still More Art Than Science

Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to--producing. Pitchers have to produce on the mound. Pitching coordinators have to produce pitchers who can move up the ranks, help the organization in the major leagues or help by becoming viable trade commodities.

The only way they can do that is by staying healthy, Romanick says. Ultimately, that’s the most important thing a throwing program can do for a pitcher.

“You can get all wrapped up in mechanics,” Romanick says, “but you can’t get better if you’re not healthy. If you’re not pitching, if you’re rehabbing, you aren’t getting better.”

Of course, what keeps a pitcher healthy is another subject of significant debate. Several pitchers who were known for their long-toss work as amateurs, such as 2002 first-round pick Chris Gruler and 2005 first-rounder Mark Rogers, may have become vulnerable to injury because their organizations precluded them from doing their long-toss and tubing programs. Others might argue that those pitchers broke down because they were long-toss monsters, players who often pushed throwing 400 feet.

Mark Prior
Mark Prior has become a touchstone for pitching injuries. Tom House--probably the most famous pitching “guru” in the game--held up Prior, one of his clients, as an example of proper pitching development earlier in the decade. At the 2004 American Baseball Coaches Association convention in San Diego, coaches packed a ballroom to see House’s 50-minute pitching clinic, with Prior and Nolan Ryan as the star attractions, demonstrating mechanics drills on the stage.

The previous season, Prior was the Cubs’ ace, going 18-6, 2.43 and pitching 235 innings, counting the postseason. He also threw 110 or more pitches in 22 starts that season, at age 22, and hasn’t been the same since, culminating in a 44-inning, 7.21 ERA disaster that a Prior impersonator posted in 2006. His fastball sat in the mid-80s this spring, a far cry from his pinpoint 94 mph heat when he first came to the majors.

Did the 2003 workload damage Prior because it was too much in and of itself, or did it damage Prior because he hadn’t trained properly leading up to it? Were his mechanics perfect, as many proclaimed, or an elbow injury waiting to happen, as many now eagerly like to relate? Did his 120-foot long-toss program make him the pitcher he was in 2003, or contribute to his inability to replicate that performance?

Because of his talent and his injury history, Prior had as much attention focused on him as any pitcher in recent memory. Now the attention of two nations is focused on Matsuzaka, whose training methods--he rarely uses ice, long tosses extensively in the preseason and rarely throws bullpens in-season--are foreign to the baseball culture he has joined. If Matsuzaka succeeds on the grand stage of Boston’s Fenway Park, perhaps his routine and throwing program will be held up as the example other pitchers should follow . . .

Until he gets hurt.

Additional reporting for this story by Chris Kline and Matt Meyers.