Throwing Programs of Elite Pitchers
By Alan Jaeger
The essence of this article was to source why a “one-size-fits-all” throwing program began to take root in the baseball community decades ago, and why, in some cases it is still being implemented.
This formatted program typically included specific limits on how “far” (ie 120 feet), how “much” (ie the counting of throws), how “long” (ie 10 minutes) and at what angle (ie on a line) pitchers were instructed to throw.
For someone who has seen the baseball culture change so dramatically in the past 15 years, where players are throwing more, rather than less…further rather than shorter, knowing that there is still a throwing program out there that treats all arms the same and places restrictions on them is hard to understand — especially when you’ve seen players thrive for the past 24 years by having the freedom to listen to their arm and allow it to dictate how much, how far and how often to throw.
Besides, aren’t all arms unique?
And isn’t one of the most fundamental principles of training and development to push beyond your limitations (which is why you run more to build up endurance, lift more if you want to get stronger).
So, back in 2012, I decided to do some research to try source the origin of this throwing program.
I reached out to some of the most respected and experienced people in the medical and baseball communities, including Dr. Lewis Yocum (Kerlan/Jobe), Kevin Wilk (ASMI), Stan Conte (Medical Director/Researcher, Los Angeles Dodgers) and Dr. Tom House (Former MLB Pitching Coach/Performance Analyst) to see if I could better understand the basis of this approach. And in no time, the answers became very clear.
Rehab Versus Training
“The 120 foot program is a model that was developed a couple decades ago for rehabbing throwers. This is important, but it wasn’t created with an interest in athlete performance or maximal development.”
— Marcus Elliot, MD, Director of Sport Science and Performance
What I soon discovered through this research was that “throwing programs” were essentially created with the intent of rehabilitating an arm, post surgery. Thus, when Dr. Frank Jobe performed the first Ulnar Collateral Ligament replacement surgery on Tommy John (1974), and rotator cuff surgery on Steve Busby (1976), there was a need to not only prescribe the inaugural post surgery protocol for “rehabilitation” (physical therapy), but post surgery protocol for “throwing” (throwing program).
From what I began to ascertain, both the Kerlan/Jobe and ASMI medical centers came up with a similar plan for their post surgery throwing program.
They brought together a team of doctors, physical therapists and baseball coaches to come up with a throwing program that would help progressively build the arm back into shape in the most optimal fashion.
But here’s the catch — the intent of the throwing program was designed to get each player through the rehabilitation process of throwing so they could resume normal training. In other words, though the initial rehabilitation throwing program was completed, it was not intended to be the end of the players training or conditioning prior to getting back into competition.
There was another phase after the rehabilitation throwing program was completed — to return to their team and subsequently train and condition in a manner similar to how any “healthy” arm would train (or I’d assume, similar to how they trained pre-surgery).
In short, the throwing phase of the rehabilitation program was to complement the initial physical therapy, and progressively build a foundation for the arm to return to normal training.
And just as the physical therapy program had a completion date to initiate the beginning of the throwing program, the throwing program had a completion date to initiate when it was time to resume “normal” training. At least, that was the intention.
“There is a huge distinction between a Rehab Program and a Conditioning Program — they have two different purposes.”
— Stan Conte, Senior Director of Medical Services, Los Angeles Dodgers
As the article continued on, though the original intention of these experts was to put in place a throwing program to rehabilitate arms, somewhere along the way the format of the “rehabilitation” program (Time, Distance, Angle) seemed to influence the format for “training” arms in many instances.
And whether it was due to the convenience of having a structure in place that was easy to control, easy to implement, perceived as “anatomically correct” (throwing the ball on a line was also popularized in the 1990’s) or “safe” because it was medically based (ASMI began conducting studies on distance throwing in the mid 90’s that may have also greatly influenced limiting distance throwing), the bottom line is that “rehabilitation” and “training” seemed to become interchangeable.
And this is clearly evident by the fact that both programs have essentially the same parameters in place — a set amount of time or throws at specific, predetermined distances (60 ft, 90 ft, 120 ft 90 ft and 60 ft).
The bottom line is that the rehabilitation model of getting players “rehabilitated” has served a great purpose.
But it is not representative of how pitchers are training now (see research at bottom of this article). Pitchers are throwing more, not less — further, not shorter — and from my experience and research, they are throwing according to the needs of their arm, rather than a prescribed format.
All Athletes are Unique: The Need to Adapt to the Pitchers Individuality Rather than Imposing a Program on Them
In Nature, all things are unique
Because all players are unique and have their own history of how they’ve trained, a secondary issue also arises from implementing a homogenous system — it discounts both the individuality and history of the athlete.
In fact, when you look at any form of training or development, the common denominator is that everyone is unique.
Thus, when I meet someone new, the first thing I want to know is how they train — I want to watch them throw and get a feel for their movements and mechanics before saying anything. I want to know why their arm may be so well conditioned, durable, strong, free and accurate. I want to know their throwing history so I can best adapt to them, and help optimize their growth.
It is a relationship — there is a constant, open line of communication with mutual interest.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t suggest things that I feel have been successful in my past experience as a coach — it just means that it’s a joint effort, especially if they have already had a great deal of success in the past. And for any walk of life it seems pretty clear to me that this is one of the most fundamental and essential aspects of growth and development — getting to know the person that you are entering into a relationship with.
This is also why the one-size-fits-all format doesn’t make sense in this day and age — it completely discounts the pitchers throwing history.
Rather than ask the pitcher what he has done to have success — what he has done to have a strong and healthy arm, the focus is on “a format that someone else thinks is right for you”, independent of your input or personal history. In these situations, the net result is that pitchers no longer have a voice with regard to “what got them there”.
They are now at the mercy of what is being imposed on them.
Research From 2012 Article
Because of what I had already sensed from so many years of teaching, consulting and information gathering, I wanted to reach out to some of the top projected pitchers in the 2011 and 2012 MLB Drafts, along with many of the most respected College programs in the country to see how they were training.
I figured if there was a correlation between how the strongest and healthiest arms in the country were training, it would hopefully help bring to light how non-representative a one-size-fits-all throwing program is.
As part of my research, I reached out to or sourced 52 pitchers that were mostly projected 1st and 2nd round draft picks from the 2011 and 2012 MLB Drafts (because they theoretically were among the strongest arms in the country) and a number of highly respected College Programs, and asked them about their throwing routine.
Though I didn’t ask the pitchers if they were on their teams throwing program, it seemed pretty evident that they all threw according to the needs of their arm, as evidenced by the diversity in their answers (they trained at distances ranging from 120-400 feet).
Also, 42 out of 52 pitchers interviewed (81%) trained at distances of 270-400 feet prior to the draft, or well beyond the prescribed distance for the rehabilitation model.
On a personal level, this made sense to me because I have found throughout my experience that pitchers that have strong arms like to throw far, hard and often — it’s one of the instinctive pleasures of having a strong arm. It’s why those who are fast like to run fast, and those that have a lot of power like hitting balls far (think batting practice or hitting golf balls on the range).
Elite Draftable Players
Even though my previous research confirmed what I strongly suspected, I thought with the 2014 MLB Draft right around the corner, it would be interesting to reach out to even more college programs and a broader sample of many of the top rated pitchers in the upcoming 2014 MLB Draft to see if this trend of individuality and distance throwing (long toss) continued (these results can be found at the end of this article).
I was able to track down 56 of the top projected pitchers for this years draft (or their pitching coaches), and 70 of many of the most respected College Programs in the country.
And again, what I found out is what I expected — the way pitchers are training across the country is consistent with my past experience and research — 50 out of 56 (89%) of these pitchers extended out to 250 — 400 feet, and in many cases, trained at these distances (4 of these pitchers long tossed to distances as far as 400 feet).
Again, this feedback makes complete sense to me because from my experience, pitchers that have very strong arms seem to like throwing far and often.
Likewise, they almost assuredly needed to be in an environment that gave them the freedom for their arm to thrive (which is why I felt it was so important to find out what kind of environment the college programs were providing).
Which begs the question, if so many pitchers are training based on “listening to their arms”, and by throwing more, rather than less, what happens to their arm if they have major restrictions placed on them? What happens to their arm when their personal routine, which in many cases has been acclimated over several years, is taken away from them?
Do Your Homework
Though you may have many stops along the path, your arm is always with you.
With the easy access of quality coaching across the country and such great resources as the internet so readily available, it seems like in this day and age most pitchers are very educated when it comes to knowing their arm, and knowing what’s best for it.
And for those pitchers, who have spent many years training in a manner that has led to optimal health, strength, endurance and recovery period, be aware of anyone trying to impose a one-size-fits-all throwing program on you that doesn’t feel right, or is inconsistent with how you’ve trained.
This is especially true for those pitchers that are accustomed to long distance throwing, or long toss. It is essential to insure that your individuality is left alone, and that if you like to throw a lot and/or you like to throw distance, be acutely aware of being put on a throwing program that places strong restrictions on distance, time, arc and throws.
Placing restrictions on an arm that has been well conditioned is one of the quickest ways to regress an arm, and put it in harms way.
Whether you are a pitcher who is getting ready to transition into High School, College or Professional Baseball, the bottom line is do your homework.
Find out what kind of throwing program is being implemented by the coach in that program.
Since you have a choice at the High School and College Level, it comes down to asking the right questions and finding a fit with those schools that are open to what you do, and open to allowing you to continue with those things that have made you successful, including your throwing routine.
For those fortunate enough to enter the professional world, be sure to do your homework on the throwing philosophy of each MLB Organization.
What you’ll find in the current culture is that many MLB Organizations strongly promote or endorse individuality and distance throwing, but a number of organizations have a homogenous program that places restrictions on time and/or distance (ie 120 feet).
As a pitcher, who may make as many as 20,000 throws a year and whose livelihood depends on your arm, it’s safe to say that you’ll probably know your arm better than anyone else you’ll ever meet.
Therefore, I hope you take care of it by doing your homework and standing your ground. And if you get suggestions from a coach that feels right, utilize those resources.
But if someone is trying to impose restrictions on you that doesn’t feel right, don’t deviate from what “got you there”. Listen to your arm, for your arm and your careers sake.
Throwing Routine Results
For this years draft I contacted many of the top rated pitchers (or coaches) to quantify each of the pitchers throwing routine.
I asked the following three basic questions:
1) Assuming you are in great throwing shape, how far do you train at with regard to your maximum distance in the Off-Season and how many times per week do you train at this maximum distance (keep in mind that I only documented their “furthest” work days — most, if not all threw almost daily).
2) Same question, only for the In-Season, and 3) How long have they been on this type of throwing routine. The results are listed below in the following format: Name, School, Off-Season Maximum Distance (in feet) and how many throwing sessions at there maximum distance per week (x), In Season Maximum Distance and maximum distance throwing sessions per week (x), and the amount of years they’ve been on this routine. For those answers that weren’t available, they are denoted by n/a.
2014 Projected Draft, Pitchers
- Tyler Kolek, Shephard HS (4 x 350 ft; 200 ft; 7 years)
- Nick Burdi, Louisville, (4 x 270-320 ft; 3-5 x 180-270 ft; 6 years)
- Tyler Beede, Vanderbilt, (2-3 x 280-300 ft; 1-2 x 250 ft; 7 years)
- Aaron Nola, LSU (4-5 x 250-360 ft; 100-350 ft; 7 years)
- Brandon Finnegan, TCU, (5 x 200-400 ft; n/a; 7 years)
- Michael Cederoth, SDSU (2-4 x 300-400 ft ; 90 ft; 12 years)
- Kodi Medeiros, Hilo HS (5-6 x 315-345 ft; 3-4 x 300-345 ft; 1 yr)
- Luke Weaver, FSU (2 x 250-330; 250-330; 7 years)
- Grant Holmes, Conway HS (120 ft; 90 ft; 2 years)
- Sean Reid-Foley, Sandalwood HS (5 x not beyond 150; na; na)
- Sean Newcomb, Hartford (2-3 x 350-370; 1x 350-370; 3 years)
- Touki Toussant, Coral Springs Christian HS (4x 300 ft; 3 x 300 ft; 5 years
- Cobi Johnson, New Port Richey HS (2-3 x 250-300 ft; 1-2 x 250-300 ft; 6 years
- Kyle Freeland, Evansville (1 x 150; 1 x 220; 3 years)
- Spencer Turnbull, Alabama (3 x 350+; 2 x 300-350; 3 years)
- Jeff Hoffman, East Carolina (6 x 200 ft; 4 x 250 ft; 3 years)
- Erick Fedde, UNLV (4×5 120 ft; 2-3 x 120; 3 years)
- Scott Blewett, Baker HS (NY) (3 x 280-300 ft; 2 x 250 ft; 3 years)
- Alex Verdugo, Sahuaro HS (2-3 x 300-360 feet; 2 x 300 ft; 4-5 years
- Jack Flaherty, Harvard-Westlake HS (3x 300 ft; 2 x 200 ft; 5 years)
- Britt Graves, Missouri (3-4 x 300-330 ft; 2-3 x 300-330; 3 years
- Mac Marshall, Parkview HS, (230 ft; 120 ft; n/a)
- Matt Imhof, Cal Poly SLO, (3-4 x 200-250 ft; n/a; n/a)
- Nick Wells, (3-4 x 250 ft; 1-2 x 320 ft; 4 years)
- Parker French, Texas (1-3 x 300+ (far as can); 1 x 300 ft; 3 years)
- Justus Sheffield, Tullahoma HS (3x 300 ft; 2x 300 ft; 3 years)
- Jacob Nix, Los Alamitos HS (4 x 275-300 ft; 3 x 250; 1 year)
- Jace Fry, Oregon State (3-4 x 320 -330 ft; 3-4 x 320-330; n/a)
- Jordan Brink, Fresno State (4x 300 feet; 2 x 300 feet; 6 years)
- Keith Weisenberg, Osceola HS (2-3 x 200 ft; 2 x 175; 4 years)
- Robbie Dickey, Blinn JC (3-4 x 240-300 ft; 1-2 240-300; 1 year)
- Zech Lemond, Rice (2 x 320 ft; 1 x 280-320 ft; n/a)
- Jake Cosart, Seminole State (2-3 x 320-330 ft; 1 x 320-330 ft; n/a)
- James Norwood, St. Louis (300+ feet; n/a; 4 years)
- Dillon Peters, Texas (1-3 x 300+ (far as can), 1 x 300 ft; n/a
- Sam Coonrod, SIU (1 x 300; 2 x 120; 1 ½ years)
- Wyatt Strahan, Southern California (2-3 x 240-260; 3 x 100-180; 4 years)
- Zack Shannon, Moeller HS ( 2 x 390-400; n/a; 2 years)
- Keaton McKinney, Ankeny Centennial HS (5-6 x 270-300 ft; 6x 120-240; 6 years)
- Patrick Weigel, Oxnard JC (2 x 275-300 ft; 3 x 250-300; 1 year)
- Michael Kopech, Mt. Pleasant HS (4x 350-400; 2 x 250-350; 4 years)
- Joey Gatto, St. Augustine Prep HS (2 x 330; 2 x 330; 3 years)
- Brandon Woodruff, Mississippi State (4 x 300-330; 4 x 300 ft; n/a)
- Jake Reed, Oregon (1-2 x as far as can; n/a; n/a)
- Lukas Schiraldi, Texas (1-3 x 300+ (far as can), 1 x 300; n/a
- John Curtiss, Texas (1-3 x off season, 300+ (far as can), 1 x 300 ft; n/a
- Ben Wetzler, Oregon State (3-4 x 320-330 ft; 3-4 x 320-330 ft; n/a)
- Adam Ravenelle, Vanderbilt (4-5 x 280-330 ft; 6x 280-330 ft; 3-4 years)
- Jacob Lindgren, Mississippi St. (4 x 300-330; 4x 300; n/a)
- Devin Smeltzer, Bishop Eustace HS (2x 300-315 ft; 2x 400 ft; 5 years)
- Derek Casey, Hanover HS (3 x 300 – 330 ft; 2x 300 — 330; 4 years)
- Brandon Murray, Hobart HS (3 x 200 feet; 3 x 300 feet; 7-8 years)
- Jonathon Holder, Mississippi State (4 x 300-330 ft; 4x 300 ft; n/a)
- Mitch Hart, Granite Bay HS (3-5 380 ft; 3-4 330-380 ft; 8 years)
- Tejay Antone, Weatherford JC ( 5 x 325-390 ft; 2x 250-325 ft; 3 years)
- Kevin Kelleher, Weatherford JC ( 2-3 x 400 ft; 2 x 400 ft; 9 years)
I also reached out to approximately 100 College Programs, asking them two basic questions:
1) Do you allow for individuality (for each pitcher to throw according to their own needs as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach), and
2) Do you encourage (but not force) some type of distance throwing, or long toss. Of those 72 programs that I received information back from (see list below), 100% of them both encouraged the importance of a pitchers individuality and some form of distance throwing or long toss.
The following programs participated in the survey, and I would like to thank those coaches who contributed: Alabama, Appalachian State, Arizona, Arizona St., Arkansas, Arkansas Pine-Bluff, Baylor, Bethune-Cookman, BYU, Cal Poly SLO, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, Coastal Carolina, Dallas Baptist, Davidson, Duke, Fresno State, Florida International U., Furman, Georgia, Houston, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Liberty, LSU, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan, Mississippi, Mississippi St., Missouri, Missouri State, Monmouth, Nevada, UNLV, New Mexico St, North Carolina, UNC Wilmington, New Mexico St., Notre Dame, Ohio, Oregon, Oregon St., Pepperdine, Princeton, Rice, Riverside JC, St. John’s, Sacramento State, Sam Houston State, U. San Diego, San Diego State, U. San Francisco, Seton Hall, South Carolina, U. Southern California, Stony Brook, Tennessee, Texas, TCU, UC Irvine, UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Washington, Washington State, Wichita State
More On Alan Jaeger
Alan Jaeger has consulted with several high school/college programs including UCLA, Arizona and Cal State Fullerton, and MLB Organizations including the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels and Cleveland Indians.