The deconditioning of the arm

Dan Haren (AP image)

Dan Haren (AP image)

There are a myriad of programs, tools, methods, theories and opinions that attempt to address the rising number of arm injuries in baseball. Countless dollars and research hours have been spent by the medical community and countless time, energy and discussion has been made by the baseball community to quell this epidemic.

Alan Jaeger

Alan Jaeger

For Alan Jaeger, the solution is relatively simple- any high school, college or professional organization that puts heavy limits and restrictions on arms that are, comparatively, being so well trained and conditioned in this day and age are simply deconditioning arms. The current culture (in college baseball especially) places an emphasis on throwing more, rather than less, so pitchers are well protected in general. But when a well conditioned player comes up against a throwing program that places major limits on them (distance, time, workload), arms become very vulnerable to deconditioning.

This is prevalent at all levels but ironically at the “highest” level of baseball (the major leagues), a number of organizations are actually the most conservative. Whether it’s due to the amount of money players are paid, the change in philosophy from a pitcher being on their own or suddenly becoming part of an organization-wide structure or policy, pitchers going into professional baseball can be restricted the most. Through research and experience, about a third of MLB organizations mandate a throwing program that places restrictions on time allotted for throwing (i.e. 10-12 minutes) and distance (i.e. 120-150 feet) — in some cases, it can be very extreme (about a third are considered very liberal and individualized, and the other third are somewhere in the middle).

“In large part, the rules in place have to do with monitoring the distance of throwing,” says Jaeger, who founded Jaeger Sports (www.jaegersports.com) on the principle that athletes need to develop physical and mental skills in order to be successful. “I’d say a third of the teams are in the ‘120 to 200 [foot]’ training distance.”

Though restrictions on distance (which leads to a reduction in endurance — less time, less throws to make to build up endurance) are the main issue, Jaeger has noted other issues that he believes contribute to arm regression. “I believe that pitchers are too limited by their innings at the lowest levels of the minor leagues and that they throw too many bullpens in spring training; it’s not unusual for a pitcher to pen every other day for the first 8 days they are there. It’s so conservative; you’re ‘atrophy-ing’ the arms, you’re deconditioning them — this is the main issue. Yet everyone’s looking everywhere else for the answer.”

Jaeger’s method of throwing is primarily focused on long toss, with an emphasis on long. Major League Organizations like the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros have brought Jaeger in and Clayton Kershaw was first introduced to his program as a High School senior at the Area Code Games by Jaeger’s colleague Jim Vatcher. Students have included young studs like Lucas Giolito, Kodi Medeiros and Michael Montgomery, along with grizzled veterans such as Dan Haren and Barry Zito- who between them have made 877 professional starts- and counting- without ever having been on the disabled list with an arm injury.

kershaw long toss

Clayton Kershaw

“Our guys are like Michael Phelps; they’ve done the work…they’ve done the conditioning. Nothing really bothers them because they are so well conditioned and have such great recovery period. They are built to throw.

“But if you were to put a well conditioned arm on a restricted throwing program, the effect would be like having a marathon runner- who’s trained to run 10 miles a day- be told that they can only run one mile a day for thirty days. And then on the 31st day, they are told to run a full marathon, 26-plus miles. The thought of the effect on the body and recovery period being forced to train at one mile a day when it’s used to 10 miles a day is the metaphor to what you do to an arm when you take away its conditioning.

“When you take an arm that’s been limited and conditioned by 120 feet and ask it to exert itself in the game, you are asking for big trouble. This is so taxing to an arm- once it loses its conditioning, it’s open to pitching on fumes, which then leads to poor recovery. And this is where rubber hits the road. It’s just sad to me. But it’s what’s happening.”

At the ASMI’s National Annual Conference a few years ago Stan Conte (head of Medical Services for the Los Angeles Dodgers) spoke about how much money has been lost to the disabled list over the previous 20 years or so, essentially saying that the system is broken: “Despite the value of the golden age of orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, rehabilitation programs and strength and conditioning coaches, as an industry, since 1989, injuries are not going down.”

“When an expert in the medical field is talking about this,” Jaeger observes, “you can see why it’s frustrating to me, because the model is based on conservatism of throwing. That is my greatest complaint.”

THE ORIGIN OF THE 120-FOOT WORLD

“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, Seattle Mariners

“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

After the first elbow and shoulder reconstruction surgeries in the 1970s, it was necessary to develop a throwing rehab protocol, marking the first collision of its kind between the medical world and the baseball world. The result? A rehabilitation program that included a set amount of throws at 45, 60, 90 and 120 feet. “The rehab program was designed for just that- rehabilitation,” Jaeger notes. “Once the player was done with that, they were to return to their organization and their normal throwing. It’s noble, it’s got parameters and it’s backed by the medical community. But when signing bonuses got into the millions, professional baseball became about this very structured, formatted program that was conservative and homogenous.”

With the rise in signing bonuses and contract amounts, baseball experienced a shift as it attempted to ‘protect’ pitchers rather than, to put it simply, let them be free. “Baseball is trying to ‘keep players healthy’ and ‘prevent them from breaking down,’” Jaeger adds. “The idea of someone putting a time or distance constraint on throwing a baseball would be like someone telling you to conserve the amount of steps you walk each day so you don’t hurt your feet- inconceivable.”

In The Origin of Throwing Programs + Mechanical Myth + Post-Rehab Throwing Advice, Jaeger wrote that the majority of professional players he trained threw distances ranging from 300-360 feet and when they were put on restricted programs, they lost velocity, endurance, feel and recovery time.

So what has to give?

HAVE VS. MAKE

“I think the greatest reason that arms are breaking down in general with kids as a whole, and specifically, in a number of MLB organizations, is the deconditioning of the arms,” says Jaeger. “I don’t know every high school and college program, but I do know just about every MLB program, and about half of them are putting pitchers immediately on a monitored, restricted, conservative throwing plan. For a pitcher that doesn’t throw much, it’s not a big deal. But for all of these pitchers that are coming out of long toss programs across the country- UCLA, Vanderbilt, TCU, Oregon State, Mississippi State, etc., the greatest “fall” is for a long toss arm to be put on an aggressively limited (120 feet) throwing program.

In addition to long tossing constraints, pitch counts and innings limits have also been put on pitchers in a (seemingly futile) attempt to reduce pitcher injuries. “I don’t think there’s a pro organization out there that would deny the fact that they have pitch counts and monitor innings,” Jaeger says. “I’m okay with pitch counts to some degree- it’s the over-protection factor and conservatism that’s the issue. But where we come from, ‘the more you use it properly, the more it produces.’ Everybody talks about how many throws you have in your arm. How about how many throws you can make? How about training your arm properly?”

While Jaeger doesn’t wholly support pitch counts for well-trained arms, he is a proponent of them to a certain extent. “If a pitcher breaks a threshold of 35-40 pitches, they need a recovery period of two to three days. Besides conditioning, I think recovery is the next most important factor in staying healthy. So if you have high pitch counts with little recovery period, that’s when you start getting into trouble. The more you train and condition your arm, pitch counts become less and less important.”

LET IT EAT?

There are many that believe that limiting certain factors with throwing can ultimately limit injuries. Jaeger is not one of them. “When you get on the mound and you’re throwing as hard as you can, you’re testing the highest threshold. I would like to at least have gone through the progressive steps to condition my arm to build up the greatest base possible so when I do test it in a game, I’ve already been there and done that.

“I don’t buy this whole concept that throwing distance puts too much pressure on your arm, it’s just the opposite. As you progressively put more force on the arm, you best position it to build up correctly. Stress on the arm isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Stan Conte once told me. That’s what training is – you break it down and it builds itself back up stronger. It goes hand in hand with how the body works anyway. Personally, I’ve never heard of a guy without a pre-existing problem getting hurt long tossing. I’m sure it’s happened, but so many guys are thriving with it.”

CHANGE ON THE HORIZON?

Just like the night getting darkest before the dawn, Jaeger believes that change is on the horizon for baseball. He just wants the sun to rise a little faster.

“Part of what I’ve been trying to do lately is get the media involved, because I think they have a ton of clout. Journalists can really dig; they can go places that most people can’t. They can place accountability on coaches and front offices and say look, this is what’s going on out there. If it’s coming from me, people just say ‘well, he’s a long toss guy.’”

Jaeger’s team has also had several opportunities to meet and work alongside MLB clubs, with “unbelievable success.”

Butch Thompson, pitching coach, Mississippi State University

Butch Thompson, pitching coach, Mississippi State University

“As MLB organizations start having more success with this, I’d like to believe it will spread. We’ve had an opportunity to meet with seven MLB clubs and I truly feel that with their success, other organizations will follow. I also believe the success of so many prominent college programs are having a huge effect. Well respected pitching coaches like Scott Brown (Vanderbilt), Butch Thompson (Mississippi State), Nate Yeskie (Oregon State), John Savage (UCLA) and others are starting to influence what’s going on in professional baseball, just like Derek Johnson [Chicago Cubs minor league pitching coordinator, hired away from Vanderbilt in 2012].

Jaeger believes that college baseball can be an integral factor in this shift. “In college you have a lot of freedom, you have kids under one roof for three or four years and you can trial-and-error a lot of stuff. Professional baseball is more of a hierarchy, so even if you have pitching coaches that have a way they want to do it, a lot of times they have an organizational philosophy. Even if a pitching coach wants to long toss a guy, their hands can be tied by the front office or medical staff.”

PROOF IN THE PUDDING

In his Origin of Throwing Programs article, Jaeger interviewed 21 of the top pitchers from the 2011 MLB Draft. 17 of them were fans of long tossing 300-400 feet, including Gerrit Cole, Trevor Bauer, Dylan Bundy, Archie Bradley, Tyler Beede and Sonny Gray. The following year, he expanded his study to the top 50 projected pitchers in the 2012 MLB Draft. 28 of the 32 he conversed with practiced long toss, with the majority stretching it out to 330-350 feet:

Mark Appel, Kyle Zimmer, Kevin Gausman, Marcus Stroman, Chris Stratton, Lance McCullers, Lucas Sims, Ty Hensley, Matt Smoral, Lucas Giolito, Max Fried, Shane Watson, Zach Eflin, Pierce Johnson, Walker Weickel, Ty Buttery, Nick Travesio, Hunter Virant, Nolan Sanburn, Alec Rash, Jake Barret, J.T. Chargois, Chris Beck, Pat Light, Chase Dejong, Martin Agosta, Brady Rogers and Mitchell Traver.

Throughout the course of his study, Jaeger got in touch with 72 college programs, with 100% of them reporting back that they both encouraged the importance of a pitcher’s individuality and some form of distance throwing or long toss.

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

It is true that restricted, organization-wide throwing programs may exist in professional baseball. However there are many coaches in high school, travel ball, or summer collegiate baseball that likely feel as if their hands are tied when it comes to managing pitchers. For fear of injuries, coaches might feel pressured not to push their pitchers, especially if a big scholarship offer or professional signing bonus is on the line. Jaeger says simply, do your homework:

“We have free articles on our website- our whole offseason program, our in-season maintenance program, YouTube videos that have a voice over to take you step by step through our approach. Just have an open mind and start educating yourself. Once the research is done, it’ll make sense. It’s about putting the time in and doing your homework.”