The other day, I was having a conversation with one of my good coaching friends. We met back when we were still players and have continued to keep in touch beyond our playing careers. During the conversation, he brought up a similar problem two of his better pitchers were experiencing. Both throw from a low slot. Their best fastballs look like bowling balls. They get a ton of depth and arm side run – usually around 10-12 vertical break (VB) and -16 to -18 horizontal break (HB) on Rapsodo.
What he noticed recently, however, was the profile began to flip. Instead of getting more horizontal and less vertical, they were getting more ride and less run. While this in itself isn’t always a bad thing, it was having a negative impact on their performance. They couldn’t pitch to guys the same way. The ground balls they used to get were turning into line drives. The same pitches that used to miss barrels were flattening out and getting hit harder. I initially considered the idea of changing their strategy to match their new arsenal. After talking to him some more, I knew this wasn’t going to be best. Something in their training had changed and it was negatively impacting what they knew how to do well. It’s one thing to lose something you’re pretty good at. It’s another to lose your best weapon.
To get more context on their arsenal, I inquired about specific data on the pitches. I asked if he had noticed anything different in terms of release height, spin axis, and spin efficiency. Release height had remained stable, as well as spin efficiency, but the spin direction has climbed a touch higher. This explained the different shape. If the axis on your fastball gets closer to 12 pm (for reference), it’s going to gain more VB – assuming spin efficiency remains stable. The position of the axis on the baseball is optimized for more carry, hence why pitchers who throw from higher slots tend to have more VB. This, as a result, has a subsequent impact on HB. The more VB you create, the less HB you’re going to induce.
You’ll often see differences in spin direction with slot changes (e.g. pitcher who adds lateral trunk tilt is going to have a higher spin axis), but this wasn’t quite the case. Their slot had remained the same, but spin direction had changed. Their fingers were interacting with the baseball at release slightly differently. This difference is incredibly subtle, which meant a positive adjustment was going to take some investigation. Changes aren’t mistakes. They happened for a reason – consciously or subconsciously. The smaller the change, the less likely it happened over night.
To discover what changed, we had to evaluate their current throwing habits and routines. After talking some things through, we finally came up with a theory that connected all the dots. While I was talking, I made the comment that both players had added some carry to their fastball – referencing the increase in VB. The baseball never actually rises (gravity still works), but the influence of VB can create the illusion of it. For a small fraction of time, the pitch seems to defy gravity. When my friend heard the word “carry,” he instantly knew what had happened. Both pitchers had been long tossing more often and had added in pulldowns to try and increase their fastball velocity. Both long toss and pulldowns are well recognized tools to add velocity. Utilizing them, however, comes at a cost.
If you want to throw the ball hard and far, you can’t create a ton of sink or depth. The baseball will never reach your partner (if you’re still reading, gravity still works). The axis has to change so the fingers can stay behind the ball longer and create more carry – but at the expense of sink and run. What started as a well intentioned intervention for velocity ended up hurting the thing that made their fastball effective in the first place. They were robbing Peter to pay Paul – a classic case of misaligned incentives.
I can only imagine how many cases never get correctly diagnosed.
If we’ve accomplished anything as an industry over the past 20 years, I think we’ve done a good job busting the myth of velocity as an innate trait. Teaching guys how to throw fuel is no longer taboo. It’s common place – largely because we also know it works (giving your opponent less time to make decisions is smart). The catch is in Goodhart’s Law. With the increasing demand to throw hard, our perception and desire for velocity has evolved. It’s no longer just a metric. It’s become an objective. This comes with a price tag. When people hear that velocity is important, they naturally want to find ways to increase their velocity. Not all of these ways are created equal – especially the ones we hear about the most.
I remember having a conversation with a father of a player I do remote work with. We focus primarily on hitting, but we’ve also done a decent amount of work on his throwing. Early on, I remember his dad asking me if he should start doing long toss and weighted balls to increase his arm strength. I gave him my best answer – which, in short, was “it depends.” But then I thought some more about his question. I became annoyed – not by his question, but by our groupthink perception of adding velocity.
Marketing has become reality: We’ve simplified a complex process into a drill and popular pitching commodity. This is – and I cannot emphasize this enough – a huge problem.
I love the concept behind long toss. I use weighted baseballs all the time – not to mention every baseball that’s ever existed is a “weighted” baseball. I hate how both have been branded as velocity tools. The only distance we need to be really good at is 60’6”. The only “weighted” baseball we need to be really good with is the five ounce one. I’m not proposing we have to strictly follow the Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID) principle. I just think we need to rethink our perception on the process to add velocity. It’s a lot messier than just telling all of your players to long toss and use weighted baseballs. It’s going to help some, but it’s going to hurt many more if it’s done uniformly.
For one reason or the other, long toss seems to be the one thing people don’t criticize a ton when it comes to adding velocity. You don’t really have to sell it to anyone anymore. It’s pretty common place – and for good reason. It’s self paced. No one really tells you how far to throw or how long. You just stretch your arm out until it feels good and then work back in – making it inherently individualized (well, at least that’s how it was designed). This, for a number of reasons, can create a myriad of benefits. I like to compare it to my basketball shot. When my jump shot feels a little funky, I’ll back up and shoot from 25’ and out. I won’t actually shoot a ton from there in games, but the constraint in distance forces me to use my entire body when I shoot. This helps everything sync back up. From a macro level, I see a similar benefit in long toss. You can’t cheat a throw from 250’. You have to get your entire body behind it if you want to reach your target with some pace. If you’re working with a pitcher who constantly cuts their fastball, back them up to 120’ and have them pitch. If they cut the baseball from that distance, it’s never going to reach their partner.
The tricky thing is figuring out how far each player needs to go.
The going out phase of long toss is designed to be a pretty effortless process. You’re not throwing bullets at this point. You’re taking your arm for a ride and getting a feel for how it syncs up with your body. Everything out of the hand should feel smooth and effortless. This process is designed to optimize mechanical efficiency. When our arm is at its best, it shouldn’t feel like we’re working hard to use it. It should feel like it’s simply along for the ride. When we get to a distance where we can no longer feel this sensation, we should stop and work back in. The problems start when we do not.
The problem with long toss isn’t the concept behind it. It’s when distance transforms from a measure into an objective – a violation of Goodhart’s Law. In search of velocity, one of the early things a lot of coaches tried to do was correlate long toss distance with fastball velocity. If you could throw farther, you should theoretically be able to throw harder on a mound. Watching guys like Trevor Bauer long toss pole to pole before games became inspiration for high schoolers that needed to add velocity to play at the next level. If it worked for him, it should work for me too – right?
Ah, if it were only that simple.
If we think about where long toss can go wrong, we have to consider the positions and angles that make extended distances of ball flight achievable. When we go beyond a certain distance that exceeds our comfort level, our body is going to compensate and find a way to get the ball to your target – for better or for worse. For those who throw from higher slots and create plus carry, this process is very natural. They don’t have to change their arm slot or add trunk tilt to make it happen. They already throw from a slot conducive to carry. The only thing they need to do is add effort.
The problem is when low slot pitchers try to do the same thing. When lot slow guys long toss, they have to compensate and add trunk tilt to their glove side in order to raise their arm slot. Their natural throwing motion doesn’t create carry (for most, at least), so they have to create it artificially through trunk tilt. This keeps their fingers behind the baseball longer and adds distance, but at the expense of their natural sink. This – as seen above – can have a significant impact on their arsenal.
Throwing adaptations are not accidents. They are the byproduct of the types of throws we most commonly make. Every wonder why shortstops and catchers have beautiful arm actions? The throws they consistently make are under considerable constraints. Their arm has no room for error, so it optimizes in a way that minimizes error. It’s an incredibly specific process. If your catch play often stretches beyond 280’, your trunk, arm, and hand are going to optimize in a way that makes this distance achievable. This is a great thing for guys that rely on ride to get hitters out. It’s not so great for guys that depend on run and sink.
If we go back to the situation from above, we see what happens when a low slot guy gets paired with a drill that isn’t designed to optimize a low slot arsenal. While the trunk positioning on the mound didn’t gain tilt, the hand interacted with the baseball differently. Instead of being more on the side of the ball, it started to climb and stay more behind the ball. This created a different spin axis, resulting in a completely different ball flight. They weren’t consciously trying to do this. It was an unconscious byproduct of their training routine.
For reasons discussed above, I think throwing at distance is a great way to add velocity. We just have to be cautious when we correlate distance with velocity. Not all distance is created equal. There are tons of ways to add velocity that do not involve long tossing a football field. If you throw from a lower slot or depend on sink, long tossing might actually make you worse. It’s not to say low slot arms can’t create carry (e.g. Josh Hader). We just have to consider the characteristics that make their fastball most effective. If they rely on more sink and run, they probably shouldn’t play catch at distances that don’t allow for it. They should simply stretch it out to the point where they feel comfortable. If it’s no more than 60’6”, great. If it’s 150’, great. It’s just probably not going to be 250’ and beyond.
I also think this story was a great example of a calculated intervention in tech. Prior to this obstacle, a baseline for their arsenal had been collected. When they started to experience problems in games, a new baseline was collected. This comparison helped us understand more granular aspects of their arsenal that had changed, which gave us a point from which we could start building out a theory. We cannot put our sole trust into the eye test. Confirmation bias is going to make us see things we want to and negate things we’d wish to avoid. Objective feedback keeps us honest. We should never guess if we don’t have to.
Long toss might be the new fad when it comes to building velocity, but it is not a necessity. The only distance we need to throw well at is 60’6”. If how you train helps you do this, you’re on the right track. If it’s not, you need to reconsider your priorities. Velocity is important, but it should never become an objective. The only objective we should ever have is to send hitters back to the dugout. Start figuring out what helps you do this better than anyone else. Reverse engineer your training process from here.
What’s trending won’t last – that is, if you’re still around to see the next one.