Wednesday, September 9, 2009
A Boost For Long Toss Advocates
Rangers emphasize long tossing, live BP for pitchers
By Kary Booher
The message came in loud and clear at an offseason conditioning camp set aside for pitchers: The old ways of doing business would no longer cut it.
It figured to make a dent, too. The president of the Rangers himself dropped by to say so.
To reinforce his point, he also went on about how in his heyday he would throw long toss mostly as an offseason routine but also would ratchet up the workload through the summer when, on certain days between starts, he would grab a baseball during afternoon workouts and proceed to throw batting practice.
Some of the young arms assembled for the camp, a collection drawn from the Rangers' treasure chest of prospects, like lefty Derek Holland, also remember hearing about workouts in a swimming pool and a laundry list of other conditioning methods. Some bounced questions off him, but most stood there in awe
As they should have.
Nolan Ryan was throwing down the gauntlet.
"I think organizations started erring on the side of caution," Ryan said in mid-March from his Arizona spring training office, "and maybe it worked against them and they weren't getting their pitchers prepared or getting out of them what they should be.
"Everybody has been on a pitch count since they were in Little League," Ryan continued, emphasizing that he wishes to push pitchers' physical capacity. "And unless you're willing to explore that, I don't think you're getting the maximum amount of your investment out of these kids.
"In my opinion, we're seeing too many injuries."
The Rangers, therefore, are fighting back. To put it mildly.
Heeding Ryan's first major edict since he ascended to the team's presidency more than a year ago, the Rangers set forth this season with an ambitious mandate that pitchers up and down the organization build arm strength and get in better shape.
How it manifests itself ought to be interesting. Born out of frustration over a rash of injuries last season and a nearly decade-long streak of futility, the plan is blowing up new-era thinking by herding pitchers to the mound to throw live batting practice and by pushing their limits in long toss.
Yes, that's correct. Live BP and longer long toss.
The club this offseason sought out an independent long toss program, imposed it within its Dominican Republic academy and went so far as to phone all minor leaguers to request that they be stretched out once camp got under way.
In fact, when asked if long toss in the minor leagues will extend at least to 200 feet—or 80 feet more than the rigid distance allowed throughout the game—general manager Jon Daniels didn't exactly shoot it down.
"We'll see. It could be longer than that," Daniels said, and then offered a rhetorical question. "Really, the 120 number, what's the justification behind that?"
It's understandable why the Rangers are bent on charting a new course in pitching strategy. Texas has long been thin on 200-inning starting pitchers and, more frustrating in Arlington, has fought a losing battle in producing significant homegrown and healthy arms.
If the gung-ho strategy had been implemented in most any other organization, it would garner attention. But because it's happening in Texas, it will play out against a compelling backdrop.
For one, the Rangers have the game's most complete portfolio of power arms and high-profile bats—a double-barreled combo that vaults Texas to the top of Baseball America's organizational talent rankings.
And at the top of the organization is arguably the game's most unique tandem, that of the 62-year-old Ryan, the legend and face of baseball in the Lone Star State; and Daniels, an Ivy League grad who at age 28 in October 2005 became baseball's youngest GM.
"There are those in our local media that don't want to believe it, but we work pretty well together. Now, you could look it at as baseball's odd couple," Daniels said, emphasizing that it has been and will be a positive. "I look at it—with this group of arms we have at the big league level and the group of young players that are close—we have an opportunity."
Unfortunately for the Rangers, they were reminded even before camp got under way that there is no quick remedy to ward off injuries. In January, potential starters Joaquin Benoit and Eric Hurley both had rotator cuff surgery and will be lost for the season.
If Ryan's offseason presence, or the latest swirl of bad news, then, didn't catch minor leaguers' attentions, maybe this will. The Rangers have added full-time strength and conditioning coaches to the payrolls of each of their minor league affiliates.
Ryan's Last Stop?
"I did everything," Ryan said, shedding light on his routine throughout a 27-year career that led straight to Cooperstown. "I'm a big believer in running sprints. I worked out in the swimming pool a lot. We threw long toss, and I'm a big believer in long toss.
"As you get older, as I was, I threw a lot from flat ground to keep my timing. And as you become an older player, that becomes a challenge," he said. "I've always believed that the one thing you could control was the shape you were in. I never wanted to walk off the field with the feeling I got beat because somebody was in better shape than I was."
Ryan offered these comments as the Rangers moved through camp with mostly encouraging signs on the mound. But as he spoke of how he stretched his career longer than many thought possible, Ryan conveyed a sense that the game has strayed from its roots, that it has become softer on developing arm strength.
That doesn't necessarily mean turning to a militaristic approach, but the Rangers do prefer to break from the status quo.
When he passed the one-year anniversary of being appointed team president, Ryan did so for an organization that had not been known for durable, 200-innings pitchers.
In fact, only three times in the past nine seasons—beginning the year after their last playoff appearance in 1999—have the Rangers had dual 200-inning-plus starters in the same year. They also have ranked at or near the bottom in the majors in a trio of starters' stats—earned run average, strikeouts and innings pitched—through the same stretch.
By contrast, Ryan averaged almost 258 innings a season from 1972 to 1989.
But he sees no reason why Rangers starters can't reach 200 innings. That's why he's here.
"When you grow up in baseball as I did, you always have an interest to be involved in an organization where you can have an influence on it," Ryan said. "When this job came open, I didn't think the window of opportunity would be there for long. And it was the right fit."
Since retirement, Ryan continued pitching Advil pain medicine—remember the commercials?—and worked at times for both the Rangers and Astros as part of personal services contracts that, he acknowledged, did not give him the clout to fully implement his ideas or didn't quite offer a sense of fulfillment.
Then again, he had and still has a lot of irons in the fire, from spearheading the Ryan-Sanders Baseball organization that opened Double-A and Triple-A teams in Corpus Christi and Round Rock. He also maintains cattle ranches in south Texas and serves on the board of his hometown bank in Alvin.
"I'm like a proverbial dog that does nothing but chase its tail," Ryan joked.
But that's OK. He makes time for that part of his life, as well as his bride of 41 years, Ruth, and their three adult children and grandchildren.
"It's exciting to see how excited he is," said one of his sons, Reid Ryan, president and CEO of Ryan-Sanders Baseball. "Just speaking as a son, to see your dad at 62 years old energized and excited about going to work every day . . . it's fun for us as a family."
Reid, however, says he has not spoken with his father quite as often since Ryan re-emerged with the Rangers. But Reid is optimistic his dad's strategy will work if it is given time to work. He equates it to his success in raising cattle.
"His mindset is one that meshes well with baseball right now," Reid said. "You have to have patience with your players and plant your seeds and give them time to grow. I think that mentality he's bringing to the game is going to help the Rangers be successful."
Long toss, BP and increased conditioning have been areas Daniels has wished to add fully throughout the organization since his promotion from assistant GM. But Daniels acknowledged that Ryan brought street cred, if that can be said of a successful Texas cattle rancher.
"One of the benefits of having Nolan involved is the credibility factor, with pitching coaches and strength and conditioning coaches, to understand top to bottom that this is going to be a priority," Daniels said.
And a priority it will be.
The losses of Benoit and Hurley spotlight the problems. A year ago, the Rangers had to place starter Brandon McCarthy on the 60-day disabled list in March and then saw each member of the Opening Day starting rotation eventually reach the DL, too.
"That's one-sixth of our staff that we don't have access to that we were counting on," Ryan said of Benoit and Hurley. "I'm going to tell ya, I don't know too many organizations that lose one-sixth of their staff and not feel it."
And so . . .
"What we're trying to do, after the season we had last year and the injuries we had last year on our pitching staff—with the number of pitchers we had to bring up—we felt we had to address these issues," Ryan said. "My goal is to cut our injuries in half."
Shift In Thinking
If Ryan's edict seems overly ambitious as the Rangers attempt to ween a peer group of youngsters—his word for the minor leaguers—off the corporate-style training that has been commonplace in baseball the past two decades, personnel within the organization have a collective reaction: Why not?
The Rangers through most of their existence, since opening operations in Arlington in 1961, and save for their three division-title teams in the 1990s, have roamed the American League much like a forgotten cowboy on the frontier plains that has never quite found his swagger. Now comes a call to arms, so to speak, a call to strengthen them.
In other words, a tectonic shift in thinking.
No longer will the Rangers bound their pitchers to a maximum 120 feet in their long toss program, and that's just the start of it.
While the Rangers view long toss as an essential feeder component leading into the season, here's the kicker: Pitchers will be asked to throw live batting practice.
Live BP, scheduled for each pitcher on a day between starts, was mandatory last year with Texas' low-minors affiliates. Now it's being asked of major leaguers and of Triple-A arms. Bullpen sessions won't be abandoned, however.
"I like it a lot," said Holland, rated alongside righthander Neftali Feliz as the BA's top two Rangers prospects. "To me, it's better to throw against live hitters."
Rangers officials decline to discuss specifics of both programs, citing concerns that revelations could jeopardize Texas' competitive advantage. For instance, when asked if long toss distance would expand to, say, 200 feet, or to perhaps 250 feet or more, farm director Scott Servais carefully offered only this: "Some guys are going over 120," he said.
"We're just willing to try something different. How different is it? Not that different," Servais said. "We don't have all of the answers. But we're willing to take a chance on this. We feel we might get good rewards out of it. Maybe we get guys to pitch more innings. We just hope we're right." But then Servais added this caveat: "We may not be."
Pitchers throwing live BP phased out over the years, but Ryan believes it can be a valuable tool again—and not just for arm strength. He also is confident that it allows pitchers to have a batter in place to gauge the success of their refined pitches.
"I would get up to 45 minutes in of BP, and I would play long toss," Ryan said. "It was part of my five-day routine. But I probably threw a lot more long toss in January and February when I was getting ready for spring training."
To Holland, both programs can be beneficial and appreciates the Rangers for allowing pitchers to proceed at their own comfort level.
"You can see how your ball is moving," Holland said of live BP, noting he doesn't go a full 100 percent. "When you have a hitter there, you see what you've got to work on. When you don't have a hitter, you don't get a reaction.
"But some guys are like, 'I've got to gas it up and let everything out,' but it's not like that."
Holland is representative of the most encouraging crop of talented arms that the Rangers have had in years.
Heading the class is Feliz, a 20-year-old who came to the organization in the 2007 Mark Teixeria trade with the Braves. Last season he churned out 127 innings and regularly threatened to touch 100 mph on his fastball.
The Rangers also have Holland, a hard-throwing lefty who signed as a draft-and-follow in 2007, the year they invested $3.315 million in first-round prep righthanders Blake Beavan and Michael Main as well as Venezuelan lefty Martin Perez. Other notable arms include Tommy Hunter, Wilfredo Boscan and Kennil Gomez.
These are the arms the Rangers hope to fully harvest within the next three to four years, with oft-injured Thomas Diamond, a 2004 first-rounder, perhaps on the verge of contributing.
Should the Rangers truly benefit, it would be remarkable and a complete change in historical direction. In the 25 June drafts since 1980, the Rangers drafted and then signed 121 pitchers out of the first 10 rounds.
But the payoff has been marginal at best.
Seventy-three have gone on to pitch in the majors, 30 of them for the Rangers. But those 30 have combined for a 460-384 record, with 351 victories from five homegrown arms in Bobby Witt (104), Kevin Brown (78), Darren Oliver (54), Rick Helling (68) and Roger Pavlik (47).
Traded away over the years were Ron Darling (1982), John Danks (2006) and Edinson Volquez (2007), with the Rangers also unable to sign Barry Zito, their third-round pick in 1998.
"I would like to think our first three starters in our rotation could pitch 200 innings for us, if not more," Ryan said. "And that would be very good, and stay healthy doing it. And the other thing I would want them to do is throw quality innings."
For years, teams have generally stuck to the same model of long toss: Pitchers throw off flat ground starting at 60 feet, expand to 90 feet and then to 120 and work back in, finishing in about 10 minutes.
Now 120 feet is no longer a barrier.
Daniels and Servais both declined to specify the hopeful distances the Rangers would like to achieve.
But the 200- and 250-foot markers would appear to be target areas considering the Rangers sought input from a number of former pitchers from different eras—their team president among them, of course—as well as Alan Jaeger, an advocate of expanded long toss. The Rangers eventually settled on a model comprised of a mix of ideas.
Ryan, who stretched his career to the 1990s and retired at age 46, estimated that his long toss reached somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 feet.
Jaeger for the past 15 years has advocated that baseball push through the 120 barrier. He launched a company, jaegersports.com, that teaches distances of some 300 feet, crazy by baseball's conventions.
The Rangers' initial steps in constructing a new long toss program began last fall when Daniels and other front office executives brainstormed for new ideas.
"We asked, 'What's the magic number behind 120?' " Daniels said. "And there weren't any good answers."
Servais said long toss distance will be developed on an individual basis and some pitchers will continue the program into the season. But he conceded that long toss is not for everybody.
Holland said he likes it because it helps with his changeup.
That said, it'll be interesting if expanded long toss actually takes root elsewhere. Clubs for years have stuck to the 120-foot approach in an effort to ward off injuries and over-use.
But those such as Jaeger say a one-size-fits-all approach has been misguided, arguing on his Web site that 120 feet equates to only 40 percent of the average distance—300 feet—that a 90 mph pitch will travel at a 30-degree angle. He poses the question, then, of why anyone would train at only 40 percent.
"I feel like there is a changing of the guard," Jaeger said. "I think it's got a chance to change the culture for the better. There's no doubt in my mind. But we'll see. The results on are not in."
Several college programs have incorporated expanded long toss, and Servais said reaction from pitchers has been positive.
"I hear, 'Man, I used to do this all the time before I got drafted,' " Servais said. "So they're comfortable with it."
All in all, throwing live BP and expanded long toss could help the Rangers accomplish their goals.
"We're making a substantial commitment in a young prospect," Ryan said. "We spend an awful lot of time working with them in our system and, in two years, they may have come down with Tommy John surgery or shoulder surgery. And we not only have a monetary investment in them but a time investment in them. And you hope they come back at the level when you first signed them. I know we need to reduce the number of injuries of that nature."
Fortunately for Ryan, his plan is being carried out enthusiastically in the minors, where his influence likely will be felt the most.
He created one legacy as a player. Now he's trying to leave a lasting impression on the Rangers organization as an executive.
"I've always been of the mindset that a lot of people had an influence on my career, and they were positive influences," Ryan said. "I've talked to a lot of kids from a lot of different organizations. If I can make an impact for player to be stronger and be healthy, then I want to do that."