With all baseball seasons underway, we are starting to see which athletes prepared well. In April, teams start to see a large rise in oblique strains and/or arm injuries before these incidents settle down in May. Athletes and staff start to realize that physical preparation and skill preparation are two separate entities, but the problem is that one is often approached more scientifically than the other. Perhaps the best example is a throwing program; a regimen recommending the number and prescribed distance of throws for both injured and healthy players.
The Current Challenges of a Throwing Program
A throwing program abides by the same principles of any exercise or training regimen; volume, intensity, and frequency. The volume is the number of throws made, the intensity is the distance of the throw (i.e. longer is harder!), and the frequency is how many days the program is performed.
The key challenge here is the intensity, an independent variable which the athlete is trying to improve. Many throwing programs try to confuse the athlete by recommending two focuses or intensities simultaneously. For example, long toss is sometimes described as “airing it out” or “stretching it out” versus “on the line”. So how is the athlete supposed to throw it? Such confusing cues exist in the depth jump as well, as coaches encourage athletes to be quick off the ground and jump as high as you can. Statistically and practically, it is very difficult to achieve 2 things well at the same time.
Once a program and throwing progression are solidified, the regimen is often prescribed for just injured players, or just healthy pitchers, leaving some players without the proper preparation for the stress they face in sport. The analogy would be providing sprinting programs to only wide receivers in football or forwards in soccer since they do most of the high speed running. One of the reasons for avoiding prescriptions for position or healthy players is the lack of accepted context. For injured players, the rationale is easy; they haven’t been throwing for at least a few weeks so they need to start throwing again. For pitchers, they have a typical pitch count from games, but this workload is different for relievers and starters.
Yet these programs rarely prescribe reliever and starter specific regimens. In general, there is a lack of individualization whether it be by position or type of pitcher (velocity dominant, tall vs short, etc.). The answer has been a generic recommendation, as we have seen professional players given a program from their teams prescribing incomplete workloads as follows “10 min long toss 45-150 feet”.
- How many throws in 10 minutes?
- When/if should I transition to longer/shorter throws?
- How many throws at each distance?
Putting a Plan into Action
1. Realize intensity is distance or position specificity; not “stretching it out”
There should be a warm-up of shorter distances, just like striding or skipping before sprinting. Then to build intensity, the program should progress to longer throws OR position specificity (infield throws for a shortstop, throwing a bullpen for a pitcher).
2. All baseball players need a throwing program
The difference between an injured and healthy player is the speed of progression throughout the throwing program, generally guided by pain and an individualized strength program.
3. Individualize the program for different positions and physiologies
In 2009, the average starter threw 95 pitches a game, while relievers threw 52 pitches. Like a forward in soccer who sprints less distance but at higher speeds than a midfielder, a reliever would throw a faster velocity. So the intensity for this position should be prescribed off the expected intensity.
So we now use a specific, individualized meritocracy for skill development and positional resilience. This approach goes well beyond throwing, and belongs in every sport skill such as sprinting or kicking. Such intended effects are not ground breaking, but the process has been broken in baseball for decades so the time has come for the same precision applied to their physical training to be applied to their skill development.