Pitchers come in all sizes and temperaments. They take so many different approaches to the act of throwing a baseball that the whole occupation is shrouded in mystery.
For these reasons, it's rare for three of the top pitching prospects in all of professional baseball in one given year to have something in common. But this spring, they do.
Minor leaguers Dylan Bundy of the Delmarva Shorebirds (an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles), Trevor Bauer of the Mobile Bay Bears (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Matt Barnes of the Greenville Drive (Boston Red Sox) have had a similar approach to training. Several times a week, and even sometimes on days when they're pitching, they take a few minutes to play catch with someone who is standing unusually far away from them.
As simple as it sounds, this training method, which is known as "long toss," is, to many people associated with baseball, revolutionary. And in a lot of ways, it's controversial, too.
Sports is traditionally a place where innovation trickles down from the top performers to the lowest levels. Once word got out that legendary Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken liked to bust slumps by swatting balls off a batting tee as far as he could, for instance, every high-school team suddenly owned a tee.
But here's the thing about long toss: While the kids are devoted to it, the sport's elders aren't so sure. Some of them think these pitchers may be destroying their arms. "It's a very controversial question at the moment," said Glenn Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute in Alabama, who has studied hundreds of top pitchers.
Long toss had been a staple of arm rehabilitation for many years. The idea was that the act of throwing a ball over a distance extended the arm muscles in a way that promoted strength and health at the same time. But as pitching injuries began to multiply, and as the economic consequences grew, long toss virtually disappeared for healthy pro pitchers.
Its comeback has very little to do with Major League Baseball. Only a few pro teams believe in it. Its popularity is a function of a movement by amateur pitchers who have become addicted to the practice—and the movement is so strong, teams have little choice but to go along. The first rounds of next month's amateur draft are likely to be filled with long-tossers, including Kyle Zimmer, the prized University of San Francisco right-hander.
The poster children for long toss are the aforementioned trio of Bauer, Bundy and Barnes. So far, they've combined for 100 strikeouts and an earned-run average of 0.66 in their first 68 1/3 innings. Bundy, who was clocked at 100 miles per hour as a high-school senior in Oklahoma and who was selected by the Orioles with the fourth pick last June, hadn't surrendered a hit through 13 innings heading into Monday night's start. His high-school coach, Larry Turner, said that in addition to long-tossing more than 300 feet, Bundy used to build arm strength by digging and refilling post-holes and flipping over tractor tires.
Samford University pitching coach Mick Fieldbinder's latest protege, Lex Rutledge, has thrown the ball 363 feet in long toss sessions. He's also hit 97 mph on the radar gun. Fieldbinder said he instituted his long-toss program in 2008 after injuries hampered his staff and that since then, health hasn't been a problem.
While researching outside-the-box training techniques, Fieldbinder said he happened upon the teachings of Alan Jaeger, a California-based coach who has consulted with several major-league clubs, including the Texas Rangers. Jaeger's basic philosophy was this: Extending the elbow and shoulder muscles in a relaxed, fluid motion prepares an arm to throw as hard as it can. Balls that travel farther are thrown faster, so as a pitcher adds distance, he's also building velocity. "It was so simple," said Fieldbinder, who now tells his pitchers to throw as long as they can, as hard as they can, and as far as they can. Four years since making the change, just one Samford pitcher has required surgery—and he arrived hurt.
Bauer, a former Jaeger student taken with the No. 3 pick in the 2011 draft out of UCLA, told the Diamondbacks he intended to continue a long-toss workout that includes throws that top out at around 350 feet several days a week. It's hard to argue: He's 5-0 with 37 strikeouts in 28 2/3 innings for Class AA Mobile this season. To loosen up before starts, Bauer drifts back toward the right-field foul pole, where after taking a crow-hop, he sends the ball sailing across the grass to a teammate standing within a few feet of the left-field foul pole. It takes two throws to get the ball back to him.
Despite Bauer's success, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers said he has no plans to press his young pitchers into throwing long. "Sixty-feet six inches is still No. 1 when it comes to evaluating talent."
Others are downright hostile to the concept. "I'd be real careful showing how far you can throw the ball in April, May and June," said former pitcher Ron Darling, who said he never threw longer than 120 feet. "What if they're six inches short on their pitches in September? I'd hate to live with that."
Fleisig said research shows throwing mechanics break down and the torque on the elbow and shoulder increase significantly beyond about 180 feet. Still, he's agnostic on the issue.
The Atlanta Braves, who now have baseball's deepest young staff, are not. Like the Rangers, who brought in Jaeger and instituted long-toss throughout their organization in 2008, the Braves are religious about the concept. "Our program is to take anyone who isn't a long toss person and turn him into one, immediately," said Frank Wren, the Braves' general manager.
Write to Matthew Futterman at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared May 1, 2012, on page D6 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Throwing Long to Throw Short.