DURHAM, N.C. - With its fall practice regimen recently completed, the Duke baseball team is already seeing benefits from a new throwing program that was introduced to the squad at the beginning of the semester by first-year head coach Chris Pollard.
Pollard, who took over the Duke program in June following eight successful seasons as the head coach at Appalachian State, brought with him to Durham a throwing program that was instrumental in the health and development of his Mountaineer players. He hopes the five weeks the Blue Devils spent in September focusing almost exclusively on their throwing and arm strength will pay off similar dividends this spring.
The throwing regimen, though new to Duke this fall, has actually been fine-tuned by Pollard, assistant coach Josh Jordan and other former members of Pollard's coaching staff over several seasons. The initial idea for the methods and process, however, resulted from a debate that has divided baseball coaches across the country for years - how much throwing is too much?
During his time at Appalachian, Pollard and his staff went back and forth amongst themselves about whether to allow players to throw a ball more than 120 feet. Though Pollard says he always enjoyed long tossing as a player, as a coaching staff they decided to limit their players to a maximum throwing distance of 120 feet.
"There were these two mentalities, two schools of thought out there that were prevalent in baseball," Pollard says. "One is you don't ever want somebody to throw a baseball past 120 feet. When you do, the mechanics break down, the release point breaks down. So there was this prevalent theory in baseball that everything needs to be at 120 or less."
The Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball had too placed similar limitations on their pitching personnel until Hall of Famer and team president Nolan Ryan decided he wanted to develop tougher, stronger pitchers. In particular, Ryan challenged members of his club's pitching staff to improve their arm strength, overcome the Ranger's hitter-friendly ballpark and work deeper into games. To do so, he enlisted the help of Alan Jaeger of Jaeger Sports in southern California. Jaeger, a coach who trained the likes of Barry Zito, Dan Haren and other professional players, operates under the belief that long tossing, if done correctly, helps pitchers build up their arm strength and keep them healthy through a long and grueling season.
Sports Illustrated featured an article by Albert Chen in a May 2010 issue detailing Ryan's attempt to overhaul the Rangers' reputation as a poor pitching team. Jaeger's involvement with the development of a long-toss friendly program in Texas - and its apparent benefits - were highlighted in the story.
Pollard and the other Appalachian coaches came across the article on a bus trip that spring, re-opening a discussion about their approach to the 120-feet rule. The coaches returned to the issue that summer, trying to decide how such a program might be integrated into the team's fall workouts. A series of phone conferences with Jaeger himself, Pollard says, were instrumental in moving the process forward.
"We had a two-hour conference call with Alan Jaeger where we started putting some things down on paper," Pollard says. "We said, let's try to figure out a way to blend it with what we're already doing. Let's see if we can take what we're already doing, add this in on certain days and make it work."
Although Appalachian had mixed results by the end of that fall, Pollard felt there was still room for improvement. He met with Jaeger in California, and got more feedback about adjustments that could be made. Following the 2011 season, Pollard and his fellow coaches asked several of the team's pitchers to stay on campus during the summer and go through Jaeger's entire throwing program, step by step, as Jaeger had intended. Those six weeks brought dramatic improvement and an upswing in enthusiasm about throwing, convincing Pollard to implement the program more fully among the entire team during the fall of 2011.
Throughout the rest of the season, the Mountaineers' pitchers gained arm strength and saw their velocities increase. However, Pollard said the most noticeable and gratifying changes occurred among the team's positional players, perhaps playing a role in Appalachian advancing to the NCAA Regionals.
"I told Alan this summer that the most surprising part about it for me was we had some positional players - not pitchers - who had always fought us on throwing ... It was a complete pendulum shift," Pollard said. "After completing the program and seeing how it made their arms feel and seeing how much arm strength they'd gained, all of a sudden you've got these guys that literally had been in our program for three or four years and had always hated to throw, and now they were out there without any prompting and they were long tossing, stretching it out. Their arms felt better and their arm strength was better and their health was better. That to me was the greatest validation."
Now four months into his new role at the helm of the Duke program, Pollard and his staff have implemented nearly the same throwing regimen in the hopes it will bring about similar success. The Blue Devils delayed the start of their fall practice schedule in order to focus on throwing for several weeks, allowing Pollard and the other coaches to get to know and evaluate their personnel without rushing into more intensive practices. So far, Pollard says, the players have responded well to the change despite having to spend more time in small group or four-man scenarios before moving into full squad on-field work.
"So far our guys' arms have felt good. We've done a lot of throwing and guys are holding up really well," he said. "I think this forces you to wait longer so the guys are on a more equal footing when you do start the fall ... You don't want to start your fall out of necessity - you want to start it because you're ready."
As the Blue Devils inch closer to the start of their regular season in February, Pollard anticipates that the work the team put in during the fall will keep players healthy and strong through the entire slate. He says, much like at Appalachian, there has already been a marked shift in the players' mental approach toward throwing and long tossing - not unlike the phenomenon Ryan and Jaeger instigated in Texas and which is taking hold among many other professional and collegiate teams across the country.
"I really feel like we've hit on something," Pollard says. "It wasn't something that we created. It took us a while to sort of catch up to the curve, but having seen the results now over two years, I like what it's done for our teams."