I have always loved long toss. As someone who has always struggled with command, the ability to just launch the ball was liberating. As it became an everyday habit, my velocity began to climb. Training everything to fire in-sync, full speed certainly aids the body’s ability to do so on the mound, but it may be helping pitchers train something else.
Trevor Bauer is the MLB’s current long toss aficionado. It is a spectacular part of his warm up routine and he has been preaching the benefits since college. While his velocity is up there, what really makes Bauer’s fastball special is its backspin. In 2020 he led the MLB in fastball vertical movement inducing plenty of weak fly balls and whiffs.
To throw a long distance, you need backspin. Without it, the ball succumbs to gravity quicker. That’s why if you have ever tried long toss throwing sliders and/or curveballs (not recommended), it is hard to get far before everything is bouncing short. All these years Bauer was probably doing long toss for velocity and accidentally developed one of the best riding fastballs in the game.
In a ‘Two-Seam Roundtable’ earlier this year, Steve Cishek said he actually avoids two-seam long toss for this very reason. “I won’t throw a two-seamer past 90 feet… If I’m throwing a two-seamer past 90 feet my tendency is going to want to get my hand underneath the ball to get it out there and that’s not something I wanna create in a game.” If the goal is to throw the baseball far, your body will adjust to do so. If you are a sinkerballer, throwing too far just trains your sinker to be flat – not optimal.
In an era that plays more favorably to riding fastballs, long toss could be a path to the next Trevor Bauer and provide an interesting lens on the past. As a kid, Nolan Ryan did not always throw harder than his peers, but he did throw farther. This hints at an elite ability to generate backspin. Whenever Ryan did develop the velocity he is oh so famous for, he had the backspin to accentuate that ability. It was not just that he was throwing triple digits, but that those triple digits had a little extra life to them.
Craig Kimbrel and Billy Wagner – two of history’s greatest closers – both credit much of their climbs in velocity to long toss. After breaking his foot, Kimbrel stayed active by throwing long toss from his knees. He put in the work during rehab and reaped huge post-recovery velocity gains because of it. Billy Wagner had a similar 14 mph jump from high school to freshman year of college. “If I can name one thing that contributed most to my increase in velocity, it would be long toss.” But again, like Ryan, plenty have thrown hard in history, yet these fastballs transcend their ticks on a radar gun.
When the goal is to throw the ball far, your body adapts accordingly. That does mean throwing harder, but when 200 rpm of backspin is worth more than one mile per hour, you might be developing backspin as well. Every player is different. After all, not everyone naturally leans toward the rising fastball end of the spectrum. However, in an age where the risers reign supreme, long toss may be the path to both the velocity and backspin baseball has come to covet.