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The Ballad of the Major League Pitcher

Mike Montgomery (photo courtesy of Minda Haas www.mindahaas.net)

More than any other sport baseball is one of legends.  The players of the past carry more and greater significance as each year passes.  As good as they were in their time; their legend only continues to grow.  Legends of other sports mostly fade with memory but baseballs get bigger with each passing generation.

Every day we hear comparisons of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant to Michael Jordan.  Jordan hasn’t been fully retired for 10 years and he already has competition for possibly being the best ever.  Wayne Gretzky completely earned the moniker “the great one” but we keep hearing the names of Sydney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin thrown around as possibly joining his league and–if we’re stretching it, mind you–possibly overtaking him.

Yet, when it comes to baseball if you compare Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, or Barry Bonds to Babe Ruth it’s sacrilege (steroids not withstanding).  Ruth set the single season homerun record of 60 HRs in 1927.  He died in 1948, and twelve years after his death the record still meant so much to the fans of baseball that Roger Maris received death threats in his pursuit to become the new single season homerun king.

And these are the legends that the game was built on, ones deserving of the titles and their places in the Hall of Fame.  But the foundation of legends is splintered with the many would-be legends who never quite panned out.

Professional baseball is littered with scouts that have stories about the one player that was going to change the game…but never did.  All sports make decisions on players based on projections.  Where a player might play, how good they’ll be, if their skill set translates, all are universal paradigms in sports.

The missing component is that of circumstance.  Often times, circumstance is the most important factor in a baseball player’s success.  A basketball player who is good will generally succeed anywhere.  Some will be improved by their surroundings, but generally there’s not much of a difference as skill sets translate across the board and players in the NBA aren’t “developed” as much as they are “utilized correctly.”

The same can be said for football.  Success of a player often depends on the scheme but the NFL is good at identifying the right players for their scheme and, as the great ones have shown, they can have success no matter where you play them (Ray Lewis).

Baseball doesn’t work like this for everyone.  Sure Alex Rodriguez is going to be one of the best ever no matter where he plays, but not all players find his success and that is especially true for pitchers.  Baseball has a disproportionately high number of players that are discovered and drafted high, only to not reach the majors let alone their full potential.

What is the cause of such misfires in a sport with seven leagues devoted to development and entire staffs of scouts who are trained to be able to find players that translate?  The missing component that many scouts forget is that of circumstance.

The scouting and finding of players in baseball is an inexact science.  Despite over 100 years of playing and documenting the sport, they still don’t know how to do it with greater than 10% accuracy.

Each year in the draft every team selects 40 players (and it was actually 50 before this year).  40 players!  The NBA only has two rounds and the NFL and NHL both have just seven.  There are lots more dynamics between how many farm teams and how big the rosters are that lead this number, but either way, it’s still a lot of players to draft each and every year.  If you can get five players to reach a major league roster from one draft, then you’re one of the best in the league at drafting.

The issue of circumstance comes from what happens to these players when they are introduced into a major league franchise “farm” system.  The term “farm system” no doubt comes from the fact that their entire purpose is to “raise” and nurture the talent of a ballplayer to one day contribute to the major league team.  However, just as farmers pump their cows and chickens full of hormones to get more production, teams try to impose their will on players to get them to produce exactly the way they want them to.

Franchises spend an inordinate amount of time deciding on the pitching and hitting philosophy they want to permeate throughout their entire organization.  They hire heads of hitting and pitching development.  They have roving instructors that go from each minor league city to the next.  And of course, they have the minor league managers and coaching staffs, all of which are supposed to be on the same page.

Through the major league team down to the Dominican Summer League team, you could imagine many problems arising when getting a consistent message across.  It’s hard enough to handle development through all the organizations let alone do it without consistency in philosophy.  All of these factors contribute to the indefinable “circumstance” that ultimately determines whether a player is successful or not.

Depending on the situation it can be quite a “shock to the system” when a young player arrives to his first professional baseball camp.  For pitchers especially, this is increasingly becoming an issue.  Over the last 10 years how young pitchers are developed in high school and college has seen an overt change that baseball has been slow to embrace: long toss.

Long toss isn’t even the extent of it.  The advent of “pitching program” has completely changed the way pitchers are trained.  Starting even as young as 12, players are starting to get into very involved very detailed programs for their training.  In their pre-teen years pitchers have begun to use band work, yoga, and in some cases are throwing the ball over 300 feet.

These players continue to train like this until they are drafted.  If they’re coming out of high school they are 18, have been training with their specific program for multiple years, and arrive to their first professional baseball camp.

In many cases they’re immediately told that they can no longer do what it is that they have been doing to get them to this point.  The very training program that got a player drafted high in the first round is eschewed in favor of the franchise’s standard pitching program that is supposed to work for all other pitchers.

Chris Gruler was a pitcher who fit this very mold.  After his sophomore year in high school he began to dabble with long toss.  He then moved forward with it as a full-scale training program the summer before his senior season.  Gruler would pitch every seven days and then long-toss one day in between starts.  He continually worked up his arm strength to get to 300 or even 400 feet with no problem.

Such a training program led to him being selected 3rd overall by the Cincinnati Reds in the 2002 draft.  Upon his arrival in major league camp, to say it was a shock would be an understatement.  Gruler commented on how much of a change it was upon arriving.

“I pitched 66 innings in high school.  The Reds had me on a pitch count and I wasn’t allowed to long toss.  They set throwing structures of 30, 60, 90, and 120 feet.  They timed me on each one and when I tried to long-toss further, they shut me down,” Gruler said.

Gruler was fresh out of high school and didn’t feel in a position to question the Reds.  After all, they were the ones that had been doing this for a living and longer than Gruler had been alive.

“Me being an 18 year old kid, I never wanted to question the Reds.  I thought they had the right answers and they were the professionals,” Gruler said.

Every time he tried to extend his training program, the Reds shut him down.  According to Gruler, each minor league pitching coach had their idea of what worked and wasn’t entirely consistent.  Each coach encouraged pitchers to use their methods.  When he was prevented from long tossing, he was never given a reason why.

“They just didn’t let you do it,” Gruler said.

Gruler’s methods were no secret.  Around the time Gruler was in high school long-toss started to regain its prominence.  A method used greatly in baseball’s history up through the 1980’s, it had been mostly removed from programs in favor of a one-size-fits-all “safer” approach that constrained pitchers to 120 feet.  The more prevalence long-tossing achieved the more scouts had to be aware of it.  This was no different in Gruler’s case.

“Scouting directors watched me warm up.  They knew what I was doing,” Gruler said.

In his recount of scouting experiences he noted an instance when they even had him lower his pants right on the field so the scouts could see the size of his quad muscles.  It was a note showing how detailed the scouts were in their research and that they were aware Gruler was a long-tosser.  They just didn’t care.  They were going to make him use the same program that all their pitchers used.

***

The “cookie-cutter” approach to pitching programs is something that Alan Jaeger, long time long-toss advocate and from whose school Gruler was a product, has always been against.

“In their [franchises against long-toss] minds they’re doing it right,” Jaeger says.

But what they think is right may not be.  The idea of the “120 program” gained popularity with the advent of Tommy John (TJ) surgery in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  As the injuries and surgery became more common, so did the acceptance that the program that was used for TJ rehab should just be used for all pitchers regardless of how healthy their arm is.  It was a “safe” approach to training.

“It’s almost like a number of teams don’t know what they don’t know.  What they do know is that their program is backed by the medical community,” Jaeger said.

In many cases, teams don’t even know why they are so beholden to the 120 approach.  The Texas Rangers were one such organization.  The Rangers are excelling right now, but it wasn’t always so.  The methods and research that Jaeger cultivated over the last 20 years have gone a long way towards helping the Rangers develop one of the best minor leagues in baseball.

After Nolan Ryan took over the team in 2009, an improvement in the way the Rangers develop their players was an imperative.  As a result, Rangers GM Jon Daniels met with Jaeger to discuss pitching philosophies and learn what Jaeger was all about.

“I asked them, who had been a 120 team [meaning a team that only allowed their pitchers to throw 120 feet or less], why they capped their players at 120 and their answer was, they didn’t have an answer.  They didn’t know,” Jaeger recounted.

Jaeger explained to them what long-toss and program pitching was all about.  He stressed that there was not a one-size-fits-all approach to each pitcher.  Different players have different biology, different mechanics, and different skills.  Trying to get them all doing the same routine just didn’t make sense.

Once he described all the possible benefits and the Rangers were on board, things started moving quickly.

“Scott Servais [Director of Player Development for the Rangers at the time] was down in the Dominican Republic within a couple weeks time.  They had two clubs down there and had no injuries the entire summer between the two clubs, which is basically unheard of [after switching to a more personal long-toss approach],” Jaeger said.

Beyond the health benefits, the pitchers had seen an increase of two to three miles per hour across the board.  Pitchers develop at different rates and increasing velocity is not uncommon, but doing so to this level was something many clubs had never seen before.

“Now you look at the Rangers and they are the absolute poster boy for professional baseball.  Their system right now, to me, is just a machine,” Jaeger said.

The Rangers have one of the best farm systems in baseball and their depth of pitching talent is one of the reasons why.  Over the past couple of years they have had so many arms come out of their system that they can trade away legitimate prospects for relievers.  Just as they did in 2011 trading legit prospects Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Mike Adams.

The Rangers were fed up with the way they had been doing things and decided to make a change to help their team get better.  Within two years they had developed one of the best development programs around and have become a model franchise in baseball.

***

Right around the time that the Rangers had started to turn things around, a young player named Mike Montgomery was selected as a supplemental first round draft choice by the Kansas City Royals in 2008.  Montgomery was a very prominent Jaeger disciple and a big long toss proponent from his early years on.

The Royals knew this when they drafted him just as the Reds knew about Gruler.  And just as the Reds did, the Royals thought that their methods were the best and were going to shape Montgomery into the pitcher they wanted him to be using their methods.

While it’s not clear what exactly transpired between Montgomery and the Royals, it’s fair to say that the Royals changed the program he was on.  At the time it was widely known that the Royals were against long-toss within their organization.  They stated as much in public interviews.  In this 2010 article from MLB.com where Royals Director of Minor League Operations Scott Sharp had the following quote:

“We don’t encourage our guys to do that because of the propensity to get out of your mechanics to throw the ball that hard…Where in the game do you have a release point where you would need that?  So why are you training your body to throw in that manner?”

The 20 years of research that Jaeger has done does not agree with Sharp’s sentiments.

“I got news for you, if a kid can throw 90-97 and he’s training at 200 feet he’s doing himself a disservice.  If he’s training at 120 he’s doing himself a major disservice.  The reason for 200 versus 300 feet, if it’s in the arm, is important.  The extra 100 feet is more range of motion, more extension, more freedom…One of these other byproducts of these restricted throwing programs is you lose feel, you lose command,” Jaeger said.

Jaeger goes on to explain the dangers of limiting pitchers who have been training with these programs for many years.

“The last thing you want to do in any walk of life, when someone’s been trained to a certain level where they can roll out of bed and run 10 miles and recover fantastically the next day, is take 60% off of that preparation,” Jaeger continued “Perception and reality are two different things.  They can perceive what they want — I’m coming from a place of 20 years of experience that has yielded predictable, repeatable results,” Jaeger said.

Despite what research and results Jaeger or anybody else put forward before 2010 the Royals still did not believe, as Sharp demonstrated further in the 2010 article.

“We had guys who were extreme long tossers when they signed, and we gave them certain latitudes and before you know it, they felt like they don’t need to do that anymore,” Sharp said.

Sharp doesn’t explain what “certain latitudes” means nor does he give examples of players that have chosen to eschew the methods that made them major league draft picks.  More than likely they simply fell in to line just as Gruler did.  After all, these are young kids who are being told by grown men from professional organizations what’s best for them.  Why shouldn’t they believe them?

Despite all of this, Montgomery was still successful in his early Royals career.  He cruised through the minors and was minor league pitcher of the year in 2010, despite being derailed for a couple of weeks with an injury.  Unfortunately, it was only a matter of time.  The injury was just the start.

Ever since being sidelined, Montgomery has not been the same.

The hopes and dreams of many Royals fans were hinging upon Montgomery, the pitcher that many thought could be an ace and help lead the Royals to the Promised Land.  Over the course of 2011 those dreams were slowly strangled away as Montgomery had seemingly lost the majority of his command and put up a 5.32 ERA for the season.

Such results left many wondering about what happened to this top-flight prospect.  While Montgomery hasn’t admitted publicly and the Royals haven’t discussed what could be his problems, it’s not a stretch to say his program change could have something to do with it.

Jaeger has had such experiences with some of his players coming back to him and telling him about their experiences on being restricted after utilizing a long-toss program.

“Our guys, that’s one thing they can’t stand about these restricted throwing programs, they lose their feel,” Jaeger said.

And that doesn’t even account for the psychological effect of what such a program change can do.

“When the players bread and butter is their arms, it’s a major, major factor.  When you take away the bread and butter of what a kid does, what he’s been doing, his comfort zone as a pitcher for 6-7-8-9 years, the psychology effect on that pitcher is dramatic,” Jaeger explained.

Gruler similarly suffered injury woes after the Reds modified his program.  He also noted many other pitchers in the Reds system at the time dealing with similar issues.

“The Reds had a ridiculous amount of arm surgeries from 2003-2005 and they were shuffling GM’s.  Every one tried to implement their structure of long-toss.  They tried to turn me into a 120 guy and I’m not,” Gruler said.

Perhaps Gruler and Montgomery are two more in the long line of prospects that didn’t or won’t pan out.  There’s no shortage of failed prospects whether it’s the Royals the Reds or any other major league franchise.  Nothing is a guarantee in any walk of life.

But perhaps there’s something else going on here.  Maybe, Gruler just preceeded Montgomery in the long line of prospects adversely affected by baseball’s inability to evolve.  Gruler seems to think it’s the latter.  When asked if he could go back if he would have handled his situation like recent prospects Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy and tell teams who didn’t endorse long-toss not to draft him, his reply says it all: “100% yes.”

If examples like Gruler weren’t enough, Montgomery could be seen as a cautionary tale for all of baseball.  Two years into the Royals program and he had an injury and was mired in ineffectiveness.  It’s important to note that this is not entirely all the Royals fault, as some blame has to fall on the player’s failure to perform regardless of the situation.  But to say that the Royals changing what made Montgomery successful in the first place had nothing to do with his struggles is equally as unfair to this situation.

The Royals actions this offseason would lead one to believe that even they were coming around on this topic.  The Royals fired their major league pitching coach Bob McClure (who was against long-toss) and restructured their pitching development program.  Long time pitching coordinator of the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers Rick Knapp was hired to develop the Royals new pitching philosophy.

The important component of Knapp’s hire was that he was not averse to long-toss, as he explains in this article from an interview done in 2011 by David Laurila from Fangraphs when Knapp was in Detroit.

“Each guy has their own deal as far as…I mean, we’ve had guys trying to throw the ball 250 feet and we have guys who don’t go past 120.  For the most part, I don’t have an opinion other than I don’t want you to throw 400 balls, 350 feet.  If you want to feel it a little bit longer, then throw it a little bit longer.  Feel the extension.  If you don’t feel that way, on that particular day…look, I know that there are some teams that have absolutes.  I don’t have an absolute.  Certain guys have to throw a little bit longer to feel loose, and other guys don’t,” Knapp said.

This was the right move for the Royals and an inevitable one that, quite frankly, should have been made sooner.  The problem is that it appears to have been too late for Montgomery.  The pitcher who would now presumably be able to go back to his program has continued to struggle and as of July 11th was demoted back down to AA Northwest Arkansas after accumulating a 5.69 ERA in 17 starts at AAA Omaha in 2012.

The left arm that many people thought could take the Royals to heights not reached since 1985 has now taken a legitimate step backwards and is further away than he was two years ago.  It may be too late for Montgomery to recover and be a legitimate cog in this rotation, but is it too late for the Royals?

What the ballad of Mike Montgomery and Chris Gruler show us is that when you don’t put a player in the right circumstances, it’s harder and harder for them to succeed.

Looking at the last 20 years, what faith do we have that the Royals can develop their 2012 #1 draft pick Kyle Zimmer?  Zimmer is a long toss proponent whose teacher comes from the Jaeger school of thoughts and methods.  With Knapp on board Zimmer will be allowed to do what he needs to, but will a program be enough?  Will the fact that the Royals are begrudgingly allowing this ensure that Zimmer is able to develop smoothly?  Will Knapp be able to ensure that all different minor league affiliates are on the same page and all pitchers stay on track with their proper development?

Only time will tell and this organization has not earned the benefit of the doubt.

Regardless of the future of Zimmer and this organization the road towards Montgomery becoming a legend is much harder now.  When in town for a Baseball Prospectus event over the All-Star break Kevin Goldstein said it would be “foolish” to give up on Montgomery.  He is still a 6’4” 200 lbs left-hander who can throw 95 mph.  Unfortunately, his road back to top prospect is more difficult than ever.

Yet, if there’s something that could be a positive here it’s that the Royals can learn from this.  It doesn’t have to be about long toss.  What it does need to be about is the Royals thinking outside the box and finding better ways to develop players and build a competitive team.

With the window of competition closing even more with the new draft rules the Royals are going to have to find new ways to get a competitive advantage.  Their history has shown a refusal to embrace changes in the game and when they do it’s far too late.  As a franchise the Royals need to jump out of their comfort the zone if they want to compete in this unbalanced marketplace.   There can be no more Mike Montgomery’s if the Royals want to be a winning organization.

We are right in the middle of a generation that has lived with no Royals legends in their lifetime.  Isn’t it time we had some?

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