Thirty minutes before first pitch of the national championship series, Vanderbilt freshman Hayden Stone shouts an order to his fellow pitchers warming up in right field.
It is a reference to one of the great warriors of all time. It is a signal to step back and let it fly.
Stone is standing just inside the right-field line at TD Ameritrade Park. When he gives the call, his throwing partner, Carson Fulmer, retreats. To 100 feet. Then 150. Then 200 ...
Soon Fulmer is almost at the warning track in the left-center field gap, a full 300 feet away, playing catch with Stone. Instead of firing 95-mph laser beams, they exchange high-arcing rainbows.
It lasts only a few minutes — both players threw 70-plus pitches on Saturday night. But it’s a snapshot into one of the boldest practice regimens in college baseball, a controversial practice that’s under the microscope during an epidemic of elbow injuries, a routine Vanderbilt’s pitchers execute almost every day of the season, even on days they’re scheduled to start.
“Extreme long toss,” Vandy pitching coach Scott Brown calls it.
Brown swears by it. You can’t build durability by babying the arm. You have to push it, strengthening not only the elbow and shoulder, but the core muscles that aid the throwing motion.
“I think it’s changing in the game,” Brown said. “Some teams are starting to understand that the health of the arm, you gotta train it. We train the arm to throw hard.”
And far. Back in Nashville, Fulmer and Stone — the most impressive of Vandy’s long tossers — train on a football field. Whoever makes the most field goals from the opposite goal line wins, Stone said. If you’re scoring at home, that’s a mere 330 feet.
It’s controversial because many experts, including some high-profile orthopedic surgeons, say that pitchers shouldn’t throw more than 100 to 150 feet. Going farther strains the arm and shoulder. Plus, the long-toss release point is different from pitching, thus altering a pitcher’s mechanics.
Count ESPN analyst Kyle Peterson as a fan: “There’s no time in my life that I felt better than after long toss.”
Pitching gurus like Ron Wolforth and Alan Jaeger say long-toss strengthens the body if done properly.
Wolforth compared long toss to hitting drivers on the range. It’s different from chipping from 30 yards. The driver calls on the entire body to participate in the motion, building strength and flexibility. The sand wedge does not.
The concern about long toss, Wolforth said, is if you don’t synchronize the body properly, you increase the risk of injury.
Brown keeps close tabs on the details. If a pitcher can get to 300 feet — that’s a long-toss benchmark at Vanderbilt — it tells Brown the arm motion is sound.
“Most guys that struggle with the long toss are the guys with bad mechanics,” Brown said.
The most critical part of the program, Brown said, is that it’s personalized. Not every guy does it at Fulmer’s and Stone’s level.
“It’s important that the individual finds his level,” Brown said. “It takes a lot of work and training. Sometimes I have to push them. Sometimes I gotta say, ‘Hey, hey, a little bit too much. Get back in here.’ ”
Fulmer actually bought into long toss before coming to Vanderbilt. He got the idea from his high school coach.
Six or seven days a week, including days he pitches, he attempts maximum effort. Sometimes that’s 150 feet the day after he pitches, sometimes it’s 350. On good days, he can throw foul pole to foul pole.
Fulmer, who does more training in long toss than he does on a mound, believes that when pitchers get hurt, it’s often because their arms aren’t strong enough to handle pitching. He sees the rash of Tommy John surgeries. He knows the risk.
“You never know when it’s gonna pop up and get ya,” Fulmer said.