Wednesday, April 13, 2016


Last month, Bleeding Yankee Blue did a story on arm injuries titled SAVING ARMS: A BYB FEATURE. Ultimately, it was filled with great information and the interview was with former minor league pitcher and current instructor Steve Hayward, co-founder of the Baseball Health Network.
That piece sited warning signs for arm injuries in our youth as well as prevention. Over the course of the last month,  I’ve continued my research and I was able to further  the discussion with former Seton Hall coach, Mike Cocco.

(In Photo: Mike Sheppard)
Cocco, who was on the Seton Hall staff under legendary Skipper Mike Sheppard, has been an American Legion Coach and youth coach for over 30 years and has vigorously studied pitching and throwing in general over the course of his life. He also happened to be on the staff when Steve Hayward pitched at Seton Hall University.

(In Photo: Mike Cocco)
Cocco and I spent time discussing some coaching and throwing concepts and misconceptions and he also shared some great ideas that he uses with his young players today. I found the whole thing fascinating.  As a general goal, Cocco stated:

“When I look back at the players I’ve coached, if 15-20 years later, they can still throw, then I know I’ve done my job.”

In order for youngsters to prepare their bodies for sports and to condition themselves to be successful, they have to be active. That's really the bottom line. Steve Hayward stated in our discussion that for his young sons, he simply creates obstacle courses at playgrounds and has them run the courses. This forces them to use their bodies and forces them to be competitive in a fun environment. Cocco says "The PS4 or Minecraft generation just doesn’t stay active enough these days."

(In Photo: Leo Mazzone, left, John Smoltz, right)
Cocco referenced something former Braves pitching Coach Leo Mazzone would tell his players: “Throw with a purpose every day.”  That doesn’t necessarily mean throw at 100%, but throw with a goal in mind. I tell my youth players as they are warming up, when they get to roughly 60 feet apart, stop there and throw me 10 change-ups. That way they work on their grip and become comfortable with the pitch.  If you are playing catch without a purpose, it’s wasted time.

Another point that is lost by some players and coaches is long toss. It's a very valuable exercise. For some reason it's overlooked very often.  Long toss builds arm strength, stamina and can assure long term arm health. Cocco suggested to use a football field to throw on if possible. The reason is that this way, the thrower will know the exact distance due to the markers. Long toss to the point where a young player can still make an accurate throw. For example, if you get to 100 feet and the player starts missing the target drastically, bring him in 10 feet and keep an eye on his accuracy.

Cocco stated; “The players should be able to keep the throw on line and hit his target more often than not.”

Cocco was full of info, and kept going. He and I agreed that players don’t practice or warm up for game situations as much as they should.  How many times have you seen a youth player throw from 40 feet then go right into infield/outfield practice? They say they're loose, but how are they prepared to throw 100-150 feet after throwing just 40?  They aren't.

(In Photo: Mike Cocco with his kids at the Hall of Fame induction of friend Craig Biggio)

Another example Cocco used was poor habits between innings.

Cocco: “Why do youth players take their warm up grounders on the infield grass? How does that prepare them for the ground ball in the hole where they have to throw the ball nearly twice as far as they did in warm ups?”

It doesn’t at all! Great point. Watch big leaguers take warm ups, they take their grounders from the outfield grass, or from the position they would be in to make the longest throw they would likely have to make during live action.

It just makes sense, doesn’t it?

Poor habits like the ones mentioned above can put players at a greater risk for injury believe it or not. But it also doesn’t prepare them for game situations. We practice to prepare for games. So why not practice by doing the same exact thing you would do in a game. It starts with simple things like wearing a helmet while you hit. It may not seem like much, but you wear it in a game, so why not wear it while preparing for a game?

While discussing pitching in general, which is always a hot topic, Cocco had some great suggestions:

Cocco: “A lot of players ask, ‘Coach, can I throw some curve balls?’ Something to look at is can they throw a fastball consistently for strikes. If they can’t throw fastballs, both two seam and four seam, and a change-up for strikes, they need to focus on that before they start messing with a more difficult pitch. That doesn’t mean they can’t throw a couple, but the emphasis should be on the fastball first.”

Another point he stressed was not throwing to the catcher’s glove, but through it. A way for the pitcher to do this is to back the catcher up two feet and force the player to throw 48’, if still in Little League, or 62’ if on the 90 foot diamond. Coke also suggested having the pitcher make several throws from behind the mound before getting on the rubber. This goes right along with point above about infielders warming up on the grass. They make their longer throws first so when they are throwing from the mound, they are prepared for it.

As for pitch counts, Cocco suggests that 12-14 year-old pitchers top out at 60-80 pitches max, while high school pitchers shouldn’t throw more than 90 or so. Too much more than that can lead to overuse and an increased risk of injury.

Cocco: “You need to know your players, some players are good with 60 pitches, while others struggle at 40. Understanding the players limits as well as the point in the season and arm condition is also a key factor. Early in the year, we may limit the player to 40-60 and once the arm is in condition, we expand that to 50-70 and so on. For pitchers and even position players, keeping the legs in shape is also critical, more times than not, the legs give before the arm gets tired. Pitchers throwing 40+ pitches per game need to have strong legs and good cardiovascular conditioning.”

All of us coaches need to learn how to protect our players and assure they are prepared when it comes to game time. They need to be conditioned to throw, as well as be properly warmed up before and during the games. We, as coaches, should keep a very watchful eye on this.

Cocco and I could have continued to talk for hours and I could see we share a passion and love for the game. Putting this kind of information out there on Bleeding Yankee Blue for you folks will only make the game and players better and healthier.

Thank you Coach Cocco for taking the time to speak with me and help us create awareness for youth baseball coaches and athletes. It’s always great to be able to listen to different perspectives but one thing I’ve noticed is most experienced coaches, guys like Cocco and Steve Hayward and others, are roughly on the same page.

As coaches, our priority is assuring the health of our athletes while providing them as much information as possible.

BYB has asked me to continue this series.  SAVING ARMS: A BYB FEATURE was an insanely popular series, and so, we will continue to make both parents and coaches aware.  We hope you read and share this latest piece and be sure to look for the next installment soon.

 --Dan Lucia
BYB Senior Writer
Twitter: @DManLucia

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