It is a tailor made joke -- The Orioles are too cheap to buy baseballs! -- but if a long-beleaguered Baltimore organization that has come under fire for its farm system and player development is ever going to evolve into a steady contender, it starts at the Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park.
"Players really respond to a consistent and intelligent training program," said executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette, who has made streamlining the organization's Major and Minor League operations a central focus since taking over in November. "It's a must if you are going to get the most out of the pitchers, especially the starting pitchers."
The Orioles have turned in 14 consecutive losing seasons, and Duquette inherited a farm system with little promise, having graduated most of its top prospects in the past few seasons. Baltimore passed on signing any front-line starters this winter, and Duquette -- who stressed building a strong foundation in his introductory press conference -- has placed added emphasis on international scouting and establishing continuity throughout the organization's affiliates. It's a process that was long overdue.
"We were really in need of an updated pitching program and an updated hitting program," said coordinator of Minor League instruction Brian Graham, who is entering his fifth season in the organization. "And we got Rick Peterson and Mike Boulanger. That's progress. To me, that's progress."
Boulanger was hired as the organization's Minor League hitting coordinator, while Peterson has spent the first few weeks of Minor League camp -- which kicked off games on Wednesday -- implementing a specific throwing program with emphasis on each player perfecting his delivery. The program is based on specific pitching philosophies and biomechanical analysis data using the work done by Dr. James Andrews' American Sports Medicine Institute, and Peterson -- named director of pitching development -- has wasted no time in giving the Orioles a crash course.
"Typically, if you look at organizations that are successful, you need to have vertical systems in place, and you have a curriculum," said Peterson, who outlined his mission at Minor League camp with an introductory PowerPoint presentation for the pitchers. "We want to be able to do that in our organization throughout player development. We want to be regarded as the Harvard of a pitching curriculum.
"Every organization across the board has a structured rehab throwing program. So, maybe we should have a detailed [pre-rehab] program."
The beginning stages are already being put in place. On any given morning, Minor League pitchers take the field in waves -- a necessity with 83 in camp -- and the morning starts with 30 dry throws without a baseball: 10 from the windup, 10 from the stretch and 10 with a hip turn. From there, long toss begins at 120 feet and keeps moving back as far as each individual can go before moving in to repeat their drills, this time with a baseball. The drills are meant to work on balance, with an emphasis on repeating of the delivery, a daily mantra that Peterson hopes will end with each pitcher graduating with a "black belt" in his delivery.
"I've never been at a place that focuses that much on an actual throwing program and the mechanics of it," said Stu Pomeranz, a Minor League veteran who spent time in three other organizations as well as a stint in independent ball. "I think it's great. The things [Peterson] talked about will really help people that obviously need it [in their deliveries], and even guys that don't need it."
While the program was time-consuming the first day or two, once the pitchers got used to the progression -- which concludes with stations of fielding practice -- the response was overwhelmingly positive.
"It's been beyond my expectations," Peterson said of the initial reactions, particularly from some of the older players in camp. The plan is for the program to become a part of each pitcher's daily routine throughout the season, regardless of what level they are at.
"It's extremely important, because from year to year, the same understanding of the basic principles is going to be tied together," Graham said. "And when you get to the big leagues, your mechanics are what they are because you've learned from the time you stepped in the organization. It's been very well received."
The addition and encouragement of long toss is a far cry from previous Oriole regimes, where there were limits and restrictions on what players could do. While the difference this spring is most visible at Minor League camp, Duquette said the organization is both "encouraging and requiring" a specific long toss program for every pitcher. A strong proponent of long toss, Duquette believes it can be used as a valuable training tool for every player, not just pitchers.
"They love long toss here," said top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy, who was surprised with the Orioles' stance on it in his first big league camp this spring.
"In the past, I heard that they didn't like it, but this year they let you go as far as you want, as long as you want. It's great."
It is not a "one-size fits all" program at the Major League level, but by adding a specific long toss program and implementing Peterson's plan in the Minors, the Orioles hope they will be able to identify delivery problems, build up arm strength and ultimately prevent injuries and improve performance.
"There has to be continuity," said Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair. "And it has to start there."
"When you explain it, it makes sense," Peterson said of the value in long toss and drills that amount to the equivalent of a pitcher repeating his delivery nearly 4,000 times a month. "This isn't my opinion; it's based on Dr. Andrews' research. In the last 10 years in Major League Baseball, $1.2 billion has been spent on pitching salaries, and just over $330 million has been spent on injured pitchers. This is vital."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less