We here at Getting Blanked tend to champion forward-thinking organizations. We’ve all read Moneyball and without knowing for sure, I would imagine all the writers here consider it an integral part of their “baseball awakening.” Before I read Michael Lewis’ homage to the Oakland A’s and their progressive-thinking front office, I considered batting averages, RBIs and pitcher wins to be of extreme importance. I’m slightly ashamed to admit that this awakening only occurred for me in the past few years and ever since my understanding of the game has risen to new heights as I’m sure it has for Dustin, Drew and everyone else here.
If nothing else, Moneyball should have taught us that we can never know everything; that we should always be striving for more knowledge. This inevitably leads progressive-thinking front offices, media members and fans to ask what the next great market inefficiency will be. Jonah Keri wrote about the success of the Tampa Bay Rays in The Extra 2% where he detailed how they seek to get a tiny edge over their competition in every facet of the game, both on and off the field. The compounding of these tiny advantages led the poverty-stricken Rays to tackle the well-heeled behemoths of the AL East.
So what is the next market inefficiency?
For months, my good friend Chris Sherwin has been prattling on and on about something called pitcher biomechanics. He would tell me of a man named Paul Reddick who is stationed at the forefront of this movement. He would say how Reddick was posting videos on his website detailing the flaws many pitchers have in their deliveries and how these flaws can lead to serious arm troubles. He would gush over the deliveries of Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens and Trevor Bauer while chiding the awkward throwing of Shaun Marcum and Joel Zumaya.
Finally, Chris showed me some of Reddick’s videos and I was floored. He was able to show how the most successful and durable pitchers in the game’s history threw in a way that defied the way most kids are taught how to pitch. It was an epiphany not unlike the one I had while reading Moneyball.
Like the SABRmetric movements of the 1980s and ‘90s, the biomechanics movement operates on the periphery of baseball’s influential lexicon; practiced by some of the game’s foremost progressive thinkers but ignored by old-school traditionalists. Yesterday, ESPN’s Lindsay Berra talked with some of leading voices in the biomechanics movement and wrote an excellent piece detailing its gradual rise to big-league front offices.
To throw a baseball properly, a pitcher must get into the right position at the right time with the right succession of movements, like dominoes falling. Disruptions in this kinetic chain, as experts call it, cause problems at the weakest link, most often the elbow or shoulder.
Problems usually begin below the waist. The most telling moment in a pitcher’s delivery, for instance, is the foot strike. When the foot makes contact with the mound, the pitching arm must be up and ready to throw. A righthanded pitcher should be showing the baseball to the shortstop, a lefty to the second baseman. (Among active hurlers, Cliff Lee is a good example.) But if a pitcher’s elbows come higher than his wrists and shoulders, with the ball pointing down, he’s demonstrating an “inverted W” — a sign that his sequence is off and he’s fighting his own body. Such poor timing leads to arm lag, evident when the throwing elbow trails the shoulder once the shoulders square to home plate. Strasburg exhibits both problems, forcing him and others like him to rely more on the arm’s relatively small muscles instead of the more massive ones in the legs and torso. Throw after throw, the shoulder and elbow are under extra stress. The higher the pitch’s velocity and the worse the flaw, the more the arm suffers. And the more a pitcher throws, the worse it gets.
Not surprisingly, baseball’s vanguard is slow to recognize the importance of proper pitching mechanics.
To anybody involved with the biomechanical analysis of pitching, it’s difficult to imagine a world without it. To anybody even half interested in baseball, it’s also difficult to understand why it’s not more accepted at the sport’s highest levels.
For more than a hundred years, pitching mechanics have been evaluated at 32 frames per second — the best the human eye provides. A pitcher’s delivery, from first movement to ball release, can take as little as 1.4 seconds. In that tiny window, coaches, scouts and fathers try to assess dozens of variables, such as “hip and shoulder separation” and “pitching arm external and internal rotation.” It’s a tall order, if not an impossible one. “What the eyes see and what actually takes place are two different things,” says Tom House, a former big-leaguer-turned-pitching-coach who now heads the Rod Dedeaux Research and Baseball Institute at the University of Southern California. “You see reality when you see what happens at 1,000 frames per second. It’s a humbling experience.”
Do you ever wonder why, over the last few years, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers have had so few of their pitchers succumb to major arm surgeries such as Tommy John’s? It could be because both front offices are firm believers in the powers of proper biomechanics. Yet, most of baseball still stubbornly resists.
It’s practically an unwritten law in baseball that the majors are not the place to make big mechanical changes. The rare times coaches push for them, it’s in the minors. “When you’re interviewing pitching coaches,” says former Reds and Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who’s now with ESPN, “if they’re mechanically oriented, you hire them for rookie ball or Low-A ball, where they can make tweaks before pitchers succeed.”
But the more success pitchers have, the less incentive anybody has to correct their approach. “Once they reach the majors, they’re pretty set into their deliveries,” says the Reds’ Riggins. “With big leaguers, I don’t talk much about changing mechanics.” If a coach risks changing a pitcher’s mechanics and he gets hit or hurt, it’s the coach’s fault; if he leaves a pitcher alone and he gets hurt, it’s because the pitcher already had a bad arm. If a team can win in the interim, like the Giants have done with Tim Lincecum and his radically tilted delivery — which critics view as a time bomb — it’s managed to get its money’s worth. “That’s exactly the theory,” concedes Astros pitching coach Doug Brocail. “It works until it doesn’t.”
Experts with biomechanics backgrounds find this approach painfully illogical. “Baseball is a game of failure coached by negative people in an environment of misinformation,” says House. Not surprisingly, pitching coaches who preach biomechanics rarely crack the bigs. They say what they think, which is often that pitchers need to change the mechanics they’ve been throwing with since grade school.
Another team that could be at the forefront of this shift in philosophy is the Baltimore Orioles. Wait, what?
It would require a risk-taking franchise to explode the status quo. A GM would need biomechanics experts, coaches who listen to them and an owner who believes the forward-thinking approach will save his pitchers’ arms — as well as millions in payroll. Baltimore GM Dan Duquette may be that man. In January, he hired [biomechanics guru Rick] Peterson as the Orioles’ director of pitching development.
I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the OriLOLes being at the forefront of anything progressive, it upsets my visual regime. It makes me itchy.
Regardless, with ESPN’s exposure of this movement, we might be seeing a “Moneyball” epiphany of sorts. If teams can limit the amount of time their pitchers spend on the DL by slight changes in mechanics, it could change the game. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t exceptions to the biomechanics-believers, there is always more than one way to succeed, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see a book released in the next few years talking about how the biomechanics movement changed the way we think about pitching.
And the rest:
Berra also sat down with Reddick to discuss the pitching mechanics of Greg Maddux and Stephen Strasburg and why Strasburg may not be through with his arm problems [ESPN].
Sticking with the arm health of pitchers, Rangers starter Neftali Feliz won’t make his next start due to shoulder stiffness [T.R. Sullivan, MLB.com] and Reds closer Ryan Madson has been flown to Cincinnati for an elbow exam [Mark Sheldon, MLB.com].
It turns out Joba Chamberlain’s life was in danger immediately after the trampoline incident that caused an open dislocation of his ankle [Anthony McCarron and Bill Madden, New York Daily News].
Chris Carpenter is out indefinitely with nerve irritation in his shoulder [Derrick Goold, Twitter]
At what point do off-field issues become a bigger factor than on-field talent? And when is Major League Baseball going to step up and do something about it’s obvious DUI problem? [Chris Cwik, FanGraphs].
The Rangers are going to sell a $26 hotdog at The Ballpark in Arlington this season [AP]. If I spend that much money on a wiener, I better get more out of it than sustenance. Yep. That just happened.
Are Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine already fighting? [Christopher L. Gasper, Boston Globe]