arm health, baseball history, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Throwing Lefty: Not As Hard As You May Think

thumbnail-17

One thing’s for sure: we all have a lot of time on our hands right now.  I need to keep a tight rein on myself beyond this point.  I have another blog where I vent my frustration with the Nanny State and with our day’s saturation in unresearched factoids and malicious propaganda.  Part of the reason I flee to baseball is so that the acid of those reflections doesn’t dissolve what’s left of my sanity.

So… here’s a thought.  If you want to pitch but are of short stature or otherwise limited by unpromising parameters, why not throw left?  I know, I know: it’s not like you can just go out and become a southpaw the way you can learn to pick a guitar in a few months of practice… or is it?  Are we so very sure it’s not?

I’ve often found that the learning curve involved in preparation for a seemingly impossible undertaking is very steep only on the initial slope.  Unlike climbing Everest, which gets steeper as one moves higher, the roughest spots confront the first few steps.  Mountain-climbing is itself a good example.  Overcoming a fear of heights, learning to keep one’s balance, resisting the natural sense of panic or rush… these are all tasks that might crush the novice.  If only he can get past them, then subsequent stages of achievement fit together much more speedily, like a jigsaw puzzle already half-assembled.

I think the heftiest obstacle to throwing left-handed is just the “I can’t do this” feeling which greets your first tries.  Be analytical.  Why can’t you do this?  Why can you do it right-handed: what are you doing one way that you’re not doing the other?  Break it all down.  What’s your first move from your good side?  Are you replicating that move from the other side?  Follow Phase One with Phase Two.  Where does the train jump the track?  Be hyper-aware of how all parts are connected.  If your left hand seems to come up and rotate back much earlier than your right, that’s probably because your back is arching—which, in turn, is probably because your head is falling off to the side rather than driving forward, a movement itself caused by the front shoulder’s flopping open immediately rather than mapping out a powerful, fluid path toward the objective.  Very, very often in pitiable weak-side endeavors, the hidden culprit is the strong side.  When it doesn’t get to take the lead, it wants to pack up its marbles and go home rather than assume a supporting role.

At the very least, acquiring a little dexterity (literally, “right-handedness”) on your weak side will make you better informed about your strong side.  I really like the low overhand angle—almost sidearm—that I call “9:30” or “10 o’clock” (with 9 being full sidearm).  I throw that way from the right side with very little effort or discomfort, whereas a more overhand delivery puts a strain on my physique (since my frame is quite broad for my height).  As a matter of fact, I just posted a video summarizing my current “best advice” about delivering from this arm angle: see “Update of the Low Overhand Motion”.

I would likely never have known the importance of keeping my throwing hand from rising too soon if I hadn’t encountered a little pain when making that error left-handed.  Now I know, consciously and objectively, that I want to keep my hand from reaching full cock until my chin breaks away from my front shoulder… and by that point, I’m already far from the up-and-down on the rubber, and am indeed about to leave that perch behind entirely.  In the future, if my right-hand mechanics were to get fouled up, I’d have those items on my checklist.  In other words, through having made my strong-side successes explicit by trying to repeat them on the weak side, I know pretty much exactly what’s happening when things are going well.

Naturally, this all applies equally to hitting.  But switch-hitters, rare as they are, seem a thousand times more abundant than switch-pitchers.  Or since switching is in itself a very labor-intensive skill, even if you have good coordination from either side, let’s look at it from a less fanciful angle.  Guys who bat with their stronger hand on the bottom aren’t all that rare (George Brett, Wade Boggs, Freddie Freeman… and even the much rarer lefty-batting-right isn’t unheard-of, as in the case of Rickey Henderson or of my hometown hero, Carl Warwick); yet guys who reach for doorknobs with their right while throwing left are one in a million.  I can think only of Tris Speaker and Billy Wagner, both of whom became southpaws because of injury to their right wing.

So the insight seems to be this: pitching from your weaker side is a heck of a lot harder than hitting from that side.  There are actually several advantages to having the stronger hand down on the bat’s knob; there are none to having the stronger arm driving toward the plate with a glove on.

Why bother learning to pitch left-handed, then, since it’s sure to be extremely challenging?  Like the Everest-climber, you could say, “Because it’s there”… but ballplayers have better things to do than accept idle challenges just to prove their character.  The game demands exhausting practice even of the most natural skills.  No, the basic reason is precisely because so few pitchers throw left-handed.  As a result, right-side hitters (about ninety percent of the typical line-up) don’t quite know what to do with offerings that come veering into them.  They’re used to crowding the plate in order to rake an evasive slider and be quick on a sneaky inside fastball.  When a pitch, especially from the 10 o’clock angle, comes looping under their barrel, they roll over the outside offering and completely whiff on the inside one—or else pull it far foul or smack it off their toe.  Our lefty has to keep that inside one low, to be sure: he has to exploit the physical fact that the bat lifts into the hands at a severe angle when it’s trained through the low/inside quadrant.  The high pitch is better off staying outside (or else chin-high… or both).

I speak here in the assumption that Lefty is a natural right-hander who (unlike Billy Wagner) has never learned to throw very hard from his weaker side.  As long as he has mastered control, he doesn’t really need velocity—or not nearly so much as the right-hander.  He’s better off trying to be Whitey Ford than Randy Johnson.  Attempting to rush it up there when Mother Nature isn’t sending him a lot of immediate bio-feedback is a good way to become a permanent righty, whether he wants to be or not.

But there’s the dilemma: consistent accuracy from your weaker side poses a tremendous challenge.  Well, that’s where practice comes in—that’s why you shouldn’t try this unless you’re willing to grind it out, any more than you should aspire to play flamenco guitar in two weeks.  Nevertheless, I think accuracy is a much more desirable target than velocity.  Not only will it get more hitters out: it will expose your arm to less risk, since your mind will be better focused on specific movements and less inclined to override your body’s incidental warnings.

Start small—start tiny.  Throw indoors, without actually throwing: just rehearse the motion, over and over.  When you do throw baseballs at a screen, stand close.  Don’t tempt your mind to chase after velocity in the early stages.  As long as you’re a mere fifteen or twenty feet from the target, the devil in you won’t be whispering, “Let’s see if we can get this one to pop!”

Well, that’s my crazy idea for today’s crazy times.  If you want to see a video that I made just a few days ago on this very subject, click here.

arm health, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

Short People Need Not Apply?

I haven’t been following the World Series live, though I know that entrusting it to the DVR is risky.  (Dish Network’s software managed to cut off the bottom of the ninth in the final game between the Yanks and the Astros—and I’m a big Altuve fan!)  The extra minute of ads (three rather than two) between half-innings and the know-it-all announcers who constantly filter the action for occasions to vomit factoids (I’ll mention no names, T.V.) are really hard to take.  I prefer to have a fast-forward button and long decompression breaks at my disposal.

No, I’ve been devoting my baseball life these days mostly to thinking about pitching, which I promised to revisit with a few new submarine experiments.  In waiting for the weather to cooperate and my body to acclimatize itself to some irregular motions, I happened to pick up a copy of The Art and Science of Pitching the other night.  The title immediately made me think that the authors were implying a fusion of what Ted Williams and Charley Lau did for hitting: science and art all rolled into one.  The final word on the subject.  And with Tom House, Nolan Ryan, James Andrews, Randy Johnson, and over a dozen others of similar quality on the National Pitching Association advisory board, the final word may just have been said.

Yet House’s name was the only one among the three actual authors that I recognized.  (Gary Heil turns out to be a lawyer, and Steve Johnson a baseball lifer who has mostly coached at lower levels.)  Besides, this final word was published thirteen years ago (2006).  I dimly recall giving the book to my son for Christmas.  It doesn’t look as though it was ever so much as thumbed through.  I can kind of see why.  The language isn’t exactly what an eleven-year-old would have found riveting (e.g., “Set the posting foot on the rubber to optimize the dragline, relative to the center line of the rubber and plate”).  Even when clearer, the wording tends to break complex movements down so far that you’d find yourself repeatedly interrupting what you’re trying to practice in a effort to check where the lead shoulder or the back foot is—as if you could!  “Rotate your hips forward, roll the back foot over, and release it to drag, while moving your upper body as far forward as possible without causing shoulder rotation….”  Yeah, let me work on that… let’s see….

In fairness, the book was probably intended for coaches exclusively—and I don’t want to create the impression that it isn’t full of sound advice.  The emphasis seems to fall heavily on doing explosive, mobile drills requiring synergy, as opposed to lots of weight-lifting that builds useless (sometimes inhibitive) muscle for pitching.  And I noticed that these fellows had discovered that the up-and-down, frozen-frame “balance point” was a non-starter at least as early as my favorite pitching guru, Paul Reddick, was spreading the news.  The body should already be tilting forward before the front leg lifts.

Yes, but… but is the harm of throwing over the body (i.e., letting the front leg land where it cuts off the upper body’s flow toward the plate) really a “myth”?  That’s hard for me to buy, inasmuch as my forward knee has always begun hurting whenever I’ve done this for weeks at a time—and I don’t see how any other body could hold up better.  The “science” of the book (and I hadn’t realized that Tom House, bless him, is actually “Dr. House”—no Hugh Laurie jokes, please) almost seems to be a bit razzle-dazzle.  Just because you’ve geared a guy up with tracers in an otherwise black room and compiled time-lapse shots of his delivery doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve proved anything.  Even if you superimpose a human skeleton on the dot-references (a perfect costume for Halloween!), you’re not really showing that the body in question won’t wake up with new pains.

Okay, okay… I’m being unfair.  I finally decided that my inclination to pick at the book’s edges was concealed frustration over its having nothing to say about the odd arm angles we cultivate at SmallBallSuccess.com.  In fact, even some of those long-striding drills straight off the rubber that leave our hurler almost in the grass—beautiful things to admire from afar—just don’t seem to me very relevant to a shorter body type.  Again, for the umpteenth time, I’m detecting the message, “Shorter people need not apply.”

Now, Tom House is scarcely what I would call the “coaching establishment”.  These lines, for instance, leapt out at me: “Therefore, for decades, coaches developed their instruction based on flawed data.  Coaching was based on conventional wisdom repeated so often that everyone began to accept it as fact.  When combined with information that was wrong, inappropriate, or improperly used as the basis of a teaching protocol, this ‘wisdom’ created an environment in which motor-learning problems become the norm, not the exception.”  Not sure I know precisely what every word of that means… but I understand enough of it that I want to jump up and applaud.

I just wish this book’s kitchen drawer had a few more cookie-cutters.  Reading Orel Hershiser’s concern about his 6’7” son’s receiving the right mound lessons in the book’s foreword (Hershiser: now, there was a guy who seriously bowed his back!) strikes a general chord with all of us dads; but some of us, you know, don’t have a kid who enters the starting gate at six-foot-anything.

arm health, Deadball Era, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

What’s New With Pitching?

I was slightly shocked—and slightly alarmed—that so many more of my pitching videos had been viewed, when last I checked, than my hitting videos.  I’ve researched Deadball Era hitting and labored to reconstruct it for well over ten years; as for pitching, most of what I know came from working with my son as he evolved into a submarine artist.  I’ve lately been trying to shore up my bit of mound knowledge with historical research.  I haven’t so much delved into the Deadball Era as into the decade or so before World War II.  Pitchers before that time were even less photographed than batsmen in revealing positions; and they were also allowed to throw spitballs, scuff balls, shine balls… a whole arsenal of what we’d consider weapons banned by the Geneva Convention.  The later Twenties and the Thirties became a period of adjustment to something more like the mound-craft of today’s game.  Whatever searching I’ve done so far through the past’s record has taken me there.

At any rate, I wanted to respond energetically to this active interest in unusual arm angles.  I think I understand it.  Especially if you’re a shorter person, your chances of being a starter in college, or even high school, are remote.  My son, at five-foot-eight (on a good day with a kind yardstick), didn’t start any games after middle school, as I recall.  The lower angles which his broad frame allowed him to access effectively, however, made him an ideal short reliever.  (Sorry about the pun!)  Even at its most elite levels, and perhaps particularly there, the game is being delivered into the hands of relief specialists more and more.  So why wouldn’t you want to buy stock in that prospering venture if you could get in on it?

I’ll never forget seeing Paul Reddick—whom I admire, and whose authority I would seldom think to question—write a public answer to a father who’d wondered if his son might have more of a pitching future from the rare submarine angle.  Paul’s opinion?  Submarining is a “gimmick”: better to learn well the mechanics of conventional pitching than to chase after smoke and mirrors.  I can agree that a lot of boys pitch themselves into surgery by trying to drop down.  I’ve seen kids throwing from Down Under for no better reason, apparently, than that they had a lanky build and could sling the ball from the side.  Their motion was often so out of kilter that I winced every time they delivered.

But if you can get your limbs moving smoothly in the same plane, more or less, there’s no a priori reason why you shouldn’t stay healthy from a given angle.  I’ve just posted two videos about pitching from the 9:30 slot (very low overhand, almost sidearm).  The first of them discusses the importance of working within a single plane, and the second is an actual demonstration performed by this 65-year-old man which didn’t end in an ambulance trip.  I chanced to notice just last night that Brad Peacock of the Astros uses that same kind of delivery, carrying the leg only about 60 degrees from the plate-line and then kicking it forward and a little open.  (Kirby Yates and Diego Castillo do the same thing: I mention them in both videos.)  It’s all very Nineteen-Thirties… and those oldtimers, you know, often stretched their careers halfway to forever.

A funny thing happened as I was loosening up for the demonstration.  The thought popped into my head, “Hey, what if I were to use this non-closing leg lift that falls open about 15 degrees from the plate-line to throw submarine?  Why wouldn’t I?  Why do submariners always throw over their body, losing velocity and risking joint injury?  Why do they have to go through all those contortions—which also allow baserunners and extra jump?  What about just a straight drop-and-fire from the mound’s dirt, almost?”

Well, it works… kind of.  The initial problem I’m having, as you might expect, is with accuracy—but I’m missing over and over in the same spot, which suggests to me that the right adjustment could solve everything.  I’m also able (and I know this sounds crazy, but it’s my personal and patented test-drive technique) to throw submarine left-handed with some modest degree of success out of this motion.  I usually try to apply my theories to the weak side to see if their effect is objectively valid or if my good side is just covering up the deficiencies.  I’ve never been able to throw submarine from the left side at all, with any degree of success or comfort.  Now I’m starting to find some promise in the new method.

A new video discussion of this exploration is also on YouTube.  (You might say that I really threw myself into pitching when I detected the public’s level of interest.)  A demonstration should come soon, whenever I’m well enough rehearsed not to miss the backstop.

I don’t understand why the low angle should ever be rated a mere gimmick.  The Big Leagues don’t think it so, apparently.  If you can deliver a pitch to a hitter from an angle where he seldom has to look for it and send it on a trajectory that he never has to track during the rest of his week, then why wouldn’t that be effective?  Hesitation in the batter’s box means less time to react to the pitch—and reduced reaction time means that the pitch’s perceived velocity speeds up.  Shorter guys can’t squeeze top speeds from their modest stature… but they can sure find ways to confuse hitters so much that reaction time shrinks to what the fiercest fireballer gives his adversaries!

coaches and trust, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

Make Haste Slowly With Pitching Technique

I don’t think Paul Reddick would object to my reproducing some of the dramatic letter he shared with those on his mailing list yesterday. (The message is already dramatic enough without the punctuation… but I’ve left everything as I found it.)

His name is Mike Reinold.

He’s worked for the Red Sox, Dr. Andrews, and more pitchers than any one of us can count.

This week I’m going to be bringing you the Golden Nuggets I’ve learned from Mike Reinold’s Truth About Velocity Program.

Here we go:

  1. Baseball injuries are up 37% in MLB since 2008 despite the advances in technology, recovery, and strength training. ??
  2. Youth injuries have increased 10x over the same period. 10X!!!!!! ??
  3. Tommy John surgery has seen increased by 193%. (It’s not uncommon for players to have two TJ surgery’s now.) ??
  4. Why is this so? Here’s why: The baseball world is overly focused on velocity.
    As Mike points out, go to any showcase, and you’ll see this: [There follows a photo showing at least a dozen scouts crowded together in the bleachers with their JUGS guns all pointed in the same direction.]
  5. ??The increase velocity directly correlates to the increase in injuries.
    There’s no doubt about the trend.

Look at the chart Mike shows during his presentations showing how the rise in velocity matches the rise in injuries.  ?? [Photo of chart not included.]

  1. Mike points out that this may be the injury era of baseball, not the velocity era!

  2. When parents tell Mike their kid needs to throw hard to get noticed, he argues the velocity will always be important, but because of the injury trend, velocity will not be the only thing that scouts evaluate. ❤

  3. Mike points out that pitchers with the top 20 W.A.R. in baseball threw 93mph. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not 99mph. ??

I think Paul means the top twenty pitchers in WAR… which is a stat that I began to respect for the first time when I saw it in this message. We need a better number to use in evaluating pitchers, without question. I would watch my 5’8” son lob his submarine slider at hitter after hitter in a D II college conference to produce weak rollovers to the left side; and some of these would be misplayed by shortstops who were still brooding about their last at-bat, and some wouldn’t even be touched by shortstops who were bird-dogging the inherited runner at second rather than setting up where a 72 m.p.h. breaking ball would end up nine out of ten times. But to me, it seemed obvious that this 5’8” kid could have been an “out” machine under the right circumstances. Instead…

Well, instead, college scouts and coaches are unable to replicate the Jamie Moyer Phenomenon, apparently—while, under their watchful eyes, the 6’4” kids (and this is just as outrageous) continue to place the risky bet that they can win a ticket to the next level before their arm explodes.

I want to write more about pitching in the near future, and of course to produce some videos about it. Right now, the stars are not aligning. We’ve had technical problems that have led us to invest in new, hopefully much better video equipment… but the adjustment is time-consuming. I also waged a similar battle with the twenty-first century in trying to figure out how to open a new YouTube channel. I think I’ve prevailed, at last. I realize that not every student of the Deadball Era and of strategies for giving smaller players a headstart is interested in discussions of whether or not God exists. (I’m very confident, by the way, that they play baseball in Heaven.)

I’m also waiting for the weather to cool off and for my own body to recover from one or two setbacks. You see, I have my own preferred high-tech method for experimenting with pitching: I try to do left-handed what I’m doing right-handed. The supposition is that, if I really understand what’s working for me from my good side, I should be able to reproduce it from my weaker side with at least a bit of observable success. Occasionally, this leads to some sore-and-stiff mornings. Sometimes the latest design hardly gets airborne before it nosedives.

Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure that I’m on the right track. You can read a brief description of where our current hypothesis is taking us at the bottom of the Pitching page (click the link in the menu). I’ve selected Padres closer Kirby Yates as my poster-child. The overlap of his style with what we had independently mapped out is very encouraging.

As always with pitching, though—much more than with hitting—Festina lente, in the words of Augustus: “Make haste slowly.” Paul Reddick’s message should suffice to underscore that too many of our kids are getting too banged up under the direction of coaches who pay too much attention to narrow results. Go easy. Don’t let your son or daughter continue to do anything that I or anyone else suggests that creates discomfort. A really good swing can feel awkward the first few dozen times you test it out: a really good pitching motion should never create twinges or a vague sense of, “I shouldn’t be doing this.”

coaches and trust, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

Multiple Arm Angles: Another Secret Weapon in a Dusty Closet

If my arthritic right heel lightens up, I may attempt a video today where I demonstrate the advantages of using different arm angles—or the possibility thereof, anyway.  (I can’t show the advantages unless I can put you in the batter’s box; and at my age, my best pitch is unlikely to intimidate or bumfuzzle a good teenaged hitter.)  Do you know that successful pitchers of yesteryear once did this routinely?  Why wouldn’t they?  Throwing the same pitch from a different angle is equivalent to throwing a different pitch, as far as confusing the hitter goes; and the change of angle is likely to ensure that, in fact, the pitch will move differently, as well.

In an era when hurlers like Johnny Cueto and Pedro Strop are slipping in an extra kink in their wind-up or not always coming set with no runners on base (Satchel Paige must be smiling up there), a pitching tip that doesn’t involve turning on the after-burners may be ripe for reconsideration.

Now, when this strategy popped into my head the other day, I recollected that I had volunteered it to my son’s coach back in his high school days.  I probably packed it away in memory’s attic because the coach immediately rejected it.  (No surprise there: he would always reject any suggestion from any dad.)  Even at the time, however, I remember being struck by the lameness of his curt answer.  He said that a change of motion would signal the hitter what pitch was coming.  Drop down to submarine level, and he thinks, “Oh, one of those: the low one that corkscrews in.”  Throw from just above sidearm, and he thinks, “Uh-huh: here comes the slider.”

In the first place, I really doubt that most hitters at any level could process that the arm slot was changing as the routine wind-up shifted an instant before the ball’s release, then further match the surprise angle with a particular kind of recollected pitch.  Especially in the case of guys with limber arms that can go to odd places, the batsman will not have seen this pitcher two or three times in the game already—for we’re describing a reliever.  In the second place, even if the hitter’s calculations could occur so quickly, how would he know that the submarine angle means a fastball or change-up rather than a slider?  Are we talking about a pitcher who has only one item on the menu from all of his angles?  Why would we assume that… other than to stop pesky dads in their intrusive tracks?

To be sure, altering the arm angle within a sequence of pitches to a given hitter requires great skill.  You run the risk not only of missing your target badly on the first attempt at surprise, but also of messing up your mechanics when you try to recover your more routine motion.  I have no doubt that this is precisely why contemporary pitchers don’t plunder history for the technique: it’s just too hard to master.  Their coaches are badgering them, instead, to keep repeating exactly the same motion.  Every time.

But here’s my answer to that: if it weren’t hard, everyone would be doing it.  As a pitcher of unusually short stature, I would want my secret weapons to be really tough to perfect.  Mother Nature has already given my competition several advantages.  If I can claim an advantage or two of my own, therefore, simply by working extra-hard, then I’m happy.  I’ve found a way to level the playing field—and all I have to do is practice more and better than my rivals!

Always remember to “practice smart”.  Hard work without a clear objective may well be wasted effort.  Practice hitting your spots from different release points.  Ignore velocity, at least until you nail down accuracy.  Perry Husbands wrote a book called Downright Filthy Pitching a few years ago wherein he explains, with the aid of many charts, how the same pitch thrown at the same speed becomes different pitches at different points.  A low-away fastball is as good as a change-up, since the bat’s barrel leaves the zone of possible contact very quickly.  A high-in fastball at the same speed becomes a rocket, because the barrel has to get out in front of the plate super-early to make contact.

In other words, Coach I-Don’t-Talk-to-Dads, even if a pitcher has nothing but a fastball from either of two arm angles, he will have at least four pitches with an accompanying mastery of location.  You should know that, Coach, if you’re really the genius you pretend to be.

(N.B.: The video proposed above was later produced and uploaded.  See it here.)