baseball history, mental approach, pitching, umpires, Uncategorized

Tinkering at the Edges Won’t Correct the Game’s “Speed” Problem

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I’m almost afraid to raise my voice in a peep, having heard both Trevor Bauer and Paul LoDuca taking Rob Manfred to the woodshed… and their venting was powerful.  In the matter of the Commissioner’s brutal chiropraxis on the ailing playoffs, the critics seem spot-on to me.  I’ve long ago aired my own plan for post-seasonal baseball: create a third league, so that you have the East Coast, the West Coast, and flyover America all covered; make all regular play intra-league and shorten the season (eleven teams playing sixteen—or even fifteen—games against each league rival); ditch the All Star Game for the Home Run Derby and other “fan favorites” (place-hitting contest?) to celebrate mid-season, which now has major significance (see following); have a season-ending championship round between first-half and second-half winners of all three leagues; then stage a tournament of five games between the surviving three teams, reverting to a double-elimination format if no clear victor emerges after the scuffle.

The World Series Tournament, by the way, could feature every game in a ballpark familiar to neither of the two participants. One of them, naturally, would be designated “home”; but the Yankees and the Dodgers would fight it out in Kansas City, while the Cubs and the Yanks would go to Seattle. This “Super Bowl” approach to venue would draw spectators to the event whose hometown clubs suffered disappointing seasons. It would also minimize the possibility of some extraordinary home-field advantage (such as doomed-stadium blowers that rev to full blast in the bottom of each inning) producing a warped outcome. Wouldn’t that all be cool?

Instead, we now have… I don’t know.  I haven’t been able to figure it out yet.  I don’t think Rob Manfred has, either.

But as far as other changes are concerned… the “face three hitters” rule for relief pitchers doesn’t bother me at all.  There’s nothing more tedious than watching Aaron Boone or Joe Madden come strolling back out to the mound with an arm in the air just after a new pitcher has induced a fly ball.  By the way, that particular alteration in the rules isn’t undermining the historical game, either.  On the contrary, the manager’s yoyoing between dugout and mound during the late innings is something you’d never have seen before about 2000, or even later.  It most emphatically does slow the game down; but more to the point, it creates a contest of technicians and specialists.  It drains versatility and individual heroics from the performance.

Was it Jesse Orosco and Roger McDowell whom the Mets would alternately nudge off the mound into the outfield during big games, swapping one for the other as righty and lefty hitters stepped into the box?  I’m not talking about a formally “two-position player”, something also covered (rather needlessly, it seems) by this season’s rule changes; I mean literally putting your neck on the block, as manager, by allowing a pitcher to serve in left field or at first base during an at-bat, then switching him (no warm-up tosses allowed) with the hurler who just fanned Rusty.  That was fun to watch—and it was also always perfectly legal, though few skippers had the guts to try it.  The better bet is the pitcher who can frustrate hitters on both sides of the plate.

What really slows the game down, however, continues not to be addressed, or even (in most quarters) recognized.  Maybe it’s so obvious that we fail to see by looking too hard… or maybe the passage of time has produced a smokescreen.  My wife and I were both virtually put to sleep last week by watching a 2019 inter-league match-up between the Phillies and the Indians that should have been critical for both teams.  The Phils were fighting mathematical elimination, and the Indians began the day a half-game out of the second wildcard spot.  I wondered why the whole thing was so dull.  As an experiment, I dug out the first game of the 1975 Reds/Red Sox Series: Gullett vs. Tiant, hard-throwing lefty against Satchel Paige Redux.  Yeah, it was fun watching El Tiante’s gyrations and contortions… but a lot more was involved.  The tempo was entirely different.  Hitters stayed in the box, or stepped out just long enough to study the third-base coach.  Pitchers got their sign and went to work.  (Gullett actually balked at just about every delivery with runners on base, though it was Luis who was famously called for balking—by the other league’s umpire—during one whirlybird wind-up.)

Compared to those innings, the crucial Phillies/Indians contest was a sleeper.  Hitters seemed reluctant to step up and hit, pitchers to toe the rubber and throw.  Everyone was so touchy, so prissy.  “Wait, I have to redo the Velcro on my gloves.”  “Wait, I don’t think I want to repeat that pitch so soon.”  Damn, guys!  Just play the game!

As far as I know (though I haven’t seen confirmation), the rule requiring pitchers to discharge an offering within twenty seconds is now in full effect… but why do we need such regulations?  Why don’t players want to play—because it almost seems that they don’t.  Or, to say it better (because I know that’s not the explanation), they seem focused on an excessively narrow objective rather than on the composite endeavor.  You don’t need a perfect pitch: you just need a pitch that produces an out.  You don’t need a jack: you just need to put the ball in play somewhere.  Instead, due to what appears a kind of over-analysis or misplaced emphasis, pitchers end up surrendering huge tallies of walks on borderline calls, while hitters help them out with huge tallies of strikeouts on those same calls.  Of course, the umpire catches grief from one party or the other, every time.

I particularly noticed that batsmen, in the 2019 game, were swinging from the heels whenever they did decide to offer.  All or nothing, every cut.  Instead of Pete Rose setting up far back from the plate and trying to go the other way, Francisco Lindor was putting a sweet but vicious uppercut stroke on everything within his red zone.  I wonder… could the sheer vigor that goes into these all-out swings require more recovery time?  I’m sure the approach must induce more hitters to let more pitches go by—not because they’re balls, but because they’re not home-run suitable.  It appears to me, as well, that more pitches are fouled in such not-so-precise attacks… which, naturally, runs more time off the clock as a new ball is tossed to the mound and must undergo an introductory scrub.  And I can’t really blame pitchers for trying to hit an exact spot each time, since it’s clear that their adversary intends to punish any mistake to the maximum.

Are umpires, too, not placed more in the spotlight when so many pitches are taken and so much rides on the close call?  I know they don’t always get it right: I’m sitting before the tube fuming at them along with every other Braves fan when slow-mo replay proves that Nick Markakis got burned on something three inches off the plate.  (For some reason, that happens a lot to Nick.)  But Markakis is a superior two-strike hitter; like Pete Rose, he likes the opposite field.  For every one of him, there are twenty others whose afternoon will be ruined if they can’t browbeat the Man in the Iron Mask into relaxing his standards.

Bats are shorter by a good four or five inches than they typically were when I was growing up, and they also carry nothing above the trademark that stands a chance of fisting a pitch over the infield.  So the stubborn wait for a mistake-pitch right in the wheelhouse is understandable, I guess.  Sure, you could warn the managers as they bring out their line-ups that you’re not calling Velcro time-outs today; and if other umpires emulate you, and if the trend continues throughout the season, game times would unquestionably diminish.  But would “action” increase, when premier players are already trading forty home runs for a .228 average?

In my opinion, the dynamics of hitting have to change if the game is both to speed up and also recover its old excitement.  I don’t expect Nomar Mazara or Hunter Renfroe to start taking more concise swings and bid for a batting title… but why are Ozzie Albies and Rugned Odor trying to pump everything over the pull-side fence?  The game is slow because offense is two-dimensional.  Pitchers get hitters out because hitters have made themselves easy to get out.  Nobody has yet explained to my satisfaction how you get away with leaving a single infielder on one side of the diamond against hitter after Major League hitter and win games… yet such is our contemporary sport.

If batsmen occupying a few key slots in the line-up would adopt the approach that we recommend at SmallBallSuccess.com, you’d have a very different—and much more enjoyable—experience from your couch or seat in Row 15.

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.”

baseball history, bat acceleration, coaches and trust, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, low line drives, metal bat use, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized, weight transfer

High Strikes: Nothing New Under the Sun

I was both delighted and dismayed to hear Jessica Mendoza remark on Sunday Night Baseball that pitching up in the strike zone—even with a mediocre fastball—has suddenly become the go-to strategy in the game’s upper echelons.  I was delighted because we’ve essentially been preaching this gospel from the reverse angle on SmallBallSuccess.com for years.  In fact, I personally was preaching it long before I had any idea of founding the site.  The metal bat, with its massive barrel and skinny handle, invites the hitter to hurl down on the ball, cocking the rear elbow and then unloading so steeply that the top hand slips off immediately upon contact.  The hefty leg kick and the “foot down early” imperatives (how often I’ve heard Jessica praise that dogma!) are part of the same stroke.

But none of it belongs to yesteryear’s game—and the reason is pretty obvious.  The bat path is too “dippy”.  If a tall guy collides with the pitch just as it passes over the plate (i.e., as his divebombing barrel is beginning to pull back on the joystick), then he may well impart so much backspin in the process that the resultant buzzard-beater carries over a fence.  Yet not only do smaller body types not have the equipment needed to accelerate the barrel sufficiently for this result: they, along with the big guys, risk a complete miss or a pitiful roll-over.  The barrel, that is, spends too much time on its long transit being nowhere near the plane of the ball’s flight.  It’s likely to descend too late or come up too early.  For big fellows, the frequent K’s and ground-outs are considered an acceptable trade-off for a homer every third game.  For smaller guys, useless pop-ups and dribblers are terminal.

And the high strike, of course, is the pitcher’s best option for exploiting this stroke’s big holes.  A barrel starting from well above the shoulder simply cannot come at a letter-high fastball productively.  (It does stand a good chance of clobbering a lazy hanger as it sweeps back upward: then the only question is… will the drive stay fair?)  Since the strike zone was particularly high in the Deadball Era and even well after World War II, hitters knew better than to take that steep hack and then, immediately, roll back with lifting, opening shoulders.  They kept their cut straight through the ball for as long as they could, usually finishing with their weight mostly or completely on the front foot.  I have a feeling that the Fifties were the pivotal period of change, as the home run once again captivated the public and the uppercut swing (your grandad’s version of Launch Angle) was all that hitting instructors talked about.

I tried to get my son, who was a dandy little submarine pitcher, to shoot some of his 0-2 and 1-2 pitches way up in the zone.  Even with his very modest velocity, I don’t think the chesty boppers that squared off against him in high school could have done him much harm there, especially since the pitch would literally be gaining altitude (the only pitch that truly does so).  No, they would have chased it all the way to the roots of their hair! But his coach absolutely nixed the idea.  Stay low, always low.  Never change the incoming vertical angle.  And today Ms. Mendoza is crowing, “Wow!  We hadn’t thought that this could work! Now it’s the very latest thing.”

“Late” is right.  Too late to help my son or to hit Coach Donkey between the ears.  And that, naturally, is the source of my dismay.  It’s flattering to be voted right, for a change, by the professional establishment… but it came too late to help my son—and, of course, none of the establishment is remotely aware of having given this independently publishing dad a thumbs-up.  The game will move right along at its standard glacial pace, its elite patting themselves on the back every time they figure out something that others of us knew a decade or two earlier.  (The uppercut swing, by the way, would eventually lead to the Year of the Pitcher and the lowering of the mound after the coaching brain trust had thoroughly ruined a generation of hitters with it.)  Well, you know… so it is in all human affairs.  There’s nothing new under the sun.

But the good news, if you have a teachable youngster, is that you don’t have to wait for baseball’s magnetosphere to reverse its polarities.  Get your boy (or girl) swinging like Cobb and Speaker—and Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo—right now!  The coaches may want to jump right out of their cleats and shout, “What in… blazes are you doing?”  But when they see one line drive after another after another rolling to the fence, that shout is likely to catch in their throat.