arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Pitching

Wee Willie” Sherdel

I began peering back into distant baseball history perhaps twenty years ago, when my son was becoming strong enough to lift a bat and I was discovering my own deficiencies as a hitting instructor.  Oh, I also boned up on the latest hitting pedagogy—which was part of why I fled to the ancients with increasing interest.  The “cutting edge” instruction about batsmanship was clearly meant for tall boys, and clearly producing a lot of poor contact even in them.  The notion that hitters once upon a time logged 600 at-bats and only two dozen strikeouts in a season intrigued me more and more.

What I didn’t do at the same time was pry into the dusty annals of pitching.  That turns out to be a formidable challenge, as I try now to direct more attention toward the mound.  For one thing, most of us are more attracted to hitting in our youth.  Kids tend to dream of being Mike Trout (or Mickey Mantle, in my day) rather than Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.  Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander were not photographed as often in some stage of their delivery as Cobb and Ruth were in some stage of their swing.  And for that matter, a player may actually find it easier to freeze for a camera with a primitive shutter-speed as he swings a bat than as he slings a ball.  Certain classic “stills” of mound stars looked awfully bogus even on the baseball cards of my childhood (and I don’t date back to the days when cars had running boards).  For instance, the pitcher would be shot with both feet forward, toes squared to home plate, knees bent, and a ball-laden hand coming more or less at the lens as his eyes pretended to drill the catcher’s target.  Not many useful clues there: too much dynamism has been gutted and stuffed by the camera-wielding taxidermist.  In contrast, a hitter holding his coil into a load or his finish after contact will somewhat interrupt the flow of explosive energy, but not to the degree that the careful detective can’t draw some important conclusions from the film’s evidence.

(After writing all that, I realized that the Pitching tab at SmallBallSuccess.com actually presents the reader with some visual clues to reconstruct yesteryear’s dominant mound technique.  These are few and tendentious, but they do exist.  See also my video, Reconstructing the Pitching Technique of 90 Years Ago.)

Honestly, I didn’t get started down the path I intend to map for you in this discussion by looking at old baseball cards.  My labors at SmallBallSuccess.com have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that players of shorter stature and broad body type can probably fire pitches in ways that wouldn’t be recommended for taller, thinner guys.  I know that I myself was always able to throw sidearm and submarine without any strain.  The motion was natural to me.  My son also seemed to take to odd arm angles like the proverbial duck to water.

That’s not to say that when elite contemporary pitching gurus like Paul Reddick share their teaching, I don’t listen with respect.  A lot of Reddick’s fundamental advice seems rock-solid to me, such as his rejecting the traditional lesson that the hurler reach and hold a “balance point” straight up-and-down over the rubber before delivering.  Ouch—I once taught kids that lesson myself!  But Paul is right.  Boys who try to go from 0 to 85 after a moment of complete stasis risk damaging their arms, and at the very least have trouble finding the zone.  Their hand comes back much too soon, their back arches as they deliver, and their lead foot falls out to the side.  Today’s revised coaching orthodoxy (and not just Paul’s teaching) urges us to “stay in a tunnel”.  Stride powerfully straight toward the plate, and let your leading shoulder rush into the glove elevated by your bent front arm.  Be Nolan Ryan or Roy Halliday, not Juan Marichal or Luis Tiant, Jr.

The trouble was that I myself could only stick with the program up to a certain point.  I think the Reddick “wall drill”, where you set up with a confining structure next to your rear shoulder and practice delivering pitches without striking that wall or fence as your hand rises, is brilliant.  I also agree that you don’t want your head to roll back or your spine to arch.  But… but the “stay in the tunnel” thing has always severely cramped me.  I’m just too broad-framed.  My stride is also too short to give me a fighting chance at equaling the acceleration of taller competitors, although I have very strong legs.  If I were to be judged (assuming that I were forty years younger and trying out for a spot in the bull pen) strictly according to the Reddick paradigm, I’d never make the cut.  Neither would practically any other short kid.  Guys who can master that model do throw very hard… but the model also filters out those of short-and-broad build, an exclusion which is always justified by pointing at the JUGS gun’s objective testimony.

What if my type of build could keep from loading up too soon, keep from arching the back and rearing up with the head… but also throw the lead leg powerfully outward?  Not directly toward the plate, where our diminutive stride would produce little advantage, but to the side like a Ted Williams aficionado throwing his front hip in a swing?  Such “falling away” produces arm strain and inaccuracy only when the pitcher is trying to throw high-overhand—from as close to high noon as he can get.  What if, instead, this “fire plug” pitcher were to use his muscular core in a sidewise motion of unfolding that drew his throwing arm along the slanted plane blazed by the opening leg?  Now he would be delivering from ten o’clock, or even nine-thirty—and the sidewise thrust of the “fall away” step would trail both arms fluidly along its incline rather than depriving a high-overhand delivery of a stable base because lower and upper body weren’t traveling the same course.

Do you know what’s just occurred to me?  The “balance point” business also becomes much less sinister if you intend to open out while keeping your arm angle low.  That’s because the lift of the forward leg is no longer a direct entry into the surge toward home plate: it’s a preparation for surging in another direction.  No longer is the energy flow interrupted.  The lift’s objective might be considered potential rather than kinetic: i.e., your knee’s pump is storing up energy to unleash sidewise when you choose to “go”, not trying to harness the energy created immediately when you’re tilting with just one prop beneath you.  This could explain why Satchel Paige and other oldtimers (hello, Luis Tiant, Jr.!) were able to mix various degrees of hesitation so effectively into their delivery.

To be sure, if all variables were controlled, such “kinky” style would probably still fail to rival the Reddick model in pure velocity—but it would produce more velo than the short mound-aspirant would have been able to achieve through the new-mainstream model, and it would also confront the hitter with a perplexing release point and a pitch that never keeps to a rigidly flat line.  I know Paul Reddick understands the merits of “perceived velocity” (i.e., hitter’s reaction time) and movement.  When the hitter needs an extra split-second to find the ball, the pitch essentially travels five or ten mph faster; and when that ball is severely breaking east to west even as it descends north to south, getting a barrel to it becomes an immense challenge.

Last week I posted a two-part video detailing my latest excursion into the forbidden land of sidestepping, low-overhand pitching.  (Part One is a discussion that sets up the trial; Part Two shows me attempting to apply my principles from the left side, where my natural aptitude wouldn’t be able to cover up theoretical errors.)  I hope to explore this subject further when my health stabilizes.  Because of all the hormone-suppressants I’m on as my prostate cancer is chased into oblivion, my joints and muscles don’t repair themselves as fast as they used to after a day of vigorous exercise.  As any ballplayer knows, you have to stay open to making adjustments!  Well, I’m still seeking out the happy middle ground between denying fuel to cancer and denying my muscles the food they need for recovery.  Be patient with me.

Anyway… it was in this experimental theorist’s frame of mind that I happened to watch a terrific DVD from my collection titled 1913-1938: The Sports Album (Rare Sportsfilms, Inc.), a succession of very early newsreels apparently created as filler for use between feature movies.  I couldn’t help but notice how many more pitchers were throwing in the fashion explored by my experiments than in the Reddick way.  Long strides toward home were virtually unheard-of (though it looks like Dizzy Dean was in that category–and Lefty Grove was folding his front arm into his body just to keep it out of the way).  High-overhand arm angles were very rare.  While it’s true, furthermore (as so many of you keep telling me), that pitchers before World War II didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today, it’s also true that they were far more durable.  Going nine innings every start was an implicit assumption; logging 300 innings for the season wasn’t at all unusual.  Four-man rotations were the norm.  Yes, many hurlers of great promise blew their arms out under this regimen… but how many of our young prospects do the same, and are redeemed from the junk heap only because of advances in medicine?

I’ll leave off today by conceding that not all of my sidestepping exemplars were short, broad fellows.  Wee Willie Sherdel wasn’t extraordinarily wee at 5’10”; neither was Fidgety Phil Collins at 5’11”.  Dickey Kerr, Dolf Luque, Bobby Shantz… yes, they would have been under average (at around 5’7”) even for position-players.  But Pete Alexander and Dazzy Vance also made my list; and Walter Johnson, though I didn’t observe him to fly open, certainly didn’t lunge lengthily toward the plate.  Ditto for the immortal Satchel.  I’d say that the low-overhand flip was simply the standard of the day—and that it was demonstrably healthier for the arm than the style we now prescribe.  That I’m holding it out as an option for shorter pitching prospects is somewhat dictated by the hard fact that those lads won’t be taken seriously no matter how well they emulate the Reddick model.  Paul once responded to a dad’s online query about submarine pitching (I’ve never forgotten the words), “It’s just a gimmick.”  No interest whatever in exploring that option.  Such is the cocksureness of Space Age science: “We have the formula for rocket fuel, so stop trying to mix in Tabasco sauce!”

Well, try lecturing the Tampa Bay Rays in that manner, or any other innovative organization that has very effectively deployed unusual release points on the mound.

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 ethics, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, Uncategorized

Coaches Are Not Kings—And Some Kings Have More Humility

Here are a few excerpted passages from an email that online coach Paul Reddick sent around this past week:

Don’t say the wrong thing and blow it for your kid.
No more confusion about what to say.
No more wondering if you’re gonna say the right things.
No more worrying about saying the wrong things.

This is for parents and players who want to know the right way to talk to Coaches, Scouts and Recruiters.
You’ll learn how to get attention from coaches, scouts and recruiters.

PLUS: You’ll learn how to not sound like an amateur.
You’ll know what to say, how to say it and when to say it.
You’ll know what questions coaches will ask you and what questions you should be asking the coaches.
With this Masterclass, you’ll have an unfair advantage over every other parent that coach is going to talk with.

P.S. I hate to say that I have seen parents and players blow it with coaches by saying the wrong thing, but I have. It’s cringe worthy.
Don’t let that happen to you.

Now, I like Paul Reddick: that’s why I’m on his mailing list. Furthermore, the point I’m trying to draw from the missive above isn’t that Coach Paul “is at it again, doing anything for a buck”. (The pitch being made, by the way, is an offer—and a really good offer—for tutorial on how to talk to coaches.)

No, my problem is with the fact that coaches need to be addressed in some special manner. When Reddick teased this same package a few weeks earlier (and I regrettably no longer have that email), he drew a more poignant picture of a kid who gets cut from his high school team just because Dad dared to approach El Supremo and didn’t use the right words. My own son didn’t suffer this fate, but I’ve known boys who have. These are true stories, and the coaching world offers far, far too many examples of them.

In the first place, as a career educator myself, I’m outraged at the proposition that a parent might enter a conference with a teacher tormented by the thought that the child could be failed if words didn’t come out right. If I, as a teacher, were to treat a child punitively for remarks made by a parent, then I should be fired from my job, unceremoniously, and not given a reference. I would be a disgrace to my profession.

Why is a high school coach any different, or even a college coach? Why must their royal displeasure not be stirred, lest the executioner’s sword fall upon a child’s neck? These stories are reminiscent of Herodotus’s about the behavior of the Persian kings.

In the second place, even if the parent’s “talk” with Coach is obnoxiously confrontational or lecturing (“You’re not using him right—he’s never played third base. And he’d hit better if you’d bat him higher in the order!”), why should an adult professional have any difficulty fielding the proper answer? “I’m sorry you feel that way. But this is my job, and I have to do it as I think fit.” Owners of restaurants or car dealerships or shoe stores all have to handle the occasional irate and irrational customer. What is it about the coaching profession that should insulate its practitioners from any such unpleasant run-in?

And why on earth would that “professional” proceed to take his irritation out on a person who had nothing to do with the unpleasantness? If you are a professional, Coach, then don’t attempt to show it by claiming some locker-room version of Papal Infallibility. Demonstrate your superior understanding by sizing up the talent at your disposal and making good use of it. If Leroy has the makings of a good third-baseman but also a really annoying father… well, so make him a good third-baseman. What’s the problem? The father should have nothing to do with it. What kind of jerk are you, that you’re determined to punish the father by depriving the team of its best answer at a key defensive position?

This whole subject makes my blood boil. Particularly when I’ve had so much personal experience of coaches who do not know their trade as well as they ought—turning weak hitters into weaker hitters, ruining young pitchers’ arms, shattering players’ confidence with sarcasm and contradictory instructions—I should think a little humility would be a requirement for the job. Instead, too many coaches seem determined to hide the limits of their competence behind a wall of intimidation. You do what they say, unquestioningly… or you die. You clean out your locker and disappear.

This kind of behavior is neither professional, nor morally responsible, nor functionally adult. It disgusts me. And that one should need a crash course to address figures within the professions because so many of them appear to behave in just this way is a black eye on the game of baseball.

low arm angle, pitching, Uncategorized

I Love Paul Reddick, BUT…

I first encountered Paul Reddick through his online 90 mph Club.  My son was about twelve years old at the time, as I recall.  Reddick was so devoted, not just to growing his business, but to helping young people that one could actually book a free online counseling session with him after sending a video.  My son did so.  I think he learned a few things.  As the years passed, he probably soaked up a lot more from SidearmNation.com and other sources because of his unique motion.  Mr. Reddick never had much use for sidewinders or submariners.  I recall his writing very publicly to one dad that the submarine pitch was a “gimmick”.

This, I’m afraid, is one of the weaknesses “that flesh is heir to” (in Hamlet’s phrase).  We start out small and fight bravely.  Perhaps we prevail and begin to grow large… but we still carry the scars of those earlier skirmishes.  We perceive challenges to our triumphant method (hey, it’s selling, isn’t it?) as renewed attempts to pull us down, so we ignore them.  We develop a thick hide.  Criticism is all lumped together into a black plastic bag and hauled to the landfill.  I’ve lately heard and read a lot of talk from Mr. Reddick that follows the pattern, “I can hear the screams from coaches right now over what I’m about to say… believe me, they’ve called me every name in the book….”  A bit of persecution complex there, don’t you think?

I must have landed permanently in the Reddick doghouse when I lately broke the rules—which I didn’t know at the time—with an attempted post on one of his discussion groups.  There’s that voice within me which wants to respond, “Heck with you, Jack!  I’ve been in classier doghouses than this one!”  I’m very much a small guy, of course, and one who sees no convincing signs that he’s on the way up.  You can easily get defensive, and even combative, in this game of trying to teach a game.

I’ve retained enough sense, though, to say this: if you ever see a recommendation about pitching on my site and a counter-recommendation on Reddick’s, follow Paul’s advice.  Despite his offhand dismissal of submarining (which isn’t really sound empirically: the altered arm angle, besides being tough for hitters to pick up, puts different spin on the ball), he’s the expert.  The things I volunteer on any mound topic are mere suggestions, and all come with the urgent caveat to cease and desist what you’re doing the first time it feels uncomfortable.  Always listen to what Mother Nature’s telling you through your body.

The video (or videos) that I’m planning to cut soon under the title, “I Love Paul Reddick, BUT…” are all going to address hitting topics.  Mr. Reddick has categorically condemned a whole list of ideas and practices: swinging down on the ball, using hitting tees, relying on pitching machines in the cage, etc.  I actually agree with him on most of these issues… up to a point.  But what disappoints me is the sweeping condemnation.  “Never do this!”  Um… don’t you mean don’t do this in a certain way or in certain circumstances?  I’m sure that the “categorical imperative” approach markets better over the Internet.  I’m also sure that it doesn’t serve the cause of truth.

But then, I don’t really believe that Reddick uses this formula because it markets well.  As I said before, I think he just can’t sheath his sword and trade a few prisoners.  The en gaile of the Old Irish heroic epics is fluttering about his chariot and filling his ears with her shrieks.  “Never… always… never!  Attack, attack, attack!”