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February 6, 2015

Raising Aces

Trailblazers of Funk

by Doug Thorburn

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In the previous edition of Raising Aces, we attempted to establish a grading system for pitcher funk, and this week we look at how some of that funk has translated across time and cultures. A key ingredient to funk is novelty, but what might seem novel to the modern observer might actually have been commonplace 60 years ago, and the techniques that are common in specific areas across the globe might be considered uncommon here in the States. So let's dive into some of the specific forms of funk that have appeared multiple times in the major leagues, and see if we can attach a grade that teases out some of the contextual factors.

Kick the Sky

Earlier this week, I highlighted the 80-grade funk of one Juan Marichal, noting his sun-seeking leg kick and severe lean-back as he tried to counterbalance the flow of funk in his system. The extreme motion was worthy of an 80 grade for funk even when considering contextual factors, which is a critical footnote in the case of Marichal, as he stood out as the most egregious among a generation of Kick-the-Sky pitchers. The big lift and compensatory back-bend were relatively commonplace in his time, and though Marichal took the award for most extreme, he was hardly the first to employ this strategy.

Back in the 1940s (non-war seasons), Bob Feller was the most dominant force on the mound. His legendary heat was made all the more intimidating by his delivery, which obscured the baseball until late in the pitch sequence. With powerful momentum and a pronounced rear-back-and-throw technique, Feller blazed the trail for many future Kick-the-Sky pitchers. Funk Grade: 60

The success of Feller gave way to Warren Spahn, perhaps the greatest lefty of all time (at least until Randy Johnson came along), who rode the Kick-the-Sky method for 20 years with remarkable consistency. Spahn was a clear example of this technique, but compared to other pitchers of that generation his delivery was relatively calm. Overall, he receives just a 50 for his funk due to the context of the time in which he pitched; were he transported to today, Spahn would easily crack a 60 or better with his funk. Funk Grade: 50

The 1970s had their own version of the strategy, and though Kick the Sky gave way to myriad techniques as the game evolved, Jim Palmer spun the yarn for 19 years of a Hall of Fame career, using what by that time had become an antiquated technique. He receives a few extra points on the funk scale for having a delivery that stood out a bit more amongst the crowd, and his lack of balance included a bounce during his lift that upped the funk but dinged his mechanical efficiency. Funk Grade: 55

Wait for it...

Hideo Nomo was a trailblazer, following in the footsteps of Fernando Valenzuela to take Los Angeles by storm as a funk-wielding rookie from a foreign land whose unique method of pitching a baseball grabbed the attention of baseball nation. His delivery from the windup was teeming with funk, from the exaggerated stretch-out in which he reached his hands high above his head, to the extreme reverse-twist as he again reached with both hands as far away from the batter as possible, as if he was obscuring the pitch's identity with an invisible cape. Nomo then followed his odd stance at the top of his delivery with a pronounced rock-n-roll strategy that further added to the funk of his motion. He brought the idea of the “NPB pause” with him, and he would be followed by pitchers who had found other ways to throw off a batter's timing. Funk Grade: 80

Like Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka utilized the early stages of the windup to execute his time-altering technique. In his case, Dice-K would take a step back toward second base, and then shake his hips back and forth in a sort of samba dance, often rocking a couple of times before getting his motion going toward the target. Perhaps the jig was a timing mechanism for Dice-K, or maybe it was meant to keep batters on their toes, but it was like nothing that I had seen before he landed in the States. His funk grade takes a hit, however, due to the fact that his oddities were mostly confined to the non-functional part of the delivery, as opposed to someone like Nomo who had multiple layers to his funk. Funk Grade: 55

The modern-day version is best personified by Hisashi Iwakuma. His pause is a bit different, as it's invoked halfway through the delivery, with a double-pump, stop-at-the-top as he reaches maximum leg lift, halting his forward motion, slightly lowering and then re-raising the lift leg, and then finally executing the final gear of his stride and momentum. Similar to Nomo and Dice-K, Iwakuma can only utilize this technique from the windup, due to the obvious stolen-base repercussions when pitching from the stretch. Funk Grade: 65

The Force is Strong

His career may have been relatively brief, but Sandy Koufax's peak was so dominant in that narrow timeframe that he is on the short list for best pitcher of all time. He was another Kick-the-Sky guy, with the big leg kick and exaggerated lean-back that were so common in his time, but what really separated Koufax was his incredible momentum, with a burst of energy directed straight at the plate as if he were shot out of a cannon. Funk Grade: 60

Such ferocity was rare in the 1960s and has almost disappeared in today's game, but there is one pitcher who has carried the torch: Tim Lincecum. Taught to pitch by his father, who utilized the delivery of Koufax as a blueprint, Lincecum was able to overcome the size-related questions that dogged him as an amateur with a quick ascension up the minor-league ladder followed by four years of dominance at the highest level. Lincecum has struggled to repeat his complicated timing pattern in recent seasons, but he is at his best when the motion is clicking at full-steam ahead. Throw in an unorthodox arm path and late spine-tilt, mixed with the context of today's “slow down” environment, and his grade for funk gets an added boost. Funk Grade: 70

Cuban Craftiness

Orlando Hernandez was known as a magician. He had a high leg kick with sharp movements, and he hunched behind his lift knee as if playing hide-and-seek with the opposing batter. When he came out from hiding, El Duque was known to bring multiple arm angles to disrupt a hitter's visual window, and his control over those myriad arm angles was impressive (if not reflected in his walk rates). Extra points are awarded to Hernandez due to originality. Funk Grade: 65

Odrisamer Despaigne is very similar to El Duque, utilizing many of the same techniques to fuel his deception. Despaigne lifts his leg high and then hunches over into max lift, hiding behind his lift knee in much the same way that El Duque did in his heyday. Despaigne is also a blatant manipulator of arm slots, and he does so with intent, dropping down on the curveball, adding some spine-tilt when the sinker is in order, and ratcheting up the tilt another notch when the four-seam or cutter are on the table. The variance in his arm slots might be even greater than those of El Duque, but his funk grade takes a small hit because he is following in the footsteps of another. Pitchers like these break my grading system for mechanics, as they require three separate report cards in order to pin down their efficiency. Funk Grade: 60

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

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