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July 27, 2012

Raising Aces

Violent Trends

by Doug Thorburn

Baseball is a funny sport. We live in an age when athletes are paid handsomely to challenge the physical boundaries of competition, and when pitcher velocity is paramount, yet the most damning label that a baseball hurler can earn is of having a “violent” delivery. Developing pitchers face a natural dichotomy where an increase of velocity essentially requires an associated uptick of kinetic energy, and the resulting mechanics run the risk of being perceived as violent, and as potential red flags for injury. The ingrained link between fastball velocity and injury risk was echoed in Dr. Glenn Fleisig's interview with Ben Lindbergh last month, and the time has come for the baseball-viewing public to appreciate this connection and to accept that the athletes with the most extreme skills will naturally run the greatest risk for injury, and are therefore dependent on mechanical efficiency for their survival.

Professional pitchers must endure some mixed messages as they adjust to the demands of playing ball across many levels, dealing with coaches whose advice can seem contradictory at times. One minute a pitcher is being told not to “rush” his delivery from the windup, and the next minute he is listening to the coach tell him to use a slide step from the stretch in order to hurry the motion with runners on base. Pitchers are being drafted, signed, and acquired with an increasing emphasis on fastball velocity, but teams are hesitant to sign off on a pitcher whose mechanics appear to require considerable effort to achieve that velocity.

So what constitutes “violent” mechanics?

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Excessive Effort
“Max effort” is a harbinger of doom when uttered by a knowledgeable scout, yet the interpretation of the phrase takes many forms. One with a keen eye for pitching is able to identify a mechanically efficient player who minimizes the risk associated with throwing a baseball at high intensity, rendering praise for an “easy” delivery or “effortless” mechanics. However, there is dissension among the ranks when drawing the line in the sand where mechanics cross over to violence.

Massive Momentum
I am a strong proponent of momentum as a key ingredient to maximizing pitch effectiveness. The strategy increases kinetic energy while propelling the pitcher closer to the plate, which acts to ramp up the perceived velocity and to decrease the amount of time that a batter has to identify the incoming pitch. However, there are coaches that will denounce heavy momentum, discarding the strategy as “high effort” and warning their charges not to “rush” through the pitching motion, yet some of the filthiest pitchers in the league take advantage of extreme forward momentum to devastate opposing hitters. Shorter pitchers often rely on the strategy to overcome the height disadvantage and achieve a deep release point, including Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt.

Oswalt adds to the perceived violence with a late posture change that results in his head jerking to the side, but we will get to the head-jerks in just a moment. Oswalt's current employer in Texas is all-time great Nolan Ryan, who knows a thing or two about the benefits of heavy momentum.

The pitch above was Ryan's 130th and final offering of the night on June 11, 1990, putting the finishing touches on his sixth career no-hitter. The 43-year old maintained great balance and solid posture through release point, with heavy torque and tremendous momentum after maximum leg lift. Nolan's violence didn’t keep him from throwing more than 5,386 innings and generating an all-time record 5,714 strikeouts, and he was still pumping mid-90s fastballs well into his 40s.

Tornado Torque
There are pitchers who are described as having a whirlwind of rotation, with “lightning-quick” arm action that screams violence to some observers. Exceptionally hard-throwers, in particular, will display a tornado of rotational velocity that results from extreme torque and contributes to the radar-gun readings in the upper 90s. 

The heaviest fastballs in the major leagues are universally accompanied by extremely fast arm speeds, making it nearly impossible for a pitcher to accomplish top-notch pitch velocity without increasing the apparent violence in the delivery. Author of the fastest pitch on record, Aroldis Chapman also employs generous momentum when firing his bullets, blending the violent ingredients in his recipe for 105-mph fastballs.

On the other end of the spectrum is Yu Darvish, whose momentum comes to a halt at the top of his delivery and then explodes after foot strike with a monsoon of rotational velocity. Darvish's delivery has been tagged as violent despite a mechanical profile that includes tremendous balance and posture, isolating his torque as the main culprit behind the violent accusations.

***

No Control
Aside from intensity of movement, the other element of pitcher violence relates to one's ability to repeat the delivery while maintaining control of the body. Some players just appear to be winging it with reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind while flailing limbs and exaggerated head movements give the impression that the pitcher is at the mercy of his own mechanics. High-octane deliveries often appear to be out of control even when they're attached to a pitcher who has learned to consistently harness the motion, and in this sense the violence tag can be overgeneralized to the population of high-energy pitchers.

Head Jerks
Any sudden movement of a pitcher's head can appear to be violent and there exist multiple ways to instigate such an aggressive move. There are pitchers who will show a sudden forward movement of the head right near release point, with the momentary look of a hunchback before instigating a headbutt toward the target. The technique stems from the transition of the spine from hyper-extension into flexion, a stage that occurs as the throwing arm begins to execute internal rotation. The forward head-jerk can give the impression of massive violence, as demonstrated by Tiger hurler Max Scherzer in the following clip, but the strategy also has functional implications.

The second type of violent head movement involves weak posture near release point, wherein a pitcher will tilt the spine and effectively yank the head laterally to the glove-side. We have covered a number of these such examples during the course of Raising Aces, including the Angels' Jered Weaver and the Pirates' James McDonald.

I can empathize with the violent image that is invoked by pitchers with a late posture change, both in the assessment of injury risk and in the visceral sense of describing such deliveries. In the case of McDonald the late spine-tilt is just about the only violent characteristic of his motion, though Weaver falls prey to multiple violence indicators, from massive spine-tilt to heavy torque and flailing limbs.

Flailing Limbs
Pitchers with long levers and high rotational velocities are at particular risk for this type of violence, as a throwing arm that whips through the zone with flailing actions will strike fear that the pitcher has little idea of where the baseball is heading. Jake Peavy is an excellent example of a pitcher who has been labeled as “violent,” largely due to the aggressive path of his arms once the rotational elements kick into gear.

Peavy's reputation is underscored by a couple of legitimate precursors to injury, including a massive scapular load and a recurrence of elbow drag when he extends the delay of trunk rotation. Another pitcher who has been branded with  the violent “V” from day one is Francisco Rodriguez, a pitcher who has been the poster-boy for violent mechanics due to an exaggerated flail of arms and legs.

What is so deceiving about K-Rod's delivery is that most of his flail takes place after release point, such that his motion is reasonably efficient from first movement through pitch release. Rodriguez's mechanics are surprisingly functional despite the fact that he spins off the mound like a fishtailing car and leaves himself defensively vulnerable. The erratic glove and imbalanced follow-through have misled some to use him as a cautionary tale, while the skeptics continue to be baffled by K-Rod's relatively clean bill of health.

***

There is an underlying presumption that violent mechanics put a pitcher in harm's way, but there is a disconnect between the characteristics that are typical  of a violent delivery and those that are legitimate precursors to injury. The most dominant pitchers in the game display these characteristics,  but the “violence” description is vague and it lacks the explanatory power to satiate my appetite for understanding. One pitcher whom most everyone can agree had fantastic mechanics was Greg Maddux, but in his prime Maddux had heavy momentum and excellent torque that produced above-average velocity, including a forward head-jerk as the spine transitioned into flexion, a combination that might have earned him the scarlet letter “V” back in the day.

The coup de grace of violent pitching mechanics is one of the most dominant pitchers in the history of the game, one who exemplified record-breaking levels of dominance on the game's biggest stage. Bob Gibson had extremely heavy momentum, charging like a bullet train toward the plate before his torque exploded into a violent fury of rotational velocity, precipitating an aggressive head-jerk with equal parts flexion and spine-tilt, finishing with a whirlwind of flailing limbs after the baseball left his hand.

Gibson stands as a testament to the benefits that can stem from mechanical violence, particularly when the delivery is supported by exceptional strength and flexibility.

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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