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June 14, 2013

Raising Aces

In Need of Repair: Posture

by Doug Thorburn

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Much of the analysis in the Raising Aces series has focused on player evaluation, particularly identifying the mechanical strengths and weaknesses of professional pitchers. Breaking down a pitcher's delivery is an essential task for coaches who wish to get the most out of their hurlers, but having an eye for mechanics is just the starting point for player development. The real work begins after a diagnosis has been made, as a pitching coach is entrusted to train his charges to make the improvements necessary to optimize performance. In acknowledgment of this critical stage of the process, it seems appropriate to switch gears and re-focus our efforts toward the how as opposed to the what by offering some suggestions to address weak links in the kinetic chain.

A few disclaimers before we begin: when dealing with coaching tips in written form, much can be lost in translation between the digital page and the field. The proper application of strategic teaching methods requires recognition of several variables, and as we will see in the following examples, there are multiple ways for mechanics to fall off track. I encourage those who are in a coaching position to take notes, but also to appreciate that the methods herein are neither exhaustive nor necessarily ideal, depending on the specifics of an individual player.

With that out of the way, let's move on to one of the basic tenets of pitching mechanics that can be improved with targeted instruction: posture.

Ideally, a pitcher will maintain balance throughout the delivery by stabilizing his head above his center-of-mass, including an upright spine angle from foot strike into release point. But when spine-tilt comes into play, it acts to inhibit a pitcher's release distance as well as to create a barrier to pitch repetition. Pitchers with unstable posture will give opposing hitters a better look at the baseball by lengthening its flight path, and the lack of consistency triggers a ripple effect on pitch command.

Posture can be influenced by a multitude of factors, including deficits in functional strength, increases in kinetic energy, and direct manipulation in the effort to produce an elevated arm slot. Today we will examine each of these three factors, using specific player examples to diagnose the symptoms while offering prescriptions for improvement.

Diagnosis: Deficits in Functional Strength
Player Example: Ubaldo Jimenez
In one of my first articles for Baseball Prospectus, I broke down the changes in the mechanics of Ubaldo Jimenez from his days in a Rockies uniform to his time in Cleveland. One of the glaring differences was in his posture, as a pitcher who exhibited minimal spine-tilt while in purple pinstripes gave way to a destabilized posture while with the Indians.

Ubaldo 2010 Ubaldo 2012

At the time, I noted that Jimenez was also suffering from poor balance during the earlier portions of his delivery that precipitated his rough posture at release point, and that this marked another discrepancy from his time in Colorado. Specifically, the Cleveland Ubaldo exhibited a lean back toward second base prior to foot strike, with his head trailing the center-of-mass such that his imbalance perpetuated throughout the delivery.

The combination of imbalance before foot strike and spine-tilt near release point suggested that Jimenez lacked the functional strength to fully support his delivery. This is not to say that Ubaldo was weak, but rather that he lacked the muscular foundation to support the specific components of his motion. The “functional” aspect is key, in that Jimenez was unable to harness the kinetic demands of his delivery to the extent that he could coordinate his motion on a consistent basis. He has continued to struggle with balance and posture in 2013, and there is corroborating evidence that indicates that a lack of functional strength is once again playing a vital role.

Ubaldo May 17 start Ubaldo May 17 warmup

The picture on the left was taken from the second inning of Ubaldo's start on May 17 of this year, and the picture on the right shows one of his warm-up pitches in the same game. Jimenez has no problem with his posture when he is in the bullpen or warming up prior to the start of an inning, but his balance falls off track once the pitches count. There are many pitchers who can stabilize the delivery when warming up at low intensity but who fail to maintain the same levels of balance and posture when pitching at full speed, and these problems tend to become magnified as the player becomes fatigued. The trend serves as yet another indicator that Ubaldo’s imbalance stems from a lack of functional strength, as the high levels of kinetic energy that accompany his game-speed delivery are too much for him to stabilize.

Prescription: Issues with functional strength are rooted in conditioning, and an alteration to Ubaldo's workout regimen will likely be necessary before he can solve his problems with balance and posture. A pitcher with muscular balance can more easily find balance in his pitching motion, and the key to achieving balance of strength is to emphasize the oft-neglected back-side muscles as well as those of the lower-half of the body.

Many athletes over-exaggerate their “beach muscles” when working out, focusing on biceps, pectorals, and abs—yet a pitcher requires tremendous strength in his legs, core, triceps, shoulders, and back in order to reach peak performance. It can take considerable time for a pitcher to fix deficits in functional strength, particularly in-season due to the rigorous demands of the job. The issue takes on added importance as athletes age beyond their physical peak.

Diagnosis: Increase in Kinetic Energy
Player Example: Justin Verlander
Verlander's mechanics are typically outstanding, but even the greats can fall out of whack from time to time. He went through such a stretch last month, reaching a pit of despair in his much-anticipated showdown with Rangers ace Yu Darvish on May 16, in a game that featured Verlander surrendering a career-high seven runs in a single inning. Paul Sporer and I covered the contest as our Game of the Week in episode four of TINSTAAPP, and the sheer gravity of Verlander's implosion compelled me to write about it for a follow-up article at BP. As one can guess from the subject matter of this piece, his issues were related to postural stability.

Peak May 16

Verlander's change in posture from peak to pit was not nearly so egregious as that of Jimenez, yet the discrepancy was noteworthy due to Verlander's exceptional baseline for posture that had been established over the past several seasons. The extra spine-tilt resulted in a taller release point, and I offered up the following chart to compare his height of release from a 2012 start to that of the game against the Rangers to demonstrate the functional implications.

A taller release point might be advantageous in a vacuum, but Verlander's extra height was symptomatic of a bigger issue with posture and efficiency of movement. Unlike Jimenez, however, Verlander's spine-tilt had little to do with a lack of functional strength, and was more closely related to the additional intensity that he brought to the table for the heavyweight bout with Darvish, who was challenging Verlander's claim to the crown of the American League's top pitcher.

After listening to much kvetching about his early-season dip in velocity, Verlander pumped hi-octane gas versus Texas, averaging a season-high 96 mph with his fastball and spiking triple-digit readings on the radar gun. The average speed was 2.4 mph higher than in any of his eight starts entering the game, and the extra dose of kinetic energy led to a classic case of “overthrowing,” in which an exaggerated emphasis on raw velocity distracted Verlander from his main task of pitch execution. Inconsistent increases in momentum and torque were invoked while his balance indicators suffered, and there were examples of pitches on which he attempted to rely on pure arm strength to get the ball past opposing hitters.

Prescription: Though I often roll my eyes at the “overthrowing” label, and despite my preferences toward high levels of momentum and torque to fuel energy through the system, this game provided a legitimate example of the dangers posed by infatuation with pitch velocity. Manager Jim Leyland was prescient prior to the contest, citing the common occurrence for pitchers to fall out of their deliveries when a game becomes over-hyped. The in-game evidence suggests that pitching coach Jeff Jones was all over the issue. Verlander's best deliveries came directly after a mound meeting with Jones in the third inning, when Verlander made the slight adjustment to slow down the early phases of his delivery. Alas, the improvement was only temporary, and Verlander hit the showers without completing the third inning due to a recurrence of the problem.

Strong early momentum is generally a good thing, but when a pitcher with such an established timing pattern begins to misdirect his energy as Verlander did that day, the best solution is to make an adjustment that brings him back in line with his patented mechanics. The malady is often short term in nature, and Verlander's record record, combined with the Tigers’ awareness of the problem, provide plenty of reasons for optimism.

Diagnosis: Direct Manipulation
Player Example: Wily Peralta
Peralta follows in the footsteps of his Brewer teammates, with heavy spine-tilt that is triggered intentionally in an effort to achieve an over-the-top arm slot. His poor posture is driven not by an inability to harness his delivery at high intensity, as we saw in the examples of Jimenez and Verlander, but rather a direct manipulation of his spine angle dictated by a purposeful technique.

Manipulated spine-tilt can be the result of specific coaching methods or even a self-directed approach by the pitcher, but the overall tendency of Milwaukee's starters to exhibit such blatant manipulation underscores an organizational paradigm for pitching. The inefficiencies inherent in this coaching technique have been discussed at great length throughout the run of Raising Aces, but the case of Peralta allows us to identify the visual indicators when a specific technique is underlying a pitcher's spine-tilt. It also presents the opportunity to discuss the coaching methodologies that can be used to correct the issue.

The broken record continues to say that timing is the foundation of pitching mechanics, and the time-point in the delivery at which a pitcher initiates spine-tilt serves as an indicator for the source of the problem. Jimenez features late spine-tilt triggered when the arm comes through during the high-energy phases of rotation, and Verlander's temporary battles with posture occurred even later in the sequence of the delivery, manifesting at peak intensity just before release point. Peralta, on the other hand, initiates his posture change just after foot strike, before the throwing arm begins its phase of rapid acceleration. Consider the following stills, taken just after foot strike and just prior to release point:

2010 2012

Notice how Peralta's back arches to the first-base side in the picture on the left, with the head veering off-line while the throwing arm is still in the “cocked” position. It would be very difficult for a pitcher to exhibit such early spine manipulation and yet finish with strong posture, and there is an overwhelming tendency for the posture to worsen as the arm goes through rotation, finishing with vicious tilt near release point as Peralta demonstrates in the picture on the right.

Posture is an extension of dynamic balance, and Peralta finishes with his head far out in front of his body in addition to the leftward lean, creating further difficulties. We can see this in the photo on the right, with the back foot serving as a marker for his imbalance: a stable pitcher will keep his back foot in contact with the ground up until the point of release, but Peralta is unable to keep his right foot anchored, and it pops up prematurely such that he is releasing the baseball from a one-legged position as he falls off to the side of the mound.

Prescription: The greatest challenge with instruction is to match up what the player feels with what the coach sees and to utilize instruction that allows the pitcher to understand the purpose of the lesson in his own terms. It often takes a handful of phrases to accomplish this goal, and it is up to the coach to identify the piece of instruction that registers with the pitcher and then anchor on it throughout instruction.

In order to encourage plus posture, we will use phrases such as “keep your head above your body,” “eyebrows up,” or “shoulders square to the target.” My personal favorite—and the phrase that I have found to be the most successful—is “think sidearm,” and though it sounds counter-intuitive, the reality is that it is extremely rare for a pitcher to actually throw sidearm when following this piece of instruction. The vast majority of the time, the pitcher retains the same angle of shoulder abduction that is wired to his signature but will make the necessary adjustment to his spine angle to find solid posture into release point.

Not only have I seen this method work with countless pitchers, but I experienced the phenomenon myself the first time I worked with my mentor, Tom House. I used to be a blatant over-the-top pitcher with vicious spine-tilt, as had been encouraged by countless coaches during my playing days, but all it took was to “think sidearm” and I was instantly throwing with much-improved posture. The adjustment can occur just that quickly, though it can vary depending on the extent of one's experience due to hard-wired muscle memory. In general, though, this is a relatively quick fix when compared to issues with functional strength. This piece of instruction sold me on Tom's methods of pitching mechanics long before I ever dove into the depths of motion analysis, as nothing could have been more convincing than my pitching pain-free for the first time since tearing my rotator cuff seven years prior.

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

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics,  Posture

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