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August 1, 2014

Raising Aces

The Rabbit Hole

by Doug Thorburn

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The typical focus here at Raising Aces is mechanical efficiency, analyzing how a pitcher makes the most of his athleticism to promote pitch command, velocity, and movement. Every once in a while, though, I like to delve into the realm of the weird. Today is one of those times.

Even at the highest level, there are a number of pitchers who exhibit bizarre quirks to their mechanics. Some of these oddities are merely an entertaining sidebar to an otherwise efficient delivery, serving as an amusing anecdote without deterring from the pitcher's task at hand, while other quirks throw a monkey wrench into the delivery and interfere with the basic task of throwing a baseball to a glove-sized target. That said, some of the best pitchers in the game have idiosyncrasies that appear to fly in the face of mechanical efficiency, yet they have overcome the physical obstacles to get the most out of their stuff.

Jonny Cueto's Version of the Tiant Twist
Cueto is having a fantastic season, effectively putting his quirkiness at center stage. The defining characteristic of his motion is a twist that turns Cueto's back on a hitter, aiming his upper half toward the right-center-field bleachers as he reaches the top of his delivery. The twist invokes visions of Luis Tiant, the mustachioed right-hander whose oddball antics defined his career and perhaps masked his stellar performance on the mound. The extreme technique certainly adds deception, and though it might be expected to form a barrier to repetition, Cueto has done an exceptional job of finding the same timing and positioning this season despite the unusual pattern.

There is an increasing trend among big-league pitchers to create a reverse rotation of the hips as they get into max leg lift, turning away from the plate in a coil at the top of the delivery. Nobody has channeled Tiant to the extent of Cueto, though. The strategy has been famously adopted by Felix Hernandez, and though one might expect that the technique helps a pitcher to burst forward as he uncoils into the stride, the common rationale behind the reverse-twist is to keep the top-half closed into foot strike in order to prevent premature trunk rotation (aka “front shoulder flying open”).

Max Scherzer Channels His Inner Hooligan
For many pitchers, the spine transitions from hyperextension to flexion near the release point phase of the delivery, and in more extreme cases this transition involves a powerful move that looks as if the pitcher is executing a headbutt from release point through follow-through. In the case of Max Scherzer, the force of flexion is so intense that it would make a British soccer hooligan proud. As if the bi-colored eyes weren't intimidating enough.


Drew Smyly's One-Legged Stork
Left-handers have a tendency to exhibit extreme mechanical traits, often in the effort to manipulate angles and exaggerate the platoon advantage. Smyly follows this lead with significant spine-tilt as he nears his release point in an attempt to create a taller arm slot, and the imbalance is also manifested with a forward lean. The combination causes his back foot to pop off the ground very early in the pitch sequence, and Smyly looks like a stork who didn't drink his V8 by the time the baseball leaves his hand. Traded yesterday to Tampa Bay as part of the meager return for David Price, it will be interesting to see how the balance-conscious Rays handle Smyly and whether they encourage any mechanical adjustments before next season.

Clayton Kershaw's Three Gears
Ideally, a pitcher will have a smooth transition through the lift phase of his delivery, with the most efficient motions often involving a steady acceleration from first movement through foot strike. It is also very common for pitchers to utilize a blatant gear change after reaching the top of the delivery, transitioning from a slow pace during leg lift to a bigger burst of momentum during the stride phase. Clayton Kershaw, on the other hand, is anything but common. He bucks convention with a three-speed pace to the plate that includes multiple gear changes.


Kershaw has a good initial move, leading with the hip and creating a strong energy angle during the lift phase. His forward momentum then halts as he brings the lift leg back down near the ground, and just as it appears that he is going to execute the shortest stride of all time, he triggers a late burst of forward momentum to lengthen it and add kinetic energy to the system on his way to foot strike. The complex motion formed a barrier to mechanical repetition early in his career, but Kershaw has since honed the manual transmission of his motion, mastering the triple-gear approach to harness elite consistency. Kids, don't try this at home, but in Kershaw's case it is best to not mess with success.

Chris Sale's Vulture Wings
The funkadelic delivery of Chris Sale invokes a perception of violence, with limbs that appear to defy intended anatomical function. He raises his arms far above the shoulder line during the stride phase of his delivery, with bent arm angles that create a mirror image, like a vulture spreading its wings. The bizarre technique has caused many to predict that a serious arm injury is forthcoming, particularly given Sale's lanky frame, yet he has thus far dodged the scalpel while an ever-growing pile of destructed limbs from other MLB pitchers continues to mount all around him.

Hisashi Iwakuma's Double-Clutch
Pitchers who hail from Japan tend to share a common mechanical feature in which they have an exaggerated “stop at the top” of the delivery, halting momentum at maximum leg lift before engaging the secondary phase of the stride. The purpose of the technique is for the pitcher to find a balance point midway through the delivery, and the strategy is so common among pitchers from the far east that I have come to refer to it as “the NPB pause.” Iwakuma is an extreme case; he doesn't just pause at max lift, he executes a double clutch wherein he begins to slightly drop the lift leg before bringing it back up to max height a second time.


The common theme among many of these pitchers is that they have found mechanical consistency in spite of these elements that typically act as a hurdle to repetition, and Iwakuma is no exception. He ditches the double-pump from the stretch in order to avoid ensuring harassment from opposing base runners, yet he continues to pound the strike zone from both windup and stretch with such consistency that he has posted the lowest rate of walks per nine in all of baseball this season.

Alex Wood Enters the Matrix
The fact that Alex Wood ever hits the target is a minor miracle, but the frequency with which he pounds leather virtually guarantees that Morpheus is slipping him red pills. It is remarkable that Wood can be effective at the highest level with such a staggering lack of balance, and a well-timed freeze frame reveals that he should be dodging bullets rather than throwing them.

Ubaldo Jimenez's Saloon Door
The average pitcher has a stride that is slightly closed, such that a right-hander will land just to the right of the imaginary center line that runs from the middle of the rubber to the middle of home plate. How the pitcher lands is an aspect of personal signature, and on the extreme end of the spectrum is Ubaldo Jimenez, who finishes with a wide-open stride and a landing foot that comes down to the glove-side of that center line. Adding to the intrigue is Ubaldo's sudden rotation of the hips that produces the open stride, swinging the front leg open like a saloon door just before he engages foot strike.


The unusual position might be part of his signature, in the sense that Jimenez might need an open hip angle in order to line up the gears, but his swinging saloon door is far too inconsistent to encourage any sort of repetition.

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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