September 21, 2004
Tom House, Part I
A former major league pitcher who gained a boost of fame by catching Hank Aaron's 715th home run ball, Tom House is now a performance analyst and co-owner of the National Pitching Association in San Diego. Under House's stewardship, NPA has produced graduates such as Barry Zito, Mark Prior and Cole Hamels. Its advisory board includes such luminaries as Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan, as well as medical experts such as Dr. Lewis Yocum and Dr. James Andrews. NPA counts about 125 graduates currently pitching in professional baseball, about three times that number in major U.S. colleges. House recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about the huge advances in sports medicine and technology in the last two decades, the best pitching coaches in the game today, and more.
Baseball Prospectus: For those not familiar with the National Pitching Association, what does the organization do to help pitchers?
Tom House: On the medical side, we do motion analysis at Children's Hospital (in San Diego). On the field there's everything ranging from semi-private sessions to advance camps and celebrity camps. In the semi-private camps there are four to eight pitchers per session. Advance camps are three-day camps where there's nighttime Power Point, three days on the field, two days in the weight room. The celebrity camp is where we have people like Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson, Mark Prior as instructors. They're our flagships, and there are scholarships involved; as a non-profit, we make sure kids can come on scholarship. That's a five-day program, as is our development school, where there are no celebrities, just our faculty. The format is lectures in the morning, on the field in the afternoon. There are various levels of instruction depending on the level the pitcher's at.
There are four areas that we emphasize: biomechanics, functional strength training, mental/emotional, and nutrition. We put (the students) in front of faculty and give them tool kits for all four legs. For a kid to stay healthy and perform to his genetic potential, he has to address all those pieces to the puzzle.
I mentioned that the company itself is a non-profit. Have you seen the movie "Pay It Forward"? We have "Pitch It Forward." About 20% of the kids are on scholarship. What we require from each one is that they write us a letter of introduction, where they promise to go out and do three things to help people, whether with family, school or community, where they don't expect anything in return--that's part of the application process. We also have to see good grades, and they have to be quality kids.
The bottom line with all this is to improve the health and performance of pitchers, from little league to the big leagues.
House: It's a variation of the same theme as ASMI. BioKinetics, which was a motion analysis company I owned, merged with the Children's Hospital Center For Human Performance. When BioKinetics started, we were doing digitizing by hand, drawing quantification from on-field activities; you couldn't do things like have overhead cameras...where would you put them when you're on the field? Places like ASMI and Children's, they have labs indoors, and they're doing automatic digitizing; now we have eight cameras snapping at 650 to 1,000 frames per second from all angles, and automatic digitizing. So we took the best of biomechanics, combined with more advanced methods of data analysis, and came up with a pitching model that's more coaching-specific. ASMI is more of a medical model, where you're looking at ranges of motion, to determine what the best angles are for staying healthy. We try to take the best of what sport medicine has to offer and make it coaches-friendly.
BP: You've got thousands of coaches (2,000 to 3,000 a year) coming to NPA to learn more effective ways to teach pitchers how to stay healthy and be effective. You've also talked about setting up a "network" of pitching coaches. What do you hope to accomplish by getting so many coaches thinking the same way?
House: We're not taking away individuality or individual styles, but we afford a foundation of objective research that supports what the coaches teach. The more objective that research is, the more quantifiable the teaching is. That's so important given the unquantifiable variables we already have to deal with. People don't have to teach the way I teach. But I'm blessed with great research people, who come up with new ways to teach what we're learning in the lab. If I had a wish list, one thing I'd wish for would be for everyone to have the good fortune to be exposed to quantifiable, objective instruction.
We do two coaching certifications a year, 20 coaches or less, four times a year. They go to the lab, look at research, we have an open forum where people try to prove or disprove current and past theories. We talk things over, arrive at a consensus, show the success ratios with this method, then show the drill used to teach it. We get a sprinkling of high school coaches, plenty of college, and a surprising number of minor league coaches; four major league coaches have been involved with the program.
BP: What do you think are the most significant advances in the field of teaching pitching over the past 20 years?
House: If you look at mechanics, trying to integrate conventional wisdom, old-school thought with what we're researching has been the challenge. One thing was that we now realize you want pitchers to move forward as fast as they can, not stay back at the top. People perceive that as rushing and have always taught not to do that. But really it's just getting to home plate quicker. Things like watching what the hips and shoulders do, separation, what takes place with the back hip and front shoulder and the timing of it--that's also different than what I was taught.
You look at physical training. When I first got to the big leagues, there was no weight training. When I was a pitching coach, there were only two or three coaches around for conditioning. Now every major league team has a conditioning coach, and a roving minor league one too; every team has a weight room. When teams started stressing weight training, it was power lifting with heavy weights. Now, we've found that learning power lifting doesn't help, whether you're a pitcher or a hitter. As soon as rotation comes into the equation, linear lifts stop being relevant. Timing of energy release is most important; power is moving your weight the right distance in the right amount of time. You need to train each link in the chain to be equally strong strong, as you deliver energy from your feet all the way to your fingertips.
Flexibility training--the original Frank Jobe five-pound dumbbell program--morphed into elastic resistance, cords and grips. There's a lot more body work now, flex training, core training. A lot of unstable surfaces: balancing on big Swiss balls, foam rollers; all of that is done because a pitcher is rarely balancing on two legs, if you think about it.
BP: It's easy to get criticized when people feel like you're changing your approach a lot, and you've gotten your share of flak for that. When you change in this business, are you just adjusting to what's new, or does that make you a flip-flopper?
House: The better the technology, the better the questions we can ask, the larger our model, the better we can integrate what the best players in the game do. You start to see why some people are healthier than others. The criticism I get is definitely that I do change. Much of what baseball teaches us is what the eye sees, which is only about 32 frames a second. Most of what takes place in a pitching motion is 250 to 700 frames a second. What's evolved in the last 16, 17 years is our ability to see beyond what the naked eye tells us.
Conventional wisdom is a pretty big problem in baseball. The idea of staying back, don't throw across your body, all of that. These ideas may have good intentions. They also have no practical applications to most pitchers.
BP: It sounds like you disagree strongly with a lot of the coaching methods that are out there...
House: Small things can be the difference makers for so many players, but it can be hard to get those things right without the right instruction. The superstars figure it out, even in spite of what coaches are showing them to do. I would say most major leaguers got to where they are in spite of what coaches taught them. Coaching in the last 100 years is based on flawed input, from what the brain and the eyes tell us. What I like to say is that this is a game of failure coached by negative people, in a misinformation environment.
BP: Are there any pitching coaches in the game today that impress you?
House: Across the board, most organizations are now starting to hire pitching coaches that have to have at least some understanding of the research out there. (Darren) Balsley in San Diego, even (Leo) Mazzone with the Braves--he's old-school, but he has no problem with new-school stuff. Rick Peterson is kind of what I was with the Rangers 12 years ago: user-friendly with the computer, doesn't mind trying new things. (Larry) Rothschild is in the middle of new- and old-school, and gives a bit of the best of both worlds. Some of these guys just get more publicity than others, but there are more good ones now than there have been in the past.
For me, the organizations that have the least amount of injuries are the ones on to--I'm talking major leagues down to minor leagues. Look at the Yankees, with a salty vet like Mel Stottlemyre. They don't develop a lot of pitchers. But when they do get there, they stay pretty healthy. That's just as impressive as someone that molds raw talent--like what Minnesota does, where they do a great job of developing young pitchers. Because the information and instruction is starting to match with exercise science and social science, things are getting better.
Coming soon, Part II, where House spins tales of Nolan Ryan and Bobby Valentine, tackles the topic of pitch counts, and reflects back on his classic book with Craig Wright, The Diamond Appraised.