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December 28, 2005

Under The Knife

What's Eating Mike Marshall?

by Will Carroll

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I seldom address personal issues in this space. Today, I'm breaking that rule because I've finally reached the point where I simply have to address something, hopefully ending this stage of the debate. Dr. Mike Marshall is once again attacking Mark Prior, Tom House, Larry Rothschild and anyone who doesn't do things Mike Marshall's way. I've been in those crosshairs before--he went so far as to accuse me of plagiarizing his work on two occasions--so I'm going to address this as dispassionately as I can, but you deserve to know the back story.

What set me off this time? This article is just the latest attack. So let's break this down and then take a look at the work Marshall has done.

"Prior has what I call a 'loop' in his motion," said Marshall, who had a career 3.14 earned-run average even though he rarely reached 90 mph on the speed gun. "He brings his right hand up close to his ear. When his elbow starts forward, his hand goes back and flies laterally away from his body. That's an incredible amount of stress on the front of his shoulder."

Oddly, Prior has never had a shoulder problem. Achilles? Elbow on two occasions? Sure, but never shoulder. In fact, only the tendonitis in his elbow after adjusting his so-called flawed motion to compensate for the Achilles injury could be called a pitching injury.

What Marshall is describing is what a biomechanist would call external rotation. Most elite pitchers gain flexibility in that plane, giving many the look that their arm "lays back." There are debates as to why this occurs, but even in an ideal motion, no one disagrees that it does occur. Whether or not it is cause or effect, the action is standard. The work of both American and Japanese biomechanists, using both standard and double-spin mechanics, show that this motion does not create undue force. As far as I know, we have neither kinetic or kinematic information on the Marshall motion.

"Dr. Mike trains young pitchers in suburban Tampa (fee: 10 bucks per day) and spreads the word on his Web site."

You'll note on Marshall's site that he advocates a nine-month program. Actually, "advocates" might not be a strong enough term; it's more like "demands." For a youth pitcher, a 180 or 210-day program seems high, and for a college or pro pitcher, it's nearly impossible. Still, Marshall refuses to adjust his program to make it more workable for the masses. This of course assumes that the program could be simplified or that Marshall is capable of adjustment. Neither seems to be the case.

"Ask either one of them what the four muscles are that comprise the rotator cuff, and he wouldn't have a clue," Marshall said. "How the heck can you teach anything when you don't know the muscles that are involved? They sure as heck don't know how to apply Newton's first, second and third laws to the pitching motion. They don't know Isaac Newton from the Fig Newton."

I know both DOCTOR Tom House and Larry Rothschild. Tom is a friend of mine. I'd venture to say that without blinking, either could name the infraspinatus, supraspinatus and teres, both major and minor. (Ed. note. The four muscles of the rotator cuff are actually the infraspinatus, supraspinatus, teres minor and the subscapularis. We apologize for the error.--JSS) I'd guarantee that Dr. House knows Newton's laws. I'd even go so far as to say that House's doctorate in psychology is as useful as Marshall's doctorate in exercise physiology. (Does Michigan State's exercise physiology program involve biomechanics? Only as an elective, though that information is current rather than contemporary to Marshall's matriculation.)

Here's the kicker:

"I don't know why the general manager isn't investigating this," said Marshall, who never met the Cubs boss. "If I were him and had two huge talents like Prior and Kerry Wood, I would search high and low for answers. I would go to Tibet. I would go anywhere in the world to make sure that two talented young men didn't destroy their careers."

I may have issues with some of Jim Hendry's moves, but does Marshall honestly think that Prior's health and availability isn't on Hendry's mind constantly? Hendry has provided Prior--and all pitchers--with not one pitching coach in Rothschild, but another in Dick Pole, the titular bench coach. For Prior, Hendry also knows that he works with Tom House regularly, something he's done since he was a young man. Questioning Hendry's motives is folly.

So there's Marshall's challenge to the mainstream. I have a challenge for him, the same one he's continually refused to address. Put aside his conspiracy theories of why he's on the outside looking in--Tom House is looked at as the same type of convention-challenging outsider by front offices--and his excuse that he's not allowed to work with the top talent. I have looked and never found any pitcher who has had significant success on any level using Marshall's techniques. All the other top pitching theorists--House, Paul Nyman, Ron Wolforth, Brent Strom, Danny Orr, Rick Peterson, Leo Mazzone, John Bagonzi, or even Dick Mills--can point to "their pitchers." They can show their work. As a performance analyst, I want to see performance, not theory. Marshall has a standing invitation to come on Baseball Prospectus Radio and prove to me that one of his pitchers can succeed at a high level.

Marshall's work has its strong points. As he says, "you can't argue with Newton's laws." His work with physical age is among the best I've seen, taking the focus away from chronological age, which as we all know can be extremely variable for adolescents. I'd invite everyone interested in pitching to read Marshall's free work on his Web site. Of course, you may need an advanced degree to understand it all. Then again, you'll also understand why Marshall's had such a hard time "selling" his work to teams.

Simply put, Mike Marshall knows what he's talking about, yet is the wrong messenger for getting that message out. I'm not sure why Marshall became a black sheep in baseball--"the Unacoacher"--but given his background and demeanor, I'm not sure he ever had a chance to fit in. His continual attacks and refusal to be measured by any reasonable standard undermine any good that he could have had. In another generation, some enterprising young pitching coach will read Marshall's work and perhaps there will be some gain. For now, Marshall is doomed to be the Jeremiah of pitching, assuming he's right. His refusal to adjust, integrate, simplify and modify likely leaves the good parts of his work on the shelf--like far too many pitchers.

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Prospectus Notebook: T... (12/28)
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Premium Article Under The Knife: Winte... (12/13)
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Premium Article Under The Knife: Amphe... (02/02)
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Premium Article Crooked Numbers: The N... (12/29)

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