February 20, 2012
Resident Fantasy Genius
Shifts in Their Game
Next time you see Tommy Hanson pitch, you might not recognize him. Gone is the distinctive pause in his throwing motion, that unusual hitch in his delivery that might have – some say probably — contributed to injuries including the shoulder woes that wiped out much of the second half of his promising 2011 season…
Altering a pitcher’s mechanics is a risky move. When I went to scout school, the instructors always advised caution when dealing with a pitcher who had made more than a minor tweak to his mechanics. You see, if a pitcher is throwing with the same mechanics through high school (or earlier) and into his major-league career, he has repeated that delivery tens of thousands of times. His muscles have developed around that delivery, and they’ve been strengthened based on the particular movements he makes. If you go and change a guy’s delivery in a non-minor way, other muscles that haven’t been evenly developed may now be relied upon more heavily. Pitching is an unnatural motion to begin with and places extreme stress on the body, so pitchers are going to get injured no matter what, but when those muscles lag behind and are suddenly being called upon to play a major role in such a violent motion, the theory postulates, a pitcher becomes even more susceptible to injury.
Pretend for a moment that for the past 15 years, you’ve been weight training just the right side of your body, completely ignoring the left. Your right side is huge and muscular, and your left side is scrawny and weak. Now pretend that you’re asked to bench press a 400-pound bar with the weight evenly distributed to both sides. Because your left side hasn’t been developed, when you try to lift that bar, you could very well injure yourself. And while the failsafe for a bench press is to let the bar go, there’s no failsafe for a pitcher’s delivery. It happens so quickly and so violently that you’re going to complete the motion whether your muscles are capable of doing so or not. The differences with a pitcher’s muscles are obviously more subtle than this, but it’s the same general idea.
What’s interesting is that this runs completely counter to Hanson’s intention for the change—to help him stay healthy. Yes, generally speaking, it’s better for a pitcher to use his legs to generate power than to use his arm, but when a pitcher has been throwing a particular way for years, making too large of a change could cause problems.
The story doesn’t mention exactly what kind of changes have been made to Hanson’s delivery, and I’d be very interested to see the differences or to speak to a mechanical expert who examines him this spring, but it’s certainly possible that altering the delivery to make use of a naturally stronger muscle group like those found in the legs is less risky than other kinds of mechanical changes. The question the Braves had to ask themselves is, “Is the risk of Hanson injuring himself greater if he keeps throwing the way he has been or if he alters his mechanics?” I don’t have a concrete answer to the question, and when we’re dealing with that kind of uncertainty, we have no choice but to assume that there is risk involved with Tommy Hanson.
The bit about the playing time is about what we expected. Chris Heisey will begin the year in a sort of part-time/fourth-outfielder role with the potential to play more if Ludwick struggles. What I found interesting is the part about Petco making Ludwick a pull hitter, so I wanted to see if that was actually the case or just a matter of selective memory.
Ryan Ludwick Spray Patterns
There doesn’t seem to be any difference in the percentage of balls Ludwick has pulled since entering Petco. In fact, he was pulling balls the most during his first (and best) year as a full-timer in St. Louis in 2007. We know that his power has declined, though, so perhaps that part of his game has been altered.
Ryan Ludwick Spray Patterns for Outfield Flies
Here, we begin to see what Ludwick’s talking about. In 2011—his only full year at Petco—he was definitely pulling more of his fly balls than he had been previously. We really begin to see what he means, though, when we look at his home run distribution:
Ryan Ludwick Spray Patterns for Home Runs
This past season, Ludwick pulled almost all of his home runs, failing to hit one to opposite field for the first time in his career as a regular and managing just one to center. Take a look at his HitTracker charts from 2009—his last full year in St. Louis—and 2011—his first full year in San Diego:
That’s a huge shift, as essentially all of his homers to center field disappeared while playing for San Diego. And from what Ludwick said, it sounds like this was a conscious shift he made in an attempt to compensate for the deep center and left-center fences of Petco. If he can get back to what he was doing in 2009, he could be in for a huge power year. St. Louis is actually a pitcher’s park itself, so if Ludwick simply does what he used to, that could translate into huge numbers in an extreme hitter’s park like Great American.
The presence of Chris Heisey means we’ll have to dock Ludwick’s playing time estimate a bit, but Baker has told him that if he hits, he’ll play, and there’s reason to believe that he’ll really hit. He’s currently being taken as the 422nd player off the board in Mock Draft Central drafts (which is roughly equivalent to the 35th round of a 12-team mixed league), so there is plenty of value to be had.