September 8, 2012
The Mechanical Flaw Fixers
There's nothing worse than not knowing why something went wrong. Pinpoint a problem, and it immediately seems more manageable. At some point, you’ve probably caught yourself doing something silly like sitting in a certain position while watching a playoff game, suspecting that the slightest movement could cause your team to stop scoring. Jason Parks displays a signed portrait of Warwick Davis when he wants the Cowboys to win. Only a fool would discount the power of Warwick Davis, but no team triumphs every time, even with Wicket on its side.
We know this, but we perform these little rituals anyway, because they give us the illusion of control. The unsettling alternative is accepting that we can’t do anything to affect the outcome. There’s a famous prayer that starts, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Sports fans aren’t seeking that serenity. They’re too busy trying to hold their heads at a 45-degree angle to keep the rally alive.
Baseball players have much more say over what takes place on the field than the typical couch potato, but there are many things that even they can’t control. Whether they're in the lineup. Whether the wind is blowing in. Which way the ball bounces. Players have much more than a rooting interest in the outcomes of these events. Their livelihoods are at stake. So when things aren’t going well, they often try to tinker. There’s a lot of raising and lowering of hands, and opening of stances, and shortening of strides. The problems all sound very technical, like they do when your mechanic tells you what’s wrong with your car. Sometimes those car problems are real, and sometimes your mechanic is making them up.
Slumps sort of resemble the “black swans” described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside of the real of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Slumps aren’t all that rare, but they are unpredictable, and they can make a major impact on a player. It wouldn’t be surprising if players sometimes invented an explanation for a slump where there wasn’t one, just to make their struggles seem more predictable (and therefore preventable). That’s not to say that slumps are always black swans. Sometimes—maybe even most of the time—players slump because they’re really doing something different. Players and coaches are acutely aware of mechanics, and they can spot and correct problems. But in any particular instance, we can’t know with any certainty A) whether the problem was really responsible for impaired performance, and B) whether identifying the flaw fixed the problem.
So, fixing mechanical flaws is a time-honored tradition, but we don’t know how often it works. We won’t know after this article, either. But we can find all the flaw fixes from this season and see whether they were followed by improved performances. Just a few criteria here:
- A player or coach has to have said something this season about identifying or fixing a flaw.
- They have to have said that something when they identified or fixed the flaw, not a lot later. Brandon League had a bunch of bad outings after his deadline trade to the Dodgers. He followed those with four scoreless appearances. Then he credited the coaches for spotting a mechanical flaw. Disqualified! Retrospective flaw fixes don’t count. The same goes for the post-hoc fixes for Carlos Gomez, Colby Rasmus, and Felix Hernandez.
- We have to have some idea of how long the flaw was in effect, so we can compare performance in those games to performance in an equivalent amount of outings after the fix. Major offseason mechanical overhauls, like Zack Greinke’s, Andrew Miller’s, or Kyle Drabek’s, are excluded. We’re looking for less ambitious, start-to-start stuff.
So we’ll find some examples, and we’ll see what followed the flaw fixes, and we’ll say something about what it all means. Then we’ll call it an article.
Who had the flaw: Roy Oswalt
When was he flawed: July 7th
Roy Oswalt, who will makes his fourth start for the Rangers on Sunday, said he found a mechanical flaw in his delivery that left his pitches drifting back over the middle of the plate in his last two starts.
Oswalt has allowed 13 hits in each of his last two outings, becoming the first pitcher to do that since Livan Hernandez in 2008 when he was with Minnesota. Oswalt said the problem arose from his arm “lagging” behind the rest of his body on his delivery, which caused fastballs to flatten out and “leak.”
During the prep for this start, Oswalt said he watched video and determined that his hand was lagging at the delivery point. He worked on quickening it up in the bullpen. He said he believes he was able to correct the mechanical issue during his bullpen session.
Before flaw: 2 GS, 10 2/3 IP, 26 H, 16 R, 14 ER, 3 BB, 10 K
After flaw: 2 GS, 12 IP, 8 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 9 K
Verdict: Seems like a clear-cut success. Then again, in Oswalt’s third start after fixing the flaw, he allowed 11 hits and eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. Did the flaw come back? Did he struggle for some other reason? Was the flaw responsible for those two lousy starts in the first place? We don’t know! That’s what makes mechanical flaws so fun.
Who had the flaw: CC Sabathia
When was he flawed: June 17th
Description of Flaw:
Without consistent command of his fastball, Sabathia pitched the Yankees to a victory, though he knew it wasn’t good enough. So, he sought out pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who took a still frame from a start in 2009 and compared it with an image taken from Sabathia’s outing the previous night. The comparison revealed a small but correctable, mechanical flaw, one that he hopes is a thing of the past when he takes the mound against the Braves Monday night.
“It makes a big difference,” Sabathia said. “That will be something that I look to correct.”
Before flaw: 2 GS, 14 IP, 17 H, 9 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 18 K
After flaw: 2 GS, 14 2/3 IP, 7 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 13 K
Verdict: Inconclusive. Sabathia wasn’t pitching that poorly before the fix, strikeout-to-walk wise, but the outing immediately after the flaw fix was one of his best starts of the season. The start after that was subpar. After that one, Rothschild said that Sabathia was “continuing to work on fixing that flaw,” which brings up an important point: identifying a flaw isn’t the same as fixing it. He also “said it all usually comes around to work out for Sabathia.” And that brings up another important point: good players who are playing poorly usually improve, whether they say something about finding a flaw or not.
Who had the flaw: Chad Qualls
When was he flawed: May 11th
Description of Flaw:
The struggles, however, are more about mechanics than health. After watching video from the early season, Qualls said he’s been rushing his delivery, getting too far out front. The result is flatter pitches.
“When I start to rush, the movement goes side to side rather than vertical,” Qualls said. “That’s what induces a ground ball is the fact that my ball will move down, so it forces them to hit the ball down.”
“I was out in the bullpen pacing (Wednesday), I wanted to get in the game,” Qualls said. “Mentally I’ve already corrected it, but until you can physically go out there and do it, that’s when you know the correction’s been made.”
Before flaw: 6 G, 4 1/3 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 5 K
After flaw: 6 G, 4 2/3 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 5 K
Verdict: Qualls pitched a bit better immediately following the fix, but overall, he was much better before than he has been after. Before the fix, Qualls’ ERA was 3.48. Since the fix, it’s 5.75. Being Chad Qualls might no longer be a fixable flaw. Third important point: in most cases, a mechanical fix won’t work wonders. Every once in a great while, a tweak might make Jose Bautista into JOSE BAUTISTA, but a mechanical fix doesn’t usually do for a mediocre player what a mushroom does for Mario. In most cases, Qualls gonna Qualls, regardless of how he holds his hands or times his delivery.
Who had the flaw: Kenley Jansen
When was he flawed: April 7th
Description of Flaw:
The Dodgers are hopeful that they've spotted a mechanical flaw in reliever Kenley Jansen that has led to the four home runs he has allowed in the last 10 innings.
Bullpen coach Ken Howell said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt determined through video comparison with last year that Jansen has been pushing off with a stiff right leg and not utilizing the lower half of his body, resulting in decreased velocity and movement.
Before flaw: 1 G, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 0 BB, 1 K
After flaw: 1, 2 IP, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K
Verdict: This flaw fix happened quickly. Some of Jansen’s poor outings came at the end of spring training, so he had only one big-league appearance before the fix. The appearance after that was a rousing success. For what it’s worth, Chad Moriyama analyzed Jansen’s delivery after the second outing and couldn’t detect a difference. Of course, the difference could have been very subtle, but Moriyama had a different theory:
The coaching staff surely has more information on the situation than me, but from my vantage point, the issue just seems to be a matter of sample size. Perhaps there actually is a deeper issue that’s leading to an increase in home runs allowed, but I don’t think it’s his mechanics.
Below, he speculated that the improvement in the second outing might be a result of the placebo effect. Fourth important point: it’s possible that some mechanical flaws aren’t actually there. Maybe some players don’t respond well to being told that their struggles are just a small-sample-size fluke. Maybe they do better if they have some mechanical culprit to blame. Might a coach fabricate a mechanical flaw to reassure a player that his problems are correctable?
I asked a front-office type if this ever takes place.
I would be surprised if that was the case. A huge part of being a successful hitting or pitching coach is building and maintaining trust with your players. And being positive, especially for hitters, who can’t realistically hope to succeed 40% of the time. So I think you’d want to eliminate as much doubt as possible, and fabricating things may create more doubt… Make your players think they’re superman and they might believe it. But don’t introduce questions or doubts, because you’re just asking for trouble.
So, probably not, then. But that doesn’t mean mechanical flaw fixes are always all they’re cracked up to be:
I think coaches make relatively minor tweaks, like the size of a leg kick to help timing, but the players may derive a disproportionate amount of confidence in it.
Who had the flaw: Aaron Harang
When was he flawed: June 22
Description of Flaw:
Aaron Harang believes he and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt figured out what led to his career-high eight walks Tuesday night in Oakland.
Harang said game video revealed a mechanical flaw in the way he separates his hands at the beginning of his windup.
"It's all about timing, and we worked on it in the bullpen yesterday," said Harang on Friday before the Dodgers opened a three-game set at Angel Stadium. "If I don't split my hands properly, my arm is late and my pitches are high, above the strike zone."
Before flaw: 1 GS, 3 2/3 IP, 3 R, 3 ER, 8 BB, 6 K
After flaw: 1 GS, 6 IP, 8 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 0 K
Verdict: He didn’t walk eight batters, but he also didn’t strike anyone out. Avoiding eight walks is a win, although that was a career high unlikely to be repeated, fixed flaw or not. When you hear a player discuss a mechanical flaw, it often seems so minor that you wonder how anyone could ever get through a single start without developing several. I can’t even sign my signature the same way every time. The ability of major-league pitchers to repeat complex movements might be their most impressive attribute. That, and the 95-mph fastballs. Also the breaking balls.
So, each of the players who acknowledged identifying a mechanical flaw improved soon after. Maybe that means fixing the flaws worked. Maybe it doesn’t. Most players don’t tinker with their mechanics unless they’re struggling, and if they’re struggling, we’d expect them to improve through regression alone. We could get crazy and bring in some kind of control group to compare the flaw fixers with the non-flaw fixers, but with a sample this size, it wouldn’t be conclusive (and we’d never know for sure that someone didn’t fix a flaw without saying so).
We’ll never know how well these tweaks work, but we’ll never stop paying attention to them. They’re just too tantalizing. In spring training, the Cubs claimed to have corrected a mechanical flaw in David DeJesus. Dale Sveum wouldn’t describe what the change was, but he said, “It could actually have a huge impact on why the numbers haven’t quite been there the last year.” And wouldn’t you know it, DeJesus has been better. Not hugely better, but still better, at an age when we’d expect him to be worse. We can't know whether fixing that flaw is why he’s not worse, but we can’t completely dismiss the possibility. And maybe we don’t particularly want to. It’s prettier to think that your team’s struggling starter is just a tiny tweak away from stardom.
Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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