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December 7, 2012

Raising Aces

Making the Grade, Part One

by Doug Thorburn

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Grades on the 20-80 scouting scale are subjective by nature. Similarly, the scores that I dole out for the pitching mechanics report cards are based on what my eyes tell me. Each scout sees the player-evaluation world through a unique lens that has been shaped through experience, giving rise to an art of scouting that is rooted in personal observation. The greatest challenge in scouting is also the most fundamental aspect of the process: to convey with words what is seen with the eyes. The grades are only as powerful as the communicative value that the numbers carry, which should be sufficient motivation for an evaluator to be transparent with his process.

I laid the groundwork for the grades in my BP debut, outlining an emphasis on the kinetic chain of movement when pitching a baseball. The chain metaphor signifies the ripple-like influence of the pitching delivery, where a kink in the early links of the chain can lead to inefficiency further down the line. The order of operations is critical within the kinetic chain, and proper sequencing is necessary for peak efficiency, with timing as the key ingredient of the pitching motion.

While the grades are subjective, the evaluations have a quantitative basis, thanks to years spent analyzing motion-analysis data at the National Pitching Association. State-of-the-art technology allowed for the precise measurement of the physical components that make up the grades—I analyzed thousands of pitches, both numerically and visually, thanks to high-speed cameras and software that we specifically designed to evaluate pitchers. My everyday job was essentially a baseball boot camp for pitcher analysis.

A video-analysis background has come in handy in the era of MLB.tv and GIFs, and I look forward to a day when the game-tracking tools of f/x technology enable the quantification of these events on the field. In the meantime, we will have to lean on a bit of educated guesswork. Some of the following descriptions will be a review for those readers with an advanced degree in Pitchology, though I hope that some player examples representing individual grades will enlighten our sofa-scouts in training. Keep in mind that individual 20-grades are very rare among the major-league population of pitchers, as few players can survive at the highest level with such a glaring mechanical inefficiency.

With due respect to the kinetic chain, let's tackle the grades according to sequence.

Balance
What to watch: When I assess balance, I anchor on the position of the head relative to the pitcher's center-of-mass. A pitcher with strong balance will have minimal lean during the motion, stabilizing the head above the body throughout the delivery. This means that a pitcher who leans toward first or third base during maximum leg lift, whose head lags behind the body en route to foot strike, or who lowers his center-of-gravity after max lift (a “drop-n-drive” delivery) will be dinged on the balance grade on his mechanics report card. The grade covers the time period from set-up through release point, and a pitcher who leans too far forward or who falls off to the side near pitch-release will take an associated hit to the balance grade. Ideally, I like to see a pitcher who sets up the delivery in an athletic, balanced position, with some natural flex in the knees that will help to maintain dynamic balance in the vertical plane that is consistent with the slope of the mound.

What 20-80 looks like:

20Carlos Marmol

40Randall Delgado

60 - Zack Greinke

80Matt Cain

Development Path: When a pitcher lacks balance, it can be a symptom of poor conditioning, coordination, or technique. There are pitchers who set up the delivery from an imbalanced position—some players will shift their weight over the back foot when pitching from the stretch, and many pitchers will set up in a tall position that lacks athleticism. These players could improve their consistency by adding some flex to the knees in the set-up position, with the head positioned above a lower center-of-gravity.

To determine the appropriate amount of flex in the knees, a coach would lean on the player's natural balance point, consistent with the level that the player exhibits during the momentum phase of his delivery. But standing tall without athleticism is like an outfielder standing flat-footed until the moment he begins to run the ball down. Balance issues are commonly related to functional strength, and the concomitant ability to sustain the high-energy motion that is necessary to throw baseballs at or upwards of 90 miles per hour for a living.

Momentum
What to watch: To evaluate momentum, I take into account the speed and direction with which a pitcher travels from first movement to foot strike. I look for a pitcher who initiates his momentum directly toward the target from first movement, taking advantage of the set-up position (with both feet planted) to propel down the slope. Another common technique is to drift back toward second base as the pitcher reaches maximum leg lift, and then to initiate forward momentum from a stork-like position on one leg.

There is a related coaching strategy that decrees that a pitcher should “stop at the top” of his motion (i.e. max leg lift) in order to find a balance point, halting his momentum while steadying his frame before charging toward the plate, though any method that interferes with a pitcher's natural progression is likely soiled with inefficiency. I have often described pitchers as having “two gears” in their momentum, starting slowly and then shifting to a faster speed after maximum leg lift—for these pitchers, the 20-80 grade considers both the early movement and the later burst to the plate. I also consider the windup versus the stretch when determining the grade, and many players will have better momentum from the stretch due to the common emphasis on a quick pace to thwart the running game.

What 20-80 looks like:

20Tyson Ross

40 Jeremy Hellickson

60Clay Buchholz

80 Tim Lincecum (2011)

Development Path: My general rule for momentum is “to go faster,” as the vast majority of pitchers have been told not to “rush” their delivery, an instruction that is so pervasive that any pitcher who does create an obvious burst to the plate is at risk of being branded with the “violence” label. The rush to judgment is part of a widespread paranoia with regard to pitcher injuries and the presumed role of “effort” in the delivery, though a balanced pitcher who possesses structural integrity can safely take advantage of the extra charge.

Many pitchers who increase momentum will see an associated benefit to their timing, especially for those who have been raised under the “don't rush” doctrine, as the quicker motion will effectively shrink the time-window for the motion to fall off-track. A vague understanding of what causes injury has led to widespread paradigms that are increasingly conservative yet not necessarily more effective, a phenomenon which is at least somewhat due to the dichotomy of a baseball community that eschews violence yet craves velocity.

Torque
What to watch: Torque is heavily associated with arm speed and therefore pitch velocity. The pitchers with the most efficient torque can effectively use the body to transfer kinetic energy, maximizing hip-shoulder separation rather than relying on sheer arm strength to add rotational velocity. The way to assess hip-shoulder separation is to look at the pitcher just as he begins trunk rotation, which should take place just after foot strike for a well-timed delivery, to evaluate the position of the shoulder axis as it compares to angle of hip rotation. A pitcher who loads the upper body by twisting the torso will increase the angle of hip-shoulder separation, as will a pitcher who allows the hips to rotate further by delaying trunk rotation after foot strike.

What 20-80 looks like:

20 - Mark Buehrle

40Tommy Milone

60Matt Harvey

80 Aroldis Chapman

Development Path: Momentum and torque are the power grades, representing the kinetic energy that is flowing through the system, and pitchers who grade well on these two categories tend to fall into the “violent” bin. Part of the explanation for the assumed violence is that high-energy pitchers often struggle to stabilize the motion, resulting in issues with repetition and pitch command. There is generally a give-and-take for a pitcher in which more kinetic energy results in less stability, at least until the player learns to harness his ideal delivery.

Player signature dictates the relative proportion of hip rotation versus upper-body load, and both elements can be improved through targeted training. A pitcher can increase hip-shoulder separation by working on functional flexibility and core strength to safely add greater twist to load the shoulder-axis. Alternatively, or in addition, he can carefully extend the amount of time between foot strike and the firing of trunk rotation. In this sense, functional strength supports balance, while functional flexibility underlies torque. There are other factors, such as scapular loading, which can further increase torque and velocity, but such techniques involve muscle groups that are commonly underdeveloped, which puts physical conditioning at a premium in order to minimize injury risk.

To be continued… 

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics

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