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December 21, 2012

Raising Aces

Making the Grade, Part Two

by Doug Thorburn

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Scouting grades evolve in conjunction with player development, and pitching mechanics in particular can change drastically over time. This is especially true of young players in the minor leagues, who are specifically targeting weak links in their deliveries to address before ascending to the majors. The grades that appear in my mechanics report cards are typically a snapshot of a pitcher's skills, and though some elements can be more pervasive, a player's delivery can also morph throughout the season.

Part One of “Making the Grade” dealt with the first half of the mechanics report card, using visual representations of the 20-80 grades on the scouting scale. The subjects on the report card are arranged in chronological order, following the kinetic chain from the pitcher's first movement through pitch release, and the trio of topics on today's agenda covers the final stages of a pitcher's delivery.

When evaluating a pitcher's mechanics, it is important to note that the grades do not carry equal weight. In part one, we established that balance aids repetition, that momentum adds kinetic energy and extends release distance, and that timing is the one ring to rule them all. The stratification of the grades is also worth addressing, as the 20-80 scouting scale has statistical underpinnings that provide the basis for the theoretical construct of the system, yet reality follows a different curve than the normal distribution.

For starters, the player population at the major-league level is anything but normally distributed, as we are dealing with athletes whose skills place them on the extreme tail of the talent curve. The result is an extreme scarcity of 20 grades on the mechanics report cards, as such deficiencies act as a barrier to entry at the highest level. Meanwhile, 80 grades are more common than one would assume based on the strict definition of three-sigma, due to the fact that some of the categories have an absolute ceiling, yet there is at least one subject one the report card for which an 80 grade is so elusive as to completely escape the current player pool.

***

Posture

What to watch: A pitcher's posture is strongly related to balance, as indicated by the position of the head relative to the player's center-of-mass. More specifically, posture refers to the position of a pitcher's spine from the point of foot strike through release point, and efficient pitchers will stabilize the head over the body with minimal tilt of the spine as the arm goes through the rotational stages. A pitcher with stable posture and minimal spine-tilt will reap the advantages at release point, aiding pitch repetition and further extending release point. We had a saying at the National Pitching Association: “one inch of inappropriate head movement will cost two inches at release point.”

What 20-80 looks like:

20 – Yovani Gallardo

40 – Ricky Romero

60 – Cole Hamels

80 – Yu Darvish

Development Path: There is a common tendency for coaches to encourage a pitcher to “get on top of the ball” in the effort to create “downhill plane,” a misguided piece of instruction that has caused many pitchers to sacrifice posture and tilt the spine in order to achieve a higher release point. These players have learned to physically manipulate posture, while other pitchers suffer from spine tilt as a result of poor balance, which often points to a deficiency in functional strength. Addressing poor posture is a two-fold process, achieved by emphasizing balance as well as helping the pitcher gain a feel for stable posture in order to avoid unnecessary spine-tilt.

The coaching paradigm for “get on top of the ball” is based on the fact that posture plays a big role in determining a pitcher's arm slot. I will define arm slot in two different ways. The common use of the term is what I call a “functional arm slot,” which refers to the position of the throwing arm at release point in relation to hands on a clock—a pitcher who threw perfectly over-the-top would have a functional arm-slot of 12 o'clock, while a right-hander who threw perfectly sidearm would have a nine o'clock slot from the catcher's point of view.

The other term that I use is “biological arm slot,” which describes the angle that the throwing arm makes with the spine, again using hands of a clock. This second term describes an arm slot that is intrinsic to the player, rooted in biological signature, and predicated on the angle of shoulder abduction, which stays consistent regardless of the degree of spine tilt. A pitcher with ideal posture will have a functional arm-slot that perfectly matches his biological arm slot.

***

Release Distance

What to watch: The typical center-field camera angle is ill-suited for the direct measurement of release distance, and though we are occasionally treated to a side-view of a single delivery, the best way to evaluate release distance from a game feed is to weigh the various measures that contribute to an extended release point. The greatest indicator of release distance is the length of a pitcher's stride, which is most heavily influenced by momentum from first movement into foot strike, though a pitcher's height and leg-lift also play a role—a higher lift will keep the leg off the ground for a longer period of time with which to take advantage of momentum. 

Other factors can influence release distance, including the aforementioned advantages of strong posture as well as a stable glove position. A pitcher's timing and sequencing also play a role in his achieving optimum extension at release point, and a hurler who consistently lines up his delivery will also be more deceptive. Release-point distance is constantly undervalued at the expense of height at release point, but a pitcher who gets closer to the plate will not only increase the perceived velocity of his fastball, but also experience relatively later movement on his secondary pitches. A batter has a very narrow timeframe with which to identify an incoming pitch before he must initiate a swing, and a pitcher who can effectively shrink that pitch-identification window will keep batters guessing.

What 20-80 looks like:

20 – Tyler Skaggs

Skaggs has some extreme spine-tilt that costs him considerable distance at release point, sacrificing depth in exchange for some extra height on his pitches. His momentum is average, but the greatest antagonist to his functional distance to the plate is that Skaggs strides at an extremely closed angle, directing his momentum in an inefficient pattern toward the left-hand batter's box, a strategy which takes him further from the target. Mix in a sloppy glove-side and some inconsistent timing, and you have a pitcher who must overcome the challenge of pitching from a greater distance away from the plate than his competition.

40 – Dan Haren

A lack of momentum is the main culprit behind Haren's below-average depth at release point, as his “stop at the top” motion overshadows the otherwise decent grades on his report card.

60 – C.C. Sabathia

Sabathia gets deceptively close to the plate, as the 6'-7” southpaw extends his stride with a late burst as he keeps the front foot off the ground. Sabathia has solid momentum throughout his delivery, along with great posture, and he finishes with all of his energy directed toward the target.

80 – Nolan Ryan

There is not a player in the game today who earns an 80 grade for release distance, an idea which might be tough to swallow if one defines the hierarchy of grades strictly by the current player population, but the trail blazed by some of the game's greatest pitchers has established a premium that today's generation cannot match. Nolan Ryan had all of the ingredients for a deep release point, with exceptional momentum along with a huge leg kick that allowed for an enormous stride. He was able to track closer to the plate after foot strike, maintaining solid posture and a stable glove into release point, and his timing signature included a heavy delay of trunk rotation. The net result was a pitcher who threw the ball from right on top of the hitter with perceived velocity that exceeded the triple-digit readings on the radar gun.

Development Path: With release distance being determined by so many factors, it is absolutely critical that a coach follows the kinetic chain when addressing the individual elements that contribute to the grade. The first link in the chain for release distance is also the most critical, with momentum playing the biggest role in generating a deep release point, and a pitcher will benefit from initiating his charge directly toward the target. The next chain-links to maximize release-distance would be balance in conjunction with posture, followed by glove position. The order of instruction is of the utmost importance, as addressing items out of sequence will often negate the lessons learned from previous instruction—if a coach addresses the pitcher's posture and then goes back and alters momentum, the odds are that he will have to then go back and fix posture to accommodate for the new kinetic chain.

***

Repetition and Timing

What to watch: When evaluating starting pitchers, I will typically diagnose the repetition grade on a game-by-game basis, a nod to the fleeting nature of mechanical timing and the crucial role it plays in game-day performance. The measure can also be used to relate a pitcher's consistency between starts throughout the season, where a high grade would reflect an ability to bring the same skills to the table every time the pitcher toes the rubber, though the grades on the mechanical report cards for starting pitchers are most often a one-game analysis. In contrast, a repetition grade for a relief pitcher is strongly tied to his ability to repeat his delivery across multiple appearances, as the sample-size caveats from a lone relief outing leave little wiggle room for analysis. The essence of mechanical timing is in the pitcher’s quest to consistently find his ideal release point and to repeat the mechanical precursors that produce his optimal delivery.

What 20-80 looks like: Last week, Jason Collette wrote an excellent article on Jeremy Hellickson , exploring the right-hander's compelling success with runners on base. The data helped to support a personal observation that Hellickson exhibits a better delivery from the stretch, and we used a series of videos to demonstrate some particular patterns. The videos are posted in the comments section of Jason's article, and I wanted to expand a bit on the implications for mechanical timing.

Hellickson has a very slow delivery from the windup, prompting a 40-grade for momentum when I covered this game over the summer. The lack of momentum and deliberate approach result in a long time-stamp, and on the above pitch it took him approximately 1.4 seconds from the time that he initiated leg lift until he reached foot strike. Hellickson typically has solid timing, but he over-rotated the shoulder axis on this pitch from the windup, a common result when the pitcher takes too long to reach foot strike. In such cases, trunk rotation begins too early relative to foot strike, with the predictable outcome of a pitch that misses down and to the glove side of his target.

The majority of pitchers pick up the pace with runners on, and Hellickson is no exception. On most of his pitches from the stretch, Hellickson will use his regular leg lift while recruiting more momentum, a combination that helps to extend his stride and yet quicken his pace, which clocked in at 1.1 seconds from leg lift to foot strike in the above pitch. His timing was closer to his ideal signature on this pitch, though he over-rotated far enough to miss a target that was set up below the zone. The greater momentum and deeper release point have persisted in Hellickson's delivery from the stretch for the past couple of years, except when he goes to the slide step.

Hellickson has an incredible pick-off move to shrink leads off the bag, which helps to support his high leg lift with runners on base, but he will occasionally employ a slide step to keep runners honest. He essentially eliminates his leg lift with the slide step, and though he gets his momentum going straight toward the plate, the exceedingly-quick foot plant prevents Hellickson from attaining much of a stride. He got into foot strike in less than 0.8 seconds on the above pitch, a strategy that helps to thwart the running game, although it also throws a wrench into his mechanical timing. Hellickson hit foot strike before his upper body was prepared for trunk rotation, and his throwing arm could not catch up to the rest of the body in time to finish the pitch, resulting in an early pitch-release and the common outcome of a projectile that missed high and to the arm-side of its intended location.

Throughout this year's Raising Aces, I have cited numerous examples of pitchers who battled their mechanical timing with alternating bouts of under- and over-rotation, as the misfiring of trunk rotation with respect to foot strike is the leading cause of missed targets and wayward projectiles in the major leagues. On the other side of the coin are those pitchers who can repeat their timing within a very narrow margin of error, regardless of pitch type, paving the way for advanced command of the strike zone, where catchers feel safe to set up outside the black and where pitchers dominate the chess match with weapons of Effective Velocity. One such pitcher is Roy Halladay, and though he was slightly off-kilter in 2012, the following three-pitch sequence from 2011 exemplifies 80-grade repetition.

Halladay paints the catcher's target with a puzzle of pitch types and locations, starting with a 91-mph cutter on the inner half and followed by a changeup down and away that PITCHf/x verifies as a strike on the corner. Halladay then finished off the at-bat with a 93-mph four-seamer that expanded the zone, earning the call and sending a puzzled Blake DeWitt back to the dugout with the bat on his shoulder while the Philly infielders play a little around-the-horn.

Development Path: Timing is the most critical element of a pitcher's delivery, and his ability to consistently repeat the motion has a greater impact on pitch effectiveness than the other elements combined. Mechanical repetition is the most fundamental building block of the delivery, yet conventional tactics have created barriers to repetition that have taken the emphasis away from a pitcher's personal style. In some ways, the modern pitcher has devolved from his predecessors, as a general ignorance of the root cause of injuries has produced a paranoia of the unknown. The most important lessons I learned at the NPA were that each pitcher has a unique signature and that timing is the key to unlocking a pitcher's potential. 

Have questions for Doug? Stop by his chat at Baseball Prospectus today at 2:00 PM ET (click the link to submit questions in advance).

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,  Delivery,  Grades

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