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March 29, 2013

Raising Aces

Against the Grain

by Doug Thorburn

One of the coolest parts of this job is the interaction with the readers of Baseball Prospectus, who consistently drive the discussion with in-depth questions and insightful observations. Half of my articles have been inspired by reader comments, and I greatly appreciate the creative spark provided by the BP audience. One of the most frequent questions that I receive relates to good pitchers with poor mechanics, and though a basic tenet of pitching is that the best pitchers have excellent mechanics, occasionally there are players who find success in spite of an inefficient delivery.

When a top-flight pitcher has a major flaw in his delivery, the player typically compensates for the deficiency with plus grades elsewhere on his mechanics report card. For example, a pitcher with heavy torque might struggle to maintain posture during the high-energy phases of the delivery, and the extra zip that results on his fastball can serve to cover for the corresponding shortcoming in pitch command. Occasionally, a pitcher will find success despite a laundry list of mechanical flaws, but these pitchers are fighting an uphill battle to succeed at the highest level of competition.

The mechanical imperfections of major-league pitchers has been a major topic of my work over the past year, with subjects ranging from the complete lack of mechanical repetition of Ubaldo Jimenez to the 30-grade posture of Kenley Jansen. Very rarely do top pitchers have mechanical inefficiencies that are so extreme, but there are a handful of pitchers who go against the grain. Today we will explore the mechanics of eight such pitchers, four of whom were covered during the last year with Raising Aces, and four others who have yet to receive their 15 minutes on the main stage.

Out with the Old

The Halt of Dan Haren
Dan Haren has a consistent track record of championship-caliber pitching, and a career walk rate of just 5.1 percent has been the backbone of his success. Haren's strike-throwing acumen is impressive in a vacuum, but the feat is downright incredible when one considers the mechanical obstacles he must overcome on every pitch.

The blatant pause in Haren's delivery is as visually disturbing as it is mechanically inefficient. He effectively halts his momentum mid-stride, eliminating any benefit to be gained from his starting position, then re-recruits his momentum to charge toward the plate. Given the complicated timing pattern and the extra opportunity for the delivery to fall off track, Haren repeats his motion remarkably well, making him a unique specimen on the mound.

Haren earned a grade of 30 for his momentum when I evaluated his delivery last September, and though he has mastered the crucial elements of timing, the complications with his lower back have thrown a wrench into his mechanics. The exaggerated “stop at the top” requires tremendous balance and core strength to execute 100 times per game, and a weakened foundation could threaten the integrity of the whole system when it comes to finding a consistent release point. Haren is also prone to bouts of spine-tilt when his balance wanes, which sets the stage for a possible cascade effect with his injuries.

The Inconsistency of Yu Darvish
The 2012 season was a mechanical nightmare for Yu Darvish. He struggled to command the strike zone early in the year, and he ditched his windup in April to simplify the timing patterns. He continued to tinker with his momentum and timing through the summer, and by July he was taking notes from Dan Haren's book of halted momentum.

The Haren plan was a disaster for Darvish's stat line, and he would finish the season with the fourth-highest walk total in the American League. One last mechanical adjustment appeared to do the trick, however, and from late August through the end of the season Darvish dominated.

Darvish had finally found a timing pattern that lined up all the gears in his delivery. Once his delivery was honed, Darvish was hitting targets with regularity, and he ended 2012 on a run of 59 strikeouts against just 10 walks over his final seven starts, covering 50.7 innings.

The Wayward Posture of Jered Weaver
The poor posture of Jered Weaver has surfaced multiple times over the past year. The right-hander served as the model for spine-tilt in my opening article for BP, and more recently he was featured among other posture-phobic pitchers who had lost considerable velocity over the past three years. His posture had become worse over the years in an attempt to throw more over-the-top, as Sam Miller detailed in his excellent article last week, and Weaver had also strategically increased the angle of shoulder abduction.

In his article, Sam noted that Weaver has made a conscientious effort this spring to lower his arm slot to get closer to previously established levels. The early returns support this development, but the visual evidence suggests that while Weaver may have lowered his angle of shoulder elevation, the spine-tilt that artificially raises his arm slot has remained. As the above image from the center field camera in Fenway Park reveals, the funky right-hander also uses an extremely closed stride, landing across his body before re-directing his energy toward the plate.

The All-Encompassing Inefficiency of Yovani Gallardo
Most of the cabbage that I have thrown in the direction of Yovani Gallardo has been aimed at his horrendous posture, with vicious spine-tilt that he initiates very early in the sequence of the delivery. Watching him pitch, one can see Gallardo begin to bail out with his head and spine just after max leg lift.

Gallardo earned a barrel-scraping score of 20 when I covered posture for the Making the Grade series, and one would think that a pitcher with his resume would make up for the deficiency with other aspects of his mechanics. But his delivery is a mess. The balance is shaky from the beginning, he constantly battles to repeat his timing, and the net result is a very shallow release point. When doing the mechanical report cards for the 2013 Starting Pitcher Guide, only one pitcher received an overall grade of an “F”—and you're looking right at him.

***

In with the New

Matt Cain's Pace to the Plate
Matt Cain has quietly become one of the best pitchers in the game. His balance sets the standard with a perfect 80 grade, as he maintains his robotic head position in place above his center of mass, with minimal movement on all three axes. Cain repeats his delivery extremely well, resulting in pinpoint command that aids the effectiveness of his lethal combination of fastball-change. There is only one chink in Cain's armor: his momentum.

Cain has a muted charge to the plate, earning a momentum grade of 35 on the 20-80 scale, thus limiting his potential release-point distance and minimizing the amount of kinetic energy that he derives from his lower half. There is a functional trade-off between momentum and balance, as it is naturally more difficult to stabilize a more powerful thrust to the plate, but Cain has such exceptional balance that he could conceivably turn up the dials on his momentum with minimal sacrifice to balance.

The x-factor is timing, which is largely dependent on personal signature. It could be that Cain's current timing pattern is ideal for his particular motion, and to increase his pace to the plate would greatly disrupt his other links in the kinetic chain. And as they say, if ain't broke…  

The Imbalanced Act of Chris Sale
Perhaps no pitcher has taken greater flack for his pitching mechanics than the White Sox' Chris Sale. The lanky left-hander with the atrocious arm angles and the ugly elbow drag has caused parents to turn off the TV to avoid scaring the kids. Anyone who has seen him pitch is penciling Sale in for a trip under the knife, and though his mechanical oddities are potential precursors to injury, the greatest inefficiency in his delivery is an unwieldy pattern of balance.

Sale's head is swimming around his center of mass throughout the delivery, and though he finishes with strong posture, the journey into release point is a rough ride. It begins with a slouched position and continues with a steep drop-and-drive as Sale lowers the center of gravity after maximum lift. The head drifts behind the body and toward the first-base side as he enters foot strike, before the spine snaps back into place in time for release point. The 30-grade balance upsets the left-hander's mechanical repetition, but he often benefits from late swings on misplaced pitches thanks to a deep release point, as demonstrated in the above GIF. Sale might be running from the injury police, but a lack of balance is the biggest threat to his performance on the field.

The Tilting Spine of Matt Garza
The issue of spine tilt has been popular in the halls of Raising Aces in recent weeks, particularly due to its interactions with sore shoulders and depressed radar-gun readings. Matt Garza's average velocity has held firm at 94 mph for the past several years, so he was able to avoid qualifying for the study on velocity loss, but his degree of spine-tilt is reminiscent of the poor-posture pitchers who surrendered a tick or two.

 

The injury connection looms large in light of Garza's recent arm troubles. Shelved last season with a stress fracture in his elbow, he has been out of action since the beginning of camp due to a strained lat in his pitching shoulder. Like Weaver, Garza also has an interesting stride pattern for a right-handed pitcher, but the Cubs righty takes the opposite route and finishes with an open stride, landing with his front foot to the left of the center line. Unlike Weaver, there is no talk of Garza making alterations to his arm slot.

The Uninspiring Delivery of Cliff Lee
There is nothing about Cliff Lee's mechanics that stands out as particularly egregious, but the overall package leaves much to be desired. His balance is somewhat lacking, with exaggerated lean back toward third base that precipitates a posture change near release point. There is nothing special about his momentum or his torque, as his game is not about overpowering batters, and Lee does not take advantage of extra depth at release point to allow his pitches to sneak up on batters. All Cliff Lee does is repeat his motion—every single time.

The key to Lee's delivery is its simplicity. There is little wasted motion, and though his path to release point has room for improvement, the process is one that Lee can repeat ad nauseam. I often say that repetition of a pitcher's ideal timing pattern is the most critical aspect of pitching mechanics, and Lee is a shining example of a pitcher whose success is predicated on just that one outstanding grade on his mechanics report card.

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,  Pitching Mechanics

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