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June 7, 2013

Raising Aces

Changing Gears

by Doug Thorburn


One of the features of TINSTAAPP, the podcast I co-host with Paul Sporer, is what we call “homework,” in which we investigate topics from listener emails through a combination of statistical analysis and video scouting. We also assign homework to one another, and last week's assignment for Paul was of Advanced Placement quality: to study the different “gears” in a pitcher's momentum.

The difficulty factor for evaluating momentum is magnified by the poor viewing angles available on standard television feeds. The center-field camera (or worse, the off-center camera) provides a terrible vantage point for viewing momentum, though it does offer a strategic angle from which to see elements such as dynamic balance and posture at release point. Momentum is best evaluated from a side view, sitting down the first or third baseline, where one can isolate the directional forces that a pitcher puts into his motion.

This optical reality created an obstacle in Paul's homework, and after discussing the issue on the latest episode of TINSTAAPP, we decided to extend the assignment. I had admittedly thrown a gauntlet in Paul's direction, and his questions highlighted a few areas that clearly warranted a more detailed explanation. We can get a better sense of momentum by breaking it down into phases, while directing attention toward the pitcher's center of mass (approximated by the belt buckle) as he travels down the mound.

The key subject under discussion is what I refer to as a “gear shift,” in which a pitcher changes the speed of his momentum at some point in the delivery. Dozens of major league pitchers have a blatant change in their momentum, and the common technique is to invoke the gear-change at the point of maximum leg lift (when the lift knee reaches its apex), though there are other pitchers who get more creative. Let's take a look at some of the methods that big league pitchers employ when shifting gears.

The Stop at the Top
One coaching strategy is to have pitchers “stop at the top” in order to find a balance point in their delivery, a trend that is pervasive among pitchers in Japan. These pitchers might have a strong first gear with momentum directed straight toward the plate, but they suddenly halt their momentum once they hit maximum leg lift. In extreme cases, they will pause and wait before recruiting kinetic energy once again to charge into foot strike. The technique is inefficient from a mechanical standpoint, as any kinetic energy that is generated during the first gear goes to waste, and the secondary charge to the plate is driven from a stork-like position with the pitcher standing on one leg.

The other issue with the “stop at the top” technique boils down to timing, as the slow time pattern and abrupt change in momentum hamper pitch consistency. The problem is exacerbated by any necessary adjustments to a pitcher's timing from the stretch. Brushing the negatives aside for a second, the stop-at-the-top method does allow us to easily isolate the different gears of a pitcher's delivery, as the pause marks the point that these players shift from first gear into second. The Nats' Dan Haren is perhaps the most egregious example of what it looks like to stop at the top, as he transitions from an extremely slow delivery in the first phase to one that ramps up once he shifts into second gear.

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Related Content:  Pitching,  Scouting,  Mechanics,  Momentum

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<< Previous Article
Pebble Hunting: Baseba... (06/07)
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Premium Article Raising Aces: Splittin... (05/31)
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