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November 8, 2013

Raising Aces

Great Pitchers, Flawed Mechanics

by Doug Thorburn

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One of the most common questions people ask me is to name good pitchers who have bad mechanics. Of course, mechanics are too nuanced to draw lines in the sand of “good” and “bad,” but the question is fascinating nonetheless. The general rule is that the best pitchers have excellent mechanics, but it’s true that some of the top players in the game have flaws in their deliveries.

Some of these pitchers have learned to overcome their physical obstacles, while others cover for their deficiencies with filthy stuff. A handful of the game's best pitchers theoretically have room for further improvement; mechanical adjustments could potentially lift their performance to stratospheric status or extend the duration of excellence as they drift further from their physical peak, at which point velocity declines and pitch command becomes a more critical aspect of success.

The ability to make mechanical adjustments has been a hallmark of some of the best pitchers of our generation. Roger Clemens relied on an over-the-top curveball in his early twenties, replacing it with excellent posture and a mean splitter later in his career. Randy Johnson always had the height and the heat, but he completely revamped his delivery to take advantage of his natural gifts and evolved into one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Fast-forward to today and Felix Hernandez has quietly honed his mechanics over the last several years to address the foundational weaknesses in his delivery, allowing him to maintain elite status despite the dissipation of his fastball.

The following pitchers are among the best in the game, but each would receive a below-average grade in one or more subjects on the mechanics report card. They’re the exceptions to the rule, with each player representing a lesson in how such inefficiencies can be overcome at the highest level—and in some cases, how an oddball delivery has led to an elevated tier of success.

Pitcher: Cliff Lee
Deficiency: Balance
Implication: Repetition

Lee lacks balance during crucial moments of the delivery, and his overall tendency is to lean back toward third base en route to the plate. The issue begins during the lift phase; while a well-balanced pitcher will keep his head positioned above his center of mass, Lee's dome is already shading behind his back-side as he reaches maximum leg lift. He also uses a minor twist of the torso at max lift with a reverse-rotation of the hips, a style that King Felix has popularized in recent years.

The imbalance worsens as Lee approaches foot strike, with his entire upper body leaning backward as he prepares to fire the rotational elements of his delivery. Someone could PhotoShop a limbo pole into the following freeze frame, and it would appear that Lee was playing an entirely different game.

Lee also has a blatant drop-and-drive in his delivery, which involves a drastic lowering of his center of gravity. This can be seen in the GIF as well as the photos, particularly by noting the position of Lee's hat compared to the uniform of Jason Heyward—from this camera angle, Lee's head has gone from just below Heyward's letters at max leg lift to just below the belt near foot strike.

The imbalance has a ripple effect on Lee's posture, which is worse than one would expect from such an elite pitcher, though it exceeds his grade for balance. Pitchers with poor balance often battle to repeat their delivery and find a consistent arm slot, and though Lee used to fall in this category (he was tough to watch in his Cleveland days), he is now the poster boy for pitch command and repetition. He hasn't posted a walk rate above five percent since he left the Tribe, and he might have the best fastball command in the game today. It is exceedingly rare for a pitcher to improve his performance in light of such weak balance without a concurrent mechanical adjustment. Lee is the perfect example of a pitcher whom coaches just have to accept, since he’s mastered his flawed delivery.

Pitcher: Chris Sale
Deficiency: Balance
Implication: Repetition

Sale has the same diagnosis as Lee, but the manifestation of his imbalance is much different. For starters, Sale's balance is quite strong into maximum leg lift, as he basically keeps his head above the body with stability above his lanky frame.

His balance flies off the handle once the leg starts to come down and he initiates the momentum phase of his delivery, though the Sale lean heads in the exact opposite direction of fellow lefty Lee’s. Sale hunches over during the stride phase, with the head drifting far out in front of his body between max lift and foot strike. There is a ton of head movement during this portion of his motion, particularly just before he spreads his wings into the inverted-W pattern that is so visually disturbing to coaches, women, and children.

Somewhat miraculously, Sale rights the ship after foot strike, as the head pops up and he straightens his spine angle to finish with near-perfect posture into release point. There is still a semblance of imbalance, as the back foot comes off the ground prematurely (prior to release), though his release-point mechanics are essentially spot-on. Even his glove position is solid despite some serious flail after the baseball leaves his hand.

Once again, it is extremely rare to find a pitcher with such a high degree of mechanical repetition when he suffers from so many faults in his balance. Sale's frame adds further awe to his performance, but it speaks volumes about his functional strength that the southpaw can maintain consistency while having to hurdle such obstacles.

Pitcher: Jered Weaver
Deficiency: Posture, Stride
Implication: Release Distance, Repetition

Weaver has an extremely closed stride, directing his momentum far to the right of the plate in an attempt to create a difficult angle on hitters. Some pitchers require a closed stride in order to line up the gears and reach ideal extension at release point, but Weaver over-exaggerates his direction beyond anyone's natural signature. When the above GIF is captured at foot strike, it appears that Weaver is about to unleash a projectile aimed directly into the opposing Twins' dugout at Target Field.

Weaver received a lot of attention in the spring for his arm slot, as his over-the-top motion had become increasingly exaggerated over the years and he was attempting to bring things down a notch. Sam Miller detailed the situation in an article in late March, using photographic evidence from spring training to look for any adjustments. In the comments section of that piece, I noted that there are two aspects to an arm slot—one is the degree of spine tilt, and the other is the amount of shoulder abduction (elevation) that the pitcher employs. In Weaver's case, it appeared that while his angle of abduction had lowered, his poor posture was still a culprit that was artificially raising his arm slot, and the in-game evidence from late in the season corroborated this claim.

Weaver is an exaggerated case of extreme angles, from the ultra-closed stride to the excessive spine-tilt, and the resulting funk has helped to cover for his declining velocity and limited distance at release point. Those elements alone are obviously not enough to explain his level of success in the majors; Weaver follows the examples of Lee and Sale in that he has learned to coordinate his unique delivery in spite of the self-inflicted challenges in his mechanics. Weaver repeats his delivery very well for a pitcher who fights his natural signature every step of the way, and though his template is not one to be copied, each passing year makes it tougher to argue that he should revamp his motion.

Pitcher: Kenley Jansen
Deficiency: Momentum, Posture
Implication: Release Distance

Jansen has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the past two seasons, following the Mariano Rivera blueprint with a cutter-heavy approach that has been extremely effective despite the fact that opposing batters know what's coming. That he does so with such mechanical barriers to success further deepens the mystery. The right-hander has very tepid momentum that borders on slow, which is especially intriguing when it’s coming from a power reliever who is used for such short bursts. Further confusing the issue is that Jansen uses a very low leg lift in his delivery, stopping his knee below the waist line at max lift.

One might expect such a muted lift sequence with a runner on first base, but this clip was taken with the bases empty. Typically, a pitcher with slow momentum and a short lift will have an extremely shallow stride, but in this respect Jansen defies convention once again—he actually delays foot strike as he glides down the mound, finding an above-average stride length despite all of the barriers. It's the calm before the storm, because Jansen bursts with exceptional torque once his front foot finally plants into the ground.

Jansen further compromises his delivery with excessive spine-tilt from foot strike into release point, which acts to steepen his downhill plane yet shortens his release distance. The trade-off has been working well for him, and the lessened workload of a closer might relieve some of the injury concerns associated with such a delivery, but a pitcher who relies on so much upper body to transfer energy to the baseball is working under conditions of elevated risk.

Pitcher: Clayton Kershaw
Deficiency: Momentum / Gear-Shift
Implication: Repetition, Timing

We saved the best for last. Kershaw is not a cautionary tale so much as he is a modern marvel of mechanics. His delivery gets better every season in terms of efficiency and repetition, and his four-pitch mix might be the nastiest arsenal in the majors. These elements, in conjunction with his left-handedness, represent the best that pitching has to offer in 2013. With this in mind, Kershaw's ridiculous pattern of momentum is merely a sideshow act, and though his multiple-gear shift can be confusing when broken down into stills, a Kershaw GIF is easily worth a thousand words.

Kersh has three speeds on his way to the plate. He leads with the front hip for a strong move into maximum lift, but then his forward momentum comes to a halt as the leg comes down near the ground. When the clip is halted at these two points in the delivery, it almost looks as if he has gone back into the set-up position, with the lift leg in contact with the ground.

Just when it looks like Kershaw is going to balk, he explodes toward the plate with a charge of momentum. Left-handers are known to have extra funk in their mechanics, but there is no delivery in baseball that invokes such a peculiar three-speed pattern from first movement into foot strike.

Such an abrupt strategy should be nearly impossible to repeat, which in turn should throw release points out of whack and wreck pitch command. Sure enough, Kershaw struggled with command and repetition early in his career, but like Lee before him, the Dodgers ace has since mastered his eccentric delivery at an expert level. There is no ceiling that can contain a pitcher with Kershaw's combination of raw talent and accelerated learning curve.

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

11 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Kinanik

It would be fascinating to see the relationship between the variability of outcome (e.g., bad days due to poor mechanics) and the funkiness of mechanics. My intuition says that pitchers with unusual deliveries are more likely to get into slumps--not only from the delivery itself, but from a pitching coach's difficulty establishing a baseline to figure out mechanical problems. When pitchers that have normal deliveries go into a slump, it should be pretty easy to find the problem, but when someone with a funky delivery goes into a slump...

Nov 08, 2013 10:12 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Great point, Kinanik. Bad days are quite often related to mechanical issues, but it would be interesting to study whether funkadelic pitchers are more likely to have those bad days. Intuitively, I would think that it is strongly related to personal signature - sometimes a pitcher is naturally funky, and other times the funk has been taught through coaching in order to exploit angles. When the funk goes against signature (ie unnatural), then a pitcher is more likely to struggle.

Nov 08, 2013 14:37 PM
 
Kinanik

Also, I love the Weaver .gif. It looks like he is throwing a dart.

Nov 08, 2013 10:13 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Agreed, and I think the high camera angle in Minnesota adds to the parlor-game effect. Also, freeze-framing deliveries is an enjoyable exercise - it often makes pitchers look funny (Lee), scary (Sale), or downright ridiculous (Weaver).

Nov 08, 2013 14:40 PM
 
woodruff11

Is the functional strength mentioned in the Sale section the key for Lee as well? Maybe they can be balanced and stable in seemingly awkward positions due to this strength.

Nov 08, 2013 13:20 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Good call, woodruff. Lee almost has to have decent functional strength in order to repeat his imbalanced delivery, but it raises the question of whether his imbalance is a result of sub-optimal functional strength (as is often the case). In Lee's particular case, I think that his imbalance is more of a blatant manipulation of spine angle than a lack of strength leading to instability, especially since he has been doing it for so long.

Nov 08, 2013 14:44 PM
 
Nick Houghtaling

I remember I asked a question about this subject in a chat once - great to see it explained further here. I've always been a bit mystified by the way that certain pitchers can overcome mechanical deficiencies and on occasion use them to their advantage.

As an extension to this article, would you say that repetition is the most important thing by far in a pitcher's delivery? To me, it seems like a fundamental difference between the elite and the average.

Great article as always, Doug. As a relatively new baseball fan who has only been watching the sport regularly for around 3 years, Raising Aces has been incredibly eye opening to me and has changed the way I view pitching, which is obviously a major part of the game.

Nov 08, 2013 15:27 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Thanks for the kind words, Nick, and I'm beyond gratified that Raising Aces has helped to fuel your enjoyment of the game.

Regarding repetition, I do feel that it is by far the most important aspect of pitching, and it is definitely the most critical grade on the mechanics report card (it also takes the most time to evaluate, by far). The difference between and good day and a bad day boils down to repetition (or lack there of) so often that it's ridiculously under-appreciated.

This is why it often baffles me when coaches flaunt techniques that interfere with what a pitcher does naturally to throw a baseball - creating extreme angles might make life tougher on opposing hitters, but it also makes life tougher on the pitcher. I'll take repetition (and pitch command by extension) over angles every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Nov 08, 2013 15:49 PM
 
liquidtomahawks

This is great! I'd be interested to see the same concept, but applied to great pitchers with great mechanics. It probably seems self explanatory in many of those cases, but I am extremely ignorant to pitching mechanics. I recognize when pitchers have weird deliveries, versus "normal" deliveries. But I'd like to instead be able to recognize which are good and which are bad. I know it's often subjective, but this was very insightful. Seeing the alternative would help clarify even more.

Cool stuff!

Nov 08, 2013 21:11 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Stuart Wallace
BP staff

Something that struck me (aside from the lefty lean, but us lefties are weird in general, so no big thing) -- the sample size presented is starter heavy. If someone were to have jacked up mechanics but still provide a modicum of productivity out of said mechanics, I would assume they would typically be stuck in the bullpen, and not a 200+ IP guy.

Any thoughts as to a possible reason why this is, or is it simply a happy coincidence?

Nov 09, 2013 18:31 PM
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Good observations, Stuart, and the reason behind it is a combination of experimental design and consequence.

The list was not all-inclusive, and I was generally going for the combo of best players / biggest inefficiencies - so there was some potential bias in selecting the pitchers for this article. I generally give the edge to starters on the "best" side of the ledger, and there would be many more options if I branched out to include more relievers or lowered the threshold of success for starters. As an aside, Greg Holland was a late scratch because I had covered him in a recent piece - http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21684 .

But your point is spot on, as there are tons of relievers that have mechanical issues but are still able to find success, as their limited exposure helps to mask the impact of mechanics on their performance.

It's also not a coincidence that lefties are so well represented here, as coaches are much more likely to mess with a lefty's mechanics in order to coax extreme angles than they are with right-handers. The two elements come together with the LOOGY phenomenon - a ridiculous amount of LOOGY's are sidearm-types or have extremely closed strides, all of which is intended to exaggerate platoon splits. I wrote about it here: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=17971

I hope that adds some clarity. In many ways, the list provided in this article is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Nov 09, 2013 20:42 PM
 
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