January 17, 2014
Classic Deliveries: Hall of Fame Inductees 1980-89
Five pitchers were elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA during the 1980s, a number that feels light when one considers the half-dozen arms that were elected in the first five years of the '90s. But the five-pack fairly represents the average induction rate for the four-decade period from 1970-2009. For all the talk about how the modern era is underrepresented in the Hall, it is worth noting that the BBWAA elected just 0.32 pitchers per year from 1936-69 (11 total arms) but has enshrined 0.58 pitchers per year since 1970 (26 total, including the 2014 inductions of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine).
The Hall of Fame class of the '80s included some of the great names from an earlier era of baseball, such as Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale, as well as Hoyt Wilhelm, who was the first pitcher to gain election primarily for his work as a reliever. The decade also saw an infusion of eccentricity, personified by the gravity-defying delivery of Juan Marichal and the game's first free agent, Catfish Hunter. Let's dive into the mechanics of the pitchers who were elected by the BBWAA to enter the hallowed halls of Cooperstown from 1980-89.
First, some rules regarding the Mechanics Report Cards in this exercise:
1) There will be no grades offered for repetition. Repetition is extremely volatile and dynamic over time, and to place a repetition grade on a pitcher's entire career would be nearly impossible.
2) There will be no half-grades, i.e. those ending in -5. There's not enough footage available to confidently make such fine-grained determinations, particularly given that the data is taken from such a wide swath of time periods.
3) The grades listed will represent the pitcher's peak mechanics. The grades will all come from a singular point in the pitcher's career, even if individual grades may have spiked higher at various times, and the report card is based on the best overall delivery each pitcher had on display.
Mechanics Report Card
Hunter's delivery underwent some development during his career, and his mechanics became more efficient while at the same time increasing in funk as he aged. The motion of his youth (seen above) was pretty standard for his day, featuring an exaggerated windup and solid momentum and finishing with a three-quarter arm slot. He had some spine tilt but strong balance overall, and the grades on his mechanics report card continued to improve.
Hunter never threw a pitch in the minor leagues, going straight from high school to the show and making his debut as a 19-year-old in May of 1965, so his development took place on the biggest stage. During his time in Oakland, Hunter dropped his arm slot to near-sidearm in conjunction with straightening his posture to plus levels. The rules set forth at the beginning of the article prevented the 65 grade that I wanted to put on his posture, but it was impressive that Hunter was able to stabilize his foundation while also increasing his momentum. His balance was near perfect during the stride phase of his delivery, though he did drift out in front after foot strike, such that his back foot came off the ground prior to release.
Hunter was one of the first beneficiaries of the free agent system, signing with the Yankees for a then-incredible sum of $3.75 million. He was coming off of four consecutive 20-win seasons and three straight years of top-four finishes in the Cy Young voting, and both strings continued in his first season in pinstripes. Though nothing stood out as exceptional, his unique delivery was rooted in efficiency, with plus grades spanning his report card. The only glaring weakness was a weak glove side that persisted throughout his career;just about any snapshot taken of Hunter at release point will include a mitt that is hanging low off his left hip, but his Hall of Fame plaque excuses his shaky use of leather.
Mechanics Report Card
The video footage of Wilhelm is sparse, possibly due to a combination of his role out of the bullpen, his reliance on the wily knuckleball, and the fact that he lacked the towering peaks of most of his Cooperstown contemporaries. Wilhelm did not reach the majors until he was 28 years old, but he made an impact upon arrival, leading the National League in ERA while pitching 159.3 innings out of the bullpen to just clear the black-ink innings threshold. Wilhelm pitched more than 20 years in the big leagues, making his final appearance just two weeks shy of his 50th birthday. “Old Sarge” was the first in a line of pitchers who would ride the knuckleball to lengthy careers, preceding the likes of the Niekro brothers or more modern warriors like Charlie Hough. These pitchers did not employ fancy mechanics or exert much energy. Instead, they followed a simple progression of step, throw, and let the butterfly dance.
Wilhelm's grades on the mechanics report card are therefore underwhelming. His momentum was heavily muted for his time, though it would be considered nearly average by today's standards, and his torque was almost negligible. Power was not his game, and he took a short, simple stride that shrunk his release distance. All Wilhelm had to do was find some repetition with his delivery in order to tame the wild knuckler, and the right-hander accomplished his goal with excellent balance and posture. Watching old clips of Wilhelm give the impression that he is literally just playing catch, though the task was not nearly so simple from the point of view of the guys on the receiving end of his floaters, nor the hitters charged with making contact.
Mechanics Report Card
Standing 6'5”, Drysdale was an intimidating presence on the mound, but he did not exploit his height at release point. Instead, Drysdale used his powerful frame and long limbs to generate incredible extension on his pitches, complete with a big arm-swing that was followed by a burst of momentum and finished with a sidearm slot that gave batters fits. He was a workhorse with exceptional command; from 1962-67 he threw 1815 innings while walking less than two batters per nine, averaging more than 300 innings per season. Drysdale also had a reputation for head-hunting, particularly when he felt the need for retaliation in order to defend his teammates, and his 154 career HBP's are still the National League record for hit batsmen.
Drysdale had big torque, and his pronounced scapular load acted to increase the upper-body portion of his hip-shoulder separation, while a strong delay of rotation allowed his hips to ramp up the torque after foot strike. Combined with his plus-plus momentum, Drysdale's massive torque and deep release point added to the fear factor for opposing hitters, who knew better than to dig too deep into the batter's box. The grades are near-elite in almost every subject of his report card, earning an easy A overall. The one weakness for Drysdale was balance. His head had a tendency to fall off-line from his center of mass, often drifting out in front during the stride phase. His balance was above average at peak, but the imbalance was exaggerated at various points in his career. One glaring example is in the following clip, though the biggest takeaway from this video has to do with Drysdale's foot work; it suggests that he might have been one of the first pitchers to employ a slide step from the stretch.
Mechanics Report Card
Marichal offered one of the most fascinating deliveries in the history of the game, and the intrigue deepens when one compares his mechanical grades to his performance on the field. Known for an astonishingly high leg kick that reached for the sky and dipped his head far behind his center of mass, Marichal might have been expected to have major struggles with generating strikes. On the contrary, the right-hander was a control artist who led the National League in walk rate four times in 14 years with the Giants, and whose career free-pass rate was just five percent, with 1.8 walks per nine innings. He did have big scores for torque, but appearances can be misleading; his hip-shoulder separation was driven almost entirely by a massive twist of his upper-body that paired with the extreme lean as he reared back to throw, and his hips and shoulders fired within a very narrow time frame.
Marichal’s momentum included a huge burst for the first gear of his delivery as he gave new meaning to the term “maximum leg lift,” with one of the strongest moves toward the plate that one will ever see for this phase of the pitching motion, but his forward progress greatly slowed as the leg came down from its perch and Marichal approached foot strike. The net result was the 60-grade momentum seen above, but the score is a blend of an early 80 and a late 40 rather than a steady flow of kinetic energy. The right-hander typically threw directly over the top, with extreme spine tilt, and the report card reflects the mechanics of his most common delivery. That said, the mystery of Marichal cannot be constrained to one set of grades, as he was known to bring the baseball from all sorts of angles, including over-the-top, three-quarters, and even the occasional submarine delivery that featured a completely different manifestation of imbalance.
Mechanics Report Card
Perhaps no pitcher inspired more intimidation on the mound than Bob Gibson. His tornado of momentum and flailing limbs was ferocity incarnate, leading some to believe that he was the inspiration for MLB's decision to lower the mound in 1969, following a season in which Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and won the NL Cy Young and MVP awards. His speed to the plate was truly elite, and the steeper mound gave the right-hander some gravitational assistance in picking up momentum. The net result was the sense that Gibson was pitching from a closer mound than anyone else in the league, bringing high-90s heat and a deadly slider that drew nervous swings with empty results.
It’s easy to look at Gibson’s seemingly-unbridled fury and assume that he lacked balance in his delivery, but he was relatively sound into his release point before spinning off the mound once the ball left his hand. The grades for balance and posture are limited to the time period between first movement and pitch release, so his extracurricular activities don’t harm his GPA. The balance does suffer from some lean-back during the stride phase, as well as some drop in his delivery, but he maintained average stability at peak. Gibson also wavered with respect to his posture, flashing anything from 40's to 60's, but he repeatedly dialed plus when in peak form. His power came from plus-plus torque in addition to the high-speed momentum, with a combination of big upper-body twist (with some scapular loading) and strong hip rotation that turned up the thermostat on his heater.
Gibson was always one of the best athletes on the field. In addition to dynamic demonstrations of PFP like the one in the above clip, he also made contributions on the offensive side of the ball. He hit 26 homers during his big-league career, two of which came in the World Series. Gibson even stole bases, swiping 13 bags (in 23 attempts) in his 17-year career. If my time machine weren't out of plutonium, and I could choose one player from the past to go back in time to watch play, that player would be Bob Gibson.