BP pitching guru Doug Thorburn takes your baseball questions before we break for Christmas.
Doug Thorburn: Just 3 stealing days left until Hendersonmas, and Rickey's watching to see if you're bad or good. Let's get on his "good" list with some holiday baseball chatter.
Cody (San Francisco): Is Gary Brown now considered a 4th outfielder or can he be a regular in the big leagues? Can he be a top 20 leadoff hitter? Thanks for the chat.
Doug Thorburn: Prospect value can be fleeting, but Brown is still the same player that earned a Top 20 ranking on Kevin Goldstein's pre-season prospect list. Failure is part of the development process, and I think that his AA hiccup was just that: part of the process. His pitch recognition skills will be tested at the higher levels, but I am interested to see how he adjusts in 2013. Up-the-middle players with game-changing speed and power upside don't grow on trees, so the Giants can afford to be patient.
On the jukebox: Lagwagon, "No One"
tony (minnesota): Holiday greetings. Who would you rather have, in both fantasy and for real in MLB - Jesus Montero or Travis D'Arnaud? Thanks
Doug Thorburn: I would rather have Montero in fantasy as long as he carries a "C" next to his name, especially if said league uses batting average instead of OBP. But give me D'Arnaud in real life - offense is less than half the battle when looking at backstops, so I will defer to the guy with the defensive chops.
cal guy (cal): It seems like some of the luster is coming off Taijaun Walker's shine. What is your take on his potential... second only to Bundy as some believe, or overrated?
Doug Thorburn: As I mentioned with Brown, statistical blips are par for the course as prospects face advanced competition. For hitters, that means facing pitchers with quality secondary stuff and a plan to use it, and for pitchers it means facing batters who can crush 95-mph heat. I am a huge fan of Walker and view him as one of the top three pitching prospects in the game, neck and neck with Bundy, and in fact I prefer Walker's delivery. His mechanics are incredibly advanced for a 20-year old, and he still has some development left before reaching his physical peak.
Steve G. (STL): Hey Doug, great article again. Can you expand a little more on what the kinetic chain is?
Doug Thorburn: The kinetic chain describes a sequence of movements that are necessary to perform a physical act, with an emphasis on how those movements interact. For example, a pitcher will use linear movements for the first part of the delivery before the rotational elements kick in - stride before torque - and his ability to throw with optimal efficiency will depend on how he coordinates the sequence.
Alex (Anaheim): Do you expect Dickey to come close to last season's levels in 2013?
Doug Thorburn: No, I don't expect a 38-year old knuckleballer with a short track record of success to repeat a Cy Young season, but that's the easy answer. I think that Dickey can be successful, but pitchers are different creatures every season, and the vagaries of the knuckleball make Dickey a volatile commodity.
On the jukebox: Yardsbirds, "Smokestack Lightning"
Matt (Oakland): My question for you is now that Chris Young is playing in a new place, can he return to form and become the 20-20 guy he used to be? He's only 29 and should be entering his prime years. Thanks, Doug.
Doug Thorburn: Young had such a peculiar season, beginning with his tearing the cover off the ball for two weeks before the shoulder took him down. Shoulder woes can sap power, and the extreme flyball hitter had an interesting spike to his line-drive rate last season, suggesting that he may have altered his approach to compensate for the injury (he slugged just .371 upon his return). I like him as a bounceback candidate, especially now that the weight of expectations has been lifted.
On the jukebox: Led Zeppelin, "That's the Way"
Ashitaka1110 (Houston, TX): Mixed reviews for Lance McCullers jr's mechanics thus far. What's your personal take on them and how they might affect his future? What one thing would you focus the most on adjusting about them?
Doug Thorburn: I like what McCullers brings to the table, and the elements that pigeon-hole him as a reliever in some people's minds are also things that I look for in all pitchers, starters included, as my interpretation of "effort" skews from the mainstream opinion. I was very surprised at how far he slipped in the draft, and I thought that the Astros did very well to pick him up at #41 overall. The 'Stros should give him every opportunity to stick in the rotation, until he proves to them that he is more effective in shorter stints
delorean (Oakland!): Doug, today is National RUSH Day! (21/12)
If you had to pick a single song or album to represent today, what would it be?
Doug Thorburn: I think that "Free Will" has an awesome message, and it feels appropriate today.
You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that's clear-
I will choose Free Will.
On the jukebox: (you guessed it) Rush, "Free Will"
cal guy (cal): Will Halladay have a bounceback year or does the decline start now?
Doug Thorburn: Halladay has an atypical career track, with a late peak and core skills that stayed pretty solid from 2011 to 2012. At 36, his best years are most likely behind him, but I could easily see him having a bounceback year in which Halladay re-establish himself as one of the top 10 pitchers in the NL.
On the jukebox: Modest Mouse, "Convenient Parking"
Wade (Toronto): What is your opinion on stride length? I've always been told length of the body, is that the case or is it unique to the individual depending on throwing style?
Doug Thorburn: Length of the body is a reasonable approximation of a good stride, but I prefer to cater to the player's specific delivery. I encourage players to get as long of a stride as possible while staying balanced - a pitcher who strides too far will not be able to coordinate the rest of his delivery, but one who takes advantage of outstanding momentum while maintaining balance can reap serious advantages at release point, including higher perceived velocity and later movement on secondary pitches.
On the jukebox: Iron Maiden, "The Clairvoyant"
R.A. Wagman (Toronto): Doug - I really enjoy your work, but I would love to put some actionable context to it. Can you name some pitchers who have correctable low grades, how the issue can be addressed, and how that might effect performance? Thank you.
Doug Thorburn: Awesome question, and now my brain is flying through pitcher deliveries like that kid's star charts in "Flight of the Navigator." In order to keep this from becoming a 5000-word answer, I'll start with a single example from today's article: Yovani Gallardo has 20-grade posture, as his head bails out extremely early in the effort to create a tall release point. Gallardo is clearly manipulating his posture in order to achieve the higher release, and his spine starts tilting even before he reaches foot strike. I would address the issue with a renewed focus on balance and stability, with the goal of keeping the head above the center-of-mass, in addition to functional strength training. When working with players, you can often tell them to "think sidearm" for a pitch, and rather than throw from some submarine arm slot, more often than not the player will actually exhibit strong posture, with the exact same biological arm slot (read: angle of shoulder abduction), but a lower functional arm slot due to the improved posture - the difference between what we feel and what we see can be stark. Such an adjustment would improve Gallardo's pitch command and consistency, as well as bring his release point closer to the plate.
On the jukebox: Santana, "Soul Sacrifice (live from Woodstock)"
Alex (Anaheim): Despite the disappointments, Ivan Nova had some strong starts in 2012. Can he be a serviceable starter next season?
Doug Thorburn: He certainly *can* be more than serviceable, and I like all of the trend lines on his stat sheet as well as his development with his mechanics. With R.A. Wagman's question in mind, Nova already possesses outstanding balance and posture, but his momentum is lacking, and I would address the problem by encouraging some extra burst (while maintaining balance), which could add a tick to his fastball while bringing him closer to the plate.
On the jukebox: Kyuss, "Mudfly"
AJ (Glendale): Bourn and Soriano are still FA. Do we see them sign before the new year?
Doug Thorburn: My guess is that Bourn will sign earlier than Soriano, though Bourn is caught in the middle of a deep OF class in a market that does not seem to value speed as highly as Boras does, and both players will need to dampen their expectations in order to sign quickly. I think that Soriano is unlikely to crack the $14 million that he was already due for 2013, especially after an up-down tenure in the Bronx, but he might be happy just to get a multi-year deal. I might be wrong, but it looks to me that we are seeing a market correction for relief pitchers - teams are paying more for non-closing relievers like League and Affeldt, but they seem less willing to pay for saves, perhaps viewing relievers within a vacuum that brings the Save-guys and the non-save guys closer together, as the stigma of the "proven closer" is fading.
On the jukebox: Alice in Chains, "Angry Chair"
gohodge (Chicago): Hi Doug,
Would you say that keeping young pitchers (10-13 ages)in "stretch mechanics" only as long as possible makes sense? From a functional strength and a timing standpoint this would seem to be the case as the windup can offer its own set of challenges for many pitchers of all ages. Thanks for the input!
Doug Thorburn: Excellent observation, gohodge, and I am a strong advocate for this approach. Many young players try too hard to emulate pro pitchers from the windup, and the extra movements just provide a greater opportunity for error (especially when balancing leg lift). I can't tell you how many times a young player came in to the NPA with a goofy windup, and then all we had to say was, "pretend like you're throwing from shortstop," and voila! - improved velocity and command! The windup is completely unnecessary for young players, and simplifying the delivery to the stretch is a great way to teach the kids how to pitch - you wouldn't teach him calculus before he learned geometry, so why would you give him a Major-League curriculum to pitch in Little League?
On the jukebox: Drist, "Scalpel"
Paul Sporer (Austin, TX): Are Edwin Jackson's mechanics built for his 203 IP/year average of the last four years (saving the obvious standard risk associated w/SPs)?
Doug Thorburn: Hey there, Paul. I like Edwin's delivery, which has improved over the veteran's career as he has added strength to his frame. His balance indicators are all a plus and I dig the above-average momentum - I think that he can handle the extra kinetic energy while safely maintaining his delivery (standard risk caveats aside). I think that the Cubs have quietly assembled a formidable rotation.
On the jukebox: Testament, "The Legacy"
Cowbell Guy (The Seat Next To Yours): What is your opinion of Alex Cobb? He rarely gets any love, but has a nice ground ball rate and a pretty good K/9. Is it all smoke and mirrors from the defense behind him, or is he a good pitcher flying under the radar?
Oh, I know have Soul Sacrifice in my head.
Doug Thorburn: The cowbell is downstairs in the garage, with the drum kit, if you wanna grab a drumstick and channel your inner Gene Frenkle. Cobb has a lot of the fundamental elements that I look for in a pitcher, with strong balance and average momentum, but he still has some room for improvement with release-point consistency. The glove-side is soft and erratic at times, and he is the type of pitcher who rarely lines up his ideal timing yet usually comes pretty close - he misses often, but not by much. It certainly helps to have the Tampa defense behind him, but there is also room for growth.
On the jukebox: Slayer, "Seasons in the Abyss"
cal guy (cal): Please rank the following over the next five years: Cole, Bauer, Fernandez and Walker.
Doug Thorburn: Cole is number 1 on my zebra sheet, the best pitching prospect in the game, with both a vaulted ceiling and a high floor. Everyone talked about his having the best stuff in the '11 draft, but I also thought that he had the best mechanics of the first round.
Walker would be my #2, once again based on his electric stuff as well as his advanced mechanical profile - his delivery is way ahead of the standard age-development curve.
Bauer vs. Fernandez is tougher, because they are diametrically different players. Fernandez is further away, but he has already made significant improvement to his mechanics since his high school days, and the indications are that he is responding very well to instruction. Bauer is on the cusp of the majors, but his delivery is full of extremes (I profiled Bauer in this article), with high grades in the power categories on his mechanics report card yet lacking in the balance and repetition categories. It's awesome that Bauer is so cerebral and pursues an education in his craft, but he will need an open mind and respect for his coaches in order to maximize his efficiency.
On the jukebox: Soundgarden, "Outshined"
jlarsen (chicago): If you were the Rays, would you find a stopgap OFer like Ryan Sweeney to man RF until Myers' arb clock is delayed for another year or do you start Myers on Opening Day and allow him to work through the "growing pains"?
Doug Thorburn: I don't think it's necessary to delay Myers by a full year. He appears to be ready, and the Rays have made a habit of keeping their players in Durham long enough to avoid Super Two status, but I don't think that they'd sit on Myers for the full season if they deem that he is ready, particularly given the expectations of contention in Tampa.
On the jukebox: Dredg, "Gathering Pebbles"
Frank (Denver): What is your assessment of Kevin Gausman?
Doug Thorburn: I covered Gausman as part of my draft coverage - He is awesome, but I am admittedly lower on him than most, due to some undesirable mechanical indicators which I think will be speed bumps in his development. He has a huge ceiling, with the raw tools to be elite, and the Orioles may want to exercise patience in his development despite the expectations that he will move quickly. Pitching mechanics are typically addressed in the minors, and Gausman could develop some bad habits if they bring him up too quickly.
On the jukebox: Metallica, "For Whom the Bell Tolls"
jimoneill (New London): After over 40 years of studying pitching mechanics, I can only say I'm jealous of young coaches who have access to this brilliance. You have presented an incredible assemblage of info that young coaches should tap into immediately.
Having said that, I am curious as to the role of the back foot in creating momentum. What should I look for and what should the young pitcher feel?
Doug Thorburn: Thanks for the incredibly kind words, Jim, and I appreciate anyone and everyone who embraces the learning process.
The back foot is a point of contention among coaches, but it mostly boils down to semantics - whether to "drive" or "push" off the rubber vs. "falling" down the mound. What matters is how the player takes to the instruction - I will explain something multiple ways until I find the specific advice that registers with the athlete, and then anchor on that terminology.
Personally, I try to take focus off of the back foot, choosing to emphasize the concept of leading with the hip and directing momentum at the target from first movement. At the NPA we called it, "lift and thrust," and I found that this instruction (paired with specific drills) gave pitchers the best feel to understand early momentum. I typically avoid the terms "drive" or "push" off the rubber, because pitchers who do this will usually end up collapsing the back leg too early, resulting in issues with balance.
twayda (Chicago): How hard or smart is it to really alter a pitchers mechanics once they get in a Major League organization? Follow up, Do you think there is an age when a pitchers mechanics are pretty much set and any major change would mess them up more than it would help them?
Doug Thorburn: The boring answer is that, "it depends on the player." Mechanics can be addressed at the major league level, but the focus at that stage is generally triggered toward pitch sequencing and the chess match between pitcher and hitter, and pitchers are expected to be physically prepared to pitch at the highest level. Sometimes the organization has little choice but to address mechanics in the majors, such as in the case of Yu Darvish last year. I don't think that there is any stage where a pitcher's mechanics are set, and I have seen athletes make huge strides in the twilight of their careers, though it is certainly easier to make adjustments to a player who has less hard-wired muscle memory.
On the jukebox: Thrice, "Kill Me Quickly"
Doug Thorburn: Thanks for all of the great questions, gang - it was a breath of fresh air to venture outside the world of pitching. Sorry I couldn't get to all of q's, but I'll catch you all again in 2013.