Dr. John Bagonzi is a pitching professor. A former minor-league hurler and collegiate coach, Bagonzi has a doctorate from Indiana University and an encyclopedic knowledge of the art and science of throwing a baseball 60 feet, six inches. He is the author of The Act of Pitching, which Bob Feller has referred to as "The best book on pitching that I have ever read."
David Laurila: How would you describe yourself?
John Bagonzi: My background is that of a collegiate and professional baseball pitcher who became a teacher of baseball. I’m a technician, so to speak. Since I retired, it’s been my life’s work. I’ve coached for a lifetime and am still fascinated by the intricacies of baseball pitching.
DL: Prior to us starting this interview, you mentioned having worked with Chad Paronto.
JB: Yes, and he still has the mechanics that I introduced to him, although they have been refined somewhat. He comments on that in my book. There is also a comment by Bill Monbouquette, and one thing I can say about him is that he had perfect mechanics. He had almost ideal mechanics. I’ve always felt that if you could teach a man to pitch like Bill Monbouquette, you’d be doing him a personal favor.
DL: You said that Paronto became more effective when he began throwing his fastball with less velocity.
JB: Yes, that was something that he intimated to me, which was surprising, because I always thought he was pretty concerned with throwing the ball real hard. He’s capable of throwing the ball 95 mph, but when he does that he doesn’t get guys out, according to what he told me. He gets them out more when he throws a sinking fastball, which causes him to reduce the velocity somewhat. So, we’re on that type of schematic, that type of wavelength, on pitching— movement on the ball. That’s one of my big items.
DL: Does movement always come naturally, or can it be developed?
JB: Well, I’m a technician, so I believe that pitchers can develop it. Some people are born with it, some people have it, and some people can’t even explain it. But if you’re a right-handed pitcher with a two-eight type of rotation on the ball, you’re going to get movement. Now, can you make a two-eight if you aren’t naturally blessed with that? Sure. The configuration of your hand, the angle of your hand, the angle of your arm, the pressure points on your finger-tips— sure.
Two-eight is important for movement. As a matter of fact, all sinking fastballs have to get a two-eight type of rotation. Some of them, where pitchers’ arm angles drop a little bit and come closer to sidearm, they might throw a three-nine type of sinker where the axis and rotation is a little different. But I’d be more inclined to think that a two-eight would be closer to ideal because it has a trajectory and some velocity, whereas with a three-nine it is harder to get velocity. When you’re talking about movement on a fastball, that’s a big item.
DL: Can you elaborate on hand positioning and movement?
JB: You need to experiment with your thumb position. I think that when the thumb is generally in the center of the ball, and if you move it up a bit, that creates a little off-balance with the rotation of the ball. Using a clock as our reference point, if your fingers are pointed straight up toward a twelve o’clock to six o’clock type of dimension, you’re probably going to have a straight ball. But if you tip those fingers just a little bit, say to one o’clock, you’re going to get a little veer, or tail, to the ball. That can be taught. There are many pitchers we’ve taught that to and they wind up with some movement on their fastball. Would they have otherwise had movement on their fastball? Well, I suspect that it would have been minimal.
DL: We also talked about Pedro Martinez earlier.
JB: Pedro Martinez threw hard and he wasn’t a particularly big guy either. Now, I feel that the Magnus effect was violated by Pedro in his approach to the fastball. The Magnus effect says that the faster you throw a ball, the straighter it will go. He threw 95 with movement, which is unusual. It’s very unusual. But I think that he had particularly long fingers and his index finger was almost a match for his middle finger. That, I think, imparted extra rotation. The speed of rotation on a ball is more important on the movement of a ball than is the velocity, so if you reduce the velocity, you’re liable to get more movement. But if you throw 95 mph as Pedro did, and you get extra rotation—the rotation on the ball is what gives you movement.
DL: Pitchers sometimes lose movement late in the game. Why does that happen?
JB: Well, it shouldn’t happen, so I don’t exactly know. There can be some extraneous factors like humidity and air pressure that can affect the ball. Even the wind sometimes will do that. But if a pitcher begins to tire, mechanically what would happen is that his ball would begin to go high. And sometimes if it goes high and does not have the velocity, it might straighten out. If you’re losing velocity and the ball is down, you’d be more likely to retain movement—it would be more likely to be an effective pitch. So, if you have movement on the ball and it is contrived, or manufactured—something you’ve learned to do—you shouldn’t lose it, because you should be able to master your own mechanics in that respect, your own ways of making the ball move.
DL: Why do curveballs curve?
JB: Boy, that’s the physics of baseball there. You’ve got Bernoulli’s principal, you’ve got the Magnus effect, you’ve got unbalanced pressure near the axis of the ball. This is something we could really talk forever on. What happens with why a ball curves is a multi-faceted phenomenon, with gravity maybe being one of the more pronounced facets. If you rotate a ball kind of clockwise and you tip the axis of the ball in such a direction — a 3-9 axis, and spin the ball 6-12, you’re essentially building up a low-pressure pocket under the ball, which causes the ball to drop. And all good curveballs drop; they all go down. Now, if you tip that axis more to a 10-4 with a 2-8, or 1-7, type of rotation, you’re going to get one that breaks laterally and down. Unbalanced pressure forms around the axis. We’re talking about an aerodynamic phenomenon here, with gravity adding into the equation.
DL: Pitchers are sometimes guilty of overthrowing their breaking pitches.
JB: You need the mechanics of a fastball for any kind of pitch that you throw. Too many guys try to throw their breaking pitch too hard. They’re trying to throw sliders as fast as their fastball, and they’re even trying to throw their curveballs as fast as their fastball, and you can’t do that. I think that’s where the arm troubles are coming in. I really do. I think the slider has been the devil’s pitch, and it’s taken a few arms with it along the way.
A good slider is a great pitch, but it’s looking to me like what is starting to come on is the cutter. I think that a cut fastball is really an outstanding pitch. You give it a lot of backspin and it doesn’t put the stress on an arm like the slider does. You can throw it nearly as fast and I don’t think there is any connection between cutters and arm trouble. I haven’t seen that connection yet, like I’m starting to with the splitter. We’re starting to see that a little bit, but not with the cutter.