One of my favorite offseason activities is to jump in the way-back machine and watch film of classic pitchers. Over past winters, this compulsion has led to breakdowns of Hall of Famers past and present, legends from the era of black-and-white video, and the evolution of pitching mechanics. This winter, I've turned my attention to the history of funk, examining some of the more unique pitching deliveries that have graced the majors over the years.
As I was wading through the archives on MLB.com, it occurred to me that we lack any means of measuring funk. What we need is a system such as the 20-80 scouting scale to describe the degree of funk in a pitcher's motion in order to facilitate the conversation when comparing the funk of various pitchers. What follows is far from an exhaustive list, but rather a jumping-off point as we attempt to put a numerical rating system on the funky quality of a pitcher's motion.
Before getting started, we should probably define this amorphous term of “funk.” A funky delivery is one that strays from the norm, including a specific quirk that is relatively unique, such that it may be part of the pitcher's personal signature. Sometimes the funk gets in the way of the grades on the mechanics report card, but funk and mechanical efficiency are not mutually exclusive, so one does not have to impede the other.
The basis of the 20-80 scouting scale is that 50 represents an average score at the highest level. So what constitutes 50-grade funk? It can't be the pitchers who have a “boring” delivery, absent of funk; those would be reserved for the bottom of the scale. The delivery of Charlie Morton, for example, is simple and compact, with nary a whiff of funk. His delivery would be near the bottom of the scale, earning a funk grade of 20 or 30.
A grade of 50 requires a certain amount of funk; not so much that it stands out as the defining characteristic of a pitcher's motion, but enough so that the funk factor can be easily seen in the delivery. I think that Felix Hernandez presents a good example of a modern-day pitcher with average funk; he is well known for his pronounced reverse-rotation into max leg lift, turning away from the hitter during the lift phase before uncoiling after he reaches the top of his delivery.
The reverse-twist gives King Felix an extra dose of character in his delivery, and it is also functional, as Hernandez utilizes the strategy to help keep his upper half closed into foot strike, so that his front shoulder doesn't open up too early (aka premature trunk rotation). The technique is not enough to get him rabbit-holed into an article on strange deliveries, but it is noticeable enough to garner something approaching a 50 grade on the funk scale. His element of funk does not have a direct impact on his mechanics report card, though it might indirectly help his score for repetition. The reverse-twist is a strategy that is used by other pitchers to various extent, but the most extreme version certainly belongs to Johnny Cueto.
Cueto has so much reverse-rotation that his back is facing the batter at max lift, and his front side is about-face with the center-field bleachers. His funk would definitely be considered plus, with bonus points for his extreme take on an established method. The twist has been around for a while, and part of the history behind Cueto's motion is tied to the crazy antics of another great pitcher, one whose mechanical quirks at times overshadowed his exceptional performance. Enter Luis Tiant.
The Tiant example is one in a laundry list of deliveries from the past that are particularly funky when looked at through the lens of today's game, and though the pitching delivery has taken different shapes over the generations, the following players were considered funky both in their time and in the present.
Paige had a very brief taste of the major leagues, having spent most of his playing career trapped behind the color barrier, but his limited exposure on the national stage quickly weaved the fabric of his legend and blazed his trail to the Hall of Fame. One of the more intriguing aspects of his pitching profile was a windmill windup that would have made Bugs Bunny jealous.
Paige's functional delivery was actually quite empty on the funk scale, and he scored very highly on the mechanical report card, but his trademark move epitomized funk with flair. His funk grade earns extra points for the cartoon aspect and how many times the windmill has been mimicked in backyards and wiffle ball fields all over the country for the last 60 years.
Funk Grade: 55
Nicknamed “The Bird,” Fidrych made a name for himself as much for his eccentric personality and colorful antics as his strong performance on the field. He had a haircut that would fit right in with the Greatest American Hero, was known to talk to the baseball, and his oddball delivery added fuel to his fire of funk.
From the standpoint of mechanical efficiency, Fidrych's delivery is not especially off the wall, despite a demeanor that was somewhat off the deep end. He had a big leg kick and a substantial drop-n-drive to his delivery, with a pronounced hunch over the front side during the stride phase. He finished with a surprisingly low release point due to a pure sidearm slot, despite a delivery that was devoid of the usual indicators that we tend to associate with sidearm or submarine pitchers. The Fidrych motion had above-average funk, but his personality has added to the perceived quirkiness of his pitching delivery.
Funk Grade: 60
Valenzuela was famous for his unusual pitching motion, invoking tales of Aztec mythology, the parietal eye, and eyelid-breathing lava lizards of the Galapagos. He exploded onto the scene in 1981, winning that season's Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Awards in the National League, finishing fifth in the MVP voting, and leading the Dodgers to a World Series trophy. Fernandomania swept the nation and his unique delivery gained national notoriety.
His funkiness had multiple faces, beginning with a huge leg kick and a big lean-back to accommodate the aggressive lift. Fernando's facial expressions added to the mystique, with an upward gaze as if he was rolling his eyes during leg-lift, avoiding eye contact with his target until later in the delivery, close to foot strike. He often finished with excellent posture, which combined with the excessive imbalance brings a mechanical dichotomy that adds another layer to his funk.
Funk Grade: 70
The Dominican Dandy was the leader of the San Francisco Giants rotation through the 1960s and into the mid-70s, dominating his opponents to the tune of nine All-Star selections in the span of 10 years and culminating with his induction to the Hall of Fame in 1983. The funky share some similarities to those of Valenzuela, and though Marichal lacked the parietal eye that Fernando picked up from the lava lizards, Marichal's exaggerated leg-lift and egregious lean-back were even more eye-opening than Fernandomania.
The exaggerated lean-back strategy was certainly more popular during Marichal's playing days, as exemplified by other greats such as Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax, but Marichal took the “rear back and kick the sky” method to a heightened level of intrigue. Such imbalance would typically wreak havoc on a pitcher's release point, but Marichal had his funky delivery honed, leading to exceptionally low walk rates throughout his career. Every once in a while he would change things altogether, and though a big leg kick was always a part of his signature, the blatant over-the-top approach occasionally gave way to a sidearm strategy, and the odd combination fueled an 80-grade ceiling on Marichal's funk.
Funk Grade: 80