Week Four – The Pitfalls of Separation, Research, and Forcing Movement Solutions

Thought for the Week: Parallax: “The effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions.” 

Why teaching “Separation” can do more harm than good 

Separation is something Eugene talks about all the time when it comes to pitching and hitting – but not for the reasons you’d think. In his current opinion, the majority of teaching around “hip shoulder separation” is butchered – and athletes are paying for it. If you’ve read his book Old School vs. New School, you’d know how important this was to him because he dedicated an entire chapter to describing fallacies when it comes to hip shoulder separation. Before we get into that, let’s start on some common ground.

We know that really good hitters and pitchers create some degree of separation between segments that are required for the production and dissipation of force. We understand that athletes are going to create some sort of stretch (i.e. separation) that pulls slack out of the system before a swing or throw. We know that the pelvis should probably reach its peak speed before the arms do – there is going to be a slight delay, or separation, between certain segments as they pick up speed. However, this doesn’t explain hip shoulder separation in a vacuum. For one, how much separation do we really need? Why do some guys create a lot of separation but others get away with smaller amounts of separation? If someone doesn’t present with an “optimal” amount of separation, is it a mobility problem or is it a movement solution problem? How much mobility do we even need in the first place? 

Mike Trout has had a lot of success without creating a great degree of separation

When we think about creating a lot of separation, the goal becomes creating the biggest stretch you can possibly make. This is usually done from a position where the hips are opened up while the shoulders are working back against them in the opposite direction. By creating more distance between the pelvis and the shoulders, the athlete has appeared to have created more “separation” and might get some more juice in the process, but it doesn’t mean it is an effective or efficient movement solution.

To explain this, let’s pretend you have a raft tied to a boat 15 yards away and the boat takes off full speed. Now let’s pretend you take that same raft and add 30 yards of slack to it. If that same boat takes off full speed with the extra slack of rope, it’s probably going to be bad news for the raft. When we try to artificially add more separation to a player’s movement solutions, we are adding more slack in the rope. The raft then becomes lumbar spine – and it doesn’t usually end well. The trick then becomes understanding how long each player’s rope actually is; then learning when and how to take out unnecessary slack. 

So how do we create separation that is efficient and effective? 

Let’s start the conversation here: Elite players have an exceptional ability to create a large amount of force in a small window of time. The ability to do this depends on their rate of force development (RFD). Your ability to create a lot of force in a small window is crucial when working under time constraints. Both pitchers and hitters have to operate under time constraints (hitting is obviously a little more difficult because of its reactive nature). If your delivery or swing can’t operate within this constraint, it’s not going to play in a game environment. Creating an insane amount of separation might work in a long drive competition, but it’s not going to work when you have to worry about barreling a 95 mph fastball. It’s not about how fast the Ferrari can go at top speed – it’s about how quickly it can get off the line. 

In hitting, the goal is to compress as much force as possible into the baseball in the smallest window of time. The bat should be reaching its peak speed into contact – not well before it. Creating a lot of separation and delaying your barrel into contact to pick up bat speed might create a bigger stretch that helps with force production, but it works against you when you’re trying to barrel up game velocity. This is a big reason why Eugene believes bat speed reaches a point of diminishing returns – we don’t have a large window of time to accelerate the barrel. If the middle is moving and the barrel isn’t, your barrel is dragging. By focusing on separating your hands from your hips, you’ve sacrificed your ability to efficiently strike the ball, made it tougher to barrel up any kind of game (emphasis on game) velocity, and sapped yourself of any adjustability. While pitchers don’t have to operate under the time constraint of a hitter, the sequence to produce velocity is no different – the only thing that changes is the implement. The separation in the sequence doesn’t happen early – it happens late. Separation is not about creating gaps – it’s about learning how to close those gaps as quickly as possible.

When the middle starts to move, the barrel moves in unison.

A really good analogy about separation is to think about how you would rotate a cable or a flywheel (see video below). It becomes very difficult to move the load if you open up your hips, close off your shoulders, and try to create a lot of separation early in the sequence. It becomes much easier to move the load when you stack your shoulders over your hips and move it as one interconnected unit. While you may not appear to have a lot of separation, you’re creating a better sequence by putting your body in better positions (pelvis closed and anchored, midsection braced) so the separation can happen later. Separation should not be viewed as an active move early in the sequence; it should be viewed as a passive move as the result of a good sequence. 

Separation is important, but how we create that separation is just as important. If creating separation prevents us from delivering a large amount of force in a small window of time, it’s not beneficial – it’s a barrier to performance.

What we can learn from Neil deGrasse Tyson

Eugene and I took the time to go through Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass the other evening and it was worth every penny. Through a series of videos, Neil explained the engine that drives how he thinks, interprets information, and determines truth amidst varying perspectives, clutter, and bias. When we can’t rely on previous information to solve problems, we must rely on how we think. Mastering your ability to think gives you range – relying on what you already know creates rigidity. Below are some oh his thoughts from the video series.

“Wisdom is distilled knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”

The best thinkers of this world have gone into the weeds, dove into complexity, and returned with simplicity. They went both feet into a topic, researched it from several different angles, and spread it as thin as they possibly could. This enhanced understanding gave them the ability to see things more simply by looking at them through a different lens. The details are there to help create this understanding – not cloud it. Wise people don’t need to say much because they’ve acquired distilled knowledge through years and years of diving into the complexity. Their journey through the weeds helped them return to the surface with simplicity; not the other way around.

The best teachers are able to take a complex subject and communicate it as simply as possible. As Albert Einstein says it best, “If you don’t know it simply enough, you don’t know it well enough.” If you can’t teach what you know to the dumbest person in the room, you don’t understand it thoroughly. The goal is simplicity but simplicity cannot be achieved without going feet first into the never-ending web of complexity. The wisest people to ever walk this earth have traveled that road; and they’ll be the first ones to tell you there are no shortcuts. Simplicity creates understanding, understanding builds knowledge, knowledge gives you the ability to build wisdom. The best thinkers of our time had unparalleled wisdom – Neil is no different. 

“It’s not good enough to be right – you also need to be effective.”

In a world where we’re all seeking objective truth, knowing what is true is only part of the equation. If you can’t effectively relay what you know, why it works, and how to make it work, what you know is useless. Knowledge is power until it isn’t. If you’re not actively applying what you know, testing your theories, and finding ways to get results, you can’t be effective. Everyone wants to be right in an argument – not everyone has the results to back it up.

This brings up another point Neil discussed: If you have results to back it up, the quickest way to lose your effectiveness is to tell someone else they’re wrong. Disagreements typically happen when two people are so emotionally invested in a certain perspective that they will go to great lengths to protect it – and they’re not interested in changing their mind. The best way to win these arguments is to avoid them, but the second best way to win them is to get on their side. Instead of telling them they’re wrong, figure out why they think the way they do. If you show genuine interest in their way of thinking, you’ve given yourself the ability to open them up to a new perspective. People want to be heard. If you make them feel heard, you’ve given yourself a chance to win them over.

Now you also have to explain your point of view carefully. If you force feed it to them, you’re going to wind back up at square one. Spark some interest by saying, “Have you ever thought of it this way?” or “Have you considered thinking about this?” You don’t need to say your stuff works – you just need to suggest that what you do might work. If you can inspire people to research what they do from a different point of view, you’ve created an incredible environment for collaboration. You can’t build a system of beliefs without knowing what’s on the other side. This is why Neil believes search engines are the epitome of bias: You’re one search away from confirming what you already “know.”

The most important thing you can be in this world is curious. Curious people aren’t concerned with agendas – they’re concerned about finding what is true. Effective leaders inspire curiosity; ineffective ones demand conformity.  

The more frequent the better

Eugene has since decided to use his spare time being quarantined to learn how to play the piano – and he is about as novice as novice gets when it comes to music. The only advantage he really has is he doesn’t have hard wired CNS to do it the wrong way. This process has spurred some insightful conversations about the process of acquiring a skill by tapping into exactly what helps him improve and what creates challenges for him. While he’s only a couple weeks in, there is one thing that has really helped Eugene early on: Frequency.

Eugene may practice for up to two hours a day, but those two hours are not spent all at once. He can figure out how to master a specific note or a song with time, but the game totally changes when he takes a break and has to repeat the same skill after a period of not doing it. Whenever he takes a break and comes back to it, his learning systems go all the way back to square one. This can create some frustrating moments, but it’s really helped Eugene because it’s forced him to understand the skill inside out. He can’t rely on previous practice nearly as well when he has to pick up the skill and start fresh after a dormant period. While he can’t exactly pick up where he left off at, he’s able to start at a baseline that exceeds his previous practice session. It’s a great reminder that progress is not linear.  

Every time Eugene picks up the piano and starts playing, his CNS is firing to create pathways required for execution of the skill. These pathways become stronger with repetition – a process known as myelin sheathing. Myelin is the fatty substance that wraps around the pathways between neurons that are required for execution of a skill. When these pathways are used more frequently, more myelin is created to insulate these circuits. Denser sheets of myelin help accelerate the distance and speed impulses can travel between neurons across a specific pathway. This is where the idea of practice becomes perfect comes from: The more you practice, the more myelin your brain creates, the more the skill becomes automated, the better you get at it. 

This is where I think frequency comes into play. If we think about the resources and attention we can allocate to learning a specific skill, more practice eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns. We all know the feeling when we’ve been working on something for a while but feel like nothing is getting done. Some guys might benefit more from longer sessions, but only if the learning systems are actively engaged. If your brain goes on autopilot when practicing a skill, no new learning is occurring. For these reasons, breaking up your practice sessions and instead doing them more frequently throughout the day or week can be of huge benefit. Don’t force yourself to hammer our three straight hours of writing if half of that time is going to be spent staring at a blank page. Space it out, put together quality work when you’re focused, and learn when to step away. Doing it more isn’t always better – doing it more frequently might be a better idea.

Let the Research catch up to us

“When you don’t have any data, you have to use sense.” – Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel laureate

This topic has been fascinating to dive into because of the current state of player development. I think we have developed a tendency to gravitate towards peer reviewed research. Since we can measure it and write a conclusion about it, it comes off as factual and as something we can trust – but that’s not always the case. Reading and understanding the research is very important, but taking it as absolute truth is a huge mistake. There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. Using a lack of research as a barrier to actually coaching is a problem because the best coaches are doing research every single day. They just don’t need to know it’s peer reviewed to know it works. 

There are plenty of coaches that do things that aren’t validated by research, but it doesn’t mean they don’t work. Every day in the trenches is a research project. 

If we look to the strength and conditioning field, Michael Boyle – owner of Boyle Strength & Conditioning – explained the fallacies of research in the Muscles and Management podcast by bringing up how much it’s changed. When research came out arguing against static stretching, Boyle jumped on the trend and eliminated all of the static stretching in his programs – until he started to see more injuries. When he discovered a lot of the physical therapy work being prescribed to injured clients included a lot of stretching, he rethought his stance and decided to incorporate static stretching again. Sure enough, injuries started to go down.

Boyle does plenty of stuff in his gym that doesn’t have any “evidence” behind it, but he argues he actually has plenty of evidence: The people he actually trains. He doesn’t really care there isn’t any peer reviewed research that supports foam rolling because he has plenty of clients who feel better after foam rolling. He’s not interested in rethinking his stance against bilateral back squatting just because some study used it to test for lower body strength; a deadlift, split squat, or front squat could have proved the same point without throwing the L5 under the bus. Invalidating someone’s experience because there isn’t any “research” to support it is not only stupid; it’s a lazy way to poke holes in someone else’s training.

“A wise man once said research is sports history. The researchers study what we’ve already done to figure out why we did it.” – Michael Boyle, from Muscles and Management podcast episode 57

Eugene didn’t need a research study to figure out the arm recoil and kick back were good ideas. He used common sense. If basically all guys who throw fuel recoil, why would recoiling be a bad thing? If some of the best hitters in the world kick back with their back leg, why wouldn’t we try to teach it? Better yet, why would we take it away from someone who naturally does it?

“We have to consider the research process and what it entails to even get things out,” said Eugene. “While they are busy trying to get large enough samples for their work and making sure they eliminate variables, boots on the ground are figuring out stuff considerably faster. After seeing exit velocities improve 10+ mph in as little as 20 minutes by adding a kick back, and seeing similar improvements in others, I knew it needed to be tested. After testing it with like 30 players and seeing ridiculous differences, I didn’t need to wait for some bullshit study to tell me it’s good.

“I’m trying to get results today, not wait for someone to give me the okay. We should always be 20 years ahead of the research. Let them catch up to us; not the other way around.”  

Before we pull out the research card, let’s start by using common sense card. New information is going to come out that will shape our beliefs and change how we train, but it cannot be used to confirm agendas, discredit experience, or ignore empirical observation. Research is used to enhance our understanding of why things work and why they don’t work; it should not be a barrier to actually coaching. It you want to be right rather than be helpful, do us a favor and don’t research.

The Case against Pitch Design

Pitch design is something that has gained a lot of traction recently – and rightfully so. Seeing exactly how the ball comes out of your hand helps significantly accelerate the learning curve for a new pitch by enhancing awareness and understanding for how to create a desired movement profile. Pitchers have always been interested in building a new pitch or finding ways to get their ball to move a little more in a specific direction. It’s fun, it’s sexy, and it’s effective if done in the right populations; but it’s not always necessary.

Will and Eugene worked with several professional arms this past offseason that saw huge improvements in offspeed stuff after training. Here’s the catch: They didn’t do any pitch design work. The only thing they did was learned how to move better. When the movement improved, the secondary stuff became significantly sharper – and it’s not a coincidence.

To explain this, check out a couple of 2018 sliders from Marc Rzepczynski – one of their pro clients from this past offseason. In an outing in April 2018, Marc spun off a 2152 rpm floater that was a pretty easy take for Matt Joyce – largely because it wasn’t too far from his head. It looked something like this:

Just four weeks later, he ripped off a 2535 rpm hammer that sent Joey Gallo back to the dugout. It looked something like this:

If we look into the difference between the pitches, we could theorize plenty of things which include his feel for the pitch that day, the cues he was thinking about, or the visuals he was using. However, the one glaring difference between both pitches is the movement solutions he created when throwing both. Let’s take a closer look.

Notice Rzepczynski’s lower half. On the Joyce slider, Marc comes out of his backside pretty quickly causing his pelvis to drag his arm through. This prevents Marc from getting into good positions so he can rip off a nasty slider (it’s tough to get to the front of the ball if your arm is playing catch up). Now let’s look at the good slider on the right. Notice how Marc stays into his backside much longer which helps him create a better and more efficient sequence. This gives him the ability to get into better positions where his arm is on time at foot strike so he can rip off a better breaking ball. As you could guess, this is something Marc worked on this past offseason.

Marc didn’t necessarily need a new grip or a new cue to create a better breaking ball; he just needed to move better. When the movement improved, his stuff improved. This is a great lesson for anyone looking to add or refine a a pitch from their arsenal: Before you start tinkering with the fun stuff, start by looking at your movement solutions. Trying to refine Marc’s bad slider through pitch design would be putting the cart before the horse. He didn’t need pitch design work – he needed movement work. If you have a kid who moves like shit, working on adding a new curveball isn’t going to solve the problem – moving better will. If you have a kid who consistently throws cement mixers and has played around with 69 different grips, working on grip #70 probably isn’t a great idea. As you can see with Marc, how you move creates the movement profile. Chasing rpms without addressing the movement is going to send you swimming upstream. 

With this, being able to throw a good secondary pitch is a learned skill that requires practice and experimentation. If you’re learning how to throw a breaking ball, just dedicating all of your training economy to throwing fastballs isn’t a great idea. The magic then becomes using the movement work to be in good positions so you can start creating feel for how to rip off a proper breaking ball. If we become a slave to the movement profile of the pitch, we neglect the thing that’s creating it: The movement. Good movement creates good secondary stuff; bad movement creates bad secondary stuff. 

Pitch design is not a bad thing – it’s a really good thing; just know when and who to use it with. 

Case Studies: What happens when you take players out of their natural moves 

Mike Soroka

Mike Soroka was a nice free agent addition to my fantasy baseball team last year – and it’s because his shit is nasty. He’ll slice and dice you with 95 mph sinkers, upper 80s sliders, and does it with pinpoint precision – only walking 2.5 batters per nine while striking out 7.3 en route to his first All-Star selection in 2019. He’s part of a young group of arms that are going to be really exciting to watch over the next decade – well, if he stays healthy over the next 10 years. 

Something Eugene talks about a lot is keeping the elbow in the plane of rotation. When throwers get to foot strike, the throwing elbow is going to be up in a position that is roughly in line or slightly below the throwing shoulder (above creates impingement in the rotator cuff). As the pitcher starts to internally rotate the shoulder to throw the ball, the throwing elbow wants to travel on a clear path through it’s natural slot around the plane of rotation; about 90 degrees to the trunk. This relationship is where a thrower’s “natural” slot comes from. Everyone throws from a low slot – some people just do it with more or less trunk tilt. Guys who throw “over the top” are able to create more lateral trunk tilt towards their glove side to create a higher release point. Guys who throw appear to throw “sidearm” don’t create nearly as much tilt. 

When we look at Soroka from the side (below), I want you to look at where his elbow is at foot strike and how is travels after foot strike. If he maintains a clean, natural slot throughout the course of his delivery, the elbow should maintain a relatively straight line horizontal line towards his target. Instead, you’re going to notice his elbow “scoop” up and climb above the plane of rotation as his shoulders start to rotate forward. This is not good. Instead of letting his arm naturally unwind around his trunk, his elbow is being forced to climb up so he can throw “over the top.” When athletes are forced to move in positions that are not natural or efficient, we tend to see injuries. 

For reference, here is Soroka compared to Trevor Bauer’s arm action. Notice how Trevor’s arm rotates around his trunk and his elbow maintains a clean line towards his target. Instead of scooping up, it works around the shoulders to efficiently deliver the baseball. Soroka’s climbs up and slams back down to throw the ball – it doesn’t maintain a clean path to the plate. 

An inefficient arm action (left) vs. an efficient arm action (right)

The best part about this? Soroka didn’t always look like this. Below is a clip of him throwing a pitch as a standout high school prospect in the Area Code games before being taken in the first round by Atlanta.

Mike Soroka, one of baseball’s top high school prospects, throwing a pitch at the Area Code games (source)

For reference, this is what he looked like last year from the same camera angle.

Mike Soroka throwing a pitch in a MLB game last year (from @pitchingninja)

Now let’s look at them side by side.

Yikes. 

Well, that’s a hair different from what he used to do. Notice how on the left Soroka strides closed and his arm unwinds naturally and effortlessly from a lower arm slot. It’s loose, relaxed, and efficient. If you look at his delivery on the right, notice how he has to force his body to create more trunk tilt so his arm can move from a higher slot. Instead of unwinding around his body, his arm yanks down and abruptly bangs against his torso after release. Since he had to yank his elbow up to get on top, it has to yank back down to throw the ball. This doesn’t create a healthy deceleration pattern for the arm and can place a lot of stress on the elbow and anterior shoulder. This isn’t ideal. 

In essence, Soroka was most likely coached out of the movement solutions that made him really, really good (figure that one out) and was forced to throw from a more over the top slot. While it hasn’t really impacted his performance so far, I’m not confident he can sustain this delivery over a longer period of time. There’s a reason why he threw from a lower slot in high school – it was his natural slot. Guys who get forced out of positions that made them really good tend to get hurt – kind of like the guy below. 

Tyler Kolek 

Tyler Kolek was drafted by the Miami Marlins #2 overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Kolek was a highly coveted draft prospect at 6’5″ 250 lbs. featuring a fastball that he consistently ran into the mid to upper 90s – touching triple digits – that paired well with a devastating breaking ball. His stuff was absolutely filthy coming out of high school – but there’s a reason why you probably don’t know his name. 

Just so we have a reference point, this is what Kolek looked like in high school at the Area Code games.

Tyler Kolek pitching in the Area Code games (source)

This is what he looked like two years later in spring training. 

Kolek pitching in spring training 2016 (source)

Kolek didn’t throw a pitch in 2016. He missed the entire season and most of 2017 to Tommy John Surgery. For an even better look at the changes Kolek made, check out what he looked like in 2018 in instructs. His fastball topped out at 92. 

Kolek pitching in instructs in 2018 (source)

The first thing I noticed right off the bat when it came to Kolek’s delivery was his tempo. In high school, Kolek utilized an up tempo delivery where he got his center of mass going down the mound as soon as he picked up his left leg. When Kolek got to pro ball, I noticed a significant change in his tempo. In the spring training shot, notice how Kolek gets to more of a balance point and keeps his center of mass over his back leg at peak leg lift. There isn’t a continuous flow of energy the way his delivery used to look when he was one of the top high school prospects in the country. It’s abrupt, it looks forced, and it could be part of the reason why he started to fall off. 

The second thing that significantly changed in Kolek’s delivery was where his front foot landed. In high school, Kolek strided closed. In pro ball, that changed; he now strides much more open. The second shot makes this pretty easy to see. Instead of keeping his pelvis closed and getting across his body, Kolek’s pelvis swings wide open and drags his arm through. Trying to stride more open prevented Kolek from creating the cross-body tension he was once able to create when he landed closed with his front foot. His fastball lost his zip, his command went to hell, he got sent to the surgery table twice (later for thoracic outlet), and his chances of getting to the bigs now are about as slim as they could possibly be. 

While this evaluation doesn’t take into account a myriad of variables such as throwing routines, strength programs, or workload, the movement paints a pretty glaring picture. The Kolek you saw throwing in high school is completely different than the Kolek from pro ball in 2016 and 2018; and it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s struggled a lot. What some coaches may have seen as flaws turned out to be some of the things that made Kolek such a special draft prospect. While the changes made were well intentioned, I think they ended up becoming the worst thing possible for Kolek. He didn’t run it up to triple digits as a high school kid by mistake. The movement patterns he developed were vital to his success on the diamond growing up. Taking them away from him, in my current opinion, was the start of his downfall.

The worst part about Kolek’s situation is this isn’t a one time thing – it happens all the time. Careers are ruined because players either get away or are forced away from the things that made them so good in the first place. Soroka didn’t throw from a lower slot because he wanted to hurt himself. He did it because it was the best way for him to efficiently and effectively transfer force into the baseball. Kolek didn’t stride closed because he thought it would hurt his command or velocity. He did it because it helped him throw 100 mph at 18 years old. It comes back to the fallacies of research: Let’s start with the common sense card before we start putting together some bullshit plan for all the changes a guy needs to make so he “won’t get hurt.” Better yet, let’s try to understand WHY these guys move the way they do before we decide to pull out the stride straight/throw over the top/finish in a fielding position card. 

If we want to protect kids going forward and give them their best chance at getting to the show, we need to seek to understand before we seek to be understood. More and more careers are going to be put at risk until we do. 

One thought on “Week Four – The Pitfalls of Separation, Research, and Forcing Movement Solutions”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *