Thought for the Week: “Silent and listen share the same letters.” – Fred Corral, Missouri pitching coach
What does it mean to be symmetrical in an asymmetrical sport?
Building symmetrical baseball athletes is kind of a paradox when you think about it; we’re trying to build balance when our skill largely forces us to be out of balance. Throwing or hitting a baseball is an asymmetrical skill. Aside from the ambidextrous population, all players are going to have a dominant side from which they work out of for the entirety of their career. Every swing or throw is going to be done from one side of the plate or the rubber – we don’t really go to the other side and “balance” things out. However, this doesn’t mean that symmetry isn’t important. We want to build symmetry in baseball athletes – but before we can build it, we need to define it.
Our extracellular matrix (ECM) system plays a crucial role in human movement because it deals with the fascial system. Any conversation about how the body moves must start here because fascia is involved in it all. The easiest way to think about fascia is to think of it as a giant spiderweb that is strong as steel, flexible as thread, and is woven through all of our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and everything else inside of our body. It is the bridge that connects everything in our body into one integrated system. No movement in our system happens in isolation; everything is interconnected through fascia. To talk about muscles and bones without talking about fascia would be like eating a Klondike bar without the shell – we’re ignoring the very thing that’s holding it all together.
Fascia, just like connective tissue, is going to organize in accordance to the stressors under which the system is placed. These adaptations help us execute tasks with increased levels of strength, stability, and efficiency. If you were to cut open elite rotary athletes and look at their fascial patterns, you would find thick, dark X’s that run across the anterior and posterior midsection. These X’s run from the anterior shoulder, down across the torso to the opposite hip, and continue to wrap around the opposite leg. We see these X’s in elite rotary athletes because they play a huge role in developing elite rotational power. More specifically, these X’s form what we call the engine and the brakes of the system. The interaction between these two lines is where we can start our definition of symmetry.
The engine line is going to run across the front functional line. It starts closest to the dominant shoulder on the upper part of the trunk, runs down across the torso to the non dominant hip, and continues to spiral down the opposite leg. The brakes follow the same pattern but start at the opposite part of the upper trunk. In terms of the skill, the engine works to get us off the starting line and creates power for the movement while the brakes give us the ability to stop, transfer force, and make sure we don’t slam into the wall after the race. In an efficient system, we need the power from the engine coupled with a strong set of brakes to keep it in check. This is where symmetrical comes from: “Symmetrical” baseball athletes are the ones who have balance between these two fascial slings. Asymmetrical athletes have lost this balance through compensatory patterns. You wouldn’t want the brakes of a Toyota Prius on your brand new Ferrari – and you definitely wouldn’t want the engine of the Prius under the hood of the Ferrari.
Balance between the engine and the brakes creates even tension that we need for an efficient sequence. If we one of these lines is weaker than the other, the other side of the system has to pick up the slack. This opens the door for compensations. Our body is going to gravitate towards the areas where we are strongest. If we favor our strong side and neglect our weak side, we’ve created a compensatory pattern. Compensations make it difficult for us to produce an efficient sequence, perform at a high level, and stay healthy doing it.
To give you feel for what uneven tension looks like, below is a video of Michael Kopech prior to his injury in 2018. Kopech is a great example of someone with an insane engine (check out a video of him pulling down 110 mph) but doesn’t have the brakes to keep it in check.
When we assess for brakes, we’re simply looking at how well an athlete is able to stop. This is a critical piece when we look at how well a hitter or pitcher is able to capture energy and transfer it up the chain to the implement. The first thing that must stop in the sequence is the pelvis. If we look at Kopech, we see his pelvis fly open and drag as he rotates to throw the ball. His front hip acceps force late in the sequence and his rear hip continues to dump forward into ball release. This is a great recipe for lower back pain – and might have been part of the reason why he got hurt.
Below is another example of a player with a stronger engine and a weaker set of brakes (as shown in the video). Notice a similar pattern where he’s late accepting force in his front hip, the pelvis flies open, and the back hip continues to dump forward, and his center of mass continues to drift forward after release.
If we look at someone who has a strong set of brakes, we notice a completely different sequence after ball release. Check out Trevor Bauer, Marcus Stroman, and Gerrit Cole below. You’re going to notice how they are able to keep their pelvis closed into landing, immediately accept force with the lead hip, and hold tension in the back hip. Instead of dumping forward, they use the back foot as an anchor point so they can get across their body. In fact, you’re going to notice their back foot never even crosses their front foot.
Now let’s revisit the athlete from above.
If we compare this pitch to the one from above, we notice a totally different deceleration sequence. In this delivery, the athlete is able to stop much more quickly and efficiently. Notice how his backside doesn’t continue to drag through after ball release and he’s able to get across his body better towards the catcher. This gives him the ability to produce the most amount of force with the least amount of energy because he’s restored balance by creating even tension in the system.
When you take an elite engine and pair it with an elite set of brakes, you can unlock some pretty special moves. Sure, we want to build a strong engine and teach our guys how to punch the accelerator but we don’t want to do it while neglecting the brakes. If you wouldn’t feel safe in a car that can’t stop at a red light, we shouldn’t feel safe when athletes our athletes can’t decelerate when they need to.
If we’re talking about symmetry in baseball athletes, the conversation must start with the X’s. While we’ll never be completely symmetrical in theory, we need to be able to find balance between the engine and brake fascial lines to optimize performance. If you’re only training one side of the equation, you’re neglecting the other side that is just as important. Like anything in life – if you don’t use it, you lose it. When you lose your brakes, you usually don’t realize it before it’s too late. Don’t wait until it’s too late to build symmetry.
Communication is Connection
I was able to sit in on an awesome zoom conversation last weekend that featured some of the best hitting minds in the game which included Bobby Tewskbary, Andy McKay, Jerry Weinstein, Don Wakamatsu, Darin Everson, and Rick Strickland. The conversation dug into the weeds of player development and tackled different types of problems that we all face when coaching hitters. Out of all the things I learned throughout the five hour conversation, there was one reoccurring theme that really stuck out to me – and it didn’t involve the swing.
When Wakamatsu worked in pro ball with Brian Butterfield, current third base coach for the Angels, one of the things he picked up on was how Brian placed a premium on building relationships. In spring training, Butterfield took the time to get to know each one of his players on a personal level. He figured out where they were from, what high school they went to, previous coaches they had, information about their family, and their interests outside of baseball. He always tried to find something they had in common so he could use that as a tool to connect and strike up a future conversation. By placing a premium on his communication with his players, Brian increased his ability to influence them because they knew he cared about them. Ken Ravizza said it best when he said, “Your players won’t care about what you know until they know you care.”
Ken Crenshaw – Director of Sports Medicine and Performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks – talked about this on a more tactical level saying, “There are plenty of people that can talk but can’t connect. If you didn’t connect with that guy on the “why,” it’s going to be harder for them to make that change.”
If we break this down in a baseball context, let’s think about the process of making a swing change. As a coach, just telling the player what they need to do is not enough – you need to start with a shared understanding of where that athlete is in that moment of time. There’s a really good chance you aren’t the first coach that has worked with that hitter. Because of this, you need to do some homework before you start teaching. This includes how they’ve trained in the past, what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked, injuries they’ve had, what problems they’re currently trying to solve, and what aspirations they have for the future. You need to understand their perception of a good swing, their swing, and what they need to feel to get their best swing off. You can’t change perception of the model if you don’t know what the model looks like in the first place.
When you’ve got all the pieces you need, you can use the pieces you already have and combine them to start putting together the entire puzzle. Any gaps in understanding will create a hole in your finished product. The more holes you have, the tougher it is going to be to build buy in. If players don’t believe in what you’re doing you don’t have a chance to create any sort of significant changes. Our goal should be to put together the entire picture – not just the part of the puzzle we want to drive home.
When you can create this shared understanding, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication throughout the swing design process. Some things you say or do will work, others won’t, and some might work if the athlete better understood what you were trying to say. You need to uncover these gaps in understanding by asking a lot of questions, seeking real time feedback, and adjusting on the fly based on what they’re comprehending or missing. We can’t just assume our players know what we’re talking about it. If they can’t explain it in their words and describe how it relates to their swing, they don’t understand it well enough.
When you think about “staying closed,” you might think about your pelvis while someone else thinks about their trunk or hands. Your perception of staying anchored could help you stay connected to the ground longer while others may actually get out of the ground sooner because they don’t operate well when focused on the extremities. If you’re trying to drill home a point and the player can’t understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, you’re not going to get the results you want – and it’s not the player’s fault. If the communication channels aren’t crystal clear, you only have yourself to blame. We connect when we communicate; we lose connection when we lose communication. If you don’t make it a priority, your message won’t get any further than your perception of it.
The problem with our current education system
“If you think of it, the whole system of public education around the world is a protracted process of university entrance. And the consequence is that many highly-talented, brilliant, creative people think they’re not, because the thing they were good at at school wasn’t valued, or was actually stigmatized. Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” – Ken Robinson, British author, speaker, and international education advisor
If I look back on the most influential classes I took growing up in high school, there’s one that stands alone: AP Calculus. If you know anything about me, you’d probably be a little surprised by that answer because 1) I didn’t major in math in college 2) coaches aren’t typically known for their understanding of calculus, and 3) It was the last calculus class I took in my life (and I have no interest in taking another, either). I couldn’t really tell you a thing about derivatives, the chain rule, or whatever else we learned about in that class – probably because I didn’t really understand it that well when I was actually in the class. However, there was one thing I learned from that class that I use every single day – and it has nothing to do with equations, graphs, or formulas. AP Calculus was the best class I ever took in high school because it equipped me with the ability to not just memorize information – but to think. Here’s the problem: It took my until my junior year of high school to figure that one out; and many don’t even figure it out by then. It’s also not their fault – it’s the fault of the education system we’re brought up in.
If we think about the average math class up until calculus, success pretty much depends on your ability to memorize a series of formulas, recognize which problems to use these formulas for, and hang on to this information until you can throw it out the window after the last day. Instead of learning how to problem solve, we learn how to memorize and regurgitate. This may have worked in Algebra 1, but it didn’t work for me in calculus. Instead of just searching for the magic formula that I needed, I had to understand context of the problem, what information I have, what information I needed, and how create a plan to find what I needed. There wasn’t one route I could consistently rely on to solve problems. Because of this, I started to figure out exactly what I needed to do to solve problems. I didn’t worry about a specific process I was told to execute or the steps that I needed to follow – I just used what I had and collected what I needed using strategies that best suited my strengths. In other words, my biggest breakthrough in AP Calculus happened when I stopped focusing on memorizing and started focusing on problem solving. It took an ass kicking early on to really figure that one out – and by the grace of God I was able to make it out of the class with a B. However, the grade I got in that class didn’t reflect the value I got out of it. Great grades don’t mean you learned a great deal.
Here’s the problem: Kids today think of math – and pretty much all other subjects that have sapped us of creativity – as a checklist of procedures instead of a robust system for problem solving. There is no thought, focus, or concentration when we’re blazing through a checklist and plugging in formulas based on our short term recall. The magic is in building systems – but seldom are kids taught to think and build their own. Memorizing your times tables is great when you’re working through a series of multiplication problems, but it’s not so great when we switch it up and throw division in the mix. When we’re faced with new situations, we don’t rise to our level of current procedures; we fall to the level of our systems. Systems aren’t built through memorization and regurgitation – they’re built through problem solving and slow, deep learning. Most classrooms today are teaching kids how to follow procedure; very few are teaching kids how to grapple with problems and build robust problem solving skills.
If we want to flip this equation and start building problem solvers that are better prepared to take on the dynamics of life, we have to be careful we don’t get caught up in the result. The journey should be the reward; not the destination. Memorizing procedures might help you get really good grades, but they don’t make you a really good problem solver. If anything, they probably hurt your ability to solve problems because you’re not solving anything new; you’re just regurgitating what you already know. Part of the solution to this, in my opinion, is all about tapping into our inborn childlike curiosity. We are all inherently fascinated with the world and making sense of things that are unfamiliar; no one is born with a closed mind. However – when our education system drills us with procedures and forces us to succeed through memorization and regurgitation of meaningless information, we’re stripped of our curiosity and creativity. When these two areas suffer, our ability to solve problems is crippled.
If we want to build an education system that will prepare our youth for the unpredictability of the world, we cannot praise those who excel at memorizing and regurgitating. We have to encourage kids to tap into their childlike curiosity, think problems through, experiment with different solutions, find different applications, and help them discover their own optimal way to problem solve. Throw out the formula sheets and instead hand out “how to think” sheets. They’ll forget the formulas – they won’t forget how to think (hopefully, at least).
What we miss when we focus on still shots
“If someone hands you a picture and shows you a picture and says “here’s their stance,” “here’s their negative move,” “here’s contact,” – If you give them any advice on what they’re doing wrong, you are taking such a gamble because you have no idea how they got to those positions.” – Dr. Greg Rose, from Elite Development Baseball Podcast
When I first got into coaching, I knew I had to build a better understanding for what a good swing or delivery looked like. To do this, I tried to simplify the complexity of a swing or delivery by breaking it down into a series of still shots. I collected and sorted these shots based on critical moments in time that I believed were important. For example, the categories I used for hitters were stance, move out of balance, foot plant, initial move to the ball, contact, extension, and finish. For pitchers I liked to look at their move out of balance (leg lift), glute load/move down the mound, foot plant, ball release, deceleration, and “finishing in a fielding position” (it’s in quotes for a reason).
When I started to collect still shots from a lot of different players, I started to see see where guys had similarities and where they presented with slight variations. For example, I noticed how a lot of hitters at foot plant tended to be in a 50/50 position where their feet were spread outside of their shoulders, both heels were in the ground, their head was over their center of mass, and their hands were back behind their belly button. All of them landed in an athletic position where they had equal bend in the knees, some degree of posture (chest over the plate), and their glutes sat behind their heels. As for differences, some guys had different hand positions (lower vs. higher, father back vs. more out front), bases (wider vs. shorter), and some landed a little more closed (Stanton) or open (Khris Davis). This was important for me early on because it helped give me a feel for things to look for and things not to get over obsessed with. If I knew certain positions had more variation, I didn’t really coach those as much directly. I tried to get the big rocks in line (i.e. posture, balance) before figuring out how the other pieces came into play.
While these still shots helped increase my understanding of the swing or throw, they didn’t tell the entire story. To explain this, let’s think about why balance points become popular. If we look at these snapshots of Justin Verlander from behind and in front, it would appear that he is in a position of balance where he’s keeping his center of mass over his rear leg.
Now let’s take a look at how he gets to the position. Let’s look at Verlander from the side.
Here’s what he looks like specifically into peak leg lift:
If we look at how Justin Verlander moves to this position of “balance,” we notice a totally different move than what the snap shots might initially suggest. Notice how his center of mass never stays over his rear leg and he never gets to a true balanced position where he is creating zero lateral movement. Instead, he starts to drift down the mound slightly as he gets to his peak leg lift. If we just look at the picture of him at leg lift, we miss out on the fact that how he got to that position is totally different than the perception of the initial still shots.
Now let’s look at a different scenario. Below are two still shots of Kershaw side by side at two different points of his career. The shots are taken as Kershaw starts to move down the mound after peak leg lift.
To the untrained eye, these two pictures from two different moments in time look pretty similar. However, they’re not as similar as you think. Let’s look at the movements side by side.
Now the differences become much more clear. If we look at the delivery on the left, we notice Kershaw shifts his weight towards the front part of his foot after leg lift and comes out of the ground early. This video was taken from Kershaw’s rookie year in 2008. If we look at the video on the right, we notice a completely different sequence. Instead of shifting towards the front part of his foot, Kershaw stays into his glutes longer, keeps his back foot connected to the ground for a longer period of time, and creates a more efficient sequence with his lower half. This video was taken from Kershaw’s perfect game in 2014. Kershaw had issues with giving up free passes his first few years in the league walking 4.33/9 in 2008. He didn’t have this problem in 2014 – he walked 1.4/9. While there are plenty of other factors to take into the equation, more efficient moves definitely played a role in his improved command of the strike zone.
When we look beyond the pictures and look at the movement that created them, we create the context we need to make accurate decisions on what that player needs. If we look at the pictures without looking at the movement, we’re forced to assume how they got to those positions. Two guys can get to the picture-perfect contact position, but it doesn’t mean they took the same route to get there. If you just check a box based on how they look at contact, you’re neglecting the one thing that matters: How they got there.
Pictures can be a great way to slow things down and bring awareness to certain parts of the movement, but they can’t paint the whole story. If we wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we definitely shouldn’t judge a player based on a snap shot in time. Good moves play; good pictures don’t always play.
Case Study: Why Matt Harvey lost his fastball velocity in 2018 – and eventually found it again in Cincinnati
It’s the evening of November 1, 2015 and the New York Mets are fighting for their lives in a do or die Game 5 against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. On the brink of elimination, Terry Collins turned to Matt Harvey – baseball’s feel good story winning NL Comeback Player of the Year after missing 2014 to Tommy John. Harvey was not just good on that November evening – he was masterful. In peak “Dark Knight” form, Harvey held the dangerous Royals offense to zero runs through eight innings running his electric heater up to 98 mph. When Terry Collins thought it was a good idea to go to the bullpen after eight, Harvey didn’t ask Collins to go back out; he told him he wasn’t finished. Up 2-0 with three outs to go, Harvey sprinted out to the mound to the roar of the Citi Field crowd determined to finish off his masterpiece. It was the picture perfect story for the 2015 NL Comeback player of the Year, but it didn’t quite finish the way Mets fans had hoped. After a leadoff walk and a Eric Hosmer double, Matt Harvey was forced to watch the rest of his lead slip away from the Mets dugout. The Royals would go on to put up a 5 spot in the 12th to finish off the Mets in five games to put an abrupt ending to their magical pennant run. It’s tough to predict what could have happened if Collins had dismissed Harvey and sent out his closer Jeurys Familia for the ninth, but there is one thing we can know for sure – Harvey’s heroics through eight were his last shining moment as a New York Met.
If we fast forward the clocks to April 25, 2018, Matt Harvey no longer owns a spot in the Mets starting rotation. The former 2013 All-Star was demoted to the bullpen after owning an ERA north of 6.00 and suffering from the lowest fastball velocity of his career (93 mph). Less than three years ago, Harvey was pounding his chest to a roaring crowd and overruling his manager’s decision to go out for the ninth inning of an elimination game in the World Series. To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement.
Now here’s where the story gets interesting. Just two weeks after Harvey’s demotion to the bullpen, New York decided to ship him off to Cincinnati for catcher Devin Mesoraco. Over the next five months, Harvey would start 24 games for the Reds winning seven and dropping his ERA down to 4.50 (not great, but it’s not the whole story). In his short stint with the Mets, Harvey’s fastball averaged out at a career low 93.3 mph. After changing uniforms, his fastball jumped back up to 94.8 – his fastest since 2015. Along with this, Harvey’s K/9 improved from 6.7 to 7.8, he dropped his BB/9 from 3.0 to 2.0, he doubled his K/BB from 2.22 to 3.96, his WHIP dropped from 1.556 to 1.250, and his H/9 improved from 11.0 to 9.3. The video below is from September of 2018 – four months after struggling to touch 94 on the gun. This pitch was 97.
If we look at Harvey’s 91 mph fastball from April and compare him to September of the same year, we notice two completely different moves that could explain why he started to have some success after his trade to Cincinnati. For one, Harvey’s arm slot lowered in Cincinnati. When he was in New York, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation around his shoulders. This position creates an inefficient arm action and could have played a pretty significant role in his diminished velocity, health, and durability.
If we slow it down, this is what we looks like synced up to release in both frames.
If you were to draw a straight line out from the shoulders perpendicular to the trunk at ball release, the throwing arm should be on that line (i.e. the plane of rotation). When Harvey was struggling for velocity early on in the year, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation into an inefficient position. When he rediscovered his velocity in Cincinnati, his arm slot started to lower into a position much more favorable in relationship to his trunk.
Now let’s break down another glaring difference: Harvey stops significantly better in Cincinnati. In the clip with New York, you’ll notice how Harvey’s arm yanks down after release and bangs against his torso. When guys climb above the plane of rotation into release, they have to come back down after ball release. This climbing and sudden yanking down creates a poor deceleration pattern that can impact velocity, command, and arm health. On the right, you notice a completely different move. Instead of yanking his arm through, Harvey stops his arm much better and actually “pimps the finish” (better known as an arm recoil).
This move is not forced like the one from the left. Instead, it is a muscle spindle reflex created to dissipate a large amount of tension in the system after ball release. It’s something you see from some of the hardest throwers on the planet; and it’s not by coincidence. It’s not just an indication that someone is trying to throw smoke – it’s indicator of awesome decelerator strength. When we stop better, we transfer force better, throw harder, and command the ball with more precision (see 0:20 in video below).
Matt Harvey may not ever completely return to Dark Knight form, but his 2018 resurgence is a great example of how moves can change, evolve, and either positively impact performance or deteriorate it. The goal then becomes to catch when things go wrong and get athletes back on track as quickly as possible. Matt Harvey won seven games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. While those seven games might not have meant much to the Mets or Reds in 2018, they would have meant a hell of a lot to four other teams fighting for division titles that year that had to settle things in game 163. Good player development takes guys like Harvey who get off track, helps them create the adjustments they need, and puts them in situations where they can help their team win championships. When you boil a 162 game season down, the differences between good and bad players and winning and losing ball clubs are much smaller than you’d think. Failure to take advantage of these critical moments of time can ruin careers, cut seasons short, and prevent you from making the most with what you have.
Harvey wasn’t the same guy in 2018 that he was in 2013, but he definitely still had something left in him. When players have something left in the tank that they can’t access on their own, it’s our responsibility as coaches to help bring it out of them. Harvey will always be an unfortunate example of what could have been, but he’s also a great example of how a change of scenery and some better moves can completely change your season.