Trout vs. Harper – What makes Trout so good?

“It can be said that the ecological niche occupied by a species supplies the species with the energy it needs for its survival. In that case, the fittest can be defined as those members of a population that make the most economical use of the energy sources available in their ecological niche. It is our belief that energy efficiency is the absolute criterion for survival.”

– Serge Gracovetsky, from The Spinal Engine 

Before we get into the problems with Harper (see week nine), let’s start with the success of Trout. If we put it in its most simplest form, Mike Trout is really good because his moves are really efficient. In the words of Serge Gracovetsky, he accomplishes the most using the least; the hallmark of an efficient species. He’s able to consistently get to good positions so he can replicate his best swing under the constraint of the task more than anyone else. If 25 swings over the course of a season can be the difference between 15 homers 20 doubles and 30 homers 30 doubles, Trout doesn’t waste any of these swings.

From 108 Performance Courses

As mentioned in the last article, Trout’s moves haven’t changed much at all since he first entered the league.

Trout from 2012 (left) to 2019 (right)

When we move to and through good positions, it’s much easier to replicate (or unlock) out best moves because we’re working from positions of stability. Stability gives us the ability to take a monstrous bandwidth of potential movement solutions (see Bernstein’s degrees of freedom problem) and narrow it down to the ones that makes the most sense for us. When we narrow this bandwidth, we increase our chances for our best moves to show up because there are less solutions to sift through. It’s just like the process of searching for a book in an online database: The more stability we have, the more letters we have at our disposal and the easier it is to find the title we’re looking for. This is efficiency: We take a database of thousands of books and narrow it down to the one we need. When we increase our chances of finding the right one, we decrease our chances of selecting the wrong one.

Another way to think about the error reduction process (i.e. efficiency) is to look at it through the context of building good habits: You want to make what is desirable as easy as possible and what is undesirable as difficult as possible. If you want to start eating better, place healthier snack options within sight and reach and hide the unhealthier options where they’re difficult to access. When we get into strong, stable positions, we make it easier to grab the apples and carrots and make it harder to revert to the cookies and chips. When we get into unstable positions we don’t build any barriers to entry; everything in the pantry is within sight and reach – and the stuff we should avoid always seems to catch our eye. There’s a reason why grocery stores make you walk all the way to the back of the store when all you needed was milk and bread.

Now this doesn’t mean we won’t find ourselves grabbing a few too many cookies every once in a while. Hitting a 95 mph fastball is not easy and really good hitters are going to make errors from time to time. However, these errors in elites happen far and few between when compared to their counterparts. Dan Pfaff of ALTIS explained how the best 100 meter sprinters don’t separate themselves in the first 50 meters; they separate themselves in the last 50 because they make the fewest errors.

We reduce errors by moving to and through stable positions consistently and efficiently. Mike Trout is no exception to this – and it’s a big reason why he’s had so much success. To figure out how Trout makes it so easy to stick to his “diet,” let’s break down some of the positions he gets to and how he moves through them to create robust, efficient movement patterns.

Forward Move

Mike Trout forward move (source)

The forward move in hitting is when the hitter makes a move out of balance with their lead leg and begins to translate their center of mass forward. If we look at Trout, we notice his:

  • Head stays over belly button, trunk stays stacked over pelvis
  • Front shoulder stays down, works into the ground
  • Chest works over the plate
  • Center of mass gains ground towards the pitcher
  • Feet spread apart
  • Back knee points works towards catcher, back hip externally rotates (ER)

A good forward move in hitting is just like an infield pre-pitch hop: It’s an anticipatory move that helps us gather information about the incoming pitch so we can make good decisions. In order to navigate the chaos of a big league arsenal, we need to operate from stable positions that help us maintain balance, direction, and posture. If we look at Trout, we notice he’s able to create stability for his pelvis by sinking into the ground, spreading his feet apart, hinging, and pulling on the fascial slings that activate the co-contractions of muscles around his pelvis. In doing this, he’s able to use the ground as an amplifier for ground reaction forces – not compensatory patterns.

Trout hinging and putting force into the ground (source)

In order to use the ground effectively, we need to be able to put force into it – but how we put force into it is just as important. If we look at Trout, notice how he’s able to hinge and get his chest over the plate. How our torso works in relationship to the ground plays a huge role in how we put energy into it. To think about this, consider what you would look like if you were trying to drill a hole with an auger. For you to drill deeper, you need to get your chest over the drill so you can lay your weight into it. If we get stuck back behind our heels we lose this position of leverage (remember this one for later).

Drilling a hole with an auger requires you to get your torso over the drill and create leverage – just the way a hitter creates posture to put force into the ground (source)

When we get to a good position of leverage at landing, we give ourselves the ability to get to our front side so we can stop our pelvis as we start to turn translation into rotation. If we want to rotate fast we need to stop fast; we can’t stop fast if our pelvis gets in the way. Getting to our front side clears space for us and gives us the ability to use the ground to our advantage as we start to rotate. It’s part of the reason why some guys need to think about swinging down; Trout and Harper actually being two of these guys. If we get stuck on our backside and our pelvis is in the way, we lose our ability to rotate powerfully and efficiently. Thinking about swinging down and getting to the front side can help give us the space we need to get our best moves off.

Another important thing about the forward move is that it is controlled; it is not a rush job to get the front foot down. Trout’s forward move doesn’t create a lot of noise – it’s simple, repeatable, and it helps him get to good positions so he can make good swing decisions. Something Eugene likes to talk about is the idea of pretending to “sit on a horse” with the forward move. We’re not going to rush down or violently slam into the ground if our goal is to straddle a horse at landing; we’re going to control our center of mass as it translates forward. This helps us land in a good position where we’re balanced and we can put force into the ground as we start to rotate.


Trout at landing (source)

Coaching off snapshots is a risky way to evaluate – but looking at where a hitter lands can give you a lot of information about the movement that happened before it and what will likely happen after it. If we get Trout to foot plant (also see gif above), we notice he:

  • Lands in a position of balance with his head over his center of mass
  • Anchors his pelvis into the ground by gripping it with both feet
  • Hinges to create posture
  • Keeps his trunk stacked over his pelvis, which stays closed

A great way to think of the landing position is to think about an analogy from Barry Bonds. When Bonds would hit, he would try think about landing in a position where he would be able to dodge a dodgeball. If you think about what this position looks like, you need to be able to stay centered, keep your weight distributed 50/50 between both legs, and get your chest over the ground in an athletic position. This is the same position you would be in if you were guarding someone in basketball, returning a serve in tennis, or getting ready to field a ground ball.

LeBron James, Joe Panik, and Rafael Nadal all in athletic positions with a wide base, posture, and 50/50 weight distribution

This is the same position Trout gets into – as well as many other high level hitters. It’s stable, it’s repeatable, and it gives the upper body the stability it needs to mobilize around it.

Yelich hinging and controlling his forward move into landing
Altuve getting into a stable landing position with posture
Miggy’s forward move – controlled, effecient, and effective

When we operate from a position of stability at landing we give ourselves the ability to make efficient moves to the ball – the next part of the swing we’ll take a look at.  

Move the Middle & Decel

When the front foot lands, the ball has traveled more than two-thirds of the way towards home plate.

Where the ball is when Trout’s front foot comes down (this pitch was 97, by the way) – source

This creates a significant time constraint for the hitter – as if they weren’t under one already. Because of this, Trout needs to be incredibly efficient as he starts to accelerate his bat into the zone. For him to do this, he needs to:

  • Stabilize and stop his pelvis
  • Hold his line as he starts to rotate
  • Make moves with his barrel as the middle starts to rotate

Let’s look at the first one. When Trout’s front foot lands notice how he stops the translation of his center of mass and begins to rotate around the center of his body. To get a feel for the axis he rotates around, visualize a line that starts at the base of the pelvis and works out through the top of his head.

Elite athletes are really good at rotating around this line in a small window of time and space (i.e. rotating in a telephone booth).

Trout rotating through a telephone booth (source)

For this to happen, Trout must be able to grab the ground, stabilize, and stop his pelvis. An inability to stop is going to create a huge energy leak that negatively impacts rotation and prevents hitters from compressing force into the ball.  

To get a feel for what this stopping looks like, check out Trout’s belt buckle below.

See how it moves backwards towards the catcher after contact?

This tells us that Trout has stopped his pelvis so it can work as a slingshot for the torso to accelerate. When the torso has reached peak speed it follows the same pattern and stops so the arm can pick up speed and deliver the ball. This chain reaction of decelerating and accelerating segments is what creates the kinematic sequence. If the pelvis can’t stop the rest of the sequence falls apart because it doesn’t have a stable base to work from. You’re going to see this same exact move from a lot of the best hitters in the game – even this guy named Bryce Harper.

Harper from the 2017 NLDS – notice the belt buckle/pelvis after contact
Joey Votto from 2012 3 homer game – pelvis stops, counterrotates after contact
JD Martinez home run – different angle but still the same reciprocal action between the torso and pelvis

The pelvis can only stop and counter rotate if it’s working from a position of stability. Landing in an unstable position is like trying to throw on the brakes on a sheet of ice; it doesn’t usually end well. While we’ve already established Trout lands in a stable position, it’s even more important for him to hang on to this stability so he can maintain tension and intra-abdominal pressure through a ballistic movement like rotation. For him to maintain this stability, he’s going to need some anchor points to make sure he doesn’t go anywhere. It’s just like shooting a cannon from a canoe: You’re going to be in trouble if you don’t have that thing anchored in from both sides.

You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe – unless it’s anchored down from both sides

Trout’s lead leg and back leg work together as a force couple by creating anchor points for the pelvis and torso as they work reciprocally against one another (think about trying to rip the ground apart). In order to pull this off and maintain tension throughout the system, Trout uses a kick back move and anchors in the air the same way a PGA bowler would. This keeps his slack line tight and gives the system stability so it can stop and compress force into the ball.

Trout using a kick back to pull out slack and maintain tension into contact

When we can get to a stable position at landing and maintain this stability through rotation by stopping, we give ourselves the ability to hold our line. This “line” simply refers to Trout’s barrel path as it moves through the zone.

Trout holding his line on a change up below the zone (from Baseball Savant)

His ability to stop his pelvis is going to play a huge role in the path/line of his barrel because it keeps him from drifting after foot plant, peeling off towards the 3rd base dugout, and continuing is rotation after contact. He gives his barrel the ability to stay through the zone because because he gets into good positions and moves well through them – creating adjustability. If Trout drags his pelvis, his barrel is going to follow suit and get dragged along for the ride. When the barrel drags we create a disconnection from the middle that negatively impacts path, adjustability, and force transmission.

This leads in to the third part: Trout’s barrel maintains connection to his torso. When his torso starts to rotate, his barrel is going to start making moves to the ball. These two moves must be synchronized to maximize efficiency of the pattern. When hitters have lost connection, their torso has started to rotate but their barrel hasn’t. If the middle is moving and the barrel isn’t, your barrel is dragging.

Trout making moves with his barrel as his middle starts to rotate (source)
Soto using a soft entry to get his barrel moving with his middle (source)
Arenado creating space by moving his barrel with his middle

This is not to be confused with the “separation” of the torso from the pelvis. The separation we’re looking for is a stretch reflex created by a decel pattern – not an active move where we prevent the hands from moving with the torso. Greg Rose of TPI has done research with some of the best golfers in the world and has found the best create just five degrees of separation after their back swing. Trying to actively create more is going to put you in a position where your hands get stuck and you create a disconnection from the middle. Separation isn’t about creating gaps – it’s about closing them as quickly as possible. We need connection in order to efficiently close these gaps.



The positions Trout gets to give him the framework he needs to get his best moves off; his efficiency helps him move to and through those positions optimally and consistently. If we want to understand what makes Trout really special, we can’t just look at these positions in isolation – we need to view them as interdependent parts of an entire system under the umbrellas of space, direction, and force transmission.

Trout gives himself space by anchoring his pelvis into the ground, hinging, getting his chest over the plate, keeping his torso stacked over his pelvis, and landing in a 50/50 position. He gives himself direction through the middle of the field because he’s able to get to his front side, stop his pelvis, and keep his barrel connected to his torso as he starts to rotate. He optimizes his window for force transmission because has space to stop his pelvis, rotate in a telephone booth, and maintain tension through the strike so he can compress force into the ball.

Trout’s impressive physical ability gives him the ability to punish balls – his efficiency gives him the ability to do it consistently.   

Now let’s go back to Harper. 

How many of these boxes do you think he can check off consistently?

Why one of baseball’s generational athletes has lived up to the hype – and the other has not

If I think about what it means to be a “generational athlete,” some of the words that come to my mind include:

  • Game changer
  • Excellence 
  • Cold-blooded
  • Intense
  • Clutch
  • Timeless
  • Rare
  • Pioneer
  • Precise
  • Graceful

Here’s what that list would look like if I were to eliminate all of those words except for one:

  • Game changer

Generational athletes get their name because their impact on the game transcends generations. They took something so complex, boiled it down to its most simplest form, and used their ability to put their own unique touch on it. They’re creators, inventors, and pioneers. They opened our eyes to a skill set and style of play we had never seen before – and the game, as we know it, was never the same after them. It was powerful, it was precise, and it was done with such grace – almost making us forget how difficult it was.  

Jordan’s iconic free throw dunk from the 1987 Dunk Contest

These types of players don’t come around too often, but when they’re here they’re difficult to miss. It’s the Jordans and Birds in basketball, it’s the Gretzkys and Crosbys in hockey, it’s the Montanas and Bradys in football, and it’s the Griffeys and Bonds in baseball. What they did on the playing field was so raw and unique it couldn’t possibly be replicated by any ordinary athlete. When everyone was stuck trying to make blue, they were two steps ahead making green. They’re the types of players we tell our grandkids about because it’s one thing to read about them in the history books – it’s another to be lucky enough to have actually seen them with your own eyes. 

In 2012, baseball got their first real look at two players who had this kind of potential.

The comparisons were impressive.

Ken Griffey Jr.
Alex Rodriguez

People were calling them the Mays & Mantle, the Ruth & Gehrig, and the Griffey & A-Rod of this generation of baseball. They had the bat to ball skills to spray line drives at command, the power to make ballparks look small, the range and arm to take away bases, and the confidence in their abilities to go toe-to-toe with the best in the game. Both were destined to make the bigs as teenagers and they weren’t going anywhere once they got there. When it was all said and done, the sky was the limit for what they both could achieve. It wasn’t a question of if they were going to Cooperstown; it was a question of who would have the best resume when they were eligible.

Their names were Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. 


Now let’s fast forward the clocks to 2020. Harper and Trout both have had seven full big league seasons under their belt. They’ve both inked multimillion dollar deals worth in excess of $300 million, won an MVP award, and solidified themselves as cornerstone franchise players.

But, this doesn’t tell the whole story. Both Harper and Trout had the ceilings to become generational athletes, but only one has had the production to match it. The other has largely been a disappointment.

Trout hasn’t just surpassed Harper as the better player – he’s blown him out of the water.

This is what Trout’s numbers look like:

This is what Harper’s look like:

Through seven full seasons, Trout has outperformed Harper in just about every single statistical category possible. He’s collected 253 more hits, belted 66 more homers, stolen 110 more bags, and boasts an OPS that is 103 points higher. He’s won seven silver sluggers, three MVPs (he probably should have three more), and when he hasn’t won the MVP he’s finished second every single year except for his rookie year and 2017 (he missed a good chunk of the year to injury). Harper has had just one silver slugger, one MVP award, and hasn’t received top 10 MVP votes in any other season.

In 2019, Trout finished third in the MLB in WAR with 8.3. Harper finished tied for 59th – and he made more money than 58 of the players in front of him. In fact, Trout’s 10.5 WAR from his rookie season exceeds Harper’s 9.7 WAR from his 2015 MVP season – his best statistical season to date. Just think about that: At 20 years old, Mike Trout put together a better season in terms of WAR than Bryce Harper has put together in his entire career.

If that doesn’t convince you of Trout’s dominance, Harper has failed to bat above .274 or post an OPS north of .900 in every single season outside of 2015 and 2017. Trout hasn’t posted an OPS under .900 in his entire career. In 2014, Trout set career lows in batting average at .287, OPS at .939, and struck out a career-high 184 times.

He won the MVP that year. 

Harper on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16 year old (source)

Here’s the thing: Bryce Harper should be doing what Mike Trout already is. He was the one who graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at 16, won the Golden Spikes award at 17, and became the third youngest player ever to be selected number one overall. He should be in the MVP conversation every single season and churning out numbers that put him right next to Trout as one of the best hitters in the game. Instead, he isn’t even in the conversation – let alone one of the top 10 hitters in the game.

Bryce Harper isn’t “Baseball’s LeBron James” – Mike Trout is.

However, this doesn’t mean Bryce Harper can’t be as good as Mike Trout. In fact, he should be matching Trout’s production – possibly even exceeding it – because we’ve seen what he looks like when he’s on. We’ve seen the spurts of dominance in ’15 and ’17 and we know he’s capable of putting together seasons where he belts 40 homers, drives in over 90, and bats above .300. We’ve seen the raw power and the way he can impact the game at the plate with just one swing of the bat. We just haven’t seen it nearly as much as Trout – and Father Time is ticking. 

Harper from 2012 (left) and 2015 (right)
Harper from 2018 (left) and 2019 (right)

If we look at the Harper clips above from the four different seasons, we notice four different moves. While every player is going to have some sort of variability built into their swing, the best work within a narrow bandwidth. Harper’s bandwidth is monstrous. When your bandwidth gets bigger, it becomes more difficult to manage variability because you have a wider range of movement solutions to pick from. If you’re presented with various choices to go out to dinner, you’re going to make a much quicker decision when presented with two restaurants as opposed to five. Harper’s constantly choosing from seven different restaurants when he should really narrow in on the two he enjoys the most. He’s failed to find consistency because his bandwidth makes it really difficult for him to find consistency; and his numbers reflect it. 

If Harper really wants to become the best player this game has ever seen, he doesn’t need any more tinkering, adjusting, forcing, and compensating. He needs to get back to the basics and figure out how to create his best move more often. We’ve only seen his best moves two out of the seven seasons he’s been in the league so far. While he’s done well enough to earn himself a pretty good pay day, he hasn’t nearly lived up to his prophecy as a “once-in-a-lifetime” player. 

Trout, on the other hand, has met those expectations and exceeded them. If you want to know why, the proof is in the tape. 

Trout from 2012 (left) to 2019 (right)

If we look at his moves from his rookie year and compare them to how he moved in 2019, we notice two really efficient swings that are nearly identical. Trout doesn’t just move really well – he moves really well consistently. He’s not changing, tinkering, or finding new ways to reinvent the wheel the way Harper has. He’s found really efficient moves that he replicates more than anyone else. He doesn’t get off three different swings; he gets off one – and it’s almost always his best one.

When you can consistently get your A swing off, you give yourself the biggest window possible to do damage on pitches in your hammer zone. When your moves are constantly changing, it’s difficult to find your A swing and repeat it because there’s no consistency. If you can’t get your best swings off on pitches in your hammer zone, you cripple your ability to consistently do damage at the plate. You will always be at the mercy of the moves you bring to the plate. The best hitters don’t just move well – they move well more often than anyone else. 

Trout has had consistent success because he has found consistent movement solutions at the plate. Harper has not had consistent success because his moves aren’t even close to consistent – but the right ones he needs are already there.

If only he could figure out what he does when he’s on, what he has trouble with when he gets off track, and what he needs to think about to get his A swing off more often. 

We might have some ideas on this – but they’ll have to wait for next week. One blog doesn’t do this project enough justice. 

A Tale of Dynamic Adjustability – Bear Bryant’s wishbone and Gerrit Cole’s heater

“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

It’s the summer of 1971 and Bear Bryant has called all of his Alabama football staff together for a meeting. They were less than three months away from their opener against USC – a team that beat them by 21 last year. It was an unusual time to hold a staff meeting, but Alabama football was dealing with some unusual circumstances. The air on campus was about as thick as it could get – and it wasn’t from the hot southern sun. Bryant’s perennial powerhouse hasn’t won 10 games since 1966. Last season was the second consecutive year in which the Crimson Tide failed to surpass six wins. Bryant had lost 17 games in his first 11 seasons with the Tide. They’ve lost 10 the past two years. Alabama’s fall from grace wasn’t just a disappointment; it was a complete disaster.

Bryant was feeling the heat just about everywhere he went. Critics claimed he had lost his fastball and his time at Alabama – despite winning three national championships – was dwindling down to an end. Recruits were becoming skeptical as rumors were swirling around that Bryant’s 35th season on the sidelines was going to be his last. The auroa of dominance that once oozed from the walls of Denny (now Bryant-Denny) Stadium was replaced with frustration, disappointment, and despair. Programs like Alabama don’t lose ten games in two years – especially programs ran under the Bryant.

Something had to change. If Alabama’s win-loss record didn’t, Bryant had a feeling he would become the replaceable part.

Bryant walked up to the white board in front of his staff and started draw out just about any offensive formation you could think of: The wedge, the old Notre Dame box, power I, T formation, and splitbacks – to name a few. He then explained what most everyone in that room already knew: They had one of the best running backs in the nation in Johnny Musso and they had a quarterback in Terry Davis who could run the option but couldn’t throw the ball. If they were going to win games in 1971, it wasn’t going to be through the air. They needed to change their approach.

Bryant proceeded to draw a new formation up on the board that completely changed Alabama football for the next 12 years. It looked something like this:

The wishbone offense (source)

The wishbone offense was not new to college football. Teams like Texas and Oklahoma had started to implement it throughout the 1960s and they were having a lot of success with it. The wishbone was much different than the traditional offensive set up because it added another tailback to the mix. Instead of just having one fullback and one running back like a traditional power I, you now had one fullback and two running backs split off side by side in the backfield. This gave offenses a completely new level of complexity because you had multiple options for two different skill players behind center. This made it difficult for defenses to pick up the ball, anticipate where the play was going, and cut it off before it developed.

Wishbone offenses used a variety of hand offs, pitches, options, screens, fakes, and reverses to disguise their schemes, keep defenses on their heels, and get guys up the field to make space for their playmakers. Instead of just attacking hitters with a fastball and a curveball, adding the wishbone gave you a two seam, four seam, two different variations of a curve, a smaller cutter that can be turned into a bigger slider, and three different variations of a change up. You had more pitches, more variations of each pitch, and ultimately more strategies to keep hitters off balance.  

There were a couple of key elements you needed to make the wishbone work. For one, you needed to have a quarterback who could make quick and accurate decisions with the football. Just because they weren’t throwing the ball as much didn’t mean it was any less important to read defenses. If anything, it was more important – the wrong decision or a decision made too late could be the difference between points or no points.

Similar to today’s triple option, quarterbacks in the wishbone operated primarily out of the option running game. They had to be able to keep their head on a swivel so they could read the defense, know where their backs were at any moment in time, and use what they saw from the defense to determine whether they needed to keep the ball, pitch it, or bait the defense using a fake pitch. Just like a baseball hitter, quarterbacks had to be able to operate under a significant time constraint. They had to gather a lot of information from the defense, chunk familiar patterns, and anticipate how the defense was going to play the ball based on what they recognized from previous experience. The precision and speed of these decisions determined whether the offense would move the ball or get stalled out behind the line of scrimmage. Having a really good athlete behind center was only a part of the equation; decision making separated the best from the rest.   

Both running backs also played a crucial role in the system because they were touching the ball on almost every single play. The offense heavily relied on their ability to make plays in space, throw blocks, and stretch the defense vertically and horizontally. They had to be able to get yards outside the tackles, inside the tackles, and clear space to help get guys up the field. If the quarterback was the driver of the race car, the running back was the engine. You couldn’t win the race without a strong engine, but you also couldn’t win it with a driver that didn’t know how to maneuver the track.

Alabama had their driver in Terry Davis and they had a strong engine in Johnny Musso – they just needed to build the rest of the vehicle. They had about 20 practices to do it and not a soul outside of the clubhouse was to find out about it.

It was Zero Dark Wishbone the summer of ’71 in Tuscaloosa.    

On September 10, 1971, America finally got their first taste of the best kept secret in college football. Reporters who covered Alabama preseason practices only saw Bryant’s smoke screen offense. They saw the power I, the splitbacks, and the rest of the formations Alabama traditionally used in the past. They didn’t get a sniff of what was to come that season.

When Alabama broke the huddle with two running backs in the backfield instead of one, USC was completely caught off guard. They spent the entire summer studying up on their algebra only to find the test was filled with calculus. All Bryant’s team had to do was execute what they had been working on relentlessly over the summer.  

Execute it, they did.

Alabama’s stunning upset over USC in 1971 set the tone for what was to come that season (source)

Alabama got revenge from their bitter loss last year and topped the Trojans 17-10 in one of the biggest upsets of the 1971 season. Many look back on the game as one of the most significant victories in the history of Alabama football. After two of the worst seasons in program history, Alabama’s revamped offense showed America that they were back – and they weren’t backing down, either.

Lead by consensus All-American Musso, Bryant’s group would go on to win their next 10 games averaging 324.1 rushing yards per game, 3.1 rushing touchdowns per game, and scoring more than 30 points in nine of those victories. They averaged just 58.5 yards/game through the air – a 138 yard decrease from ’70. It didn’t hurt their offense one bit. Alabama scored 34 more points in ’71 which helped them win five more games, reclaim their pedestal at the top of the SEC, and propelled them to their first national championship game since 1965. While they took a beating from the Cornhuskers of Nebraska, the buzz was back in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s offensive overhaul and transition to the wishbone was the spark it needed to reestablish themselves as one of the premier teams in college football. It wasn’t going anywhere, either.

Alabama running the wishbone for a touchdown in the 1980 Sugar Bowl against Arkansas

Over the next decade, Bryant would cement his legacy as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. His Crimson Tide went on to win 103 games, claimed eight SEC championships, and added three national titles before stepping down for good in 1982. He finished his career with 323 wins, six national championships, 14 SEC championships, three coach of the year awards, and 14 SEC coach of the year awards. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

When skeptics thought Bryant had lost his fastball back in 1970, they were right – they just didn’t realize he was working on a curveball up his sleeve. In his 35th season as a head coach, Bear Bryant took a leap of faith by completely overhauling the offense that helped him win three national championships at Alabama and implementing something totally new that had no guarantee of working. A heavy dose of spinners was exactly what Bryant needed to make his fastball effective again.

When the scenery in college football changed, Bryant didn’t continue to pound a square peg into a round hole. He honestly evaluated what he had and found a way to make the most of it by completely reinvented everything he knew about running an offense. He kept his success in the rearview and made the current success of his team his only priority. With his future in Tuscaloosa on the line, Bear Bryant took a page out of the book of dynamic adjustability and resurrected Alabama football. The rest is history.   

Who said an old bear can’t learn new tricks?


Going into 2018, Gerrit Cole was coming off the worst season of his career. After making his first All-Star appearance in 2015 – just four years after being selected number one overall by Pittsburgh – Cole couldn’t quite return to form. Elbow issues sidelined Cole for a good chunk of 2016 and only allowed him to make 21 starts. In the starts he did make he wasn’t very good. He allowed 131 hits in 116 innings to go along with a career-worst 3.88 ERA after posting a 2.60 ERA just a year ago.

2017 didn’t get any better. In 33 starts, Cole surrendered 96 runs in 203 innings for a 4.26 ERA; a new career-worst. Hitters were teeing off on his fastball slugging .474 on his four seamer which had averaged 95.9 mph in 2017 – a tick below his rookie average of 96.8. It was inducing whiffs just 19.8 percent of the time. Being someone who ran it up to triple digits as a high schooler, Cole wasn’t used to not missing bats with his heater. It was the glue that kept the rest of his arsenal together – and it was falling apart quickly.

A big reason why the numbers weren’t there anymore was because Cole wasn’t the same pitcher he used to be. If we go back to UCLA, Cole showcased an unorthodox delivery where he started on the first base side of the rubber, picked his left knee up to his chest, worked across the mound towards the other side of the rubber, landed significantly closed with his lead foot, and worked back across his body with a lower arm slot. To pull off this move, he had to kick back with his right foot and anchor in the air at release – just like a PGA bowler. This gave him the ability to create stability with his lower half so he could stop his pelvis and work reciprocally to get across his body. It worked out pretty well for him.

Gerrit Cole striking out 13 in the 2011 College World Series (source)

After being taken number one overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, Cole quickly ascended through the minor leagues and made his Major League debut in 2013. Below is a clip from his first big league strikeout – courtesy of a 99 mph fastball.   

Not bad for a rookie, huh? (source)

Notice how the moves had changed – including his positioning on the rubber. He’s eliminated his previous starting position far to the first base side and now starts with his back foot flush in the middle. He no longer creates the same angles or lands as closed as he once did, but he still lands slightly closed, anchors with his backside (in the ground as opposed to the air), captures energy deep, works efficiently around his trunk, and moves reciprocally across his body. While it was different, it was still effective.

Now let’s go to Cole’s 2015 All-Star season. While it was his best season to date statistically, his moves continued to change – and they weren’t exactly good changes.

Cole in 2015 firing a 95 mph fastball (source)

Notice the change in his arm slot from 2013 to 2015. Instead of efficiently capturing energy around his trunk from a lower slot (see left), Cole’s arm slot has started to shift up vertically out of the plane of rotation (see right).

Cole’s arm slot from 2013 (left) to 2015 (right)

A shift in release is not always bad if the trunk can adjust with it, but in Cole’s situation his new release was not matching the angle of his trunk (notice the hand above the shoulder plane). He might have gotten away with it in 2015, but it eventually caught up to him in 2016. Taking the arm out of its natural plane of rotation is a great recipe to piss off your elbow – and it sure did with Cole.

Cole pitching in 2016 (source)

This side view from 2016 gives you a pretty good look of what was going on in his delivery.

Cole pitching in 2016 (source)

Notice how Cole’s arm isn’t able to completely lay back because his slot has been forced up out of its natural slot. This prevents him from capturing energy deep and working in a geodesic (circular) path around his trunk.

Cole from 2013 (left) vs. 2016 (right)

This could have been created to achieve a desired arm slot (more over the top) or to potentially manipulate the ball a specific way (trying to get more depth or run on his sinker). In either case, Cole had sacrificed his arm’s natural ability to efficiently capture energy and it cost him a trip to the 60-day IL. 

Cole’s upper half wasn’t the only thing that ended up changing, either. If we go to the next season and see how 2017 compared to 2011 at UCLA and his big league debut in 2013, we notice a huge difference at foot strike.

Cole from 2011 (far left), 2013 (middle), and 2016 (far right)

In 2017, Cole was no longer striding closed and working across his body. Just like Jake Arrieta, Cole’s front foot now landed closer to a direct line from his back foot to the plate. It is a significant difference from 2013 and it is a huge change from what he used to do at UCLA. Taking away Cole’s crossfire delivery caused his pelvis to open up too soon and drag his torso along for the ride. He wasn’t able to consistently get to the outside of his front foot after foot strike and get around his front side because he had no tension to work against.

If we look back at Cole’s evolution from 2011 – 2017, It shouldn’t be a surprise why his numbers started to fall off. Cole had changed a lot and there’s a good chance he lost feel for the things that made him so good in the first place. It was a big problem for the former number one pick – and it didn’t make it easier to know his name was on the trading block with two years left on his rookie deal.

To put it bluntly: If Cole didn’t change what he was doing, he wasn’t going to have much of a future in any uniform. He didn’t have control over what had happened and the games he wished he had back, but he had complete control over what he did next.

Well, not quite all of it.

On January 13, 2018 the Houston Astros traded pitcher Joe Musgrove, third baseman Colin Moran, relief pitcher Michael Felix, and outfield prospect Jason Martin to Pittsburgh in exchange for Cole. After five seasons with the Bucs from the Burgh, Cole was heading south to join the 2017 World Champion Astros. He now shared lockers with one of the best rotations in baseball that included Justin Verlander, Lance McCullers, Charlie Morton, and Dallas Keuchel. He also had access to one of the best pitching coaches in the game in Brent Strom and the most advanced analytics department in baseball.

Houston had their eyes on Cole for a while and they knew he had only scratched the surface of his potential. Given what they saw, they had a feeling the right hander could develop into one of the best pitchers in the game – but he was a few adjustments away. If Cole wanted to dominate hitters again and help the Astros compete for a championship in 2018, he was going to have to change his approach and take a page out of the book of dynamic adjustability. Houston had the text picked out and the pages for him were bookmarked; they just needed to make a deal before they let him rent it out.

When Cole met with Houston for the first time, one of the biggest things they brought to his attention was the decline of his four seam fastball. While Cole’s heater struggled in 2017, the top 15% of them were actually really, really good. He already had one of the game’s hardest fastballs for starting pitchers at 95.9 mph – he just didn’t get off his best version of that pitch on a consistent basis. Getting your best swing off 15% of the time isn’t a great plan when pitches are landing in your hammer zone 50% of the time. 

To give you a feel for what some of his better heaters looked like, here is what Cole’s four seamer looked like April 3 in his first start of 2017. It averaged out at 96.8 mph and a season-high 2289 RPM – 125 RPMs better than his season average of 2164 RPM.

Cole from April 3, 2017 – 96.8 mph, 2289 RPM (source)

Now let’s take a look at his outing from May 6 of the same season. In this outing, Cole’s fastball averaged at 95.4 mph and spun at a season-low 2065 RPM.

Cole pitching May 6, 2017 – 95.4 mph, 2065 RPM

If we break down the moves, Cole’s outing from May looked much more similar to when he got hurt in 2016. He loses posture towards the third base dugout, doesn’t have space to get across his body at foot strike, tries to overcorrect to do so, and fails to capture energy around his trunk creating a significant amount of climb out of the plane of rotation.

Cole May 6, 2017 (left) vs. 2016 (right)
Similar – but not good – moves

Houston wanted Cole to something closer to what he looked like April 3. It wasn’t exactly it, but these types of fastballs were the 15% that caught their eye initially. Cole just needed to figure out how to create them more consistently.

They had the perfect guy to help him out.

When Justin Verlander came to Houston in September 2017, he already had a unicorn high spin fastball at 2,551 RPM. They just wanted him to get a little more ride out of the pitch. They made a slight adjustment to his axis and got him to stay behind it a little longer which improved its spin rate to 2,618 RPM in 2018 and its vertical movement from 13.5 inches to 11.0 inches (+21% above league average). Along with an adjustment in strategy (using the middle up part of the zone more deliberately), Verlander improved his whiff rate on the pitch from 20.2% in 2017 to 29.3% in 2018.

While the front office had the data, Verlander had the experience, eyes, and feel to create it on the field. When him and Cole started to play catch, Verlander would pepper the former Pirate with questions and try to figure out exactly what he was trying to do with the ball. He asked him what kind of action he was trying to create and how he was trying to do it. This is how he introduced the idea of adding some more “hop” to his fastball. He encouraged Cole to try and alter his axis for the pitch so he could stay behind the ball longer and create more backspin. This would help him get more carry, or rise, on the pitch. When Cole would throw a good one, Verlander would give him affirmation through a nod or other subtle body language.

Slowly but surely, the two were rebuilding Cole’s four seamer – and making Verlander’s even better.  

In 2017, Cole’s four seamer spun at just 2,164 RPM. In 2018, it increased to 2,379 RPM. He improved the vertical movement on the pitch from 14 inches in 2017 to 12.5 inches in 2018 – where the perceived “rise” comes from. He ditched the ineffective sinker and primarily used his four seamer throwing it at a 50.3% clip (+2.9% from 2017). Instead of pounding the strings and beating around the bush, Cole went right after guys maximizing his margin of error by utilizing the middle up part of the strike zone. Hitters batted just .185 against it and whiffed at it 29.7% of the time – 9th in MLB minimum 200 pitches.

Cole’s 2017 four seam distribution (left) and four seam whiffs (right) – source
Cole’s 2018 four seam distribution (left) and four seam whiffs (right) – source

By getting his best fastball off more often and throwing it where it was most effective, Cole reinvented his dying heater and made it his most effective pitch again. This is what it looked like:

Cole throwing a 99 mph fastball in 2018 (source)

This is how it compared to his outing May 6, 2017:

Cole 2017 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

Now we start to see some better adjustments. In 2018, Cole did a better job hinging and creating tension in his rear glute. This helped him utilize the bigger muscles in his posterior chain for a longer period of time which improved his direction, helped him keep his pelvis and torso closed longer, and created stability so he could consistently repeat the pattern. 

Notice how Cole does a better job hinging in 2018 (left) than 2017 (right)

His arm slot also changed for the better. Instead of getting stuck and being forced to climb up out of his natural slot, Cole’s arm now had space (thanks to a better lower half) to efficiently capture energy and work around his trunk. This more than likely helped Cole learn how to spin the ball better – something he could have picked up on in his catch play sessions with Verlander. 

Cole at release 2017 (left) vs. 2018 (right)

When the movement solutions improve, health and performance improves. Cole exploded in Houston because he was getting into better positions more consistently which allowed him move more powerfully and efficiently for a longer period of time. It also helped him do things like throw 101 on his 110th pitch of the game.

I mean, are you kidding me?

Houston didn’t want him to nibble, pound the strings, and pitch to contact. They wanted him to leverage his best stuff, go right after guys, and get whiffs. It wasn’t exactly a tough sell considering ’16 and ’17, but it was a big adjustment for Cole. He had never pitched this way before in his career – at least not in a long time. He could have easily told the Astros to screw off and just tried to get back to what he knew how to do at UCLA, but he was willing enough to change the plan and try a different approach. His ability got him to the bigs; his adaptability helped him stay in the bigs.


Now the important part about this story is that Bear Bryant didn’t invent the wishbone offense. He merely observed it in action, saw how it could fit their offense, understand where his offense lacked, and consulted with a fellow coach to figure out how he could best implement it. He adapted based on what made the most sense for his football team.  

Houston didn’t invent the high spin fastball. They also didn’t invent the idea of pitching up in the zone, scrapping ineffective sinkers, or teaching guys how to add “hop” to their fastball. This stuff has been around as long as the game has been played. Like Bryant, they started with observation and figured out what players with a lot of success were doing. When they discovered how unique the top 15% of Cole’s four seam fastballs were, they decided to take a chance based on what they knew and how a change in approach could make sense for him. They helped him adapt based on how his delivery had adapted throughout the years.

Bryant had the ability to bounce ideas and talk things through with some of the brightest coaches in the game. Cole had the ability to bounce ideas off one of the best pitching coaches in the game and a future Hall of Famer who presented with a similar arsenal. It was the perfect storm to reinvent his delivery – he just had to open himself to new ideas by putting his previous success in the past. Necessity breeds innovation. Innovation requires change. Dynamic adjustability creates change.

Necessity breeds innovation. Innovation requires change. Dynamic adjustability creates change.

Bryant and Cole both resurrected their careers using dynamic adjustability. For everything they had accomplished so far, they knew there was a lot more they hadn’t tapped into. If they didn’t give themselves the ability to see past their previous successes and open themselves to new ideas, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. Neither would have achieved what they did if they didn’t toss the square peg to the side, find the round one, and start building a newer and better house. The plan is everything and the plan is nothing. The only thing you can do wrong is stick to a plan that’s not working.

Dynamic adjustability is the key.

The willingness to change saved the career of Gerrit Cole just the way it saved Bear Bryant’s future at Alabama. While Bryant’s legacy is cemented, Cole is still writing his – and he’s just getting started.  

Now a question to leave you on: Where do you need to use dynamic adjustability in your career?

How a 2013 deadline deal resurrected the dying career of Jake Arrieta

The date is August 30, 2015. The Cubs are holding on to a 2-0 lead against the Dodgers in the bottom of the ninth and Jake Arrieta is on the cusp of his first ever no-hitter. Chase Utley – potential future Hall of Famer – is at the plate fighting to keep hopes alive for the crowd on their feet at Dodger Stadium. The count is 1-2. Arrieta gets the signal from his catcher Miguel Montero, calmly gathers himself, and proceeds to rip off a nasty 88 mph slider that starts right down the heart of the plate. Utley reads fastball out of the hand and starts his swing – only to realize it’s a backfoot slider too late. Utley swings over top of it for Arrieta’s 13thstrikeout of the evening and Montero rushes out to embrace Arrieta as Cubs players pour out from the bench and mob him in celebration of the second no hitter in franchise history. He was – in the words of Rob Friedman – the filthiest pitcher on the planet that evening. If you don’t believe him, just check it out for yourself.  

Arrieta wasn’t just the filthiest pitcher on the planet August 30, 2015 – he was the filthiest pitcher on the planet the rest of the season. Over his next six starts Arrieta would toss 46 innings, allow just two earned runs, and win five of those decisions to help propel Chicago to the NL Wild Card game. He wouldn’t give up a run at home until 2016 setting a Wrigley Field record for 52.2 consecutive scoreless innings at home. He finished out the season with a MLB-best 22 wins, a league second-best 1.77 ERA, and his first ever NL Cy Young award. Oh, and he also threw nine shutout innings, striking out 11, and outdueling Gerrit Cole in the NL Wild Card. It was as dominant as dominant could get.

Here’s the catch: Jake Arrieta wasn’t even on a big league roster two years ago.   

Let’s turn the clocks back to 2012. Arrieta opened the season as Baltimore’s opening day starter showing spurts of dominance in his first two years despite being wildly inconsistent. His first three starts of the season showed what he was capable of: 1-0, 20.1 IP, 8 ER, 16 K, 4 BB, and a 2.66 ERA. After throwing eight shutout innings against the Yankees May 2, Arrieta never returned to form. His ERA ballooned to 6.23 after surrendering nine earned in four innings to Philadelphia June 8. He was sent back down to Triple A Norfolk in July and didn’t make much of an impression throwing 56 innings, walking 28, and allowing 25 earned runs for a 4.02 ERA. He was called back up to the Baltimore bullpen in September and racked up 20 punch outs in 13.1 IP but also surrendered 10 runs. Arrieta finished the season with a disappointing 6.20 ERA.  

2013 didn’t get any better. After a rough April Arrieta returned to Norfolk and continued to put up mediocre numbers. He got one more chance with the Orioles June 17 and was dreadful giving up 10 hits and 5 runs in 4.2 IP to Detroit. His ERA skyrocketed to a career-worst 7.23. Two weeks later he was traded to Chicago in a deal that shipped him and Pedro Strop off for starting pitcher Scott Feldman.

If you were to describe Arrieta’s time in Baltimore, some words that come to mind include promising, disappointing, inconsistent, and failure. To put it bluntly, he stunk.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. After changing uniforms and adjusting to the new scenery in Chicago, Arrieta started to show signs of promise again. He made 9 starts for the big league club in 2013 and won four posting a 3.66 ERA ERA in 51.2 IP. In his last two starts, Arrieta won both throwing 13 innings and allowing just two earned runs to lower his ERA to 4.78. While it was a small sample size, Arrieta’s encouraging September showed signs that he might have something left in the tank that he couldn’t quite tap into in Baltimore. Then 2014 happened. 

A seemingly overnight success, Arrieta exploded onto the scene in his first full year with the Cubs throwing 156.2 innings and winning 10 of his 15 decisions. He set career-highs in just about every statistical category dropping ERA to 2.53, shaving his BB/9 down to 2.4, and increasing his K/9 to 9.06. His 5.3 WAR was good for top 10 in the league. A once after thought in a 2013 deadline deal, Arrieta started to not only make others believe in him again – he started to believe in himself. Arrieta was no longer fighting for innings by the end of 2014 – he solidified himself as Chicago’s number one arm. He also wasn’t done yet. Over the next three seasons Arrieta made 94 starts for Chicago winning 54 of them and averaging 198 IP per season, 196 K, and a 2.80 ERA. He won his first Cy Young award, made his first All-Star appearance, and helped Chicago break a 108-year drought and win the 2016 World Series.

Arrieta went from being on the verge of quitting baseball to being on top of the baseball world in just three short years. His rags to riches story is one we can all learn from – especially since he had everything he needed all along. He just needed the freedom to tap into it.  

In a 2016 Sports Illustrated article, Arrieta opened up to Tom Verducci about his frustrating stint with Baltimore sharing his constant “tug-o-war” battle with pitching coach Rick Adair. Adair took over the role of pitching coach mid-season in 2011 after Mark Connor stepped down for personal reasons. Arrieta’s description of Adair gives you everything you need to know about him: “(A) my way or highway guy with a cookie cutter approach.” The coach reportedly was constantly fiddling with Arrieta’s mechanics and tinkering with things that made the right hander uncomfortable in his own skin. Verducci described these tweaks in the article saying:

“At the time, Arrieta pitched with his crossfire style from the first base side of the rubber and started his delivery with his hands at his belt. A month later he was pitching from the middle of the rubber and swinging his hands over his head. A few months later the Orioles forbade their pitchers to use the cutter for fear that it sapped fastball velocity.

“By the next April, Arrieta still pitched from the middle of the rubber, but his hands were back at his belt. By May he was back on the first base side of the rubber. By September he had trimmed his windup to a modified stretch position. By the next year he was back to the middle of the rubber with a huge change: Adair took away his crossfire step in favor of a stride directly to the plate.”

Below is what Arrieta looked like in Baltimore.

Below is what Arrieta looked like when he threw his first no hitter in 2015.

Here’s what they look like side by side.

When Adair took away Arrieta’s ability to stride closed, Arrieta lost his ability to work across his body. In order for Arrieta to stride straight, he had to swing his pelvis wide open causing him to lose the ground early (see back foot). This put his pelvis in a position where it couldn’t anchor down and create stability for his upper half to rotate around. When the pelvis loses stability, it drags the midsection through and creates a huge energy leak that can impact velocity, command, health, and performance. Instead of anchoring down, capturing energy, and throwing his punch from deep, Arrieta was forced to fly open and throw his punch too soon – and there wasn’t anything behind it.

His performances were inconsistent because he couldn’t create any consistency in his delivery; he was working from a base with zero stability. The constant tinkering, adjusting, and compensating caused Arrieta to become a “mechanic-addict” constantly worried about what his coaches were thinking. He was no longer worried about competing and going to war with his best stuff – he was worried about where his foot was when he landed, where his glove was when he moved down the mound, or where he finished after releasing the ball. He knew he didn’t feel right and he knew he needed to do something else, but he didn’t have the support from his coaches to explore other options. He had about as much power as a puppet on strings.  

Arrieta spoke about this in the article saying:

“I feel like I was playing a constant tug-of-war, trying to make the adjustments I was being told to make and knowing in the back of my mind that I can do things differently and be better. It was such a tremendous struggle for me because as a second and third-year player, you want to be coachable. I knew I got [to the majors] for a reason, and I was confused about why I was changing that now. You feel everybody has your best interests in mind, but you come to find out that’s not necessarily the case.”

Arrieta wasn’t the only one who had issues with Adair, either

“I had struggles with my pitching coach. A lot of guys did. Three or four guys—Tillman, Matusz, [Zach] Britton—were just really uncomfortable in their own skins at the time, trying to be the guys they weren’t. You can attest how difficult it is to try to reinvent your mechanics against the best competition in the world.”

Minor league Chris Tillman vs. MLB Chris Tillman – notice any themes?

When Arrieta got to Chicago, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to last if he kept on doing what he was forced to do with the Orioles. He knew he could do it differently and all he needed was the support to make it happen. The good news for him was his new pitching coach Chris Bosio wasn’t interested in taking Baltimore’s approach; he just wanted Arrieta to be himself. Bosio – a cross-body guy himself – started to mend the lack of distrust Arrieta had by getting him back to doing what he used to do all along: Striding closed and working across his body.

“I was able to not hold anything back or feel like I was judged,” said Arrieta. “People had lost faith in me in Baltimore, and rightfully so. I knew that was not the guy I was. I was letting it out as hard as I could in a controlled way. I was across my body. I felt strong. I felt explosive.”

Arrieta no longer had to worry about whether he was balanced, where his foot was landing, or if his glove side was where it needed to be. He finally had the freedom to figure out who he was as a pitcher. The sky was the limit from here.

Oh, and the Cubs also let him use the cutter Baltimore took away from him because it would “hurt his fastball velocity” (they did the same thing to Dylan Bundy – worked really well for them). It turned out to be one of the best pitches in baseball. While Baseball Savant groups his slider and cutter together, hitters batted .184/.210/.266 off of it in 2015. Here’s a pretty good look at it:

Imagine telling someone they can’t throw that. 

So now let’s get to the point of this story: Why did Baltimore force Arrieta to be something he clearly wasn’t? Why did Adair take away the things that helped Arrieta become a really good pitcher in the first place? Why did he have such a different experience in Chicago? 

Let’s start by talking about lemon juice.



On April 19, 1995, MacArthur Wheeler was sentenced to prison for one of the most infamous crimes in United States history. Earlier that day, he robbed two Pittsburgh banks at gunpoint in broad daylight – and didn’t even wear a mask. At 6’6” 270 pounds, MacArthur needed all the help he could get to prevent police from catching on to his trail. Instead, he made it nearly impossible for police not to catch him even smiling and waving to the surveillance cameras as he left the banks. Tapes from the robbings were shown on the the 11 o’clock news and police had a lead within a few minutes. When Wheeler found the police at his door step later that evening, he couldn’t believe they figured out he did it.

“But I wore the juice,” he said.  

The “juice” Wheeler claimed to have worn was lemon juice – a substance known to be used for invisible ink. Since Wheeler knew lemon juice could conceal secret messages, he used deductive reasoning and decided it could conceal anything – even his face. He tested it on himself, “confirmed” his findings through a series of photographs, and decided to leverage this breakthrough to help him get away with a series of bank robberies. In his mind it was the perfect plan – no one would ever identify him if his faced was hidden behind lemon juice. He wasn’t delusional, on drugs, or mentally insane – just incredibly mistaken.

Wheeler’s incredulous story caught the eye of Cornell psychology professor David Dunning. Being someone who studied human behavior, Dunning was fascinated with how Wheeler came up with such a stupid idea (stupid is an understatement) and believed it so much that he put it to the test in a situation that was bound to end in jail time. What could possibly drive behavior as irrational as robbing multiple banks in broad daylight without wearing a mask and honestly believing it was possible to get away with? Was Wheeler a one-of-a-kind or was everyone susceptible to this kind of thinking? Dunning wanted to know so he set out with graduate student Justin Kruger and designed a series of experiments that forever changed how we look at human behavior.

To put Wheeler’s infamous crime to the test, Dunning and Kruger gathered a group of undergraduate psychology students and quizzed them on their abilities in grammar, logic, and humor. They then asked the students to estimate their scores and how well they think they did relative to the rest of the participants. What they discovered is what we know today as the Dunning-Kruger Effect: Those who had the lowest amount of ability significantly overestimated their abilities while those who had the most amount of ability slightly underestimated their abilities.

Wheeler, if you couldn’t tell, would fall at the end of the spectrum of people who overestimated their lack of ability. He was very confident in the little that he did know (lemon juice is used for invisible ink) but he was horribly wrong when it came to the extent and application of it (lemon juice can make my face invisible to surveillance cameras). There was a huge gap between what he actually knew and what he thought he knew. This gap is what Dunning and Kruger discovered and it is real – our perception of ability and actual ability do not share a linear correlation. If anything, they are the opposite.   

If we look at the other end of the spectrum, the wisest people are the ones who work against our inclination to feel good and assume what we know is correct. They don’t sit in the comfort of their current thoughts and block out contradicting ones – they embrace what they don’t know and they actively seek it. The reason why they underestimate their abilities is because they need to in order to continuously learn. It’s not just uncomfortable; it’s necessary


Recognizing we don’t know much at all is great motivation to learn; thinking we know it all is great motivation to stop learning. If we stop learning, we don’t realize there’s more out there to know because we’re either not looking for it or we’re ignoring what’s in front of us. This creates the gap in perception and ability: Our incompetence makes us feel competent because we’re too incompetent to know we’re incompetent. In other words, we’re too dumb to realize how dumb we are. If you want to know what this looks like, just scroll through Twitter and sift through all the “five minute Youtube video experts.” Why waste years of actually doing things and researching when you can just learn everything you need to know in just five minutes? 

The thing about the Dunning-Kreuger Effect is that it’s not reserved for a selective few; we are all susceptible to overestimating our abilities. In fact, we’re most vulnerable when we first venture out into a specific area because it’s the one point in time when we know the least (hopefully, at least). When we don’t know anything else, we make ourselves believe that we actually know something because there’s nothing to contradict what we know. This is why it’s so tough to shake bad information that we learn early on in our career – what we learn when we first start out creates the foundation from which we build upon. Taking a Jenga block out from the bottom is a whole lot risker than skimming one off the top.

For some people, it’s a lot easier to just leave the Jenga blocks where they are and continue to build on top of it – to a point of diminishing returns. This is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The ones who avoid Dunning-Kruger are the ones who aren’t afraid of the Jenga blocks falling to the ground. Every time it gets knocked down, they build one back up that is stronger than the one before. We can only do this if we drop our agenda at the door and realize we don’t know anything at all; our ultimate antidote to Dunning-Kruger.

“One of the great challenges in this world is knowing enough about a subject to think you’re right – but not enough about the subject to know you’re wrong.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist

When we coach out of fear for knocking over the Jenga blocks, we create “this is how we’ve always done it” coaches. These kinds of coaches epitomize the Dunning-Kruger Effect because what they know has been shaped through the n=1 approach. If they didn’t hear it as a player or learn it from one of their coaches growing up, it doesn’t make a difference to them. They’re not concerned with expanding their base of knowledge because they could discover things that would contradict what they firmly believe in. What they believe in is really important to them because it created their foundation of knowledge growing up. The problem with this is a foundation built on limited knowledge makes for a really weak foundation. You can only build up so high before the entire structure becomes dangerously unstable.

If we go back to the issues between Arrieta and Adair, this absolutely could have been why the two were constantly butting heads. Adair more than likely developed his perception of what a high level delivery should like based on a narrow scope of his experiences as a player and early on as a coach. When he found something that made sense to him, he took it and ran with it. He wasn’t concerned whether it was wrong or not because he already decided it was right. What he didn’t realize is the model he developed an emotional attachment to had a limited bandwidth. When he saw movements that didn’t fit into his model, he didn’t think the model was wrong – he thought the player was wrong. This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

This is what happens when we have a negative correlation between our ability and perception of ability: We try to change the player when the mold was the thing that we needed to change.   

There will come a point for everyone where we have to wrestle with the unknown and handle thoughts that challenge what we currently believe to be true. The more we believe in what we already think, the more rigid our mold becomes and the less likely it is to change when presented with better information. The less we believe in what we already know, the easier it is to change our mold when presented with something that makes more sense. Adair’s mold of a high level delivery was akin to hardened clay – it’s not going to change and he’s not going to risk breaking it. This fragility is where Dunning-Kruger takes a firm grasp on our perceptions and beliefs and it’s a big reason why Adair lost Arrieta’s trust. Adair force fed Arrieta a mold that he wasn’t built for it. Stripping him of his cross-fire delivery and cutter was like sending him to war without his sword, shield, and armor. Chicago, on the other hand, made sure he never ventured into enemy territory unprepared. To put it bluntly: Baltimore screwed him up. Chicago unscrewed him up. 

Arrieta already had what he needed to succeed and that’s the sad part about this whole thing. If he didn’t spend three years of his career trying to do something he wasn’t made to do, he could had a lot more success, made a whole lot more money, and helped Baltimore win a lot more games. Being a Yankees fan I’m not too upset about this – but as a baseball coach it makes me really upset because this isn’t a one time scenario. There are plenty of more Jake Arrietas out there searching for answers, head butting with coaches, and battling to find success on the mound. Player development isn’t about driving agendas and being right – it’s about helping players and getting it right.  

We don’t develop players when we overestimate our abilities as a coach; we break them.  



Now let’s go back to square one and do this the right way. Instead of just jumping to aesthetics and rigid preconceived notions of a high-level delivery, step one should have been understanding what makes Jake Arrieta really good. Dr. Greg Rose of Titleist Performance Institute talks about how one of the most important questions he asks his golfers is, “Why are you on tour?” If their long drive is the thing that separates them from the rest of the field, maintaining that skill – at the very least – must be a priority. Spending time on the putting green should not come at the expense of your ability to drive the ball with power and precision. If we forget about the areas that make players elite – or just ignore them altogether – we make it impossible for that athlete to compete at a high level. Constantly addressing weaknesses isn’t coaching – it’s nit-picking. Teaching players how to leverage their strengths is coaching. Steve Kerr could give a shit that Steph Curry doesn’t have a polished baby hook – he impacts the game in so many other ways that addressing that weakness would be a colossal waste of time.  

If we look at Chicago Arrieta, we get a pretty good feel for the stuff that made him really nasty. For one, he needed to stride closed and work across his body. It helped him create optimal length-tension relationships that helped him stay in the ground longer and keep his pelvis closed so he could get to his max point of tension just after release. When he strided closed and kept his pelvis from opening up too soon, he gave himself the ability to throw on the brakes after foot plant. This created an efficient deceleration sequence which had a significant impact on his velocity, command, arm health (his elbow killed him in Baltimore), and performance. When he tried to stride straight, he lost the ground and flew open with his pelvis the way you would open up a gate. This caused everything else to drag through instead of stopping, capturing energy, and efficiently transferring it up the chain.

The second notable thing he brought back in Chicago was his cut-fastball. When Baltimore took this away out of fear it would hurt his fastball velocity (wtf lol), they stripped Arrieta of arguably the nastiest pitch in his arsenal.  Coming in at anywhere from 90-93 mph, Arrieta’s cutter paired beautifully off his two seam fastball to make for a devastating duo. One pitch is running in on your hands while the other pitch runs away – and they both look the same coming out of the hand. Most hitters can’t pick up on the difference until it’s too late. One pitch by itself is still a good pitch, but blending the two movement profiles made it so much more powerful for Arrieta. He now had a weapon that could complete the other half of his X – almost like he was trying to build an even biotensegrity system (lol).  

Arrieta’s story is something we should all learn from as coaches and players because these kinds of stories are real. There are plenty of “coaches” out there who have made up their mind on how they are going to teach and it ends up hurting a lot more players than it helps. If kids come up and don’t have a great feel for the things that make them elite, they can easily be deterred when they don’t have success right off the bat. Arrieta was in a vulnerable spot because he didn’t have consistent success and he wanted to be coachable – he just didn’t know what to believe in. It took hitting rock bottom and a change of scenery for him to finally get on the right track. Our goal as coaches should be to never push players to a depth from which they can’t begin to crawl out – and they definitely shouldn’t need a change of scenery, either. When we overestimate what we think we know, we run the risk of turning players into something they’re not. Arrieta was fortunate enough to find a group of coaches that helped get him back on track; others aren’t so fortunate. 

If Arrieta was brought up in a system that understood him as a player, worked to leverage his strengths, encouraged him to offer feedback, and made him an active part of his development process, he might have been able to do what he did in 2015 in 2012. He didn’t need a rigid system to tell him where he fit in; he needed the freedom and support to do what he already knew how to do really well. He didn’t need coaches who overestimated their abilities, stripped him of the things that made him elite, and constantly made tweaks to his delivery; he needed mentors who were there to nudge him in the right direction. He had everything he needed to succeed – he just needed to separate himself from people who thought they knew more about him than he did. Great coaches build their kids up; bad coaches break them down. Jake Arrieta was down to his last brick when he switched uniforms in 2013. He was fortunate to find a group of guys who knew a thing or two about building a house – but at the same time didn’t think they knew anything.

The age old wisdom of Socrates is our ultimate antidote to the Dunning-Kruger Effect and could be our most powerful tool when it comes to developing players: “The only true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing.”

When we don’t let what we think we know get in the way of developing players, we get something like this:


The date is October 6, 2013 and the Baltimore Orioles are clinging to a two run lead over the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card game. Jake Arrieta – one of the leading candidates for the AL Cy Young award – is one strike away from finishing off his masterpiece allowing just five hits and no earned runs. Josh Donaldson is at the plate battling in a 1-2 count to try and keep hopes alive for the fans on their feet at the Collesium. Arrieta gets the signal from catcher Matt Weiters – cutter away – and nods in agreement. It’s been one of the best pitches in baseball this season; now seems like a great time to use it.

He calmly gathers himself and begins his windup striding towards the third base side of the rubber. After his foot lands, he powerfully works across his body and delivers a 93 mph cutter that starts right down the middle of the plate. Donaldson reads it initially as the two seam fastball he just saw two pitches ago and starts his swing – but realizes it’s Arrieta’s devastating cutter a few feet too late. The pitch darts out the strike zone, misses Donaldson’s bat, and finishes in the glove of Wieters just off the outside corner. Orioles players come pouring out of the dugout to mob Arrieta and Wieters in celebration just beyond the mound. Arrieta – a 20 game winner in the regular season – has come up with his biggest win of the year and has helped the birds punch their ticket to the ALDS against Detroit. Baseball’s feel good story will play at least another three games in 2015; all Arrieta needs is for them to find a way to get to game four. 


Oh, what could have been, Baltimore.