Week Eight: 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 of 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?

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