It’s the evening of November 1, 2015 and the New York Mets are fighting for their lives in a do or die Game 5 against the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. On the brink of elimination, Terry Collins turned to Matt Harvey – baseball’s feel good story winning NL Comeback Player of the Year after missing 2014 to Tommy John. Harvey was not just good on that November evening – he was masterful. In peak “Dark Knight” form, Harvey held the dangerous Royals offense to zero runs through eight innings running his electric heater up to 98 mph. When Terry Collins thought it was a good idea to go to the bullpen after eight, Harvey didn’t ask Collins to go back out; he told him he wasn’t finished.
Up 2-0 with three outs to go, Harvey sprinted out to the mound to the roar of the Citi Field crowd determined to finish off his masterpiece. It was the picture perfect story for the 2015 NL Comeback player of the Year, but it didn’t quite finish the way Mets fans had hoped. After a leadoff walk and a Eric Hosmer double, Matt Harvey was forced to watch the rest of his lead slip away from the Mets dugout. The Royals would go on to put up a 5 spot in the 12th to finish off the Mets in five games to put an abrupt ending to their magical pennant run. It’s tough to predict what could have happened if Collins had dismissed Harvey and sent out his closer Jeurys Familia for the ninth, but there is one thing we can know for sure – Harvey’s heroics through eight were his last shining moment as a New York Met.
If we fast forward the clocks to April 25, 2018, Matt Harvey no longer owns a spot in the Mets starting rotation. The former 2013 All-Star was demoted to the bullpen after owning an ERA north of 6.00 and suffering from the lowest fastball velocity of his career (93 mph). Less than three years ago, Harvey was pounding his chest to a roaring crowd and overruling his manager’s decision to go out for the ninth inning of an elimination game in the World Series. To say this was an unexpected turn of events would be an understatement.
Now here’s where the story gets interesting. Just two weeks after Harvey’s demotion to the bullpen, New York decided to ship him off to Cincinnati for catcher Devin Mesoraco. Over the next five months, Harvey would start 24 games for the Reds winning seven and dropping his ERA down to 4.50 (not great, but it’s not the whole story). In his short stint with the Mets, Harvey’s fastball averaged out at a career low 93.3 mph. After changing uniforms, his fastball jumped back up to 94.8 – his fastest since 2015. Along with this, Harvey’s K/9 improved from 6.7 to 7.8, he dropped his BB/9 from 3.0 to 2.0, he doubled his K/BB from 2.22 to 3.96, his WHIP dropped from 1.556 to 1.250, and his H/9 improved from 11.0 to 9.3. The video below is from September of 2018 – four months after struggling to touch 94 on the gun. This pitch was 97.
If we look at Harvey’s 91 mph fastball from April and compare him to September of the same year, we notice two completely different moves that could explain why he started to have some success after his trade to Cincinnati. For one, Harvey’s arm slot lowered in Cincinnati. When he was in New York, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation around his shoulders. This position creates an inefficient arm action and could have played a pretty significant role in his diminished velocity, health, and durability.
If we slow it down, this is what we looks like synced up to release in both frames.
If you were to draw a straight line out from the shoulders perpendicular to the trunk at ball release, the throwing arm should be on that line (i.e. the plane of rotation). When Harvey was struggling for velocity early on in the year, his arm was climbing above the plane of rotation into an inefficient position. When he rediscovered his velocity in Cincinnati, his arm slot started to lower into a position much more favorable in relationship to his trunk.
Now let’s break down another glaring difference: Harvey stops significantly better in Cincinnati. In the clip with New York, you’ll notice how Harvey’s arm yanks down after release and bangs against his torso. When guys climb above the plane of rotation into release, they have to come back down after ball release. This climbing and sudden yanking down creates a poor deceleration pattern that can impact velocity, command, and arm health. On the right, you notice a completely different move. Instead of yanking his arm through, Harvey stops his arm much better and actually “pimps the finish” (better known as an arm recoil).
This move is not forced like the one from the left. Instead, it is a muscle spindle reflex created to dissipate a large amount of tension in the system after ball release. It’s something you see from some of the hardest throwers on the planet; and it’s not by coincidence. It’s not just an indication that someone is trying to throw smoke – it’s indicator of awesome decelerator strength. When we stop better, we transfer force better, throw harder, and command the ball with more precision (see 0:20 in video below).
Matt Harvey may not ever completely return to Dark Knight form, but his 2018 resurgence is a great example of how moves can change, evolve, and either positively impact performance or deteriorate it. The goal then becomes to catch when things go wrong and get athletes back on track as quickly as possible. Matt Harvey won seven games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2018. While those seven games might not have meant much to the Mets or Reds in 2018, they would have meant a hell of a lot to four other teams fighting for division titles that year that had to settle things in game 163. Good player development takes guys like Harvey who get off track, helps them create the adjustments they need, and puts them in situations where they can help their team win championships. When you boil a 162 game season down, the differences between good and bad players and winning and losing ball clubs are much smaller than you’d think. Failure to take advantage of these critical moments of time can ruin careers, cut seasons short, and prevent you from making the most with what you have.
Harvey wasn’t the same guy in 2018 that he was in 2013, but he definitely still had something left in him. When players have something left in the tank that they can’t access on their own, it’s our responsibility as coaches to help bring it out of them. Harvey will always be an unfortunate example of what could have been, but he’s also a great example of how a change of scenery and some better moves can completely change your season.
“If someone hands you a picture and shows you a picture and says “here’s their stance,” “here’s their negative move,” “here’s contact,” – If you give them any advice on what they’re doing wrong, you are taking such a gamble because you have no idea how they got to those positions.” – Dr. Greg Rose, from Elite Development Baseball Podcast
When I first got into coaching, I knew I had to build a better understanding for what a good swing or delivery looked like. To do this, I tried to simplify the complexity of a swing or delivery by breaking it down into a series of still shots. I collected and sorted these shots based on critical moments in time that I believed were important. For example, the categories I used for hitters were stance, move out of balance, foot plant, initial move to the ball, contact, extension, and finish. For pitchers I liked to look at their move out of balance (leg lift), glute load/move down the mound, foot plant, ball release, deceleration, and “finishing in a fielding position” (it’s in quotes for a reason).
When I started to collect still shots from a lot of different players, I started to see see where guys had similarities and where they presented with slight variations. For example, I noticed how a lot of hitters at foot plant tended to be in a 50/50 position where their feet were spread outside of their shoulders, both heels were in the ground, their head was over their center of mass, and their hands were back behind their belly button. All of them landed in an athletic position where they had equal bend in the knees, some degree of posture (chest over the plate), and their glutes sat behind their heels. As for differences, some guys had different hand positions (lower vs. higher, father back vs. more out front), bases (wider vs. shorter), and some landed a little more closed (Stanton) or open (Khris Davis). This was important for me early on because it helped give me a feel for things to look for and things not to get over obsessed with. If I knew certain positions had more variation, I didn’t really coach those as much directly. I tried to get the big rocks in line (i.e. posture, balance) before figuring out how the other pieces came into play.
While these still shots helped increase my understanding of the swing or throw, they didn’t tell the entire story. To explain this, let’s think about why balance points become popular. If we look at these snapshots of Justin Verlander from behind and in front, it would appear that he is in a position of balance where he’s keeping his center of mass over his rear leg.
Now let’s take a look at how he gets to the position. Let’s look at Verlander from the side.
Here’s what he looks like specifically into peak leg lift:
If we look at how Justin Verlander moves to this position of “balance,” we notice a totally different move than what the snap shots might initially suggest. Notice how his center of mass never stays over his rear leg and he never gets to a true balanced position where he is creating zero lateral movement. Instead, he starts to drift down the mound slightly as he gets to his peak leg lift. If we just look at the picture of him at leg lift, we miss out on the fact that how he got to that position is totally different than the perception of the initial still shots.
Now let’s look at a different scenario. Below are two still shots of Kershaw side by side at two different points of his career. The shots are taken as Kershaw starts to move down the mound after peak leg lift.
To the untrained eye, these two pictures from two different moments in time look pretty similar. However, they’re not as similar as you think. Let’s look at the movements side by side.
Now the differences become much more clear. If we look at the delivery on the left, we notice Kershaw shifts his weight towards the front part of his foot after leg lift and comes out of the ground early. This video was taken from Kershaw’s rookie year in 2008. If we look at the video on the right, we notice a completely different sequence. Instead of shifting towards the front part of his foot, Kershaw stays into his glutes longer, keeps his back foot connected to the ground for a longer period of time, and creates a more efficient sequence with his lower half. This video was taken from Kershaw’s perfect game in 2014. Kershaw had issues with giving up free passes his first few years in the league walking 4.33/9 in 2008. He didn’t have this problem in 2014 – he walked 1.4/9. While there are plenty of other factors to take into the equation, more efficient moves definitely played a role in his improved command of the strike zone.
When we look beyond the pictures and look at the movement that created them, we create the context we need to make accurate decisions on what that player needs. If we look at the pictures without looking at the movement, we’re forced to assume how they got to those positions. Two guys can get to the picture-perfect contact position, but it doesn’t mean they took the same route to get there. If you just check a box based on how they look at contact, you’re neglecting the one thing that matters: How they got there.
Pictures can be a great way to slow things down and bring awareness to certain parts of the movement, but they can’t paint the whole story. If we wouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we definitely shouldn’t judge a player based on a snap shot in time. Good moves play; good pictures don’t always play.
Communication is Connection
I was able to sit in on an awesome zoom conversation last weekend that featured some of the best hitting minds in the game which included Bobby Tewskbary, Andy McKay, Jerry Weinstein, Don Wakamatsu, Darin Everson, and Rick Strickland. The conversation dug into the weeds of player development and tackled different types of problems that we all face when coaching hitters. Out of all the things I learned throughout the five hour conversation, there was one reoccurring theme that really stuck out to me – and it didn’t involve the swing.
When Wakamatsu worked in pro ball with Brian Butterfield, current third base coach for the Angels, one of the things he picked up on was how Brian placed a premium on building relationships. In spring training, Butterfield took the time to get to know each one of his players on a personal level. He figured out where they were from, what high school they went to, previous coaches they had, information about their family, and their interests outside of baseball. He always tried to find something they had in common so he could use that as a tool to connect and strike up a future conversation. By placing a premium on his communication with his players, Brian increased his ability to influence them because they knew he cared about them. Ken Ravizza said it best when he said, “Your players won’t care about what you know until they know you care.”
Ken Crenshaw – Director of Sports Medicine and Performance for the Arizona Diamondbacks – talked about this on a more tactical level saying, “There are plenty of people that can talk but can’t connect. If you didn’t connect with that guy on the “why,” it’s going to be harder for them to make that change.”
If we break this down in a baseball context, let’s think about the process of making a swing change. As a coach, just telling the player what they need to do is not enough – you need to start with a shared understanding of where that athlete is in that moment of time. There’s a really good chance you aren’t the first coach that has worked with that hitter. Because of this, you need to do some homework before you start teaching. This includes how they’ve trained in the past, what’s worked for them, what hasn’t worked, injuries they’ve had, what problems they’re currently trying to solve, and what aspirations they have for the future. You need to understand their perception of a good swing, their swing, and what they need to feel to get their best swing off. You can’t change perception of the model if you don’t know what the model looks like in the first place.
When you’ve got all the pieces you need, you can use the pieces you already have and combine them to start putting together the entire puzzle. Any gaps in understanding will create a hole in your finished product. The more holes you have, the tougher it is going to be to build buy in. If players don’t believe in what you’re doing you don’t have a chance to create any sort of significant changes. Our goal should be to put together the entire picture – not just the part of the puzzle we want to drive home.
When you can create this shared understanding, it’s important to maintain an open line of communication throughout the swing design process. Some things you say or do will work, others won’t, and some might work if the athlete better understood what you were trying to say. You need to uncover these gaps in understanding by asking a lot of questions, seeking real time feedback, and adjusting on the fly based on what they’re comprehending or missing. We can’t just assume our players know what we’re talking about it. If they can’t explain it in their words and describe how it relates to their swing, they don’t understand it well enough.
When you think about “staying closed,” you might think about your pelvis while someone else thinks about their trunk or hands. Your perception of staying anchored could help you stay connected to the ground longer while others may actually get out of the ground sooner because they don’t operate well when focused on the extremities. If you’re trying to drill home a point and the player can’t understand exactly what you’re trying to communicate, you’re not going to get the results you want – and it’s not the player’s fault. If the communication channels aren’t crystal clear, you only have yourself to blame. We connect when we communicate; we lose connection when we lose communication. If you don’t make it a priority, your message won’t get any further than your perception of it.
When the Risk becomes the Reward: What we all can learn about skill acquisition from skateboarders
“Rarely is it a question of talent or technique at those levels, it’s just one of belief.” – Rodney Mullen, former professional skateboarder
I was able to catch up with Lantz Wheeler earlier this week and pick his brain on a couple of things Eugene and I have been talking about over the past several weeks. One of the things that Lantz shared was the brilliance of skateboarding when it comes to learning new skills. Watching these guys in action is a brilliant insight into the skill acquisition process: There’s a goal in reach, a methodical process to get there, trial and error, experimentation, failure, resilience, palpable belief, and a relentless drive to make it happen. Feedback is required, it’s immediate, and a lot of the times it is painful. However, it doesn’t deter these guys one bit.
To me, that is one of the things that makes skateboarding truly unique: Failure is really painful. When these guys miss, they get hit hard. Every fall puts wear and tear on their bones, limbs, and challenges them in ways that are impossible to describe without actually ever experiencing it. However, none of these falls prove to be fatal. The resilience that these guys have created through years of trial and error is so much that they are willing to put their body through great lengths of pain in order to achieve a desired goal, objective, or outcome. When the guy in the video from above fell, he didn’t complain about how it was too hard or how he was too tired or in too much pain. He got right back up, dusted himself off, and reaffirmed his belief by using phrases such as “next try is it” and “I’ve finally got it.” There was no doubt in his mind he was going to nail the trick; it was only a matter of how much time it was going to take him. The risk of falling didn’t create fear – it fueled his belief. The risk no longer became the thing he was trying to avoid. It became the reward.
When we’re building a skill, we have to treat the consequences of failure just like skateboarders: We need to turn the risk into the reward. Instead of avoiding the thing that seems fatal, we need to crave them because they give us rich feedback to perform the skill better next time. If skateboarders can put their body on the line with every single move they make, we can do the same thing as baseball players; especially since we’re not worried about breaking bones if we fail.
If you can create an environment in skill development where the risk becomes the reward, adversity no longer becomes an obstacle – the obstacle becomes the way (pretty good book, by the way). The returns on this are limitless.
The more frequent the better
Eugene has since decided to use his spare time being quarantined to learn how to play the piano – and he is about as novice as novice gets when it comes to music. The only advantage he really has is he doesn’t have hard wired CNS to do it the wrong way. This process has spurred some insightful conversations about the process of acquiring a skill by tapping into exactly what helps him improve and what creates challenges for him. While he’s only a couple weeks in, there is one thing that has really helped Eugene early on: Frequency.
Eugene may practice for up to two hours a day, but those two hours are not spent all at once. He can figure out how to master a specific note or a song with time, but the game totally changes when he takes a break and has to repeat the same skill after a period of not doing it. Whenever he takes a break and comes back to it, his learning systems go all the way back to square one. This can create some frustrating moments, but it’s really helped Eugene because it’s forced him to understand the skill inside out. He can’t rely on previous practice nearly as well when he has to pick up the skill and start fresh after a dormant period. While he can’t exactly pick up where he left off at, he’s able to start at a baseline that exceeds his previous practice session. It’s a great reminder that progress is not linear.
Every time Eugene picks up the piano and starts playing, his CNS is firing to create pathways required for execution of the skill. These pathways become stronger with repetition – a process known as myelin sheathing. Myelin is the fatty substance that wraps around the pathways between neurons that are required for execution of a skill. When these pathways are used more frequently, more myelin is created to insulate these circuits. Denser sheets of myelin help accelerate the distance and speed impulses can travel between neurons across a specific pathway. This is where the idea of practice becomes perfect comes from: The more you practice, the more myelin your brain creates, the more the skill becomes automated, the better you get at it.
This is where I think frequency comes into play. If we think about the resources and attention we can allocate to learning a specific skill, more practice eventually gets to a point of diminishing returns. We all know the feeling when we’ve been working on something for a while but feel like nothing is getting done. Some guys might benefit more from longer sessions, but only if the learning systems are actively engaged. If your brain goes on autopilot when practicing a skill, no new learning is occurring. For these reasons, breaking up your practice sessions and instead doing them more frequently throughout the day or week can be of huge benefit. Don’t force yourself to hammer our three straight hours of writing if half of that time is going to be spent staring at a blank page. Space it out, put together quality work when you’re focused, and learn when to step away. Doing it more isn’t always better – doing it more frequently might be a better idea.
Assessments are something I’ve been interested in for a while because of the role they play in designing individualized training programs. Being able to individualize is a critical skill as a coach because your players are akin to snowflakes; not one is ever going to be the same. Being able to give them exactly what they need at that moment of time is an art. Each kid is going to need different thoughts, feelings, cues, drills, and actionable strategies molded into a unified plan that is constantly changing based on their needs. Step one to building this plan begins with a thorough assessment of where they’re currently at, what problems they’re trying to solve, and what’s preventing them from getting to where they want to be.
A good assessment is like an interrogation process; you’re constantly observing, asking questions, and inquiring to find information you need to make accurate decisions about what they are currently going through. If you’re interrogating someone, there is no such thing as a stone left unturned; assessments should be no different. If there is something that is preventing that athlete from becoming the best version of themselves on the diamond, you need to find out about it. You will always be at the constraint of what you don’t know. A thorough assessment makes sure there is nothing you need to know that you don’t.
The recent push in baseball to individualize has helped create some awesome strategies and tools to help build a better understanding of what problems athletes are having and why. High speed video, 3D motion capture systems, movement screening, Rapsodo/Yakkertech, Hittrax, KVest, and force plates have all given us the ability to improve our understanding of exactly where that athlete is at that moment of time. The process of swinging a bat or throwing a pitch has not changed – we’ve just eliminated guess work when it comes to breaking it down. When we eliminate guessing, we improve our ability to make accurate decisions that help us individualize our coaching. Guessing and checking may seem like a good algebra strategy until you’re through your 10th guess and you still don’t have an answer – or, better yet, a plan. When we assess, we skip guess and check and get right to the meat of it. Time is the most precious resource we have. Assessing may seem like a lot of time early on, but having the discipline to do it the right way will save you the extra time and head scratching later down the road. There’s a reason why Abe Lincoln spent four of his five hours sharpening the axe before actually cutting down the tree.
Out of all the tools introduced for assessments, the one I became really interested in was movement screening. When I heard that your ability to swing or throw was at the constraint of the limitations of your body, I became really interested because I wondered what kind of impact they could have had on my playing career. I’ve personally since been through the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) and I thought it provided a lot of valuable information, but it wasn’t quite it. I knew understanding the body was something that needed to be taken into account when building an individualized training program, but I also knew passing the FMS shoulder mobility test with flying colors actually meant you were more susceptible to injury. New assessments like TPI and OnBaseU peaked my interest but I needed to know more about them before I decided to dive in and get certified.
When I read through Old School vs. New School and learned about Eugene’s thoughts when it came to physical “limitations” (he prefers the word “adaptations”), I had a feeling he was on to something. When he explained to me at the ABCA that using these “limitations” to your advantage was a much easier – and potentially more effective – way to coach, I knew I had to look at movement screens through a different lens. If Eugene had done research and found a large majority of “hip mobility programs” actually increased your chances of getting hurt, what does the role of movement screening actually play? If some of the best sprinters in the world (maybe the best rotators in the world) all have tight hips, ankles, hamstrings, lower backs, and flat feet, that’s the point in assessing for mobility in these areas? Are movement screens driving the right kind of interventions or are they inspiring counterproductive work?
If we think about the role of movement screens in the assessment process, we need to understand that all they are is information. What we do with that information is what is most important. If we want to leverage that information for effective interventions, we need to look at it within the context of the skill. The skill is not only the most important part about the assessment process; it is the assessment. The athletes that come to us are not concerned about whether their hips are too tight or whether they don’t have enough dorsiflexion in their right ankle – they just want to get better at baseball. Understanding how they’re physically structured can help give you information on how to help them get better, but it must be used within the context of the skill. If you don’t understand the why behind the screen, you lose your ability to make accurate decisions because you become so lost in the details that you forget the most important things: The swing or the throw.
If you can thoroughly and accurately define what the skill looks like, what it should look like, and how to bridge that gap, the new and flashy tools become a slave to the person who should be driving the intervention: The coach. If you don’t understand the skill, you become a slave to the data; and that never ends well. The assessment then turns into a crap shoot where you collect a bunch of data, get lost searching for something that might correlate, and maybe throw some shit at the wall to show off your “expertise.” If you don’t treat the skill as the assessment, you get lost chasing information trying to find something that matters. If you know what matters in the skill you know what data you need to collect, how to collect it, and how to communicate it to so you can help that player improve. Movement screens create awareness for where that athlete is starting, but it is not the mold.
When the skill is not where it needs to be, it can create the illusion that something physically is off and needs to be changed. This is where the movement screens can come into play – but not necessarily for the right reasons. Zach Dechant, head strength coach at TCU, described a situation on a recent zoom call with Eugene where he was working with an athlete that showed below average shoulder maximum external rotation (MER) throughout his delivery on their motion capture system. If execution of the skill is not taken into context, this can drive some unnecessary (and time consuming) interventions. In this case, just looking at poor MER and not understanding how it was created will make you falsely think there is some sort of constraint preventing them from creating MER. In this case – along with many others – the athlete did not need more MER. They had plenty of it; they just didn’t know how to unlock it in their delivery. When Zach made a few tweaks to the delivery, he unlocked another 10-15 degrees within a matter of a couple throws. He didn’t need mobility work to open up his shoulder; he just need to teach the kid how to tap into what he already had.
The important thing to understand from this is the data was not wrong; the athlete did need to improve his MER. How you unlock this MER is where the importance of good coaching comes into play. Movement screens provide you with really valuable information; how you use that information is far more valuable. Just looking at someone’s IR deficit in their rear hip is not only stupid (you don’t really need it), it’s neglecting the main thing: The skill. Measuring it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change it – you just need to know how it affects the movement. Getting stuck on your backside because you have no IR is a problem, but just getting the athlete to toe out (think like a squat) is a much simpler solution than giving the athlete a mobility program they probably don’t need in the first place.
By the way, how much mobility do elite rotary athletes really need in the first place?
The Mobility Myth – Why we probably don’t need as much as what we think
Before I get ostracized for this one, let’s pull out the common sense card and start with what we know about baseball. We know that a swing or throw requires the creation and dissipation of force in a small window of time. We know that players are competing in narrow windows of time where they don’t have the affordance to gradually create energy; they’ve got to get off their best punch without getting knocked on their ass. Yes I know pitching isn’t reactionary, but I also know you can’t get a 20 foot running head start before throwing a pitch. By deductive reasoning, success in baseball is largely going to depend on your ability to create the most amount of force (rate of force development) within the smallest window of time.
Now let’s get away from the baseball thing and say you’re jumping on a trampoline. If you wanted to create the most amount of air using the least amount of time, what would you want those springs to look like? How taught would you want the jumping mat? Would you want springs that were looser or more tightly bound? Would you want a lot of give or not a lot of give when you landed on the mat? I don’t know about you, but I would want tightly bound springs and I’d want the jumping mat pulled as taught as possible without becoming rigid. If I’m trying to get as high as I can in the least amount of time, I don’t want a lot of slack in the trampoline; I want to redirect energy as quickly and efficiently as possible. The guys who we think “lack mobility” are just like the best sprinters in the world; they have the tightest springs. The guys who have plenty of mobility have much looser springs. Just because the springs are looser doesn’t mean you can’t create the same/more air time, but at what time cost does it come at? If the fittest of a species is able to do the most with the least, are guys with looser springs maximizing their ability to do this? Are guys with tighter springs better suited for this?
Now let’s revisit the baseball thing: Are you sure your guys need more mobility, or do they just need a better movement solution so they make can better use of their current mobility?
One of Eugene’s favorite one liners is, “Things become a thing when we do the opposite.” When strength and conditioning started to become popular in baseball, a lot of experts noticed how tightly bound some of the best players in the game were. The initial response to this was to try and open them up so they can increase the window in which they can produce force and prevent them from developing injuries. While it was well intentioned, the performance results were not uniform across the board; some guys got better, many saw no change at all, and plenty others got worse or hurt. Mobility programs became a thing when we did the opposite of what we were observing in the field – a lot of really tight guys. The questions then becomes this: Were some of the best players tight by accident or by design? When in doubt, I try to use logic. Logic would tell us the best players in the game are probably really good for a reason. In other words, they probably didn’t have tight hips for the hell of it.
The game of baseball hasn’t really changed that much. We still like guys who throw the ball hard, hit it far, and run fast. Players who are really good at these are some of the tightest, twitchiest guys on the planet. They don’t use a whole lot of mobility because they probably don’t need it for elite rate of force development. This is part of the reason why strength training took such a long time to gain traction in baseball – some of the best players were already naturally tight and didn’t like the feeling of adding muscle mass and getting even tighter. Their springs were already tightly bound enough; throwing a blanket strength training program into the mix probably didn’t help the cause.
I do think that opening up some guys can be a good idea in certain cases, but I also know opening up ranges of motion without assessing the individual can add slack that the system doesn’t really need in the first place. This is not a great strategy for long term health and performance. We know that the spine doesn’t like aggressive rotation in the first place. Why would we want to open up the lower extremities so we can rotate over a greater arc? What do we think happens to the raft when we add 30 feet of slack to the rope and have the boat take off at full speed? Did guys develop tighter hips because it was a more beneficial movement solution hat allowed them to produce the most amount of force without placing their body in compromised positions? Did executing the skill under a time constraint influence this? I don’t know about you, but I think these all played a role.
Tight may not be bad after all – tight may be a beneficial adaptation that we started to get away from when we started to dive into mobility. Just like anything, the sweet spot is usually somewhere in the middle. Everything is great until it becomes the only thing.
I’ve had tight athletes move amazingly + never get injured. And flexible athletes move poorly +routinely get injuries. Flexibility/mobility must not be measured in a vacuum, but are a puzzle piece to the entire coordinative and genetic system of ea. Individual athlete.
If we go back and pull out the common sense card, the whole reason behind adding mobility is so we can get better at either throwing or hitting a baseball. If adding mobility helps you do either of this, it is beneficial; if it doesn’t, it’s not. If you’re looking at mobility without doing it in the context of the skill you’re trying to hit the dartboard blindfolded; you might hit it every once in a while, but it’s a largely ineffective strategy. Certain areas are going to need to stabilize and mobilize throughout the course of an efficient sequence. If the sequence isn’t where it needs to be, the athlete can’t possibly tap into the mobility they already have. This is why you have to work backwards from the skill:You can’t determine an athlete lacks something if they don’t really know how to use it in the first place. If the pelvis can’t anchor down and create stability for the upper half, adding thoracic mobility is not going to fix the problem; creating a better sequence will.
Now this doesn’t mean we should throw mobility out the window with cookie cutter training programs – we just need to understand it a lot better. Some guys may present with mobility constraints that impact the way they are able to sequence and those must be addressed in coordination with the skill. Everything we do off the field must transfer to what we do on the field. If guys who are increasing their hip mobility are becoming more prone to injury, we need to rethink how we assess athletes and determine how much mobility is sufficient for them. Elite rotary athletes are different; there’s a reason why they represent less than one percent of the world’s population. Trying to fit them into a mold based on how they perform in some bullshit movement screen isn’t enough. We need to understand how those ranges of motion influence efficient movement patterns. I don’t know if we’ve really figure that one out yet – but it’s something we need to figure out if we want guys to perform and stay healthy for a long period of time.
For now, do yourself a favor and think before you start adding mobility – it might do a lot more harm than good if you’re wrong.
Mike Soroka was a nice free agent addition to my fantasy baseball team last year – and it’s because his shit is nasty. He’ll slice and dice you with 95 mph sinkers, upper 80s sliders, and does it with pinpoint precision – only walking 2.5 batters per nine while striking out 7.3 en route to his first All-Star selection in 2019. He’s part of a young group of arms that are going to be really exciting to watch over the next decade – well, if he stays healthy over the next 10 years.
Something Eugene talks about a lot is keeping the elbow in the plane of rotation. When throwers get to foot strike, the throwing elbow is going to be up in a position that is roughly in line or slightly below the throwing shoulder (above creates impingement in the rotator cuff). As the pitcher starts to internally rotate the shoulder to throw the ball, the throwing elbow wants to travel on a clear path through it’s natural slot around the plane of rotation; about 90 degrees to the trunk. This relationship is where a thrower’s “natural” slot comes from. Everyone throws from a low slot – some people just do it with more or less trunk tilt. Guys who throw “over the top” are able to create more lateral trunk tilt towards their glove side to create a higher release point. Guys who throw appear to throw “sidearm” don’t create nearly as much tilt.
Question from last nite….The arm slot comes from lateral trunk flexion not “raising your arm” to get overhead. The arm unwinds through the shoulder line in efficient patterns. Want to get overhead? Bend more! pic.twitter.com/bE5s8njdbf
When we look at Soroka from the side (below), I want you to look at where his elbow is at foot strike and how is travels after foot strike. If he maintains a clean, natural slot throughout the course of his delivery, the elbow should maintain a relatively straight line horizontal line towards his target. Instead, you’re going to notice his elbow “scoop” up and climb above the plane of rotation as his shoulders start to rotate forward. This is not good. Instead of letting his arm naturally unwind around his trunk, his elbow is being forced to climb up so he can throw “over the top.” When athletes are forced to move in positions that are not natural or efficient, we tend to see injuries.
A misconception about hip-shoulder separation is that it MUST happen over an extreme ROM to be effective. The truth is that for every pitcher that creates massive separation, there’s another one that is successful with less (great example: @Mike_Soroka28). (1/3) @PitchingNinjapic.twitter.com/39eUqHqtUf
For reference, here is Soroka compared to Trevor Bauer’s arm action. Notice how Trevor’s arm rotates around his trunk and his elbow maintains a clean line towards his target. Instead of scooping up, it works around the shoulders to efficiently deliver the baseball. Soroka’s climbs up and slams back down to throw the ball – it doesn’t maintain a clean path to the plate.
The best part about this? Soroka didn’t always look like this. Below is a clip of him throwing a pitch as a standout high school prospect in the Area Code games before being taken in the first round by Atlanta.
For reference, this is what he looked like last year from the same camera angle.
Now let’s look at them side by side.
Well, that’s a hair different from what he used to do. Notice how on the left Soroka strides closed and his arm unwinds naturally and effortlessly from a lower arm slot. It’s loose, relaxed, and efficient. If you look at his delivery on the right, notice how he has to force his body to create more trunk tilt so his arm can move from a higher slot. Instead of unwinding around his body, his arm yanks down and abruptly bangs against his torso after release. Since he had to yank his elbow up to get on top, it has to yank back down to throw the ball. This doesn’t create a healthy deceleration pattern for the arm and can place a lot of stress on the elbow and anterior shoulder. This isn’t ideal.
In essence, Soroka was most likely coached out of the movement solutions that made him really, really good (figure that one out) and was forced to throw from a more over the top slot. While it hasn’t really impacted his performance so far, I’m not confident he can sustain this delivery over a longer period of time. There’s a reason why he threw from a lower slot in high school – it was his natural slot. Guys who get forced out of positions that made them really good tend to get hurt – kind of like the guy below.
What happened to 2014 #2 overall pick Tyler Kolek?
Tyler Kolek was drafted by the Miami Marlins #2 overall in the 2014 MLB Draft. Kolek was a highly coveted draft prospect at 6’5″ 250 lbs. featuring a fastball that he consistently ran into the mid to upper 90s – touching triple digits – that paired well with a devastating breaking ball. His stuff was absolutely filthy coming out of high school – but there’s a reason why you probably don’t know his name.
Just so we have a reference point, this is what Kolek looked like in high school at the Area Code games.
This is what he looked like two years later in spring training.
Kolek didn’t throw a pitch in 2016. He missed the entire season and most of 2017 to Tommy John Surgery. For an even better look at the changes Kolek made, check out what he looked like in 2018 in instructs. His fastball topped out at 92.
The first thing I noticed right off the bat when it came to Kolek’s delivery was his tempo. In high school, Kolek utilized an up tempo delivery where he got his center of mass going down the mound as soon as he picked up his left leg. When Kolek got to pro ball, I noticed a significant change in his tempo. In the spring training shot, notice how Kolek gets to more of a balance point and keeps his center of mass over his back leg at peak leg lift. There isn’t a continuous flow of energy the way his delivery used to look when he was one of the top high school prospects in the country. It’s abrupt, it looks forced, and it could be part of the reason why he started to fall off.
The second thing that significantly changed in Kolek’s delivery was where his front foot landed. In high school, Kolek strided closed. In pro ball, that changed; he now strides much more open. The second shot makes this pretty easy to see. Instead of keeping his pelvis closed and getting across his body, Kolek’s pelvis swings wide open and drags his arm through. Trying to stride more open prevented Kolek from creating the cross-body tension he was once able to create when he landed closed with his front foot. His fastball lost his zip, his command went to hell, he got sent to the surgery table twice (later for thoracic outlet), and his chances of getting to the bigs now are about as slim as they could possibly be.
While this evaluation doesn’t take into account a myriad of variables such as throwing routines, strength programs, or workload, the movement paints a pretty glaring picture. The Kolek you saw throwing in high school is completely different than the Kolek from pro ball in 2016 and 2018; and it shouldn’t be a surprise he’s struggled a lot. What some coaches may have seen as flaws turned out to be some of the things that made Kolek such a special draft prospect. While the changes made were well intentioned, I think they ended up becoming the worst thing possible for Kolek. He didn’t run it up to triple digits as a high school kid by mistake. The movement patterns he developed were vital to his success on the diamond growing up. Taking them away from him, in my current opinion, was the start of his downfall.
The worst part about Kolek’s situation is this isn’t a one time thing – it happens all the time. Careers are ruined because players either get away or are forced away from the things that made them so good in the first place. Soroka didn’t throw from a lower slot because he wanted to hurt himself. He did it because it was the best way for him to efficiently and effectively transfer force into the baseball. Kolek didn’t stride closed because he thought it would hurt his command or velocity. He did it because it helped him throw 100 mph at 18 years old. It comes back to the fallacies of research: Let’s start with the common sense card before we start putting together some bullshit plan for all the changes a guy needs to make so he “won’t get hurt.” Better yet, let’s try to understand WHY these guys move the way they do before we decide to pull out the stride straight/throw over the top/finish in a fielding position card.
If we want to protect kids going forward and give them their best chance at getting to the show, we need to seek to understand before we seek to be understood. More and more careers are going to be put at risk until we do.
Pitch design is something that has gained a lot of traction recently – and rightfully so. Seeing exactly how the ball comes out of your hand helps significantly accelerate the learning curve for a new pitch by enhancing awareness and understanding for how to create a desired movement profile. Pitchers have always been interested in building a new pitch or finding ways to get their ball to move a little more in a specific direction. It’s fun, it’s sexy, and it’s effective if done in the right populations; but it’s not always necessary.
Will and Eugene worked with several professional arms this past offseason that saw huge improvements in offspeed stuff after training. Here’s the catch: They didn’t do any pitch design work. The only thing they did was learned how to move better. When the movement improved, the secondary stuff became significantly sharper – and it’s not a coincidence.
To explain this, check out a couple of 2018 sliders from Marc Rzepczynski – one of their pro clients from this past offseason. In an outing in April 2018, Marc spun off a 2152 rpm floater that was a pretty easy take for Matt Joyce – largely because it wasn’t too far from his head. It looked something like this:
Just four weeks later, he ripped off a 2535 rpm hammer that sent Joey Gallo back to the dugout. It looked something like this:
If we look into the difference between the pitches, we could theorize plenty of things which include his feel for the pitch that day, the cues he was thinking about, or the visuals he was using. However, the one glaring difference between both pitches is the movement solutions he created when throwing both. Let’s take a closer look.
Notice Rzepczynski’s lower half. On the Joyce slider, Marc comes out of his backside pretty quickly causing his pelvis to drag his arm through. This prevents Marc from getting into good positions so he can rip off a nasty slider (it’s tough to get to the front of the ball if your arm is playing catch up). Now let’s look at the good slider on the right. Notice how Marc stays into his backside much longer which helps him create a better and more efficient sequence. This gives him the ability to get into better positions where his arm is on time at foot strike so he can rip off a better breaking ball. As you could guess, this is something Marc worked on this past offseason.
Marc didn’t necessarily need a new grip or a new cue to create a better breaking ball; he just needed to move better. When the movement improved, his stuff improved. This is a great lesson for anyone looking to add or refine a a pitch from their arsenal: Before you start tinkering with the fun stuff, start by looking at your movement solutions. Trying to refine Marc’s bad slider through pitch design would be putting the cart before the horse. He didn’t need pitch design work – he needed movement work. If you have a kid who moves like shit, working on adding a new curveball isn’t going to solve the problem – moving better will. If you have a kid who consistently throws cement mixers and has played around with 69 different grips, working on grip #70 probably isn’t a great idea. As you can see with Marc, how you move creates the movement profile. Chasing rpms without addressing the movement is going to send you swimming upstream.
With this, being able to throw a good secondary pitch is a learned skill that requires practice and experimentation. If you’re learning how to throw a breaking ball, just dedicating all of your training economy to throwing fastballs isn’t a great idea. The magic then becomes using the movement work to be in good positions so you can start creating feel for how to rip off a proper breaking ball. If we become a slave to the movement profile of the pitch, we neglect the thing that’s creating it: The movement. Good movement creates good secondary stuff; bad movement creates bad secondary stuff.
Pitch design is not a bad thing – it’s a really good thing; just know when and who to use it with.
What we can learn from Neil deGrasse Tyson
Eugene and I took the time to go through Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Masterclass the other evening and it was worth every penny. Through a series of videos, Neil explained the engine that drives how he thinks, interprets information, and determines truth amidst varying perspectives, clutter, and bias. When we can’t rely on previous information to solve problems, we must rely on how we think. Mastering your ability to think gives you range – relying on what you already know creates rigidity. Below are some oh his thoughts from the video series.
“Wisdom is distilled knowledge once you’ve forgotten all the details.”
The best thinkers of this world have gone into the weeds, dove into complexity, and returned with simplicity. They went both feet into a topic, researched it from several different angles, and spread it as thin as they possibly could. This enhanced understanding gave them the ability to see things more simply by looking at them through a different lens. The details are there to help create this understanding – not cloud it. Wise people don’t need to say much because they’ve acquired distilled knowledge through years and years of diving into the complexity. Their journey through the weeds helped them return to the surface with simplicity; not the other way around.
The best teachers are able to take a complex subject and communicate it as simply as possible. As Albert Einstein says it best, “If you don’t know it simply enough, you don’t know it well enough.” If you can’t teach what you know to the dumbest person in the room, you don’t understand it thoroughly. The goal is simplicity but simplicity cannot be achieved without going feet first into the never-ending web of complexity. The wisest people to ever walk this earth have traveled that road; and they’ll be the first ones to tell you there are no shortcuts. Simplicity creates understanding, understanding builds knowledge, knowledge gives you the ability to build wisdom. The best thinkers of our time had unparalleled wisdom – Neil is no different.
“It’s not good enough to be right – you also need to be effective.”
In a world where we’re all seeking objective truth, knowing what is true is only part of the equation. If you can’t effectively relay what you know, why it works, and how to make it work, what you know is useless. Knowledge is power until it isn’t. If you’re not actively applying what you know, testing your theories, and finding ways to get results, you can’t be effective. Everyone wants to be right in an argument – not everyone has the results to back it up.
This brings up another point Neil discussed: If you have results to back it up, the quickest way to lose your effectiveness is to tell someone else they’re wrong. Disagreements typically happen when two people are so emotionally invested in a certain perspective that they will go to great lengths to protect it – and they’re not interested in changing their mind. The best way to win these arguments is to avoid them, but the second best way to win them is to get on their side. Instead of telling them they’re wrong, figure out why they think the way they do. If you show genuine interest in their way of thinking, you’ve given yourself the ability to open them up to a new perspective. People want to be heard. If you make them feel heard, you’ve given yourself a chance to win them over.
Now you also have to explain your point of view carefully. If you force feed it to them, you’re going to wind back up at square one. Spark some interest by saying, “Have you ever thought of it this way?” or “Have you considered thinking about this?” You don’t need to say your stuff works – you just need to suggest that what you do might work. If you can inspire people to research what they do from a different point of view, you’ve created an incredible environment for collaboration. You can’t build a system of beliefs without knowing what’s on the other side. This is why Neil believes search engines are the epitome of bias: You’re one search away from confirming what you already “know.”
The most important thing you can be in this world is curious. Curious people aren’t concerned with agendas – they’re concerned about finding what is true. Effective leaders inspire curiosity; ineffective ones demand conformity.
“Feeding the mistake” is an effective strategy coaches can use when trying to build a new movement pattern. The goal of feeding the mistake is to force athletes into the patterns they want to avoid so they can create feel for a newer and better pattern. By exaggerating what they do bad, you’re able to heighten awareness for bad moves and accelerate the learning curve for better moves by teaching them how to resist the bad.
For example, if you have someone who has a big negative move and gets stuck on their back side you could attach a band to their waist and pull them back as they take their move out of balance. By feeding their bad habit of making a big move back, you force them to create a better move to the ball or they’ll fall backwards.
While drill selection and design is primarily used to feed the mistake, you can also feed the mistake using specific verbal cueing. In other words, telling a kid who has a pushy move to the ball to “push his hands as hard as he can” is a way to potentially transform a bad move into a better move. It may seem contradictory on the outside because you’re feeding him exactly what you don’t want him to do, but it’s something that can work if used in the right context. It all comes down to perception and awareness.
How athletes perceive cues is a critical part to how they are designed. Lantz Wheeler has spoke about this and will dive into it in great detail in his upcoming book Transfer. He likens it to how you’d combine two colors to create a new color. One of the colors deals with the information, the other color deals with the perception of that information, and the resulting color is the movement created. You can’t make green if you just use blue and don’t use any the yellow. In other words, it becomes really tough to create the move you want if you just feed kids information and ignore how that information is perceived. Five different guys can perceive the cue “push your hands as hard as you can” in five different ways. Someone who’s more of a literal learner will create a really bad move where their hands go directly the ball and their lead elbow gets pinned against their body. Other guys may actually create a move where they learn how to get across their body quicker and actually deliver the barrel. The cue seems bad on the outside because we know it’s not exactly what happens in the swing, but we also don’t know how the athlete thinks, interprets information, and uses those interpretations to create specific movements. Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it.
“Understanding the cue is only part of the equation. For you to understand the effectiveness of the cue, you need to understand how athletes perceive it.”
Awareness is the other critical component when designing cues. When we’re building a new skill, there is a lot of value in breaking it down and bringing awareness to specific parts of the movement. Awareness creates brain-body connections that help build proprioception and feel within the system. Athletes must be able to feel right from wrong if they want to be able to build a new pattern and repeat it. Cueing an athlete to “push their hands” may create awareness for the hands in a way that they never had before so they can learn how to build a better move. Just because you’re cueing an athlete a specific way doesn’t mean he can actually feel what you want him to. Telling them to do what they actually shouldn’t do may help bridge this gap. If it creates the right move, it’s a great cue. If it doesn’t, don’t try to pound a square nail through a round hole – just find a new one that works.
Coaching is as much of an art as it is a science. Understanding how a player thinks and perceives information is critical if you want to design the cues that they need at that moment in time. There are no magic words when it comes to coaching – everything works and everything sucks. Telling a kid to do exactly what you don’t want him to do can become a huge unlock if you use it in the right context. It won’t work for everyone, but it might work for some.
Why looking at the problem may prevent you from actually solving out the problem
“He who treats the site of pain is often lost.” – Karel Lewit
When I was thinking about metaphors to describe this one, I couldn’t think of a more perfect metaphor than my recent struggles with ant infestations. If you’ve dealt with a swarm of ants before in your house, you know it becomes tiring work when you kill ant after ant and they just keep coming back. After days of killing ants on tops of ants, you probably get a little smarter and pick up some ant traps from the local store. However – picking up the traps and just placing them anywhere isn’t enough. You need to scout out where the ants are coming from and place these traps in the locations where you think they’ll appear most often. If you pick the right spots, your ant problems usually become a thing of the past – until they get smarter and find a new way in.
If you know anything about ant traps, you know they’re not the same as insect traps. In fact, they can’t be the same as insect traps – they wouldn’t work. The ants that become a problem in your house are known as the worker ants. These guys have the very important job of finding food and bringing it back to the queen ant of the colony. The queen ant is responsible for reproducing more and more ants – and if you couldn’t tell, they’re pretty good at it. If you’re working to kill the worker ants, you’re fighting an uphill battle because more are inevitably going to come as long as the queen is still around. Insect traps bait pests in with poisonous food so they can kill them at the source, but using this strategy for ants wouldn’t work because they don’t target the real source of the problem: The queen ant. Worker ants are just pawns that disguise the real problem.
Ant traps work because they don’t kill the worker ants when they enter. Instead, they let worker ants in so they can harvest what they think is “food” and bring it back to the queen. If the queen consumes the poisonous food brought back by her worker ants, the queen will die and the reproduction cycle will cease. The rest of the colony will begin to die off and they will have no immediate means for reproduction – thus, solving your ant issues.
When you’re solving a problem, you have to look past the chaos of the worker ants. You need to analyze the ENTIRE situation, find the source of the colony, and make a plan to bring down the queen ant. If you can’t accurately find the source of the problem, whatever you try will only temporarily solve your issues. Problem solving must start by finding the source of it – not the symptoms you see as a result of the problem.
In baseball, we tend to skip the whole “analyze the ENTIRE situation” thing and jump right to what we can easily sense. In other words, we treat the worker ants without ever addressing the queen ant. If someone comes in with shoulder pain, we jump right to the shoulder and find ways to treat it by resting, strengthening, or mobilizing it. We don’t take a step back and consider that our queen ant may be in an area that is completely separate from the shoulder. We’re so consumed by the worker ants that we forget to look at the big picture and see how weak glutes, a nagging left oblique, or a previously broken big toe could be the reason why our right shoulder is barking. Only by examining the system as whole can we actually start to diagnose the “why” behind pain; knowing the “what” is only where we start. In most cases, where we start is not where we finish.
If there’s anything we know about the human body, we know it’s 1) infinitely complex and 2) everything affects everything. If we want to thoroughly and accurate evaluate why a certain area is in pain, we need to evaluate the entire system before narrowing in on a specific area. Our body is an excellent compensator. If it senses pain or danger, it will find ways to avoid what is harmful to execute a specific task. This is why injury histories are a huge part of the equation when solving current ailments – if you never gave a specific area time to heal properly, your body more than likely had to produce a different movement solution to execute the same task. When your movement solutions change, different areas of your body all of a sudden have to take on loads they are not accustomed to. This is where injuries can happen.
If we go back to the example from above, your glutes and hamstrings play a crucial role in shoulder health because of their role in the production and dissipation of force. Guys who have a pushy and quad-dominant move down the mound aren’t going to be able to produce much force from the lower half because the quads are primarily an extensor; they’re not very good at rotating. If your lower half isn’t able to produce a sufficient amount of force, areas like the shoulder are going to be forced to pick up the extra slack. Your shoulder may be able to handle the force early on, but it is likely to break down over time and eventually present as shoulder pain. If we just treat the shoulder, we blind ourselves from the source of the problem: An inefficient lower half.
When you’re dealing with pain, you can’t just treat the pain – you need to treat the entire system. If you can’t thoroughly examine the situation as a whole, your odds at finding the source of your problem are slim – and you’re going to be swimming upstream until you can.
Athletes are going to acquire specific adaptations over time that are beneficial to success in their respective sport. These adaptations depend on the task required and the environment in which it is accomplished. For example, kids who spend a lot of time throwing when they’re younger will acquire retroversion in their throwing shoulder to allow for more external rotation. These kinds of adaptations are totally normal and necessary to optimize performance, but it becomes a problem when we look at these adaptations through the lense of the general population. If we don’t take into context the demands of the specific activity, we’re likely to look at these adaptations as limitations (i.e. GIRD in this case) and ultimately take away what probably made them so good in the first place.
Stuart McMillan, CEO of ALTIS, collected information on some of the best sprinters in the world and found most of them had tight hips, low backs, hamstrings, ankles, and occasionally some anterior pelvic tilt. If someone with no context for the demands of the sprinting examined one of these athletes, they’d throw red flags all over the place. They’d claim that tightness in those areas puts them at risk for injury and most likely put them on mobility programs designed to open up some of those areas. However, these adaptations are not detrimental – they’re beneficial. Years of running, leaping, bounding, and sprinting turned their legs into tightly bound springs (I don’t know about you, but I’d want springs for legs if my job was to run fast). Comparing the body of a Joe Schmo to the body of an elite sprinter is as apples to oranges as it can possibly get. Joe Schmo does not need a tight low back, hips, hamstrings, or ankles because he does not sprint for a living. Treating a Joe Schmo and an elite sprinter the same way is a recipe for disaster – but we do it too often in sports.
Eugene has collected information on some of the best athletes that have walked into his facility and he has found a large number of them present with tight hips – specifically, a lack of internal rotation (IR) in the rear hip. The average physician would see this as a problem and prescribe a plan to open them up, but Eugene would argue the opposite. Just the way sprinters developed tightness in specific areas to develop human springs, he thinks baseball players have developed similar adaptations that are beneficial to their success. He talked about this in his book Old School vs. New School: The Application of Data and Technology into Baseball saying:
“Movement is created through the combination of constraints placed on a system, the neurological pathways that have been patterned into the system, and the human body’s limitations or ability to create those movements. From our vantage point, more often than not, the movement a player creates is more likely to be the cause of injury than how the body is designed. . . Perhaps if we stopped comparing baseball bodies to normal individuals, and we started comparing them to a cross-section of elite baseball players, we may actually figure some things out.”
Adaptations are not limitations – adaptations are created to optimize performance. We’re more likely to create problems by undoing some of these adaptations rather than addressing the movement that’s created. Instead, we should strive to work so our coaching utilizes those adaptations to maximize their success. If you have a guy who lacks IR in the back hip, just tell them to toe out like someone who’s squatting. If you have a guy who lacks IR in the lead hip, tell them to stride more open. Who says that giving them more IR is going to be a good idea to start with? If you give a raft tied to a boat 30 more feet of slack, what’s going to happen when the boat cranks on the accelerator?
Assessing for adaptations is a crucial starting point so you can understand the context behind the movement being created. However, throwing red flags all over the place because their numbers don’t stack up against the general population isn’t a great plan. Every athlete is different and some might need to mobilize specific areas that have become tight from poor movement. However, it’s important to use common sense before jumping to conclusions about a population that represents less than one percent of the world. If you have a bunch of athletes who throw all 95 and present with tight hips, maybe tight hips aren’t an issue after all.
Why you should rethink telling your players not to “roll their wrists”
“Don’t roll your wrists” is a common cue you’ll hear after a hitter rolls over a ground ball to the pull side. The cue is used to prevent players from cutting off their swing and losing direction to the middle of the field. The intention behind the cue is good, but the application doesn’t match up to what a lot of the best players in the game do. If we want to deliver the barrel into contact, we need to “roll” the top hand over – not keep it inside the ball.
Players who don’t want to roll their wrists are going to commonly think about staying inside the ball longer. Staying inside the ball is good until your barrel gets stuck and you can’t deliver it to the baseball. Because the athlete is so worried about rolling over, they lose space and put themselves in a position where they can’t put force into the baseball. This leads to more ground balls (kind of the whole point of not rolling over), opposite field flairs, and pop ups.
Eugene has worked with athletes who had issues delivering the barrel because they were worried about rolling over. To create a better move, he has cued athletes to do what they’ve been told not to do: Roll over out in front as hard as you can. See the difference below:
If you have a hitter who’s killing gophers in batting practice, try a new approach and get him to roll his hands over out in front. You’d be surprised what a difference it could make.
I picked up on this from a conversation with Will when talking about the idea of efficiency. When it comes to movement, efficiency is what we’re trying to create. Serge Gracovetsky talked about the importance of efficiency in his 1988 book The Spinal Engine suggesting that as a biological system, we strive for the conservation of energy as a means for survival. In essence, the species that does the most with the least is most primed for survival. There’s a reason why the best athletes in this world seem to make really tough things look incredibly easy. They’re producing the most amount of force with the least amount of energy. This is efficiency in its simplest form.
Being able to maximize efficiency requires athletes to properly segment how that energy is captured and transferred up the chain. K Motion is a popular sports technology product that helps visualize this transfer of energy from the pelvis, trunk, arms, and eventually to the bat/ball. In a good sequence, all four segments should accelerate and decelerate in a steep peak where each segment overtakes the next after it reaches its max speed. The correct order of this sequence should be pelvis first followed by the trunk, arms, and then bat or ball. If the sequence is off or if the segments do not accelerate/decelerate sharply, it is going to be very hard for the athlete to efficiently transfer energy. However, being in sequence does not mean the athlete is efficient.
To determine efficiency, Will talked about the importance of using full speed video. Looking at a sequencing graph can show you what is happening, but it does not reveal how it is happening. This is why Eugene places so much importance in capturing video. An athlete can have a really good sequence, but how he got there does not mean he did it efficiently. Sequencing graphs don’t quite tell you the entire story. Efficiency comes down to making the most economical use of the resources athletes have at their disposal. You can have a pitcher who’s coming at you with arms and legs that’s in sequence, but it doesn’t mean they are efficient. If you want to determine whether a sequence is efficient or not, watch the film and see how easy (or not so easy) they are capturing energy. There’s a reason why the “old school” guys used to cue less is more – it’s because it works. Understanding sequencing is an important piece of the puzzle, but it is not to be confused for efficiency.
The Brakes and the Rubber Band
The human body is one interconnected system of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints that are intertwined through a giant spider web known as fascia. Fascia plays a crucial role in human movement because it strings everything together, thus playing a role in the transfer of energy. Throughout our body we have four major fascial slings which work like rubber bands to create movement by pulling out slack at optimal moments of time. The best way to describe this is to think about if you were to pull a car with a rope, you would need to first pull the rope taught before you could begin to pull the car. When you pull the rope tight you have removed slack just the way your muscles do when you create movement. However, not every player has the same length of rope. Guys who have to pull more slack out (ex: Donaldson, Chapman) are known as loose movers. Guys who have to pull less slack out (ex: Verlander, Trout) are known as tight movers. Both types of players need different strategies to learn how to most optimally tighten their rope so they can produce efficient movement.
This is where the importance of the brakes comes in. The brakes work by using the fascial slings to create tension so energy from the movement can be dissipated. Inability to turn on the brakes leads to movement compensations that can impact force production, movement efficiency, performance, and health. For example, a hitter who lacks breaks is going to be more prone to yanking balls and pulling off offspeed pitches. They don’t have the ability to stop rotation after the swing which impacts their ability to keep good direction through the middle of the field. This yanking motion prevents segments from decelerating resulting in an inefficient sequence. It also can create lower back pain due to the aggressive rotation and lack of stability throughout the movement. If we look at the pitching side, a pitcher with weak brakes might have a tendency to spin out of their front side causing them to pull pitches to their glove side. This creates a poor decel pattern that causes the pelvis to drag the torso and the arm. This prevents the arm from capturing energy and puts it in a position where it cannot slow down safely. If the muscles needed for deceleration cannot be turned on, areas such as the elbow and shoulder are going to take a beating.
A large engine cannot work efficiently without a strong set of brakes. Placing the engine of a Ferrari into the frame of a Prius is a recipe for disaster. Your body is constantly working to protect you; it will not put you in a position where your decelerators can’t counteract your accelerators. If you’re only teaching the engine, you’re missing out on a huge piece for your athletes.
The following article is a joint piece where I am joined by Ben Reed to describe Marcell Ozuna’s recent struggles and inability to secure a multi-year contract in free agency. Ben is currently a student-athlete on the varsity baseball team at Oberlin College and is aspiring to work in advanced scouting or baseball operations in Major League Baseball.
When Marcell Ozuna hit the free agent market last winter, many people expected him to command a sizable multi-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors ranked him as the 11th best free agent and predicted he would land a 3 year, $45 million dollar pact with the San Francisco Giants. Similarly, FanGraphs ranked him as their seventh best free agent and tabbed him to receive a 4 year, $66.6 million dollar pact. MLB Trade Rumors listed seven teams who would make sense as a free agent destination for Ozuna in that price range. While answering a questionnaire for a major league team last winter, I was tasked with evaluating Ozuna as he entered the open market.
I wrote the following:
“Marcell Ozuna (29 years old) enters free agency after averaging 2.7 fWAR over two seasons with the Cardinals. His offensive numbers (107 wRC+ in 2018 and 110 in 2019) failed to replicate the success he enjoyed during 2014 (4.5fWAR) and 2017 (5.0 fWAR). However, Ozuna’s Statcast batted ball profile (92nd, 93rd, 97th percentile in xWOBA, avg. exit velocity and HHB%) showed he’s among the game’s top hitters. Ozuna walked at a career-high 11.2% clip in 2019 while also suffering from a .259 BABIP – well short of his career .315 BABIP mark. Defensively, FanGraphs’ DRS and UZR rank his outfield play as slightly above average, while Statcast is much harsher on his defensive play (-2, 3, -1 and -8 OAA totals over the last four years). Ozuna’s range doesn’t figure to improve as he ages and his arm remains a liability. I would project a 3-4 year/$15-17 million AAV deal for Ozuna. A team willing to swallow the draft pick compensation attached to him should enjoy multiple years of 2.5-3.5 fWAR production at a reasonable price.”
Yet, when the dust settled on free agency Ozuna was left with a one year, $18 million dollar deal with the Atlanta Braves. So how did myself and two other reputable baseball websites whiff so badly on Ozuna’s value as a free agent? To properly answer that question, we must take a look at why Ozuna’s Statcast batted ball profile doesn’t match up with his actual production.
In 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019, Ozuna’s xWOBA outweighed his WOBA. This was especially pronounced in both ‘18 and ‘19. In fact, Ozuna had the greatest difference between his xWOBA and his WOBA out of all 250 qualified major league hitters in ’19 (-0.046) and the 15th greatest difference among all 249 qualified hitters in ’18 (-0.032). To provide a point of reference, the MLB average for this statistic is right around 0; 0.001 to be exact. If Ozuna could have matched his xwOBA of .381, he would have finished in some elite company behind NL Rookie of the Year Pete Alonso (0.384), Aaron Judge (0.382), and would have actually outperformed Trevor Story (0.380), Mookie Betts (.380), and Jose Altuve (.374). Story, Betts, and Altuve were all All-Stars in 2019.
While some people may attribute one season of underperformance to bad luck, two seasons definitely raises some red flags. Considering the company Ozuna could have finished with in 2019, I decided to do some further investigating and figure out exactly what was causing the lack of performance that we were seeing.
When I first started to come up with theories about why Ozuna was falling short of his expected performance, my first instinct was to explore whether Ozuna was falling victim to the shift. In 2017, Ozuna was only shifted on 3.7% of his plate appearances. This number increased to 8.0% in 2018 and up to 12.3% in 2019. Yet, the increased shifts did nothing to curb Ozuna’s offensive performance. In 2018, he had a .374 wOBA and in 2019 a .390 wOBA in the plate appearances where he was shifted against. Both of these figures were notably higher than the figures he put up in non-shift plate appearances. Simply, there was no evidence to suggest the increased shifts were doing much of anything to create the notable difference between his xWOBA and WOBA numbers.
Without any answers, I took to watching Ozuna’s batted balls to see if I could find anything that might stick out. Ozuna has somewhat of an unorthodox swing that jumps out as unusual to the naked eye. While watching some of the flyballs and line drives that he hit, I realized a pattern. I watched numerous batted balls that exhibited a 100+ mph bat exit velocity paired with a mid 20 degree launch angle that seemed to die well short of its expected landing distance. Each time it seemed as if the fielder had to drift, turn, or readjust his route to the right. This is where I started to come up with a theory that just might explain why we were all way off on our predictions for Ozuna this past offseason.
In order to get to the bottom of Ozuna’s lack of performance, let’s start by checking out a ball he hit from this past September. The ball came off the bat at 100.4 mph and at a 24.1 degree launch angle. If we look at data from Baseball Savant on the 2019 MLB season, baseballs hit 100 mph and at a 24 degree launch angle have just under a 70 percent chance they’ll find some green, a 62.4 percent chance they’ll go for extra bases, and a 33 percent chance they’ll find some seats. Hitters batted .694 on them – a significant increase from the MLB average on BABIP (.298) – and accumulated a wOBA of 1.131. To put it very simply, Ozuna’s chances of reaching base on this batted baseball were very high. Given the part of the park this was heading for, his odds at touching all four bases were pretty high as well if you couldn’t tell from his reaction off the bat.
Now let’s take a look at where it ended up. Ozuna thought it was gone, Cubs pitcher David Phelps thought it was gone, and the St. Louis crowd sure thought it was gone – but it turns out everyone was wrong. Instead of clearing the fence, Ozuna’s blast landed 6 feet short of the 375′ sign and ended up in the glove of right fielder Tony Kemp – probably at his surprise.
So let’s talk about the first reason why I brought up this clip. If we reference back to the data, it paints a pretty clear picture that this ball probably should have landed somewhere that wasn’t a glove. Instead, it found a glove. It’s a great reminder that even the best players can seemingly do everything right and still not get the desired outcome they were looking for. Luck – as Ben referenced to above – plays a role in baseball that’s much larger than what we would like to admit. This was one of those times where Ozuna just got plain unlucky. Data tells us that balls hit at 100 mph and at a 24 degree launch angle end up as hits 70 percent of the time, but baseball doesn’t reward us for simply hitting the ball hard and on a specific trajectory. It rewards us for hitting the ball where the defense isn’t.
When players present with differences between their wOBA and xwOBA – good or bad – the first plausible explanation is simply luck. There are situations like the ones above where Ozuna could have hit a frozen rope right at somebody and got nothing for it. These kinds of outs could definitely skew Ozuna’s data and make it seem as if he was underperforming when in reality he was just pissing on balls and getting unlucky. However, it is unreasonable to blame Ozuna’s disappointing 2019 season on “bad luck.” Luck is a factor in performance – not a predictor of it. If Ozuna overperformed his xwOBA in 2017 by 0.016, it is unlikely he underperformed by -0.046 in 2019 because he was smashing mirrors and walking under ladders. Chance does not explain a 0.062 point swing in wOBA over the course of two years, but a swing issue definitely could.
This takes us to the second reason why I used the clip from above: Ozuna had an issue slicing baseballs in 2019. Ben was spot on when he noticed a slice in Ozuna’s batted balls and they are definitely impacting his data – or lack of, in this case. If we go back to the play from above, we notice how Kemp had to make a last second to his route right around the warning track to account for the slice on Ozuna’s ball. While every good hitter is going to fillet a ball once in a while, it seemed to be a theme for Ozuna in ’19. It’s a hair tough to see from the broadcast view, but pay close attention to where the ball comes off the bat, the route the outfielder takes, and how much the ball does or doesn’t carry (links to the full videos are in the captions):
We know that xwOBA is determined by using exit velocity and launch angle to figure out what the likely outcome for the batted ball is based on about how far it should travel. We also know that one thing xwOBA neglects is batted ball spin. While exit velocity and launch angle can give us a pretty good feel for where the ball should end up, where it actually ends up can really be thrown off based on the spin of the ball – especially if there is a significant amount of sidespin.
This is something Zach Gifford dove into in a recent article where he documented Ozuna’s 2018 and 2019 struggles. In the article, he broke down an uncharacteristic cluster of warning track fly balls in the right center field gap. These balls were coming off the bat over 100 mph and at about a 33.5 degree launch angle, but were only traveling at an average distance of 365 feet. In 2019, the MLB average for balls hit at this speed and this trajectory was 379 feet – an 11 foot increase. While this is only one cluster of batted balls, it shows just how big of a deal Ozuna’s sidespin is and can start to explain a more plausible theory on why he’s been underperforming. Data tells us how balls hit at a certain speed and specific trajectory should perform, but it couldn’t quite predict how Ozuna actually performed because it didn’t account for his problem with sidespin.
The important thing about this is the data wasn’t wrong – Ozuna should have been doing more damage. The ball in the first video should not have landed in the glove of Tony Kemp. It should have landed in the Cardinals bullpen. These kinds of swings are the ones that arguably cost Ozuna a ton of money this past offseason. If we really want to pinpoint why he didn’t get the deal we all thought he was going to, we’re going to have to take a closer look at the swing and see exactly what’s creating the data that kept teams from pulling out their checkbooks.
If we look at Ozuna’s swing into landing, there are a couple of things we notice right off the bat that could be contributing to his lack of performance:
At landing, we want to see guys in an athletic position where their weight is equally distributed, they’re centered over their belly button, their pelvis is closed, and they have some sort of posture over the plate. Now let’s take a look at Ozuna and see where he gets to when his front foot lands:
Not so good.
Instead of spreading apart, staying centered, and landing in a position of balance with posture, Ozuna reaches with his front leg and leaves the majority of his weight on his back leg. As a result, his pelvis gets put in a position where it’s stuck and can’t hold on to tension any longer. It has no other option but to fly open like a gate which puts Ozuna in a really bad position at landing. At this point, his swing is screwed: He’s not centered, his weight is stuck on his backside, his pelvis is open, and he has no posture over the plate. If we wouldn’t want to throw a punch from this position, we definitely wouldn’t want to hit a baseball from this position.
Instead, we’d want to do something closer to this:
This is what Trout, Altuve, and Sosa all look like paused at landing:
These guys don’t get stuck on their backside and fly open – they stay closed, centered, and ultimately put themselves in a position where they can deliver their mass into the strike. It’s a big difference from what see with Ozuna and it can start to give our theories some visual substance:
So now let’s take a look at how this is impacting his path to the ball. As referenced above, the reason why Ozuna’s pelvis flies open is because it gets stuck and can’t hold on to tension anymore. When our pelvis gets stuck and flies open, we lose a ton of space that is critical to the swing. The best way to visualize space is to think about the area from the top of your torso down to our feet. When our pelvis flies open, it impedes on this space and leaves us with less room to work. The less space we have, the less room our barrel has to capture energy and make efficient moves to the ball.
To compensate for the space he doesn’t have, Ozuna ends up pinning his hands against his body to try and maintain direction without getting peeled off to the pull side. This ends up creating a longer arc to the ball and adds time to the swing that Ozuna can’t really afford. The more time our barrel needs to get into the zone, the less likely we are to catch the ball out in front like Arenado below:
The deeper we catch the ball towards the catcher, the more likely we are to impart unintended sidespin at contact. This is where Ozuna’s slices are coming from. He’s not able to deliver his bat head into contact and catch the ball out front because his barrel is stuck and doesn’t have the freedom to make efficient moves to the ball (it’s tough to have any kind of space or freedom when our hands are pinned against our torso). This happens because he moves to and through positions that aren’t advantageous for force transmission, space, or direction. As a result, he ends up struggling on pitches middle-in and up where there is a greater time constraint to catch the ball out in front:
When he isn’t getting blown up on middle-in heaters in or filleting balls to the opposite field, he simply isn’t swinging. Ozuna’s increased walk rate (5.6% in 2018 to 11.2% in 2019) might make some believe he’s maturing and improving his plate discipline, but a sudden increase in walks can actually be a red flag depending on the hitter and context. In Ozuna’s case, it probably isn’t a good sign. While his overall chase rate has decreased 3% over the past two years, his in zone swing percentage has decreased from 72.4% in 2017 to 68% in 2019. This gives us a feel that something could be wrong. It’s one thing to to swing less at pitches outside the strike zone – it’s another to swing less at pitches inside the strike zone. Considering this and the lack of performance that sparked our investigation, it’s more probable that Ozuna’s increased walk rate is because of what we’re seeing with his bat path.
If we go back to the swing itself, we know Ozuna doesn’t have a ton of space to operate in. Because of this, there’s a good chance he doesn’t think he has the time he needs to get his barrel into the zone. The less space we have, the less time we have to operate. If we’re not able to get into a good position where we can pull the trigger with confidence, we’re probably going to swing less – hence, more takes and potentially more walks. While Ozuna’s overall chase rate has improved over the past few years, it is unlikely his career-high walk rate in 2019 was solely an indication of improved plate discipline. Walking more is not bad, but walking more and producing less is not good.
When Ozuna is pulling the trigger, he’s not doing so hot on pitches that aren’t straight:
In 2019, Ozuna was dreadful against breaking balls batting a career-low .149, slugging .341, and totaling a wOBA of .227. Given what we know about his swing, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. He’s not able to get to a good position at landing which prevents him from getting to his front side, holding his line, and creating adjustability out front – all really important things when it comes to hitting stuff that spins. Adjustability is less about letting the ball get deep and more about going to get it out in front. If we’re not able to get to a good landing position so we can work into our front side, hold our line, and catch the ball out in front, it becomes really difficult to do stuff like this:
So now let’s take a look at Ozuna from his 2017 All-Star campaign and see if we see any similarities or differences:
Yeah, big difference. This ball didn’t get filleted into a dead zone on the warning track of the right-center field gap. It left the yard. To get a feel for just how different this swing is from the one we first looked at, check out the visual below:
Without even looking at the rest of the swing, this position and how Ozuna gets to it gives you a ton of information about his swing. If we look at the one from ’17, we basically see the opposite of what he did in ’19: He stays centered, his pelvis stays closed, he maintains space, and he starts to work down and into his front side so he can leverage his ability to put force in the ground and lay his mass into the strike. He can’t do this on the right because he’s stuck and getting peeled out of the ground by the time his barrel is actually ready to make moves to the ball.
When Ozuna gets to a good position at landing, it becomes a lot easier for him to make efficient moves with his barrel. Instead of getting pinned and stuck, his hands now have the space and freedom to get away from him and make efficient moves to the ball. This increases his chances for making hard quality contact out in front and decreases his chances for slices.
Remember the issues he was having in 2019 with pitches middle up and in? Yeah, he didn’t have those issues in 2017. When we don’t have to fight for space, we don’t have to worry about whether we’ll have enough time or not to pull the trigger. This made it a lot easier for Ozuna to cut the corner and get his bat head out in front of baseballs on the inner half of the plate.
He also didn’t struggle nearly as much with breaking balls. When we get to a good landing position with stability, we have the ability to work down and into our front side, hold our line through rotation, and make adjustments out in front. In 2017, Ozuna batted .285 and slugged .554 against breaking balls.
In 2019, he slugged 0.552 on fastballs.
It’s kind of weird how you tend to hit better when you’re moving to and through good positions more consistently. It’s almost like he should do it a lot more often – especially considering he ranks in the 93rdpercentile of the league in exit velocity, the 96th percentile in hard hit percentage, the 92nd percentile in xwOBA, and the 91st percentile in xSLG. Marcell Ozuna has the potential to be one of the best hitters in the game, but teams don’t write checks based on a player’s potential – they pay guys who perform.
But if he does perform, it brings up the question that we all failed to answer correctly this past offseason: What is Ozuna really worth?
The answer to this, as you could probably expect, just got a lot tougher considering the implications of a 60 game season. For guys in contract years, there are still a lot of question marks at the moment that make it very difficult to predict what teams are going to be willing to spend on free agents this offseason. The 102 games that won’t be played and the fans that won’t fill the seats are going to make a serious dent in the pockets of MLB clubs. It’s not only going to be really tough to score a big contract this offseason – it’s going to be really tough to make a convincing case in just 60 games.
We know that Ozuna is going to be turning 30 years old this November, he doesn’t have a great arm, and he’s not a great overall option in the outfield. With the MLB seemingly getting closer to a universal DH, Ozuna’s saving grace is going to be his bat. If he does what he did this past season again in 2020, it’s unlikely he’s going to get a deal that’s a lot better than the one he got this season. Teams will pay for the bat, but they’re not going to pay for guys who take more pitches in the strike zone and fillet balls that should be driven over the fence. Ozuna’s 2019 campaign did show some encouraging pop (29 homers were a career second-best), but his overall production across the board just wasn’t enough for teams to pull the trigger on a multi-year deal. His decision to take a bet on himself in 2020 and score a bigger contract for 2021 might have backfired due to circumstances he couldn’t control, but it doesn’t mean he can’t change his fortune by getting his swing back to a better place.
Ozuna will again enter free agency at conclusion of this season searching for a new home. Depending on what he puts together this year, he’ll be faced with a couple of different scenarios this offseason. If he struggles and an organization with a strong player development system figures out what we’ve just shared, they might end up closing a deal on an elite hitter at a discounted price.
If Ozuna fixes his slice and shows shades of 2017, he just might score the contract we all thought he should have gotten a year ago.