Movement, Command, & Creating a Competitive Advantage: Recapping BTG20 Part II

See Part I of our recap from Bridge the Gap 2020 here.

Our very own Will Marshall took the stage at Bridge for the first time breaking down the last eight months at 108 Performance. With the shutdown in March, we were forced to close the doors at our Tustin shop and had to migrate towards an online training model. Will’s presentation dove into exactly how we were able to create the best possible experience for our athletes despite being unable to train in person.

To approach it the same way we would in the shop, Will kept five things in mind:

  1. Create a shared understanding between the coach and player
  2. Promote creativity and collaboration
  3. Teach athletes how to problem solve and think for themselves
  4. Empower our players to take ownership of their careers
  5. Get real on field results

When breaking down film, Will broke down all of the things they looked at into three big buckets.

  1. Is the player able to move sideways?

The forward move in hitting or pitching is where we tend to see a lot of energy leaks take root. A lot of these leaks get cleaned up when kids learn how to hinge, stay centered, and gain ground keeping their pelvis closed. Success in baseball comes down to how well we move a weight through space. Getting into positions of leverage at foot strike is a great place to start.

  1. Can the player stop?

Baseball is a rotational sport. In order to rotate well, players must be able to stop their forward momentum and create a stable platform for the pelvis. Stability down low gives us the ability to rotate well up top. Guys who can’t stop well when their front foot comes back down to earth have a tough time producing force in small windows.

  1. Does the player rotate well?

As mentioned above, baseball is a rotational sport. Really good players rotate really well. Teaching guys how to get their pelvis, trunk, and arm all rotating in unison around their center of axis is a pre-requisite for performing at a high level. Guys who can’t don’t typically perform very well.

Interested in hearing more from Will’s presentation? You can get free access to it here.

Our MLB Executives and Coaches Panel was a big hit from the weekend and featured Bobby Basham – Director of Player Development Chicago Cubs, Josh Boyd – Assistant General Manager Texas Rangers, Donnie Ecker – MLB Hitting Coach San Francisco Giants, Brian DeLunas – previous Bullpen Coach Seattle Mariners, and Don Wakamatsu – Bench Coach Texas Rangers.

During the conversation, something talked about was the integration of scouting and player development within Major League organizations. Basham made a really good point about this by referencing a statement from Erik Spoelstra – head coach of the Miami Heat. Spoelstra credited a lot of the team’s success this year to the fact that their organization is aligned really well top to bottom. This is where Basham believes baseball organizations can create a competitive advantage going forward. Drafting won’t be about just picking the best players. It will come down to finding the right players that you know your coaches will be able to get the most out of with their current skill set.

“Gaining trust isn’t about knowing what their grandmother’s first name is. It’s about showing that player you can help them get better.” – Donnie Ecker, MLB Hitting Coach San Francisco Giants

Getting the most out of players is something Donnie Ecker has had a track record of since first entering professional baseball. For him, one of the biggest things that’s helped is the ability to build trust with his players. That trust is largely earned by showing each hitter how he can help them solve a problem. “Gaining trust isn’t about knowing what their grandmother’s first name is,” said Ecker. “It’s about showing that player you can help them get better. If I can’t help them get better they’re not going to trust me.”  

Don Wakamatsu added to the conversation by talking about the importance of building a winning culture at the minor leagues. Instead of just viewing AA and AAA as stepping stones to the big leagues, Don believes minor league teams should strive to develop championship caliber clubs. The focus shouldn’t just be on developing individuals. Players need to know winning is important from the moment they first sign a big league contract. If the expectation is to win in the minor leagues, that expectation is going to be ingrained by the time they reach the big leagues.

On the strength side, Zach Dechant, Baseball Director of Strength and Conditioning at TCU, spoke about the integration of the weight room with game performance. Of note, Dechant spoke to how the nervous system doesn’t always select the right muscles for the skill and as a result, muscles end up doing the wrong jobs and become inhibited. “Being strong biomechanically in a muscle doesn’t mean it’s neurologically preferred by the body,” said Dechant.

Athletes who struggle swinging or throwing but run 6.7 60s and can ‘squat a house’ know how to turn their glutes on. They just can’t do it when it comes to the skill. It’s not an activation problem – it’s a movement problem. As a result, movement remapping can’t just focus on activating certain muscles. It must also involve building a new model for the movement in the central nervous system so the right muscles can be activated during the skill.

“Being strong biomechanically in a muscle doesn’t mean it’s neurologically preferred by the body.” Zach Dechant, Baseball Director of Strength and Conditioning TCU

Zach also explained that through his observations he’s found his best athletes are the best compensators. At TCU, some of the elite athletes Zach works with struggle with basic movement competency such as pelvic control and rotation. They might be really good at throwing or swinging, but it doesn’t mean they do it optimally. Our bodies are hardwired to find a movement solution for any given task. The problem is we’re only really concerned with task completion – not necessarily task efficiency. Your best athletes are really good at solving problems in the context of sport, but they’re not always good at coming up with the best solutions. This is where good coaches must be able to step in and define what is optimal, allowable, and not optimal for that athlete. 

On the field, Fred Corral, Pitching Coach at the University of Missouri, shared how his pitching staff has made big strides using their unique process to measure command. Prior to each bullpen, Corral will set up a small yellow ball that is located in a specific part of the strike zone. Pitchers are instructed to try and locate pitches as close to that yellow ball as possible. During the bullpen Corral uses Trackman to collect data on every single pitch and see how far each one missed the yellow ball. After each session, they’ll sift through all of the pitches thrown and come up with an average miss for that day. This gives them a benchmark number to improve on for their next training session. While command has typically been quantified using strike percentage, Corral’s system goes even deeper by measuring exactly where a pitch was in relationship to a specific target. This gives pitchers much better feedback on their ability to locate the baseball and if their training is helping them improve this. 

Corral’s command system he implemented to track the progress of his staff

Additionally, Corral has rethought his perception of home plate. Instead of looking at it as a pentagon, Corral likes to view it as a circle. Viewing the plate as a circle as opposed to a pentagon helps his players understand they can throw their stuff across the plate from different angles as opposed to just the front of the plate. This is especially beneficial for players who throw from the arm side portion of the rubber. Corral sees tremendous in moving to the arm side part of the rubber because it creates a difficult angle for hitters to pick up the ball. It’s either being released at them or slightly behind them. When you can teach these guys they don’t have to throw their stuff across the front part of the plate, you’ve given them the freedom to use their slot to their advantage.

With the current trend to sell out for velocity, Corral’s presentation is a great reminder that pitching is much more than just lighting up a number on a radar gun. Great pitchers are able to command the baseball, throw from different angles, and find as many ways as possible to keep hitters off balance. Velocity it just one of these.

Interested in more? Check out all of these full presentations and more here.

Shapes, Sequencing, & Context: Recapping BTG20 Part I

At 108 Performance we recently held our fourth annual Bridge the Gap (BTG) conference the weekend of October 23-25. Over the course of three days we were able to gather 37 of the brightest minds in player development who put together 27 information packed presentations. For those of you who missed out, we went back through and decided to recap highlights from some of the presentations throughout the weekend.

First up is Stuart McMillan, CEO and Sprint Coach for ALTIS. Stuart has had the ability to coach 60 Olympians at six different Olympic Games with 30 of those athletes winning medals. Through his observations he has noticed how his elite level sprinters all share distinct patterns of shapes at key moments in space. What’s interesting about these shapes is they aren’t just recognizable among the eyes of trained coaches. Out of the five shapes below, try picking out which one is from an elite sprinter:

See if you can pick out which shape is from an elite sprinter

Did you pick number five? Odds are, you probably did.

Without having any other context you picked up on certain features (e.g. upright torso, neutral head/pelvis) that we typically recognize as synonymous with good running mechanics. This happens because our brain is the ultimate pattern recognition system. We know what good movement looks like – even if we can’t exactly put our finger on what we’re seeing – because our brain is constantly cataloging patterns that we pick up subconsciously through our experiences. This is where shapes come into play.

If we want to understand sport specific movement we need to first start with the most stable components of it. These are what Stuart refers to as shapes. They give us information for how an athlete organizes their body to accomplish motor tasks through space. To put it very simply, shapes are the foundation. From this foundation we can build patterns – how the body navigates space and time to complete a motor task. Time thus becomes very important. All sports have some sort of a time constraint in which athletes must learn how to navigate. If the shapes hold steady independent of time but break down when a time is introduced, you’ve created a situation where training does not transfer to games.  

So, the question becomes this:

Dan Pfaff – Director of Education and Head Jumps Coach at ALTIS – was also able to join us for Bridge 2020. Throughout his coaching career he has coached 49 Olympians, 29 individual NCAA National Champions, 150 NCAA All-Americans, and has served on five Olympic games coaching staffs. One of the things he talked about was the allowable bandwidth for movement. While we recognize there are fluctuations in movement signatures from player to player, Pfaff brought up a great point he picked up on through his observations retraining injured military veterans to walk again. What he realized was the gait cycles he studied were all very similar. “There aren’t 10,000 ways to walk,” said Pfaff. 

This brings up an interesting parallel to baseball. While we know everyone has their own unique movement signature, there might not be as much variation as what we originally thought. The bandwidth might be a lot smaller. Throwing or hitting a baseball is much more complex than walking, but we know there are fundamental movements (i.e. shapes) that all elite throwers and hitters share. Starting here gives us a foundation that can help us understand the subtle nuances better, but we can’t just know what’s different. We also need to know the allowable bandwidth for what is different.

Pfaff also touched on Stephen Levin’s concept of biotensegrity – something he feels isn’t talked about enough. The human body is a tensegrity model where the collagen matrix (e.g. fascia) becomes the glue that keeps structural integrity in our body. Tension plus integrity is where tensegrity comes from. For Pfaff, knowing this is important because gives us a completely different perspective on how the body operates as an interconnected, dynamic system. This helps us better understand how the body disperses stress, produces “free energy” through the fascial system, and how certain injuries can present as problems in different areas of the body. The more we look at the body as a living and breathing tensegrity unit, the better we can understand how to influence human movement.

One of the most exciting part of the weekend was the Biomechanics panel Friday evening that featured three influential doctors in the baseball community: Greg Rose of TPI and OnBaseU, Jimmy Buffi of Reboot Motion, and Emily Ferree of Movement First. One of the topics discussed was the idea of sequencing and how speed gains can be inflating. Instead of looking at the sequence of speed, Jimmy Buffi likes to look at the sequence of momentum because it takes into account mass. In order to determine how much power an athlete creates speed and mass must be taken into account. Just looking at speed by itself can give us a false illusion for how a hitter produces power because athletes with less mass are going to have faster speeds. Pro range speed gains do not correlate to pro range outputs.

This is something that Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello touched on in their presentation because they noticed how a lot of their youth hitters had peak speeds in the pro ranges. In fact, the highest exit velocity they ever recorded in their shop (108 mph) was from an athlete who had the lowest peak pelvic speed they had ever measured. This is exactly what Buffi was talking about.

Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To really move in the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis.

Something else Eugene brought up was his new understanding of a concept Greg Rose introduced him to: Torso acceleration drives pelvis deceleration. The muscles that are responsible for the rotation of the trunk are the oblique abdominals. These muscles attach from the rib cage down to the pelvis. For a muscle to mobilize one end of it must have stability. In this case, the oblique abdominals need stability from the pelvis to drive trunk rotation from the rib cage. One end must be stable for the other end to be mobile, which means one segment must accelerate for the other to decelerate. The pelvis doesn’t stop and drag the upper body along for the ride. The acceleration of the trunk helps the pelvis stop and decelerate. Teaching players how to move the middle shouldn’t just focus on the pelvis. To really move the middle you need to teach the trunk how to fire around a stable pelvis.

The trunk needs a stable platform to fire from (more on this here)

People have overlooked this largely because baseball biomechanics has focused primarily on “what” variables as opposed to “why” variables. Emily Ferree talked about this saying it’s one thing to know the pelvis goes and stops first. It’s another to understand the reason why the pelvis stops first might have nothing to do with the pelvis. Focusing on the end product causes us to lose touch with the process to get to the end product. We can’t just know what happens – we also need to understand why.

Eugene Bleecker talked about this using his biomechanics analogy of combining A-Rod with Albert Einstein. If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were really important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter. If we don’t want biomechanics to become just a bunch of numbers and data points, people with skin in the game must learn to drive the interventions. Giving scientists the task of dissecting a sport in which they have little to no knowledge of is a great recipe for getting lost in data. Pairing them with an elite player – or coach – gives you the ability to filter that data.

If you could take someone like A-Rod with his experience and knowledge in the game and combine it with someone like Einstein who understood how to measure the things that were really important to A-Rod, you’ve created a scenario where you’re measuring the things that matter.

This was the main point behind Bobby Tewksbary and Chris Colabello’s presentation. If you’re looking at numbers without understanding the context behind those numbers, you’ve created a situation where you’ve become slavish to what is measurable. They explain this by using an analogy: “If you play stupid games you win stupid prizes.” Before we dive into data, we have to understand what the main goal is. The objective is not to add 3 mph of exit velocity or 10 degrees to your Vertical Bat Angle (VBA). It’s to get hits at 7 o’clock. Using information to help you accomplish this creates positive training interventions. The data you collect shouldn’t be an outcome in itself. It should be a way to influence positive outcomes in games.

Interested in more? You can get full access to all 28 presentations from Bridge the Gap 2020 using the link below.

Viruses, Tipping Points, and How one Video Completely Changed Baseball – for better or for worse

The week of March 9, 2020 completely changed my life forever.

On Monday, I departed for Southern California to join the 108 Performance team and begin a year-long internship program. The program represented the opportunity of a lifetime as I had the ability to learn how to train players from some of the best minds in the game, build an invaluable skill set, and interact with an incredible network of coaches. My dad and I reserved a week to make the 45 hour drive out to Irvine, CA with stops in Chicago, Des Moines, Denver, the Grand Canyon, and Las Vegas. For someone who had never seen anything west of Dallas, I was thrilled to finally see a part of the country I had never experienced before and make some really cool memories throughout the process.

What I didn’t know was the events that unfolded throughout the week of March 9, 2020 would change the course of human history.  

On Wednesday, March 11, my dad and I were sitting down for a meal in a small bar and grill in Arvada, CO – located about 20 minutes west of Denver. The TV in the bar was showing Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks take on the hometown Denver Nuggets in front of a packed crowd at American Airlines Center. Over the past couple of days, NBA owners had been mulling the idea of a postponing the season due to rising concerns of coronavirus (COVID-19). This evening, the Mavericks and Nuggets proceeded as they normally would for a typical game day but with understanding that things could look very different and very soon.

They just didn’t realize how soon it would be.

In the middle of the third quarter of the game, breaking news appeared on the ticker at the bottom of the screen: Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19. Gobert had been warming up on the floor prior to Utah’s game against Oklahoma City and was showing symptoms of the flu. When word got out that Gobert had tested positive for COVID-19, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver immediately postponed the game and evacuated the Oklahoma City arena. Shortly after, Silver announced that the NBA was postponing its season indefinitely. The Mavericks and Nuggets concluded their game that evening with fans in attendance, but news of Silver’s decision got out well before it ended. I couldn’t tell you anything about that game and how it finished, but I can remember exactly how I felt walking out of dinner that night. I had a bad feeling that this was only going to be the start of something that completely changed everything we ever knew about sports.

I ended up being correct. Silver’s decision was the tipping point that sent everything over the edge.

The following day on March 12, the NCAA made the shocking decision to cancel its annual March Madness tournament – which accounts for over 80 percent of the organization’s annual revenue – for the first time since 1938 along with all remaining winter and spring sports. Right behind them were the MLB, NHL, and MLS. Less than 24 hours since Gobert’s positive COVID-19 case and Silver’s decision to shut the NBA down indefinitely, all professional and amateur sports in North America had been completely shut down. The next day I would find out that 108 Performance was going to follow suit and close its doors to prevent the spread of the virus. Yes, that meant that I had just packed up my life and driven over 40 hours across the country only to find out that the facility I just secured my dream internship at was now closing its doors indefinitely with experts predicting a shut down that could last up to several months.

Talk about a change in events.

When I started at 108 on Monday, I wasn’t going to be learning how to train athletes. I was going to be learning how to navigate a small business in the midst of a global pandemic with significant financial ramifications. Well, we were going to learn. Last time I checked no one really had an instruction manual on how to navigate a global crisis fueled by a microorganism in which we knew very little about.

We do know a lot about epidemics, however.

Viruses like COVID-19 may be unpredictable in their appearance, evolution (flu vaccines are educated guesses), and how they infiltrate a population, but how and why they behave is rather predictable. Malcolm Gladwell talked about this in his best-selling book The Tipping Point where he explained the conditions that must be met in order for something to take hold and spread. For a virus to transform from a seasonal scare into an epidemic, three critical elements must be met:

  1. Contagiousness
    1. The virus must be able to spread from one person to another through direct or indirect contact.
  2. Little causes have big effects
    1. The virus does not start with a large following – it grows from one case and multiplies as it infects a larger portion of the population.
  3. Epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment
    1. Once a virus crosses a critical threshold, it multiplies significantly faster. Rate of change in epidemics is anything but gradual.

While the first two elements are pretty self-explanatory for viruses, let’s focus on the third element: Epidemics rise or fall in one dramatic moment. China first reported the existence of COVID-19 on January 7. It took less than two weeks for the United States to report its first case of the virus January 20. On March 11 – the day Adam Silver shut down the NBA – there were 1,248 active cases in the United States. It took less than two months for that number to climb above 1,000,000.

COVID-19 cases in the United States March 11
COVID-19 cases May 8 (source)

This sharp incline in cases is exactly what Gladwell was referring to. He gave it a specific name: The Tipping Point. It is, in his opinion, the most important characteristic when it comes to understanding the behavior of epidemics. For us to pinpoint how the scales get tipped in one direction or the other, we have to understand the conditions that allow for these sudden increases in change.

It gives us insight into a lot more than just viruses.

If we look at the newest trends, latest fads, how certain products blow up, or why specific ideas take off, all of these things follow the same exact rules that caused COVID-19 to spread into a global phenomenon. Epidemics don’t just explain how viruses spread. They explain how everything spreads. It doesn’t matter if it’s a life-threatening disease, social media app, or new household utility – there is an element that makes it contagious, it spreads from a small following, and it crosses a critical threshold – the tipping point – which causes its popularity to explode.

In fact, we’ve already discussed a great example.

I made no mistake when I referenced Silver’s decision as “the tipping point that sent everything over the edge.” When he shut down the NBA down indefinitely after learning of Gobert’s positive case, it took less than 24 hours for all professional and amateur sports in North America to be completely shut down. If epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment, Silver’s decision was the dramatic moment that empowered leaders all throughout sports to take a backseat to greater social issues. If cancelling sports was the “new trend,” Silver was the trendsetter.

He’s just the kind of person we need to dive into if we want to understand the power of tipping points.

Remember how we talked about how little causes have big effects? Epidemics don’t start with a large following. They develop a large following because of a small and specific group of people. They prefer to keep it this way, too. Instead of following the trends and the logic of the majority, they blaze their own path and lead the wave of change from the front. You’ll see them sporting new brands, testing out new theories, rejecting tradition in the face of new evidence, and making decisions many would not have the courage to do. Some of it’s by necessity, some of it’s by curiosity, and some of it’s because they really don’t give a shit. They’re going to do something when it’s the least popular and end up becoming the mechanism that makes it popular. If we want to understand tipping points, we need to understand these men and women and how their decisions have ripple effects throughout society.

People like Adam Silver aren’t just important – they’re necessary. If we want to understand the conditions for change, we can’t just look at the message. We have to understand the messenger.

Only then can we start to understand how trends start, ideas spread, and how one eight minute video became the vessel that empowered baseball to finally “say no” to something that had been taught for years.

 

 

It was 2012 and Athletics prospect Josh Donaldson had hit rock bottom. Ever since his big league debut in 2010, Donaldson was having trouble solidifying himself as an everyday big league player. In 51 games at AAA San Francisco, Donaldson showed flashes of potential collecting 13 homers, driving in 45 runs, and slashing .335/.402/.598. At the big league level, Donaldson struggled batting just .250, accumulated an OPS of .687, and punched out 61 times in 75 games.

He was becoming, in his words, an infamous “Four-A” Player – the unspoken level in baseball reserved for players good enough to get to the show but not good enough to stay there. 

Donaldson knew Four-A players didn’t last long in the game, but he also knew he wasn’t a Four-A type of player. In need of answers, Donaldson doubled down and started searching for them by going to the tapes. He had never been much of a self-evaluator and didn’t really care to watch any of his at-bats if they weren’t bombs (not necessarily a bad thing), but at this point he knew his bad swings were largely outweighing his good ones. To get a reference point for what it should look like, he decided to study up on three of the best hitters in the game: Jose Bautista, Allen Craig, and Miguel Cabrera. He dissected every move, looked at the differences between his swings and theirs, and began to incorporate some of what he saw into his. Sure enough, he started to see some results. In his final 51 games with Oakland in 2012, Donaldson batted .286 and accumulated an OPS of .822. These changes continued into the offseason with some help from private hitting consultant Bobby Tewksbary.

When Donaldson entered the box in 2013, he looked like a completely different hitter. What was interesting about these changes is when most players get off track they need to simplify their moves to have success. For Donaldson, he needed the opposite. He needed bigger moves to sync up his high octane swing. Big moves sure matched Donaldson’s big personality – he just hoped they would fuel some big-time results.

His career depended on it.

If we look at the changes, one of the most notable ones was the adoption of Jose Bautista’s signature leg kick. Considering the complexities of hitting a 95 mph fastball, most hitters tend to use smaller timing mechanisms so they can simplify their swing and increase their chances for hard contact. After watching film of the Dominican slugger and experimenting with his own version of it, Donaldson decided it was worth trying out in games. When you’re becoming a Four-A player, the barrier to entry for these kinds of adjustments is pretty low. Considering Donaldson’s trend-setting type personality, the barrier to entry happened to be really low.

Another big adjustment that Donaldson made happened to run contrary to what had been largely taught in baseball over the past several decades. Instead of taking the barrel directly to the ball in a chopping motion, Donaldson created a different action where he turned his barrel back towards the catcher. This “rearward barrel movement” was designed to help Donaldson strike the ball with his barrel traveling on a slightly uphill plane. If Donaldson’s goal was to hit balls hard and in the air, he couldn’t have his barrel traveling down into impact in a chopping motion. He had to do just the opposite. His barrel had to go back in order for it to go forward.

In the spirit of what we know about epidemics, this small sample size of experimentation ended up yielded big time results.

Donaldson from his first season in the bigs 2011 (left) vs. 2013 (right)

In 2013, Donaldson didn’t play a single game at the minor league level. Gone were the days of constantly bouncing between Oakland and San Francisco. He solidified himself as the everyday starting third baseman for the Athletics and slugged 24 homers, drove in 93 runs, and slashed .310/.384/.499. He went from becoming a Four-A player to finishing fourth in the MVP voting.

He wasn’t done yet, either.

In ’14, Donaldson continued on his war path slugging 29 homers, driving in 98 runs, and making his first career All-Star appearance. After being traded to Toronto at the conclusion of the season, Donaldson took his go big or go home personality to a completely different level. He exploded in his first season with the Jays anchoring one of the best offenses in franchise history that lead the MLB in runs per game (5.50), doubles (308), homers (232), RBI (852), and OPS (.797). Donaldson set career-highs belting 42 homers, driving in 123 runs, and winning his first-ever American League Most Valuable Player award. In three short years, Donaldson had gone from a fringe big leaguer into one of the most exciting players in the game and now had a platform where he could share his unique story to others who were at rock bottom the way he was back in 2012.

Little did he know the ripple effect it would have throughout the baseball community.

In August of 2016, Donaldson joined Mark DeRosa of the MLB Network in Studio 42 to break down his swing transformation that turned him from a fringe big leaguer into an MVP. Throughout the eight minute video, Donaldson shared his thought process at the plate and some of the things that were really important to him as a hitter. He discussed the rhythm and pre-pitch movement he added so he could get into his natural flow and sync up to the pitcher. He talked about how it was important for him to control his forward move using his rear hip as opposed to his back knee so he could maintain balance using his Bautista inspired leg kick.

While all this was going on, Donaldson emphasized how he wanted to stay as loose as possible so he could avoid adding any unnecessary tension in his swing. He wanted to create tension – but he didn’t want to create any before his front foot came back down to earth. The timing of it was just as important as creating any at all. For him, he created this tension by turning his body into a giant rubber band. If his lower half was the hand holding the rubber band, his upper half was the other hand pulling it back. He didn’t want to pull it back just a little. He wanted to pull it back as far as his body would allow without sacrificing his performance in the box.  

When he started to talk about shoulder angles, DeRosa stopped Donaldson – recognizing he’s getting pretty deep into the swing – and asked him what he could give a 10 year old kid to go home with. After all, complexity is only as good as our ability to create simplicity. Donaldson’s advice was about as simple as it could get.

“If you’re 10 years old and your coach says get on top of the ball,” said Donaldson, “tell him no. Because in the big leagues these things that they call ground balls are outs.”

Simple, but powerful – and not wrong. In 2016, MLB hitters batted .239 and slugged .258 on ground balls. On fly balls and line drives combined, they batted .411 and slugged .785. Ever since Statcast started collecting data in 2015 (thanks for crunching some data, Randy), balls hit at 100 mph and at a 28 degree launch angle have a .705 batting average, go for extra base hits 70 percent of the time, and leave the yard half the time. Balls hit at the same speed but at a 5 degree launch angle (ground balls are considered anything 5 degrees or lower) turn into extra base hits just six percent of the time. Hitting baseballs at 100 mph will get you hits, but hitting balls at 100 and at the right trajectory helps you do damage. Teams pay guys who can do damage.

“If you’re 10 years old and your coach says get on top of the ball, tell him no. Because in the big leagues these things that they call ground balls are outs.” – Josh Donaldson, 2015 AL MVP

If you don’t hit the ball 100, hitting the ball in the air might actually become even more important. According to Statcast, balls hit at 75 mph but at a 5 degree launch angle have a .324 batting average and only 1 percent of those hits go for extra bases. If you hit a ball 75 mph but at a 20 degree launch angle your batting average jumps to .978 – a .654 increase. Hitting the ball in the air isn’t some scientific discovery that we recently uncovered. We’ve known this stuff works for a long time. If anything, it’s common sense.

To think about this, let’s do some math. The average baseball field infield is about 27,000 square feet. Out of the nine fielders on the field at any given time, six of them are within the perimeter of the infield. If we break down roughly how much each player would be responsible for if they shared the infield evenly, each infielder would need to cover 4,500 square feet. If we take the catcher and the pitcher out of the equation, each fielder becomes responsible for 6,750 feet.

Now let’s go to the outfield. The average outfield is about 77,000 square feet. Three fielders must cover this area. As a result, each fielder becomes responsible for 25,666.7 square feet – over 18,000 more square footage than what each infielder needs to cover. If you want to increase your chances to get a base hit, you want to put pressure on fielders that have to cover an additional 134’ x 134’ box of green. To put this into perspective, check out this video where Byron Buxton covers 84 feet to make a sensational catch in center field. Now imagine making him responsible for 50 more feet on that same play.

If you want to put pressure on the defense to make these kinds of plays, you’re not going to do it making contact with the top half of the baseball. After all, the pitcher is standing on a 10” mound and throwing to a catcher that is in a crouch. The baseball is traveling on a downhill plane. Swinging down on an object traveling down is a great recipe for killing gophers and elevator homers – not line drives.

This was the point Donaldson was trying to get across.

If we know hitting the ball in the air works, it would therefore make sense to design a swing that would help you drive ball in the air. Donaldson’s swing changes were designed to help him do exactly this. His problem was the swing he had learned his entire life was not helping him do this. He also knew he wasn’t alone.

Donaldson’s eight minutes in Studio 42 was his opportunity to share to the world the information he wished he had as a player a long time ago. It wasn’t just informative – it was empowering.  Every player and kid in American now had the ability to tell their coaches to piss off when they told them to swing down, get on top of the ball, or keep it on the ground. Their bad swing wasn’t their fault. Instead, it was the fault of hitting coaches who had been feeding them bad information for years.

It was the perfect storm for an epidemic-like response.

 

 

Let’s go back to epidemics.

In order for a virus or trend to spread there must be some element of contagiousness. It’s a necessity for survival. If a virus can’t spread to a host body, it has no way to survive on its own. If an idea can’t stick and spread to a larger audience, it’ll be forgotten as soon as it was discovered.

While viruses are contagious by nature, ideas are a little bit different. They all have the potential to stick and spread, but there has to be something about it that makes it stand out – especially considering the amount of information that we’re forced to sift through on a daily basis. It might be easier than it’s ever been to spread ideas, but you could argue it’s harder than it’s ever been to make ideas stick. There’s so much information out there today that just sharing it isn’t enough. What’s shared needs to be remembered.

It’s a lot easier to remember it when it’s coming from one of the best hitters in baseball.

If we want to understand the role contagiousness plays when it comes to the spread of new ideas, we have to go to the second rule of epidemics: Little causes have big effects. When people are presented with new information, there is a pattern in how that information is received and adopted over the course of time. This is illustrated in the Law of Diffusion:

The Law of Diffusion (source)

Notice how at the beginning of the curve you find the innovators (2.5 percent) and the early adopters (13.5 percent). These two groups represent just 16 percent of the population but are arguably the most important part of the population when it comes to influencing change. These are the kinds of people that are willing to grapple with the unknown, test out theories before they’re popular, and speak out about things that many might disagree with initially. What these people say and do have massive ripple effects throughout society because they introduce us to things we don’t know, challenge the things we do know, and force us to see things through a different lens.

It’s where you’ll find the Adam Silvers and Josh Donaldsons of the world.

Donaldson might not have invented the approach to hit the ball in the air, but he was the perfect kind of person to go against the grain with his career at stake. He was willing to wear some arrows and try out a different approach to keep a jersey on his back. Big leg kicks and rearward barrel movement might not have been popular, but Donaldson ended up becoming the mechanism that made them popular. After all, when you have an MVP kind of season everything you do becomes popular. If there was a moment in time where Donaldson’s words would have had the greatest amount of impact, the summer of ’16 was a pretty good time.

Now let’s go back to contagiousness.

If we break down what made Donaldson’s message stick and why it spread as quickly as it did throughout the baseball community, three things stand out:

  1. Authority

Where we get information is just as important as the content of that information. For Donaldson, he had all the right ingredients. As an everyday big league player he had credibility right off the bat. For better or for worse, we have to remember that big league players represent such a small portion of the population. If you were to take every single player that’s stepped between the white lines on a big league field, you wouldn’t even be able to fill half of Yankee Stadium – 18,918 to be exact. When big leaguers speak, we listen.

Now Donaldson wasn’t just any big leaguer – he was one of the best players in the game. He had just come off an AL MVP season in which he exploded offensively setting career-highs in numerous categories and lead the Toronto blue Jays to their first postseason appearance in over two decades. What he was talking about was getting results. This gave him the perception of an authority figure in the game of baseball.

When you take a guy like Donaldson and put him in front of a microphone on one of baseball’s most watched television networks, people are going to listen. If what he was doing was getting results at the highest level of the game, it’s worth listening to. You don’t become the 1 percent of the 1 percent by accident.

The messenger is just as important as the message itself. In the summer of ’16, Donaldson happened to be the perfect messenger to share his “new school” approach to hitting.

  1. Utility

Products and ideas take off because they present a solution to a problem people are facing. Donaldson’s message was no different. If your coaches had been preaching the importance of getting on top of the baseball and you haven’t had success in games, you now had a plausible theory on what’s been creating your offensive struggles. If Donaldson had transformed himself from a Four A player into an MVP candidate, you now had a chance to pull yourself from the bottom of the lineup and start contributing at a higher level offensively.

Creating utility is all about offering a solution to a problem people are facing. Donaldson’s thoughts might not have been popular to the majority, but he had proof of results and he was able to connect to a lot of kids who were facing the same issues he once did. After all, most of what he talked about just made sense. If the objective is to get the ball out of the infield, why would we try to get on top of the ball?

  1. Novelty

This one is interesting. Donaldson’s thoughts on trying to design a swing to do damage in the air were not new. Hall of Fame hitter Ted Williams was talking about this over forty years ago when he wrote his book The Science of Hitting. What made Donaldson’s message “new” was the public’s perception of it. You have to remember that the climate in player development over the past several decades had not been favorable to the idea of swinging up. For the large majority, it was very much the opposite. Hearing one of the best players in baseball basically shit on what most hitting coaches had been talking about for a long time was kind of a culture shock. Donaldson’s message was not new, but the way in which he presented it made it seem fresh, new, and attractive.

From The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams

If you want to find a way to get the 84 percent on board, you’ve got to present your message in a way that makes it appealing. Making it seem new – even if it isn’t really new – is a great way to accomplish this. If the information you’re trying to share is novel, useful, and it’s coming from an authority figure, it’s going to spread just like a virus.

Donaldson’s interview just happened to be the tipping point that sent everything over the edge.

With this, there’s just one detail that we haven’t highlighted to this point: Epidemics can rise in one dramatic moment, but they can also fall in one dramatic moment. Trends are called trends for a reason – when something loses its novelty, utility, or authority, it becomes hard to keep it around. The 16% leading the pack have already moved on to something else. It might be cool to swing like Donaldson one year, but is it still cool to swing like Donaldson when he’s not an MVP candidate and he’s getting outpaced by guys like Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, and Aaron Judge?

Everything in this world must operate within a golden median. That median lies between two polar opposites that become the edges in which we have the capacity to operate. More times than not, we have to operate at those boundaries for some period of time in order to eventually bring ourself back to middle. Hot needs cold, high needs low, what’s good needs what’s bad, and what’s enjoyable needs what’s unpleasant. Baseball is no different. Stay back needs go forward, go fast needs go slow, and too much needs too little. Thoughts, cues, instruction, and interpretation all operate on some part of a spectrum between polar opposites. Our goal is to wind up somewhere in the middle, but sometimes we need to operate on one side of the spectrum or the other to find balance. Last week we might have needed to go fast – this week we need to slow it down. It’s all dependent on where we are and what we need.

When Donaldson couldn’t solidify himself as an every day big leaguer, he didn’t need to think about getting on top of the baseball and keeping things simple. He needed the exact opposite to find balance on his spectrum of needs.

I just wonder if the scales have tipped too far in that direction.

Bellinger going yard using the “new school” swing up approach (source)

 

 

Before we begin, let’s start on some common ground. All great hitters make contact with the ball when their barrel is traveling slightly uphill. It’s not complicated – it’s really common sense. We know the pitch is traveling on a downward trajectory of about 6-10 degrees. We know line drives are the most valuable batted ball in baseball. Line drives happen in the air. If the goal is to maximize your ability to hit line drives, the barrel cannot be traveling down into contact – it must match the plane of the pitch and travel slightly up. As mentioned above, this stuff is not new. In many ways, we’re just catching up to what a lot of the best hitters knew a long time ago.

However, just knowing all good hitters swing up is not enough. How they swing up is equally as important.

The north to south barrel that’s synonymous with the “new school” swing up approach might be the attractive thing to do as of late, but it’s not necessarily what a lot of the greatest hitters have done. Vicious upper cuts might be trendy but they’re not the only way to hit a baseball in the air. In fact, some of the best hitters this game has ever seen had anything but a vicious uppercut. Their path was very flat. They didn’t have any issues hitting the ball in the air, either.

To get a feel for this, below is Hank Aaron – arguably the greatest hitter of all time – hitting a homerun. Pay close attention to how his barrel moves through space.

Hank Aaron hitting a HR

Notice how flat his barrel is when it comes through the zone? He doesn’t have a big Bellinger-like upper cut where his barrel starts in the southern hemisphere and exists in the north. If anything, it just works east to west around the equator. He uses his hands and wrists to manipulate the barrel into contact. After contact, the barrel never rises above the letters on his jersey and finishes below his opposite shoulder. 

Notice where Aaron’s bat finishes after contact

It doesn’t really look like a swing path that was designed to hit 700 home runs, but that’s because our perception of the optimal swing is relative to what we’ve been seeing recently. With the recent push to drive balls in the air more often, we’ve seen a lot more golf influenced swings where the barrel is working predominately in the north to south plane of rotation. It’s great for some hitters – J.D. Martinez and Freddie Freeman being two examples – but it’s not optimal for everyone. Hank Aaron didn’t a big uppercut to the ball to do damage in the air. He needed to be flat – and he’s not alone.

Let’s check out another Hall of Fame hitter: Jimmie Foxx. Foxx finished with a lifetime batting average of .325 over 20 seasons in the big leagues belting 534 homers and accumulating a lifetime 1.038 OPS – good for fifth all time. This is what his swing looked like:

Jimmie Foxx

Very similar to Aaron’s. Manipulates the barrel with his hands and wrists, bat works east to west around his torso, and finishes his swing with the bat below his opposite shoulder. I really like this angle of Foxx because while his swing is pretty flat, his barrel still makes contact with the ball traveling slightly up. Just because you have a flat swing does not mean you can’t strike the ball with your barrel traveling slightly up into contact. Guys like Foxx and Aaron didn’t need to work north to south to do damage in the air. They needed to be flat.

How about another Hall of Famer: Mike Schmidt. Throughout his 18 year career, Schmidt rewrote the Philadelphia Phillies record books setting franchise records in WAR (106.9), total bases (4404), home runs (548), and runs batted in (1595). This is what his swing looked like:

Mike Schmidt

Same thing. Flat bat path, hands and wrists manipulate the barrel, and the bat finishes underneath the opposite shoulder. Zero issues elevating the baseball. It’s almost as if we’ve written off these kinds of swings and buried them deep in the history books in favor of the modern “launch angle” swing. However, we never really buried them.

We just stopped looking for them.

There are plenty of examples of guys that play today who have had a ton of success using an east to west approach with their bat. It just seems like they’re north to south because of the angle of their trunk.

One of these guys is Mike Trout. 

When we look at how the bat moves through space we want to see the barrel turn in tangent with the middle as we start to rotate. How it turns is just as important. In order to make efficient moves to the ball, we need the barrel to work around the trunk on a geodesic path – meaning straight but on a curve. This helps the barrel capture energy using the path of least resistance so it can maximize force transmission while maintaining space and direction. These three elements are critical for high level hitters. If the barrel does not work around the trunk using the most efficient path possible, it becomes a lot more difficult to check these three boxes.

A great comparison for this is the arm. How the arm works around the trunk to deliver the baseball is very similar to how the barrel needs to work around the trunk to strike the ball. Whether it’s a bat or a ball, we need to work around the trunk and get across our body so we can produce force. The angle of our trunk then becomes a key element in understanding the path of the bat or ball. If we know arm slot is determined by the amount of trunk tilt pitchers create into foot plant, bat path becomes influenced by the amount of posture we create throughout the swing. When hitters create more posture and their trunk works closer to parallel with the ground, it creates the illusion of a north to south path when it’s really east to west with trunk tilt. This is exactly what we see with Trout.

The best way to explain this is to show it visually. If we normalize for trunk tilt, this is what Mike Trout’s swing looks like.

Looks a little more flat now, doesn’t it?

Trout’s swing might look north to south because of the amount of trunk tilt he creates, but it’s more of an east to west swing – just like Aaron, Foxx, and Schmidt. While we’ve discussed a lot of old school hitters to this point, flat swings are not just an old school thing. They’re a new school thing too. Jose Altuve, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich all have flat swings – it just gets a lot easier to see it when we get take trunk tilt out of the picture.

Notice how Stanton’s bat works around his trunk and finishes below his opposite shoulder

How you swing up is just as important as knowing you need to swing up.

 

Haven’t heard of Anthony Santander? You will soon. This season he had more homers per at bat than Kyle Schwarber, Trevor Story, and Cody Bellinger – to name a few. Pretty flat swing, too.

So now let’s go back to Donaldson’s thoughts. Deliberately trying to elevate the ball can create some positive adaptations for some, but it can also make others look like this:

Trying to swing like Donaldson is cool until it puts you in a really bad position at landing with excessive counter rotation of the torso, the bat has a really long arc to the ball, and there is zero ability to transmit force with direction because deceleration patterns are non existent. There’s a reason why big leaguers don’t exhibit bat speeds north of 80 mph. They do not swing like this. 

However, the problem is this is what some kids thought they needed to do after they watched Donaldson’s MLB Network segment. This kind of disconnect causes trends to lose their zest. When we jump on what’s new and lose sight of what matters, messages become misinterpreted and ideas get taken to the extremes. Fads are aren’t meant to be factual. They’re fragile – and they should be handled accordingly. There were plenty of hitters who went all in on Donaldson’s ideas and ended up getting worse because they weren’t what they needed at that moment in time. What they needed was perspective (and maybe some decel patterns, too). 

Everything that goes around eventually finds its rightful place of importance. Donaldson’s video got really popular really quick, but it didn’t quite hold its substance because the interpretation didn’t match the intent of the message. This creates a big problem. How we interpret information is just as important as the information itself. When the interpretation and the information don’t match, you’ve created the perfect storm for a kid to know enough to be dangerous and not enough to be effective.

Swinging up is a great idea until we drop our back shoulder too early, get stuck on our backside, fly open, and get peeled out of the ground before we ever get a chance to put force into it. Too many kids became so focused on keeping the ball off the ground because Donaldson told them to say no to ground balls. However, what they really needed was something of the opposite so they could get their swing back to a better place. After all, there are big leaguers who needed to intentionally hit the ball on the ground in batting practice so they could elevate it at 7 o’clock. 

When the interpretation and the information don’t match, you’ve created the perfect storm for a kid to know enough to be dangerous and not enough to be effective.

If we want to be effective, we have to see how everything fits on the entire spectrum. Just jumping on the newest and latest stuff might get you some immediate returns, but it can also send you pretty far off the deep end if you don’t see things for what they really are. The whole swing up wave and the north to south barrel has helped a lot of players, but it’s also hurt plenty more. Coaching isn’t just knowing all players swing up – it’s knowing when some guys need to think down so they can swing up. How we swing up is just as important as knowing everyone needs to swing up.

So where do we go from here? Well, that’s the fun part. We know the north to south barrel works and we know the east to west barrel works. We can’t just look at path by itself to determine what’s optimal for someone. We need to see how the path matches up with what’s going on with the rest of the body. Similar to pitching, we’re trying to get the planes of rotation to match. If the arm is working in one direction and the pelvis and trunk are working in another, you’ve got a problem.

Hitting is the same thing. If you’ve got a guy who’s working north to south with his barrel but east to west with his hips, you’ve created a mismatch that’s going to have a negative impact on performance. East to west hips are guys like Trout and Aaron – their belt buckle works around the equator as the hips rotate. North to south hips are guys like Freeman and Joey Votto – they get rotation by creating more of a hip extension move (similar to how you would deadlift). They’re also two guys who have had a ton of success with south to north barrels. When the hips and the path match, you’ve got a recipe for hitters to mash.

Freeman using a hip extension move (notice his belt buckle) where his hips work south to north during rotation. 

The key becomes understanding when they don’t match. If you have a hitter who’s constantly getting beat up in the zone or slicing balls to the opposite field, they might have a mismatch where their hips are working east to west and their barrel is working south to north. This is costing them a ton of space and the ability to transmit force out in front with direction because their hips are working one way and the barrel is working the other way. Flattening their swing out might be the medicine they need to get the planes to match up. 

This also works the other way around. If you have a hitter who’s hitting elevator homers in BP and they’re using more of a hip extension pattern down below, getting them to think more north to south can get the two to match up (e.g. J.D. Martinez). East to west paths with south to north hips are just as bad as south to north barrels but east to west hips. It’s not about whether north or south is better than east to west. All we’re trying to do is match up the planes of rotation. It just so happens that a lot of guys have east to west hips. Giving them a north to south path will make them worse. Don’t get caught up just looking at how the barrel works through space. See the entire picture. Flat swings don’t work against your ability to hit the ball in the air. Mismatches do.

 

 

Real coaching isn’t about clinging to the latest fads and jumping on what’s fresh in the player development community. Coaching is seeing truth amidst the hype and understanding that everything will find its rightful place in time. Kids don’t need fads. They need mentors who can guide them through the information that we are constantly bombarded with on a daily basis. Sometimes this requires an uncomfortable conversation with a kid who took Donaldson’s message too seriously.

While we have yet to find a vaccine for COVID-19, our vaccine to guard us against the ugly side of information epidemics is the truth. Finding truth – just like any science experiment – starts with empirical observation. If we know that some of the best hitters this game has ever seen had east to west hips and east to west barrels, we can’t just tell kids they need to swing up and let them self-organize into good positions. They need good coaching. How you swing up is just as important as knowing you need to swing up.

Donaldson’s message might not have the same flavor that it did back in the summer of ’16, but we still haven’t quite found the other end of the spectrum as a baseball community. Everything in this game is cyclical. High heaters and breaking balls might be trendy now, but it’s only a matter of time until we see sliders and two seamers make a comeback. North to south barrels might be trendy now, but it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing more guys teach east to west swings. It all works, but not all of it works for everyone. Information may come and go but good coaches will never go out of style. Good coaches understand how you swing up is just as important as knowing you need to swing up.

It’s time we start finding our way back to the middle.

Why No One Is Talking About One of Baseball’s Biggest Stories This Season

The other day I sat down and went back through some baseball from earlier in the day that featured a doubleheader between the Mariners and Padres. I was particularly interested in this series because Manny Machado – one of the anchors on my fantasy team – had left the yard on three different occasions between both games. Knowing I missed out on this, I decided to go back and watch game two so I could catch Machado’s third blast of the day and get some cool angles from one of the hottest hitters in baseball.

What I didn’t expect was that I’d stumble on to one of baseball’s hidden games so far in 2020.

In the second half of the doubleheader, the Padres sent out ex-Angels pitcher Garrett Richards to square off against Yusei Kikuchi – the second year left hander out of Japan who joined Seattle last year after eight seasons in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. If you were a Padres fan, you probably didn’t watch much of the game after what happened early on. Richards failed to get out of the first, surrendered six, and left with San Diego facing a 6-0 deficit before they even had a chance to touch a bat. It never really got much closer from here.

Part of the reason is because the Kikuchi the Padres saw this year was a lot different than the guy they saw last year.

Now I didn’t really care to watch Kikuchi – or the rest of the game considering the top half of the first – but I was really interested in checking out Machado’s third homer of the day. It just so happened the hitter that bats before him in the lineup is a guy named Fernando Tatis Jr. – arguably baseball’s most electric hitter in 2020. When someone like Tatis steps into the box, you just stop what you’re doing and watch. You never really know what kind of a show he’s about to put on.

However, the must watch entertainment didn’t come from the box during that at-bat. It came from 60 feet six inches away. Kikuchi made quick work of the standout Padres shortstop sending Tatis back to the dugout in just four pitches. They looked like this:

  • SL: 82.4 mph, K (foul ball)
  • FF: 97.6 mph, ball
  • FF: 96.8 mph, K (foul ball)
  • CH: 89.8 mph, K (swinging)

Let me tell you, I’ve never pulled up Baseball Savant quicker before in my life.

After glancing through some numbers and making sure my eyes weren’t playing a trick on me, I figured out what the Padres unfortunately figured out that evening: This was not the same guy that sputtered to a 6-11 record in ’19 and accumulated a disappointing 5.46 ERA in 161.2 IP. 

This Kikuchi was different, and he sure had my attention.

The Japanese native had been known to run it up into the mid 90s during his time in the Nipppon Professional Baseball league, but we didn’t really see 97.6 or 96.8 last year. In his first year in a big league uniform, Kikuchi’s four seam fastball averaged just 92.5 mph – a tick below the league average of 93.4. Hitters slugged .622 on it, accumulated a .410 wOBA against it, and whiffed at it just 19% of the time. In other words, it just wasn’t a really good pitch.  

Now let’s look at the data so far from 2020. Through five starts, Kikuchi’s four seamer is averaging a blistering 95.2 mph up 2.7 mph from his average heater in ‘19. As you could probably guess, it’s performed better in games as hitters are slugging .438 and have accumulated a wOBA of .357 against it – both improvements from ’19. It’s also getting whiffs at a career-high 26.4% of the time – a 10.4% increase from last year. If that doesn’t impress you, I think it’s worth noting that so far this season Gerrit Cole – the guy who set a MLB record for K/9 last season – is getting whiffs on his fastball just 25.7% of the time.

Let that sink in for a second: Yusei Kikuchi is missing more bats this year with his heater than Gerrit Cole is. Imagine predicting that one a few months ago.

 

 

 

Considering the left hander’s disappointing first season in the states, the increased fastball velocity and improved game performance is an encouraging sign that there’s a lot more in the tank than what we originally thought. However, here’s the funny part: Kikuchi is using his new and improved heater less this season.

In 2019, Kikuchi threw his four seamer roughly half the time at a 49% clip. This year, he’s throwing it just 39.9% of the time. Throwing heaters less is something that’s become a trend across Major League Baseball considering what teams know about how hitters perform against pitches that aren’t straight. However, the whole goal is to throw pitches that perform the best most often. If Kikuchi’s heater is performing much better this season, why wouldn’t he subsequently be using it more?

Well, a big reason why he hasn’t is because he’s started throwing something that’s performed even better: His new cut fastball.

 

Through five starts, Kikuchi’s new cutter has become his primary weapon throwing it at a 41.5% clip. It’s averaging 92.3 mph (just 0.3 mph slower than his four seamer from last year lol), generating whiffs 32.9% of the time, hitters are slugging just .283, and have accumulated a .277 wOBA against it. Kikuchi’s fastball has been good, but his new cutter has been really good. Just check out how is measures up against three of the best cutters in the game from Kenley Jansen, Aaron Civale, and Yu Darvish:

  • Jansen: 91.2 mph, SLG .207, wOBA .180, 26.9% Whiff%
  • Civale: 87.1 mph, SLG .459, wOBA .291, 30.9 Whiff%
  • Darvish: 87.1 mph, SLG .359, wOBA .273, 36.8 Whiff%

Not bad at all for a pitch he didn’t throw last year. So let’s start to make sense of some of this data. How did Kikuchi go from a pitcher who struggled to touch 96 last year and evolve into someone who’s getting more fastball whiffs than Gerrit Cole currently is? To figure this one out, let’s take a closer look at the film. New data isn’t just created out of thin air – it’s created by new movement patterns.

“I consider saying “balance,” but instead I mumble something about making more natural motions. Latta says he doesn’t want me to reduce what we did to a number; better numbers are the by-products of better body movement.” – from The MVP Machine by Ben Lindbergh & Travis Sawchik

If we look at the film of Kikuchi from this season, it’s no mistake he’s blowing cheese and missing bats – his movement patterns have gotten way better. He’s getting to better positions, moving more efficiently through them, and it’s giving him the ability to do things like throw 98 and decelerate like an absolute menace:

Kikuchi from 2019 (left – 91.4 mph) vs. 2020 (right – 98 mph)

Now the decel was there last year – don’t get me wrong – but the velocity wasn’t and the decel wasn’t showing up nearly as much as it is this year. This is directly related to the positions he was getting to and moving through from a year ago.

A couple of years ago, 108 Performance ran a study where they tested a group of arms from their facility to see what kind of an impact teaching the arm recoil would have on their delivery. Out of all the guys tested, they found the pitches thrown with the arm recoil produced the greatest amount of average ground reaction forces on the front leg, back leg, total power, and total ground reaction forces. They also produced better sequences, created more effective hip to shoulder separation, increased ball velocities, and on top of this elbow valgus stress decreased by an average of 37 percent. These findings challenged conventional theory in baseball which claimed the recoil was a detriment to performance and made guys more susceptible to injury. Turns out, the study actually proved the opposite: Pitchers were able to maximize the amount of force they produced while subsequently placing less stress on the elbow.

So let’s think about why this would happen. The reason why the arm recoils or gets peeled back after the throw is because it has no other choice – there is so much tension present in the system at that point in time from the upper half and lower half working reciprocally against one another. In other words, the rubber band has been stretched as far as it can go in either direction. As a result, the arm has no where else to go and is peeled back due to a golgi tendon reflex – the same exact reflex that causes your leg to kick out when doctors tap your knee. Dr. Ferree talked about this in their 2018 Palooza presentation saying how this reflex is actually a built in protective mechanism your body uses to prevent muscles from becoming overstretched which would make them more susceptible to tears and other similar injuries. In Eugene’s words: “It’s the ultimate sign of decelerator strength and efficiency with direction.”

 

Just remember this: Don’t get married to the recoil by itself – get married to things that need to happen so the recoil can happen.

Kikuchi isn’t pimping the finish this year for the hell of it – he’s doing it because he’s getting into stronger positions which allow him to slam on the brakes and transfer energy up the chain more quickly and efficiently.

Kikuchi flashing 97 this year (from Baseball Savant)

If we dive into these positions, we notice right off the bat that Kikuchi is able to stay closed longer into landing which prevents his pelvis from opening up too soon and getting in the way. This gives him the ability to line everything up down low so it can grab and stabilize when he needs it to (front foot strike). The quicker things stabilize down low, the quicker the pelvis can stop and slingshot the torso around it so energy can get transferred up the chain. This is where the decel is coming from – Kikuchi is bracing and stopping so well which creates an insane amount of tension that has no where to go after ball release. He’s able to pull this off because he’s doing a much better job closing off into landing:

Kikuchi at landing 2019 (92.3) vs 2020 (98)

Notice the position of Kikuchi’s arm on the right, the wrinkles in his rear glute, the direction of his stride, and the amount jersey and belt buckle we can see from behind. This tells us that Kikuchi is staying closed much longer which keeps his torso connected to his pelvis and gives his arm the space and freedom it needs to get up on time, catch the trunk earlier, and throw his punch from deeper:

Kikuchi’s uptick in velocity is no mistake – guys who catch the trunk early and decel like beasts tend to throw fuzz.

While this explains a ton about the increased velocity, Kikuchi has also made an interesting adjustment to his delivery when there’s no pressure to control the running game (he goes out of the stretch all the time). He ends up picking his leg up a little higher and actually takes his back heel out of the ground when he gets to peak leg lift:

Kikuchi’s heel is coming off the ground at leg lift in 2020

This mechanism is pretty interesting and I have to imagine it was a conscious change by either Kikuchi or one of his coaches. Either way, as weird as it might seem, I think it could have helped him start to get a better feel for the positions we talked about above. We see a lot of big league arms who “release” their back foot and let it slip into more of an externally rotated position as they get into leg lift. This creates a more advantageous position for guys who don’t have a lot of internal rotation in their back hip as they move down the mound:

Watch Scherzer’s back foot slip into ER as he picks up his lead leg
Watch Verlander’s back foot and how it “slips” into a more favorable position for him

We also see it from hitters too:

Remember this guy from above? Watch the back foot – very similar to the move Verlander & Scherzer make

In Kikuchi’s case, he’s creating a similar mechanism where he’s releasing his back foot and getting rid of early tension that can put the pelvis in a compromised position where it gets stuck and has to push out of the ground. Eugene likes to think about this move as a “release” of the back foot followed by a “float” of the pelvis which then creates a “late anchor.” We know the feet need to grab and anchor into the ground at foot strike so the pelvis can stabilize, but we also don’t want that anchor to happen too soon. We want to anchor in when it’s time to throw our punch – not well before it when we’re not ready. If the anchor happens too early, we get put into a position where we can’t hold on to tension any longer and the sequence falls apart. This is why the release is so important in the beginning – by letting go of tension early, we’re able to create tension later when it matters.  

Watch Kikuchi’s back heel release as he gets into leg lift

From here, the pelvis is able to float down the mound and bring the extremities along for the ride. The legs and arms shouldn’t work independently from the middle – they should be slaves to it. The more proximal we can get, the more efficient things tend to become. This creates the late anchor – we’re able to grab on to the ground and create tension when we need it because we are proximally to distally in the best position possible to throw our punch. As a result, Kikuchi is able to stay closed longer, use his backside better, and optimize his ability to put force into the ground. If you want to get force out of the ground, you have to learn how to put some into it. 

As for what created all of this, it’s tough to tell from the outside. It could have been as simple as trying to pimp the finish as hard as he could or he might have had a big time unlock using the back heel release. One day he could have just showed up to the field, felt like a million bucks, and started popping out 98s. Who knows. However, it doesn’t really matter what happened because whatever he did is working and he looks really, really good. 

So now for the most interesting part: Why aren’t people talking about Kikuchi this season?

The changes we just went over aren’t small changes – they have career-changing implications. Adding 1 mph to your average fastball is a big deal, let along 2.7 mph. Kikuchi’s getting into much better positions more consistently, he’s added a new weapon that’s become his primary pitch, and he’s striking out hitters at a career-high rate. Considering what we know and the strides Kikuchi has made so far in 2020, why aren’t more people talking about him?

That’s the thing: On the outside, it doesn’t look like Kikuchi has improved much at all. In five starts this season, the Japanese native is 1-2 and owns a whopping 6.12 ERA – even worse than the 5.46 he churned out a year ago.

When I first found out Kikuchi’s ERA stood at north of 6.0, I had already seen the film, looked into his pitch metrics, and saw the improvements he had made from a year ago. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. Everything I had looked up to that point suggested that Kikuchi should be doing a much better job of keeping runs off the scoreboard this season. Instead, he was actually doing worse.

Now I understand that his walk rate is higher this season (3.6 BB/9 vs. 2.8 BB/9 in ’19), but that’s just about the only thing that hasn’t improved besides ERA. He’s done a much better job keeping the ball in the yard (0.4 HR/9 vs. 2.0 HR/9 in ’19), he’s surrendering less base hits (9.0 H/9 vs. 10.9 H/9 in ’19), and his xSLUG (.357) and barrel % (2.9%) both rank top 7 percent among all pitchers. The film and data sure tell us Kikuchi has been a much better pitcher this season, but his 6.12 ERA seems to be telling us otherwise.

So now the question becomes this: How sure can we be that Kikuchi is having a better season when his ERA seems to be telling us otherwise? Better yet – how much value should we be putting into ERA in the first place?

Turns out, probably not a whole lot.

 

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), according to Fan Graphs, is a statistic that measures how well a pitcher is able to prevent runs by eliminating all batted ball outcomes that are influenced by defensive play. The only outcomes that are taken into account for the stat are ones that pitchers have complete control over: Strikeouts, walks, hit batsmen, and home runs. Below is the formula for it and an explanation behind it from Fan Graphs:

The idea behind measuring FIP is it gives us a better way to evaluate pitchers by stripping the influence of defense, luck, and sequencing. By focusing only on the outcomes pitchers can complete control over, FIP gives us a more stable metric that is not negatively influenced by things like bloop hits, shift beaters, and marginal defensive play. In other words, it gives us a better representation of a pitcher’s value because it only takes into account the outcomes pitchers are completely responsible for.

It also just might give us a better indication of the kind of season that Yusei Kikuchi is currently having.

As covered above, we know Kikuchi’s ERA so far this season is an abysmal 6.12 which ranks outside the top 50 pitchers in the MLB. His FIP, however, is only 2.71 which is good for 14th in all of Major League Baseball (minimum 20 IP). Just last season, Kikuchi sported a FIP of 5.71 – much closer to his ERA of 5.46. While Kikuchi over performed last season by 0.25 runs relative to his FIP, this year he’s underperforming by a league-high 3.48 runs. People might get turned off looking at the 6.12 ERA, but if they looked at his 2.71 FIP – and saw the 3 point improvement from last season – they might start to see what we’ve been explaining throughout the course of this article: Kikuchi is a much better pitcher this year and the data does validate it.

His 6.12 ERA is not a great indicator for the kind of pitcher he’s been.

In fact, you could argue Kikuchi has been one of the best pitchers in baseball so far this year. Before you write this statement off, let’s check out some of the guys he ranks ahead of in terms of FIP across the league (minimum 20 IP, statistics updated as of August 28):

  • Trevor Bauer (15th – 2.76 FIP)
  • Lance Lynn (30th – 3.37 FIP)
  • Clayton Kershaw (34th – 3.46 FIP)

It just so happens that all three of these pitchers rank top 10 in ERA in the MLB:

  • Bauer – 1.65 ERA (5th)
  • Lynn – 1.59 ERA (4th)
  • Kershaw – 1.80 ERA (9th)

Isn’t that pretty interesting. We’d all agree that Bauer, Lynn, and Kershaw are having pretty good seasons considering they’re sporting an ERA south of 2, but we also know that Kikuchi is outperforming all three in a statistic which we’ve just explained is a better representation of a pitcher’s true value. Kikuchi might not be on the pace of Shane Bieber or Jacob deGrom, but he has been performing at the level of a top 20 pitcher this season and it’s time we start giving him credit for it. Writing him off as a bad pitcher because of his 6.12 ERA just doesn’t make sense because we’re evaluating him based off a statistic he has very little control over in the first place.

If you wouldn’t want to be evaluated at your job based on things you had no influence over, why should we evaluate pitchers the same way?

We’ve come to the assumption that ERA is an accurate representation of a pitcher’s performance because we take out unearned runs, but there are plenty of “earned” runs that come across which really shouldn’t be credited to the pitcher. If you don’t believe me, just check out this inside the park “homerun” that Christian Yelich hit earlier this August.

Imagine being responsible for a four-way trip around the bases because your left fielder took a tumble into the netting after misjudging a can of corn. I understand that this situation would also impact a pitcher’s FIP because it’s technically a homer, but this is just one example of how defenses can impact games without it necessarily showing up in the scorebooks. 

On top of this, there are plenty of subtle ways defenses can negatively impact run prevention that aren’t as glaring as this and unintentionally inflate ERA. Poor routes, bad positioning, slow transfers, average to below average defenders, and mental errors can all cost pitchers key “earned” runs which makes it seem as if they’re performing a lot worse than what they really are. ERA may take out all the runs that reach base via error, but it doesn’t account for a plethora of outcomes that pitchers have no control over. As a result, ERA provides an incomplete understanding of a pitcher’s true value because there are too many variables that lie outside the pitcher’s locus of control that can create a false illusion of how they’re really performing.   

“If our goal is to determine how well a pitcher prevents runs, you want to compare them to each other in a manner that strips out all of the factors that lead to run scoring that have nothing to do with them. You want to know how well Kershaw and Lester would perform if they had the same defenders behind them. And you’d like it if their luck was even too.” – Neil Weinberg, from Fan Graphs article

It’s tough to pinpoint exactly why Kikuchi has underperformed at such a steep rate in reference to his FIP, but it’s never really one thing in the first place. It’s likely a bunch of different things that seemed insignificant in the moment that ended up accumulating into bigger things over time. Without meticulously looking into every single batted ball outcome off Kikuchi this season, we just have to understand that there are instances where luck favors some and works against others. It all evens out over time, but so far this season it’s not unreasonable to say that Kikuchi’s 6.12 ERA is probably an indication that he’s gotten a little unlucky at some critical moments throughout his first five starts.

After all, Kikuchi has only logged 25 innings so far this season. If you were to shave just one earned run off each of his five starts, his ERA would drop nearly two points to a more respectable 4.32. That one run could be a bloop hit with the infield in, a backside ground ball that beats a shift, a “swunt” that keeps a two out rally going, or a bad route in the outfield that gets chalked up as a hit. 

So before you completely throw ERA out the window, I think it’s important to understand ERA is not a horrible stat that anti-correlates to success. Instead, it’s just an incomplete stat. Earned run average can give you valuable information just the way it has so far for us, but it can also be misleading if we don’t understand the context behind it. Just like anything, it’s not wise to put all of your eggs into one basket. If you’re solely evaluating pitchers based on their win-loss record and ERA, there’s a good chance you might be undervaluing someone inside your organization or missing on someone outside your organization. That’s a problem. 

Yusei Kikuchi might have an ugly looking ERA right now, but it’s not an accurate representation of the kind of season that he’s had so far. If he continues at this pace, his luck will even out over time and his ERA will start to fall – but are we really that concerned with his ERA in the first place? If we want to normalize things across the board and evaluate pitchers based on what we know gives us the best representation of their value, it’s time to throw away ERA and start using FIP. Kikuchi is a great example of what we can miss if we value a player based on their ERA and fail to take into account their FIP.

It’s also time we start giving credit to Kikuchi. There is no reason we shouldn’t be talking about his transformation and the changes he’s made which are paying off for him in a big way. Coming off a disappointing first season, Kikuchi doubled down on his development and has turned himself into someone that will help the Mariners win games and hopefully compete for championships. His movement patterns are sound, the stuff is there, and the upside is tremendous for a young man who’s only in the middle of year two going toe to toe with the best hitters in the world.

You’re not going to want to miss what he does the rest of this season. 

What a Cajun and a Dream Can Teach Us About the Power of Belief

It’s February of 2017 and it’s been about a month since the conclusion of the 2016 college football season. Ed Orgeron has returned to his hometown of Larose, LA – a small town deep in the Louisiana bayou about an hour south of New Orleans – to speak at a local banquet. It’s just under a two hour drive from his new work office at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge – home of the LSU Tigers football team.

Three months ago, Orgeron had the interim tag removed from his job title after he lead the Tigers to a 5-2 finish coming off the firing of Les Miles four games into the season. Earning the head coaching position at the school he grew up watching on Saturday nights wasn’t just a dream come true for the Cajun native – it was a chance to prove USC had their guy and let him slip away just a few years back. 

In 2010, Orgeron was brought on to the USC football coaching staff to coach the defensive line when his long time friend and colleague Lane Kiffin took the head coaching position. Five games into the 2013 season, Kiffin was relieved of his responsibilities as head coach and Orgeron was asked to temporarily fill the vacant position. It was his first chance to show the college football world what he had learned since his disappointing stint with Ole Miss back in ’05-’07 where the Rebels finished 10-25 and just 3-21 in SEC play.

This time around, he did not disappoint.

In their final eight fames, the Larose native guided the Trojans to a 6-2 record – including an upset over #5 Stanford – and felt very strongly he had done enough to earn the full time head coaching position. Many others did too – but USC  didn’t think  it was worth giving the Cajun native a second chance. Instead, they decided to hire Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian and Orgeron was left without a job in football for the first time since 1993. It was, in his words, one of the worst days of his life.     

Fast forward three seasons – Orgeron found himself in the same situation fighting for a head coaching job with the school he walked away from three decades ago as a homesick freshman football player. His 5-2 finish and impressive interview – along with Tom Herman’s decision to take the Texas job after extensive discussions with LSU – was enough to convince then Athletic Director Joe Alleva to take a chance on the hometown Cajun.

Orgeron understood there would be skeptics and people who thought he wasn’t capable of leading a multimillion dollar program like LSU considering his previous failures with Ole Miss. However, Orgeron wasn’t too concerned about his past. He knew he was a different coach this time around and all he needed was a chance to finally prove it. 

Talk about a storybook second chance. 

When Orgeron took the podium in front of the hometown crowd at Larose, he had already thought through what he was going to say a long time ago. It was, after all, a big part of the reason why he got the LSU head job in the first place. He wasn’t satisfied with eight and nine win seasons anymore and analysts constantly bagging LSU’s lackluster offense – which did not lack on talent, either. He knew just how bad it hurt to watch Alabama dominate the SEC and how badly the program longed to get to the big game so they could avenge their embarrassing championship loss from 2012. He didn’t just understand the pressure of playing in one of the best conferences in college football and the expectations to compete for a national championship every single season; he embraced it. 

To show just how serious he was, he decided to make a promise to the Tiger faithful that evening:

“I am honored to be the head coach of the LSU Tigers. I am proud to be a Cajun from the Bayou and I will never run away from my heritage. That part stays with me forever, and I know you folks here got my back. I’m going to get some negative comments. I’m not everyone’s first, second, or third choice, but I got the job and I’m going to work day and night to get this program back to the top. Some of the naysayers will laugh about this, but in a very short period of time we will beat Alabama, we will be back in the SEC Championship Game, and in the Final Four series for the National Championship. I promise you that.”

Orgeron was a man of his word.

Two years and eleven months after his promise to LSU, this is what he looked like in January of 2020: Head coach of the 2019 National Champion LSU Tigers, one of the greatest teams in college football history.

LSU head coach Ed Orgeron, left, and quarterback Joe Burrow, center, hold the trophy beside safety Grant Delpit after their 2020 National Championship victory over Clemson (source)

Now don’t get it twisted – the journey to get to this point wasn’t as easy as delivering a couple of sentences and all of a sudden the Tigers doubled their win record. It required some pain, adversity, heartbreak, and even paying a non-conference team $900,000 to come beat them on their own turf! Orgeron’s group had to go straight through the home of one of the greatest dynasties in college football history and go toe to toe with the 2018 defending national champions and their school-record 29 game win streak. Just this past season, they had to play seven top 10 ranked teams, go on the road against the man who was allegedly Alleva’s #1 guy, and finish their season against three of the top four ranked teams in the country (they played the fourth back in November). They beat all four – becoming the first team to ever do so – and did it by an average of 19.6 points per game.

There were people who doubted Orgeron, didn’t think he was capable of being the guy LSU needed, and even called him one of the worst hires in college football history. People mocked his thick Cajun accent and thought it was laughable he could start giving orders to people he once used to work underneath. 

Turns out, Orgeron out-smarted than them all.

The heavy native accent he acquired deep in the bayou – which turned away USC in ’13 – ended up being the perfect smokescreen as he built one of the greatest teams in college football history. The rest is history.

 

So now for the moment of truth: What was Orgeron’s secret? What was he really putting in the gumbo down south that took a team lost to Troy in 2017 – not too long after he made his promise in Larose – and turned it into a national champion just a few short years later? Well, there wasn’t really one secret –and he sure got some help from a kid named Joe Burrow – but there was one thing Orgeron did that set the tone for what was to come:

He created an attitude of belief.

From the day he took the interim job, Orgeron had a strong vision for the kind of program he wanted to build at LSU. Growing up watching the Tigers every Saturday in the fall, Orgeron understood just how much LSU football meant to the state of Louisiana. It wasn’t just a game down in the bayou – it was a way of life; people live, breathe, eat, and sleep LSU (and New Orleans Saints) football. Anything less than a championship just wouldn’t cut it for the purple and gold faithful. Orgeron felt the same exact way. 

It didn’t matter how distant a championship might have seemed back in 2017 – let alone, simply beating their long-time division rival Alabama. It also didn’t help the Crimson Tide were lead out of the tunnel by the same man who brought LSU its first championship since 1958 back in ’03. Yeah, watching Nick Saban guide one of the greatest dynasties in college football wasn’t just unfortunate for Tiger fans – it was unbearably painful.

Ever since the 2012 championship debacle (to guess who – Alabama), LSU had failed to play in a BCS bowl game, hadn’t made a single College Football Playoff appearance, and hadn’t even beat Alabama once. Every year and every loss was eating away at the little amount of hope Tigers fans had left that their program would return back to the top. A change of scenery up top seemed to be the right move when Les Miles started off ’16 with two dreadful losses to Wisconsin and Auburn. However, Joe Alleva could not afford to whiff on his next hire.

While bringing in a hometown hire made for a great story headline, there were some glaring questions about giving Orgeron full reign of the Tiger football team. If the Cajun native hadn’t learned from his time at Ole Miss and put his mistakes in the past, LSU wasn’t going to be competing for a championship anytime soon. Alleva believed Ed was his guy and knew just how much this program meant to him, but he also knew Orgeron couldn’t afford to churn out eight win seasons like the one they had in 2016. Ed’s promise from 2017 couldn’t just be verbiage – he had to deliver on it. 

It sure wasn’t smooth sailing early on, but Orgeron never batted an eye; his belief was too strong. He didn’t cave when they lost to Troy or abandon hope when they failed to get it done against Alabama for the eighth consecutive season in ’18. When Orgeron’s group dropped a seven-OT heartbreaker to Texas A&M back in ’18, they didn’t sit around and complain about how they got screwed by officiating on multiple occasions (in my completely unbiased opinion, of course). They got right back up and ended UCF’s 25 game win streak in the Fiesta Bowl. They haven’t lost a game since.

As devastating as those losses might have been, the belief Orgeron’s group had in his vision was too great to let one game throw them off course. Everyone in that locker room knew what they were going to build and where it was going to take them. There were only bumps in the road – no dead ends. Orgeron’s energy, enthusiasm, and ability to inspire gave him the ability to take a sinking ship and get it back on course when the program needed it most. The same qualities that made him such a good interim head coach would end up being the same qualities he relied on to build a national championship program.

“I love Coach O. I pray that he’s the head coach for LSU. I think he did a tremendous job.” – Jamal Adams, New York Jets defensive back, on Orgeron’s stint as interim head coach with LSU

Orgeron’s 2017 promise wasn’t a PR move to try and make some new friends – it was his DNA as a leader. Their 2019 national championship run was no coincidence; it was the byproduct of a group inspired beyond measure and fueled by belief.

If there’s anyone who knew a thing or two about belief, it was the head ball coach that stood on the opposite sideline of Orgeron in that championship game.

 

“To be an over achiever you have to be an over believer.” – Dabo Swinney, head coach Clemson football

Dabo Swinney – like Orgeron – got his foot in the door as interim head coach when Tommy Bowden – son of the legendary Bobby Bowden – resigned six games into the 2008 season. After finishing 4-2 over the final six games of the year – which included impressive victories over Boston College and South Carolina – Clemson decided to remove the interim tag and promote Swinney to his first-ever head coaching position.

When Swinney first took the job, he recalled an early morning meeting with the Board of Trustees where one of the board members shared how they wanted a program that was like some of the other great programs in the country. They wanted to be like the Alabamas, Ohio States, and Oklahomas of the country – but Dabo wasn’t really concerned with how he measured up against any of those schools. He said, “Sir, I appreciate your vision, but my vision is much bigger than that. My vision is to create a program where they all want to be like us.”

Since that meeting, Clemson has gone on to win six ACC Championships, make five College Football Playoff appearances, and win two national championships. Swinney, indeed, has created the model for what a championship caliber program should look like. It all started with a couple of signs.

Dabo Swinney hoisting the College Football Playoff championship trophy after defeating Alabama in 2019 (source)

When Swinney started at Clemson back in 2008, he created two signs that he brings to every single meeting with his team. For his players, they’ve become as important as the meeting itself – if they’re not present, they’ll remind Swinney to go grab them. These signs read: 

  • Believe
  • I Can’t – with the ‘t crossed out

Swinney talked about the signs in a Sports Illustrated article saying:

“From day one, I made a big point of those signs. I brought them in, set them down, and said this is where it starts. The number one thing that needed to change was we needed to create this attitude of belief. Not you know, I felt like we hoped to win. There is no hope to win. Like, we expect to win. We believe we’re going to win.

“I don’t think we had this rock solid, core belief that we were going to win no matter what. And that’s what it takes. If I could say from just one thing that has changed from 2009 to now in Clemson football, it’s this attitude of belief.”

It’s the same exact message Orgeron shared with his Tigers back in February of 2017. Both men were not concerned with what people thought was realistic for their programs and whether or not they were capable of competing for national championships. Instead, they created their own reality and laid out a vision that exceeded what everyone else thought was possible for them. They didn’t just set the bar high because they could – they set the bar high because they believed they could get there. They saw it before anyone else did, set a high standard when no one else would, and believed it so everyone else could. Their vision illuminated the path in which they would follow; their belief helped keep them on course.

This believe to achieve attitude isn’t the exception, either – it’s the expectation when it comes to high performing individuals. In fact, you could argue that it’s even more important in a sport where a 30 percent success rate means you’re one of the best in the business. One of these guys – Milwauke Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich – knows a thing or two about the power of belief when he’s facing the best arms in the game that can spin it, slide it, and run it up to triple digits. In fact, he doesn’t even entertain the idea that he might not get a hit. He’s had too many at-bats to understand what happens when your approach begins with doubt. 

“To have any shot at all,” said Yelich in a Player’s Tribune article, “you can’t be intimidated. Ever.”

Christian Yelich batting in the 9th inning against the Reds in 2018 (source)

The 2018 NL MVP doesn’t care if he’s facing Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole, or if he’s 0 for his last 20 – he knows it’s bad news for the guy on the mound when he steps in the box. He doesn’t simply hope he’s going to get a hit – he knows he’s going to find some green. He believes it:

“Let’s be honest here: If you’re going up to the plate lacking confidence, having a quality at bat becomes impossible. So you have to convince yourself that you’re going to win every battle. You almost have to trick yourself into believing that success is always on the horizon, no matter how many times you’ve gone up there and gotten it absolutely handed to you.

“And you think that way even when you’re 0 for your last 20. Sometimes you’ll go up to the plate and you’ll feel so bad about your swing, so out of whack, that there’s no chance that you’re getting a hit. But somehow you have to convince yourself otherwise. Like, it’s going to happen for me right now.”

It also doesn’t just apply to baseball or football, either. When six-time NBA Finals champion Michael Jordan looks at players across the league that can’t get it done in the crunch time, he sees the opposite of what Yelich is talking about: He sees players who don’t believe in their abilities. When belief is absent, fear fills the void and causes even the best in the game to break down when the lights seem to shine a little brighter. He talked about this in an ESPN article saying:

“Some guys in the league right now, their regular seasons are different than the playoffs. Why is that? Because it’s a different kind of pressure. Those guys, when it gets stripped down, don’t believe in themselves. They aren’t sure they can hit the big shot, so they can’t. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This self-fulfilling prophecy is exactly why Orgeron and Swinney invested so much into the cultures of their teams early on. The belief they crafted, preached, and reinforced on a daily basis was designed to create an infectious environment that would propel their teams to achieve things they never thought would have been possible. When players don’t have a strong belief in their abilities and the vision of the team, they don’t over perform – they underperform. Jordan knew this as much as anyone.

When the former Bull missed a critical shot towards the end of the 1991 NBA Finals – his first-ever Finals appearance – Jordan didn’t even entertain the idea that he wasn’t cut out for the big stage. He knew how good of a player he was and he understood how important it was to believe in his abilities on the court – win or loss.

“Now, if you thought about it, that was a pretty big miss,” said Jordan. “It was my first-ever game in the Finals. I could have folded. But I had no trouble bouncing back because I knew it was a good shot. I believed every time out I was the best. And the more shots I hit, the more it reinforced that.”

Michael Jordan with head coach Phil Jackson after defeating the Utah Jazz to win his 6th and final NBA championship in 1998 (source)

This is exactly what William James – American philosopher and psychologist – meant when he said: “People tend to become what they think of themselves.” This is the power of belief – those who believe they can and those who believe they can’t both end up both being right. Jordan and Yelich knew just how important this statement was. It didn’t matter who was in the other jersey or what the situation of the game was – there was no doubt in their mind they were going to get it done and deliver for their team. If they didn’t get it done, they’d get right back up and be ready for their next opportunity. Their belief was too strong to let one bad swing or one bad shot ruin everything they had ever worked for.

For Orgeron and Swinney, this attitude of belief became the driving force behind their championship runs. It empowered their players to realize how much more they were capable of and drove them to perform at a level they wouldn’t have accessed if they didn’t first change what they expected of themselves. When things went wrong, they didn’t panic – they knew and believed they would overcome any obstacle in their path. Belief is the glue that saved LSU’s sinking ship back in ’16 and it’s the bandages that healed Clemson’s wounds after their championship loss in ’15. Setbacks were inevitable, but also necessary for both programs – there’s no better way to find out how strong your belief is when you’re faced with something that challenges just how much you believe.

“All winners and losers in life are completely self-determined.” – Dr. Bob Rotella, from How Champions Think in Sports and in Life

It doesn’t matter if you’re a coach, competitor, or CEO – high achievers are high believers. They see things before anyone else does and expect more when everyone else would settle for less. When faced with obstacles that would make others crumble, they find a way to endure because their belief is too strong. Christian Yelich could be 0-20 or 10-20 – his mindset is the same every single time he steps to the plate. Michael Jordan might have missed a big shot with the game on the line last night – it’s not going to stop him from taking another one tonight.

“Coaching at the highest level is about getting athletes to believe in things that the experts think are unrealistic.” – Dr. Bob Rotella

Swinney wasn’t concerned with how his group stacked up against Ohio State or Alabama – he was going to build a program that exceeded anything Alabama or Ohio State had ever done. Orgeron didn’t care people thought he was crazy when he said his Tigers were going to make the College Football Playoff back in 2017 – he knew it was only a matter of time before his Tigers brought a championship back home to Louisiana.

Legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus said it best: “You have to be a legend in your own mind before you can be a legend in your time.” These four men from above were indeed legends in their own mind well before they were legends in their own time. As a result, they’ve now become living proof for what you can achieve when you start with an attitude of belief. 

 

So now a question for you – What could you become if you put the excuses aside and started to believe in yourself?  

Robbie Ray’s Changes and Why Getting “Shorter” is NOT Always Better

Last year, Lucas Giolito had a dream season for the Chicago White Sox. After sputtering to a 10-13 record in 2018 and posting a 6.13 ERA in 173.1 IP, Giolito exploded in ’19 en route to his first All-Star appearance. He punched out 228 batters in 176.2 IP for a 11.62 K/9 – 5th in the MLB (and nearly double the 6.5 K/9 he posted in 2018).

He solidified himself as a staple in the White Sox rotation winning 14 games, limiting his free passes to just 2.9 BB/9, and finishing with a career-best 3.41 ERA – almost cutting his ERA in half from a season ago. He finished sixth in the Cy Young award voting and his 5.1 WAR (according to Fangraphs) was good for 10th in the MLB. To put that into perspective, he totalled -0.2 WAR in his first three seasons in the bigs.

While Giolito’s resurgence and impressive stat line definitely caught the attention of the baseball world, what was most interesting about his 2019 season was how he did it. A lot of people expected Giolito to eventually ascend into one of the league’s premier starters ever since he graced the MLB top prospects list, but they weren’t exactly expecting him to look like this when he did:

Giolito throwing a pitch in Spring Training 2019

For reference, this is what he looked like in 2018:

Giolito throwing a pitch in 2018

Let’s look at them side by side:

If you couldn’t tell, Giolito made some pretty significant changes prior to the 2019 season. After struggling in 2018, Giolito connected with his old high school pitching coach and came up with a plan to overhaul his delivery. Among the things they incorporated included a weighted baseball program to on ramp into throwing and work with the Core Velocity Belt. The combination of the two helped Giolito simplify his delivery by learning how to hinge better, use his glutes to control his move down the mound, stay closed longer, and tighten up his arm action so he could get into better positions more consistently.  

These changes had a significant impact on Giolito’s data. In 2018, Giolito’s four seam fastball averaged a mere 92.4 mph, spun at 2099 RPM, got whiffs just 14.3% of the time, and hitters generated a wOBA of .412 against it. In 2019, Giolito’s four-seamer averaged a career-high 94.4 mph, spun at 2333 RPM, generated whiffs 26% of the time, and hitters accumulated just a .278 wOBA against the pitch – a .134 improvement from just one season ago. To put that into perspective, hitters accumulated a .250 wOBA against Jacob deGrom in 2019 – good for 22nd in the MLB. If you added .134 to his wOBA against, he would have finished tied for 351st 

Giolito’s four-seamer wasn’t the only thing that improved, either. His new delivery helped kill about 100 RPM (1651 to 1563) off his change up and turned it into his main put away pitch as he increased his whiff% on it from 34.8% to 41.3%. He also added 0.7 mph to his slider, shaved off 4.6 inches of vertical movement, and increased his whiff% on the pitch from 36.3% to 42.0%.

In a matter of one offseason, Giolito ended up transforming himself from a fringe big-leaguer into one of baseball’s most electric young arms. His new delivery unlocked a completely improved arsenal which propelled him to the best season of his career. It’s a great example of the power of player development and how moving to and through better positions can have a significant impact on the data produced which can have career-changing implications.

He might have also caught the attention of Robbie Ray.

Over the past five reasons, Robbie Ray has played an integral role in the Arizona Diamondbacks starting rotation. However, he hasn’t quite been the most consistent part about it. It’s no secret why, either – Ray struggles filling up the zone consistently. In 2019, the Marlins were the worst team in baseball when it came to handing out free passes averaging 3.83 BB/9. Robbie Ray handed out 4.34. The best part?

It was an improvement from the 5.09 he handed out in 2018.

Ray’s notorious command issues have been something that has really held back the left-hander throughout the course of his career. In fact, you could probably make the argument that Ray should be one of the top pitchers in the league. The last three seasons, Ray has posted a K/9 mark north of 12 and has surrendered 7.7 H/9 or less. Below is a list of all of the pitchers in Major League Baseball who did that in just last year:

  • Justin Verlander (12.1 K/9, 5.5 H/9)
  • Max Scherzer (12.7 K/9, 7.5 H/9)
  • Gerrit Cole (13.8 K/9, 6.0 H/9)

That’s it. Oh, and Ray’s 12.13 K/9 was also good for the 14th highest mark in MLB history. His 12.11 K/9 from 2017 ranks 16th all-time.

Robbie Ray has the makings to be one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball, but he’ll only be a shell of what he could be if he continues to hand out four free passes every nine innings. The stuff is there, the whiffs are there, and we saw in 2017 what he’s capable of when he puts it all together. He just hasn’t found it since. 

This past offseason, Ray decided he needed to make some changes if he wanted to put his walk problems behind him and return to All-Star form. One of those was a dairy-free diet. Ray showed up to camp this year 15 pounds lighter and in much better physical condition than the previous few seasons. This could play a significant role in his ability to go deeper into games and execute pitches later in his outings when under greater amounts of fatigue. In 2019, Ray went 7 innings in just one of his 33 starts. While the walks certainly played a role in this, a cleaned up diet could have a pretty big impact on his ability to be effective later in his outings.

The other thing he did was change up his delivery. Below is a side-by-side comparison that was featured on the MLB Network of his windup from 2019 and what he looks like now in 2020:

For Ray, inspiration for his new delivery started back when he was teammates with Zack Greinke in Arizona. He said:

“It seems like (Greinke’s) dancing on the mound, the way he’s deliberate with everything, and so I just wanted to have a little bit of that feel of a dancing move… I didn’t ask him why he did it. I was just kind of telling him that I liked his delivery because it just seemed so fluid.”

Fluid is a word Ray has used in the past as a goal for what he likes to feel in his delivery. Below is an excerpt from 2018 where he talked about some of the mechanical changes he was trying to make coming off an oblique injury in April (more on this later):

“During my leg-lift, my hands weren’t coming to where I could separate and have a nice round delivery where my arm is coming through really fluid. So that was the biggest thing is my hands were kind of stuck low and I was stabbing more than having a nice fluid motion.”

Ray from Opening Day 2018 (left) vs. first start back from oblique injury (right)

When Ray started to experiment with taking his hands over his head this past offseason, he felt the fluidity he was looking for. He said, “For me, going over the head, it allows me to have that feeling of not getting stuck in my delivery like I used to, but also have some fluidity to it.”

The change in arm action was a conscious change inspired by Ray in an effort to try and solve his notorious command issues. In an interview on MLB.com, Ray explained how he thought his arm used to be too long and it was preventing him from getting into good positions consistently. After observing some guys around the league who have had success shortening up their arm action – Giolito being one of these guys – he decided to try it out for himself.

Going into this season, Ray liked the changes – but he didn’t really talk about the arm. He said, “I’m not losing stuff arm side because my direction is more towards the plate. I’m not pulling so much with my front side, which is allowing me to stay in the zone and not pull and leave stuff arm side.”

So now here’s where things get interesting. Despite Ray’s conscious attempt to overhaul his delivery and solve his problem with handing out free passes, it hasn’t really seemed to help. In fact, you could make the argument that based on what we’ve seen from his first two starts, his command has gotten significantly worse. Let me make this clear: I get it. It’s only been two starts and we’re going through one of the most unique seasons in MLB history. It’s possible that Ray just might need some more time to get used to the changes so he can feel more comfortable with them. However, let’s take a look at the numbers and see if you still feel the same way.

So far in 2020, Ray has relied heavily on his four-seamer throwing it 52.4% of the time (like Giolito, he also scrapped his sinker this past offseason). On paper, it’s a much better pitch. It’s averaging 94.0 mph – a 1.6 mph increase from last season and his hardest since 2017 – it’s spinning at a career-high 2469 RPM, it has 3 more inches of horizontal movement, and it’s getting whiffs 28.1% of the time – on pace for a career-high.

It’s also landing in the zone just 40% of the time – a 12.7% decrease from 2019. When it is landing in the zone, it’s typically in a hitter’s count and it’s getting tattooed for a .474 slugging mark. This is a significant increase from his .313 xSLUG for the pitch (his four-seam xSLUG last year was .408). Like I said, on paper it is better – it just doesn’t play particularly well when you’re more likely to flip heads on a coin than you are to throw a strike with it.  

If we look at his arsenal as a whole, Ray is throwing strikes at just a 52.9% clip – a significant decrease from his career-low of 61.7% in 2018. He’s throwing first pitch strikes just 41.9% of the time (59.3% last year), he’s getting to 0-2 just 14% of the time (29.6% last year), one out of every ten batters is getting to a 3-0 count, and three of those hitters have reached base via four pitch walk. Ray handed out 11 of those in 751 plate appearances in 2019. He’s only faced 43 batters so far this year.

In Ray’s last outing, he handed out six free passes in 4.1 IP – something he didn’t do all of last season. I understand that the sample size is small, but it just isn’t plausible to write off numbers like these as an issue of not having enough innings under your belt. Whatever Robbie Ray changed this past offseason so far is not working. If he continues at this pace, it’s not only going to be a long season for Ray – it’s going to be a really long offseason (speaking of guys who might have a long offseason).

So where exactly did things go wrong?

 

Let’s start by looking at Ray from 2017 – his best statistical season to date. In 28 starts, Ray went 15-5 striking out 218 in 162 IP. He set career marks in ERA (2.89), FIP (3.72), WHIP (1.154), H/9 (6.4), and was selected to his first and only All-Star team. This is what he looked like:

We’ve got some pretty good stuff going on here. Out of leg lift, Ray is able to hinge and use the big muscles that surround his pelvis (i.e. glutes, hamstrings) to control his move down the mound. His pelvis and trunk stay closed, his arm gets up at foot strike (where his front hip starts to accept force – not just when the front foot touches), it catches and unwinds around the trunk pretty nicely, and he’s able to stop, get joint centration in his lead hip, and get across with pretty good direction towards home.

Pelvis and trunk closed, arm up
Ray getting to max cross-body tension with good direction to home
Arm catches the trunk, unwinds around the plane of rotation

The one thing Ray didn’t really go a great job of in 2017 is hold on to the ground with his back foot. In fact, he comes out of the ground so early and so much that his back foot is nearly airborne before his front foot even gets a chance to land:

This is something we don’t really see when we look at some of the best arms in the game – especially guys who have had a ton of success filling up the strike zone. Curt Schilling, Dan Quisenberry, and Bob Tewksbury (left to right) all pitched 12+ seasons in the big leagues and finished with a career BB/9 under 2.0. Their back foot looks a little different than Ray’s just before they get into landing:

(Left to right) Curt Schilling, Dan Quisenberry, Bob Tewksbury

We’ll get into this more later, but for now we know that guys who lose the ground early tend to have issues creating stability for the pelvis which can cause it to fly open too soon, drag the torso into early trunk rotation (ETR), and leave the arm behind to play catch up. 

If we look at Ray prior to his injury stint in April of 2018, this is exactly what we see:

Ray from Opening Day 2018: Trunk flies open and leaves the arm behind

If we compare him side by side at landing to what he looked like a season ago, we notice a huge difference – especially with his trunk and arm:

Instead of staying closed, Ray flies open in ’18 which forces him into ETR and puts him in a really bad position to throw his punch. This took a pretty significant toll on his obliques because he wasn’t able to land in a position of stability where he could align his joints optimally so they could accept and disperse force evenly throughout the system (i.e. joint centration). When one part of the chain can’t do its job, another part has to pick up the extra slack. Because Ray was no longer able to get to a good landing position, he ended up doing a lot of yanking as opposed to rotating and his obliques had to pay the price for it.

While Ray definitely felt the added stress in his trunk, he also probably felt it in his arm. Flying open gave his arm less time, space, and freedom to get up on time and into a good position at landing. Instead of getting up on time, Ray’s arm was showing up late to the party which was probably creating the “stabbing” sensations he talked about above. He knew he wanted to try and create something that felt more fluid so he decided to play around with his hand positioning and rhythm during his IL stint.

Let’s go back to what Ray looked like from his first start back from injury in ’18:

Here’s where we can start putting together some theories on the changes from this past offseason. Ray was absolutely right that something was off in his delivery that was impacting how his arm felt, but his interventions to try and fix it were not effective because they weren’t addressing the source of his problems. He was still losing the ground early, flying open, and now he probably made things worse because he added more movement with his arm that needed to sync up with the rest of his body. He knew he needed to feel fluid, but he didn’t know what he needed to do in order to create that feel consistently and effectively.

As a result, his delivery didn’t improve, the results didn’t improve, and his arm ended up getting worse. His elbow was scooping up, carrying too far, and everything was getting yanked towards the third base dugout. It’s no surprise 2018 was his worst statistical year for handing out free passes; when the arm gets worse, everything else gets worse.

In 2019, Ray probably realized he added too much to the equation in ’18 and make a conscious decision to simplify things to get back to All-Star form. It was definitely an improvement, but it wasn’t quite consistent across the board. He still didn’t hold the ground very well with his back leg and his direction started to shift towards the third base dugout because he couldn’t stabilize and create joint-centration as well on the front side:

Ray running it up to 95 on this pitch in one of his better starts of the year, but the arm isn’t great and his direction isn’t optimal
Ray’s direction is no longer towards home and is shifted towards the third base dugout (from the MLB Network visual)

This showed up in the data as the majority of the misses with his four-seamer and slider were pulled wide to his gloveside:

Ray’s 2019 pitch distribution (from Baseball Savant)

It’s quite the contrast from what his pitch distribution looked like in his best season in 2017 – not nearly as many glove side misses:

Ray’s pitch distribution from 2017, from Baseball Savant

Now let’s go back to Ray’s thoughts from above. Something he talked about coming off his delivery overhaul this past offseason was how he wasn’t missing arm side with his stuff anymore. He thought his direction was a lot better and made a point to mention how he wasn’t yanking off pitches nearly as much.

Ray running one up to 97 in his first start of the year

Let’s see if the data validates this:

Ray’s pitch distribution from this year, from Baseball Savant

He’s definitely not yanking stuff the way he was last season, but he’s missing quite a bit high and arm side. If anything, he’s probably missing high and arm side more than he ever has in his career. Just look at the video from above – the pitch is in the zone, but the glove was set up on the outside part of the plate. While this pitch missed its spot and still landed in the zone, a lot of Ray’s stuff this year hasn’t been so fortunate.

Before we dive into why this is happening, let’s start with what we know. This season, Ray has shifted where he starts on the rubber to the middle as opposed to the first base side, he’s using a smaller rocker step, taking his hands over his head, and he’s getting to a position at leg lift where he has more counter rotation of the pelvis, trunk, and he has more tilt with his shoulders:

Ray at leg lift from 2019 vs. 2020

When Ray gets into landing, we notice how he lands with much less posture this season despite starting with more at leg lift. He also lands much more open this year as opposed to last year:

Ray lands more open this year than he did last year and lands with less posture

At release, we notice how Ray is using a much lower slot this year due to the postural changes we’ve talked about above. Where the trunk goes, the arm is going to follow – well hopefully, at least: 

Ray synced up at release

When we get Ray to his max point of tension post release, we start to see some of the directional stuff he was talking about. This season, Ray looks a lot closer to what he looked like in 2017 and it’s definitely an improvement from what he was doing last year. His cross-body is more towards home as opposed to towards the third base dugout:

Now let’s circle back to the buzz about the changes with the arm. When I first watched the MLB segment where Al Leiter broke down Ray’s arm action changes this season, I had a couple of different thoughts. For one, I didn’t think the arm was the biggest change about Ray in the first place. I thought the differences in posture, landing position, and cross-body tension were all more significant changes than how he simply the took the ball out of his glove. We place a lot of emphasis on the arm – as we should – but we have to remember without inside information it can be tough to tell if the arm was a conscious change or a subconscious byproduct of a different movement pattern down the chain or an adaptation to a specific constraint. Lucas Giolito wasn’t necessarily trying to create a shorter arm action; he just kind of picked it up through a better lower half and a weighted baseball program.

When I figured out the arm action changes were a deliberate change and I saw what happened in his first two starts, I came to a second thought: Tinkering with the arm probably wasn’t necessary.  

Going to a shorter arm action has definitely started to become a trend in baseball just the way we’ve seen more guys scrap their sinkers and go to high heater/breaking ball combos. However, trends are cyclical and they don’t optimize for the individual. Getting shorter might be the attractive thing to do as of late, but making positive arm action changes isn’t as simple as just getting shorter. There’s a lot more to it.

The issues Ray was having with command weren’t probably due to a “long” arm action, but there might have been some other things going on that could have made it feel long to him. In order to get to the bottom of this, let’s dive into arm action a little bit deeper so we can have a better understanding of what is and isn’t optimal.

 

At 108 Performance, we look at a couple of big rocks when determining if someone has an efficient arm action or not:

  • Arm is up at foot strike

There are a couple of things to keep in mind when looking at whether the arm is up or not at foot strike. For one, we don’t just view foot strike as when the front foot lands. Foot strike is when the lead hip starts to accept force. There are some guys who may have a flat arm when their front foot first hits, but it eventually gets up once their front hip starts to accept force. This isn’t optimal, but it is a way for certain athletes to buy time so they can get their arm up when it’s time to rotate. It’s something we actually see with Ray, as well. In some of his better clips, his arm isn’t up when his front foot hits but it gets up by the time he’s ready to throw his punch. 

As for positioning of the arm, we want to see the humerus at a 90 degree relationship to the torso where the elbow is in line with the throwing shoulder. When the elbow climbs above 90, the humerus migrates superiorly in the socket and creates an impingement where the cuff can’t stabilize and keep the ball flush in the socket. When the elbow lands below 90 degrees, it has to scoop up to get into the plane of rotation and ends up creating a similar impingement in the shoulder.

When we look at the angle of the forearm to humerus, we want to see something around a 90 degree relationship. Notice the key word around – the forearm does not need to be exactly at 90 or inside 90 degrees to throw a baseball healthy, hard, and with precision. This is the part Al Leiter didn’t quite get right in his analysis of Ray and it’s something a lot of people probably don’t realize. Some guys like Giolito need to get tighter in order for their arm to work efficiently, but there are guys out there who either can’t or don’t need to get inside 90 to have success. In fact, below is an example of a two-time MLB All-Star who doesn’t quite get inside 90 with his forearm:

Josh Hader has had plenty of success without getting his forearm inside 90 degrees (source)

Instead of getting to a certain angle with the forearm, it’s a lot more important that the arm catches and matches plane of rotation – our next big rock:

  • Arm catches trunk and matches plane of rotation

When we look at hitters, we want to see the middle and the barrel rotate together in order to make efficient moves to the ball. This concept is very similar to the arm catching the trunk. When we’re ready to rotate and our lead leg starts to accept force, we want our arm to be up so it can “catch” the trunk and rotate together with it. For this to happen, we need to have all of the slack in our arm pulled out at foot strike so when we start to rotate our arm is ready to come with it. If the arm isn’t up and slack hasn’t been pulled out, it’s going to have to get pulled out pretty quickly so it can catch up to the trunk. If we know it’s not a great idea to punch the gas on a boat with a raft tied to it where the rope hasn’t been pulled taught, it probably isn’t a great idea to do the same thing with your arm.

As the arm catches the trunk, we want to see it rotate around the shoulders and through the plane of rotation. This gives us the ability to transfer the most amount of force with the least amount of stress by using the most efficient path (i.e. geodesic). While some throwers utilize different postures and angles with their trunk, all of the best ones work around this same plane with the arm to deliver the baseball. In essence, everyone throws from a low slot – some just do it with trunk tilt. 

Max Scherzer unwinding his arm around the plane of rotation (the red line)
Felipe Vasquez catching the trunk with his arm and throwing his punch from deep

Now let’s think about why Ray might not be having so much success with his newer and shorter arm action. When Ray’s hands break, he takes the ball back towards his ear almost as if he’s trying to pull back an arrow. This action ends up pulling out all of the slack in his arm before he gets into foot strike. This is not ideal – when we create tension is just as important as actually creating any tension at all. As a result, his arm gets stuck in an inverted-W type of position where it has no freedom or space to capture the trunk.

Ray has pulled out all of the slack in his arm at this point in his delivery – well before foot plant

This is why we’re seeing a ton of high and arm side misses – there’s a mismatch between the translation of energy and the rotation to deliver it. The chain is pulled tight before Ray has a chance to throw his punch from deep. Throwing requires a constant balance between understanding when to turn things on and when to turn things off – also known as surround inhibition. In Ray’s case, he’s creating too much tension in his arm too soon which prevents him from catching the trunk deep and causes his elbow to scoop up, carry forward, and leave the plane of rotation. This is what’s creating misses like these:

Ray walking Justin Turner on four pitches (something he’s already done three times this year)

Here’s what it looks like slowed down:

Notice how the arm doesn’t catch the trunk deep like Scherzer of Vasquez from above. The elbow scoops up, carries too far beyond his trunk, and turns into more of a pushing motion than a punch. For reference, this is what Ray looked like in 2017:

His arm action might be “longer” in this clip, but it’s a lot better than what he’s doing today. Instead of getting it tight and creating a ton of tension early, Ray is able to stay loose longer which allows his arm to catch his trunk, get up in time, and work around the plane of rotation in tangent with his middle. His arm has the freedom, time, and space to pull this off because he’s able to stay closed longer into landing. Remember how we mentioned how he’s landing more open this year? This becomes a pretty important detail because it’s a lot tougher for your arm to move to and through good positions when either 1) the pelvis is opening up and limiting the amount of space you have down below or 2) the trunk is getting peeled to the glove side before you have a chance to throw your punch. The arm was never the source of the problem; rather, it was a source of feedback telling Ray that there was a problem.

I get that Ray didn’t just change his arm action this past offseason and some of the changes he made were potentially beneficial, but he probably didn’t need to change his arm at all. He just needed to learn how to create more stability down low so he could stay closed longer and give his arm space to work to and through better positions.

In other words, he needed to learn how to hold the ground better. To explain this, check out this visual below:

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

The feet play a critical role in the pitching delivery because they serve as the anchor points for our pelvis so it can stabilize and allow the upper half to mobilize around it. If we go back to Ray, he’s losing his anchor point with the back foot before he even has a chance to throw his punch. If we can’t anchor with the back leg as the center of mass moves down the mound, it becomes really difficult for our pelvis to create a stable and repeatable platform for rotation. This would explain a lot of the inconsistencies we’ve seen with Ray over the years. While we’ve seen him dominate and have a lot of success in the past, he hasn’t been able to recreate it as much as he’d like because he’s constantly fighting for stability. When the pattern lacks stability, it becomes really difficult to repeat it and produce force with precision – i.e. where the command issues are potentially coming from.

I think Ray has figured some things out about his delivery and his body that could absolutely be positive changes for him going forward, but I don’t think shortening up his arm was what he needed to start filling up the zone more consistently. It’s ultimately going to be up to him to figure out what is best for him and his career, but I think what we’ve seen so far in two starts is not a great sign that things are trending upward. Giolito might be an example of how shortening up the arm can lead to an increase in performance, but Ray is currently an example of how shortening the arm doesn’t always yield the best results – especially when the arm probably wasn’t the problem in the first place.

Command artists come in all sorts of sizes, shapes, deliveries, and arm actions. Short is one of them, but it is not all of them:

12 seasons, lifetime 3.24 FIP, 1.3974 BB/9 (20th all-time in MLB History)
13 seasons, lifetime FIP 3.65, 1.4543 BB/9 (22nd all-time in MLB history)
20 seasons, lifetime 3.23 FIP, 1.9623 BB/9 (84th all-time MLB history)

On a final thought, something Eugene and Will talk about a lot at 108 is how not everyone needs to get long, but everyone needs to get short. We’ve already established that getting to or inside 90 at foot strike is not necessary, but the allowable bandwidth for this position is not monstrous. There is a moment in time where all throwers need to get “short” with their arm so it can catch and match the plane of rotation, but just getting to that position isn’t as important as how we move to and through it. Ray’s thought of needing to get shorter may not have been wrong, but his interpretation of how he needed to get there wasn’t optimal. Arm action isn’t about getting long or getting short – it’s about getting to positions of leverage so you can throw your best punch.

If Ray wants to become the pitcher he knows he’s capable of becoming, he’s got to learn how to stop punching himself, first. 

What Happened to Matt Harvey in 2018?

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.

Harvey sputtering off a 91 mph fastball in April 2018

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. 

Harvey slinging a 97 mph fastball in September of 2018

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.

Harvey’s arm slot in April 2018 (left – 91 mph) vs September 2018 (right – 97 mph)

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. 

What We Miss with Pictures & Connecting by Communicating

What we miss when we focus on still shots

“If someone hands you a picture and shows you a picture and says “here’s their stance,” “here’s their negative move,” “here’s contact,” – If you give them any advice on what they’re doing wrong, you are taking such a gamble because you have no idea how they got to those positions.” – Dr. Greg Rose, from Elite Development Baseball Podcast

When I first got into coaching, I knew I had to build a better understanding for what a good swing or delivery looked like. To do this, I tried to simplify the complexity of a swing or delivery by breaking it down into a series of still shots. I collected and sorted these shots based on critical moments in time that I believed were important. For example, the categories I used for hitters were stance, move out of balance, foot plant, initial move to the ball, contact, extension, and finish. For pitchers I liked to look at their move out of balance (leg lift), glute load/move down the mound, foot plant, ball release, deceleration, and “finishing in a fielding position” (it’s in quotes for a reason).

When I started to collect still shots from a lot of different players, I started to see see where guys had similarities and where they presented with slight variations. For example, I noticed how a lot of hitters at foot plant tended to be in a 50/50 position where their feet were spread outside of their shoulders, both heels were in the ground, their head was over their center of mass, and their hands were back behind their belly button. All of them landed in an athletic position where they had equal bend in the knees, some degree of posture (chest over the plate), and their glutes sat behind their heels. As for differences, some guys had different hand positions (lower vs. higher, father back vs. more out front), bases (wider vs. shorter), and some landed a little more closed (Stanton) or open (Khris Davis). This was important for me early on because it helped give me a feel for things to look for and things not to get over obsessed with. If I knew certain positions had more variation, I didn’t really coach those as much directly. I tried to get the big rocks in line (i.e. posture, balance) before figuring out how the other pieces came into play.

Three really good hitters – three similar. but slightly different, positions

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:

Gifs from 108 way membership site

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. 

Frequency & Making the Risk the Reward

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.

Rethinking Movement Assessments & The Mobility Myth

Reverse Engineering from the Skill

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.   

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.

You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe – unless it’s anchored down from both sides
Luis Severino using his feet as anchor points for his pelvis so his trunk can mobilize and throw the ball

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.