What a common driving mistake can teach us about skill acquisition

Think about the first time you ever drove to work. It was probably in a new area you were unfamiliar with. As a result, you decided to use a GPS to navigate the first few weeks. You needed time to get comfortable with the streets, where to turn, and how long it took to get there.

After a few months on the job, your drive to work became second nature. A GPS was no longer necessary to navigate back and forth. You knew all the streets, turns, routes, and about how far each took – in case you were running late. Something unfamiliar became familiar with enough time and practice.

Now let’s pretend you decide to take your family out to eat one evening. When you go to work, you normally take the interstate north into the city. For dinner, however, you needed to take it south towards the beach. As you hop in the car and start driving, you come to the intersection where you need to merge on to the interstate. Without thinking, you take your normal route to work and head northbound. Only after you merge do you realize your mistake.

While you knew the route you needed to take for dinner, your unconscious habit of driving northbound to work took over. Your brain was so used to one route that it failed to recalibrate for a different route. It’s not that it was incapable of rerouting. It was just stuck on autopilot: Our brain’s natural tendency to reserve higher level thinking.

When our brain is on autopilot, we’re not actively processing information, consciously grappling with problems, or making difficult decisions. It’s very much the opposite: We’re not thinking about doing anything at all. It doesn’t mean we’re not accomplishing anything. We’re just not thinking about how to do it. This is how something becomes “second nature.” We do it to the point where we don’t have to think about it anymore. This is exactly what happened after your first couple of weeks driving to work. Once you became comfortable with the streets and turns, you no longer needed to think about where you were going. You could navigate yourself unconsciously.

The best way to think about this is to go to nature. Just imagine a hungry cheetah and how it would approach a pack of gazelles. Is it going to work really hard and pick off the fastest one, or is it simply going to pick off the slow one in the back? Dumb question, right? Of course it’s going to kill the slowest one. You’re getting a similar return in exchange for much less work. Why do more when you can do more using less?

Our brains, by nature, are going to operate in a similar way. We’re not designed to constantly process information all the time. We’re designed to process less. Our default mechanism isn’t to do more work. It’s to do less. Just like cheetahs, we’re inherently lazy.

Below is a list of common tasks most people can do without thought:

  • Tying your shoes
  • Driving a car
  • Signing your name
  • Walking
  • Typing

When you first tried to do any of these tasks, you couldn’t just do them without thinking about them. There was a learning curve. Once you got the basics down, you started to be able to do them with much less conscious thought. Now you can do them with virtually zero thought.

This is our brain’s auto-pilot mechanism at work. With some time and practice, we no longer need to conscious focus on how to draw each letter in our name or where the “a” key is on our keyboard. We can just do things and spend less time thinking about how to do them. This part is critical for skill development.

High level cognitive processing creates a huge drain on our brain and body. It isn’t sustainable for long periods of time. As a result, our brain needs strategies where it can reserve mental energy and save it for when we really need it. This is where our brain’s natural tendency to conserve calories comes into play. The more tasks we can reserve for autopilot, the more mental energy we have at our disposal.

We can’t afford to dedicate a large amount of cognitive processing to routine tasks like tying our shoes or driving to work. We need that energy for breaking down complex problems, coming up with creative solutions, or engaging in other examples of deep, focused work. Our brain’s autopilot feature isn’t just convenient. It’s necessary for survival. It just becomes a problem when the solutions on autopilot are counterproductive.

It’s the perfect metaphor for redesigning movement patterns.

 

 

If you have an athlete who needs help solving a movement problem, you need to address the brain first. The solutions they have hardwired on autopilot are not optimal. They’re doing things poorly without realizing why or how they’re doing them poorly. This stage is better known as unconscious incompetence, or in simpler terms: I don’t know I suck. This is also where the skill development process begins.

If we want to break this pattern of doing things poorly, we need to work against the grain and fight against our brain’s natural tendency to conserve mental energy. We need to wake the patterns up and get them out of autopilot. If they remain dormant, you’re going to wind up like our example from above and find yourself heading northbound when you need to be going south. We’ll always default to the things we know how to do best. The things we know best are often the things we don’t need to think about. If your solutions on autopilot are not beneficial, you need to wake them up and bring awareness to them so you can start redesigning new ones.

The next step in this process is called conscious incompetence, or in simpler terms: I know I suck. This is where the process of remapping begins. At this point, we’ve brought awareness to the bad patterns and we know what they look and feel like – but they’re still bad. They need work. To fix them, we need to carefully craft specific and deliberate progressions targeted to solve specific movement deficiencies. These progressions should be sequenced. Start with something that’s simple, easy to grasp, and can create a specific sensation for a positive movement adaptation. When the athlete starts to achieve mastery, progress it and slowly make it more challenging, dynamic, and closer to what they do in their normal delivery/swing.

(If you’re looking for an example of a sample progression, read our previous blog: Biotensegrity Part II: Putting Principles into Action.)

You need to be meticulous with the progressions early on in this process. New patterns are most vulnerable when they don’t have a ton of reps behind them. If you don’t catch when the patterns fall apart, you’re just going to continue to feed the old ones. Take the time and get it right from the start. It will save you a lot of work on the back end.

When you start to get reps behind the new patterns, you eventually transition into conscious competence: I can do it when I think about it. Think of this as the stage where you can get to work with your GPS. You have to think about what streets to take and when to turn still, but you’re able to get to and from work successfully without making any wrong turns. You’re starting to see success. This part is key.

When you’re in the process of breaking old habits, you’re going to eat a lot of shit early on. You’re fighting against how your brain and body are hardwired to work. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it is necessary if you want to build a better pattern. We want athletes to have success, but we don’t want to compromise the objective of the pattern redesign. It doesn’t mean everything you do should make the athlete feel incompetent, but there are going to be some things that challenge them early on. Starting to acquire some mastery is a big turning point in this process.

With more and more practice, the patterns can get to the point where they are game ready and in a state of unconscious competence: I can do it without thinking about it. This is the ultimate goal for a skill. In our example from above, we need to be able to drive to and from work without a GPS, have multiple detour routes, know exactly how far each takes, and we shouldn’t have to think while doing any of it. We’re minimizing the cognitive load on our brain and saving it for more important activities.

This works the same way in baseball. We can’t afford to think in games about where our hands are, if our front leg is firming up, or if we’re into our glutes vs. quads. We need to save that mental energy for competing. The more we put on our brain’s plate, the less freedom we’re going to have when it’s time to play. This is why deliberate training is so important. Being able to put our best moves on autopilot is the ultimate performance short cut. However, there are no shortcuts to get to this point.

You’ve got to study for the test if you expect to ace it.

What basketball’s “Moneyball” should warn us about the future of baseball

Back in 2006, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander hired Daryl Morey to be Houston’s new general manager (GM). Morey was 33 at the time. He had no playing background. He had earned an MBA from Harvard, as well as an undergraduate degree in computer science from Northwestern University. His only NBA front office experience was the past four years he spent as senior vice president for the Boston Celtics. He initially came on as a consultant for new management hiring and ticket pricing. His role quickly evolved. By the time Morey left, he had built, tested, and implemented his own analytics-based model designed to assist with scouting, evaluation, trades, and free agency.

Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, described the new Rockets GM best: “(Morey) was the first of his kind: the basketball nerd king.” 

Morey, like Alexander, had grown sick of how teams were currently making decisions about players. As a sixteen year-old, he had gone through The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. James’ book inspired Morey to envision a similar approach within an NBA organization. The problem was as he started ask questions, he realized how quickly the information for his answers ran dry. As a result, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Morey collected over 20 years of amateur and professional data, analyzed it, and tested to see what objective measurements best correlated to NBA success.

What he found changed everything.

Statistics like college points per game, rebounds per game, and steals per game were commonly thought of as predictors of professional success. When Morey tested these, however, he found the exact opposite: They had no correlation. As a result, he looked at new statistics. Instead of looking at rebounds per game, he looked at rebounds per minute played. Two players could both have 10 rebounds in one game, but 10 rebounds over 15 minutes is a lot more valuable than 10 rebounds over 35 minutes. One of those players was much more productive, but you can’t tell if you just compare rebounds.

The same thing goes for scoring. Two players could have both scored 30 points, but one of those players could have had significantly more scoring opportunities because the offense plays up tempo. These kinds of problems were ones Morey set out to solve with his new model. He never thought of it as “the right answer,” but instead “a better answer.” 

The 2008 NBA Draft was a great reminder of this. 

In Morey’s first year as GM of the Rockets, he used his new model to select two players in the 2007 NBA Draft with the 26th and 31st picks: Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry, respectively. The odds of getting an NBA starter with either pick was 1/100. Both became starters. If you look at rookie contract production (four years) for draft picks over the past decade, Landry and Brooks rank in the top 9 percent of over 600 players. To say Houston got a rich haul would be an understatement.

Then came 2008.

The next season, Houston worked out a deal to acquire Joey Dorsey, forward from Memphis University, with the 33rd overall pick in the 2008 draft. They signed him to a 3 year deal worth about $2.5 million. It took two summer league games for Morey to realize he had drafted a huge bust. As a rookie, Dorsey played in three games, scored two points and grabbed one rebound. He was traded in 2010 to Sacramento.

Dorsey’s time in Houston was disappointing, but Morey had no one to blame but himself. His model told him Dorsey was the best player to take. Three picks later, the Los Angeles Clippers selected a player who tested very low on Dorsey’s model: DeAndre Jordan. If it didn’t hurt enough to miss on Dorsey, it stung way more to miss on Jordan. Over the past decade, the ex-Clipper established himself as one of the best forwards in the game. His career 10.6 rebounds per game ranks 36th all time in NBA history. He’s been ranked as the second best player in the ’08 draft class, only behind nine-time All-Star Russell Westbrook.

For as sweet as ’07 was, ’08 brought Morey’s model back down to earth pretty quickly. When he went back and analyzed what went wrong, he started with what he knew. Jordan only played one season of college basketball at Texas A&M. In that year, Jordan played just 20.1 minutes/game, scored 7.9 points/game, and grabbed just 6.0 total rebounds/game. Nothing about these numbers jumped off the page to Morey – as they shouldn’t have. You wouldn’t expect a potential first round prospect to only play half the game. What he missed, however, was something his model never would have uncovered: Jordan hated his college coach. He was a sensational high school basketball prospect, but he had no interest in being at school – let along playing for his college coach. This was the problem Morey’s model. It placed a ton of value in performance metrics, but it didn’t account things you couldn’t see in the box score. 

There was one person, however, who did not miss this. Jordan had grown up in the Houston area. One of Morey’s local scouts had watched Jordan play in high school on multiple occasions. Sure enough, that scout wanted to draft Jordan. He thought the Houston native possessed “undeniable physical talent” that would translate well to the NBA. What many teams couldn’t get past, however, was the lack of production at Texas A&M. Morey wasn’t the only GM who missed on him, but he had the information he needed to take a chance on him. He just didn’t uncover all of it until after the draft.

The information Morey was looking at valued things you could quantify. The information he needed, however, was impossible to quantify. It was a great reminder of Morey’s own words of caution: He never claimed to have “the answer,” but worked to build a model that would uncover “a better answer.” 

The better answer he later realized is a great lesson for baseball. 

With the push for advanced analytics within Major League organizations, we always have to remember the Joey Dorsey mistake: We can only measure so much with numbers. While we cannot measure a lot of the things humans can see and feel, they are still an integral part of the evaluation process. The future of this game does not fall solely on the shoulders of the “new school” data and technology crowd, nor does it the “old school” feel generation. It exists in the middle ground between the two.

We need advanced analytics so we can continue to ask better questions, uncover more useful information, and ultimately make better decisions. We also need eyes. We need people who can watch games, read body language, relate to players, and explain information in ways that makes sense. We need scouts who dig beyond stat lines and uncover context behind red flags we see at the surface level. The decisions we make are only as good as the information at our disposal. If you’re putting all your eggs in the basket of data, you’re going to make the same mistake that caused Daryl Morey to miss out on a future NBA All-Star. 

You won’t make the right decision all the time, but you’ll make a better one more often than you don’t. 

Bat to Ball Principles: The Importance of Spacing

If you’re currently having issues at the plate with getting jammed, squaring up baseballs, catching up to velo, or keeping your best hits fair, there’s a chance you might be fighting for space.

“Hitters are always fighting for two things: time and space.” – Darin Everson, hitting coordinator Colorado Rockies

Space is one of the three main buckets we assess at 108 Performance when evaluating hitters. Having room to get our best swings off is critical for making solid and consistent contact. Hitters have to navigate a small window of time and space to have success. The more room they have, the more time they have to make decisions. This has a big influence on contact quality. Our barrel doesn’t have the time to navigate numerous obstacles. It needs a clear and consistent path to the ball. The more space we have, the easier this becomes.

Space exists in a number of different dimensions. As a result, hitters can create – or remove – space using a number of different strategies. Below are some tips on how you can spot good moves from bad, understand the slippery slope behind a couple of popular thoughts, and different adjustments you can try with players who are fighting for room to get their best swings off.

Hitting is tough. It becomes exponentially more difficult when you minimize your window for hard contact. Don’t make hitting harder than it needs to be. Give yourself space and let your best swings show when it counts.

 

 

The first spacing strategy we’ll discuss deals with stride angle. While all hitters are slightly different, a lot end up in a position at foot strike where the front leg is slightly closed off in relationship to the back. This position is no accident: It’s a really effective way to get the pelvis out of the way. When the front leg lands closed in relationship to the back, the pelvis is able to stay closed (in relationship to the pitcher). This position is critical. When we look at the best hitters in the game, we don’t see the pelvis opening prematurely into foot strike. It stays closed until it’s time to rotate. 

The pelvis is the foundation for the swing in a lot of different ways. If we fail to get this part right, everything we do up top becomes far more difficult. Before we can start to turn, we need to create room for the pelvis to work. This happens by spreading the legs, hinging, and keeping the middle closed. If we can give the pelvis a big window to work, we make it much easier to rotate up top with good direction. If this window becomes compromised, we lose the ability to hold on to angles and ultimately make good decisions. There’s less room for error.

To give you a feel for this, below is an example of good spacing vs. poor spacing with the pelvis:

An example of poor spacing (left) vs. better spacing (right)

Notice in the left how the pelvis has started to open and the back knee is starting to dive underneath? This kills spacing. The pattern is unstable, the window to work has been compromised, and there’s not a lot left resisting rotation at this point. The picture on the right is a different story. Instead of leaking open early, the pelvis is able to stay closed instead of rotating prematurely. The stride angle is slightly more closed. The trunk is centered on the pelvis. The middle, as a result, is much more connected – and there’s way more space to operate. 

If you’re working with a hitter who looks more like the one on the left, and/or:

  1. Leaks open with the pelvis and/or trunk
  2. Feels stuck on their backside
  3. Can’t hold posture over the plate
  4. Can’t keep hard hit balls in fair territory 

try having them stride slightly closed. Some guys might need more, other guys might need a little less. Just find the angle that helps them feel the best.

You don’t need to stride closed to have success, but you’re going to find a lot more guys who do rather than don’t. The pelvis is the foundation of the swing. It shouldn’t become an obstacle to the swing. If it is, you need to find a way to buy some space. 

Another way hitters create space is in their set up. To give you a feel for this, check out an overhead view of Ohtani on a homer he hit this season. 

There’s a lot to love about this swing, but there is one thing that really stands out: Notice how far his hands, forearms, and elbows start and stay away from his body?

Before Ohtani makes a move to the ball, he’s giving himself a ton of space. His hands and elbows aren’t pinned against his body. They’re set up much further away. This kind of a set up is quite contrary to what you’d expect from most instruction. Kids are typically taught to “stay inside the ball” and “keep their hands inside.” As a result, most kids keep their hands tucked close to their shoulders and never let them get much further. While the barrel does need to stay “inside” the ball, the hands need to actually deliver the barrel. You can’t do this if they’re pinned up against your body.

We’ve spent so much time berating kids for not staying inside the ball that we’ve under appreciated how far the hands actually need to get away from the body during the swing.

To get a feel for this, below is a gif of a home run Freddie Freeman hit to dead center field off of a middle inside pitch.

Let’s zoom in and look at the relationship between his hands and his body as his barrel starts to slot and turn:

See how far away his hands are? 

Freeman’s barrel is still “inside” the ball, but his hands are not pinned against his chest. They have a ton of room to work. This distinction is critical. The closer the hands get to the body, the less room they have to deliver the barrel. A great way to prevent this, as seen with Ohtani, is to make sure they have room before the swing even starts.

If you’re currently working with a hitter who:

  1. Slices/snap hooks baseballs
  2. Gets blown up by velo
  3. Gets berated for not “staying inside the ball”

try a couple of quick adjustments. For one, have them try starting with their hands further away from their body – like Ohtani. They’ll eventually work back in, but now they have room for error so they don’t work back too close. Also try playing around with their perception of how the hands deliver the barrel. See what it looks like when they try to turn their hands away from their body. Give them permission to not be so “inside” the ball. Have them almost feel like they’re extending their arms into contact. Small adjustments can feel really big when you first try them out.

Contrast is key to learning. If all players know is to stay inside the ball, you’re going to create some pretty different sensations when you give them permission to turn their hands “away” from what is currently comfortable. The difference in contact quality will be significant.

Another trick to clearing space involves the lead arm. When the barrel starts to work back and slot, the rear elbow is going to work down. The lead arm, as a result, needs to work up. If the lead arm gets pinned down and can’t clear space for the rear arm to work, it becomes a lot more difficult to deliver the barrel. There’s less room to work up top.

Below is a great visual for a strategy Nolan Arenado uses with his lead arm to clear space for his barrel. Notice how the arms interact to deliver the barrel on this pitch. 

See how the lead elbow works up to clear space?

If the hands are making moves to the ball but the barrel isn’t, don’t blame the hands. Look at the arms. If the lead arm isn’t clearing space for the rear arm to work, try getting it out of the way using Arenado’s strategy. It isn’t the only way to do it, but it can be a really effective way for hitters who don’t have great feel for how the arms interact to deliver the barrel.

The last thing we’ll discuss in this article is the influence of point of contact. This is often the lowest hanging fruit for hitters fighting for space. A great way to think of it is to imagine how middle infielders approach ground balls. Great infielders don’t hang back and let the ball travel to them. They cut down distance and go get the ball. Elite hitters are no different. They don’t let the ball travel really deep (thoughts aside) and catch it closer to the catcher. They go get the ball closer to the pitcher.

If you’re working with a hitter who:

  1. Doesn’t square up the baseball consistently
  2. Gets beat and jammed often
  3. Struggles to get to their front side
  4. Spins and yanks off pitches they try to pull

try adjusting their point of contact. More times than not, hitters need to learn how to go get the ball instead of constantly getting blown up. The window we have into contact is one of the most important areas of space we need. The further we let the ball travel, the smaller this window becomes. 

This thought not only has a big impact on the arms, hands, and barrel, but it can have a big impact downstream on the lower half. If the focus is on catching the ball out front, we’re more likely to get into better positions of leverage where the front foot is stable and in the ground. This is critical for spacing. If we never get to the front, we’re going to get stuck and spin from the back. The more we spin, the smaller our window becomes for making hard contact out front. 

If you can’t square up baseballs off front toss, you probably don’t need to let the ball travel more. You need to go get it further out in front.

The problem with “Ghost Victories” and what they hide about our success

I just read a tremendous chapter from Dan Heath’s best-selling book Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems before they Happen. In chapter 9, Dan detailed three examples of “ghost victories” that give us a false sense of success.

The third one was the most powerful, in my opinion.

He said: “There is also a third kind of ghost victory that’s essentially a special case of the second (when short term measures don’t align with the long term mission).

“It occurs when measures become the mission.”

This thought has two very practical applications to coaches.

  • Making practice the game

At Bridge the Gap 2020, Pelotero CEO Bobby Tewksbary warned of the “Crossfitification” of baseball: Practices have become the objective, not the games themselves.

This, in essence, is what Heath was talking about. Having goals & objectives to train towards is important, but they are not THE goal. The goal is game performance. If you’re selling out for training objectives at the expense of game performance, your interests are misaligned.

Naval Ravikant said it best: “When you play stupid games, you win stupid prizes.”

The best way to not win stupid prizes is to not play stupid games. 

  • Doctoring data

In the book, Heath talked about a specific situation with NYPD where “CompStat” was introduced in the 1994. The software was designed to improve data collection on specific crimes across the city so resources could be better allocated.

The intention was good. The actual execution was anything but.

Instead of tracking crime better, officers manipulated the data so they would look better. Crimes in certain areas were not reported. Other crimes were re-worded so they didn’t fall under specific categories (e.g. re-writing a rape case as “theft of service”). The data looked better, but it wasn’t an accurate representation of what was actually going on. It was flawed.

Heath said it best: “When people’s well-being depends on hitting certain numbers, they get very interested in tilting the odds in their favor.

Coaches should resonate with this statement on a lot of different levels. I know I did.

Data is awesome, but it’s very easy to manipulate. You can pick and choose stats, fail to record others, and only present the ones that confirm what you believe. This is a problem. If there’s no integrity behind what we collect – or don’t collect – we’re falling victim to confirmation bias.

Don’t search for what you want to believe is true. Look at what is actually true.

Could Andrew Heaney be the key to New York’s postseason hopes?

This past trade deadline, the New York Yankees made a much anticipated – yet surprising – splash in the market acquiring Chicago Cubs 1B Anthony Rizzo and Texas Rangers OF Joey Gallo. The two bats hope to bolster an injury-riddled (shocker) lineup that currently sits 6.5 games behind the first place Boston Red Sox and 2.5 games out of the second wild card spot (as of August 1).

While Rizzo and Gallo’s arrival has created a sense of excitement that hasn’t existed since April, many fans are still skeptical the Yankees didn’t address a big need: Starting pitching. As I’ve highlighted before, Gerrit Cole has been everything as advertised in his second season in pinstripes. He currently leads the MLB in strikeouts (179), owns a team-high 3.9 WAR, and in many eyes is the current frontrunner for the AL Cy Young award.

Behind him, however, has been a different story. Cole’s supporting cast so far this year has been a combination of Jordan Montgomery, Domingo German, and Jameson Taillon. While the Yankees pitching staff has collectively rallied to the tune of a 3.77 ERA (11th in MLB), 989 K (9th), and opposing batting average of .225 (T-4th), the lack of consistency behind Cole has been a problem. German missed the first 60 games this season due to a domestic violence issue. Free agent acquisition Corey Kluber hasn’t pitched since May 25 due to injury. Luis Severino is still rehabbing from a Tommy John surgery that took place back in February 2020.

Montgomery has enjoyed the best season of his career to date (109.2 IP, 3.56 FIP, 2.5 WAR), but Taillon and German currently sport a FIP over 4.0 (4.35 and 4.31, respectfully). If it weren’t for a couple of back end bullpen blunders, the narrative around this trio of misfits could look a lot differently. However, as of August 1, the Yankees have a 14.5% chance to make the playoffs. With German potentially going to the IL and no guarantee of seeing Kluber or Severino for at least another month, Yankees fans have to wonder: Is the pitching going to be enough?

Enter Andrew Heaney.

Heaney, 30 year old ex-Angel LHP, was one of Cashman’s quieter deadline deals. Most Yankee fans weren’t thrilled about the idea of adding an aging lefty with a 92 mph fastball that’s pitched to the tune of a 5.25 ERA in 94 IP (before his first NY start). It wasn’t an exciting addition by any means, but it could be a critical one for a team that’s struggled to solidify a fifth starter. If Heaney pitches to projections and makes a couple of strategic adjustments, he could end up being a 3+ WAR pitcher.

*Former RHP Masahiro Tanaka only produced 3+ WAR in two of his seven seasons in pinstripes (2016, 2019).

Let’s start with the upside. Heaney currently utilizes a three pitch mix – four seam fastball, curveball, and change up. While his fastball velocity doesn’t jump off the charts (92.0 – 30th percentile MLB), he spins it in the 89th percentile of all MLB arms (2453 RPM). His whiff rate ranks in the 73rd percentile, chase rate ranks in the 91st percentile, and his K% ranks in the 75th percentile.

*Video source*

His curveball is his primary secondary pitch, throwing it 22.3% of the time. While it profiles more like a slider, it’s been very effective against left handed hitters (.152 BAA). It’s currently moving the most it ever has horizontally (7.3”) and has been his best pitch so far in 2021, generating an expected run value (RV) of -2.

*Video source*

Heaney’s change-up has been used exclusively against right handed hitters, throwing just eight of 307 to lefties. It averages 20% more horizontal break than the average MLB change up, moving 17.3”. It generates whiffs 24.3% of the time and has produced an XBA of .227 – the lowest of his three pitches.

*Video source*

Below is the pitch distribution for Heaney’s arsenal. You’re going to notice three different clusters for all three pitches. This, in a lot of ways, is a positive thing. Having three pitches that utilize three different parts of the strike zone is a very effective way to keep hitters off balance.

Heaney’s 2021 pitch mix (from Baseball Savant)

While the ERA has been disappointing so far, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Heaney currently owns a 4.05 FIP, which is a better mark than several notable pitchers this season:

  • Kyle Hendricks (4.67 FIP)
  • Zack Greinke (4.55 FIP)
  • Yusei Kikuchi (4.40 FIP)

ZiPS Projections currently projects Heaney to finish the season with a 3.93 FIP – below his career average of 4.30 – to go along with a 4.15 ERA, 0.9 WAR (currently has 1.4 WAR), and 10.25 K/9. Those numbers would very comfortably solidify Heaney as not just the five guy in the Yankees rotation, but potentially the three (without Severino).

Something else to consider about Heaney is how different he is from anything else New York has. As of now, Montgomery is the only other left handed starting pitcher on staff. At 6’6 228 lbs, Montgomery has had success throwing primarily curveballs (23.9%) from a high arm slot (release height 6.77, extension 6.50). It currently ranks sixth in all of baseball in terms of wCB/C (1.82) and generates a BAA of .177. Heaney also has a curveball that’s been successful this year (.179 BAA), but he does it from a much different arm slot. His average release height is around 5’3. His average release side angle is 3’5. For reference, Josh Hader’s average release height is 5’3 and his release side angle is 3.16.

Notice the difference in arm slot between these two curveballs from Jordan Montgomery (left) and Andrew Heaney (right). Different can be a really good thing if you’re a pitcher trying to get outs.

Last postseason, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen gained a lot of traction due to the wide variance of arm slots they threw at hitters. For similar reasons, I think Heaney’s unique delivery could complement New York’s starting rotation well. You’re getting a very different look every fifth day. His fastball might not be as intimidating as Hader’s, but the slot from which he throws can create a very uncomfortable at-bat – especially for lefties.

As for where Heaney can improve, I’d like to see a couple of things. For one, Heaney has always had a very easy delivery where it doesn’t look like he’s trying to throw very hard at all. This, in a lot of ways, has helped him move to and through good positions of leverage. However, I think it’s almost too easy. There are moments in the delivery where we want to stay loose and relaxed, but there needs to be a bracing moment after foot strike to create for a clean transfer of energy up the chain. Watch his lead leg as he starts to rotate. See how it’s unstable and shifts side to side as it accepts force? 

Watch Heaney’s lead leg. Notice how unstable it is as he accepts force?

This shows me that Heaney does not have enough stability in his delivery. When the front foot lands, the lead leg needs to firm up and create a stable base for the trunk to rotate around. It doesn’t need to be straight, but you shouldn’t see any added valgus (movement left to right) or flexion (continues to fold forward). A fix here could be as easy as giving him the thought of recoiling after he throws or teaching him how to brace/flex at foot strike. Proximal stability impacts distal performance. In Heaney’s case, I think some proximal stability in his delivery could have a big impact downstream. He might not add three mph, but I think it could have a significant impact on his command of his arsenal.

One of the knocks on Heaney going into the deadline was the location of his four seamers this season. After going through some data, it does seem the distribution of his fastballs has changed. Below are heat maps of his fastballs from 2020, and 2019 (reference above for 2021).

Heaney’s pitch mix from 2020 and 2019 (from Baseball Savant)

In 2019, Heaney was exclusively using a sinker. It averaged 92.5 mph, spun at 2524 RPM, hitters batted .237 against it, and it generated an expected run value of -3. The pitch distribution was predominately to the glove side. In 2020, Heaney ditched the sinker and went to a four seam fastball. While it averages 15.3” of horizontal break – well above league average – he’s spinning it less in 2021 (2,453 RPM), it’s getting hit harder (.280 BAA, .508 SLG), and he’s throwing it more than he ever has before in his career (59.6%). Instead of a glove side distribution, Heaney is now throwing the pitch more high and arm side. I’d venture to say this was not an intentional decision, but a byproduct of a pitch he does not have great feel for yet.

Remember how we mentioned the problems Heaney’s arm slot should create for lefties? The curveball has created problems, but the fastball has not. In 2020, left handers batted .298 against the four seamer. In 2021, lefties have batted .294 against them. Despite above average spin characteristics and a plus horizontal movement profile, data tells us lefties are not having a tough time with the pitch. Part of the problem could be guys are sitting on the pitch since he’s not throwing any change ups to lefties (8/448). It’s been predominately fastball curveball, with the fastball coming 63% of the time. 

Considering Heaney’s lack of results in 2021, I have a couple of potential solutions.

  1. Throw less fastballs

This one isn’t really rocket science. If the pitch you’re throwing predominately isn’t having much success, why not try throwing it less? The Yankees are no strangers to making guys rely less on their breaking balls (Masahiro Tanaka was a great example). I think we’ll probably see some regression in terms of Heaney’s breaking ball (XBA of .229 exceeds current BAA of .179), but it is a better pitch and it tunnels well off of his fastball. Dropping his fastball usage as little as 5-8% could have a big impact on the arsenal as a whole. 

  1. Bring back the sinker

Heaney’s four seamer does perform very well in terms of horizontal break, but it’s only averaging 1.2” more than what his sinker was in 2019. Considering his slot, the movement profile on his stuff (more H break than V break), and his past success with sinkers (run value of -3 in ’19), I think bringing the sinker back could make a big difference. He threw it harder, spun it better, and hitters performed worse against it. Four seamers just don’t seem like the best fit, here (not really sure why he made the change in the first place?)

  1. Change the distribution of fastballs

As mentioned above, Heaney’s fastball plot has changed. I don’t think the added cluster of high and arm side fastballs has been particularly beneficial, especially considering his horizontal movement profile on the pitch. The gloveside fastball is a pitch Heaney has not been able to execute well as of late. This could change if he were to go back to the sinker, but I think re-establishing fastball command is going to be critical considering the lack of velocity (avg. 92 mph). Some of this could be cleaned up by creating more proximal stability in his delivery (see above). The less stable we are down low, the tougher it is to rotate well up top with good direction. 

  1. Start throwing more change ups & curveballs to lefties

I think a big reason why Heaney’s fastball has been ineffective against left handers is because he’s really a two pitch pitcher against lefties. The change up has been a non factor. As a result, most guys are probably sitting fastball (since it’s coming 63% of the time) and spitting on the curveball until two strikes. Mixing in more change ups could make these at-bats more unpredictable. His cluster of change ups is mostly low and in, so I’d make sure it was set up well (gloveside, middle-in fastballs) before he starts accidentally running it into barrels. I’d also mix in the curveball more considering the success it’s had against lefties (37.9% whiffs, wOBA against .257).

  1. Throw less change ups to righties

Don’t be confused by my last point. Throwing the change up more to lefties doesn’t mean throwing it at a 30% clip. It just means showing it enough to keep hitters honest. It’s a different pitch with a different movement profile that gets to a different part of the zone. He should, however, probably throw the pitch less in general to right handers. His curveball, statistically, is his best pitch to righties (BAA .180, SLG .280, wOBA .225). He’s throwing it 17.7% of the time. Heaney’s change up, however, is performing significantly worse against right handers (BAA .252, SLG .437, wOBA .314). He’s throwing it 7% more frequently than his curveball (24%). This probably isn’t a great idea, especially considering Heaney’s change up has a run value this year of 4. You have to throw your most effective pitches in the right situations. This isn’t happening right now for Heaney.

  1. Throw less fastballs in plus counts

Below is a visual that shows the distribution for Heaney’s pitches by count. The red is fastballs, blue is curveballs, and green is change ups thrown:

Heaney’s pitch mix by count (red fastballs, blue curveballs, green change ups) – from Baseball Savant

Let’s look at the counts 2-1, 3-1, 1-0, and 2-0. Below are MLB slash lines for those counts:

  • 1-0: .341/.344/.613
  • 2-0: .360/.359/.661
  • 2-1: .349/.351/.614
  • 3-1: .364/.698/670

For Heaney, throwing a large percentage of fastballs in these counts is not a great idea. His fastball currently has a run value of 3, hitters slug .538 against it, and it’s getting hit hard 48.2% of the time. While Heaney isn’t the kind of guy that gets behind in counts a lot (career 2.5 BB/9), it’s not a bad idea to start pitching backwards when he does get behind. A couple of bad pitches in the wrong counts is enough to ruin a good outing.  

 

 

As we’ve seen in Heaney’s first start, my final concern for the left hander is he’s predominately a fly ball pitcher (68%, 18.2 average launch angle). Yankee Stadium isn’t exactly the kindest park when it comes to pitchers managing the long ball. In 2020, it ranked 6th highest in the MLB for park adjusted run production (1.159) and 3rd in homers (1.565). I think I’ve laid out multiple strategies in here that could help manage this, but don’t be surprised if he gets burned by the long ball a few more times at home.

Andrew Heaney might not be Cashman’s most exciting deadline pick up of recent memory, but it could pay off with a couple of minor adjustments. He won’t be the reason why they miss playoffs, but he could be one of the reason why they make it.

Trevor Bauer: It’s more than spider tack

Back in 2018, Trevor Bauer stirred some tempers after calling out the Houston Astros for doctoring baseballs with illegal substances during their 2017 World Series run. Those remarks ended up circling back to Bauer when the former Red saw a significant increase in spin on multiple pitches at the end of 2019. On Opening Day, Bauer spun his four seamer at 2,273. By the end of the season, that number had jumped to 2,747 – a 474 RPM increase.

En route to his first career Cy Young award, Bauer spun several pitches from his arsenal at career-high rates in 2020. He paced the league in average spin rate for four seamers (’20: 2,779, ’19; 2,410), curveballs (’20: 2,926. ’19: 2,548), sinkers (’20: 2,780, ’19: 2,343), and cut fastballs (’20: 2,908, ’19: 2,640). His slider spun at 2,951 RPM – a 214 RPM increase from 2019. The adjustments had a noticeable impact on Bauer’s performance. Hitters saw a reduction in batting average against four seamers (.267 to .172), cutters (.312 to .194), and sliders (.186 to .075). His total wOBA decreased from .316 to .227, his strikeout percentage (K%) increased from 27.8% to 36%, and his ERA lowered from 4.48 to a career-best 1.73.

Through 16 starts this season, Bauer currently continues to pace Major League Baseball in average spin for four seamers (2,788) and cutters (2,880). While he’s seen a slight regression from his Cy Young campaign, Bauer has been everything as advertised in his first season donning Dodger blue. He’s won seven games, sports a 2.57 ERA, 1.4 WAR, and leads all Dodger pitchers in innings pitched (101.2), strikeouts (129), and H/9 (5.6).

Now, for the elephant in the room.

Bauer has recently received a ton of criticism for the role he has played in baseball’s notorious battle with spin rate. These criticisms have only been magnified since baseball’s most recent decision to enforce a 10 game suspension for any pitcher caught with foreign substances on the mound. While Bauer hasn’t quite convinced people that his recent increase in average spin was organic, he has been very vocal about his stance on the issue. You can like him, loathe him, or believe he’s a hypocrite. I’m not going to touch on that in here. I’ll leave that issue to Major League Baseball.

What I would like to talk about, however, is something I feel very confident saying: Trevor Bauer is not the same pitcher we all saw enter the league in 2013. He’s not the same pitcher we saw burst onto the scene in 2018 as an AL Cy Young front runner, either. Over the past several years, Bauer has seen a noticeable increase in performance that has solidified him as one of the most challenging at-bats in all of baseball. It has a lot more to do than sticky stuff. Slowly but surely, Trevor Bauer is starting to become the most efficient version of himself on the mound. If people are going to criticize him for his role in baseball’s issue with foreign substances, I think it’s only fair we commend him for the things he’s improved on that have nothing to do with it. We can’t begin to explain his recent increase in performance – or spin rate – unless we do.

Over the next 2,000 words, I’m going to break down the biggest changes I’ve seen with Bauer over the years, why they’ve had a positive impact on his performance, and why I think he’ll continue to perform regardless of spider tack. The improvements we’ve seen from Bauer in regard to spin rate are significant. The way we’ve tried to explain them, however, is incomplete. We’ve become so obsessed with the relationship between the hand and the ball that we’ve forgotten a lot of things need to happen before the hand ever has a chance to impart any force into the ball.

Foreign substances might be turning into baseball’s biggest black eye, but they aren’t the only way to improve how you spin a baseball. This article is my hope to spark some important conversations about this.

 

 

 

If we want to explain Bauer’s recent surge in performance, we have to examine the evolution of his movement signature. He’s obviously changed quite a bit since his UCLA days, but his changes have been as recent as the past several years. I believe it’s had a significant impact on his health and performance.

Below is a video compilation of a pitches he’s thrown from 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. Watch the videos and simply make observations the first time through. Pay close attention to the delivery itself, transfer of energy, effort level, and velocity/spin differences. Remember: What you see in his signature will give you insights into what the ball is doing.

For context, below are velocities and spin rates on Bauer’s four seamers from the past four years:

  • 2018: 94.5 mph, 2,322 RPM
  • 2019: 94.5 mph, 2,410 RPM
  • 2020: 93.5 mph, 2,779 RPM
  • 2021: 93.8 mph, 2,795 RPM 

Let’s see how your observations matched up against mine.

Considering how deliberate Bauer is with his training, it’s very obvious he’s made some conscious changes since first entering the league. For me, the first noticeable change occurs well before he ever throws the ball: He changed his rocker step. Before 2019, Bauer used to step behind the mound with his left leg out of the windup. Now, he simply steps to the side.

Bauer from 2018

While this change seems innocent, I think it had a noticeable impact downstream. When Bauer used to step behind the rubber, his center of mass would slightly shift away from home plate and towards second base. In other words, he had to go back before he could go forward. It’s not necessarily a delivery killer, but it is a more complex movement. The more complex it is, the more difficult it is to recreate it consistently and effectively. For these reasons, I think Bauer realized that a subtle change here could make a big difference in the rest of his delivery – which it has.

With his simplified rocker step, Bauer doesn’t have to go back to go forward. He took out the negative move and just made it one positive move. As a result, there’s less wasted movement early in the sequence which helps his center of mass get down the mound much more efficiently. When the middle works more efficiently, a lot of other things in the delivery tend to improve. This is where we see another big change with Bauer: His pelvis and trunk are more centered, stable, and connected.

One of the things that made Bauer’s old movement signature unique was the amount of angle he created with his pelvis and trunk after peak leg lift. To give you a feel for this, below is a side shot of his delivery from 2012. I compared it to a video from the side of Gerrit Cole during his breakout 2019 campaign. See how different their angles are as they move down the mound?

Bauer from 2012 (left) compared against his former teammate Gerrit Cole (right)

After peak leg lift, the right leg is going to hinge and work slightly underneath the front. This move is commonly referred to as pelvic tilt. We see this move from both Bauer and Cole, but how it interacts with the trunk is where we see a significant difference. I think this lead to a lot of Bauer’s previous inconsistencies.

Think of it like this: Imagine that your trunk is the train and the pelvis is the train tracks. An efficient rotary sequence largely depends on how these two interact with each other. As you can see with Cole, the pelvis and trunk should stay centered between both legs and the angles of both should mirror each other. If the trunk doesn’t match the pelvis or vice versa, you’ve created a disconnection. This is what happens to Bauer. His trunk stacks over his back leg and loses congruency with his pelvis. This puts him in a position where it takes a lot more work to get back down and around the front side into release.

This is also why the initial rocker step could have been really important. Stepping behind the rubber negatively shifts your center of mass away from the plate and makes it more tempting to stack over the back leg. Once this initial domino goes, the rest of the delivery is subsequently impacted. The more complex it is early, the harder it is to sync everything up later.

When we look at Bauer in 2021, we see a completely different movement. The train no longer flies off the tracks early. The torso stays connected over the pelvis and between both legs. The angles mirror each other instead of being mismatched. As a result, his center of mass moves down the mound much more efficiently. He doesn’t have to work against himself anymore to get his torso leveled out into foot strike. Everything is much simpler, more connected, and it creates a smoother transfer of energy.

Not the best angle, but you can see a significant adjustment with the trunk and its relationship to the pelvis

If we continue to go downstream, we see another big adjustment Bauer has made this season: He’s landing slightly more closed. In the past, Bauer’s lead leg would land in line with his back foot at foot strike. Now his lead leg and lead foot land slightly closed in relationship to the back. The adjustment in angles has had a significant difference on his average horizontal release height. In 2018, the average horizontal release for Bauer’s four seamers was 1.40’. That number has jumped in 2021 to a career-high 1.69’.

Bauer at landing from 2020 (left) to 2021 (right)

This added angle has also had an impact on Bauer’s deceleration patterns. If we sync up Bauer to release from before and after the adjustment, we notice a big difference in the angle of his torso in relationship to home plate. With his lead leg slightly more closed, Bauer is getting to his point of max crossbody tension (shoulders cross hips) sooner. This is keeping more of his energy directionally towards home.

Bauer at release from 2020 (left) and 2021 (right)

This, in my opinion, has influenced increases in his extension numbers. In 2019, Bauer’s four seamer averaged about 6.2’ of extension. That number has since improved to 6.5’. In ’19, his slider averaged 5.7’ of extension. That number is now 6.4’ – right on par with his four seamer. Landing slightly closed doesn’t mean you’ll automatically add extension, but it does give you the ability to release the ball closer to home without filling up the left handed batter’s box. In Bauer’s case, I think it could have helped.

Positions, however, are only a part of the puzzle. How we capture energy moving through them is equally as important. This, in my opinion, is where Bauer has made the biggest strides. Below is him frame by frame after foot strike and into release from 2018 and 2021:

If we look at the images above, we see Bauer has improved on a number of things in his rotational sequence. His trunk stays closed longer into foot strike. His head is quiet and stays centered over his spine during rotation. Instead of his trunk mismatching planes with the arm, his trunk stabilizes and delivers the arm. At release, the hand, wrist, and elbow all match the shoulder plane. He doesn’t yank or waste energy the way he used to back in 2018. Everything is more stable, connected, and much more energy is getting into the ball at release. It’s much smoother and significantly more efficient.

These all have positive impacts on spin characteristics. 

If we go back to my beginning statement, one of the things I mentioned was how spin rate is a lot more than just the relationship between the hand and the ball. The hand is the vessel in which we transmit energy into the ball, but the hand doesn’t create any energy. Our body does. The hand just gives us information about what happened earlier in the sequence. The better the sequencing, the more potential we have to spin the ball. This is why we have to examine the movement signature when we’re looking at differences in spin rate. What you see from the body will give you a good idea for what’s going on at the hand. If we look at Bauer’s evolution, it’s no mistake he’s added over 300 RPM to his fastball over the past six years. He’s eliminated a lot of wasted movement, become much more stable, and he’s capturing rotational energy better than he ever has before. We should, in my opinion, be talking about this a lot more than whatever role he might be playing in “sticky gate.”

His past couple starts, however, have made me slightly worried. Below is a fastball he threw at 92.5 mph from his outing June 18 against Arizona.

While it’s subtle, we can see residue of his old delivery. The transfer of energy isn’t as smooth. His move down the mound isn’t as controlled. His trunk stacks and his arm gets caught working more north to south. On June 6, Bauer’s fastball was averaging 1.8’ of horizontal release angle. That number dropped to 1.5’ his last start. On the season, Bauer’s average release height for four seamers is 5.69’. That number jumped to 5.8’ his last start. While the vertical break on his fastball has remained relatively stable, he’s lost about 2.7” of horizontal movement to the pitch. This is slightly concerning. Knowing Bauer, these changes weren’t an accident. He’s trying to achieve something, but I don’t think he’s trending in the right direction.

It’s something to keep an eye on over his next few starts.

 

 

To conclude, I want to reiterate that I am not going to propose any theories about foreign substances or suggest if any pitcher has been using them or not. I just want people to consider how movement changes can have a considerable impact on spin characteristics. Bauer is a really good example of this. Spin rate is still a very new stat that we have a lot to learn about. How Major League Baseball handles the next year will have ripple effects on the game for the next several decades. Regardless of what they decide to do, I feel very confident saying this: Trevor Bauer will continue to be a really difficult at bat for hitters. The changes he’s made over the past several years will help him pitch in the big leagues for a really long time. I’m very excited to see how he continues to evolve on the mound.

If we’re going to bastardize Bauer for what we think he’s done wrong, we need to give him credit where it’s due. I hope this article was able to do that.

Gerrit Cole is back

After a good – but not great – 2020 campaign, Gerrit Cole is on pace for the best season of his career in 2021.

Through eight starts, Cole has thrown 52.2 IP, struck out 78, and walked just three batters for absurd K/BB of 26.0. He’s allowed just eight earned runs and currently owns a 1.37 ERA, 0.684 WHIP, 1.11 FIP, and leads the MLB in WAR with 2.8. If it wasn’t for some guy named Jacob deGrom, he’d be pacing the league in all of those categories but one (ERA: Means 1.21).

While we can often become immune to success because of previous dominance (e.g. Mike Trout), there is nothing ordinary about Gerrit Cole’s second season in pinstripes. DeGrom might be stealing the show in 2021, but Cole’s numbers paint a pretty convincing story: He is not the same pitcher he was in 2020. He is much better, and the film backs it up.

Last year, we got a ton of traction talking about Gerrit Cole. We knew he wasn’t the same pitcher from 2019 after watching him throw just one pitch. It’s not to say he was bad, but we knew the changes he made weren’t good changes. Those predictions ended up aging pretty well. 

Cole’s 2019 vs. 2020 stat line (from baseball reference)

This year is a different story. The film and the numbers give us a really good idea that Cole made some conscious and deliberate changes this past offseason to return to circa ’19 form. So far, those changes have paid huge dividends. If he keeps this pace up, he doesn’t just have a chance to match what he did two years ago. He has a chance to surpass it. If he does, he’ll be in a position to do something he’s never done before in his nine-year big league career: win a Cy Young.

 To start this discussion, let’s go to the film room. Below is a pitch Cole threw in 2019 at 100 mph. It was his 110th pitch of the game.

When it comes to pitching and hitting, a good chunk of our success comes down to our ability to move a weight through space as efficiently as possible. We’re trying to impart the most amount of force using the least amount of energy to maximize our production. If we look at the video above, it’s no mistake Cole is throwing 100 mph late in games. He’s moving to and through positions of leverage that help him maximize his efficiency on the mound.

To give you a feel for this, below is where Cole gets to at foot strike (left) and how he compares to some of the hardest throwers in the game. Pay close attention to the lower half. What do you notice?

All of these pitchers (Cole, Felipe Vazquez, Luis Severino, James Paxton) run it up to 100 mph. Notice the similarities?

Notice how his pelvis stays closed into landing and resists opening up? See how anchored his back leg is and how his shoelaces face towards third base? This position is really important. When Cole’s front foot comes back down to earth, his trunk and pelvis are closed, centered, and connected. This puts him in a strong position of leverage when it’s time to stop and rotate. He’s not flying open, leaking energy, or losing connection to the ground. Everything is lined up so the can get his best punch off consistently and effectively. 

As Cole starts to rotate and impart force into the ball, we start to see what made him really special: His braking system is elite. Cole doesn’t just produce a ton of force. He does it with ease. He stops and rotates on a dime. There’s no folding, yanking, or leaking energy into release. Everything becomes really stable really fast creating for a clean transfer of energy up the chain.

When you pair an elite engine with a strong set of brakes, you get this: Easy gas. The best don’t just produce a ton of force. They do it with ease. 

Let’s go to 2020. Below is a 98 mph fastball from Cole during an outing against Tampa Bay. Take a close look at the positions and transfer of energy during this throw. Then compare it back to 2019.

Different, right?

Before we break it down, let’s go to Cole’s May 12 start against Tampa Bay where he threw eight scoreless innings. Below is his last pitch at 99 mph. Pay attention to the positions he gets to, the transfer of energy, and how it compares to 2020.

In 2020, Cole’s average fastball lost some zip dropping from 97.3 mph to 96.9 mph. This year it’s back up to 97.4 (from FanGraphs). These two videos give us a really good idea why. Last season, he wasn’t moving to and through the same positions he once was in ’19. As a result, his performance regressed. 

Below is a snapshot of both videos at foot plant. Take a look at the difference in his front foot.

 

Notice how it’s slightly more open in 2020? Now let’s look at where he gets to after release.

Huge difference.

In 2020, Cole never got to a point of crossbody tension where he was able to stop and impart force into the ball. Everything continued to spin towards the first base dugout after release. His brakes weren’t working the way they used to. This caused him to lose velocity, miss high and arm side with his fastball, and yank breaking balls out of the zone. Below are his pitch distribution charts from 2019 vs. 2020 that show some of these differences. It was a small sample size in 2020, but the charts do show some key differences that illustrate what we would expect.

This season, he’s improved on that a ton. He’s landing a little more closed, he’s stopping a lot better, and more of his energy is getting transmitted into the baseball. He’s no longer losing a ton of energy towards the first base dugout. As a result, his velocity is back up and his command is the best it’s ever been in his career (0.78 BB/9). It’s still a little early to draw significant conclusions from his 2021 pitch distribution, but you can start to see some differences. He’s pounding the zone more with his breaking ball, he’s throwing more glove side fastballs (it’s tough to throw these when you’re constantly spinning), and he’s using his change up a lot more. Remember this part – it’s important for later.

I’m not quite sure why Cole made the adjustments that he did last year, but I do know this: His extension numbers changed drastically. Whether it was Cole, a coach, or someone from the front office, someone thought it would be a better idea going into 2020 if he released the ball closer to home plate. The problem with this is not all extension is created equal. Just telling someone to get more of it and actually creating it the right way are two completely different things. 

In Cole’s situation, I have a theory trying to get more of it made him worse. 

To break this down, let’s look at some data. In ’19, Cole had 6.3 feet  of extension on his fastball, 5.9 feet on his slider, and 5.7 on his curveball. At first glance, these numbers seemed a little off. I wouldn’t expect a pitcher to have four to six inches of difference in extension between their fastball and breaking ball. As a result, I did some digging and gathered extension numbers for the 10 best sliders and curveballs, according to wSL/C and wCB/C from Fangraphs. I then compared these numbers to the extension they got on their fastballs. Below is what I found.

*all extension numbers from Baseball Savant

Fastball vs. Slider extension

  • Yu Darvish: FB 6.4, SL 6.3 (+0.1)
  • John Means: FB 6.1, SL 6.2 (-0.1)
  • Zach Plesac – Both 6.2 (0)
  • Joe Musgrove: FB 5.8, SL 5.9 (-0.1)
  • Chris Bassit: FB 6.3, SL 6.4 (-0.1)
  • Jacob deGrom: FB 7, SL 6.9 (+0.1)
  • Shane Bieber: FB 6.6, SL 6.5 (+0.1)
  • Nick Pivetta: FB 6.6, SL 6.4 (+0.2)
  • DeSclafani: Both 6.6 (0)
  • German Marquez: Both 5.4 (0)

Fastball vs. Curveball extension

  • Lance McCullers: FB (sinker) 6.2, CB 6.0 (+0.2)
  • Brandon Woodruff: FB 6.6, CB 6.5 (+0.1
  • Kyle Gibson: FB 6.7, CB 6.6 (+0.1)
  • Yu Darvish: Both 6.4 (0)
  • Jordan Montgomery: FB 6.7, CB 6.6 (+0.1)
  • Julio Urias: FB 5.6, CB 5.5 (+0.1)
  • Zach Plesac: FB 6.2, CB 6.1 (+0.1)
  • Tyler Glasnow: FB 7.4, CB 7.2 (+0.2)
  • Jake Arrieta: FB (sinker): 5.9, CB 5.8 (+0.1)
  • Wade Miley: FB: 6.2, CB 6.1 (+0.1)

As it turns out, I was right. Having 4 inches of extension difference between a fastball/slider and 6 between a fastball/curveball isn’t just big. It’s astronomical. But it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Given the context of Cole’s historic season, I wouldn’t view the extension differences as a red flag. It’s very unique, but it didn’t seem to be a problem for him. His pitches still managed to tunnel very well off of each other.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In 2020, Cole added 3 inches of extension to his fastball, 5 inches to his slider, and 7 (yes, 7 inches) to his curveball. As a result, the gap in extension between his fastball and both pitches dropped to two inches (FB: 6’6″, CB/SL: 6’4″). This kind of a change isn’t an accident. These numbers were indication of a conscious and deliberate decision. 

It didn’t have a positive influence on both pitches, either. His curveball lost 6.6 inches of horizontal movement, 4.8 inches of vertical movement, and 80 rpm of spin. His slider only gained 0.2 inches of horizontal movement, but lost 0.8 inches of vertical movement and 42 rpm of spin. Both performed relatively similar in terms of wOBA, but underperformed in ’20 against xwOBA (SL wOBA: 0.222, xwOBA .205, CB wOBA: .252, wxOBA .218). Of all his pitches, Cole’s fastball took the biggest hit. In ‘19, hitters batted .166, slugged .384, and totalled a .254 wOBA against four seamers. Last season, those numbers jumped to .226, .466, and .315, respectively.  

Adding extension is often a slippery slope for most pitchers. It’s one thing to know it happens. It’s another to actually make it happen in a beneficial and impactful way. For Cole, there’s a chance that focusing on releasing the ball closer to home could explain why he was moving different last season. He was forcing himself to create more extension by actively reaching his hand out and trying to rotate more towards home. This is where the spinning and peeling open into release could have started. He was trying to achieve something that might have been important, but he wasn’t doing it in a way that reinforced good sequencing and decelerating patterns. He wasn’t stopping and whipping his arm through to create extension. He was dragging his arm through to artificially create extension. There’s a huge difference between these two.

While we won’t know the real reasons without insider info, I have a feeling this is something that was addressed with Cole going into the 2020 season. It might have been a problem, but the solution they came up with didn’t help address the problem. They only magnified it – if there was a problem in the first place.

Another issue Cole ran into in 2020 was getting left-handed hitters out. Last season, Cole’s ERA against right handers was 2.09. Against lefties, it was 3.90 – his worst mark since 2017. While Cole’s made his money off high spin heaters and breaking balls, he’s started to rely on his change up a lot more this season. He’s used 70.7% of them against left handers and is throwing the pitch at a career-high 15.5% clip. Last season, he relied on the pitch just 5.6% of the time. So far, it’s been really, really good. Hitters are batting just .053 against change ups, slugging .079, and have accumulated a .057 wOBA. Only four lefties have gotten hits off of it. He no longer has a gap in ERA between left and right handed hitters. Both have accumulated a 1.37 ERA against him through eight starts this season.

Out of his 78 strikeout victims this season, 42 have been left handed. Seven of his punch outs have come on curveballs. Sixteen – more than double – have come courtesy of the change up:

Cole’s always had a pretty good change up (41.2% whiff rate in 2019), but now he’s finally trusting it and throwing it at a significant clip. As a result, he’s developed a weapon that he can use to put lefties away deep into accounts. He’s throwing his four seamer and slider less as a result (4 seam -6.2%, SL – 4.1%), but both have been more effective. Going into this season, we all knew Cole had three elite weapons. Now he has four. If you’re a hitter, that’s a problem. Cole has yet again reinvented himself on the mound. He’s moving better, he’s more unpredictable than he’s ever been, and he’s currently on the first track to win his first ever Cy Young award.

Whether he does or not, what he’s done so far this season has been pretty special. It’s going to be even more fun to watch him the rest of the way.

Why you need to train in-season

As snow starts to melt and trees start to bloom, baseball games are going to start filling the calendars of kids this spring all across the country. While this is an exciting time of the year, it can bring a multitude of challenges. With more and more training economy being dedicated to games, less is ultimately reserved for training. This creates a big problem for players who made changes over the offseason. If you don’t supplement your work over the winter with in-season maintenance, your changes won’t hang around for long. You’re going to lose them.

To explain this, we have to go to the two biggest constraints all coaches face:

  • Hard wired Central Nervous System
  • Preconceived notion for how to execute a specific task

This article is going to focus on the first one: How to “rewire” and already hardwired Central Nervous System (CNS). If you’ve ever felt like pulling your hair out over players who constantly reverted back to bad mechanics, you know how hard this one is. Making meaningful movement changes is difficult. If you add an athlete to the equation who’s done something wrong their entire career, it becomes exponentially more difficult. If we want to understand why, we have to go deeper than connective tissue.

The issues you see on the surface are not the fault of the muscles. Every action we make can be traced back to the command center for all human movement: The CNS.

The CNS consists of the brain and the spinal cord. It serves many functions within our body. Of these includes the ability to process information about our environment and communicate to our muscles and other connective tissue on how to execute specific tasks. While it was once thought that muscles have “memory,” we now know this isn’t the case. Our connective tissue has no working memory. It organizes and responds based on what the CNS tells it to do. This part is really important.

When we learn a new skill, our CNS takes on the responsibility of building out “instruction manuals” for our body. At first, these manuals are a little fuzzy. It takes a lot of time and practice to get everything in our body on the same page so the skill can be executed consistently and without error. This is why your first attempts riding a bike or driving a car weren’t so graceful. Your brain and body were relying on a manual that hadn’t been completed yet. The only way to complete it is through time, practice, and a critical substance found in our brain that grows in response to repetition: Myelin.

(source)

Myelin is a fatty, insulating sheath that forms and wraps around nerves throughout our brain. It insulates neural circuits that relay the communication of electrical impulses between nerves. These impulses transmit signals from our brain to our body on how to execute specific skills. Everything we do – from shooting a basketball to tying our shoes – has a dedicated neural circuit behind it. The faster impulses can travel along these circuits, the more efficiently and effectively we’ll be able to execute that skill.

Myelin has a few fundamental principles, as outlined by Daniel Coyle in his best-selling book The Talent Code:

  1. The firing of the circuit is paramount
    1. Myelin responds to action and urgent repetition. It cannot grow unless you are firing the nerve patterns required for that specific skill.   
  2. Myelin is universal
    1. Myelin is ignorant of what you are doing. It only cares that you are doing something. In Coyle’s words: “Myelin is meritocratic: circuits that fire get insulated.”
  3. Myelin wraps – it doesn’t “unwrap”
    1. You can’t uninsulated what’s already been insulated.

Coyle’s third principle of myelin gives us insight into why bad habits are so hard to break. He explains:

“Like a highway paving machine, myelination happens in one direction. Once a skill circuit is insulated, you can’t un-insulate it (except through age or disease). That’s why habits are hard to break. The only way to change them is to build new habits by repeating new behaviors – by myelinating new circuits.”

If you’ve patterned a bad swing your whole life, you can’t just “unlearn” it. Your brain is always going to remember that pattern. The only way you can break it is by learning something new. As a result, breaking bad habits can’t be a one stop shop. It is a constant process of myelinating newer and better patterns so they can eventually become your brain’s preferred course of action. What starts as a conscious action must eventually become an unconscious reaction. You bury the old by building the new. This takes a ton of work, time, and patience. It also takes a lot more than just one offseason.

If you made big changes this past winter to your swing or delivery, remember this: Those changes are NOT permanent. They are only as permanent as your dedication to maintain them. You need to continuously myelinate them throughout the course of the season because they’re constantly competing for attention over the bad patterns you’ve hammered your whole life. All it takes is a couple of missed training sessions for your body to default back to the patterns it knows best. It’s easier to patch these leaks when you’re training every day. It’s a lot tougher when you’re not.

Playing and competing on teams is a critical part of your development as a player. With this, understand your individual development needs won’t often be met in team environments. Practices will be centered around team specific needs. Games aren’t designed for training. They’re designed to tell you whether your training is effective or not.

If you sacrifice purposeful individual development for games and team practices, you can’t expect to make the same kind of progress throughout the season. You’re going to regress at some point because the environment you trained in that helped you break bad habits is no longer there. When the environment goes, the behavior is sure to follow.

If you want to make your offseason changes stick, below are some tips:

  • Make time to train outside of games and team practices. It doesn’t have to be much, but a little bit over a consistent period of time can go a long way.
  • Don’t focus on being perfect. You’re going to have good days and bad days. Just keep showing up.
  • Don’t mistake activity for achievement. Your practice must have purpose. Not all swings are created equal.
  • Collect film from games and practices. What you feel doesn’t always match what’s happening.
  • Ask questions. We’re often not the best at solving our own problems.
  • Find a training buddy that can help keep you accountable.
  • Don’t get married to drills. Focus on the framework and let that determine what drills, thoughts, or feelings you need at that moment in time.
  • Don’t panic. Stay the course and trust in your training.

On a final thought, being “too busy” isn’t a good enough excuse to explain why you haven’t kept up with your training. Busy is a decision. We make time for the things we want to do and “run out of time” when it’s time to do the things we lust. You can always make time if it’s important to you.

Don’t let this offseason go to waste because you didn’t have enough hours. Make the time to train and make this year your best one yet.

Four “magic tricks” you need to try with your players

We know that we’ve said there are no magic tricks when it comes to player development.

Making meaningful movement changes is not easy. It’s really hard. If you want your training to show up when the lights turn on, you can’t cut corners. You have to put in the time, energy, and effort if you want to get results with your players.
 
There are, however, some tricks we’ve learned over the years that work just like magic. Below are a few of our favorites, why they work so well, and great candidates to use them with. 

 

  • Toe out

Baseball is a posterior chain driven sport where our glutes play a critical role in force production, acceptance, and transmission. As a result, getting into positions of leverage where the glutes can take on the bulk of the workload is really important for performance. If you’re not in the right positions, you’ll never be able to turn the glutes on when it’s time to use them.

One of the primary functions of the glutes is external rotation of the hip. External rotation (ER) simply refers to any movement where the leg is rotating away from the pelvis. If we were to look at the right leg, for example, there are two main ways to get into ER from a neutral standing position:

  • Rotate your body to the left
  • Toe out

The second strategy is what we’re going to focus on for this magic trick. To think about it, check out this picture below that shows a front squat pattern. Take a close look at how the feet are set up:

(source)

Notice how both feet are slightly toed out? This position is critical and it’s no mistake. Instead of keeping the feet facing forward, opening them slightly allows you to start in more of an externally rotated position. This starts the glutes in a better position of leverage where they can control the movement and ultimately produce more force. It works the same exact way for hitters and throwers.

Watch how Justin Verlander’s back foot slips into a more toed out position has he starts to move down the mound

If you’re currently working with an athlete that pushes and loses the ground too soon, dumps their back knee in prematurely (i.e. works into internal rotation too soon), or never gets into external rotation with the back hip, try having them start with their back foot toed out. While kids are often get yelled at for doing this naturally (hint: don’t do this), starting toed out can be a huge lower half unlock without actually doing any kind of cueing or drill work. It’s that easy. All you’re doing is starting them in a better position so everything downstream can clean up.

Small hinges swing big doors. 

  • Pimp it

If you were to crack a towel, would you put all of your energy into either 1) accelerating the towel forward, or 2) pulling the towel back? That’s right, you’d probably pick the second one. You’d want to focus on pulling the towel back so you can crack it and get energy out to the tip. It’s very similar to how you’d use a whip: You don’t focus on pulling the whip through. You focus on snapping it back to make it crack. Our arm works the same exact way. 

If you’re working with a thrower who drags their arm because:

  • They’re too open
  • Their lower half has zero stability
  • They can’t stop and transfer energy up the chain

show them this and tell them to watch what happens at the end:

When they have a pretty good mental model for what the arm recoil looks like, tell them to try it. You’ll be amazed at the velo jumps it can create. It’s the most effective “trick” we’ve ever come up with for throwers. If you try it with 10 arms, there’s a really good chance it works like magic for six.

While it might seem like magic on the outside, but there’s no pixie dust involved in this one. Once thought of as taboo, the arm recoil is actually indication of an exceptional deceleration sequence. The lower half has to grab the ground, stabilize, and stop so the upper half can be rotate efficiently around it. The trunk also has to stabilize so it can whip the arm through and create a clean transfer of energy. By the time the arm releases the ball, there’s so much tension present in the system that the arm has no other choice but to get peeled back. It’s not a forced action. It’s a reflexive byproduct of a really strong sequence (feel free to read more about this here: https://bit.ly/108kikuchi).

This one is a must try if you work with any kind of throwers. It won’t work for everyone, but it will absolutely work like magic for someone. 

  • Brace on the ball

If you’re working with a hitter who lacks stability, peels off balls, drags the barrel, or doesn’t do a good job of putting their energy into the strike, perform this quick demo. Have the player put their arms out and smack them in the stomach 3-4 times. Ask them what they felt, and then tell them to do that to the ball. If you do it right, it will look something like this:

While the recoil is our favorite trick for throwers, this is our favorite magic trick for hitters. Teaching players how to “brace” and “flex” at impact is a game changer when it comes to force transmission. You’re not just creating energy. You’re learning how to channel that energy into the moment of time when we need it the most: Impact. This not only has a positive influence on force production, but it also does wonders for direction. The more stable we are into impact, the more consistent our ball striking becomes. 

If you’re working with hitters who have zero stability, can’t stop, leak energy, or drag their barrel through the zone, try this demo out with them and see what happens. It’ll work a lot more times than it won’t. 

You can read more on, this along with 10 of our favorite analogies at the shop, here: http://bit.ly/pwrofanalogy

  • Step across

Below is a home run that Mike Trout hit in 2019 off of a Kenta Maeda slider that came off the bat 111 mph and went 441 feet. When you watch this swing, look at what happens to the front foot after contact.

Notice how it steps across home plate towards first base after he finishes his swing?

Watch Trout’s front leg after contact

If you’re working with a hitter who is constantly flying open, peeling off baseballs, and gets stuck on their backside, show them this video and tell them to step across with their front foot after contact. Then, watch the magic happen.

If we think about why the “step across” move works, we have to understand that our brain maps backwards. It’s very good at building a mental map for specific movements by using information from end of the sequence. The step across is something that happens at the end of the swing. In order for it to happen, a lot of good stuff further up the chain needs to happen. Of these include:

  • Pelvis and trunk must stay closed
  • Hitter needs to get to front side
  • Must brace, decelerate into impact

If you fly open and get stuck with the majority of your weight on your backside, it’s physically impossible to step across after contact. You can’t force the move. It needs to be a reflexive action that shows up when everything is closed, braced, and stable into the strike. This is exactly why the arm recoil works so well: You’re putting the focus on the end so everything in the beginning cleans up.

Sometimes the problems downstream need to be cleaned up by going upstream. Other times, you need to go downstream to fix what’s going on upstream. The step across move is an example of the latter. If done in the appropriate context, it can be a game changer for hitters.

 

On a final note, below are some things to keep in mind when performing these tricks:

  • They won’t work for everyone. Don’t force a square peg into a round hole.
  • Don’t make the trick a one-stop show. If it works, continue to use it until it doesn’t. 
  • Explain why it works to the athlete. It won’t stick unless they understand the purpose behind it.
  • The magic isn’t in the drill, thought, or cue. It’s in the movement.

These four tricks are just a sample of how you can create immediate and impactful movement changes using carefully crafted thoughts, moves, and messages. Have fun trying them out.

Coaches and GPS Systems: Navigating our players to success

What do you do when you need to drive somewhere and you’re not exactly sure how to get there? Simple: You pull out your GPS, punch in the address of your destination, and let it do the work for you.

You’re going to get a couple of different routes, information on which one is quickest, and an estimated time of arrival based on traffic, conditions, and proximity. It doesn’t actually drive the car for you, but it gives you clear information on exactly where you need to go in seconds.

So consider this: Have you ever thought of coaches as human GPS systems?

Just think about it. When we pull out our GPS, we know where we want to go. We’re just not really sure how to get there. Our players are no different. They all have visions for starting on their high school teams, playing collegiately, or getting drafted. They know exactly what they want to punch into the GPS. They just need directions that tell them how to get there. That’s where you come in as a coach: You have the foresight to build out the right plan so they can make it to their destination in time.

How you get there is a different story.

If you’ve ever traveled somewhere new, you know just how easy it is to get distracted, veer off course, miss an exit, or take a wrong turn. Your athletes are going to go through the same exact thing. If you have a good GPS, these small mistakes don’t become catastrophic. Within seconds, you get a recalibrated route and a new set of directions designed to get you back on track as quickly as possible. If your players ever take a wrong turn – and they will – treat it just like a GPS would: Expect it, recognize it, and redesign your plan so you’re still on track to reach your destination in time.

We’ll never prevent our players from taking a wrong turn here or there, but we can always get them re-routed quicker than they ever will on their own.

We’ll never prevent our players from making mistakes along their journey, but we can always get them re-routed quicker than they ever will on their own. This is critical. The most precious resource we’ll ever have is our time. Those moments where our players get lost going down a long winding road will teach them some of the best lessons they’ll ever learn. They just can’t bring those lessons to fruition if they never make it back to the interstate.

On a final thought, always remember who’s driving the car: The player. We can’t drive the car for our players and we ever should. They need to take ownership of their experience and make decisions for themselves. We just have to make sure they don’t make any uninformed decisions. Their journey to get to where they want to go is going to take a ton of time, traverse a lot of different roads, and will need some re-calibrating along the way. If you wouldn’t want to make such a trip without your GPS, we shouldn’t let our players do the same.

It will be the most important one of their life.