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Biotensegrity: What you need to know as a coach

At 108 Performance, our training is centered around two bedrock principles:

  1. All humans are pre-programmed for reciprocal movement
  2. All humans are living and breathing biotensegrity systems

This article is going to focus on the second principle: What in the world is biotensegrity and why in the world is it important when it comes to training baseball players?

If you’ve followed along with any of our content before, there’s a good chance you understand just how important biotensegrity is to us. Our research into the concept has completely changed how we train athletes at 108. If you’ve never heard of biotensegrity before, that’s okay. There are things coaches will never need to know when it comes to the complexities and intricacies of biotensegrity. However, there are some things all coaches need to know. Keep an open mind and stay with me over the next 1,600 words. Your beliefs on how you train baseball athletes might completely change – just the way ours did.

Before we dive into what “biotensegrity” means, let’s strip off the first three letters and start with the concept of “tensegrity.”

Tensegrity, coined by Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s, is short for “tensional integrity.” If you couldn’t have guessed, two elements must be met for something to have tensegrity: Tension and Integrity. These structures have a couple of key design patterns:

  • Rods and cables are loaded in pure compression/tension. The structure only fails if the cables yield or the rods buckle.
  • The constant compression creates a “preload” or tensional “prestress.” This allows for structural integrity.
  • When tension increases, the structure becomes stiffer. This is because the constant compression gives the system a bandwidth to disperse stress without losing structural integrity.
Buckminster Fuller holding a tensegrity structure (source)

If we want to build something that lasts the test of time, we must go to the laws of evolution. Serge Gracovetsky, world renowned researcher and author of The Spinal Engine, discovered the fittest of a species survives the longest because it expends the least amount of energy to satisfy its needs. They make most efficient and economical use of their energy and resources. Tensegrity models are no different. They withstand the most amount of stress using the least amount of material. There are no moments where rods become sheared or one section takes on more than what it can handle. Everything works together to evenly disperses stress throughout the entire system and maintain integrity when exposed to load, pressure, or vibration. To put it very simply: They are efficient.

A great metaphor for tensegrity models is to think about what happens when you compress a deflated basketball. If you apply pressure to one part of it, the entire basketball stiffens and becomes more stable. This is exactly when happens in a tensegrity structure. When you press on one part of the structure, the entire structure becomes stiffer and absorbs the load being placed on the system. This is architectural efficiency. 

“All structures balance tension with compression – the yin and yang of biomechanics. Tensegrity engineering uniquely positions isolated compression members within a balancing sea of tension.” – Thomas Myers, fascia researcher and author of Anatomy Trains

Now let’s add the prefix “bio” back on to tensegrity.

Biotensegrity is a term coined by Dr. Stephen Levin. Through his observations, Levin came to the understanding that our model for human movement was inadequate. Humans do not execute tasks as a system of fulcrums and levers that operate in a single plane of motion. They are biological systems that move omnidirectionally and are capable of sustaining loads that would snap most levers in half. He concluded tensegrity structures were the only thing possible that could explain how biological systems move, accept, and produce force through various vectors. He added the prefix “bio” and came up with the word “biotensegrity.”

A really easy way to think of this is to view our bones as the rods in a tensegrity system. While the bones give us structure and rigidity, they are not capable of producing movement on their own. As a result, we have to go to the “cables” of our body to understand the role tensegrity plays in biological systems. These cables are better known as fascia. If you remember anything from this article, remember fascia. It will absolutely challenge your current thoughts on how to train baseball athletes.

 

 

What is Fascia?

A great analogy for fascia is to think of it as our human “spiderman suit.” It’s as thin as thread, strong as steel, and composed largely (90 percent) of collagen and water. Fascia wraps around everything in our body and inserts into everything from muscles, bones, organs, and ligaments. This body wide sheet of connective tissue creates a continuous web of tension that turns our body into a giant tensegrity system. If we want to understand how our body is able to function as one, interconnected system, the conversation has to start with fascia. It’s the only thing that actually connects everything inside of our body.

Fascia has three key components, as outlined by Bill Parisi in his book Fascial Training:

  1. Viscosity
    1. As mentioned above, fascia is almost entirely composed of collagen and water. The more hydrated fascia is, the easier it can slide against itself. If you’ve ever had a knot in your back before, you know what it feels like when it can’t.
  2. Elasticity
    1. The fascial system gives us the ability to create elastic energy. This elasticity is more efficient than muscular power, allows for greater motor recruitment, and is responsible for up to 30 percent of our explosive power. There’s a reason why research has shown kangaroos actually expend less energy hopping than walking. Their legs have been fine tuned into explosive springs that leverage the elastic “recoil” effect created by fascia.
  3. Plasticity
    1. Fascia is a form of connective tissue. According to Davis’ Law, all connective tissue remodels and reshapes in accordance with the stresses under which it is placed. Thus, fascia can get stronger just the way your muscles get stronger after you lift weights.

If you want to create force fast and expend the least amount of energy possible, you don’t want to rely primarily on the muscular system. It’s inefficient. You need to use the elastic properties of the fascial system.

“The best athletes don’t test the highest in terms of strength. They are, however, the best mechanical composites.” – Dr. Stuart McGill, world renowned researcher and author on back pain rehabilitation, injury prevention

With up to 10 times the amount of proprioceptors and six times more sensory nerve endings, fascia is the ultimate communication system. The problem is we don’t communicate with it nearly enough. In Parisi’s opinion, most training programs spend too much time in the sagittal plane and focus on moving heavy external loads. This is the opposite of how you train the fascial system.

Instead, fascia needs to be trained doing two things:

  1. Submaximal loading
  2. Omnidrectional

If you’ve ever been around an athlete with “farm strength,” this is where it comes from. The chores they do are submaximal loads done through multiple planes of motion. Our training with baseball athletes should take a very similar approach. After all, the baseball ball weighs only five ounces and an average bat weighs two pounds. Having success on the diamond depends on our ability to move submaximal loads omnidirectionally.

Back squatting might help our muscular system get stronger, but it doesn’t impact the fascial system in the same way. This is something Parisi cautioned against. Most of the soft tissue injuries he sees were created because the muscular system was prioritized over the fascial system. If there is an imbalance between muscles and fascia, something will break until that balance is restored. This often happens after it’s too late.

In order to avoid these imbalances, we need to train the fascial system to withstand the demands of the sport. This starts, in Parisi’s opinion, by laying down lines of stress outside of the center of mass.

“We are always facilitating muscles when we contract,” said Parisi. “It’s about co-contracting muscles along the fascial lines outside of the center of mass. You’re trying to create a different stress on the body that it is not accustomed to, but it will see in sport.”

These lines are better known as fascial slings. At 108, we view these slings under two big buckets:

  • The Engine
  • The Brakes

Think of the brakes and the engine as the yin and the yang of the fascial network. While one is pushing, the other is pulling. When one is rotating, the other is resisting rotation. This system of checks and balances helps facilitate the co-contractions of key muscles along the fascial lines. This creates stability for your joints so the distal segments (e.g. arms, legs) can mobilize and execute fine motor tasks like throwing a baseball, for example.

The problem becomes when these systems can no longer keep each other in check. Strong engines must be paired with a strong set of brakes. If they cannot, something else is going to have to take on more than it can handle. This throws the entire tensegrity structure out of balance and puts your health and performance at risk. If you’ve ever been around an athlete with some serious juice who had lower back pain, difficulties staying on breaking balls, and constantly yanked homers foul, you know exactly what this looks like.

 

 

Let’s recap:

  • Biotensegrity comes from the term “tensegrity” which refers to a unique system of cables and rods loaded in a web of compression. They use the least amount of material to withstand the most amount of stress.
  • When tensegrity structures are exposed to pressure, load, or vibration, they become stiffer and disperse the stress throughout the entire system.
  • Humans are not mechanical systems that operate under fulcrums and levers. They are biological systems that are capable of moving omnidirectionally and producing force through various vectors.
  • Fascia has three components: Viscosity, Elasticity, and Plasticity.
  • The “elastic recoil” effect created by the fascia system allows for greater motor recruitment than muscles and accounts for up to 30 percent of our explosive power.
  • Fascia is trained doing two things: Moving submaximal loads and moving them omnidirectionally.
  • Good fascial training lays down lines of stress outside of our center of mass which work to create co-contractions of key muscles during specific movements.
  • The “engine” and “brakes” of our fascial system work to produce and accept force during dynamic movements while keeping our tensegrity structure intact.

Ready to hear how we train athletes using the principles of biotensegtity at 108?

That’ll have to wait for next time.

Sunday Sales Thoughts from Daniel Pink & Chris Voss

Below are 10 thoughts I’ve gathered watching a couple of Masterclasses recently. One was from Daniel Pink – best-selling author of Drive and To Sell is Human. The other was from Chris Voss – former FBI hostage negotiator. I’d highly recommend both to anyone interested in learning how to build better arguments. Sales is not limited to just products and services.

While Voss and Pink come from completely different backgrounds, they both had very similar thoughts on how to influence human behavior. Keep this in mind, coaches…

 

 

  1. Empathy is NOT sympathy.

This is a big one. To Voss, empathy is not being nice or agreeing with someone. It’s an identification of perspective. Empathy is understanding where someone is coming from. Sympathy might cause you to feel bad for someone, but it’s not effective in negotiations. People don’t want you to feel bad for them. They want to be heard. Making people feel like they’re being heard is where empathy comes into play.

Pink described this process as achieving “attunement.” If you’re not in tune with the person on the other side of the negotiation, you’re never going to get them to budge. You haven’t signaled to them that you’re seeing things through their eyes. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood.

  1. The Power of Mirroring

“Interesting people are interested.” – Chris Voss, former FBI hostage negotiator, CEO Black Swan Group

Learning how to “mirror” someone else is something everyone should learn. We crave it, we’re hardwired for it, and we love when it’s happening – but we seldom realize it. Pink mentioned how research shows up to 95% of people don’t realize they’re being mirrored in the middle of a conversation. While we might not notice this subtle trick for influence, it doesn’t make it any less effective. Voss said it best: “Interesting people are interested.” People who want to be interesting know how to mirror their counterparts.

As for tips on how to mirror, Voss had a few:

  • Shut up. You can’t mirror and talk at the same time
  • Repeat things the other person says
    • Voss recommends concentrating on the last three words. When you get better at it, you can pick out any three words they say.
  • Show genuine curiosity
    • Tone is very important. You can’t fake curiosity.
  • Ask insightful questions

Great persuaders are great observers. Mirroring is a great way to learn how to do this.

  1. Labeling

This was one of the biggest ones I got from Voss. During a negotiation, you want to build trust. A great way to do this is to give people, actions, or emotions specific “labels.” It’s a lot easier to explain this one by providing specific examples of it:

  • “You seem like a trustworthy person.”
  • “It seems like this is making you really upset.”
  • “Doing something like that makes me think that you’re a really good friend.”

Assigning the right labels can help you break barriers that opens up much more meaningful conversation. Mirroring shows interest. Labeling facilitates trust. There’s no influence more powerful than trust-based influence.

  1. “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”

This is what Ronald Reagan asked the American people when running for President back in 1980. The question might have seemed obvious considering the tumultuous state of the country. However, asking it was incredibly powerful for his campaign. With the facts on his side (poor economy, recession, Iran hostage crisis), Reagan put the ball in the court of the American people. He didn’t tell them what to decide. He gave them the opportunity to come to his conclusion on their own. This is critical when it comes to sales.

Voss calls this “the illusion of control.” Reagan’s words were deliberately crafted. He knew very well that people were not better off now than they were four years ago when Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President. However, he didn’t need to say that. People crave autonomy. If you’re trying to influence someone, make sure they know they’re in control of the conclusions they come to. Especially, when you already know what they’re going to decide…

Giving people the “illusion” of control is much more powerful than trying to gain control.

  1. “I can do it for $97.43.”

If you want to start closing more deals, stop trying to meet halfway using nice and neat numbers. Get granular. This is something both Voss and Pink talked about. People like odd numbers when it comes to sales ($29.99 vs. $30). There’s a big difference between getting something for $100 or $97.43. One of those prices is going to be much more persuasive than the other because it shows deliberate attention to detail. The other does not.

Even if you pulled that number out of thin air…

  1. Power distorts perspective

Pink talked about a study where two groups of people were asked to draw an imaginary “E” on the top of their forehead. One group was primed with questions that made elicited powerful feelings. The other was not. When both groups were asked to draw the “E,” two different shapes appeared. The group primed with powerful questions tended to draw the E so they could read it themselves. The other group drew the E so others could read it. This is the power of perspective – or, how power distorts perspective.

If you want to understand where someone else is coming from, start by stripping away any power you think you might have. Your ability to empathize is directly related to what you think of yourself. The less you think of yourself, the better you can empathize.

  1. “Compared to what?”

In Pink’s eyes, the most important question in sales is NOT “What’s in it for me?” Instead, it’s something much more powerful:

“Compared to what?”

Not what you were expecting? Just think about it. We process information based on how things compare to something else. How “tall” someone is depends on how “tall” their peers are. How “expensive” one product is depends on how expensive competing products are. People think in relativity. Contrast creates clarity.

If you want to create a clearer picture for the consumer, give them something for comparison. All the good things about your product become much more compelling when compared to the small blemishes. It’s also probably better you share those things before the consumer figures them out on their own…

  1. Effective pitch

“Have you ever thought about it this way?”

If you’ve learned nothing to this point, remember this one. One of Pink’s biggest misconceptions growing up was the idea that a good pitch had to end in someone pulling out their checkbook. Instead, he now thinks of an effective pitch completely different. It’s not about getting someone to say yes. It’s about getting someone to say : “Hey, have you ever thought about…”

In other words, the best pitches create conversation. They invite someone in to offer their thoughts on what you just presented to them. When you can do this, you 1) can find ways on how to potentially improve your product/service and 2) increase the likelihood they buy. What started as a sales pitch has now turned into an opportunity to build a relationship. People buy from people they like.

Cutting the price might be a good short-term solution, but it has a ceiling. Building rapport is a better long-term solution.

  1. Marketing to the Masses: Utility & Curiosity

When building out content for email marketing, you need to hit one of two things in your subject line:

  • Can I offer something useful for someone else?
  • Can I stimulate someone else’s thinking?

Creating something useful (utility) is a great strategy for the masses. Stimulating thought (curiosity) is a great strategy for smaller audiences. Both are effective strategies, but Pink warns not to get caught in the middle of the road. Focus on the one that would be most effective based on your audience.

  1. Get people to say no

This was one of the biggest things I got from Voss. Getting people to say “yes” during a negotiation might seem like an accomplishment, but Voss warns it might work against you. People want to keep their autonomy. Getting them to say “yes” slowly takes their autonomy away. You’re giving them micro-commitments they have to honor. The more they have to commit to, the less freedom they have. This is not a great strategy for getting someone to come to your conclusion.

Instead, Voss advises people design more questions tailored to the response “no.” Some examples of this are below:

  • Is it unreasonable for me to be upset that I paid $100 more for the same service I could have gotten somewhere else down the street?
  • Am I a bad person (also an example of labeling) for trying to get a slightly better deal as a loyal customer for the past five years?
  • Is it crazy to think that I should be able to find peace and quiet late at night when I’m trying to go to sleep?

Don’t just look for people to agree with you. Try to get people to disagree with you. It will make your argument that much more compelling.

Mass… doesn’t equal Gas?

Let’s create a scenario.

You’ve just finished up your last practice for the fall and you’re building out offseason plans for your pitching staff this winter. Out of all of your players, there’s one in particular that really makes you excited. As a freshman, this kid has a chance to be a really special player. He’s long and lanky at 6’4 and weighs just 160 pounds, but don’t let the scale fool you. This kid can throw. Despite having twigs for arms and legs, this kid can already run it up to 84-87. Just imagine what his velo would look like if he got a steady dose of deadlifts and protein shakes this offseason. You decide to give him a goal: If he shows up at 175 next spring, he’ll touch 90.

When he showed up next spring at 180 lbs., you couldn’t have been happier. His skinny arms and twig legs were now chiseled with muscle thanks to an aggressive bodybuilding-style workout program. All of his compound lifts had doubled, his physicality was night and day, and he was looking exactly how you hoped when you envisioned his 90 mph body. He wasn’t going to be sitting 84-87 anymore when he started throwing off a mound again. He was going to be touching 91-92 with ease.

That’s where it gets interesting.

In his first bullpen of the year, his fastball didn’t even touch 83. Figuring he’s just shaking off some rust, you don’t get worried and decide to see how things play out. This changes when he’s one month into practices, his fastball hasn’t touched 84, and his elbow throbs every time he picks up a ball. You can’t figure it out. This kid did everything you asked him, crushed the weight room, added 20 lbs., and now his velo has fallen off a cliff. You don’t just feel bad. You feel like someone has repeatedly punched you in the gut until you can’t breathe anymore. The guy who was supposed to be one of your top three arms might not be able to throw any meaningful innings at all this year. The best part?

You only have yourself to blame.

Remember when you thought he wasn’t big or strong enough at the end of the fall? Turns out, that young man was actually pretty strong in the first place. He just didn’t fit the mold of what most of us tend to think of as strong. The situation from above wasn’t made up. In fact, it happens a lot more than you would think. Young, eager athletes looking for more velocity often try to find solutions in the weight room and at the dinner table. This is because we currently have a catchy phrase going around in baseball: Mass = Gas. The translation is pretty simple. Players who weigh more are able to throw the ball harder.

The application, however, is not so simple.

Mass equals gas might sound catchy to say, but it’s not totally accurate. The young man from above – along with the many others who have made his same mistake – are great reminders that adding mass can hurt performance as much as it can help it. This article is going to attempt to explain why.

 

 

Where did Mass = Gas come from?

Before we get into the pitfalls of adding mass, let’s start with where the idea of mass = gas comes from. We don’t have to go any further than Isaac Newton’s second law of motion: Force equals mass times acceleration (F=M*A).

According to Newton’s findings, the amount of potential force a system can produce is dependent on its mass and how quickly it’s able to overcome inertia. This is pretty straight forward. If it’s heavier and it gets up to speed faster, it’s probably going to do a lot more damage. From a training perspective, this seems to transfer well. Justin Verlander, Madison Bumgarner, and Noah Syndergaard aren’t small dudes. They’re physical specimens with a big motor and a quick trigger. 

The average weight for an MLB player has steadily increased over the last several decades. In 1970, the average big leaguer weighed about 184 pounds. Today, that number is north of 200 lbs. As of 2017, the average MLB pitcher weighed in at about 215 pounds – a 25-pound increase from 1970. This past season, the average weight of starting pitchers with the top 10 hardest fastballs was 210.8 lbs. This list included:

  1. Luis Castillo (97.4 mph, 200 lbs.)
  2. Dinelson Lamet (97.0 mph, 228 lbs.)
  3. Gerrit Cole (96.7 mph, 225 lbs.)
  4. Brandon Woodruff (96.6 mph, 215 lbs.)
  5. German Marquez (95.9 mph, 225 lbs.)
  6. Yu Darvish (95.8 mph, 225 lbs.)
Gerrit Cole has one of the best fastballs out of all starting pitchers in the MLB. He weighs in at 225 lbs.

As you can see, the majority of the arms on this list exceed 200 lbs. This itself isn’t a bad thing. Additional mass can absolutely have a positive influence on performance. However, it’s not because F=M*A. Newton’s laws give us information about force production in linear systems. They fall short when applied to rotational systems. This is a problem if we’re trying to gauge force output in rotational athletes. 

If we want to explain why mass can positively influence pitching velocity, we have to think using a slightly different lens.  This is where torque comes into play.

I was fortunate to talk about this topic with Jimmy Buffi – current CEO of Reboot Motion and former analyst with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Torque is something Buffi brought up because it gives Newton’s laws more depth when it comes to force production in rotary athletes. By definition, torque measures the forces that cause an object to rotate about its axis. This is really important for baseball players. Force is plane specific. If we want to gauge how much force a pitcher is able to produce, we need to look at the planes of motion in which that force is being produced. Torque helps us do just that.

Below is the equation for torque:

  • Torque = Inertia*Angular Acceleration

I know it seems a little complicated at first glance, but it doesn’t have to be. The first part of the equation – inertia – can be calculated as follows:

  • Inertia = Mass*(Radius^2)
    • This is the most simplified equation for Inertia. Feel free to read more about this here.

This is pretty straight forward. Inertia simply looks at how heavy something is and how far the mass is being applied in relationship to the center axis of rotation (radius). We’ll dive into this one in just a second. First, let’s break down the second part of the equation: Angular Acceleration.

  • Angular Acceleration = Angular Velocity/Time

Don’t get too lost in physics on this one. Angular vector quantities simply give us information about how something is moving in a circular motion (i.e. rotation). Velocity over an elapsed period of time gives us information on acceleration. As a result, angular acceleration is going to give us information about how something is accelerating during a rotational movement.

So why the hell is any of this important when it comes to mass = gas?

Let’s go back to inertia. If you’re in the mass = gas crowd, you should pay close attention to this part. According to inertia, an increase in mass or an increase in the distance from the axis of rotation is going to result in greater torque. The more torque you can create, the more velocity you can produce. This is important. If the mass you’re adding helps you produce more torque, you’re going to be able to throw the ball harder. Newton’s laws kind of alluded to this, but using torque helps us clarify it. If we’re dealing with rotary athletes, we have to measure how force is being produced rotationally. Linear equations don’t cut it. 

Alright, easy enough. Baseball players with more mass should produce more force based on what we know about torque. Therefore, adding more mass should help you throw harder.

Come on, you didn’t think it was going to be that simple. Did you?

 

 

Why are some players able to throw gas without mass?

Nathan Garza is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for the Oral Roberts University baseball team. When I asked him about his thoughts on the topic of mass = gas, he brought up a specific athlete he works with on the baseball team. At 130 lbs., this kid doesn’t really catch your eye at first glance. What makes him stick out is what he does on the field. Despite weighing nearly less than 100 lbs. under the MLB average for a pitcher, this kid has a fastball that touches 91 miles per hour.

If that isn’t enough, Garza tested this kid in a non-countermove vertical jump where he took the stretch shortening cycle away from him. He jumped 39 inches. To give you some perspective on this, Seattle wide receiver DK Metcalf  – arguably the most physical athlete in the entire draft – jumped 40 inches with a countermove at the 2019 NFL Combine. Garza’s kid might be skinny, but you can’t convince him he isn’t strong. He just isn’t strong in the way we typically think of strength. We’ll get into this more in a few.

At TCU, Dechant has two specific pitchers who are able to run it up to 95 and 96, respectively. One weighs in at 165 pounds. The other weighs 177 pounds. These kinds of players might seem like outliers, but they’re actually more common than you think. Below is a list of elite MLB pitchers who sit well below 215 lbs:

  • Josh Hader (95.3 mph, 185 lbs.)
  • Walker Buehler (96.8 mph, 185 lbs.)
  • Dustin May (97.7 mph, 180 lbs.)
  • Chris Sale (94.6 mph, 180 lbs.)
  • Zack Wheeler (97.0 mph, 195 lbs.)
  • Marcus Stroman (94.1 mph, 180 lbs.)
  • Pedro Martinez (95-98 mph, playing weight – 170 lbs.)

Out of the five hardest average fastballs in 2020, two were owned by players who weighed 195 lbs. or less. One of them was Wheeler. The other was this guy:

  • Jacob deGrom (98.6 mph, 180 lbs.)
Jacob deGrom syncing up his body beautifully to throw 99 mph with ease.

In 2020, deGrom’s heater was a full 1.2 mph harder than any other qualifying starter. Thirty-three of his pitches were thrown 100 mph or harder. He weighs less than all but two of Dechant’s baseball players at TCU. If we look beyond the scale, we realize this is no coincidence. There are some things that deGrom does exceptionally well that allow him to throw gas with much less mass.

To Dechant, two things stand out:

  • Exceptional Movement Quality & Sequencing

If we were to sum up guys like Stroman, deGrom, and Pedro using a single word, one stands out: Efficient. They have an elite movement signature which allows them to produce more force per pound than anyone else in the world. There’s no wasted movement or unnecessary tension. They move to and through strong positions and sync up their body beautifully – in Dechant’s words – so the right segments are speeding up and slowing down at the right times. If they only have 175 pounds to work with, they’re getting all 175 transmitted into the ball at release. 

Having mass and leveraging mass to create velocity are not the same thing. Just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re using it well. 

  • Arm Unwinds Beautifully

The best arms in the world might throw from different slots, angles, and postures, but they all share a key characteristic: The arm takes a specific path around the torso where the humerus, forearm, wrist, and hand all work in the same plane around the spine. This is called arm efficiency – and the best all have it.

Watch Max Scherzer’s elbow, forearm, wrist, and hand work around the plane of the shoulders.
The trunk delivers the arm as it unwinds around the body.
Pedro Martinez lands with his “tornado tilted” so his arm can unwind and match the plane of the shoulders during rotation.

Mass might play a role in creating velocity, but pitchers like deGrom, Pedro, and May are physical proof it’s only one thing. You don’t have to weigh 200 lbs. to throw a baseball 95 mph, but you do have to move really well. If the mass you put on doesn’t help you do this, we get situations like the one we started with.

This is where putting our faith into mass = gas becomes a big problem. 

 

 

Why can adding mass hurt performance?

Let’s go back to Garza’s athlete from above. If that young man at 130 lbs. were to walk into most strength rooms across the country, you’d likely get an overwhelming consensus he needs to get stronger and put on some pounds. This might sound great in theory, but there can be some significant consequences to this approach without context. These start with the system controlling motor function: The Central Nervous System (CNS).

Building out a quality training program requires you prepare that athlete holistically for competition. This preparation involves the CNS as much as it does the muscles. If you’re not stimulating the CNS in ways that mirror the demands of throwing a baseball 95 mph, you’re not properly preparing that athlete. Exercises like bilateral squats and and deadlifts might help your legs get stronger, but they don’t even come close to reciprocating the CNS demands of pitching a baseball. If we spend the majority of our time training our CNS to move maximal loads at submaximal speed, our CNS is going to adapt accordingly. Garza said it best: “You’re pulling their CNS in two different directions.” 

If we spend the majority of our time training our CNS to move maximal loads at submaximal speed, our CNS is going to adapt accordingly. (Nathan) Garza said it best: “You’re pulling their CNS in two different directions.” 

Garza’s athlete from above doesn’t throw 91 because he can deadlift a house. He throws 91 because he has an incredibly efficient CNS. If you don’t train these things, they don’t just hang around. You lose them. This is part of the reason why the young man from above had a sharp decline in performance. Training the CNS to move heavy stuff slow does not teach it how to move light stuff fast. When the training demands don’t match the demands of competition, performance suffers. 

If we go to the connective tissue level, additional mass can negatively impact the amount of force you’re able to produce. This is something Buffi talked about: Not all added mass is created equal. Lean muscle mass can generate force and torque. Fat mass cannot. While adding muscle mass can help, Buffi noted it can also have an adverse impact on the ranges of motion used to throw a ball 95 mph. This, in his experience, can become a problem.

“Sometimes, when players add a lot of muscle mass, they actually reduce range of motion because the muscles are bigger and take up more space,” said Buffi. “Adding more muscle might increase the ability to create force and acceleration… but it might reduce the distance and time over which you can apply that force. So, there could be a trade off here between the magnitude of force production and the amount of time over which you can apply that force.”

This can also have a subsequent impact on movement quality. If the mass you’re putting on doesn’t help you move to and through good positions, you’ve just created a barrier to performance. This barrier becomes tough to break – especially if you try to attack it using the same movement signature. There’s a really good chance our kid from the beginning ran into this problem. The positions and ranges of motion he was once able to access were no longer at his disposal. He thought he was doing a good thing by adding muscle mass, but what he put on ended up getting in his way. If the body changes and the movement solutions don’t, something is going to break until they do. In this case, it was his elbow.

Alright, so let’s recap.

We know where mass equals gas comes from and the pitfalls of looking at linear equations when it comes to rotational athletes. We have a pretty good idea why adding mass can help or hurt a player’s performance. We also know about some things that make athletes with less mass able to throw gas. However, we still have a poor kid with a barking elbow and in need of some help. Where exactly do we go from here?

Well, it depends – but there is one thing we do not want to do.

 

 

Designing the Program 

There are several different things Dechant focuses on with his athletes at TCU. Chasing mass is not one of them. He uses the scale as feedback and has ranges he likes his players to fall under, but he never makes adding mass an objective. For him, any kind of mass his players need should be the byproduct of a plan that addresses:

  • Consistent and quality training habits
  • Nutrition
  • Hydration
  • Sleep

If his players can take care of these things, the numbers on the scale should take care of themselves.

As for the training itself, we need to first be able to assess and categorize the players in front of us so we can make good training decisions. For the sake of this article, we’re going to break down two different populations of athletes that fall on opposite ends of the spectrum: “Muscle bound” players and “string beans.”

When it comes to muscle bound guys, there are a few common themes that tend to stick out:

  • Very strong under a barbell, lots of concentric power
  • Limited Rate of Force Development (RFD), tough time overcoming inertia
  • Aches, pains, chronic ailments
  • Movement inefficiencies created through compensatory patterns
  • Huge engines, bad brakes

If we were plot these guys on the force velocity curve, they would be all the way to the left. They can produce a ton of force but can’t express it very quickly. This is a problem when it comes to baseball. Our ability to produce elite velocity does not come down to our ability to deadlift or squat a certain amount of weight. The baseball weighs just five ounces. Increasing the amount of potential force we can produce does not mean it’s all getting into the baseball. 

For Garza, the easiest way to connect with muscle bound athletes is to start with where they’re hurting. In his experience, nearly all of these athletes have some sort of aches, pains, or chronic discomfort. This typically happens because at some point in time moving more weight became more important than moving well. This is exactly why Dechant titled his book Movement over Maxes. If you sacrifice how you move for how much you max, you’re throwing the whole purpose of the weight room out the window.

In order to get to the bottom of these inefficiencies, Garza assesses how the move on the mound and in the weight room. He looks for compensations and gets to the root of what is causing them. Improving he pattern will improve the pain they’re experiencing. When they can start to build some better solutions, Garza wants to teach these guys how to move stuff fast. These guys don’t need to add another 15 pounds to their front squat max. They need to learn how to express the force they already have. This starts with improving their rate of force development (RFD). 

Some exercises to improve this include:

  • Sprinting
  • Ballistic Rotation
  • Jumping & Landing
  • Change of Direction work

Garza also modifies compound lifts where the objective is to move lighter loads at faster speeds. This might not create the same level of satisfaction as a set of heavy deadlifts, but it’s a lot closer to something they actually need. Remember: The baseball only weighs five ounces. Training to move heavy stuff slow does not help you move light stuff fast.

Now let’s go to the other side of the spectrum.

In order to determine the lowest hanging fruit for “string beans,” Garza explained how he utilizes his four Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the weight room:

  • Bilateral compound lift

Garza doesn’t have specific metrics athletes need to hit for bilateral compound lifts (very individualized), but he does like to shift the focus away from them when athletes can get into the 2X BW range for deadlift and 1.75X for a front squat pattern.

  • Single leg lunge variation

Single leg variations (e.g. barbell reverse lunge) give Garza a lot of information on how well an athlete is able to stabilize their spine, produce, and accept force on one leg. As a general rule of thumb, he likes to see his guys be able to lunge their bodyweight for six to 10 quality reps.  

  • Vertical Jump

Garza will test all of his athletes to see what their vertical jump looks like with and without a countermove. This gives him information on how well – or not so well – the athlete is able to leverage the stretch shortening cycle to produce force. Garza likes to see about a 10% difference between the two, but he’ll often see greater than 10% with his elastic driven athletes and less with his muscle driven athletes. The “twitchier” you are, the more skilled you are at using the SSC to overcome inertia. Muscle driven athletes tend to struggle with this.

  • 30 yard sprint with 10 yard split

Using the 30 yard sprint with 10 yard splits gives Garza a lot of information on how well athletes can accelerate and get up to top speed. Muscle driven athletes tend to win in the first 10 as acceleration largely depends on strength and technique. Elastic athletes tend to win in the last 20 as they are much better at creating stiffness throughout the system and rapidly contracting/relaxing. Muscle driven athletes might know how to turn things on, but they’re not so great at knowing when to turn them off. Comparing the 30 yard time and the 10 yard split gives Garza a pretty good picture for where they fit on that spectrum.

Garza will collect information from the KPIs, do a thorough assessment of the skill, and prioritize his findings to determine where he’ll start his training interventions. For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at two different examples and how each requires a slightly different approach:

Athlete A: Performs well on field, not in weight room

This kind of athlete can be challenging from the perspective of a strength coach because they might have zero interest in strength training at all. If they can throw significantly harder than the rest of their teammates who lift significantly more, why should they care about getting “stronger?” If the weight room was really that important, shouldn’t the kids who lift more be able to throw harder?

In this kind of a situation, Garza tries to relate the weight room to the field as much as possible. He’ll start his sessions with specific exercises that target movement movement qualities all baseball players need. Of these include pelvic stability, rotation, and motor control. When teaching these movements, he’ll use language and analogies that relate it back to their swing or delivery. This helps build buy in. Instead of just force-feeding bilateral lifts down their throats, Garza starts with the thing that’s most important, invites engagement, and back chains from here.

By taking something that’s unfamiliar and teaching it in a way that is familiar, you increase the chances they’ll learn and retain it.

When it comes to the less specific work, Garza doesn’t look at it as just lifting weights. He views it as a big skill acquisition process. Patterning a good front squat is just like patterning out an efficient delivery: You’re teaching a skill. It’s going to go through a phase where it stinks (unconscious/conscious incompetence), it’s going to require deliberate work and practice to improve (conscious competence), and the goal is to get it to a point where it can be executed without conscious thought (unconscious competence). By taking something that’s unfamiliar and teaching it in a way that is familiar, you increase the chances they’ll learn and retain it.

When it comes to the KPI’s, Garza doesn’t lose sleep if they aren’t deadlifting twice their bodyweight in two months. The KPI’s are information – not predictors of performance. Throwing 90 mph is a lot more than how much you can squat, lunge, or how fast you can run. The objective is to build quality training habits that positively influence performance. Whatever they add to the bar should be a byproduct of this – not the other way around.

Athlete B: Doesn’t perform well on field or in weight room

This athlete isn’t as delicate of a project. Their lowest hanging fruit is often going to be a combination of strength and increased movement efficiency. Improving general strength will get you a pretty good return on your investment because these guys need some sort of foundation to produce force from. However, this doesn’t mean you just start lifting like a bodybuilder and crushing bilateral lifts four times per week. There needs to be an on ramping process where athletes master the patterns prior to loading them. Dechant describes this process as “slow-cooking” the athlete. Skipping to level 10 right out of the gate might sound exciting, but it’s a great way to expose your athletes to demands they aren’t prepared for. Play the long game. Strength added to dysfunction only magnifies dysfunction. 

Something to also be cognizant of with this type of population is how their body changes. Putting detrained athletes on a good program will have an impact on body composition, lean muscle mass, and joint range of motion. These changes, as mentioned above, will have a subsequent impact on their delivery. Don’t get caught trying to fit a square peg into a round role. Use your knowledge of the skill and their new body to reposition them into positions of best leverage. It’s often bad news if one thing changes and the other doesn’t…

The weight room can be a huge asset to the detrained and unskilled population of athletes. Just keep the main objective in mind when you go about it…

 

 

Doing this the right way

Let’s finally go back to the situation we started with.

This athlete falls under the first type of athlete we broke down – Athlete A who excels on the field but struggles with the weights. If we were to redo his training program, we need to get some background:

  • Assess the delivery
    • What are the things he does well?
    • What kind of inefficiencies does he present with?
    • What are his greatest opportunities for improvement?
  • Define his training age
    • What is his experience in the weight room?
    • Can he execute movements under the bar with proficiency?
    • Where does he potentially compensate?
  • Determine when he needs to be game ready
    • Work backwards from game one.
    • How much undivided time do you have with him in the weight room prior to the start of practices?
    • When does the focus need to shift to more skill specific activities?

From here, we can start to build out the basics. The backbone of his training will address his targeted movement inefficiencies. Correcting them will involve time deliberately crafting fundamental movement patterns (e.g. hinge, push, lunge) and eventually synchronizing more dynamic movements (e.g. sprinting, landing, throwing). The progression to build these patterns will mirror the skill acquisition process: Build the pattern, challenge it to progress it, and regress it when it’s not proficient.

It might not be as fun to “slow cook” your athlete, but it’s going to keep them on the field in the long run. Performance and health need to be the priority. Chasing numbers right out of the gate jeopardizes both. 

You might feel the urge to start loading the patterns right away when you start to see some improvements. Here’s my advice: Don’t. Be patient with this process early on. It might not be as fun to “slow cook” your athlete, but it’s going to keep them on the field in the long run. Performance and health need to be the priority. Chasing numbers right out of the gate jeopardizes both. 

The more dynamic the movement, the more taxing it’s going to be on the CNS. As a result, activities like throwing and sprinting should be done at the beginning of sessions when the athlete is most fresh. Throwing is most important. Whatever is done in the weight room should supplement the throwing. After all, we remember what happened when lifting became more important than throwing…

Intensity, frequency, and duration of sessions should be balanced based on the demands of throwing and lifting. Each athlete only has so much training economy they can exert throughout the course of the day. If the throwing is more intense, the lifting has to be less intense to prevent overtraining. A great way to monitor this is to use a RPE (rare of perceived exertion) scale. Ask the athlete after each session how difficult it was on a scale of 1-10. This will help you understand what they can handle, what they’re struggling with, and how much you need to program so you can get the desired training effect. Your assumptions don’t often match up to what they’re actually experiencing. Don’t assume – just ask. 

If the training is executed consistently and correctly, the athlete should start to progressively see improvements in pain, movement efficiency, and performance. If they’re not, the program needs to be re-evaluated. While some things may see tremendous improvement early on (e.g. general strength), other things might take more time (e.g. pitching velocity). This is where the role of a coach comes into play. If your program is creating positive movement adaptations that are creating transfer, don’t abandon ship when you don’t see instant velo jumps. If you take care of the big rocks the details will fall into place. That is, if you focus on the right things in the first place…  

If these things are done consistently and effectively, this athlete very well has a chance to show up next spring up 2-3 mph. He might even put on a couple pounds, but it’s not because he tried to. It’s because he focused on the things that allowed him to.

 

 

If Mass doesn’t equal Gas, what does?

I don’t think it’s fair to put together an equation for creating velocity. There are too many different variables that influence whether someone is able to throw 95 mph. However, there is one thing I’m pretty sure of: Mass does not equal gas. Mass plays a role in throwing gas, but it’s only one thing. Let’s keep it that way.

To conclude, I think we should make a slight revision to mass = gas. I got this one from Lantz Wheeler:

  • Mass + Improved Movement Efficiency = Gas

I think that’s a little better, for now.

The Power of Analogies: 10 you can start using today

Analogies are a powerful form of language all coaches can utilize. They work by combining a specific objective (e.g. rotate better) with a familiar association (e.g. phone booth) in order to create a vivid image for execution (e.g. rotate in a phone booth).

Instead of asking our athletes to:

  • Accelerate faster
  • Start in an athletic position
  • Jump higher

we can ask them to:

  • Turn their body into a jet taking off
  • Pretend they’re guarding LeBron James
  • Turn their legs into pogo sticks

In both examples, we’re asking our athletes to do the same exact thing. However, using analogies gives our athletes a much better picture for how to do it. Turning your body into a jet is going to create the posture and angles required to get your body to overcome inertia. Imagining you’re guarding LeBron James is going to get you into a strong base with your feet outside your shoulders and chest over your toes. Thinking about turning your legs into pogo sticks is going to create stiffness in the lower extremities that is beneficial for creating vertical force.

When we can create a vivid picture in the minds of our athletes, we increase the likelihood that our message will produce a desired movement outcome. There’s no gray area for misinterpretation. Just telling someone to “use their legs more” or “run faster” might address the objective, but it is very vague when it comes to execution. The vaguer it is, the less likely it will be done the way you want.

Analogies, on the other hand, are much more specific. All you need to do is find something that athlete can relate to (other sports, hobbies, video games, etc.). Once you find something, you have the keys to their interest. All that’s left is creatively crafting your message in a way that will best get their attention.

Below are 10 analogies you can use with your baseball athletes at practice.

 

  1. Throw around the runner on a double play

Too often coaches take linear solutions to a rotational problem. Cues like “finish your pitch” or “stay on top of the ball” can create linear adaptations that bring the arm inside and out of the plane of rotation. This can create pushy and disconnected arm paths.

Instead, kids need to learn how to get their arms away from them. They’re not throwing darts. They’re throwing baseballs. In order to throw a baseball well, the arm needs to unwind around the body and the hand needs to work away from the midline into release. Giving them the imaginary constraint of an incoming baserunner can help them do just that. 

Derek Jeter turning two. Notice where his hand, wrist, and elbow are in relationship to his body.
  1. Don’t fall off the cliff

Humans are primed with instincts for survival. Tapping into them can create some vivid pictures and sensations you can use to your advantage. One of these is the thought of “not falling off the cliff.” This is great for pitchers who don’t have great brakes and continue to fall forward after ball release. Have them pretend they’re landing on the edge of a cliff when they throw. The “consequences” for falling forward after release can teach them how to stop and rotate in a tighter window.

Another thought you can use for this is “don’t get punched in the face.” Have athletes pretend there is a fist right in front of their face when their front foot lands. If they fold forward instead of rotate, they’re going to get punched in the face. This might be a hair of an exaggeration, but the thought can influence a better pattern that’s less linear and more rotational.

  1. Pitch like you’re throwing a punch

Relating movements from other sports to baseball is a great way to share the same message using a slightly different lens. A popular one we like to refer to is throwing a punch. In order to throw a punch, you have to do a lot things that baseball players also need to do:

  • Get into a strong and centered base
  • Stay closed with the pelvis and torso into foot plant
  • Strike by rotating the torso around a stable lower half
  • Brace and decelerate into impact
  • Produce a lot of force in a small window

If you’re working on any of the above, using the thought of “throwing your best punch” can be incredibly impactful. We commonly tell pitchers to “throw their punch from deep” to keep them from opening up too soon. Telling a kid to “stay closed longer” addresses the same thing, but the thought of a punch creates a much more specific picture. Better visuals create better adaptations.

  1. Pretend like you’re hitting a ball that weighs 500 lbs.

This analogy is one of the best ones Eugene has ever come up with. He got the inspiration when he was doing research into martial arts and stumbled on the word “kime.” In Japanese, the word means “focus.” In martial arts, it references the bracing moment you feel right before you deliver a punch. For Bruce Lee to get off his famous one-inch punch, he needed to metaphorically turn his body into a brick wall. It might have looked like he was just punching with one finger, but he was actually using his entire body because of his ability to rapidly brace into impact. This helped him deliver a pretty forceful punch despite having to navigate a small window of time and space.

Sound familiar?

If you’re working with a hitter who’s flying open, peeling off baseballs, lacks stability, and can’t transmit a ton of force into the ball, smack them in the stomach a couple of times and ask them what they feel. They’ll probably respond with something along the lines of “tight” or “braced.” Have them use that sensation when they go to hit the ball. When you do this, you’ve successfully taught someone how to hit the ball like it weighs 500 lbs.

The thought alone of hitting the ball like it weighs 500 lbs. can create an immediate adaptation. You can also try “turn your body into a brick wall at impact” and “try to smash open a watermelon.” If the image still isn’t clear, just have the hitter strike a basketball. What they feel doing that is what they should be doing when they hit a baseball.

If you use any of these thoughts, this is one you need to try out.

  1. Move forward like someone is on your back

One of the most common energy leaks we see with hitters and pitchers is pushing out of the ground (oddly enough, often caused by trying to use the ground more). A great analogy you can use to counter this is to create the sensation of having someone on your back. If you’re working with a couple of kids, you can have them demo it out and hop on each other’s backs. Ask them what they felt and tell them to take it into their swing. You’ll often see immediate improvements in posture, connection to the ground, and space.

  1. Crack a whip

The whip analogy can be used in a couple of ways. For one, it can give a really good visual for how the arm should work to transmit force. Former MLB All-Star Ricky Romero talked about how his dad growing up taught him to use his arm like a whip. This helps create sensations for when to create tension as too much too soon eliminates your ability to create the “crack” at the end.

It can also be used to explain the importance of deceleration in applying directional force. To crack a whip, the arm and hand need to come to stop in order to get the whip to go forward. This gets energy out to the tip and creates that cracking sound. If the arm and the hand continue to drag through and never come to a stop, you lose the ability to crack the whip.

  1. Pitch like you play shortstop

This is a good one if you have a kid that slings it across the diamond and looks like a robot when he toes the rubber. Pitchers are often taught in a way where positions and aesthetics become more important than learning how to move dynamically. When this happens, you’ve “pitchered” a kid: You’ve taken someone who knows how to move well and put him into a box where he can’t move well anymore.

An easy way to get them out of this box is to teach them how to be an athlete again. In other words, give them the freedom to pitch like they play shortstop. Allowing them to do this often creates an immediate impact on their delivery.

This can also work for lefties. Since they probably didn’t play infield or catcher growing, they probably didn’t spend a lot of time making dynamic and athletic throws. This makes it even more important that they do.

  1. Pretend your front foot just landed in cement

Giving athletes the thought of “sticking” their front foot in cement can create sensations that influence a more stable lower half. The more stable you are down low, the better you can rotate up top. If the front foot is sliding or not accepting force early enough, something in the chain is unstable (e.g. pushy, quad dominant lower half). Using the thought of landing in cement can clean some of this up.

Something similar to this is thinking about the feet as “anchors” or “pegs” in the ground. Energy is created proximally to distally. What’s furthest away from us (e.g. arms, legs) should be controlled by what is most central to us (e.g. pelvis, trunk). Overactive extremities flip this on its head. By killing the feet and thinking of them as anchors/pegs, you give the middle the ability to control the movement and prevent the feet/legs from creating inefficient patterns.

  1. Rotate in a phone booth

Most players stink at rotating. This is because how rotation is often taught (e.g. get extension, chest to glove) is largely ineffective. Good rotation happens where the trunk and pelvis work around our spine and through a small window of space. Using the thought of “rotating in a phone booth” can help give kids a pretty effective visual for this. A similar thought you can use is “rotate your head around a cement pole.” This gives kids the same visual for how to rotate around their spine without wasting a ton of movement.

Good rotation is quiet. Notice how Mike Trout is able to turn in a small window of space.
  1. Spread the floor like you’re riding a horse

Eugene picked up on this one in a conversation with Hunter Bledsoe. A great visual for the forward move is to give kids the thought of “straddling a horse.” This can help give them a better feel for how to spread their legs apart, control their center of mass, and keep their nose over their belly button.

BONUS: Player Imitations

A great way to stimulate creativity and athleticism in kids is to have them try and imitate their favorite players. Have them pick out two or three they really like or pick out a couple that have a similar movement profile. This can be a huge unlock for kids who are struggling to feel athletic in the box. We know that kids are great at imitating. Use this to your advantage when you’re trying to teach them something new.

 

These are only 10 suggestions. The ceiling for the analogies you can create is limitless. The more you use them, the better you’ll be able to communicate with kids.

Don’t just talk to your players. Use analogies and talk to them in color.       

Data, Efficiency, and Asymmetries: Recapping BTG20 Part III

See part one of our Bridge the Gap recap here and part two here.

To round out the weekend we were able to put together an MLB players panel which featured Marc Rzepczynski, Cesar Ramos, Tyson Ross, Patrick Mazeika, and Ricky Romero. The five talked about their experiences in player development over the years and what’s had been really impactful on their careers.

For Cesar Ramos, one of his biggest unlocks was realizing he needed to throw his slider more. Ramos featured a four-pitch mix as a player and used his slider the least out of all four. When Ramos played for the Rays, the coaches sat him down and explained to him how the metrics on his slider actually profiled out as one of the best pitches in his arsenal. While it took some time to make this adjustment, Ramos eventually bought in and saw a significant improvement in game performance. This helped him solidify a spot at the big league level and ended up being a huge turning point in his career.

In order to have more positive interventions like these, coaches must be able to share the same information in multiple different ways. This is something Tyson Ross felt was very important when it comes to great coaches. They don’t just describe how to do something one way. They find as many ways as possible to create the same exact movements because they understand the interpretation of information is just as important as the information itself. Him and one of his teammates might be trying to create the same exact movement pattern, but what they need to think about might be completely different. It all works, but not all of it works for everyone.

Knowing what each athlete needs is important, but it’s even more important to know exactly what they don’t need. While Tyson is an athlete that feels very comfortable handling a lot of information and video, Marc Rzepczynski has learned he needs just the opposite. From his experience, Marc realized how looking at too much video or trying to juggle too much information became a crutch because he started to overanalyze his movements on the mound. This caused him to get in his own way and prevented himself from being the best version of himself on the mound. As a result, he’s learned to only focus on one or two things at a time and use what he feels to guide his throwing. When he finds a feel that resonates with him, he tries to recreate it and keep things simple without getting too cerebral. This keeps him athletic and helps him create positive movement adaptations because he’s focused on things that help him have the most success.

“When contact is made, pitchers are in the driver’s seat.” Jerry Weinstein, Colorado Rockies

Outside of the panel, we were very fortunate to have Jerry Weinstein join us for Bridge and share wisdom he’s gained from over 60 years as a coach in the game of baseball. For his presentation, Jerry ran the audience through a simulated inning and broke down each pitch thrown, the result, and what he would have done differently in certain situations. To start, Jerry shared some of rules he uses when he builds out game plans for pitchers and catchers. One of these is the rule of 68: At the MLB level, 68% of all balls put in play are outs. Jerry doesn’t want his pitchers to nibble around the strike zone. He wants his guys to aggressively attack it because the odds are in their favor. Pitchers shouldn’t be afraid of contact. Instead, they should be afraid of falling behind in the count because they’re trying to avoid contact.

During the inning, Jerry brought up a specific pitch during a game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals. Reliever Archie Bradley was defending a 9-5 Arizona lead in the top of the ninth with runners on first and third and Rangel Ravelo at the plate for St. Louis. With a 1-1 count, Bradley decided to throw a curveball in the dirt that Ravelo took for ball two. In Weinstein’s opinion, this pitch was a mistake because 1-1 is a big count to win (MLB BA swings around .200 based on result of pitch). Pitchers need to throw their highest percentage strike pitch to their highest percentage strike location. Instead of throwing his best pitch (fastball), Bradley throws his curveball which only lands in the zone 23% of the time. This becomes an easy take for Ravelo and sets him up in a hitters count with runners in scoring position. If Weinstein was calling pitches, he would have had Bradley challenge Ravelo with his best fastball considering Bradley’s strengths, weaknesses, and the current situation (four run lead).

“I’m here to tell you asymmetries are okay until you can’t function or reciprocate.” Ken Crenshaw, Director of Sports Medicine & Performance Arizona Diamondbacks

Ken Crenshaw – Director of Sports Medicine and Performance Arizona Diamondbacks – was also able to join us and deliver a presentation on his thoughts around training the core. One of the big points he drove home in his presentation was the myth around asymmetries. While we typically think of asymmetries as a barrier to performance, Ken argued that asymmetries are actually very normal. Internally, our bodies are not symmetrical at all. Our liver, colon, and appendix are all on the right side of our body and our stomach, heart, and spleen are on the left. This internal imbalance causes us to naturally fall into asymmetrical patterns, as seen below. These patterns are completely okay and shouldn’t raise red flags – as long as we can check a couple of boxes.

Instead of looking at symmetry, Ken looks to see if his athletes are able to function. If they can execute basic motor tasks and swing or throw without pain, he doesn’t place too much stock in the asymmetries they present with. After all, baseball is largely an asymmetrical sport. The majority of us only swing or throw from one side. This doesn’t mean we should completely negate asymmetries and the role they play in influencing movement, but it does mean we need to look at them through a different lens. Asymmetries by themselves are not a problem. How those asymmetries influence motor function is what we really need to look at.

Lastly, we were able to have Darin Everson – Hitting Coordinator Colorado Rockies – hop on and share his thoughts on developing efficiency in hitters. For him, three things stand out:

  1. Are they anchored into the ground?
You can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe – unless it’s anchored down from both sides

Hitters who move really well are able to use their feet as “anchor points” to create stability for the pelvis. This gives the trunk the platform it needs to rotate around and reciprocate against the lower body. If hitters aren’t able to create a stable connection to the ground, their pelvis becomes unstable and energy leaks are created. A big part of hitting is being able to move a weight through space as efficiently as possible by moving to and through strong positions. Paying close attention to how guys interact with the ground gives you a lot of information on their ability to do this.

  1. Can they stop and produce force in small windows?

Hitters have a small window of time and space to produce force given the constraint of the incoming pitch. As a result, just producing a lot of force isn’t as important as how quickly it can be transferred and applied up the chain. Whether we can do this or not depends on our ability to put on the brakes. The next segment cannot accelerate until the previous one has decelerated. Thus, an inability to stop hurts your ability to go.

  1. Do they have space to work? Are they compensating to create this space?

All hitters need space and room to work so they can get their best swing off consistently. Some common ways hitters do this include hinging, staying closed, or clearing the lead arm as the hands make moves to the ball. However, all space is not created equal. There are numerous compensatory patterns hitters will pull off to make up for the space they lost earlier in the sequence. An example of this would be a hitter who opens up with their pelvis too soon and has to pin their hands up against their body to prevent them from peeling off the baseball. They might be able to create enough space so their swing can work, but how they create it isn’t optimal.

It’s like TCU strength coach Zach Dechant talked about in Part II: The best athletes are often the best compensators. The solutions they come up with work, but it doesn’t mean they’re the best solutions.

Interested in more? You can get full access to all of the BTG20 presentations here.

Year in Review: 12 Thoughts, Three Questions, One Word

As we conclude 2020 and begin 2021, below are 12 thoughts that have resonated with me throughout the course of the year, three questions to ponder, and one word I will try to live by.

 

  • The Fine Print. People who you once trusted will turn their back on you. Your best efforts won’t always be rewarded. The best version of yourself won’t always show up. You will be negatively impacted by things you cannot control. The good news is overcoming and embracing the fine print of your dreams will give you the character you need to sustain your dream when you achieve it.
  • Be Present. The only thing we have is the present. Focus on the things in front of you and only the things in front of you. Others should not pay the price because you lack the discipline to be where you need to be and when you need to be there.
  • Seek people different than you. Don’t sit in the comfort of your own habits and thoughts. It is narcissistic to expect people to think, act, and find productivity exactly the way that you do. The thoughts, routines, and methods of people unlike you will challenge your perspective on how you do things. This is where growth occurs.
  • Perspective: The art of being objective. Things are never as bad or as good as what they seem. Don’t think of what it should be or what it ought to be. See it for what it is and figure out how you can use it to make you better.
  • Know when to stop. Do not mistake activity for achievement. There is a time to go on and a time to slow down. Recognize when you are not producing meaningful work and find ways to recharge so you can get back to it.
  • Ask questions. Find gaps in your understanding and craft questions so you can resolve them. If you haven’t found something you don’t quite understand, you’re not actively listening and grappling with the ideas of someone else. Interesting people are interested. We all have something to learn from everyone.
  • Learn to self-evaluate. Not recognizing your weaknesses will prevent you from improving on them. Great coaches are great self-evaluators. They know who they are, where they fall short, and what they’re willing to stand for. A career of service must start with awareness.
  • If you work, inspiration will come. If you wait, inspiration will wait. Show up. Do the work.
  • Provide value to get value. Don’t just be a taker. Leverage your strengths, create something useful, or help someone else solve a problem. In the words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
  • Keep shooting. Everyone’s first drafts stink. The more you create, the better your work will become. What you see as an overnight success was really the accumulation of years of work that compounded over time. Perfect is the enemy of good. Get things on paper before you worry about them being perfect.
  • The things that are most obvious are often the most elusive. Bring to life what most people do not notice. Everything you need is already here right in front of you.
  • Seek meaningful work with meaningful people. Work never feels like work when both of these are met. Careers need purpose. This starts with the people you surround yourself with and the depth of the mission you seek to achieve.

Three Questions (all from James Clear’s weekly newsletter):

  • What is a mistake I seem to repeat every year? How can I avoid that this year?
  • What is the one thing you could accomplish today that would make today a success?
  • How long will you put off what you are capable of doing just to continue what you are comfortable doing?

One Word

Challenge.

Talent needs trauma. Don’t just seek uncomfortable moments. Crave them.

 

 

Let’s kick some ass in 2021.

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.