What Happened To the Pitching Philosophy?

Last night I watched the Mets 1967 Yearbook (god love the DVR). They showed clips of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, and Jon Matlack, among others. Something I kept seeing, over and over, with every pitcher in a Mets uniform, was this:

– a step back behind the rubber that started momentum going forward

– legs driving the delivery

– momentum continuing forward, evidenced by a follow-through that had the pitcher completely square to and facing home plate

These were very basic fundamentals of pitching for at least 50 years (try to locate a book by Bob Shaw
, which is out of print but may be in your local library) and it appears they were taught by the Mets organization in the 1960s. I say this because I lied before — the one pitcher whose delivery didn’t exhibit all three of those elements above was Jon Matlack.

The footage was of Matlack’s very first season as a pro, when he was fresh out of high school at age 17 and he had some side-to-side momentum driven by his hands and arms that led to premature opening of the front side. Additionally, he didn’t fully use his 6’3″ frame to his advantage in terms of the gift of gravity — he stayed somewhat upright. In other words, his mechanics were slightly flawed. But by the time he reached the big leagues in 1971, his delivery had been adjusted so that it resembled that of Jerry Koosman, Tom Seaver, Tug McGraw, and others. For example, his stride was lengthened, he had some “drop and drive”, he lined up his nose to his toes at release, and had momentum driving more forward than sideways. There were still some minor flaws in his motion, but for the most part, after 4+ years in the Mets minor league system, Matlack’s delivery was more efficient and in line with those crazy “laws” that the British guy Newton set 400 years ago.

Somewhere along the line, the Mets stopped teaching those essential fundamentals and in turn, stopped manufacturing pitchers. It may have happened briefly in the 1970s, but the system had a strong run in the 1980s when Nelson Doubleday was a quiet owner who let Frank Cashen run the show. It seems that the “voice of reason” that was behind the Mets’ pitching philosophy was silenced for good at some point in the 1990s. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe it was the retirement or removal of one of the “old-school” guys — Al Jackson is still around, but perhaps no one pays attention to him any more? It’s strange, and it’s a shame.

There is an ironic quote by Matlack from 1978 cited on a blog post published around this time last year by my friend John Strubel. The quote is from a conversation between Matlack and Seaver, which occurred after both were traded away from the Mets:

“I completely can not understand it,” said Matlack. “There’s no way I can fathom how, when I was in the minor leagues, they had the best system, the best talent. When I came to the major leagues, we had the nucleus of a dynasty, with our pitching and defense, we went from the best baseball city in the country to an absolute joke.”

Jon Matlack gets low and drives forward vs. Reggie Jackson

Tags:

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. CatchDog September 24, 2010 at 8:13 am
    If my memory serves me correctly, Matlack also started his delivery similar to Santana’s style, whereas the glove and throwing hand stays in front of the face and doesn’t go over the head.

    Seaver, Kooz, Ryan, Gentry, and McAndrew all began their windup with the traditional style as you have stated, where the arms are raised above the head to start the delivery.

    Is this just preference? In your opinion does one style have more advantages with regards to balance, timing or drive?

    I know what Juan Marichal would say !

    • Joe Janish September 24, 2010 at 12:37 pm
      I posted a video of Matlack in ’67 — before he made adjustments — here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ih-EvlPFlYA (get there before MLB tears it down!).

      I vaguely remember Matlack going full over the head when he was with the Rangers, but I’ll look for some old footage from somewhere.

      Personally, I prefer to see the old over the head start, because it initiates the forward-back-forward momentum. Watch any black and white video footage of old-time pitchers and they ALL did it for exactly that reason. At some point in the 1980s the stationary glove in front of the chin became popular, I guess to simplify the motion. Generally I do understand that the less moving parts in a delivery, the better, but if an extra movement will promote a positive result then it’s no longer “unnecessary”.

      • CatchDog September 25, 2010 at 10:02 am
        Great snippet of Matlack. Interesting to note that Jon’s leg kick is almost identical to the ‘flair” Kooz’ had. Tug developed the same thing.

        Only took 30 years to recognize the similarities of the southpaw’s mechanics.

  2. steve September 24, 2010 at 9:16 pm
    Matlack is before my time (b.1972) but this is really interesting. I like how you broke down the pitching mechanics and I’ll try to catch that yearbook somehow (i turned off my cable this summer)
    • Joe Janish September 24, 2010 at 10:55 pm
      Thanks Steve, glad to have piqued your interest.

      Really if you can catch any of the yearbooks or old clips from the 1960s or 70s, pay attention to Seaver, Koosman, Ryan, and McGraw in particular — they all exhibit very similar, correct, safe fundamentals. And all of them pitched 19+ years in MLB, so they were doing something right. Also of note is that Kooz, Ryan, and Seaver spent most of their careers pitching on 3 days’ rest and all three of them had multiple 250+ inning seasons — w/o spending much time on DL. Some of that is luck, but a lot of it was technique as well.