Do MLB Coaches Fix Pitching Mechanics?

Sorting through the MetsToday mail bag, I pull out this question from a visitor who refers to himself/herself as “Brain Sliver” :

I have been reading your blog for a few years and have been impressed with your analysis of pitching mechanics. My question is this: how well known is this in professional circles and how often can they fix it? I know that having something pointed out to you doesn’t mean you can just fix it, at least it never worked for me. But I am not even close to the level of athlete in major and minor ball. So, is the problem that coaches don’t know, that players won’t listen, that it is not easy to fix, or some other combination?

Great question, and the answer is your final part of it: “some other combination.”

Very generally speaking, MOST mechanical issues are easy to fix — assuming that the person is good at fixing. What that means is that the person:

a) can identify the flaw;
b) knows what needs to be done to correct the flaw;
c) can figure out how to effectively communicate the correction to the pitcher; and,
d) can find a way to help the pitcher execute the correction.

Considering all the above, it is safe to assume that Major League pitching coaches should be able to handle c) and d) — because, after all, that is “teaching,” whether the subject is baseball or geography. However, a) and b) can be challenging to a MLB coach, because few have the necessary scientific background in kinesiology and biomechanics to know and identify a flaw.

Further, there is an old-school (dinosaur-like?) mindset that insists “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In other words, if Johan Santana, Jake Peavy, or Mark Prior are throwing shutouts, you don’t worry if they have inverted Ws, leading elbows, or their arm is dragging behind — just stay out of the way and let them keep pitching lights out until an injury occurs. Part of it is the fact that most pitching coaches can’t identify a dangerous flaw (and again, it’s not their fault they’re ignorant; a B.S. or doctorate in human body movement is not essential to their job description), and most of it is because of the fear that making a change will cause the pitcher’s performance to go backward. There’s this unfounded notion that messing with a pitcher’s mechanics could make him pitch worse instead of better. Well, maybe it’s not completely unfounded, because if a coach doesn’t know what he’s doing, and makes a change that isn’t a biomechanical correction, then, yeah, things could get worse.

There is an excellent article in ESPN The Magazine this week called Force of Habit, and it drives home my points above. The piece focuses specifically on Tommy John surgery and one vitally important aspect of pitching mechanics: the position of the throwing hand at foot strike. It also details the fear and rockheadedness of organized baseball in regard to biomechanics. One precious quote comes from White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper:

“I’m not going to let new-school ways get in the way of my old-school thinking. I don’t need biomechanics. I have experience. I have my eyes. I just watch and look.”

I don’t like picking on Cooper because he’s a New York guy and he’s a longtime, well-respected pitching coach. However, his remark more or less sums up what most of baseball truly believes — that science is nonsense and baseball doesn’t need such knowledge entering their special, guarded domain. That hardheaded ignorance trickles down to every level of baseball below MLB, because, “if the big leaguers don’t believe it, why should I?”. And/or, “Johan Santana does it this way, so it must be the right way.”

But in truth, many, many MLB pitchers do things that are unnatural and dangerous — and can be corrected so that they’re less risky and more effective. Unfortunately, the sport is slow to change in their belief that they know better than anyone else.

As a coach myself, there’s one word I never, ever use in my teaching: “don’t.”

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. Tommy2cat March 26, 2012 at 7:59 am
    Hi Joe:

    Best place to start for pitching mechanics is “Nolan Ryan’s Pitchers Bible”. Should be read in conjunction with Alan Dorfman’s Books on the mental aspects of baseball.

    Felt that you gave poor analysis of Pelfrey’s performance yesterday. You stated that he struggled in the early innings. He was blowing hitters away until Turner’s error to start the top of the third. He reverted to an old wind-up he used in college. He got into trouble when he had to pitch from the stretch.

    I’ve been saying all along that Warthen “dumbed-down” his wind-up and removed any deception that Big Pelf had in his 6’7″ frame. Warthen sacrificed Pelf’s deception and movement for control. It’s more evident when Pelf pitches from the stretch…front leg up, front leg down, elbow shoulder high…here hitter…see the ball, hit the ball…boom. Clearly not a recipe for success.

    Pelf needs to torque his hips 12-6, from 2nd then toward home, which will have the dual benefit of increasing velocity and improving deception. I’d like to see him throw from a higher 3/4’s arm angle to increase the downward plane on his sinker, primarily.

    Really like Matt Harvey, but I’m kinda glad he got his face handed to him yesterday. He was talking about making the Mets roster like it was his birth right, so a dose of humility won’t hurt.

    Back to Pelf – I think he made great strides yesterday. He did use a change-up, but I’d like to see him dust off that split finger FB and use it every so often to keep hitters honest. In all, I was glad to see that he raised his hands over his head in the “gathering” portion of his wind-up as I think it increases velocity and contributes to deception.

    I’ll say it – if Big Pelf could cut his fastball and create more downward diagonal movement, he’d be as effective as Roy Halladay.

    Yeah, I said it.

    • Joe Janish March 27, 2012 at 12:33 am
      Thanks for the notes.

      I’ve owned Ryan’s book since it was published, read it dozens of times. It’s pretty good, particularly the section on conditioning / strength training. As for the mechanics chapter, it’s OK but leaves much to the imagination; still, it was then and remains now one of the better books on the subject. Luckily, Tom House didn’t contribute too much since he was like Dr. Frankenstein back then, destroying the best young arms Texas could produce. Unfortunately, House used that book and the credibility of Ryan’s blessing as a springboard to become an “expert” when in fact he knew just enough to be dangerous.

      I’m standing by my evaluation of Pelfrey’s outing, because I don’t care about the results but rather the process, and his process was unimpressive in my opinion. He was either missing the strike zone completely or throwing the ball over the middle of the plate, waist-high, so it was only a matter of time before he would get hit hard — which he did.

      As for your suggestion to “torque the hips” could you explain why? Pelfrey has no problem whatsoever with separation and hip explosion — it’s actually a strength. I’m not even sure what you mean by a “12-6” rotation; what part of his hips would be pointing to 2B before pointing to home? You mean like Luis Tiant? Please be more clear so I can understand. But from what I’ve seen his hip rotation is not what’s preventing him from top velocity — it’s improper timing of the foot strike and occasional insufficient external shoulder rotation

      I agree with you on the split — what the heck happened to that pitch? He used it successfully then bagged it. Why? I also agree with you on the Halladay reference — physically speaking. Mentally / emotionally, though, he likely will never reach Halladay’s level.

  2. NormE March 26, 2012 at 8:26 am
    I’m not qualified to analyze pitching at the level that Joe J. and Tommy2 are doing, but it is evident that Pelf struggles mightily out of the stretch. Is it mechanics, or is it psychological? Or a combination?
    • Tommy2cat March 26, 2012 at 4:21 pm
      Combination of physical & mental, and don’t underestimate the latter.

      From physical side, balance and rhythm are key. Many pitchers lose command by not staying back and rushing toward the plate. Follow-through is also major factor.

      Healthy mechanics bespeak a sound mind where the pitcher is in a zone. For some, its a Zen-like trance. For others, like Randy Meters & Goose Gossage, its power-ball mentality.

      When confidence is lacking, time to get back to basics & get the gremlins out of your head.

      • NormE March 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm
        Thanks for the reply.
        It’s interesting that you mentioned follow-through. I remember Tom Seaver staying low in his delivery as he pushed off the rubber and following-through so that his right
        knee would brush the dirt leaving a mark on his pants leg.
        Not many pitchers follow-through like Seaver did. They could learn something by studying the great ones.
        • Tommy2cat March 26, 2012 at 10:46 pm
          Hi Norm:

          Seaver was renowned for a “drop & drive” motion, which is not common. He had 3 phenomenal pitches thrown from a lower arm slot like an Exocet Missile – fastball, slider and change-up, all of which were very difficult for the batter to differentiate.

          Steve Carlton, by contrast, had a very high release point and batters faced the slider from hell, which Carlton could vary the speed & the extent of the break from one slider to the next. And his fastball was mid-90’s.

          Never forget the game when Carlton struck out 19 Mets and lost as Ron Swoboda hit two 2-run homers. He was so dominant…and lost!

          Yep, the good old days.

        • Joe Janish March 27, 2012 at 12:38 am
          Tom Seaver’s “drop and drive” style and insistence on getting his drive knee dirty defied logic and threatened to defy physics. In other words, it made no sense and did very little to help his performance — if anything, he succeeded IN SPITE OF IT. Had Seaver stayed taller, longer in his motion, he likely would have thrown a few MPH harder — how scary is that? Otherwise, his mechanics were impeccable — absolutely perfect. That dropping down of the knee baffles me to this day — all it does is remove the pitcher’s advantage of height and leverage, and forces him to fight gravity instead of use it.
  3. DaveSchneck March 26, 2012 at 8:29 am
    Good article. To steal a Bob Gibson line, the only thing I know about pitching is that I can’t hit it. That said, baseball is no different than anything else. The German physicist Max Planck may have said it best, something like “science advances the most at funerals”. Old schoolers will slowly disappear and truths will be adopted, but I think the biggest factor that you point out is that “successful” pitchers are reluctant to change. The healthy mechanics will need to be developed at lower levels. MLB is so competitive, the money is so big, and the fine line between making it and using the prime years of a one’s life to come up short will make pitchers very leery of risking a change and possibly performance.
  4. Izzy March 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm
    I will leave the technicalities to the experts. However, concerning Pelfrey, he is always trying to reinvent something, new pitches, new mechanics. How can he ever become proficient when he is a never ending book of modifications. And per the Harvey comment, do you want a guy to come to Spring training accepting a season in the minors? I want the cocky guy, the guy every other team hates to play against. The cocky Dykstra, the cocky Victorino, the cocky mad Hungarian. And as for him getting pounded, i remember in 1967 a kid with one year in the minors giving up 10 runs in a late March game, and being put in the rotation immediately after that. The kid then won rookie of the Year, a few Cy Youngs and is in the HoF. If a guy is ready he’s ready, if a guy is close let him learn the fine points of the big leagues when the team sucks so when the team is supposed to compete, he;s leading and not learning.
    • argonbunnies March 26, 2012 at 1:26 pm
      Agreed on Pelf tinkering too much. He doesn’t have a solid enough base of command, control, movement or velocity to keep screwing around. Keep it simple. His biggest success has come from a 3-pitch repertoire: 4-seamer, 2-seamer, splitter. That should be it, as far as I’m concerned.

      So his splitter sucked in 2011; going back to pitches that sucked in 2009 is better? A splitter also has the advantage of being less familiar to batters. Every RH SP in the majors throws a slider and a change.

  5. argonbunnies March 26, 2012 at 1:20 pm
    Joe, I get the impression that most MLB coaches know a little bit about some risky mechanics, and less about others. Certainly less than a kinesiologist.

    However, when it comes to mechanics that get hitters out, they know a lot more than kinesiologists. Every scientist who claims that Chris Young’s 87mph fastball will still be just as effective if he stops dragging the ball behind his body just sounds arrogant to me. Really? You know that, huh? You know what healthy mechanics for his shoulder will look like to the batter, do you?

    What I’d like to see is more people from different fields working together, and fewer lazy assumptions that everyone else is doing it wrong for no good reason. Both sides have holes.

    • Joe Janish March 27, 2012 at 12:53 am
      I disagree completely. Mechanics don’t get hitters out – location and movement get batters out. Better, more efficient mechanics automatically make location more consistent, and almost always increase velocity; the movement comes from finger pressure and/or wrist action at release.

      What’s arrogant is a pitching coach who claims he knows “mechanics” yet his knowledge is built completely from other pitching coaches from his past – few coaches choose to look outside that tiny microcosm for information.

      And who cares if Chris Young is more effective with his rotten mechanics if he can only make three starts a year before breaking down? If a pitcher’s success is built 100% on deception, he’s not likely to last very long. Young succeeded PARTIALLY because of that ridiculous motion — but he still had to throw strikes, change speeds, hit spots, and get movement on the ball. If he used efficient mechanics, he’d still be able to do all of those things, only better. And, damn, if a guy is 6’10” and throwing less than 90 MPH, that’s a huge red flag. With his body, Young should’ve been able to hurl 92-95+ — which would have more than made up for what he might’ve lost in deception.

      My stance has been and continues to be exactly what you suggest: “What I’d like to see is more people from different fields working together …”. In an ideal world, every MLB team has TWO kinesiologists — one qualitative, one quantitative — as well as a pitching coach. All three would work together to get pitchers throwing as safely, efficiently, and effectively as possible. But people like Farmer Dan have to let down their guard, swallow their pride, and admit they don’t know butkis about how the body is supposed to move.

      • argonbunnies March 27, 2012 at 1:58 pm
        Yeah, considering the money teams pay pitchers, you’d think they could afford a couple scientists to keep the pitchers healthy, right? Skimping on the staff like that has always baffled me.

        As for location, velocity, and movement, sure, if you’ve got all three in spades, screw deception. But who in MLB has that? Halladay. I can’t think of another great pitcher who doesn’t have either average location that he makes up for with off-the-charts stuff (Felix) or significant deception (Lincecum, Haren). Maybe Josh Johnson joins Halladay, but being 6’7″ and injury-prone complicates things.

        And haven’t we all seen the 99mph fastball that gets rocked? The guy hitters react to as if he’s throwing 89, even if the movement and location are okay? The guy who hitters tell reporters, “I dunno, I just feel comfortable against him. I see the ball well.”

        Unless you assume that every MLB pitcher is in fact capable of throwing 95mph sinkers with pinpoint control if taught the proper mechanics, which sounds ridiculous to me, I think deception is just as crucial. I’m not talking about freaky trick deliveries like Chad Bradford or Brian Fuentes, I just mean giving the hitter something a little different than the next guy, or hiding the ball behind your ear to give the hitter a millisecond less to recognize a change-up grip.

        That said, I’m curious about the training process for altering mechanics. Many pitching coaches actually do cause more trouble trying to fix something that’s broken but working (a la Ollie after ’04) than they do by staying out of the way. So I’m curious if kinesiologists know any better methods for teaching new mechanics, methods which won’t cause some other hitch in the kinetic chain and risk derailing a pitcher in new ways. If there’s a revolution in instruction, maybe the armada of pinpoint 95mph sinker throwers becomes more plausible.

        • Joe Janish March 27, 2012 at 9:04 pm
          I think you partially answered your own question. The reason that pitching coaches are fearful of messing with a successful pitcher’s mechanics is because the pitching coaches don’t know — for sure — what “good mechanics” really are, so when they do tinker with them, there’s a really good chance they are doing more harm than good. On the other hand, people who are trained to understand the natural, efficient movement of the body DO know for sure what good mechanics look like. However knowing mechanics and teaching a pitcher to apply them are two things entirely; rare is the person who can handle both, which is why, again, your thought of two “experts” — scientist and traditional baseball coach — teaming up makes a heckuva lotta sense.

          Toward your deception argument: all it takes is placement of the glove at the same level as the ball throughout most of the motion, which is an old-school technique that just happens to work right into safe and proper mechanics.

        • argonbunnies March 28, 2012 at 4:43 am
          That is a fantastic point about the glove. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone highlight that before.

          Now that I think about it, I do remember wondering if the high-ish glove flail toward the batter in K-Rod’s delivery messed with hitters picking up the ball. Hard to say now, as he seems to have toned that down since his younger days.

          Can you think of any current MLB pitchers who effectively use the glove to hide the ball? I’ll start watching for it!

        • Joe Janish March 28, 2012 at 8:42 am
          Thanks. Off the top of my head I can’t think of too many current MLBers; Tom Glavine used the glove pretty well to hide the ball, and Cliff Lee almost does it well. Again, it’s an “old school” technique that many employed back in the day. Today there are too many knucklehead “pitching instructors” and “pitching coaches” who over-emphasize pulling the glove down and forward, which causes pitchers to start that movement unnaturally early and in turn expose the ball earlier than necessary. Very generally speaking, the two hands should work in unison but on opposite paths — mirroring each other through the early part of the motion, and right up to the foot strike.
  6. NormE March 27, 2012 at 7:19 am
    Joe J.,
    Sorry, but it’s “bupkis”, or “burkes”, not “butkis.”
    • NormE March 27, 2012 at 7:26 am
      Oops! Poor keyboard mechanics. Not “burkes”—it should have read “bupkes.”
      • Joe Janish March 27, 2012 at 8:35 am
        Soooooooo … you can have poor keyboard mechanics and I can’t?


        Glad someone is paying attention! Also glad that you expect more of me. Thanks for keeping me on my toes. 🙂