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.”