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Chat: Doug Thorburn

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Friday May 25, 2012 2:00 PM ET chat session with Doug Thorburn.


BP's pitching mechanics expert drops in for his inaugural chat.

Doug Thorburn: Welcome to my first BP chat. Pull up a chair, load up the Q's, and fire away! Q's need not be limited to pitching mechanics - hitters, stats, scouting, fantasy - anything goes

Lil' Sebastian (Parks): How can you tell during games if a pitcher is having issues with his release point?

Doug Thorburn: It is all about timing for me, watching for trunk rotation and watching the throwing arm into release point. Pitch location is also an indicator - pitches that miss up and to the arm-side are typically released too early, and late-releases usually produce a pitch that travels down and/or to the glove-side

Nick (Michigan): Do you think Chris Sale's condor-like mechanics will lead to a major elbow injury before the season is over? And is keeping him in the rotation better, from an injury-prevention perspective, than having him in the bullpen?

Doug Thorburn: There is no telling when a pitcher's body might succumb to the kinetic toll, but Sale's delivery is certainly high-risk and his frame suggests fragility. The rotation vs. bullpen question is a good one, because the debate goes deeper than innings-counts. That said, I think that the Sox do have more flexibility with his usage patterns out of the bullpen as opposed to falling slave to the 5-day routine of starting

Alex (Anaheim): Why is it so difficult to teach knuckleball mechanics? Any pitcher with a good one can pitch until he's 50.

Doug Thorburn: The knuckleball is the ultimate "feel" pitch, and grip selection alone will vary widely from player to player. Trying to throw a baseball with minimal spin is very difficult, particularly with respect to timing the other elements of the delivery. A lot of pitchers tend to move slower when they are not throwing as hard - this is a big issue on change-ups, and knuckleballs are at the extreme low end

Paul (Toronto): What's the word on Brandon McCarthy's shoulder? Is he just one of those pitchers that can't stay healthy?

Doug Thorburn: I don't see any issues with McCarthy mechanically - he has a real legit delivery - but his checkered history suggests that his body may not be up to the rigors of throwing 92-mph spheres for a living

Now on the jukebox: Black Sabbath "Snowblind"

maphal (Right here): Is Chapman's delivery a key to his success? Plenty of pitchers throw harder than him right now.

Doug Thorburn: Harnessing a delivery with extreme rotation, momentum, and torque is exceedingly difficult. Nobody has more torque than the Red Dragon, but Chapman is showing what it looks like when a pitcher begins to command his delivery rather than the other way around

lemppi (Ankeny, IA): What do you believe are the root causes of Max Scherzer's need to constantly tinker? Is there one thing that routinely falls off kilter in your opinion? Thank you.

Doug Thorburn: Some players are never quite satisfied with how things feel, especially when their struggles come down to battles with mechanical timing. Such is the case for Scherzer, where a couple hundredths of a second is the difference between painting leather and finding the backstop, so he is always looking for a way to find a time signature that is repeatable

Josh G (Stockton, CA): There was a Peter Gammons tweet from a year or two ago quoting a scout about how Matt Cain went from having terrible mechanics as a rookie to great mechanics now. Did you seen Cain as a rookie and was that a fair assessment?

Doug Thorburn: I wouldn't call Cain's rookie mechanics "terrible," but he has certainly made improvements during his time in SF. The timing consistency is the biggest change (I smell a theme brewing), but he has also improved his momentum, posture, and pitch selection. He was over-reliant on the fastball when he first came up, but now el cambio is the most feared pitch in his arsenal

edwardarthur (Illinois): Hard throwing short pitchers seem to get tagged as "max effort" and an injury risk. Do short flamethrowers really tend to have "worse" mechanics, or is this more of a perception bias?

Doug Thorburn: There could be a perception bias there, but I believe that there could also be a selection bias at work. In general, shorter pitchers have shallower release points, and this is an under-appreciated disadvantage with respect to timing of pitch break as well as perceived velocity. In order to overcome the disadvantage, shorter pitchers often need greater momentum in order to generate the stride distance and depth at release point to be effective. Heavy momentum is one of the #1 mechanical traits that earns the violence tag, so if shorter pitchers tend to require greater momentum to find success, then it follows that they will tend to pick up the violent tag.

On the jukebox: Iron Maiden, "The Prisoner"

tommybones (new york): With regard to knuckleballs, I have often wondered why major league teams didn't pick out a dozen or so minor league pitchers who have decent stuff, but aren't likely to make the major league club with their current arsenal and set-up a knuckleball boot camp to see if anyone picks it up and turns themselves into a major league commodity. It seems like a no brainer move to me. Has this ever been tried as far as you know? And do you think it's a good idea?

Doug Thorburn: I don't know that this specific experiment has been tried, but it has been attempted on a case-by-case basis when a pitcher is unable to find success with a more standard repertoire. Again, the knuckler is a very difficult pitch to pick up, and it basically needs to survive on its own, with hitters knowing that it's coming. A pitcher needs to have an exceptional knuckler to succeed in the bigs, and very few pitchers can harness the pitch consistently enough to be effective.

SaberTJ (Cleveland, OH): You talk a lot about a pitcher's personal signature. Sometimes that personal signature has attributes that leaves a pitcher more attune to injuries. However, as you mention in your recent Strasburg article, Strasburg seemingly will continue to use his troubling mechanics. I assume most MLB pitchers feel this way because a major mechanical change could rid them of their MLB ability. I assume most pitchers learn their personal signature in little league and are resistant to a change in their mechanics by the time an MLB dream is evident. If this is the case, is the most an MLB team could do to help avoid injury is just minor tweaks that might delay the inevitable?

Doug Thorburn: Great question. Signature is somewhat innate, and most player's find a signature moreso than learn one. The resistance to change has as much to do with the re-training of muscles and joints as it does the difficulty of finding the appropriate timing of a new delivery. Some pitchers will also gladly make the trade of injury risk for performance, as they may not be able to succeed at the highest level without the elements that put them at risk (i.e. scapular load and pitch velo). John Smoltz had a pronounced scap load and inverted-W in his delivery, and he had various arm woes throughout his career, but my guess is that he would gladly do it all over again if given the choice.

Padres Fan (Not SD): As a fan should I see Huston Street thrives on the mound before mid-season and exchanged for a package of prospects or should I hope a street named after Streets? You are welcome to answer in Fantasy Baseball perspective.

Doug Thorburn: I think the Padres would be wise to reap whatever value they can if Huston is healthy near the deadline. They have little need for a top closer this season, especially one that is making $7 million. That said, fans are likely to be disappointed by the return

Christopher (Tennessee): Do you mean to say that some in the industry take stock in the "inverted W" theory? I thought it was pretty widely dismissed.

Doug Thorburn: The industry is very split on mechanics. I think that the inverted-W is largely misunderstood - it is not nearly as predictive as the proponents claim, but it is not something that should be completely cast aside. Everyone wants to isolate a single cause to injury, but the I-W typically occurs in conjunction with scap load and/or elbow-drag, and those elements are all risk factors. One analyst might blame the W, another might blame the scap load - but that's like me blaming a driver for going to fast while someone else blames them for not applying the brakes soon enough

dianagram (VORGville): Best "non-pitcher" pitching performance you've ever seen? Chris Davis?

Doug Thorburn: Best? That's a tough call, but Davis' changeup was filthy, and you rarely see that kind of secondary stuff from a non-pitcher. The most comical position player to take the mound had to be Jose Canseco

Now on the jukebox: Dredg, "Ode to the Sun"

Steve N (Delaware): Craig Wright talks about trying 4 or 5 pitchers as knuckle ballers in the Rangers organization. (In The Diamond Appraised) At least 20 years ago. My often faulty memory says that only one made the majors. Not as bad as it sounds since they were already somewhat failed prospects.

Doug Thorburn: The Diamond Appraised was groundbreaking, though I am obviously biased (Tom House co-authored the book with Wright). They had some great ideas back then, but the technology in the naive stages of research, and our modern appreciation of pitcher timing would create a roadblock to such an experiment today

David Floren (Livermore, CA): Can you elaborate on some of the comments you made to me and others at the BP Oakland A's game about obvious flaws in Clay Buchholz' delivery? Would it be a big mistake for Clay to continue failing to fool batters with his super high release point? Wouldn't he generate oodles more "deception" by keeping his upper body more upright and keeping the ball hidden as much as possible before release by throwing from his shoulder or head level instead of from as high as he can reach?

Doug Thorburn: I will be covering Buchholz next week in a multi-player article, but I don't mind throwing out a few teasers ... I agree that that a postural adjustment would do wonders, improving pitch command (once he harnessed the delivery) as well as release-depth, in addition to limiting injury risk. My gut feel is that Clay has long been over-rated, and that his killer curve ball has thrown off the expectations. This is a guy with a career k:BB of 1.74.

canada (Canaduh): Obviously it's player-by-player, but can you tell us some of the kinds of things org staff work on / look at when a kid gets drafted and joins the team in extended spring or short-season ball? Let's say two guys. One a flame-throwing HS'er with relatively bad mechanics and the other a pitchable college guy.

Doug Thorburn: Depends on the org, but in general they will emphasize mechanics and conditioning with the flame-throwing HS kid until he gets his delivery under wraps, but the college guy with a "now" delivery will receive an education in pitch sequencing and setting up batters (climbing the ladder more quickly). The HS'er will have the higher ceiling obviously, but he may never reach it, while the college kid has the better shot to climb but lower odds of becoming elite.

On the jukebox: Thrice, "The Beltsville Crucible"

jaymoff (Salem, OR): Is arm speed teachable? Is it trainable through increased weight training/stretching routines?

Doug Thorburn: Absolutely. The conditioning and training goes beyond stretching and into building functional strength and flexibility. Modern methods emphasize the back-side muscles of the shoulder in their velocity training, as these muscles apply the brakes to the throwing arm after release point, and we have learned that a pitcher will only accelerate the arm so far as he has the brakes to slow it down

Jim (Seattle): Hey Doug, thanks for the chat...I'm going to Angels Mariners game tonight, any particular relievers you 'd like to study? especially stride, I may be able to snap some bird eye view if they are up in the bullpen.

Doug Thorburn: Check out the Halos' Ernesto Frieri - he has great momentum and a killer stride

jaymoff (Salem, OR): Is hip/torso torque the number predictor of velocity or is arm speed more important?

Doug Thorburn: One fuels the other, torque just occurs earlier in the kinetic chain. If I had to choose one then it would be arm speed, as it is more directly related to the end result due to timing proximity, but that arm speed is largely determined by torque. Arm speed is also very difficult to subjectively evaluate, while torque is easier to see, so I tend to lean on torque in my evaluations

Dredg Report (San Jose): Thanks! There's an stoplight nearby and a Dredg concert flyer taped to the wall, staring me in the face for months. I'd never heard of them. Now I know that someone out there is listening to them.

Doug Thorburn: Yeah, big fan. I actually went to high school with Dredg - they were a lot heavier back then, but the band has really evolved their sound over time. Their influences include Portishead, Sepultura, and Pink Floyd, but their sound is an evolving hybrid of influences. Very sophisticated band with respect to their approach to music - their first major release was a concept album that flowed like a Floyd record

lemppi (Ankeny, IA): Prince Fielder's BB-rate is way down.....he is swinging at a ton of junk out of the zone. Is it simply an AL-adjustment phase? Or is there a larger issue?

Doug Thorburn: I think that this is an under-appreciated aspect of the transition to a different league, particularly for veteran players who do their homework. Mainstream analysis tends to neglect the levels of research and preparation that the best players put into their jobs, given that the details are left behind the closed doors of a video room. This is also true for pitcher preparation, though pitchers have their batterymates to lean on

On the jukebox: Jimi Hendrix, "Pali Gap"

Alex (Anaheim): Why is Mariano Rivera's cutter so difficult to emulate?

Doug Thorburn: Mariano's ability to make microscopic alterations to his angle of supination allows him to generate different trajectories and velocities on his cutter. Other players will show unplanned variations in supination, but Rivera seems to have complete command of how to make a minute change to get the desired effect.

jaymoff (Salem, OR): This may be too general of a question as there are clearly other factors that influence success, but do support more of a "Drop and Drive" technique or "Tall and Fall"?

Doug Thorburn: I am not a fan of either technique, for various reasons. "Drop and drive" requires a pitcher to lower his center-of-gravity after max leg lift, and I prefer that a pitcher maintains stable balance throughout the delivery. A pitcher who stands too upright with "Tall and Fall" will also lower his center-of-gravity (tho with less intent), as pitchers tend to find a natural balance point as they approach foot strike. I prefer that a pitcher starts with a balanced delivery, with some bend in the knees at set up ("athletic position"), and then thrusts toward the target.

On the jukebox: Pantera, "Cemetery Gates"

winder (Columbus): Is there anything mechanically off with Lincecum.Why could he be struggling?

Doug Thorburn: His timing and balance are off-kilter right now, and his trademark momentum is not where it used to be. I believe that it boils down to conditioning and functional strength, just as it did when this happened back in August 2010

jaymoff (Salem, OR): Proper hitting technique includes hitting off/against a stiff front side/leg. Do you agree? Some coaches (at lower levels of baseball: college, high school, little league) teach squish the bug . . . but isn't that wrong. I think of great hitters like Frank Thomas, who at contact and bat extension through the zone are essentially hitting with their back foot off the ground. What are your thoughts regarding this?

Doug Thorburn: Well, "squish the bug" has more to do with hip rotation than leg position, and refers to the back leg rather than the front-side. I would not consider either of these to be "wrong," per se, and player like Ichiro have taught us that there are other ways to swing the lumber. Ichiro actually modeled his swing after a pitching delivery, with extra linear momentum in his stride, though such a strategy creates a timing-based obstacle that many hitters would not be able to replicate.

jaymoff (Salem, OR): Is arm/hand positioning at foot strike the easiest way to predict future arm troubles?

Doug Thorburn: The best time-point for evaluating injury risk is the initiation of trunk rotation. This will occur right around foot strike (ideally after), but there is wide variation in the amount of delay that pitchers will exhibit before they fire the shoulders.

On the jukebox: Cream, "Tales of Brave Ulysees"

Sky (The Roc, NY): Have you noticed anything qualitatively different with Adam Jones this year? New approach, new mechanics, better at anything?

Doug Thorburn: The glaring statistical difference is in the HR/FB rate. His other rates are relatively close to career marks, but more of his flies are finding the seats. He is also swinging at fewer pitches overall, which suggest a change of approach. He could be sitting dead-red on certain pitches early in the count and laying off anything that does not fit a certain profile until he gets two strikes, and perhaps he has picked up no a particular trend that pitchers had established against him. This is another area where batters who do their homework can reap an advantage.

As Crash Davis said, "If this guy starts me off with the breaking ball ... I'm taking him downtown"

On the jukebox: Billy Idol, "Rebel Yell"

jaymoff (Salem, OR): From a teaching standpoint, what's the ideal positioning at foot strike: the foot parallel to the rubber, directly pointed at home plate, or somewhere in between?

Doug Thorburn: It completely depends on the player's signature. Whichever foot position lines up the delivery such that the shoulders are square to the target at max external rotation is the proper spot for the player. This could be a closed stride (striding to the arm-side), an open stride (glove-side), or a stride that is aimed directly at the plate. If a pitcher constantly opens up the shoulder, yet his timing is sound, then I would adjust the angle of the hips and foot placement at set up in order to compensate. This also works when paying golf - if a player is slicing everything, then he would try closing the pre-set foot position rather than making an adjustment at the end of the swing.

On the jukebox: Slaughter, "Up All Night"

jaymoff (Salem, OR): Has tubing as a means of strengthening/stretching become the more popular and effective training method versus free weights?

Doug Thorburn: An ideal conditioning regimen will incorporate strength-building exercises in addition to those that train flexibility. Weight-training can involve everything from free weights to weighted baseballs, and functional strength can also be trained with isometrics. "Tubing" can be very effective, though I wouldn't necessarily rely on any strategy in isolation. I will say that for years ball players were spending way too much time building front-side beach muscles at the expense of balance and strength on the back-side. This is an element that coaches appreciate in other sports - wrestling, martial arts - but baseball is slow to come around.

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for all of the great questions, everyone. I will take my exit to Tool's "Lateralus," but I look forward to when our virtual paths cross again in the future. 'Til next time.

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