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Chat: Doug Thorburn

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Welcome to Baseball Prospectus' Friday September 14, 2012 2:00 PM ET chat session with Doug Thorburn.


Pitching mechanics class is in session.

Doug Thorburn: My ticket is punched for BP's Dodger Stadium event this weekend, but in the meantime let's enjoy an afternoon of baseball banter. All questions are accepted, even the non-pitching ones, and feel free to drop a suggestion for a pitcher to be covered in a future Raising Aces column. Let's begin!

edwardarthur (Illinois): Does the palmball still exist? If not, is that because the distinctive grip makes it too easy to pick up out of the pitcher's hand?

Doug Thorburn: I think the increasing rarity of the palmball is due to a couple of factors, one of which is the ease with which a batter can pick up the pitch out of hand. It is also a difficult grip to repeat consistently, and there are easier ways to replicate the velocity and movement of a good palmball.

On the jukebox: Cream, "White Room"

Ashitaka1110 (Houston, TX): Velocity; how much is it dependent on mechanics, versus "natural ability?"

Doug Thorburn: Velocity is a determined by mechanics, functional strength and flexibility, and also genetics. The biggest mechanical indicator is hip-shoulder separation or torque, but what often gets overlooked is the role of conditioning in producing top velocity. Greater functional strength can increase velo, especially through work on the back-side shoulder muscles, while greater flexibility will allow a pitcher to create more torque with additional upper-body load. "Natural ability" certainly plays a role, but I disagree with the axiom that velocity is ingrained.

On the jukebox: Dredg, "Same Ol' Road"

Alex (Anaheim): How do you expect Pettitte to fare if the Yankees reach the postseason?

Doug Thorburn: It's amazing that such a wealthy ballclub seems to be consistently short-handed on the mound. With CC scuffling, the Yanks will need somebody to step up at the back-end of the rotation. Kuroda has been quietly awesome this year, and Phil Hughes is starting to put things together, but a healthy return for Pettitte could help to extend the season in New York. His velocity and pitch command were solid early in the season, and a return to form will go a long way toward stabilizing the pitching staff in the postseason.

On the jukebox: Lagwagon, "Give It Back"

lewish (WA): Was reading a past chat and was wondering what the mirror drill at NPA is, and you mentioned other ways to build arm strength besides long toss, and was wondering if you could discuss either of above briefly? Thanks!

Doug Thorburn: The mirror-drill is a two-person exercise that breaks up the mechanics of the pitching delivery into distinct phases, allowing players to both see and feel the elements in the kinetic chain. The exercise can also be performed solo using a large mirror or a wall, though the latter method lacks the visual feedback. There are many methods for building arm strength, from long-toss to strength training and weighted baseballs, as well as conditioning methods that focus on the development of functional flexibility. One of the best techniques that I have seen is to have pitchers try surfing, as the act of paddling is great for developing the back-side shoulder muscles that are so critical to healthy throwing.

On the jukebox: Bad Religion, "Generator"

Ashitaka1110 (Houston, TX): How big of a role did Mark Appel's mechanics play in his falling as far as he did in the draft? Anything major he needs to correct?

Doug Thorburn: It is impossible to know for sure why each of the eight teams selecting before Pittsburgh opted to pass on Appel, though his bonus demands likely played a major role, as did the identity of his agent and the novelty of the current rules governing signing bonuses. It could also be a case of the hype outweighing the potential, as though Appel was certainly a top-tier pitcher in the draft, there was no clear-cut favorite among the arms. I preferred the skills of Kyle Zimmer in a vacuum, and the anticipated difference in bonus demands just increases the ranking spread on a potential zebra sheet. Appel has some decent mechanics, though nothing stands out as elite, and he does have some mechanical inefficiencies that could be cleaned up in time for next year's draft.

On the jukebox: Alice In Chains, "Would"

Milky (Anaheim): I hear about guys slowing their arm on changes but can't see the difference with my naked eye. Any tips?

Doug Thorburn: The throwing arm is moving so rapidly as it accelerates into release point that it takes a lot of practice to identify subtle changes in arm-speed, and the essence of scouting is to train the eyes through exhaustive repetition while directing one's attention to specific elements of play. The best advice that I can give is to start watching the throwing arm on every pitch, especially as the rotational elements kick into gear, and over time you will develop appreciation for arms that are slower on off-speed pitches. It is often the case that a pitcher slows down not only the arm, but the entire body by halting momentum and decreasing torque, the net result of which is a lower arm-speed. The guys that rock the best change-ups will use pronation to take something off the pitch, allowing them to use the same body language and arm speed as a fastball.

On the jukebox: Led Zeppelin, "When the Levee Breaks"

Brian_K (Missouri): Has there been a pitcher that has had some degree of success with the Dr. Mike Marshall style of pitching?

Doug Thorburn: The only one that comes to mind is Jeff Sparks, a knuckleballer who cracked the majors back in 1999-2000, but there may have been others. There are certainly some merits to Dr. Marshall's methods, though his unorthodox style and abrasive nature are a turn-off to many clubs, and his preferred method of pitching appears very awkward when compared to a more traditional style. The lower-body portion of the delivery is particularly disconcerting, especially since Dr. Marshall himself employed a more efficient style of stride in his playing days.

On the jukebox: Metallica, "Orion"

Guillermo (Montevideo, Uruguay): Good choice going with Alice in Chains. Quick one: what would happen if a guy with Aroldis Chapman's speed would pick up a knucleball? BTW, there were only 7 picks before Pittsburgh's.

Doug Thorburn: A pitcher with Chapman's profile has little use for a knuckler - batters are not fooled by the velocity of a knuckleball and they can read the pitch out of hand, so it becomes a trick for pitchers that lack quality primary offerings. But someone like Chapman can benefit more from using pitches that allow him to take advantage of effective velocity, timing, and break to keep hitters guessing. I think that he would benefit more from a classic change-up or a splitter than a knuckleball.

Layne Staley was a tragic loss for the music world, bringing an early end to a great band. Oh, and thanks for the correction on the pick number.

On the jukebox: Iron Maiden, "Flash of the Blade"

Brian_K (Missouri): Why did Zito want to change his mechanics after he got his big contract from the Giants?

Doug Thorburn: Great question. Zito is a very cerebral pitcher who is always tinkering with his mechanics or adjusting his approach, and his goal was to become a better pitcher and earn his hefty contract. Zito had his worst season that final year in Oakland, with walk and hit rates that spiked while the K rate plummeted, so he was looking to get back into CY form. He was saying all the right things in spring training that year, and the mechanical changes were all intended to have positive repercussions - such as more momentum and a deeper release. But Zito was still not able to recapture the skills of his youth, which is a common scenario for pitchers who were stars in their 20's.

On the jukebox: Sublime, "Badfish"

NC (SF): You looked at Tim Lincecum awhile back. He's had better results lately, but still doesn't look right when I watch him. Have you seen anything to make Giants fans optimistic?

Doug Thorburn: With Lincecum it all boils down to timing, but his timing is dependent on the massive stride and incredible momentum, elements that require a greater degree of functional strength that more typical deliveries. I am optimistic in that he has had more success lining up his motion the last couple of months, but his timing still escapes him at times, and he is really struggling to find the delivery from the stretch this year. He can look like a different pitcher inning to inning, and the good innings have been more and more prevalent through the course of the season, so one can hope that he will continue the upward trend into the postseason.

On the jukebox: The Yardbirds, "Heart Full of Soul"

Jorge (Ontario): In talking to a minor league pitcher in Hi-A he staed that his arm hurts when he throws the change-up but not his fastball. What are your thoughts? if it's an injury why only when he throws the change-up? Im confused.

Doug Thorburn: It probably has something to do with how he throws the change. Pre-set pronation is the method of choice, but it is also something that is very difficult for a pitcher to feel and harness - I could never pick it up myself, which is why I leaned on a splitter in my youth. But not everyone focuses on the pronation aspect of throwing the change, instead choosing to focus on grips (circle, C-change, etc), and the wrong method can deter from the ways that a pitcher naturally throws the baseball to create further issues.

On the jukebox: Queens of the Stone Age, "The Lost Art of Keeping a Secret"

dipotonotdipoto (brooklyn): What does it mean when someone says a pitcher has a great load?

Doug Thorburn: Load typically refers to the upper-body prior to rotation. A pitcher with great load will have some torque due to a twist of the trunk - like a hitter preparing to initiate the swing - that allows the shoulder axis to coil in preparation for the unleashing into rotation. The additional load will have positive repercussions for velocity.

On the jukebox: Thrice, "Stare at the Sun"

NC (SF): Thanks for the article on catchers today. I'm surprised at the range of quality in MLB catchers when it comes to framing. Of all the physically demanding jobs of a catcher, this one seems like it would be "easier" to learn. Is this taught anywhere - are there college or minor league systems that show better results developing this skill?

Doug Thorburn: Pitch-framing is a specific skill that requires several underlying abilities - a catcher who lacks soft hands will struggle with the physical aspects of framing, while a player that lacks confidence in receiving the ball will fail to earn the trust of an umpire which is necessary to expand the strike zone. Great framers also need to have extensive knowledge of the velocity, movement, and command of his pitcher's arsenals - it's essentially the integration of all the elements that separate catchers from the rest of the fielders. There are certainly some coaches and organizations that are better or worse at the instruction of pitch-framing, and there are also private instructors who are experts in catching instruction. Of course, the greatest pitch-framing coach in all the land appears to be Papa Molina.

On the jukebox: Sepultura, "Altered State"

Peter (Dallas): Is there proof that there are particular mechanical flaws that make a pitcher a higher injury risk, or is that kind of prognostication different from pitcher to pitcher?

Doug Thorburn: I covered the mechanical precursors to injury in this article for Baseball Prospectus, as there are certainly a handful of factors that have been identified as risky mechanics. The statistical proof is a bit sketchy given the plethora of variables that come into play with the injury equation, but the results of independent studies from different researchers have come up with some overlapping results. For example, at the NPA we found that postural instability to be a risk for injury, a finding that was consistent with research by Glenn Fleisig of ASMI. Though as you note, the prognosis differs from pitcher to pitcher based on other factors including workloads, functional strength, genetics, and luck.

On the jukebox: Pink Floyd, "Dogs"

Angel (Chino): How are you supposed to "snap your wrist" when throwing a curve ball?

Doug Thorburn: For arm's sake, you are NOT supposed to "snap your wrist" when throwing a curve ball! That is a sure-fire recipe for elbow damage. I know that some coaches will teach this method, because you can generate a lot of movement with the twist, but it is not only dangerous but also dysfunctional at the highest level. A twisted curve ball will leave the pitcher's hand with a different trajectory than a fastball, allowing advanced hitters to identify the pitch early in the flight path. The better method is to throw a "karate chop" curve that uses pre-set supination to produce break and velocity reduction. The supinated curve will fall off a cliff rather than ride a loop to the plate, and it will leave the pitcher's hand with the same trajectory as a fastball.

Kingpin (Grinnell, IA): Doug - Why don't more pitchers move around on the rubber from batter to batter or even pitch to pitch? Most pitchers go from one side of the rubber or the other; why wouldn't a roght-handed pitcher throw from the 1st base side vs. a lefty batter, but more to the middle or third base side against a righty batter?

Doug Thorburn: The pitcher's starting point on the rubber dictates his physical position at release point, and moving on the rubber can easily throw a pitcher off-line. For example, a lefty that starts on the 3rd base side will likely end up with his body aligned with the left-side batter's box, and he then requires over-rotation just to get the ball over the plate. Jonathan Sanchez has struggled with this for years, and when he sets up on the left-hand side of the rubber he is essentially incapable of throwing inside to right-handed batters. Given the crucial importance of pitch repetition and release-point extension, I would avoid doing anything that could potentially interfere with these elements of pitch execution - the costs outweigh the benefits of creating angle on the hitter, IMO. I would rather discover the pitcher's natural position at release point that gets him lined up with the target (as indicated by a drag-foot on the centerline), and then adjust the starting position accordingly.

NS (CA): Do you know anything about cricket bowlers, their mechanics and applicability to baseball? what about golfers or (tenpin) bowlers?

Doug Thorburn: Awesome question. I have not studied cricket bowlers, but when I was with the NPA we did a lot of work with Titleist Golf, and there are some striking similarities between a pitcher's throw and a golfer's swing, particularly when it comes to timing and sequencing of the kinetic chain. Many of the techniques that work for lining up a golf swing can also be applied to the mound. My only research for (tenpin) bowling is based on personal experience at the local alley - that said, I love bowling if only because it is another outlet for me to tinker with my own mechanics. I have noticed some overlap between pitching and bowling, particularly regarding the linear elements of stride direction and angle, as well as the importance of timing with respect to release point. Full disclosure: I am not a good bowler by any means, and my constant mechanical experiments typically result in a victory for my fiancee.

On the jukebox: Skid Row, "Monkey Business"

Phil Phan (u know where): hi, what should we expect from Halladay for the rest of his contract?

Doug Thorburn: Given his advanced age (35) and the height of his established ceiling, I would say that Halladay's best days are probably behind him. That said, his peripheral stats are still solid even if they represent a step down from his peak, and I expect a modest rebound next year. The Phils are only on the hook for 2013, with a club option for 2014 that vests automatically if Halladay can stay on the mound for 250+ innings next year, an element that essentially safeguards the team against injury or poor performance. Halladay will only get paid in '14 if he step it up in '13.

On the jukebox: Jimi Hendrix, "In From the Storm"

Brian_K (Missouri): I want to make a wiffleball move in crazy ways. What is the best way to learn to do that?

Doug Thorburn: Question of the Day! The standard pronation/supination will certainly do the trick, but I have found that pitch grip is a much greater determinant of stuff in whiffleball due to the uneven distribution of weight as well as the aerodynamics of having holes on just one side of the ball. I found that I could throw a slider or a screwball just by changing the direction that the holes were facing, but my best stuff came out on windy days.

On the jukebox: Corrosion of Conformity, "Albatross"

Billy (Ocean): The one thing that you've learned that would shock the casual fan?

Doug Thorburn: This --> The majority of Major League pitchers miss the majority of their targets.

That might not sound like a big deal in isolation, but consider that these are the best athletes in the world at what they do, that they have spent thousands of hours throwing countless pitches to reach the top of their game, and that they are solely responsible for where the pitch travels (prior to contact). Stir it all together, and it is shocking that most of these guys can't repeat the delivery more than half the time.

On the jukebox: Misfits, "Last Caress"

Doug Thorburn: Thanks for the excellent questions today, gang, and I look forward to seeing some of you tomorrow at Chavez Ravine. 'Til next time, remember the mantra of Yu Darvish - "I got 99 problems but a pitch ain't one"

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