Chamberlain or Hughes: Who’s got better mechanics?

In a recent ESPN.com chat with Scouts, Inc.’s Keith Law, the following exchange occurred:

Steve (ATL): Klaw, rank ‘em….Joba, kennedy, Hughes, Guerra, D.Price, Buccholz, Scherzer

SportsNation Keith Law: Joba, Buchholz, Hughes, Price, Kennedy, Scherzer, Guerra.

That got me thinking: Where do I stand in the Phil Hughes vs. Joba Chamberlain debate? What can their mechanics tell us about their future success?

Phil Hughes

All you need to know about how I feel about Hughes’ mechanics can be found in the two articles I wrote on him earlier this year. In part 1, I said I preferred Hughes’ mechanics in 2006:

“I don’t think he will keep his velocity throughout his career if he keeps doing what he’s doing now (2007). I wouldn’t be surprised to find that his four-seam fastball’s average velocity is declining slightly already due to those (mechanical) changes.”

In part 2, I said:

“One more thing I’d like to point out. At no point have I said “I don’t think he’s a good pitcher.” Mechanics is just one part of a pitcher’s evaluation. His command is excellent, his curveball is outstanding and his changeup (based on his last outing) underrated.

His mechanics? A bit overrated.”

Joba Chamberlain

Last year, after the draft, I wrote an article on last year’s draft picks that included this less than positive review of Joba:

“This Sidney Ponson wannabe doesn’t have Ponson’s powerful mechanics (not this year, I’m talking years past). I just don’t like him nearly enough for all the buzz he gets. I like athletes, and if he turns out like Ponson, he will weigh 280 in few years. No thank you.”

Admittedly, that was harsh. However, if you look at Chamberlain’s mechanics in 2006 versus his mechanics this year, they have changed significantly…

These may look similar, but the difference is astounding. In 2007, Joba has much better tempo, as he keeps his body moving and does not interrupt his momentum to the plate by “sitting over the rubber” like he did last year. There’s better drive, better “oomph” and a more aggressive element to his delivery. As someone who prefers quick tempo and aggressive deliveries, can you blame me for saying that about Joba last year? Kudos to the Yankees and Joba for making these changes.

Having said that, let’s compare Joba and Phil in a few key areas.

Tempo

Here’s a clip of their deliveries. I synchronized them to when both pitchers’ left legs pass over the right leg on the way up to their knee lifts:

This one’s not even close. If anything, I might’ve actually given Hughes a little bit of a head start in that clip. Regardless, Chamberlain smokes him in this race. Joba has better tempo and carries his body with better momentum into footplant. Simply put, Joba uses his body better.

Arm action

Generally speaking, I prefer a Hughes-like short arm action. Note how Phil keeps a slight bend on his elbow as his arm moves back, never fully straightening out like Joba’s does. That said, notice how “whippy” Joba’s arm is compared to Hughes (frames 11-15). I believe that Hughes’ lack of whip is a result of several factors, mainly that Hughes seems to open up his left shoulder early.

I realize that these clips are not perfectly synchronized to release (the limitations of 30 frames/second video), but note where the ball is on the first frame of this sequence. Hughes is further along in the throwing process. In other words, he’s got less distance to cover than Joba. Chamberlain appears to have a quicker arm because it has a longer distance to travel, but he covers it in the same amount of time as Hughes. I believe this goes along with their respective tempos. Because Hughes stays over the rubber longer (his tempo is slower), his arm is forced to slow down in order to wait for his front foot to finally land so that he can then unleash. I’ve had several students with arm action hitches that have benefited greatly by increasing the tempo in their deliveries. As a matter of fact, I had a student today make that exact same adjustment, and while it didn’t completely eliminate his hitch (not yet anyway), he now keeps his arm moving through a spot where it would previously come to a stop.

Here’s a clip that I showed in my first Phil Hughes article that compares his mechanics in 2006 to this year. My question to you: Who seems to have better arm speed

Look, I’m not saying that Hughes’ arm action is bad. It’s not, although I would prefer the ’06 version. However, even with Chamberlain’s slight length in the back, his arm is more whippy, he loads the scapula better and has the quicker arm. Edge: Joba

Finish/follow through

I’ll save you the suspense. Phil has Joba beat in this one.

Note how well Hughes buries that right shoulder and gives his arm a nice, long arc that decelerates the arm more smoothly. Joba throws really hard, so it is a bit worrisome that he finishes a bit on the abrupt side.

Other thoughts on mechanics/stuff

1) Hughes repeats his delivery extremely well. It’s early and I haven’t seen Joba nearly enough, but Hughes is just so consistent at repeating his delivery that I would have a hard time believing that Joba could be better at it.

2) Joba has much better hip/shoulder separation than Phil. That separation is indicative of better torque and a driver of velocity.

3) Both are very good at firming up the front side and “bringing everything together” at release. Here’s Joba:

His glove’s movement is an indicator. Note that it does not pull it into his hip. Instead, he brings his chest to the glove and tightens everything up in the moments leading up to release. In my article on the swings of Ruth, Bonds, Aaron and A-Rod, I talked about the figure skater analogy. Same concept here. Much like hitters can turn faster by staying tight and keeping their arms and bathead close to their axis of rotation, pitchers who get tight at the end are able to turn faster and control their limbs better.

4) Their arm slots are very similar in these clips. I believe Joba should stay there in order to maximize the carry on his four-seam fastball. I prefer that Phil go to the lower, 2006 version of his arm slot. The Hughes clips in this article were from earlier this year, in May. Since coming off the disabled list, it looks like he’s going with a lower slot, although I would need to really analyze the video in order to make sure.

5) Better fastball: Joba.
Better offspeed pitch: This one’s really close, but I have to give the edge to Joba’s sick slider over Phil’s excellent curveball and underrated changeup. I’ve seen Hughes’ slider once, and it was pretty good, but I’d need to see it a few more times to make an accurate assessment of it.
Better Command: Hughes, hands-down.

Final Thoughts

Given the choice between the two, whom do I take? It is very difficult to ignore Hughes’ track record, stuff, feel for pitching and his outstanding command. That said, assuming their mechanics remain similar to what they are right now, Joba has a better chance of keeping his plus-plus stuff as he ages. Yes, I worry about Joba’s physique and his abrupt finish. Assuming that Joba can keep his weight under control (it looks like he’s in better shape), right now, from a mechanical efficiency point-of-view, the choice is clear. Give me the quick tempo, momentum-building, aggressive pitcher who struck out almost 14 batters per nine innings in the minors this year. I agree with you Mr. Law,

Joba Chamberlain is my pick.

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