If you search Google for what it takes to become a professional baseball pitcher, you’ll find a lot of forum posts and blog posts espousing that “velocity is king.” You’ll also find a wide variety of rebuttals to that from forum posters and bloggers saying that pitching is an art and velocity isn’t everything—control, command and poise all matter even more than fastball velocity!
|Is Jordan Walden‘s rotation the source of his blistering fastball? (Icon/SMI)|
Who’s right? Certainly we’ve had the major league success of relatively soft tossers like Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle, but the vast majority of successful pitchers (both starters and relievers) have had a big fastball.
If you don’t believe me, let me show the stats of a former college pitcher. Based on these stats, I want you to think about where you’d draft him. The only other information you have is that he’s 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds with no documented history of arm injuries (the reason he didn’t pitch his second year in college was because he was very bad). I’m not going to give you his fastball velocity until you think about it.
Year W-L ERA G GS CG SV IP H R ER BB SO WP HBP Avg. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 20xx 3-0 3.70 15 7 0 0 41.1 30 21 17 36 32 9 7 .208 20xx 0-1 27.00 9 1 0 1 6.2 6 20 20 24 11 13 3 .273 20xx 5-3 7.13 14 13 0 0 53.0 47 52 42 53 72 16 12 .240 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Career 8-4 7.04 38 21 0 1 101.0 83 93 79 113 115 38 22 .229
This guy sucks, right? Sure, his strikeout rate is decent for a college pitcher, but his walks are way too high, and just look at the number of wild pitches he threw!
The person who owns those stats is Jason Neighborgall, a former Georgia Tech pitcher, and he was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, getting a bonus payout that was more appropriate for a high second-round pick.
How could he get drafted so highly without control, command and poise?
That’s easy. Neighborgall had the only thing that mattered: A 100+ mph fastball with life. He paired it with college’s best curveball, and scouts thought both pitches would eventually develop into No. 1 major league starter weapons (a scouting grade of 80).
I’m using this introduction to show you that scouts care so very much about one single thing, and that thing isn’t control, command or poise. It’s fastball velocity, period.
Let’s say you’re a right-handed college pitcher throwing in the high-80s with solid control, but scouts aren’t interested in you. They tell you that velocity can’t be developed and that they would rather have raw talent with a mid-90s fastball without much of a breaking ball or control. Why? Because it’s common knowledge that you can teach someone a breaking ball, change-up, and decent control – but velocity can’t be taught.
If you’ve read my other posts on The Hardball Times, you know that I don’t believe in that “common wisdom.” I’ve focused on training-related ways to increase fastball velocity in pitchers. Today we’ll look at the pitching mechanics of the hardest throwing pitchers and compare them to the softest tossing pitchers to see if we can draw any conclusions. (Watch out, as there will be many large animated GIFs incoming!)
Furbush vs. Vasquez, or “Jeff Sullivan figured this out already”
These two pitchers aren’t the hardest and softest throwers in the big leagues, but since the animated images were already cut by Jeff, I’m going to use them—because I’m nothing if not lazy. (Hey, cutting up animated GIFs is repetitive and boring work!)
This is Anthony Vasquez (left) and Charlie Furbush (right). Vasquez has an average fastball velocity of 85.2 mph while Furbush clocks in at 90.9 mph (source: Fangraphs). Frankly, I’m surprised that Vasquez is even hitting 85 mph on the gun regularly with his mechanics!
Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing noticed this very obvious stark contrast between pitching mechanics, and he said:
Furbush is kind of a max-effort guy. You can see that from the way he finishes, falling off to the right. He slings his left arm around as his right arm pulls his upper body. There’s a lot going on in there, and though I’d say his delivery is pretty consistent, I don’t think anyone would say that he’s polished. It’s a rougher motion.
And then you have Vasquez. Vasquez is the main reason for this post, because, just look at him. If Furbush is just about max-effort, Vasquez is just about no-effort. His motion is smooth and polished because it’s hardly a motion at all. He might as well be having a catch with his nephew. Watch that motion and you expect a knuckleball to come out of his hand. Which, given his velocity, isn’t that far off, I guess.
It’s just… okay, obviously, Vasquez has made that motion work. He’s pitching in the major leagues, after all. But is it any wonder that he can’t throw 90 miles per hour? It’s like every pitch is a warm-up pitch before the real pitches get started. He makes it look effortless, but not in the way that we say Ichiro and Albert Pujols make it look effortless. Anthony Vasquez makes it look effortless in that it looks like he isn’t putting forth any effort.
Jeff has touched on what is generally called “the intent to throw hard.” Furbush intends to throw the ball hard, and Vasquez does not. But is it that simple? What is the “intent to throw hard?” Is it enough to tense up and muscle the ball to the plate?
The intent to throw hard—and what it means
I think it’s pretty clear that Vasquez is not intending to throw the ball hard, and Furbush is. Furbush looks “out of control” and Vasquez has a smooth motion. What you’re seeing is an effect of the violent rotational forces that Furbush (and others) use to generate arm speed. Furbush throws over 90 mph because he is finishing sideways to the target; the after-effect of the rotational velocity of his shoulders carrying him to the side.
Coaches often say: “Bring your pitching leg over your glove leg to finish in front!” This might be a decent cue for some pitchers, but the pitching-arm side leg trailing over and rotating is due to rotation in the delivery; its presence is an effect of throwing hard, not a cause. Most cues coaches use (bend your back, finish out front, extend out front, put your chin to the catcher’s mitt) do nothing to generate fastball velocity and will more likely lead to a pitcher throwing softer and often with less control.
Let’s take a look at the hardest throwing relievers for some proof:
The three pitchers with the hardest fastball velocity (in order) are Henry Rodriguez, Aroldis Chapman, and Jordan Walden. (source: Fangraphs) And here’s what they look like when they’re throwing fastballs:
Aroldis Chapman (97 MPH)
(If you right-click and save any of these images, you’ll get the full-size of them, as some were re-sized to save space on the screen)
What do you notice in all of them? Before you answer, let’s look at ….
Barry Zito (average fastball velocity: 84.1 mph in 2011)
Doug Davis (average fastabll velocity: 84.6 mph in 2011)
And of course, Anthony Vasquez above (averaging 85.2 mph).
The key difference: rotational violence
What you see in Rodriguez, Chapman and Walden are “max effort” mechanics—and you see the opposite in Zito, Davis and Vasquez. Scouts are afraid of “max effort” guys because of control issues or possibility of injury, but no one has correlated these outcomes with those factors. The truth is that elite fastball velocities (92+ mph) require “violent” and “max effort” mechanics from the vast majority of pitchers. Some guys have the ability to throw 92+ without serious trunk rotation due to crazy genetics, but this simply isn’t true for most people—even for your average major league pitche,r who probably has a lot of congenital advantages in his favor.
A pitcher with increased shoulder external rotation, faster pelvis and upper trunk rotation, and greater front knee stabilization and extension will throw with greater ball velocity.
Faster pelvis and upper trunk (shoulder) rotation is generated by efficient use of the lower half and sequencing the body parts correctly from distal to proximal, but a big part of the ability to throw hard simply comes from the desire to modify one’s pitching mechanics to attain these higher rotational velocities—and that means faster moving parts. Faster moving parts means more effort, which means you have the intent to throw hard.
I hope that makes sense and that the animated GIFs of pitchers provide a nice visual representation of one facet of pitching mechanics that separates the elite hard throwers from the soft tossers. Just think: What would it mean to someone if he picked up a few mph on his fastball?