Jason Vargas, the twist, and the intent to throw hard

Jeff Sullivan on Lookout Landing made a very interesting observation about Jason Vargas changing his mechanics as of late. Jeff provided two animated images of Vargas throwing from the windup and how he added a “twist” to his delivery—much like how Felix Hernandez changed when Erik Bedard introduced this to him. To simplify things, I combined the images into one, synchronized to ball release:

image

The obvious thing that you notice immediately is this:

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However, Vargas is doing a lot more than simply “twisting” during his glove side leg kick! Here’s what isn’t obvious unless you watch the image closely using a frame-by-frame image analyzing program:

He’s a frame or two (30 FPS) quicker from the top of his leg lift to foot plant. He’s making more potential energy available to him as he gets from the “balance point” (which not all pitchers have; Vargas and other soft-tossing pitchers generally do, however) to footstrike.

-He is generally much quicker throughout the delivery. He picks up his leg faster in the after video.
-He has a lot more movement with his arms during the delivery, giving them what some would call a “running start.”
-His pitching arm enters and exits shoulder horizontal abduction (scapular loading) much faster despite the reverse rotation of the shoulders and hips.

Effort, or the Intent to Throw Hard

Paul Nyman first made popular the phrase “intent to throw hard.” Jason Vargas prior to making these changes throws like your standard soft-tossing lefty—he gets to a balance point with his glove leg and he has a slow and controlled initial portion of his arm action. Vargas does have a relatively aggressive stepover into footstrike and does rotate his shoulders pretty quickly for a guy who is throwing in the mid-to-upper-80s; a better example of a true soft tosser would be his teammate Anthony Vazquez:

image

(image credit: Lookout Landing)

And really, an LHP with an average fastball velocity of nearly 88 MPH isn’t exactly the softest tosser out there. But if he has the chance to simply get into the 90′s by some simple mechanical tweaks, that’s a huge gain.

So, what does The Twist do?

Vargas isn’t simply twisting in addition to his original mechanics; this much is clear. Maybe he feels like that’s the only thing that changed, or that it’s the only thing he’s consciously focused on, but Vargas is very simply trying to throw much harder than he used to—and succeeding.

However, let’s just discuss The Twist specifically. By reverse rotating around the hips, you theoretically gain a longer distance over which you can rotate, and if you can rotate over a longer distance with the same acceleration, then it stands to reason that the ending velocities will be higher. It’s not all about peak hip rotational speeds, however; there’s research out there (ASMI, University of Tsukuba) that shows that the timing of these peak rotational velocities matters too, specifically, the earlier the hip can reach its peak rotational velocity, the better. The mechanism of action isn’t known why this would produce higher fastball velocities, but the theory is simply that the sequencing of the parts in the kinetic chain are optimized as a result—force is more efficiently passed from body segment to body segment.

Fastball velocity is (mostly) about how quickly someone can rotate his shoulders while the forearm is in the optimal position to enter shoulder external rotation where the inertial mass of the baseball pushes the forearm back. By getting the hips in the right position to support the trunk’s high rotational velocities, you can possibly throw much harder if the upper portion of the body’s mechanics do not also get out of whack.

The Twist can introduce a timing issue where the shoulders also rotate too early; this would undo all the good work of better hip positioning when the glove foot strikes the ground. Additionally, The Twist can cause an altered positioning of the pitching forearm which can drastically change the kinematics and kinetics of the shoulder and elbow, possibly increasing injury risk.

So, The Twist is not a catch-all mechanical change everyone should be flocking to. I hope this explains it a little better.

Is the velocity gain for real? If so, why don’t other MLB teams look into these types of mechanical optimizations?

Well, Jeff Sullivan tends to think it might be a real gain in velocity, and I do too. His mechanics should generate better arm speeds and fastball velocities for as long as he keeps using them. Whether or not his other pitches will suffer is another question entirely; one that I can’t adequately answer without more data.

As for the second question, it requires a bit of speculation. First of all, some teams do send their pitchers to ASMI’s labs in Birmingham, Alabama, where they are biomechanically analyzed to determine kinematics and kinetics of their pitching motion. Driveline Baseball offers a comparable product: Our Biomechanical Video Analysis services can also measure kinematics and kinetics of a pitcher’s motion as well using high-speed cameras and specialized software. (Additionally, our services can be deployed on the road at an MiLB stadium, for example.) However, the interpretation of ASMI’s reports can be variable and may not be fully integrated into a player’s development plan for whatever reason. And of course, some organizations don’t think there’s value in sending their pitchers there, so they don’t.

It makes the most sense to experiment on the organizational players of the minor leagues, where the cost is low if things fail (non-prospects getting the boot from baseball doesn’t matter much) and potentially very high if it succeeds and becomes an organization-wide plank in the training platform. The same can be said for other unorthodox training methods, but from my—admittedly limited—interactions with professional baseball players, it doesn’t sound like much of this is going on. This is a shame, since I firmly believe that player development is the next frontier of finding the hidden edges, just like sabermetrics was during the mid-to-late-90s.

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Comments

  1. RMR said...

    Johnny Cueto integrated an even more extreme version of the twist this year, to the point that he’s drawn Luis Tiant comparisons.

    Interestingly, his 4-seam fastball velocity is down 1 mph, his slider velocity is down 3 mph(!), but his 2-seam fastball velocity is up.

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