The New and Improved Josh Beckett

In case you’ve been away for awhile, Josh Beckett is having a pretty decent season so far.
Many have tried to explain why. Is it his mechanics? Pitch selection? Better command? Confidence? Better velocity? Luck?

Today, we examine his mechanical changes as a possible reason for his strong start.

TEMPO

If you have read my work here at THT, or at Baseball Think Factory, you know that I love to talk about tempo. I wrote about how Mark Prior’s tempo changes may have had an adverse effect on his arm action.

“For Prior however, the more deliberate pace has altered his arm action….His arm action has gotten longer because it has to compensate for his slowed down pace.”

My Mark Mulder analysis also includes a healthy dose of tempo talk.

You get the idea, I like to talk about it a lot.

I prefer pitchers who maintain a quick tempo to home plate and keep their momentum going without interruption or hesitation. As a rough measure of tempo, I measure (in frames of video) the time it takes a pitcher from the time he’s at the top of the knee lift to the time he releases the ball.
Some have suggested that Beckett has slowed down his motion in order to be more “in control” of his body. In Beckett’s May 8 start against the Blue Jays, NESN treated us to a split screen showing how, in fact, Beckett is indeed more deliberate to home plate than the 2006 version of himself.

I needed to find out for myself

The following clip shows Beckett throwing six fastballs, all clocked between 94 and 96 mph. All but one were glove side (outside corner to a RH). The first three clips from left to right are from 2006. The last three are from 2007. All the clips start from when Beckett begins lifting his left heel on the way to lifting his left leg. By the way, I realize that the third clip has a few missing frames. It’s not a big deal in this case, as you’ll see.

Disclaimer: I was surprised too.

As you may have noticed, the 2006 clips are from the end of last year. Like many pitchers, Beckett tinkered with his mechanics during the season last year. Consider this clip comparing Beckett in May of 2006 to May 2007.

As you can see in this clip, the speed of Beckett’s entire delivery (from heel lift to release) is almost identical.

I don’t know which clips NESN used to do their comparison, but in my analysis, I could come to the conclusion that Beckett is actually quicker with his entire delivery this year. In other words, he is less deliberate.
OK, so I’m right and everyone else is wrong and that’s that. He’s quicker this year, so that makes him better, right?……
NOT SO FAST

Although I believe that how a pitcher gets to the top of his knee lift is important, tempo to me (generally speaking) is from “top of the knee lift to release.” That’s where it counts, to a certain degree. That’s really where a pitcher should start picking up his speed to home plate. This clip, comparing Beckett late last year to this year, is synchronized to release.

You could argue that since the ’06 version is starting with a slightly higher leg lift, he has to be quicker than the ’07 version in order to “catch up” to him at release. At most, ’06 might be half a frame faster than ’07. From frame seven on, both Becketts are nearly perfectly in sync. Even though he breaks his hands a tad earlier in ’07, notice how his arm action is nearly identical. Unlike Mark Prior, his slightly slower tempo has not affected his arm action or the way his body drives forward in a significant way.

My point is that I believe Beckett’s “tempo,” “speed of his delivery,” or “being more deliberate” have not had any significant effect on his mechanical efficiency this year. I’m sorry to those readers who were expecting me, a tempoholic, to come up with a better conclusion than that. Beckett’s tempo, when it counts, is nearly identical. I know, I know. You just spent several minutes of your life reading about something that I believe is not a factor. Hopefully, I haven’t lost you yet.

Let’s get to what I do believe is making a difference.

Here’s a still picture of the first frame of the most recent clip:

1) Note his hand and glove positions.

2) Check out how his left leg and foot “wrap around” his right thigh in ’06 a la Duaner Sanchez (You know I’m a mechanics geek when I can point to Duaner Sanchez’s mechanics). Go ahead, stand up. Lift your leg and attempt these body positions yourself. Which one is easier to accomplish? In which of the two positions do you believe that your body is more “together”?

3) The angle from where these clips were taken are not completely identical. However, they are pretty damn close (which is why I chose them in the first place). That said, can you see how ’06′s upper body is tilted more towards the first base side?

What am I getting at?

If I could group these adjustments into one central idea, what I would say is that Beckett is doing a better job of keeping everything closer to his center of mass. You might hear the baseball term that he’s “gathering himself” better. By keeping his torso, his hands and his legs closer to his center of mass and staying more “compact,” Beckett is able to control his body better into an aggressive forward drive into release.

Other Changes

1) Beckett has also significantly simplified his mechanics. While I admit that I like the May 2006 version of Beckett the most (refer to the second clip), it appears that eliminating excess movement (specifically, the hands over the head windup) has simplified his delivery. Fewer moving parts means fewer things that he needs to coordinate. In theory, it should translate into better command of his pitches.

2) While I need to do more research on this, it appears that Beckett is employing a slightly higher arm slot on his two-seamer. As I explained in my Carlos Zambrano article, a slightly higher release point on a two-seamer generally results in a sinker that has less lateral movement but sharper, later, and “heavier” sink. I’m not sure if John Farrell, the Red Sox pitching coach, is an advocate of higher arm slots or not. However, based on what I’ve read about him, I am fairly certain that he advocates that pitchers use a more north-south approach (“throwing downhill”) which is generally consistent with a higher release point.

A quick look at his stats shows the highest GB/FB rate of his career while maintaining a healthy strikeout rate and low walk rate. I would love to have a handy chart that shows me Beckett’s pitch selection this year. I don’t, but I would guess that the best GB/FB rate of his career correlates to him using his sharper and more ground ball friendly two-seamer more effectively.

Final Thoughts

There’s countless reasons for Beckett’s strong start this year. Pitch selection and location are certainly a factor. However, we shouldn’t understate the impact that improved mechanics can have on a pitcher. By keeping himself more “compact” (lower hands, leg closer to his center of mass, his body not leaning back), simplifying his delivery and slightly altering his arm slot, Beckett has been able to improve his command while not affecting his “stuff.”

I’d like to make one more very important point. As I pointed out at the beginning of the article, I don’t believe that “being more deliberate” and “slowing himself down” have had any effect on his mechanics. As a matter of fact, I could probably make a better case that he’s actually faster this year with his delivery. Tempo, in Beckett’s case, is a non-issue since he appears to be very similar in that department this year. That said, if Josh Beckett thinks that he’s being slower, and this mechanical cue helps him think that he’s more in control, then I’d encourage him to continue with this thought process. For some reason, it reminds me of a quote by the great Yankee, George Costanza:

“Remember Jerry. It’s not a lie if YOU believe it.”

Sometimes what a pitcher thinks is happening is more important than what is actually happening.

Good luck the rest of the way Josh.

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