How baseball failed Phil Coke

Phil Coke played a major role in Detroit’s rise to the World Series in 2012: Tigers manager Jim Leyland turned to him as the closer over the unstable Jose Valverde. However, his career in the big leagues almost never happened. According to Jonah Keri’s column in Grantland, Coke was heading down pink slip lane:

Coke made his short-season debut in 2003 in the Gulf Coast League, returned the next season, and ran into the first of his bouts with elbow trouble. He finally got a clean shot at starting the next year … and was terrible, posting a 5.42 ERA, giving up 122 hits, and striking out just 68 batters in 103 innings in Class A at Charleston of the South Atlantic League. He wasn’t throwing hard enough, wasn’t hitting his spots, and above all else, was trying too hard, letting his wrestler’s mentality affect his emotions and his pitching.

Coke’s velocity was too poor to get advanced hitters out, and the lack of velocity made him nibble instead of challenging guys, which tends to reduce your velocity, which means you have to hit your spots… it’s a never-ending cycle that leads to being released rather quickly. (Read Dirk Hayhurst‘s books for evidence of the same phenomenon: the mental adjustment from level to level is huge.)

Coke had to turn to outside help for assistance—finding an alternative trainer who dared to think outside the box:

His career at a crossroads, Coke sought the help of a training guru named Adrian Crook. Crook’s teaching was grounded in Shaolin kung fu. For Crook, the goal of Shaolin was to develop flexibility, balance, and core strength as the pillars for training athletes in any sport. By becoming more flexible, Crook believed athletes could recover from even the most intense workouts and dramatically lower their injury risk. In training baseball pitchers, the focus would be on dissecting every element of throwing mechanics, right down to what the fingers and the wrists do. Crook’s pitcher pupils would use weighted balls to exercise each part of the arm and hand, via what he called “ridiculously high reps.” Coke loved these ideas and was eager to start training with Crook immediately.

The sentence that stuck out for me was the “ridiculously high reps” quote. Modern baseball pitchers are taught that “you’ve only got so many bullets in your arm.” (Former Blue Jays’ GM JP Riccardi)

As Peter Brand (yes, I know who it’s supposed to be) from Moneyball says, “baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions.” Questions like: “How many pitches has he thrown? How far did he throw his long toss? Did he touch weighted baseballs in the offseason? How much does he bench?”

Overuse isn’t the problem; undertraining the arm is the real issue. Coke’s velocity went from 87-88 mph to 94-95 mph after he exposed his arm to “overuse” through “ridiculously high reps” and he’s been extremely durable, going to the DL only for a bone bruise on his foot.

Baseball definitely needs to preserve the arms of its most valuable assets—cost-controlled studly pitchers—but wrapping them in plastic and curtailing their throwing programs isn’t the way. Think of it this way: Throwing a baseball is the only activity where we tell people to do less of it to get better at it.

It’s not overuse. It’s undertraining. Asking your best pitchers to step up in the highest leverage situations without adequately preparing them is the best way to abuse their arms.

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Comments

  1. Brad Johnson said...

    So basically, the thrust of the conclusion is correlation does not equal causation. Or more explicitly, injuries may be “correlated” with overuse but it’s possible they’re “caused” by undertraining.

    Like anything that exists in the real world, it’s extremely likely that there are a dozen “right” ways to train a pitcher. And so much of it really depends on the individual.

    I’m curious, what’s your opinion on weighted balls?

  2. hopbitters said...

    Absolutely. We talk about how much better training, nutrition, medicine, etc. is these days and yet we’ve got pitchers throwing literally hundreds of innings less a season than 19th and early 20th century pitchers and still getting hurt frequently. Pitch counts aren’t protecting anybody – they’re holding them back.

  3. Brad Johnson said...

    Keep in mind the reason pitch counts gained prominence in the first place. Pitchers with high pitch counts are significantly more likely to allow runs. It was also observed that pitchers with high pitch counts are more likely to sustain injury. Of course, causality is unclear.

    At this time, it strikes me that the best approach is evaluate what each individual pitcher can handle. And in the case of fringe players like Coke, there is no reason to hand hold and play it conservatively.

  4. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Baseball is failing a lot of pitchers, not just Coke. 

    The tyranny of the magical 100-pitch level that Baseball Prospectus instituted with their PAP methodology didn’t help, particularly since they threw it out there apparently not fully baked (Bill James really gave it to them over their original methodology in his book on pitching).

    I’m surprised that you didn’t mention one of the few thinkers in the game who believe that “ridiculous reps” is a key to developing pitchers, the Braves former pitching coach, Leo Mazzone.  He is known for making his pitchers throw more, and farther, between start.  He reportedly was taking under the wing of a long-time Braves player (can’t recall the vet’s name), and the vet infused all his thoughts and theories about the proper way to pitch in Mazzone.

    The Giants also appear to be not tied to the what the pitch count is for the pitcher, that is part of their evaluation, but they look more at his form and other things that they can see with their eyes, and through talking with the pitcher, than just “100 pitches, you are outta there!”

    There is a difference in how each handles pitchers between the two methodologies that I just notieced.  Mazzone don’t allow long tosses, preferring that his charges do all their throwing off the mound.  The Giants (and basically that is Righetti and Gardner) allow long tosses, both Lincecum and Zito are notorious for their long tosses, Lincecum doing them foul pole to foul pole starting the day after a start.

    I’ll also add here that baseball is also failing hitters as well.  A good number of them do not know the way to hit, they were taught to slap at the ball, deadening their power, only because they happen to be fast. 

    Andres Torres is an infamous example of this, he was taught that slap method, and with his career prospects looking dim, looked for someone to train him to hit like Pujols, finding some guy off the internet.  The guy basically taught him using Ted Williams “Science of Hitting”, and he did hit better for a couple of years (he also apparently was suffering from ADHD/ADD and medication helped with that).  The story is on-line somewhere.

  5. Kyle Boddy said...

    Brad:

    “I’m curious, what’s your opinion on weighted balls?”

    Ouch, it hurts, it hurts: I am one of the biggest proponents of weighted baseball training on the Internet, so that means you haven’t read much of my website smile

    We use them all the time. You can find a bunch of examples on my YouTube channel (youtube.com/drivelinebases). I even put out a free weighted baseball ebook!

    http://www.drivelinebaseball.com/our-books/free-weighted-baseball-program-ebook/

    “At this time, it strikes me that the best approach is evaluate what each individual pitcher can handle. And in the case of fringe players like Coke, there is no reason to hand hold and play it conservatively.”

    Exactly. Right on both counts.

    “Baseball is failing a lot of pitchers, not just Coke.”

    Trust me, I agree. smile

    “I’m surprised that you didn’t mention one of the few thinkers in the game who believe that “ridiculous reps” is a key to developing pitchers, the Braves former pitching coach, Leo Mazzone.  He is known for making his pitchers throw more, and farther, between start.  He reportedly was taking under the wing of a long-time Braves player (can’t recall the vet’s name), and the vet infused all his thoughts and theories about the proper way to pitch in Mazzone.”

    I should have mentioned Mazzone, you are right. However, he’s not a fan of “extreme” long toss, so we don’t agree on everything. But overall, yeah, he does not buy into the theories of “bullets in a gun” that so many others do.

    “I’ll also add here that baseball is also failing hitters as well.  A good number of them do not know the way to hit, they were taught to slap at the ball, deadening their power, only because they happen to be fast. “

    I generally agree with this, too. However, it’s not my specialty, and hitting is several orders of magnitude tougher to teach and train than pitching. A reactionary skill is necessarily going to be tougher to master than an initiation skill!

  6. Kyle Boddy said...

    I bet if you had done some deceleration-based training, you would have seen great results with the weighted baseballs.

  7. Richard Barbieri said...

    The Giants also appear to be not tied to the what the pitch count is for the pitcher, that is part of their evaluation, but they look more at his form and other things that they can see with their eyes, and through talking with the pitcher, than just “100 pitches, you are outta there!”

    This seems like a strawman. With the exception of pitchers coming from injury, does any team rely soley on a pitch count to determine when to take a guy out? It seems like count is always part of a larger picture.

    Similiarly, I know 100 pitches seems like the “magical level” but it has always struck me as sensible. If you’re asking a SP to give you seven inning, somewhere in the range of 100 is about 15 per inning. Sometimes a guy goes more than that, sometimes less, but it’s a reasonable enough figure.

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    Ha, sorry Kyle. My playing days are behind me so training techniques aren’t my focus. That said, I was on the cutting edge back in high school and college and I’m seeing that most of the training techniques that I did are just starting to filter into the general population.

    Weighted balls were one of the things that were heavily debated. I steered well clear of them and for good reason. My bicep was extremely prone to straining. The diagnosed problem was lack of rotation in my left hip (and later an impinged shoulder). I was unable to fix that problem so I had to be very careful with any arm training I did if I wanted to pitch.

    In retrospect, I wish I focused on hitting and fielding.

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