Verlander and Bonderman: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Part 1

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More recently, it appears that both Verlander and Bonderman possibly have turned the corner.

“Verlander started his windup and let loose a fastball.

The pitch felt so good that Verlander had to turn around and look at the radar gun display in left field.

It said ’99.’

The at-bat ended when Mauer lined out to left but it was at that moment that Verlander finally felt like his old self”
Detroit Free Press after Verlander’s start versus Minnesota May 24

After making one quality start in his first eight starts this season, Bonderman has now made three in a row.”
Detroit Free Press after Bonderman’s May 27 start against Anaheim Angels

Why the turnaround?

Analysis of pitching and hitting mechanics is subjective at its very best. In the world of engineering, the process of designing something new and/or analyzing why something doesn’t work is quite often heuristic. Heuristics are “rules of thumb,” educated guesses, intuitive judgments or simply common sense.

Unfortunately, when it comes to pitching and hitting mechanics, intuitive judgments and common sense often fail. Why? At least two reasons:

1. The most critical aspects of swinging and throwing are virtually invisible to the naked eye. They happen so fast and there’s so much going on that it’s virtually impossible for the naked eye and the brain to process what is happening. Combine this with the infinite complexity of how the body creates movement and it’s almost impossible to understand how high-level performers swing and throw.
2. For reasons that can be attributed only to the “culture of baseball,” the people considered the most knowledgeable about to how the body swings and throws and how to develop those skills—management and coaches—are not the most knowledgeable people in terms of understanding how the body actually swings and throws.

At best, what is called pitching and hitting mechanics analysis is almost exclusively qualitative: viewing and comparing video clips of a player and then attempting to use one’s experience and intuition to explain any differences. The primary methodology is to compare “before” and “after.”

But this analysis approach has severe limitations.

1. Rarely do we have enough information. When I am asked to analyze a player, I always request views representing the four points of the baseball diamond compass (views from home plate, first base, second base and third-base). These views are almost never available when attempting to analyze major league pitchers.
2. Thirty frames per second, the standard video display rate of TV, often does not provide the time resolution necessary to see what needs to be seen. This is especially true at the major league level of swing and throw performance.

Even with the best video footage, it still comes down to understanding how the body actually throws the baseball or swings the bat along with analysis experience. What constitutes “good” video analysis experience? There are no metrics or standards to measure it. The only answer I can give is that good video analysis requires the ability to explain using inference and induction, using proven concepts about how a player should throw the baseball or swing a bat.

And then there is the question of ability versus skill, ability being how well a pitcher can throw a baseball and skill being how effectively he can get batters out. Throwing versus pitching: You can throw a baseball without pitching it. but you can’t pitch a baseball without throwing it.

Pitching coach and instructor “common sense”

Several months ago, I asked a friend of mine who’s a former major league pitcher and pitching coach, and minor league pitching coordinator and pitching mechanics instructor, for a list of pitching mechanics “common sense.”

Here’s when he sent me:

Anyway, some terms I have heard

1. Stay back
2. Get to a balance point
3. Point the toe down
4. Stay tall
5. Push off the rubber
6. Keep your eyes on the target the entire delivery
7. Keep the head still
8. Point the glove at the target (not so often heard)
9. Take a short stride so you can drive the ball down
10. Pitch downhill
11. Take the ball out of your glove early so you get it to the launch position
12. Think FB when throwing your breaking ball
13. Get extension, reach out to the hitter
14. Pull the glove to the hip
15. Don’t move forward at leg lift, wait until you get to a balanced point over the rubber
16. Finish in a good fielding position
17. Keep your shoulder closed
18. Make sure you step with your foot on the line
19. RHP pitch from the 3rd base side/ LHP 1st base side
20. Don’t land on your heel
21. Land on the ball of your foot

At least half of these (and more depending upon how they are interpreted by the player) are what I call velocity killers.

Most of these pitching mechanics common sense dictums are intended to do one thing: get the pitcher to throw strikes. Throwing strikes is the No. 1 priority of a major league pitching coach simply because at that level it’s assumed that you know how to throw the baseball. Throwing strikes is perceived (and rightly so) as fundamental to getting batters out, winning games and job security.

Throwing strikes is also equated to mechanically repeating the delivery. And most of these pitching coach common sense dictums are an attempt to create a repeatable delivery.

And then there is “uncommon” sense—what some call “science.”

The fundamental principle of developing voluntary movement patterns is trial and error. We are not born to swing or throw; we acquire those skills through experimentation.

All voluntary movement is initiated by the desire to fulfill a goal, to achieve the desired result.

As we undertake a new movement task, we search for those posture and muscle actions that produce the desired movement result. Our trial-and-error search ends when “goal” equals “result.” At the beginning of the movement learning process, our universe of movement pattern variations is very large. As time goes on and movement proficiency increases, our options become more restricted simply because we have eliminated less efficient movement patterns.

Most coaches and instructors carry this to what they believe is the ultimate conclusion: Activities such as pitching a baseball and throwing strikes are best achieved with little or no movement variability, with the ability to repeat the pitching delivery precisely.

Yet movement research yields results that may contradict this belief.

Movement variability can be considered at several levels of analysis. At one level, the amount of change exhibited within a movement can be quantified by examining the range of motion exhibited about the joints during an action (intratrial) (2). Vereijken et al. (1992) measured intratrial variability during a ski simulator task by calculating the standard deviation of joint angles within each acquisition trial. In their study, it was shown that the variability of knee angles for a group of novices increased as a function of practice, particularly during the early learning phase.

Movement variability is more commonly defined as the degree of change in coordination patterns between trials (intertrial). For example, Schollhorn and Bauer (1998) provide an example of how the coordination patterns of elite athletes can vary during training. A clustering algorithm was applied to joint angle and angular velocity data from two discus throwers, and it was shown that the amount of clustering across throws differed between each athlete’s training sessions. Such interesting findings question the commonly held view of expert performance being characterized by invariant features at all times.

In more general terms, variability has also been considered as the amount of variation between the coordination patterns of a group of individuals (interindividual). For example, Button, Davids, Bennett, and Tayler (2000) had to use an individual kinematic analysis of expert catchers due to the large amount of between-participant variability in a simple one-handed catching task. In summary, it seems that, several studies support Bernstein’s (1967) observations that an increase in skill level may be associated with increasing movement variability in joint-space (both within and between individuals) via the release of degrees of freedom.
—Examining movement variability in the basketball free-throw action at different skill levels: Motor Control and Learning, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Sept. 1, 2003.

More major league pitching coach “common sense”

I found the following from an article in the Detroit Free Press quite interesting.

But hitting the radar gun consistently in the mid-to-high 90s shows the extra work with pitching coach Chuck Hernandez is paying off.

Most of the work has been on his mechanics with the goal of putting more stress on his lower body instead of his prized right arm.

It makes him a more effective pitcher and helps stave off arm trouble.

Immediately two questions come to my mind.

1. Exactly how does putting more stress on the lower body relieve stress on the arm?
2. Exactly how does one put more stress on the lower body to relieve stress on the arm?

The article goes on further to say:

“When you’re out there you really don’t want to think about it,” Verlander said. “Obviously my stuff has been all right, but I’m not a low-90s pitcher.

“So we knew something was kind of awry in there. And we have been working to fix it. I thought today was a big step for me.”

Which raises the question, did his attempt to put more stress on the low body to relieve stress on the arm lead to “so we knew something was kind of awry in there”?

Some snooping and sleuthing

We begin our qualitative analysis of Verlander and Bonderman by comparing a clip of them throwing “well” (last year) to a clip of them throwing not so well (this year).

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On the left, Verlander 2008 throwing 89 mph; on the right, Verlander 2007 throwing 99.

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On the left, Bonderman 2008 throwing 90 mph; on the right, Bonderman 2007 throwing 95

There are two aspects to analyzing throws or swings: The developmental (what the player can do more efficiently and effectively to increase performance) and the fix-it analysis to restore degraded performance to a previous higher level.

Recently I was asked by an MLB team’s baseball operations person to look at one of its pitchers, a player who last year was consistently 92-94 mph and who this year is throwing in the 86-88 mph range. My first question: Do you have good video of this player? The answer was no; they had had what commercial television footage was available. I then lectured this person on the necessity to create and maintain a player video library where camera angles are carefully chosen and the videos maintained to be used in situations like this.

The clips they sent me and those I was able to find online showed almost no difference in how the player threw the baseball, which is more typical than not for high-level performers such as major league pitchers. In explaining the difficulty of doing an analysis with limited video information I said it reminded me of the “Sherlock Holmes And the Case of the Silk Stocking” mystery I saw several weeks ago on PBS.



Specifically, when Holmes said to the police inspector, “When all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

The problem is that there is little discernible difference between Verlander throwing 91 and Verlander throwing 99 and Bonderman throwing 95 and Bonderman throwing 90, at least to my eye, and therefore one must rely upon other means to get at the “truth.”

So, next time in this series on Verlander and Bonderman: When all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

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