Verlander and Bonderman: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, Part 2

“When all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking.

(Part 1 can be found here)

In Part 1, I said the following, which I repeat because of its relevance to Verlander and Bonderman throwing baseballs:

1. The most crucial 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 brain to process what is happening. Combine this with the infinite complexity of how the body creates movement and you have almost an impossible situation with respect to understanding how high-level performers swing and throw.
2. For reasons that can only be attributed to the “culture of baseball,” team management and the people considered the most knowledgeable about how the body swings and throws and how to develop it (major league pitching and hitting coaches) are not the most knowledgeable in understanding how the body actually performs these tasks.

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 the differences (if any). 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 do an analysis of a player I always request views representing the four points of the baseball diamond compass (views from home plate and each base). These views are almost never available for 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 the analyst’s experience. What constitutes “good” video analysis experience? 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.

All videos are not created equal

Maintaining performance at the major league level is life on a knife edge. The smallest change in how a player throws or swings is the difference between playing at Fenway Park or playing in McCoy Stadium (of the Red Sox Triple-A affiliate).

In Part 1, I presented these comparisons of Verlander and Bonderman.

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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

If you see a significant difference those clips of Verlander or of Bonderman, you should be writing this article and not me.
I posted these comparisons to show how difficult it is to “see” how a pitcher can lose 5-10 mph off his fastball. More often than not, what you don’t see or don’t take into consideration is the difference.

Also, there are problems in attempting to decide about throw or swing mechanics using off-the-air broadcast video.

One is the need for consistency in camera angle and positioning. I always try to find clips that are from the same stadium and the same camera angle. Lacking that, I try to make sure that the clips are as close as possible to the same camera angle. I do that by picking reference points and comparing them. This picture illustrates that.

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1. First, I look for a common baseline. In the case of these two clips, it’s the edge of the standards that forms a horizontal reference line.
2. I create a reference point at home plate that approximates a point that would be directly in line with a point on the pitching mound (XYZ coordinates).
3. I then create a construction that approximates the camera angle (number of degrees from true center field view).

In the Verlander clips, the angles are approximately 33 degrees and approximately 35 degrees respectively. This gives me confidence that I’m looking at Verlander from same relative camera angle in both clips.

Why is this important? Because 30 frames per second does not capture the necessary dynamics of trying to throw abaseball more than 90 mph.

And then what you don’t see

Much of what I understand about how the body throws or swings is based on physics—specifically, simulation models of the swing and throwing process. These simulations demonstrate the sensitivity of final throwing results to small changes in the throw process/sequence.

In the clips of Verlander and Bonderman, there is little perceptible difference in their deliveries that would “scream out” as a reason for their decreased velocity. There appear to be no major changes in mechanical components such as posture, arm action, tempo or overall sequencing of the throw. The key word here is “major”.

Enter the physics; the following is a simulation of throwing the baseball resulting in a release of 95 mph.

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This simulation is based on actual throwing measurements, including duplicating the players’ body mass and size as well as the rotational dynamics, the most important variable being upper torso angular velocity.

Typical values for upper torso angular velocity are approximately 1,200 degrees (1,176 degrees actual) per second.

This physics simulation is optimized for this upper torso rotation rate using typical values for moments of inertia of upper torso, upper arm, forearm and the ball.

Release ball velocity is approximately 95 mph and a “throwing time” of .070 seconds.

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The same simulation as before except upper torso angular rotation velocity is 1,100 degrees (1,081 degrees actual) per second (8 percent reduction in upper torso angular rotation speed) resulting in a release ball velocity of approximately 87 mph and a “throwing time” of .070 seconds.

Rotation and connection of the most fundamental aspects of throwing velocity; a reduction by 8 percent of upper torso rotational velocity equates to approximately 8 percent decrease in throwing velocity.

But throwing time remains almost constant (.070 seconds). This would mean that putting two pitching clips shot from the same camera angle side-by-side at 30 frames per second (.033 seconds per frame) would show no difference in throwing mechanics yet result in almost in an 8 percent decrease in throwing velocity.

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Side-by-side comparison of 87 and 95 mph simulations (.010 seconds per step) showing virtually no difference in throwing time

The point of that exercise is to demonstrate that small and imperceptible changes (imperceptible at 30 frames per second) can account for significant decreases in velocity. That also raises the question of how “good” is the analysis of those who depend on video to analyze how effectively players swing or throw.

“When all other contingencies fail, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Yes I do like the saying because of its relevance to the Verlander-Bonderman loss of velocity. Here are the same clips with additional footage after the release of the ball:

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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

What happens after the pitcher releases the ball can tell us (me, anyway) as much if not more about the pitcher’s mechanics as what happens before he releases the ball.

What I see in both clips after the release of the ball is the effect on the body of residual rotational momentum.

Both Verlander and Bonderman exhibit significant residual rotation momentum after they release the ball. This is indicated by their “heading off” toward first base after releasing the ball.

The body doing this after releasing the ball can be either good or bad and the only real way to determine which is what happens to the baseball when this residual rotational momentum is or isn’t present.

In the case of both pitchers, it appears that better things happen to the ball when there is residual rotational momentum that carries them “around” toward first base.

Many pitching instructors and coaches view this move toward first base after the ball is released as being a negative. To understand why requires understanding that pitching instruction historically holds that a player, especially a young player, is more likely to throw strikes by keeping his head and body going straight toward home plate. This may be fine for a Little Leaguer or a player who doesn’t wish to pitch at a high level, but it is a potential kiss of death for anyone attempting to throw 90 mph or more.

Unfortunately, coaches and instructors at all levels have adopted this instructional mantra. They equate keeping ahead on a straight line with throwing strikes. To them, movement toward home plate after the release of the ball indicates extension to home plate and therefore greater “perceived” velocity. Unfortunately, attempting to get extension is the first cousin to “pushing” the baseball; i.e., killing velocity and ball movement.

My experience is that pitchers who exhibit residual rotational momentum toward first base (right hander) or third base (left hander) maintain what I call connection through the release of the baseball as opposed to disconnection toward home plate.

More “Sherlock Holmes” pitching mechanics sleuthing

The evidence of residual rotational momentum is the strongest clue in solving the Verlander and Bonderman velocity mystery. There are some less obvious clues, not as observable primarily because of the inability of video at 30 frames per second to capture the clues.

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In this frame comparison, Verlander’s throwing hand is higher on the 89 mph clip (left) and lower on the 99 mph clip (right). Also, Verlander’s upper body is more closed off in the right-hand clip than the left-hand clip. This would mean that Verlander has to rotate through a longer distance faster to achieve the same release point time as the left-hand clip. Again I am talking about fractions of a frame (fraction of .033), illustrating the difficulty in attempting to identify and measure rotational speed differences. And very small differences in rotational speed can account for large differences in throwing velocity.

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Again, note the difference in throwing hand position.

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In the above clip, note the difference in throwing hand location in the follow through. Again without further video corroboration it appears that Verlander’s throwing arm has followed through more rapidly in the right-hand clip (99 mph) versus the left-hand clip (90 mph), indicating greater residual rotational momentum (and connection).

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The above clip shows a dramatic difference in body position after release of the ball. The right-side clip (99 mph) is indicative of significant rotational momentum followed through as compared to the left-side clip (89 mph).

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Bonderman exhibits the same residual rotational momentum on his follow through.

In Part 1 cited this excerpt from a newspaper article regarding Verlander’s recent increase in velocity:

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.

The human body is a very complex throwing machine, and I will be the first to say that there is no sure thing when it comes these types of analysis. All I can say is that with what I know about how the body throws the baseball, the only way that I can see how putting more stress on the lower body could reduce the stress on the upper body is by improving the throwing efficiency of the upper body.

Putting more stress on the lower body makes no sense. I suspect what Verlander is thinking is that increasing the momentum production of the lower body and efficiently transferring this momentum to the upper body increases the rotational efficiency of the upper torso. Rotational efficiency can be a combination of improving the rotational speed of the upper torso and improving the connection between the arm and the rotational momentum created by the upper torso. The lower body is capable of doing two things to help improve upper body by:

1. The generation and transfer of rotational momentum to the upper body.
2. Acting as a more effective anchor point for the upper body to work against.

The primary way to take stress off the arm is to take advantage of the natural time constant of the upper body-arm throwing system. I will save that topic for another day.

With respect to Bonderman, take your pick of any or all of the standard pitching coach dictums and most likely you’ll find the reason he lost his fastball.

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 fastball 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. Right hander, pitch from the third base side. Left hander, the first base side
20. Don’t land on your heel
21. Land on the ball of your foot

More sleuthing.

In my initial investigation of Verlander I did an Internet search using search words including mechanics, Verlander and velocity and found several references to his and his pitching coach changing his mechanics. I also came across the following video clip of Verlander working with Chuck Hernandez, his pitching coach, and immediately the “lost velocity” red flag went up. Why? Because from my experience working with pitchers, apparently what Hernandez was working on with Verlander was “staying back,” which is intended to cure the problem of “rushing.”



Verlander and Tigers pitching coach Hernandez doing a bullpen session early April

I then found the following commentary:



Tigers television commentator explaining Hernandez’s changes to Verlander’s pitching mechanics.

Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that almost every pitching instructor thinks that staying back (slowing the delivery) fixes “rushing.” I say unfortunately because “rushing” is not rushing in the sense that the player is moving too fast with his pitching mechanics. Rushing is a rhythm problem. It’s a sequencing problem of the body parts; i.e., the upper body gets ahead of the lower body. This gets interpreted by well-meaning pitching coaches as keeping the entire body back, slowing the delivery—a primary contributor to lost velocity and lack of control.

The video clip of Bonderman in Part 1 speaks to the same issue—pitching coach attempting to slow the delivery by attempting to modify the player’s mechanics, having his “stay back.”

Developing repeatable, high-performance throwing mechanics begins very early in a player’s life. It also results in physiological and anatomical changes. It’s been demonstrated that the throwing arm bone structure of a high-level pitcher is different than that of the non-pitching person. One of the more important structural changes is referred to as retro version of the humerus, a twist that the humerus develops which statistically appears to help throwing velocity because it increases the range of external rotation of the throwing arm.

Attempting to change a player’s pitching mechanics after he has thrown a certain way while his body has been developing is a potential prescription for disaster.

The biggest witch hunt of them all

Pitching is doing everything to defeat the batter. Pitching is doing everything to win a baseball game. You can throw a baseball without pitching it but you can’t pitcher baseball without throwing it. Major league pitching coaches are paid to win baseball games by helping the pitcher defeat the batter. They know virtually nothing about how the body optimally throws the baseball—the physics of throwing, biomechanics, physiology, motor learning. Coaches who think they can create a pitcher by changing the way he throws the baseball are in search of the biggest pitching mechanics witch hunt of them all.



White Sox television commentator’s remarks regarding Verlander becoming a pitcher

My words of wisdom to any major league baseball executive: Never draft a player thinking that you can tweak or change the way he throws the baseball. In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t try to fix it. And even if it is broke, chances are you ain’t going to fix it.

Epilogue

Wednesday, Verlander pitched a four-hit, one-run complete-game. I took a quick look at the first several innings. It appeared that he didn’t throw anything but fastballs until the third. This was a significant departure from earlier in the season, when he was trying lots of change-ups. An adage that applies to all pitches but is particularly important regarding the fastball is “use it or lose it.” The change-up has the potential to cannibalize the fastball, because often pitchers change their delivery in very subtle ways. I still don’t like the way he’s throwing; he seems to have less intent than he had last year. Time will tell.

Bonderman is currently on the disabled list due to a blood clot in his throwing shoulder.

The blood clot was caused by thoracic outlet compression syndrome.

“Think of the vein like a straw, and it was pinched,” Tigers trainer Kevin Rand said. “That’s what thoracic syndrome does.”

And.

Definition:
The thoracic outlet is the area of the shoulder/neck where the nerves (brachial plexus) and blood vessels (subclavian vessels) pass from the cervical area toward the axilla. Thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS) is a set of symptoms due to compression and/or irritation of these vessels and nerves. There is much controversy among physicians and diagnosing this syndrome is very difficult. It is often confused with carpal tunnel syndrome, brachial plexus syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome and bursitis.

Causes:

1. Disc protrusion, herniation or degeneration causing nerve impingement
2. Brachial plexus entrapment or subclavian artery compression in the interscalene triangle (usually between anterior and medial scalene)
3. Impingement at the cervico-axillary canal or the costo-clavicular space (firstt rib)—could be from carrying a heavy shoulder bag or bad posture
4. Fibrositis of the cervical and shoulder area (pectoralis major and minor, the posterior cervical triangle)
5. Cervical spondylosis -irritation or compression of the C3-C8 spinal nerves causing increased tension and spasm in anterior scalene muscles
6. Extra first rib (cervical rib)
7. Bone spurs on cervical vertebrae (may be called extra first rib)
8. Trauma such as whiplash (hyperextension) or other injury to the neck that results in scar tissue formation in scalenes which lead to compression
9. Trauma to the shoulder
10. Old fractures of the clavicle that limit space for vessels.
11. Postural distortions caused by pec minor and minor, SCM, scalenes, trapezius, levator scapulae; forward head, rounded shoulders, scoliosis (psoas imbalance), kyphosis
12. Loss of curvature in the neck due to Longus coli shortening
13. Excessive exercise leading to shortening of the shoulder and neck muscles
14. Shallow breathing -hypertrophy of scalene muscles
15. Postural changes due to pregnancy
16. Anterior scalene tightness
17. Pectoralis minor tightness

I will let those who wish to speculate on the correlation between pitching mechanics and potential injury decide whether Bonderman’s attempts to change his delivery (staying back over the rubber) may have contributed to his condition.

I also stand corrected: Perhaps the biggest witch hunt is the one that attempts to correlate pitching mechanics and potential for injury.

Post-epilogue.

And then there is Dontrelle Willis….? (Where Have All the Pitchers Gone?)

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