In Search of the "Why"

Baseball, as a business, has started to get it. Over the past decade after the publicizing of Moneyball, statistics and the search for the objective center have been forced more to the forefront of the industry ideology. Organizations have embraced the intelligent, the educated, into their offices to make decisions based more heavily on logic and information, than gut feelings and luck. Some of the “old school” ways of doing things still exist, as they do have a place in front offices, but a better balance has been struck.

Unfortunately for baseball however, that enlightenment to newer ideas and strategies and ideals has yet to filter down into the coaching ranks, where the same rhetoric and intolerance of new theories and training continues to blanket the industry.

On Wednesday, at personal-favorite baseball website FanGraphs, a Q&A with former Royals pitching coach Bob McClure was posted. It was an interesting read, getting the opinions of a former major league pitching coach, if you’ve never watched an in-game interview or read the same canned quotes in a beat writers postgame write-up.

McClure has some good tidbits about Tim Collins’ deception and how to teach it, the arm angles of Jeff Niemann and Tim Lincecum, and his thoughts on how to connect with young pitchers. All perfectly harmless statements, and really nothing that anyone hasn’t heard or read before, but noteworthy enough that an ex-pitching coach is the one actually saying them.

And then, he talks about Brian Bannister.

Let’s ignore for a second the fact that in one instance he’s praising a pitcher (with probably similar talents to Bannister in Randy Jones) for being able to “pitch at the knees”* and sink the ball in order to make it tougher for hitters to square it up, and dismissing Bannister in the next for trying to improve his sinker to do the same thing.

*”Pitching at the knees” is one of my pet-peeve pitching buzzwords because it has little practical meaning. To imply that ALL a pitcher has to do is pitch at the knees, or “keep the ball down”, or that is ALL he is doing to be successful, is ignorant and wrong. There are no rules to pitching. There is no secret formula. Pitches down can be hit just as far as pitches up. But like a lot of things in baseball, keeping the ball down is either the reason for the good or the excuse for the bad, depending on the outcome.

Let’s also ignore for a second that in 2007, the year that McClure praises Bannister for how well he pitched, he was incredibly lucky with a 4.89 xFIP and unsustainably low .261 BABIP. Bannister might have had a “heck of a year” in that season with his 3.87 ERA, but that had far more to do with luck than it did with the two bullpen sessions he threw in-between starts. And it’s at this point in the conversation (McClure to Bannister, not author to McClure), where there is a disconnect.

Too often, coaching gets too focused on the “what”. The “what” can be deceiving; It can fool you into thinking things are great when they’re not, and things are bad when they’re not. The “what” can lead to reasoning that is inconsistent, and irresponsible, that is then passed on to the athlete.

The purpose of a coach, because they are teachers first, is to create an environment that fosters the search for information on how to get better, by whatever means that information comes. Bannister, most likely knowing the limits of his athleticism, sought out information that he could use to improve his performance that happened to not fall in line with McClure’s ethos. Because of that – two years after he was Bannister’s coach and four years after Bannister started down this road mind you – McClure disapproved. How noble. And thus, the cycle of the unwillingness to learn anything outside of what has been learned, continued in the Royals clubhouse.

Five years ago I met Derek McGowan, a high school junior at the time, who had not yet started his journey into truly figuring out who he was as a pitcher (as most haven’t yet at that age) or as a thrower. Stuck being taught the same rhetorical white noise most pitching coaches recycle, Derek was an 82-84 MPH thrower with so much more potential.

In between his junior and senior seasons, I had come to learn and myself train with, the Ron Wolforth Athletic Pitcher Program at Regal Athletic in Kansas City. It changed my life then and in turn Derek’s life.

By subscribing to a completely different philosophy about how to train pitchers and how to be open to new ideas and information, Derek put on 9 MPH to his peak fastball. He is now pitching at a university in Georgia and on many teams watch list for next year’s draft. Back then, we would both play the role of teacher and student and we were constantly in the search for the “why”.

We talked for a while after reading Bob McClure’s thoughts on pitching and his relationship with Bannister, and were both equally disappointed of someone in that position.

“The thing I remember,” McGowan says, “is that you weren’t afraid to try something and be wrong. And, you weren’t afraid when I had an idea to try it yourself to see what you thought. That’s what bothers me about what (McClure) said. It was like he was approached with something and because it happened to not fall in line with what he already thought it was, naturally, wrong.”

Brian Bannister wanted to make the ball move. In order to make the ball move, it has to spin. It’s simple physics. But because Bannister’s mind wouldn’t allow him to be incurious, to be dumb, he wanted to learn how to make the ball “turn”, and to McClure it’s “not that complicated”. He was unwilling to try something new.

When McClure says that “as a pitcher, what I’m trying to do is keep you off balance just enough, and locate my pitches. I’m trying to get ahead in the count, keep you off balance, and make pitches. That’s all I’m trying to do,” he’s focused entirely on the “what”. A perfect follow-up would have been “how are you trying to do that, Bob?” because that is the question that Bannister, and Wolforth and Eric Cressey and many others, are trying to answer. Instead, nothing in those few sentences of thought has any real meaning, but it’s accepted as truth by the casual fan, and an industry unwilling to challenge the status quo.

“That’s the sad thing about it,” McGowan says. “No one will challenge him on this. No one challenges anyone on this stuff. If you watch a game and listen to a guy break down a pitchers delivery, you’ll here him talk about “staying tall” or “driving off the back leg” and in reality, none of that is actually happening. But because it’s the narrative of how pitchers throw, it’s just generally accepted by the casual fan, and that enables the industry to never change.”

Why? Because clinging to the status quo allows for the easy excuse.

Bannister “got a little overboard and tried to do more than he was capable of doing (and) the next thing you know, his walks go up and his hits (allowed) go up,” according to McClure. In reality, after trying a new way of dong things, and continuing his search for the “why”, Bannister’s strikeouts went up significantly, his walks slightly, and his BABIP normalized. Because of that, his ERA went up. His xFIP, a stat designed to eliminate the luck in a pitchers performance and allow us to view it more objectively, decreased.

Oh, and in 2009, when Bannister was trying to “do more than he was capable of” by making the ball move to create less solid contact, his ground-ball percentage against increased nearly 10-percent.

“It just seems like,” McGowan says, “what Bannister was trying to tell McClure was just over his head. I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I’m sure he’s a smart guy, but it just seems like he was being asked to listen to a new way of doing things and was unable to hear what was actually being said.”

McClure isn’t hearing what’s being said because he’s tuned out any ideas that differ from his own.

“Data is a useful tool, but pretty soon you have to feel it…You just need good command and good feel,” McClure said.

Yep, that’s it, you just need command and good feel. No definition to what “command” and “good feel” are however, or how those traits can be either learned or taught, but more non-definable buzzwords that live on the surface and only explain the “what”.

Somehow though, over the course of the next three seasons, Brian Bannister lost that command and feel that McClure had spent all that time in 2007 teaching him. In lieu of “command and good feel” Bannister turned to information and science and suddenly became better worse. Except, not really.

If in 2008 and 2009 Bannister had posted a 3.00 ERA, what would the Bob McClure narrative be then? That Bannister’s success had nothing to do with the added dimensions to his talents and his brain, but rather the same “keeping the ball down” feel McClure had preached so much?  What other self-fulfilling prophecies would McClure spew about a former player that just happened to test the status quo?

“It really does just come off as sour grapes,” McGowan says. “It’s really just sad. All (McClure) is doing is continuing the notion that intelligence and evolution have no place in the game. It’s 2011, we have better information, better science, better technology, to just think that things haven’t changed in the world of pitching over the last 30 years is just sad. And disrespectful.”


McClure and pitching coaches throughout baseball are completely off base and entirely shortsighted about their philosophies and how they communicate with pitchers. It’s complete baseball speak, rhetorical nonsense, to focus entirely on the “what” and never pay attention to the “why”, especially considering the “why” solves all problems.

To just dismiss information as a way of bogging down the process in which an individual player evaluates his own success, after the fact, is an irresponsible and lazy way to judge performance. And it will not earn the trust of an athlete whose sole purpose is to constantly find ways to improve, by whatever means necessary.

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Tags: Bob McClure Brian Bannister Kansas City Royals

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