Talking About Pitching

Now that we’re in the midst of the baseball offseason and the Winter Meetings are still a week away, pure baseball news will be a little harder to come by for a while. With that, I thought it would be a good time to do something that I’ve been asked to do by fellow bloggers and readers for a while now, but have been reluctant to do so.

My post a couple weeks ago in response to the Bob McClure Q&A posted at FanGraphs generated a fair amount of positive attention, but also some criticism. Which is to be expected. I received more than a few emails (look for those in a future KoK Mailbag, because I think it’s important to give both sides of this argument about pitching) in which it was pretty clear that I’m not explaining my side very well. I’ll try to do better.

So as a way to better explain things, to give a different perspective, and to get a little (or a lot) more in depth about pitching, I’ll be talking with some old colleagues about their philosophies and breaking down some of the Royals players individually, as we see them.

First up, is Mike Neal. In 2007 I was asked to open and be the Head Trainer at Regal Athletic, a training facility specifically focused on pitchers and using the methods designed by Ron Wolforth, and the Athletic Pitcher Program. We weren’t positive how the program would work in a facility setting, but we were confident in the program itself and what it sought out to do: to put the athleticism back into pitching.

We started with a test group of 12 athletes, which, over the course of 8 weeks, gained on average 7.4 miles per hour. What we found is that the program not only increased ball velocity, but bat speed, foot speed, reaction time, explosiveness, coordination, and body control.  The basis of “putting the athleticism back into pitching” was paying dividends across the board, and as new information and training methods surfaced, we were constantly changing to accommodate.

Mike joined the fun in mid-2008 as the General Manager and has seen the facility grow to have over 240 athletes, 11 on college scholarship, and 2 professional pitchers.

This Q&A will be a two-parter. First, the philosophies behind pitching coaches, teaching pitchers, and the lack of curiosity in the industry. Second part will be about Luke Hochevar specifically, and the drastic changes he’s made to his delivery since his days at Tennessee.

Kevin Scobee: There are so many places we can start. There really are. I think the best place, though, would be to just attack, er, discuss my recent post about Bob McClure and his shaky understanding of what it means to really be a pitching coach. One of the things that always bothered me – both as a coach in college and when I started training kids through the Athletic/Combat Pitcher Programs – was that my teachings had the same amount to do with their failures as it did their successes. What McClure talks about is the clear disconnect that coaches and managers throughout baseball, especially at the college level, have with their impact on player preparedness and progress.

McClure’s position is distinctly “this didn’t work for him, and he didn’t listen to me, therefore he’s wrong and it’s not my fault”. That’s just not responsible. One of the things I always tried to do was take a kid’s skill set and mind set, and try and apply what I needed for him to accomplish inside of his world. Why? Because his failures were on me as well, but no one tends to look at it that way. If an athlete gets better it’s almost invariably because of “good coaching” or “hard work”. If the athlete plateaus or regresses, will then it’s because “he’s lazy” or not “mentally strong enough”. In reality, coaching ruins more athletes across the landscape of the sport, more so than it helps. There can be no denying this. But standing on your pulpit and degrading an athlete (who in the case of Bannister is probably much smarter) smacks of a lack of maturity and accountability that surrounds the coaching world.

Mike Neal: I agree. I think that as a teacher, instructor, or a coach, it is our job to expose the students/players to several different ideas in order to 1) challenge them to learn, and 2) so they can recognize the movement patters that produce desired results. Do we fail? Of course we do. Anyone who says they have never failed is lying. I am a firm believer that we can learn more from failure than we can from success. How well did you do the first time you ever pitched? I don’t remember but I am sure I was less than a super star. But over time, my body adjusted to the outcome I was trying to achieve.

In the case of Bannister vs. McClure, I would argue that they both failed in the end. McClure had to be open at least a little to Bannister trying new stuff, otherwise he would have stopped it right away; a plus for both. Bannister struggled with HIS new approach. My question for both Bannister and McClure is “WHY did he struggle to have success with a new approach?” Everyone talks about making adjustments as a season or a career go on. Do you really think that only super stars (Lincecum, Lee, Halladay, Verlander) continuously make the adjustments? I don’t think so. As a teacher isn’t it our job to help players adapt to changes? Again, WHY did we struggle or “fail?”

In my opinion, a teacher needs to be there to help guide discovery. We all do things differently. I have to embrace that idea if I am going to be of any help to a player. An example for you to relate to: Everyone says Alex Gordon “figured it out” this year. We may never know the exact WHY to his struggles, but we will see if his countless hours with Kevin Seitzer pay off for the long haul. So far it seems that he worked diligently on a few adjustments with the help, guidance, support of his coach.

KS: That’s interesting you say say “teacher” and put that ahead of “coach”. One of the things I always tried to get across to anyone I talked to, whether it be players, or clients, or scouts, or other coaches, was that I was a teacher first. When you’re a coach your central focus is the “wins” and while there’s nothing wrong with that from an occupation standpoint, it’s completely misaligned with the true incentives of what it is to train and teach a young athlete. I’ll concede a little bit to major league coaches that a fair amount of the teaching is gone at that level, but the overall purpose of teaching still stays. Teaching is about progress – progressing everyday for the better, regardless of the end outcome. Because, as we’ve seen with Bannister’s “down” year in 2009 – which statistically was better than the prior two – the result does not always reflect the processes. If your processes are correct, or at least aid to the continual search for new and better knowledge that can be applied to future success, then the wins will come. Unfortunately though, “coaching” focuses too much on the end result, which then ignores the processes that are what makes the athlete better. By teaching, the process works. It doesn’t work with the other equation.

MN: I feel that I am a teacher first because I am not able to make practices or games to watch players. I feel that my players need to know as much as possible because they will spend a majority of their time in charge of themselves. First and foremost I view my goal is to make each player into his own “pitching coach.” (Which, it seems, is just what Bannister was trying to do) I want them to think for themselves and be able to sort through the multiple suggestions they will receive over the course of a practice, game, or a season. I want them to also be able to recognize “mechanical” (I freaking hate that term) flaws, inconsistencies, which cause less than desired results in a bullpen or game. I want them to be able to find the “why” to fix the “what” on their own.

If I allow a student to keep doing what they have always done, I am inviting that student to keep getting what they have always got. Which, in the majority of cases, isn’t much. For four years I taught every student the same thing, which was what I was taught. I was young and coming off a successful career and thought I had all the answers. I mean, every student got better. But looking back, not one student ever reached his potential. Hindsight being 20/20, I couldn’t have been farther off.

KS:  You “want them to think for themselves”. That, in essence, is what we should all want, but as is the case in most instances (not just in the McClure post but in my experiences in talking with scouts and coaches) the player that thinks for himself is routinely admonished for not following the pack. From my perspective, I loved it when a student or player would question me. Loved it. Because it gave me the opportunity to both 1) rethink my own views, but more importantly 2) it allowed me to get a look into the minds of the player. I needed to know how he thought and processed information because that is the only way I would be able to know how it was he needed me to communicate with him.

I think sometimes in baseball coaches lose sight of the fact that the player is still a person with the same emotional, physical, intellectual issues and limitations that afflict the rest of society. To just think that all players need to fit into a certain mold, by both the way they are taught and the way that are reached through communication, is disrespectful to the overall purpose of the job. If you lost one player because you didn’t think he was “tough enough”, then you as a coach failed. If a player didn’t have success because he sought information that you happened to not agree with, then you as a coach failed. If the view was taken from a pure teaching perspective, there could be a more constructive use of the back-and-forth that was needed between McClure and Bannister. Instead, McClure had an athlete that wanted to think for himself and needed to be reached in a different way, and he failed because he used that athlete’s lack of success as the crutch supporting his own insecurities as a teacher.

MN: Exactly. Having a student ask “why?” is a huge deal. That’s when I know a student “gets it”. I have had students that have left teams or programs because doing their own thing, or thinking for themselves, or questioning the coach’s philosophy/suggestion created a rift between player and coach. I think that is why the sagas of Trevor Bauer and Tyler Beede fascinate me. Here you have two players who have found/implemented they best possible programs for their personal development. Trevor will be the first to ask “why?”

What might have fascinated me the most was the research done by teams who were willing to draft a player that was hell bent on keeping his training and development program. Several teams were told to go away for fears, real or perceived, that a organization would make them change. Again, if you do what everyone else is doing you will keep getting what everyone else is getting. Which isn’t much.

KS: That’s another thing that used to blow me away in my my first couple years in coaching. I remember a conversation I was having with a Royals scout and a Marlins scout that had come to see our catcher. Somewhere along the line the conversation got turned to pitching and “mechanics” (though I didn’t add my two cents. I knew better. There would have been no point because what I had to say wouldn’t have been heard) and how they, the scouts, didn’t understand why anyone needed to change anything.

The basis of the philosophy being that “well it worked in the 70s why shouldn’t it work now?” Well, two reasons. One being that it didn’t work in the 70s like people thought it did. The funniest part about spending your every waking hour thinking and reading and teaching the dynamics of the pitching delivery, is you run into a lot of group think. Or better, group speak. That is, there’s a phrase or phrases (that I like to call “buzzwords”) that are used to describe an event along the chain of the pitching motion that everyone uses, yet doesn’t really describe what is happening. Or even worse, describes what is happening incorrectly.

The thought being that everyone used to think that pitches all throw with long, extended, arm actions. That the longer the arm got out of break the better it would be for both health and velocity. This theory was based on how guys threw in the 60s and 70s and even earlier, because that’s how it was interpreted that those guys threw, and then just accepted. Except, that’s not how those guys threw. Watch video of Bob Gibson or Nolan Ryan or any of the natural, athletic throwers. They all throw with the same basic concepts of hip/shoulder separation at foot strike and a short, scap load, style arm action. Yet the buzzword philosophies took what limited technology was available the time, applied it to what was “thought” was happening, and no one ever questioned anything.

The second reason it shouldn’t work now is that this is the 21st century. There are people clinging to pitching philosophies and theories that were developed at least, what, 30 years ago? You mean to say that science and our understanding of human biology and biomechanics hasn’t improved in 30 years? You mean to say that the technology of video and research techniques hasn’t improved in 30 years? People that cling to the ideals of yesteryear still when it comes to baseball and the training of athletes are just willfully ignorant. And really, there is no sadder thing than willful ignorance.

MN: I don’t think any pitcher (or player for that matter) should change anything unless it is inefficient, or more importantly, if there is a risk for injury. We all have our own natural, individualized rhythm, tempo, body part sequencing, and postural alignments. My take on coaching over the last 30 to 40 years is this: Have we as coaches (yes I consider myself a former member of this group) simplified the teaching process in order to make it “easier” on the coach/instructor/teacher? How many careers ended due to injuries before the “invention” of Tommy John or shoulder surgery? (I bet someone with much more free time than I have can find out.) We have seen a explosion of arm injuries over the last few decades. Kids as young as 11 and 12 years old are having surgery. What is the problem? Could we as pitching coaches and instructors be part of the problem? Clearly, there is a break down in the training/development (read choreographing) of pitchers. I (now, after my awakening) would rather have a pitcher want to experiment throwing like Tim Lincecum, Tim Collins, or Trevor Bauer as opposed a Luke Hochevar. No offense to what Luke used to be, but he has changed in my opinion for the worse. The ASMI has done a wonderful study finding the normative ranges of different aspects and parts of the pitching delivery. In a nutshell, they found that there is no one right way to pitch. But rather as long as a pitcher was inside the “norm” in most areas, there was little risk for injury.

KS: Okay, so a couple of things from that, and one of which I want to make sure we get back to – because I’ve written about him extensively at KoK and because I loved him coming out of college, I hate him now because of what the Royals instruction did to him to box him inside his athleticism – but the main point is the coaches being culpable. Oneof the many discussions I used to have with a professor at school always bled over into baseball and sports in general. The main point was that there are the 10% of kids that “get it” (the uber-bright or the uber-athletic) and they’re not messed with at all. They’re more of the wild horses that are allowed to roam free. Then there are the 10% that will never “get it” because of their own genetic limitations. They can refine their skills but they’ll never be in the “elite” class. Then it’s the important group, the 80% that’s left. (or some variation to that number that is probably smaller because the lower 10% is most likely bigger.)

It’s that 80-percent that can be most affected by teaching or coaching one way or another. As much as people want to think that coaching can’t “ruin” or derail an athlete from his most natural athletic course, they’re wrong. They’re absolutely wrong. The reason we know this is because the last 30-40 years of pitching instruction, as you’ve pointed out, has been to simplify the delivery mechanism of the pitcher to appease whatever they “thought” was occurring, but not what can be proven.

Now, we have the science behind body movements to further understand the dynamics of body sequencing, and because of that, we have a better understanding of how wrong pitching coaches have been for so long. And it hasn’t been so much in the application, it’s been more in the process of never truly seeking out further and more advanced information on the subject. Everything was just accepted as the norm, passed down from generation to generation, and regurgitated because it “worked for those guys”. Well, like you said, it probably really didn’t work.

And the purpose really isn’t whether to be right or wrong; the purpose is to be continually curious about what’s next and new information. I remember a conversation I had with a scout the first few months I started training and teaching Wolforth’s program and developing my own thoughts on pitching sequencing; he was going back-and-forth with me about how what I was doing was bad and I was going to hurt arms. My first retort was that my pitchers had all gained at least 5 MPH in six weeks (this was the first test group at Regal Athletic) and the guys that were experiencing arm soreness before the training, were feeling better than ever. He didn’t buy it. He said he had never heard of Ron Wolforth. I brought up to him that one of the guys developing this program with Wolforth was ex-Royals pitching coach, and many other teams’, Brent Strom. He scoffed. “Yeah there’s a reason why that guy isn’t still a pitching coach in anyone’s system,” he said. I asked why. “Because he kept changing his mind about how to do things. You can’t have that. You have to pick a philosophy.”

That conversation is as vivid to me today as if I am still having it some five years later. A baseball scout, who I’m sure has had conversations or has overheard conversations about Strom at some point or else he wouldn’t have had such a quick and strong opinion about the man, isn’t allowed back into baseball because he changes his mind too much. That’s just sad to me. I’m sure there are other reasons, but that I was given that as a reason and I wasn’t surprised even in the slightest, I think says a lot.

MN: Genetics do have some impact on development. Anyone who has read “Talent Is Overrated” can relate. I think a person starts at a certain level based on genetics. Is there a certain point your genetics can allow you to reach? i think so. But, I have yet to see a player who put in the work, not hit 85 MPH.

“Mechanics”(I hate that word, just like you do) have been passed down from generation to generation because it has been the easiest way to teach. When did it start? What brought about this “revelation?” If I had been a pitching coach some 30 years ago, I would have copied Koufax, Drysdale, Gibson, etc. What or who said they were outside of the norm?

Speaking of Luke, I don’t think it was the Royal’s “instruction” that changed him. Rather, I think it was the desired results that changed him. “Throw strikes.” “Let them put the ball in play.” Insert any other catch phrase (or buzzword) here. Luke had a rhythm and tempo. He had a movement pattern and timing sequence. But, his personal skill set had to change to in order to meet the goals the organization set for him.

Brent Strom comes across as a person who wants to know and teach the best available information. If better, new, information comes out, should he have to stick with what he knew? As a teacher should I stick to my current beliefs, or adapt to the new information presented to me? What would have happened if the people who taught that the world was flat, completely rejected the new information that the world was round? Where would we be?

KS: Very true about Hochevar, and you’re right, my original wording didn’t accurately reflect what I truly thought/think is going on with he and the Royals. It’s a baseball problem much like what we talked about earlier in that the result is more focused on than the process, even though a correct process will almost always end up in a positive result. It’s a logical step.

With Hochevar, much like what I referenced in my response to the McClure Q&A and how the “pitch at the knees” buzzword has all the intentions of creating success with not really teaching how to be successful, taking a 6-5, athletic pitcher with an arm that works incredibly well with a maybe somewhat inconsistent delivery, and stripping him for parts and turning him into a robotic, up-down, sinker-baller is a complete waste of the natural talents given to the guy.

Although, there’s probably not much reason to blame the organization. Kind of. Their interest are on winning games, and solely winning games, so from the Royals perspective, the neutering of  a pitchers explosion and dynamics is a good thing. Why? Because it creates a pitcher with more predictability, and that’s sad.

Hochevar with this newly taught (or found) approach gave his organization a pitcher that they could assume would 1) stay healthy and 2) give them “competitive innings”. After all, Jeff Suppan made a living being a pretty terrible-to-mediocre-ceiling pitcher, but at the very least he was predictable. In Hochevar, instead of having a pitcher that would strike out a high number and (GASP!) walk a high number (possibly), they reduced him into what every pitching coaches worst nightmare should be: a pitch-to-contact guy.

MN: Let me give you a example of changing a persons natural rhythm and tempo. I want you to go get 300 nails and a hammer. Since you haven’t really used a hammer much, go drive 100 nails into your deck. The next hundred, we are going to speed up the rate in which you swing the hammer. Watch your thumb. The last hundred, we are going to get you to drive each nail in as few swings as possible. You WILL pull the hammer back slowly in order to keep your aim. Then you will try to accelerate the hammer’s head (from a dead stop) as fast and as hard as you can in order to achieve max impact with the nail. Still want to hold the nail in place?

This is the same thing that happens when we change a pitcher’s delivery. We cause them to miss the nail head. Predictable is easy to deal with. When do you have to turn the video games off before the lady gets home? I would almost bet you have alarm set on your phone. What time does your boss go to lunch? Same time every day you log on to Facebook. What happens when the lady gets home 15 minutes early? Or the boss gets back from lunch early? Everything being the same all the time, or in this case, each pitcher being the same, makes it easier for the “coach” to predict what will go wrong, (or if something goes wrong, what to fix) and because of that, it seems they have all the answers.

KS: Plus, the predictability of everything – from process on down to results – makes it so not only does the pitcher never get pushed outside his athletic box, the coach never pushes himself outside his intellectual box. It’s a self-serving cycle that keeps an industry in neutral and allows for one of its coaches to bash an incredibly bright, and curious pitcher, for not staying inside the lines.

 

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Bob McClure Kansas City Royals KC KC Royals Luke Hochevar MLB Pitching Philosophy

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