Solving the Brad Lidge Puzzle
In the case of Brad Lidge, there seem to be two questions: confidence and mechanics. For example, Phil Garner has alluded to bad "karma" and catcher, Brad Ausmus, has mentioned a change in mechanics that has affected Lidge's performance. Of course, the fans and others have their opinions as well.
Looking at the stats, Lidge's WHIP did make a downward turn in 2007, but his K/9 (although healthy at 11.82) and BB/9 have been going in the wrong direction. Before jumping off the deep end, however, we have to realize that Lidge is still pretty good. Keith Law, for instance, argues that Houston should have got more in return in their recent trade with Philadelphia. Lidge's stats are on the decline partly because his 2004-05 seasons were so totally dominant. When you're at the "top", there is usually only one way to go.
But what if Lidge could stay at the peak of his game? This brings us back to confidence and mechanics.
Most of us remember this - Albert Pujols' 3-run game winner off Lidge in the 2005 NLCS:
Without getting into specifc speculation about Brad Lidge, I just want to present some objective information from the world of Sports Psychology. There is something called attentional focus that directly relates to each person's ability to concentrate. Subsequently, there are a number of internal distractors which can deter focus, and one of these distractors is attending to past events.
When a player gets pre-occupied with past performances (or mechanics, which we'll get to) it can cause performance to suffer. Here is a good illustration:
Ideal attentional focus is shown at the top. But if a player is thinking about too many things - like the crowd, past peformance, mechanics, etc. - then his focus is too broad (middle). Conversely, his focus may be too narrow (bottom) if he doesn't consider critcal information about his situation (ie. read the scouting report).
Here is a look at Lidge in 2005 and 2007:
Below is a 4 minute video comparison with my commentary on Lidge's mechanics from the 2005 and 2007 seasons. Click the "play" button:
Opponents still aren't getting great looks off of Lidge, as evidenced by a .222 BAA in 2007, but since 2005, Lidge is walking about one more and striking out one less batter per nine innings. Perhaps most telling, though, is that Lidge is giving up double the HR/9 over the last two years. Judging by Ausmus' comments, it appears that the main issue is with the slider. Ausmus says other batters are getting a better look at his slider and the video seems to back this up. So if they are laying off a bit more and jumping on more mistakes, this makes some sense.
Also on the slider, I mentioned in the video that the 2005 Lidge should, in theory, create more arm speed. If this is true, it may serve to create more/tighter spin on the slider which would equate to a sharper break. Combine this with a bit more deception, and maybe Lidge is right back to his old position as a dominant closer.
If I was in the position of an organization such as Philadephia, these are exactly the types of players I would try to pick up - players that still have the ability, but whose "stock" might be slightly down. Especially when you can pick out elements of change and try to help them get back to things that they have already done in the past, rather than attempt to create new changes. From that standpoint, I have to say I like this move by Philly.
Commanding the Commodores
Derek Johnson has been the pitching coach at Vanderbilt University for the past 6 seasons. I first got the chance to meet him at a baseball clinic in 2005 where he graciously shared the ins and outs of Vandy's pitching program. That presentation first reflected his dedication to his players, but also showed his open-mindedness and courage to implement ideas that may not necessarily be common practice.
DJ and DP
"DJ" recently took the time to chat with me and his in-depth answers cover a lot of ground: success at Vanderbilt, his philosophy as a pitching coach, the development of top-notch pitching prospects, throwing mechanics and even two cents on hitting.
Jeff: ESPN.com recently did an article on the rise of Vanderbilt baseball. What's your quick take on the success of the program?
DJ: I think the first thing you look at is the guy that runs the ship, Coach [Tim] Corbin. He's the guy that makes things go. He's a boundless energy guy and a guy that I really admire. I've seen first hand what he has been able to accomplish. And then secondly - you can't overlook this - is better recruiting. We've been able to get better players in here that have obviously helped us climb the ladder.
Jeff: Vanderbilt was ranked #1 for much of the year, but your season came to an end in the regionals with a loss to Michigan. Do you view the 2007 season as a success or failure?
DJ: To be honest with you, both, but in the end you look at what our team accomplished: 54 wins, a conference title (in arguably the best college baseball conference in the country), which we not only won outright but also the tournament. So I look at it more as a success than a failure or disappointment. At the same time, we feel like we are one of the best teams in the country and we just didn't get a chance to show that in Omaha at the right time.
Jeff: You were pitching coach of the year in 2004, and in 3 of the last 4 seasons your staff has lead the SEC in ERA as well as being in the national top 20. I want to ask about your approach to bringing pitchers along in your program.
DJ: Going back to what I said earlier, first and foremost is being able to get in quality guys. Recruiting goes well past my scope of being a pitching coach, but once they get here it is about development. It's a process that I take very seriously; it's meticulous, it's not a fly-by-night thing. I work hard at trying to understand what best suits each individual. I think a lot of coaches maybe pay lip service to that, but I take it very seriously because I think that in the end it's about the kid and it will always be about the kid. My job is to help him explore options to better himself, so I would say that is the most important feature of what we are trying to do here.
Jeff: You just had a great talent there, David Price. From a coaching standpoint, how might your approach differ with a player like that?
2007's #1 pick
DJ: That's a good question and it's fair. It's a good question from the standpoint that you treat guys the same, and you do in a lot of ways, but you don't in some others. David was a talented kid from the beginning and he was a guy that had a ton of ability coming in. Bottom line is making sure that any adjustments we made were prudent decisions that would work in his favor. In terms of the way you treat him as a pitcher, you've got to treat him like another number in terms of your expectations for him and what he needs to do on and off the field. But that's a good question and I think it is fair to say you do have to treat those guys a little bit differently because they are a different breed. It's a completely different ball game, but still stay within the guidelines of what is fair and what is right.
Jeff: Not only has Vandy been winning games, but 9 pitchers have been drafted in the past 5 years plus 6 more this year. Is it part of your goal to not only win games, but to also prepare pitchers for the next level?
DJ: Absolutely. I don't know how other people think, but that's why we coach. We want to win a national championship, there's no doubt about that, but at the same time we want to be able to say to our recruits coming in and to be able to hang it on our shingle that we develop players, we keep them as healthy as we can and that they are going to the next level. I think that's fair to the kids because every kid that signs with us wants to play professional baseball. I don't think we've had one kid who could just take that or leave it. Every kid we've signed here, that's their goal, that's what they want to do. Yeah, it's about winning ball games - and we've been able to do both, which is nice - but at the same time I think both are equally important.
Jeff: Have to figure that if you can develop professional talent, that guy should be able to help you win games too.
DJ: Absolutely, they really do both go hand in hand.
Jeff: Former Commodore, Jeremy Sowers, went 6th overall in the 2004 draft but his stuff is quite different from Price. Do these fellow first rounders share anything in common?
DJ: Yeah they are both left-handed [laughing]. Their approaches are quite a bit different. Sowers is more of a 'pitch to contact' pitcher, where David is a 'miss your bat' type. In terms of physical, they are completely different animals. They do both have what I consider good arm action - arm action that can play at the next level, arm action that can be improved. David, I think, is a good example of a guy who got stronger and I thought his arm action improved as he was here. I know he went from being an 88-91, maybe 92 occasionally to a guy who was sitting more 93-96. Jeremy, same thing; good arm action and kind of had to understand tempo when he got here. I'm big on that. I'm big on trying to speed guys up and get them going. Jeremy was a guy we did that with and we did that with David, too. David was a little bit tougher because he is 6'6" and weighs more. So, I'd say those would be the two common things to get them to understand, and also to help their arm action to develop over time. Those were the important things for their development.
Jeff: You've told me that you've been criticized for Price's workload, but that you also feel he was ready for it and even refused to come out of many games. Does he do anything special to keep himself prepared physically?
DJ: What we try to do here is put stress on their arm in-between starts. What I mean by that is to target the elbow and shoulder area and try to create stress there. It's not throwing stress, per se, but it is stress on those areas with some medicine ball work, some weighted ball work. Once they throw a baseball, once they go out into a game, their arm is going to have "been there." I say "been there" meaning it's felt that stress and strain through their preparation. By doing that, I never felt that David was at a deficit. I never felt like David was that guy who you saw early in the game throwing 93-96 and then by the end of it was throwing 86-87. He maintained his velocity well. I kept very good track of what he did to prepare his arm, as I do with all of our guys. So, you know, I understand the criticism, but at the same time you have to understand where we were coming from and where we were at - where David's arm was at - when we were making those decisions.
Jeff: It seems common for coaches to baby their pitchers and not treat them like athletes, but that does not seem to be the case with you guys.
DJ: That's a great point because that's what they are. They are athletes. If you're doing your job as a coach you're making them a better athlete by the things that you prepare them with, so for me it was about an athlete going out and being athletic, pitching athletically and being able to take advantage of what God gave him. At the same time, people could criticize based on what a pitch count is or maybe what the popular theory today is on how to maintain an arm. What they didn't know was how he prepared his arm. I think that's the difference in what we're trying to do here and maybe what a lot of people are or aren't doing outside of us.
Jeff: You mentioned how Price improved his tempo and arm action. What is your opinion on what he may need to continue improving in order to succeed at the Major League level?
DJ: I think he uses the center of his body very well. I'm talking about his torso - from belly-button to mid-thigh. He does that very well and it is something he can continue to improve upon. Every pitcher could. Rotation is kind of the name of the game and it's being able to use that rotation and still get everything that you need to get behind the ball while still being able to throw a strike with it. I still think he can improve in those areas, but the thing that I hope for him is that they continue to let him work in those areas. I like where his tempo is. Could it be faster? Well, yeah it could be but at the same time I think it suits him. I think just being able to use the center of his body more is something that may help him take another step. From a pitchability standpoint, it's about refining the third pitch, the change-up and being able to refine command. Last year he had okay command, this year he had very good command, so I still think he has room to improve and grow.
Jeff: Tim Lincecum made the jump from college last year to MLB this year. Do you think Price is another guy who could make the transition that quickly?
DJ: Yeah, I do. You know, I obviously don't want to jinx him or anything and I don't want to speak out of line because I don't know exactly what the Devil Rays have or don't have. But I would find it hard to believe that David is that far away from being at that level. If you would have seen game in and game out with him, I'd say that you would agree. I just haven't seen a college pitcher dominate quite like I saw him and as consistently as he dominated, really this whole year. I just haven't seen that. Now it doesn't mean it hasn't happened, I just personally have not seen it.
Jeff: Your closer, Casey Weathers, also went in the first round. Tell me a little bit about him and what Rockies fans should expect.
DJ: An unbelievable story, really. He was basically a JUCO outfielder who bet that he could throw harder off the mound than his buddy. Long story short, he threw harder than his buddy and they turned him into a pitcher. Casey has legitimately pitched for about two-and-a-half years, and when he got to us I thought he was very raw, rough around the edges. Command wasn't quite as good as what it needed to be. He didn't factor for us until about midway through his junior year, his first with us. He factored in later in the year, had a good summer and kept developing or blossoming I guess would be a good way to word it. At times, he was unhittable this year. He gave up two or three [two] extra base hits all year...
DJ: ...gave up a HR in the second to last weekend in the SEC and that was actually the first extra base hit that he gave up.
Casey at the...mound
Jeff: I saw that Price had a .199 BAA, but Weathers was even better at .154
DJ: Right, guys just did not get good looks off of him. This is a kid with an unbelievable arm and upside. He's still really learning what to do. In Casey's case it was confidence. It was a mental approach that needed to be honed and still does. The kid is a good worker, has a good attitude towards what he is doing and has found a new passion for something that had never really been there before. You talk about a guy with just pure arm strength, he's got a lot of it.
Jeff: Must be nice.
DJ: That's not something really that I had to talk about a whole lot with him. He came in 90-92 but couldn't harness it. Got stronger, some tempo changes, couple tweaks here and there and all of a sudden his command started to get there. His confidence got better and the 92 now turned into 95 and 96. In the conference tournament, and I can't say this for a fact, but on at least one other gun other than ours, I think he hit 100 four times.
Jeff: Another wow...
DJ: He's crossed that 100 MPH barrier a couple times, and you never know. He might be that guy who does it kind of like a Zumaya or Verlander. He may be that kind of guy.
Jeff: Last pitching thing here - you mention arm action, tempo, using the center. These are all pitching mechanics terms that you use with your players, but there's that fine line between getting "too mechanical" versus getting outs. How do you walk the line between your players getting too mechanical as opposed to just throwing the heck out of the ball?
DJ: Intent is another word that is very prevalent in our vocabulary here. It's not a word that I made up or thought of in terms of pitching, it's Paul Nyman from SETPRO. But intent is a big factor. Intent happens with really everything that we do physically on the field. Whether it's playing catch, med ball routines, or running, there is an intent there to have effort. Easy effort - not effort that is out of control, but effort that works for you. There's a huge fine line and I think where you cross it is, you know, you have times when you have to work on the mechanics and you have to work on the tweaks or the adjustments. And then there has to be a barrier; there has to be a mental focus, a shift in your approach. That's real easy - as soon as you step on the mound and as soon as there is a hitter who is trying to beat you, you've got to switch gears. That's why, really, pitching is ever-evolving in my estimation because you've got guys who are 18 and 19 whose mechanics are not completely repeatable yet. They may show you what you want to see one week, they may somehow or for some reason adjust a little bit to the next to not quite what you want to see or what you think you should see. The bottom line is being able to have those barriers when it's appropriate to tweak and when it's appropriate to compete. Those two things really can't interlace a lot, they really are separate. Easier said than done - I have a lot of guys in the fall doing both.
Jeff: That's a good lesson for me, especially as I get into coaching.
DJ: It is because there is a time and there is a place. The thing is patience. You hear that patience is a virture, well, in pitching it's especially a virtue. I've had to learn that over time because what happens is that kids shuffle back and forth between what they think you want to see and reality. So your job is to keep pushing them. It's a gentle push, but it's pushing them in the direction that you think they need to go in. Sometimes it's frustrating, but you also see the rewards of it, like in a guy like Casey Weathers.
Jeff: I know you're the pitching coach, but I've got to ask at least one hitting question here. I saw Pedro Alvarez's swing from his 2005 draft video and then I saw it again this year, which looks much better. I just wanted to ask your observations on his progress at Vanderbilt.
DJ: Like a lot of kids coming into college, the first thing you see is a strength deficit. They're not nearly as strong as they need to be to support some of the movement patterns that are going on. But Pedro has always had good power and Pedro's swing is kind of a work in progress. I would say that the main thing for him is to be able to hit the ball with power to all fields. Not many guys at this level can do that. Most have pull power, some will have straight-away power, very few have opposite field power. Pedro is one of those guys who does have that ability and can show it frequently. For me, with him it's about taking what the pitcher gives him instead of yanking things that will produce outs at this level. That's something he has had to learn, and sometimes the hard way, but when Pedro Alvarez comes to the plate, pitchers go on red alert and they are trying to give their best stuff. What he has to be able to do is take what the pitcher gives him and wait him out - he is going to keep getting better at that.
Jeff: OK that about wraps it up. Thank you so much for your time.
2007 Draft Spotlight: Brian Rike
Entering Louisiana Tech as a graduate student last fall, I quickly realized that there were a number of very good athletes on the baseball team. One in particular, Brian Rike, had a tremendous fall season and I expected to see good things from him this spring. I can't say that I would have predicted 20 HRs, but he has enjoyed one of the best seasons in LA Tech baseball history (.346 BA, 20 HR, 66 RBI).
As a result, Rike earned 2007 WAC player of the year honors along with Louisville Slugger 2nd Team All-America.
Baseball America did a recent write up on Rike, pointing out his transformation from walk-on to draft prospect, and BA has also projected him as a top-5 round pick.
On May 21st, I had a chance to sit down and chat with Brian before Tech left for the WAC conference tournament...
Jeff: You've been in Ruston now for 3 years. Tell me about your overall experience coming here and playing for Louisiana Tech.
Brian: Overall, it has been a great experience for me. I came here as a walk-on, but for me, working hard has shown that you can just keep moving up with your game one step at a time. Going off last summer [to the Jayhawk league] helped a lot, and then coming back this year I am putting up some pretty good numbers. What I've been doing in the past has kind of worked so I am just going to try to stick with it.
Jeff: All right, you mentioned walking-on to the team here. I know I've had my own experience with that situation, so I know what it's like. At any point did you doubt your ability at all or did you just always feel like you could come in here and compete at this level?
Brian: I never really doubted my ability. I just didn't know as a walk-on if I'd get the same opportunity as some guys with scholarships. But Coach Sim [Head Coach, Wade Simoneaux] is fair; he doesn't really care about who is on scholarship or who isn't. It's more about who performs and whoever does the job is going to go out there and play.
Jeff: Once you started seeing that you fit in here, when did you start envisioning yourself at the next level and seeing an opportunity to really move yourself up in the draft?
Brian: The middle of my freshman year we had some injuries and there were about 4 or 5 guys on the bench. I was the youngest one, but he [Simoneaux] chose me to go out there and be an everyday starter, so I think my confidence really started to go up. Then I came back and started as a sophomore and it just progressed from there.
Jeff: Right, you had around 80 at-bats as a freshman and returned with a mini-breakout (.320 BA, 8 HR, 34 RBI) season in 2006. That carried over into a solid summer in the Jayhawk league, where you got familar with wooden bats (.373/.475/.626). How helpful was that experience?
Brian: Summer ball last year in the Jayhawk league definitely helped because it made you hit the ball square every time. You don't get away with it, like a metal bat, when you hit it off the end or get jammed, you know getting little base hits or possibly getting one out. With the wood, you gotta hit it square every time, right on the sweet spot. If you don't....it hurts.
Jeff: We'll get to the swing in a minute, but going back to improving ability, I see you guys in the weight room most of the time and I know you guys complain about doing squats and things like that, but it seems like it has paid off for you.
Brian: Everybody hates going in there at 5:30 in the morning to lift, but everyone knows that it helps, so we try to keep the complaining to a minimum. Overall, it does help tremendously.
Jeff: Nothing like doing squats and getting competitive with your buddies at 6 a.m....
Brian: Dude, if you can get motivated at 6 a.m. to do squats...you can do a lot of things.
Jeff: So, it's not too bad?
Jeff: I've taped a lot of your at-bats and looking at the video more and more, your swing looks very consistent. How does this contribute to your approach as a hitter?
Brian: For me, watching the video is a lot of help because something might not feel right now, so I can go back and look when I was hitting well to see and compare to what I am doing now. It might be the littlest thing like stepping in too much or your hands are a little bit different, but if you can just change that it always seems to work out.
Jeff: Does keeping that swing consistent make it easier for you to just focus on the pitcher?
Brian: Keeping it consistent definitely helps for me. That's just one less thing I have to worry about. If I know I am confident in my swing I don't have to think about anything and then I can work on picking up something from the pitcher that he might give away to help me get that hit.
Jeff: So hopefully, that translates into professional baseball. You'll be seeing consistently better pitching, so you'll be able to focus on learning the pitchers.
Brian: Yeah, I'll have to learn how to wait longer and make adjustments, but hopefully keeping my swing consistent won't be too big of a change.
Jeff: You were leading the country in home runs early in the season. Had you tried to prepare yourself at all for that? How do you deal with all of the extra attention you're getting this year?
Brian: Well, it really doesn't bother me. I just go out there and have fun anyways. It was fun to have a nice year and have people notice the hard work paying off, but I'm just coming out here and having fun with my buddies on the field.
Jeff: It looks that way to me - in the weight room and on the field. I guess that's a good thing to be having fun with your buddies.
Brian: We have fun, but there is also a point where you have to get your stuff done.
Jeff: You've got some individual attention, but there is a team atmosphere here.
Brian: Yeah, it makes it much more enjoyable here to come out to the field when everyone is having a good time, but when we need to be serious, we can.
Jeff: Along those lines, it seems like you've been the guy on the team this year that comes through when it is expected. Do you take on more responsibility in those situations, or is the approach to each at-bat the same?
Brian: I like to take the same approach, but I take pride in that when I'm in the pressure situation I'll have good numbers. Some of the younger guys, and even some upper-classmen, kind of look at me as a leader - not necessarily through talking or yelling, but more just showing people my actions. So I take a lot of pride there and it adds that extra confidence when these guys know I can do it. It helps me perform up there in the pressure situations.
Jeff: I still haven't told you this, but after a home run and a single, I overheard one of the Sacramento State players say: "This guy is good."
Brian: That always makes you feel good to get respect from the guys you're playing against. They're still rivals, but it's nice to get those compliments at the end of the series and then go on your way.
Jeff: The flip side is that other teams start to pitch you a little more carefully.
Brian: At the beginning of the season, they would come in and out, but now basically they just stay soft away. We saw one scouting report that just said: "limit the damage" - better to give up a single to left field on a change-up than give up something hard to the pull side. So they are really trying to limit what I can do.
Jeff: But that has to prepare you for the future.
Brian: Definitely. It helps me - the change-ups and curveballs - to wait back and also know that my hands are quick enough to turn on the fastball. Plus, whenever I can get on base, that is just one more baserunner for them to have to worry about.
Jeff: You were able to show some power early, so does developing patience at the plate add another item in the plus column for you?
Brian: Now they are saying that I am a power hitter as well as an average guy, so that's tremendous to have strikeouts less than walks. As long as I can keep that up through the years, that would be awesome.
Jeff: OK, you've done all these interviews - is there anything you haven't been asked or something you just need to tell people about?
Brian: Not really. But when I started getting close to Soto's [former LA Tech player TJ Soto] home run record everybody was like....it didn't really bother me....but they jinxed me. That's my theory, they jinxed me.
Jeff: I didn't want to mention...
Brian: It's all good and fun. TJ is out here giving me a hard time about it and it is all in good fun. Hopefully, in the future, I will get to come back and give someone a hard time.
Jeff: Well Brian, thanks for your time. Good luck in the conference tournament.
Brian: Any time.
With that, I'll leave with my "video scouting report". I have had a unique opportunity to assist in a research study that looks at the year-round conditioning of an NCAA Division I baseball team. From what I understand, this is the first study that has tested players in the off-season, pre-season, mid-season and post-season. So we've amassed all types of variables from strength, agility, speed, and velocity - all the physical attributes you'd want to know about a player. Combine that with game video and here is what you get:
FYI, a version of above video with navigation tabs can be found here.
According to Royals Authority, the outlook in Kansas City isn't so bad these days. Young hitters like John Buck and Mark Teahen are producing while awaiting help from super-prospects Billy Butler and Alex Gordon. If and when all of these guys get going, the Royals' lineup could be formidable for years to come.
I want to focus particularly on Butler and Gordon since they are fresh out of the 2004 and 2005 drafts, respectively, and we can take a look back at their progress since their amateur days. What kind of adjustments have these guys made and how might it affect their success in the big leagues? Let's see.
The clip above shows one of Butler's swings from high school in 2004 and another swing from AA Wichita, synchronized to contact. It is harder to really compare the two since the shots are different situations (batting practice versus game), but it gives an overall impression of Butler's swing.
Butler is filling out more as he matures and it looks like he has added more leg lift and a bit more weight shift, perhaps to generate more power with a wood bat. Judging by his success in the minors, he has this extra movement under control and it is not causing a longer swing path.
The only cause for concern that I might point out is Butler's contact point. This may be specific to these pitches, which appear to be pulled towards the left field line, but he is making contact well ahead of his front foot at near full extension. While full extension can signify a full transfer of energy, the timing aspect of making consistent contact in this position is very difficult. Miguel Cabrera comes to mind as a player who does this more often than most and he is doing quite well for himself.
This shot shows Butler handling (good for a 2B) a 100 mph fastball from Justin Verlander and makes me believe that Butler is plenty quick enough to handle MLB heaters. The question just comes in his ability to handle a full mix of pitches. When Butler does get his return call, which I'd like to see soon, I think he does have room physically to adjust his swing in the event that he does struggle with pitch variety. Keeping his hands back longer as he begins rotating into the ball would allow him to make contact slightly deeper in the zone, which affords more time for pitch recognition. But of course, with his talent, let him do his thing and see how it goes before suggesting any changes. It's very likely that he could just figure it out in his own way (a la David Wright).
So .191/.307/.309 with 29% K's is not the way Royals fans imagined this pre-season Rookie of the Year candidate would start his career. Gordon seemed to make some progress heading into May, and it should be considered that he has been treated rather poorly by Lady Luck. Thanks to a Hardball Times piece about line-drive percentage, it is evident that a player hitting more than 20% line drives should have a much higher BA/BIP than Gordon does. Could and should may be okay for now, but let's hope for Gordon's and the Royals' sake that things really do even out in the end.
Outside of plain ol' bad luck, Gordon has also turned to a higher leg lift since being drafted:
The angle in the shots is different and I am unsure of the pitch type in the college shot, so I will steer clear of in depth comparisons, but it appears that Gordon is keeping his hands back well and using his body more effectively to generate power. It looks like he has made some nice adjustments since giving up the metal bat.
A change that might be holding Gordon back, however, is the direction of his stride. From the limited number of swings I have seen, Gordon is more closed off these days and this may be preventing him from effectively handling pitches on the inner portion of the plate.
The shot on the left side shows a minor league version of Gordon's stride, which is relatively straight-away. On the right side is a 2007 HR shot that actually shows Gordon stepping on the inside line of the batter's box. Naturally, I wanted something that indicated how Gordon was handling pitches in various locations and this is what I found:
I am not the one to say that this closed stride is essentially eliminating Gordon's chance to handle inside pitches, but it sure is an interesting coincidence. Barry Bonds said a few years ago that he worked on his ability to clear his hips and that it helped him handle more pitches with power. If Gordon can "free" his hips, perhaps he could reach inside pitches more effectively. Combine this with a little change in luck, and there you have the Alex Gordon that Royals fans were expecting as the season began.
There's a new A-Rod in New York. His name is David Wright. After stellar, career-launching seasons in 2005 and 2006, Wright has seen somewhat of a power outage from the latter half of 2006 spill over into a full-blown slump in 2007. I didn't really realize the magnitude of the situation until I typed in "David Wright slump" into my search engine. Apparently all heck has broken out as the Mets blogoshpere tries to speculate about what's wrong. For the first time, I've even read about whether or not Wright is "clutch." So after commenting on what it would be like to have A-Rod at Shea, it appears Wright is getting his own A-Rod treatment. (Okay, enough about A-Rod already!)
I previously used Wright's swing as an example for comparison of other young hitters and I would not have imagined that his swing could have changed that much. Why mess with success, right? Even manager Willie Randolph said recently that Wright's mechanics are "pretty sound." But I imagined wrong... way wrong... and I was really surprised to see some major differences in the way Wright is swinging the bat. Randolph suggested that there was a "fine line" with his mechanics, and if so, Wright is quite a ways from wherever that line used to be.
Here is a look at two angles, front and side, with 2006 on the left and 2007 on the right. The 2007 clip is from the same swing, a double to left-center on a 93 mph fastball. The 2006 clips are also fastballs (front/top view is also 93 mph), hit for homers into left-center:
There is plenty to look at here so I will break it up into a few segments...
Starting with the front view on the top, the first thing that jumped out at me was the bat angle. It is much more vertical. While I am aware that some very knowledgeable hitting coaches teach a vertical bat position, it seems detrimental here - too much for too long. Holding the bat vertically can alleviate some muscle tension early in the swing because the bat feels lighter in that position, but eventually the bat has to get in line with the rotating shoulders and this is where Wright seems to be struggling. Starting the bat vertically and bat position at launch are quite different. If a hitter is not in a good position to hit, it is going to be hard for him to hit. Simple enough. Here's the look at how the bat angle at "launch position" has changed:
Ted Williams advocated a swing path that was slightly up through the ball, and Wright looked to have this going for him last year. The result of such a swing path is usually a "high" finish because the bat comes through in a plane similar (about parallel) to that of the shoulders. You'll see in both clips, however, a follow through that I would term "excessively high," especially in relationship to his previous swing.
This is an indicator that his swing plane might be too steep (in an upward direction) which can hinder momentum transfer. As if that weren't enough, this increased "uppercut" can also create that dreaded topspin - perhaps just enough to keep some long fly balls from leaving the ball park. Could this account for his increasing ground ball rate and drop in homer production? Seems logical.
Now let's use the side shot to focus in on the lower half and how this relates to setting up a good hitting position. Of course the major visible difference is the stride - Wright is now going with a miniature leg kick. I had not seen much of Wright's swing this year until recently, but apparently this has already been pointed out. If you're familiar with my previous articles, you may have picked up that I view the stride, as it is traditionally defined, to be more of a surface observation, but often a very useful symptom to other issues.
Take a look at just the side view and see what you think.
It took me a while to warm up to how early Wright used to get his front foot down, but I got on board because it did not appear to hinder his load-unload process. In other words, he used it to provide balance as he shifted into footplant. It looks to me like Wright used to have more flex in the knees and was able to carry his forward shift for a longer duration. This is important because it sets up the weight against the front foot and tightens the sequence of the kinetic chain... or simply put, it quickens the unloading of his swing.
The way Wright's stride appears now, he is reaching more with the front leg which leaves a little more weight behind when his hips begin to rotate. The shot above shows his front knee opening up just a bit sooner in 2007 - less efficient rotation as a result of the "stride" and positioning of the body.
What to do?
If Wright and the Mets' staff are confident in his mechanics, then there is no need to jump ship so quickly. Maybe Wright went out and tried to change some things on his own, but this may be a case of trying to do a little too much. More is not always better.
Really I would just try to retrace the steps as closely as possible to the period last year when he was most successful. I know I am sitting in a Louisiana classroom and not a Major League dugout, but it makes the most sense to me. I did not come across anything explaining the reasoning behind making drastic swing changes, but maybe there is a method to the madness that I am not aware of. Changing that bat angle back to the 45-degree ballpark would be an easy enough adjustment, and returning to that "no-stride" approach, a la Andruw Jones during his 51 homer season, would seem like the next step.
Surely, with the Yankees coming to town, now would be a good time for Wright to reassert himself while in the national spotlight.
As the A-Rod Turns
I wrote a two-part piece on Alex Rodriguez last year when he was supposedly washed up, struggling, could not hit a thing. What a difference a year makes. Now A-Rod is rewriting the American League record book and is apparently a different person. I'm reading about how A-Rod is carrying the Yankees and how his Hall of Fame talent is allowing him to hit home runs at a blistering pace. Will he hit 80? 200 RBI? It's just hard to believe this whirlwind from 2005 MVP, to worthless in 2006, and back to mega-star in 2007. A-Rod is good; he's always been good and he will be good for a long time.
The point of last year's comparison was to point out that his swing was not quite right. It is not hard to figure out that he is back on track this year, but how much of a physical difference could there really be? Honestly, I was not expecting much and I ended up surprised at how big of an impact a few small changes can make.
My first search for some insight into what mechanical changes were being addressed turned up a simple comment that A-Rod's mechanics were "firmer" and that new hitting coach Kevin Long had helped right the ship that is A-Rod's leg kick. According to a recent NY Times article, Long believed that a lower leg kick and faster hip rotation would help A-Rod quicken up his swing. After looking at the upcoming side-by-side that I will show, I have to extend a pat on the back to Mr. Long. Nicely done and way to earn your welcome to the Bronx!
First, I want to provide the full comparison. I am going to focus primarily the first half, or the loading portion, of the swing but it's only fair to show the full clip:
The 2006 version is on the left and 2007 He-Man is on the right. The pitch location is slightly different because the 2007 shot is much lower, but I chose this comparison because of the similar camera angles and pitch types - 91 and 92 MPH fastballs, respectively. On top of that, my contention last year was that A-Rod's actions during the loading or preparatory phase of his swing were drastically influencing results, and I feel the same way now. So because the pitch type and speed is the same, it stands that A-Rod's timing should be very similar, and the near identical camera angle makes for more realistic comparisons.
Now this is the portion I would like to focus on:
This loading phase shows A-Rod's leg kick and shift into footplant. Clearly, A-Rod's leg kick is more subdued, but this is just a surface observation in my opinion. If the only change was the height of the leg kick, I am not so sure we would be witnessing this freakish home run display. I believe the real area of improvement is what is happening in the center of the body with the hips and how they move as A-Rod prepares to unload. His hips are now carrying more of his weight into footplant, much like in his MVP season of 2005 and his old "Texas" swing (remember, one of Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo's five keys is weight shift and transfer).
A 1995 study by Welch, et al. measured biomechanical aspects of the swing and they found that professional hitters landed on their front (stride) foot with 123% of their body weight. A quick turn to golf also shows the different in force distribution between the feet during the swing among amateurs versus professionals. Here is a photo from a recent Golf Digest. Why is this important? It is my basic contention that A-Rod very literally "stayed back" too much in 2006. The research shows that high level swingers have some kind of movement to establish weight against the front leg.
Now most of you that have played organized baseball have heard the coaching cue "stay back" barked endlessly at hitters. It has its value in the correct context, but can be dangerous if taken too literally, and it looks like A-Rod is a prime example. A good weight shift to the front foot is essential and does not come at the expense of staying back. This image is extracted from the comparison I used last year to show how A-Rod was staying back equally but still shifting forward more effectively in 2005 compared to 2006:
If the weight literally stays back on the back leg during the stride, then the hips are allowed to fly open and can not rotate as efficiently. I suppose this is what Long was referring to when he mentioned that A-Rod could rotate his hips faster. To go with golf again, a student in my golf class broke off a nasty slice despite a very strong grip and a closed club face. As he unloaded from the top of his swing, however, he failed to establish his weight on the front leg, which allowed his front shoulder to peel open. This forced the club around the ball (out to in) and a slice was born. A better weight shift, as seen in the golf photo linked above, would allow this individual to rotate the back side through the ball and square up the club face. So there is your golf tip of the day from a high-teens handicapper (I can't putt).
Getting back to A-Rod, I did some quick measurement in order to quantify the change in movement. From the start of the clip to footplant, I measured the distance traveled by the front hip and A-Rod is now shifting 12 more units (from +16 to +28):
I pointed out last year how keeping too much weight back cost A-Rod some of his prodigious opposite-field power and guess what A-Rod is doing thus far? That's right - he is launching homers to all parts of the field. A-Rod is again an equal opportunity home run hitter (perhaps a public relations effort to please fans in all areas of the bleacher seats?).
What I would like to ask A-Rod is if he specifically changed his setup in order to trigger these adjustments. For example, notice how A-Rod's shoulders are tilted more in 2007 and his head appears more centered between his feet:
This is something a player can change before even initiating the swing and it can assist an effortless weight shift that can transform the swing. I've seen it in person working with different players, and this is also what I would have recommended for Marcus Giles last year.
Lastly, I want to touch on the overall position A-Rod reaches at footplant. He is clearly in a more athletic position, which should allow him more versatility in handling various pitch types. I'm laying off the measurement of his head position (it's lower) because the pitch is lower, but A-Rod's renewed shift is going to allow him to rely on his body to create bat speed early in the swing.
In the kinetic link and according to the principle of summation, one segment speeds up when its preceding segments slows or stops, so now A-Rod's hands can follow along for a longer period of time because his rotation is more efficient in delivering the bat to the ball. This allows a later release of the bat head which not only affords a way to generate more bat speed with the larger segments, but also prevents him from committing his hands too early on off-speed pitches. What this all adds up to is obviously a record-breaking April.
A-Rod himself said, "I'm just trying to keep it simple," and this is really all a hitter wants to do. Thinking about all of those mechanical things is too overwhelming when you are preparing for a 95 MPH fastball while also trying to foul off that two-strike slider. It appears that Long has found some nice cues that allow A-Rod to execute his swing without having to think it. He just feels it, and what a feeling it must be.
While I am not so sure A-Rod will top 120 HR this season, I don't feel that this is simply a hot streak. What we are seeing is a great player making great adjustments and setting himself up for a great year. Of course that means we are in for a great post-season (if the Yanks can get out of last place) and possibly a drama-filled off-season which will only add to this on-going soap opera.
Cleveland's Promising Left Side
Jhonny Peralta and Andy Marte make up the young and talented left side of Cleveland's infield. Peralta started off with a bang in 2005, and it has been noted this spring that he revived his physical condition and also corrected a vision problem. Marte has been followed by the hype associated with a top prospect, and now is the time for him to show if he can live up to the expectations.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned to Rich that Peralta was a guy who I immediately liked in terms of his swing. Short and powerful, it looked like the type of stoke that would support the type of numbers he was putting up as a rookie. In 2006, however, Peralta hit a bump in the road, but as I monitored his swing, there did not seem to be a significant physical difference. Here is a look:
Both of these clips are home run swings that are synched to contact, with the 2005 version on the left and 2006 on the right. Being rather picky, Peralta appears to carry his hands a little higher in the clip from 2005 and perhaps this allows him to get to the ball slightly quicker. Toe touch and foot plant occur at about the same time, which indicate that his overall swing timing is very similar, but it does look like his hands start a little earlier in 2006. It is a very small difference, costing maybe a slight amount of power. It is not a major red flag, in my opinion.
As part of one of my winter classes, I did research on vision and timing during the baseball swing and this made me think coincidentally of Peralta. Was it possible that he was just not seeing the ball the same way? Apparently, this was the case . Peralta went through with a Lasik surgery procedure this off-season to correct myopia (near sightedness). Now that his vision has been restored, I will be looking for Peralta to bounce back for some solid numbers at the plate. Indians GM Mark Shapiro recently said, "He [Peralta] just needs to be closer to the guy he was in '05," and I agree with the boss here that this can be done.
In Marte's case, reaching his potential with the bat might be more of a painstaking process. Bryan Smith gave me a heads up on this one by sending me an email from Florida after watching the Indians during spring training. He commented that Marte's swing looked long and dominated by the action of his arms. I happened to have a shot of J.D. Drew, whose swing looks quite similar and shows which adjustments might allow Marte to become the power bat that Cleveland is hoping for:
Both swings are home runs to the pull gap, again synchronized to contact. Let's look at images from each segment (launch, middle and contact) to see a bit of cause and effect, and hopefully how some adjustments at the beginning of Marte's swing might translate into more consistent, powerful contact. Here is the launch of the swing at the time where the stride foot is landing:
Of interest here is that Marte has more external rotation of his rear arm going into footplant. Both players are rather quiet in terms of loading the hands (shoulder-scapula region, really), but Drew stays quieter for longer, which I think it a good thing. In other words, Marte is starting to unload his shoulders-hands-bat earlier than Drew and this may be costing him efficiency and power. Moving forward a few frames, this still image gives an idea of the developing problem in the swing:
Although the angle is slightly different, Marte's hands appear further behind his back shoulder. I think Drew is in a better position that is more indicative of his ability to transfer rotational momentum from his hips and torso into contact, where it really counts. Now we come to the moment of truth:
The early disconnection in Marte's swing shows up here as he pushes his hands forward in more of a linear move than what Drew is showing. A graphic in Robert Adair's The Physics of Baseball explains this concept most simply: the idea is that the knob slows and changes direction which transfers energy to the bat head for maximum bat speed. Drew is essentially showing a more effective release of the bat head into contact.
Because the duration of a player's swing time (actual time he is unloading) is so short, roughly .2 seconds, it is virtually impossible to recover from any early breakdowns in the swing. Many hitters talk about getting into good positions to hit, and this is time factor is why those good positions are so important. A possible step 1 for Marte would be attempting to tighten up the load-unload that launches his swing and see how that affects the release of his bat into contact (easier said than done).
If nothing else, this would allow him to be a bit quicker to the ball and perhaps improve plate discipline and batting average. Consistent power could very well develop if Marte is able to finish off his swing in a more Drew-like manner.
In an effort to foster Marte's development at the big league level, Cleveland will be batting him in the 9-hole to reduce expectations. This might very well pay off if the message gets through that Marte does not have to be the man, but can focus on making necessary adjusments. Often times, players need opportunities to "fail" (take one step back before taking two steps forward) and this appears to be Marte's chance. He can now focus on the day to day process of refining his swing, and hopefully for Indians fans, the results will fall into place.
After a stellar 2004 season, Seattle 3B Adrian Beltre has somehow lost his belt. Unfortunately, the belt I am referring to has to do with producing long hits instead of holding up long pants. What's intriguing is not that Beltre's production fell off after a career year, but the degree to which his numbers have declined. After what seemed to be an MVP-type season where Beltre put it all together showing his tremendous ability, it seems that 2005 resulted in a return right back to square one - do not pass go, do not collect your $200 (uh, rather collect your $64 million, but I suppose that
is another story).
Age is often a reason for decreased production, but Beltre will turn 28 next month as he enters his ninth full season. With his experience and youth, Beltre should be primed to enter the most productive stretch of his career, so what gives?
Here is a look at Beltre in 2004 and 2006:
2004 uber-Beltre is on the left and a more human 2006 Beltre is on the right. I picked the two clips with the most similarity in regard to camera angle, pitch type/location and result. Again, these are synchronized to contact.
There are a lot of similarities when looking at setup and body position throughout the swings, but there is one major difference that caught my attention. Here is a more directed look:
Beltre's 2006 swing clearly shows that his hands are more visible behind his head as he prepares to unload his swing. The significance of this deals with Beltre's "swing time" - the time it takes him to unload once he has decided to go ahead with his swing.
In all honesty, I could argue that I like his 2006 swing better. If I had to guess which swing would produce more raw power, I would pick the one on the right. The reason is because the actual swing quickness between the two looks very similar, so if the 2006 swing shows the hands traveling a longer distance in the same time, it stands that the 2006 swing should be creating more bat speed.
The 2004 swing, however, shows that Beltre was initiating his shoulder rotation slightly earlier. This coincides with his hands and bat moving sooner to the ball, which indicates a quicker swing. Additionally, Beltre's arms look slightly more extended at contact on the left, which supports the concept that he is starting his swing earlier because the extra time from the quicker swing happens to be filled by the extra extension. If contact was made with the arms in exactly the same position, the difference in quickness would be more apparent.
Here is the best side view I could manage:
This angle also makes it clear that Beltre has to move his barrel a longer distance in 2006. If he could pull this off with all else remaining equal, I do think it could be a big plus, but that does not appear to be the case.
More bat speed does not always equal more power. The small matter of making consistent, hard contact comes into play. Looking at the stride foot of each swing, 2004 Beltre looks to begin his swing slightly later, which may mean that he is getting a better, longer look at the ball. This would allow him to process more information about the oncoming pitch, and the stats say he was producing enough bat speed to put up great power numbers.
Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland also seems to agree that a shorter swing correlates to better results from Beltre:
"Instead of swinging harder, we pulled him back and concentrated more on squaring the ball up and hitting it solid," Pentland said.
I have heard some arguments about players performing well in their "walk" year only to see performance decline after signing a lucrative contract, but is this the case with Beltre?
Considering these video clips, it appears that Beltre may actually be trying to do too much after signing that 5-year, $64 million free agent deal with Seattle. Perhaps the departure from his successful ways of 2004 results from dealing with higher expectations by attempting to do more, more, more. If so, Beltre might just need to realize how talented he is, stay within himself and just go about his business.
This realization may have begun during the second half of last season, when Beltre's batting average jumped 31 points and he hit 18 of his 25 home runs.
Referencing that stretch, Beltre said:
"You get frustrated (through the struggles)," Beltre said. "You know you can do better. It gets to be too much. Finally I got to the point where you say, 'whatever.' Then you just go out, see the ball and hit the ball."
Sometimes a slight change in mentality, mechanics (like changing the position of the hands in order to shorten the swing) or a good combination of the two is all it takes to recreate a comfort level of past success. Beltre is a good, young athlete with loads of experience which leads me to believe an explanation is out there and that there is hope that he can produce more closely to what his ability suggests.
Bat Out of Helton
Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton made some headlines this winter during trade talks with Boston. Helton's production has certainly fallen off from a couple of years ago, but is it really that far fetched to think that he can still be a power bat during his mid-30s at Coors Field? I don't think so.
Helton has always been a studious hitter, going as far as personally logging each of his at-bats during the season. The infamous humidor and apparent sickness last year might be initial reasons for a power outage, but I took a look to see if there was anything else physically different in Helton's swing that might explain this downward trend.
Going back to Helton's last 1.000+ OPS season, here is a full look at 2004 Todd Helton (left side) versus the 2006 version (right side). While all pitches shown are fastballs, the swings on top are hit toward the left-center gap and the pitches shown on the bottom are pulled into right field:
At first glance, there is not much apparent difference. The overall rhythm and timing are almost identical, which is a good thing. Helton's maintenance of a high batting average may be indicative that he is still getting the barrel to the ball and the slip in power just means the ball is not going as far. Why? It's the humidor. Well, checking the splits from 2004 and 2006, Helton's numbers away from Coors suffered just as much, so maybe the humidor was not the main culprit.
Helton's health is a more logical reason from the standpoint that he could have been doing everything the same mechanically, but was just not physically able to produce the same amount of force. For example, Helton's percentage of home runs to fly balls has nearly been cut in half - from 13.8% in 2004 to 6.2% in 2006. Colorado has already indicated that they will rest Helton more throughout the 2007 season, which seems like a wise approach. On top of that, physical weakness could have effects on a player's mental approach as well. It's much easier to think strong and confidently when you actually feel strong.
With all that in mind, here is how these mental and physical factors show up in Helton's spray chart at Coors Field:
Not only is the number of home runs down, but the direction is dramatically different. Maybe those long drives to left field turned into doubles or fly outs, or perhaps Helton changed his approach to try to pull more. Either way, it is clear that Helton is at his best when he can use the entire field and that he has no problem dropping opposite field bombs when he is at full strength.
The main difference in Helton's actual swing mechanics can be seen in this excerpt of the above clip:
If you haven't already, focus on the hands. The 2004 Helton has a more pronounced "hitch," which in this case is not such a bad thing. Plenty of power hitters use this type of move to load the upper body in an effort to create more power (think Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and David Ortiz), and as long as the hitter gets to a good position at the right time, this can be quite beneficial. Of course, adding extra movement opens the door for more timing problems, but the tradeoff is creating more elastic energy that can be converted into increased bat speed through the rapid load/unload of the shoulder area (where the arms are connected to the torso). Add the fact that this move is not new to Helton - he has pulled it off VERY successfully in the past - and recommending a return to this technique becomes that much easier.
Revisit the isolation shot of Helton's hands and you will also notice his bat angle is more vertical in 2004. This makes sense in that the bat feels a bit lighter when it is more vertical, so the extra movement with the hands does not feel like that much more work. On each side of the comparison, Helton is getting the bat to the same position at footplant, so it appears the extra load is not costing anything in the quickness department.
An extra move or load with the hands and arms is something I would consider to be "icing on the cake" - something to be added if and when the player has the basics down. Like I mentioned earlier, Helton's timing looks good, body appears to be working in a very similar manner . . . so on that note, maybe it's time to add the icing back to this swing. I realize this loading move with the hands may seem small, but small adjustments are the name of the game at such a high level. When the rest of the major parts are working well, I'm all for focusing on the hands, and perhaps a healthy Helton can do just that. Then we will see if he can put the fear of Helton back in those opposing pitchers.
From the Rockies point of view, I understand why the team would consider trading him (as management attempted during the off-season). Age, injuries and over $90 million owed over the next 5 years seems like a steep mountain to climb. But let's not forget that Helton bounced back from bone spurs in his back for a monster year in 2004, and he is still only 33 years old. If Colorado could have reduced payroll while acquiring some good, young pitching, great, but retaining Helton does not mean the Rockies failed. CEO Charlie Monfort already indicated that they believe they can win the NL West as is, so now they have they chance to go out and prove it.
The "shark" is now officially in the waters of Major League Baseball, and a recent article asks if Jeff Samardzija is a good investment for the Cubs. I think it is a good question; as for the answer: it depends. There is no way I can comment on the quality of pitching repertoire, but fortunately, his video from Notre Dame last year is recent enough to give some ideas that might accelerate his development.
This is Dayn Perry's main thought that has the most relevance here:
Samardzija has a good power-pitcher's build and fields his position well, but his mechanics, while consistent, need refining.
What does "refining" mean? Let's take a look...
Here is Samardzija at Notre Dame in 2006. The clips are from the same game, live (facing batters, not warm-ups):
The left side shows Samardzija coming from the full wind-up, while he is going from the stretch on the right side. Each clip is synched to release point (as all of the following comparisons will be), and right off the bat there is something that does not match up. Samardzija is moving considerably slower from the wind-up. What I mean by that is primarily the difference in time from high-knee lift to release point. High-knee lift can be thought of the time when maximal loading of the hip region is occurring, and this shows that Samardzija is unloading his hips much sooner from the wind-up. There is just about nothing going on for Samardzija as he lifts his front leg out of the wind-up. He looks much better out of the stretch, as his hips load and begin to move out during knee lift. In short, Samardzija looks much more efficient out of the stretch.
My first thought here is that the main areas of focus should be tempo and rotation - either taking less time to produce the current amount of force or producing more force in his existing amount of time. A few comparisons will help illustrate:
Samardzija (89 mph) is on the left and 2006 1st-rounder, Daniel Bard (93 mph), is on the right. These come out of the stretch, where Samardzija is quicker; however, it appears he is still a little behind Bard - behind in terms of really maximizing his ability to throw the ball HARD. You can see how far Samardzija is into his motion before Bard even starts. Some of the articles I have read mention that Samardzija has been throwing consistently in the low-90s and up to 97, so perhaps he is making adjustments on the fly (his draft scouting report cited a high 80s fastball). Another issue to consider is how Samardzija is going to be used - some suggest he will be limited to the bullpen if his off-speed pitches do not develop. In either case, it appears Samardzija might be able to use his body a little better in order to create more velocity and hopefully limit the stress on his arm.
To be fair, knee lift to release is not the only means of measuring tempo. Hand break is another. Here is a look at Samardzija next to hard-throwing Scott Williamson:
I highlighted the hand break for each and also threw in a red line just to show the different position as they make their move to home plate. Williamson starts his leg lift much sooner, but it also reaches a point much higher, and in the end he is only one frame behind in terms of knee lift to release. A little technical, I know, but it shows Williamson is getting a lot more accomplished in terms of loading his hips. And then the red line is just an indicator of how Williamson is creating forward movement by using his hips. Getting back to hand break, Williamson is more aggressive. He has some momentum coming down out of a higher set and this gives him a little bit more juice (elastic energy) as he prepares to throw.
Now that I've mentioned the hips, it is time for a look at rotation. The Williamson clip shows this, but I am going to break out two of the best here - none other than Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez.
Going from the wind-up, here is Clemens (1986 version) and Samardzija:
You can see the obvious difference in timing of high-knee lift, but I have slowed down the section of interest here (here is an isolated look). Clemens is using hip rotation much more effectively going into footplant, and as a result, he has more aggressive shoulder rotation to deliver his arm to release. This would be an area of improvement that could not only add velocity, but also reduce wear and tear on the arm.
Lastly, Pedro (Boston version) will show how it is done out of the stretch:
Here is an isolation shot. I will point out once more how much quicker Samardzija is out of the stretch because he is not as far behind here. But the rotation is key. Pedro is much smaller and I can not imagine that he is nearly the athlete Samardzija is, but he is very efficient. The main thing on the Samardzija side is that he looks like he is reaching or lunging into footplant, which prevents him from really using his hips. Maybe a shorter stride is in order? That is for the pitching coaches to decide and see which things work.
For $10 million over 5 years, was signing Samardzija a good investment? We'll see. There is opportunity and a lot of light at the end of the tunnel here. His clips from the stretch indicate that he has an idea of moving more quickly and his athleticism gives reason to believe he can make adjustments. Considering his past splitting time between baseball and football combined with a few areas of potential improvement, Samardzija just might develop into a pretty good pitcher. If his mechanics stay as is, developing a better feel for his breaking pitches allow him to move along as a starter. Should he have trouble refining the off-speed stuff, improved efficiency might just allow him to develop a mid-high 90s fastball and become a force from the bullpen. Pulling off both means this "shark" could swim for a long time.
What's Up With Upton? Predicting and Fine-Tuning a First Rounder
Yesterday's article focused mainly on identifying a long swing, but what is the opposite of a long swing? Justin Upton. "Quick" was what came to mind while watching swings from his 2005 draft video. But is there such a thing as too quick? Since quickness and bat speed have an inverse relationship, perhaps there is an optimal blend. A closer look at Upton's swing might just reveal an area that determines his level of super-stardom.
Here is a look at one of Upton's pre-draft batting practice swings:
He's quick and baseballs are disappearing over the fence - this is too good to be true! I thought nothing of it until I slowed down some swings and noticed this possible area of concern:
The issue here is that Upton shows signs of taking the swing over with his arms/hands. This is both similar and opposite from what Johnson/Harvey showed. Similar in that the hands/arms take over the swing, but opposite because Johnson/Harvey created an extra swing segment, whereas Upton may be eliminating a more optimal swing segmentation. In simplest terms, when Upton begins pushing with the arms/hands, he does not allow rotational forces produced by the body to be completely transferred to the bat.
Upton, to me, resembles a Rickie Weeks type of player - chosen as "5-tool" middle infielders at the top of the draft. And I am going to skip a step here and add in what I consider to be a good blend quickness and power, Alfonso Soriano, who transfers momentum efficiently from hips to shoulders to bat.
Weeks is on the left and Soriano on the right, along with a game swing of Upton in the middle. Each clip is synchronized to contact. Weeks and Soriano are hitting home runs to left field, and Upton appears to have hit a foul-ball home run down the left field line.
Remember the trouble sign from Upton's bp swing? Here is how it shows up during game action:
Given Upton's athleticism and ability, projecting him as a "Rickie Weeks type" is not far fetched. Weeks is showing progress at the highest level and gives plenty of reason for optimism. Upton does not show much reason to warrant different expectations of himself.
My question is this: what type of hitters can these players really become? Check out Soriano - another good athlete who came up through the middle infield - whose swing is quite different. In the 2-frame segment above, look how much further Soriano is able to move his bat in the same period of time. Moving the bat head over longer distance during the same period of time equals more power (with no loss of quickness). Soriano accomplishes this by keeping the arms/bat segment connected to the rotation of the torso, rather than pushing the bat to contact.
If Upton and Weeks stack up athletically to Soriano, basic swing mechanics may be the only thing holding them back from 35-40 home run power. Of course, this is a sticky subject, because you do not want the player to feel that a major overhaul is necessary. You want to work with what he has and make the most of the existing talent - see which simple, small adjustments can create the greatest benefit.
Getting back to the draft, investing in quickness (Upton-style) over bat speed (Johnson-style) is most likely to provide the most immediate return. Quickness provides more opportunities for solid contact and plate discipline, which provide productivity outside of simply home runs. "Power comes last" is a common statement, and perhaps this is a good example to keep an eye on. If power truly does come last for the likes of Upton and Weeks, will it be a product of their current swings, or courtesy of some Soriano-esque improvements? Again, time will tell.
Selection by Swing
The draft is a crapshoot, right? Maybe so. Honestly, I don't know, because I've never been in position to make decisions on drafting players. There are countless things to consider, all with the purpose of determining which players are most likely to make it to the big leagues.
Looking at the draft videos from 2006, I took a pair of contrasting swings: one which looks fairly advanced already, and another which looks like more significant adjustments will be necessary. Emphasis goes on the word swings because the swing is just one factor in determining the overall value of a player. Who is the better player? I don't know and that is not the point. The point is trying to find out what the player's swing might be able to tell us about future performance.
My choices were Hank Conger (left) and Cody Johnson (right), who is mirrored to appear right-handed. David Wright is in the middle for comparison purposes because he is one of the best young hitters at the major league level. Although I do not have any amateur video of him, I am going on the assumption that he had a pretty good swing which allowed him to quickly reach the majors.
With apologies to Chris Parmalee, who appears to also have developed a high-level swing, Conger just jumped right out in terms of comparison to a guy like David Wright. In any case, the issue is how the player uses his body to swing the bat. Conger looks quick and efficient, producing both bat speed and quickness, similar to Wright. In order to demonstrate the red-flags of Johnson's swing, I thought it best to make a couple more comparisons. Stephen Drew is a guy who progressed rapidly to Arizona, and his swing is remarkably similar to when he was at Florida State.
Here is Johnson along with a shot from Stephen Drew's draft video:
Very specifically, this is the area that would concern me about Johnson's swing:
What I am trying to show here is how they move into footplant. Johnson is the definition of "opening up" the hips too early (at least on this swing). Drew is starting to rotate, but the segments of his hips, shoulders and hands/bat are moving together. Look again at Drew's hands and check how they progress towards contact. The situation with Johnson is quite different, which may allow for great bat speed and power but is a big problem when it comes to quickness. Successful big leaguers have both, finding a way to use the large muscles of the body to produce power in a short period of time.
Trying to go one step further, I came across Ryan Harvey's draft video. This seems to be an interesting comparison because both had been 6'5", athletic, power-hitting outfielders. Might Harvey's first few seasons in the minors give an indication of what is to come for Johnson? Time will tell.
Here is the comparison (Johnson again mirrored to be right-handed):
The Harvey video is not great (missing frames, etc.) but it serves the purpose. From what I gather reading prospect reviews, both of these players opened eyes with their towering home run power. Again, the issue is how this power is generated and how will it transfer to higher levels. Were Johnson and Harvey lighting it up in batting practice and preying on inferior pitching during games?
Suppose, however, that they did have success against other top high school pitchers - why are those pitchers dominant in high school? Likely because they throw fastballs that most high school players can't catch up to. Even with a "long" swing, players like Johnson and Harvey could catch up to mid-90s fastballs, assuming they are looking for the pitch (see Jeff Francoeur). Of course, this would make their power look even more impressive.
But are they really showing signs of a high-level swing? I will leave with one more picture that tells much of the story:
Conger - Wright - Johnson - Harvey all at 2 frames before contact. The angle shows their back elbow, which can often identify bat drag or other forms of disconnection from the arms and the body. In this case, with the elbow leading at a point so close to contact, it appears that Johnson and Harvey relied most on the arms to create a long powerful swing, which may be impressive on the surface, but probably won't provide for smooth progress toward the majors. Conger and Wright are more indicative of swings with quickness and power.
While the bright side of Johnson and Harvey may be their athletic ability, the question becomes the skill of their swing. Skills depend on practice and experience, and while not impossible, it will be quite a challenge for young players to progress through pro baseball while at the same time skillfully developing better swing patterns.
Restoring the Balance of Tim Hudson
A quick stats check confirms that 2006 was not the best year for Tim Hudson. What is interesting, of course, is to ask why. Random variation? Or was there something else going on?
I am always interested to read or hear what a player has to say about his performance, and luckily, a few different articles cite Hudson as he mentions working on subtle adjustments to his mechanics. The questions are: are these the best adjustments, and are they working?
Here are a couple of excerpts from articles referring to Hudson's mechanics:
From Access North Georgia:
The bullpen's problems aside, Hudson returned the next day to working with pitching coach Roger McDowell on a drill that's attempting to restore his balance on the mound.
McDowell recognized a flaw in Hudson's delivery that begins any time his right foot leaves the rubber too soon. The balancing drill helps Hudson keep his shoulders horizontal and corrects the poor mechanics that caused him to give the ball an uneven release.
From the USA Today on 5/2/06:
"I'm getting a lot more downward movement instead of side to side. That side-to-side stuff gets hit a long way," said Hudson, who is throwing with more of an overhand motion. "It's not rocket science. It was just a little bitty adjustment, but that's all it took."
The quotes are ordered this way because the first one refers to a cause (balance and shoulder angle) that leads to an effect (movement on the ball). The presumed effect that Hudson and McDowell are looking for is more downward movement (sink), which is perhaps one of the reasons for Hudson's success in Oakland. So let's look at video of Hudson when he pitched in Oakland compared to his 2006 season in Atlanta.
The video I have for comparison comes from July 2002 and September 2006. I ended up using pitches from both the windup and the stretch (each taken from the same game), combining the four pitches into one comparison. In an effort to avoid speculation as much as possible, the main topics I will address are balance and arm angle, because these are the things specifically mentioned by Hudson.
For those of you playing at home, here is the full version (in slo-mo) of the comparison:
Which one has better balance? Which is in better position to create the desired downward movement on the ball? Let's see.
Starting from the top, the following picture shows Hudson as he prepares to begin his movement towards home plate:
The yellow vertical line just shows where the head is positioned relative to the foot. What I thought to be more interesting is the angle of the shin on the post (rear) leg. The measurement of the angle is not exact (different camera angles in different stadiums, etc., which is beyond my control), but there is a noticeable difference. The smaller angle on the left may indicate more muscle activation in the upper leg and lower torso region that play a role in balance and stabilization. In other words, the large muscles on the middle of the body may be utilized more on the left, which would help stabilize Hudson as he moves toward home plate.
The picture above is a few frames later where the 2006 Hudson appears to be "reaching" (extending) more with his front leg, perhaps in order to create static balance over the rubber. This deemphasizes the need for active muscle stabilization which seems more apparent in 2002. This difference between static and dynamic balance ("staying back") is rather similar to the difference I noted in Alex Rodriguez's rotation this year compared to years past. In short, weight back and reaching with the stride opens the door for problems with subsequent rotation. We'll touch on that again momentarily.
Now here is a look at the resulting shoulder angle:
Hudson had said he was trying to achieve a more horizontal shoulder angle - mission accomplished. But will this really create more sink? Think of a sidearm pitcher throwing a 'frisbee slider,' nicknamed because the horizontal arm angle creates more horizontal plane for the pitch. This compared to a more vertically arm angled pitcher, whose slider may be referred to as having more 'tilt.'
Hudson also credits the downward motion to throwing with a more overhand motion, but we have to look at how he gets there.
Here is the shot of release point:
The release point for these pitches does appear to be remarkably different, so let me know if you can measure any differences in that picture.
Earlier, I mentioned some potential rotation problems that might result from trying to literally 'stay back' on the rubber, and I was mainly referring to the dreaded opening up too soon. I will not spend much time addressing it, primarily because a good side view would make for better analysis. I have, however, been made aware of a conversation between two individuals who are personally familiar with Hudson in which notice was made of Hudson's rotation causing him to open up too soon (aka pull off, or any other baseball speak you have for it). One indicator from this center-field camera angle is this:
Of course the camera angles are different, but it is interesting that the glove of 2006 Hudson basically disappears. You can decide how much you want to make of that.
I will leave you with a final picture:
This was a bit of an accident in that I dropped a line from the head of each side and just let the clip play through. By the end of the clip, I noticed that 2002 Hudson's head was ending up on the original line that had been drawn. 2006 Hudson was very obviously off to the left. The significance is that it is one more indicator that 2006 Hudson does not have the same balance of 2002. Decide for yourself which one is better, but they are clearly not the same.
Back to those of you playing along at home - do all these pieces match up to what you saw in the initial full version of the clip?
Here is a quick summary:
2002: Earlier muscle activation allows improved dynamic balance in order to set up a better foundation for rotation. Slightly more vertical shoulder angle creates more opportunity direct the rotational momentum towards home plate via forwards flexion of the spine, and improves ability to 'get on top' of the ball for more downwards movement (sink).
2006: Weight back and reaching front foot leaves static balance over the rubber, possibly leads to opening up during rotation. This combined with the horizontal shoulder angle decreases opportunity to transfer rotational momentum into delivery towards home plate. Arm comes across the ball in a more horizontal plane, creating more lateral movement.
There is no way for me to know for certain which drills Hudson is actually doing, why he may choose the particular drills, or if they are producing the results he desires. But now that you have an idea of the general adjustments he is trying to make, what is your answer to the original questions: are these the best adjustments and are they working?
Lastly, it is only fair that I offer my suggestions. Hudson, just like any other player, tries to keep his mechanics simple, and there is no need to get elaborate with drills and solutions. A little more 'sit' as he begins towards the plate rather than trying to 'stay back,' and allow the front arm to work up a little more. That's it from me. If you were pitching coach what would you do?
Zoomlander: Starting, Relieving and Throwing Hard
When it comes to general sports, I am a fan of watching people perform at the highest levels. This means, for example, that I got into it last week watching a women's college volleyball match because one player from Hawai'i (highly ranked nationally) was totally, and I mean totally, dominating. Everyone knew she was going to spike the ball and it was as if she took aim at one opposing player after another and made them eat leather. I do not know anything about volleyball, but I know she was performing at a level significantly higher than her opposition.
This type of performance, although somewhat far-reaching, reminded me of Tigers pitchers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Specifically, their performance against the Yankees in the ALDS (since I actually got to watch some of it) and more specifically, their approaches to Yankees sluggers Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi were especially overpowering. These guys are fun to watch!
Here are two excerpts that show specific at-bats in full (clips thankfully prepared by an anonymous "donor"):
Verlander vs. A-Rod
Zumaya vs. Giambi
According to the radar display, each of these fastballs (5 of the 6 pitches) registered at or above 100 MPH. As if that was not challenging enough, as soon as A-Rod sniffed some contact, Verlander delivered an 85 MPH bender to expedite A-Rod's departure. Cool stuff in and of itself. . .
. . .But while changing around the format of the video, I came across an interesting feature which provided another option for making comparisons, and here is the resulting clip in full:
The clip itself comes from the same camera and same angle from the same game. Both pitchers are synchronized to release point and both are throwing 100 MPH fastballs.
Of course, the first question to me is: how do these guys throw so hard? Secondly, what became very interesting to me is a couple of things that Verlander and Zumaya apparently do a little bit differently, along with the implications that those differences might have for different types of pitcher (starters vs. relivers).
Here is the comparison one more time, slowed down in full:
In one quick sentence, Verlander appears to be more efficient with his body, whereas Zumaya seems to rely more on his arm. These are the areas I would like to focus on here.
In this section of the video, Verlander is moving more directly towards home plate than Zumaya, who is moving slightly to the 3rd base side. This appears to allow Verlander greater freedom to open his rotating hips as each pitcher arrives at foot-plant in frame 2.
This is important because it gives Verlander more potential to transfer energy from both his linear movement towards the plate as well as his rotating hips. In contrast, Zumaya's midsection is going to have to do more work to overcome this change in direction as he gets his upper body squared up to home plate before release. If this can not be accomplished, Zumaya is going to have to find those missing MPH's in another link towards the end the chain. The quick version of this is that Verlander appears more efficient in setting up forwards flexion of the trunk that is occurring during the time surrounding ball release.
Two other quick clues that indicate more efficient rotational ability for Verlander:
1. Check again the second frame of the clip section directly above. Look at the distance between Verlander's feet and Zumaya's feet.
2. Note the finish of Verlander in the full speed video as his momentum leaves him "falling" toward the 1st base side.
Now while Verlander is busy getting his hips and upper body in position, Zumaya is doing something else exceptionally well:
The first thing I noticed in the comparison was Zumaya's arm action. You can see the different positions of each pitcher's throwing arm in frame 1. While Verlander has his elbow, shoulder, and the ball at virtually the same height, Zumaya clearly has his elbow raised above his shoulder. This requires some internal rotation of the arm (humerus at the shoulder joint) and it is important because it creates more distance for Zumaya's hand to travel in order to catch up to Verlander (which he does). Frame 6 is where each player has reached maximal external rotation, and because of Zumaya's initial position in Frame 1, he has been able to create and store more elastic energy to be delivered upon release. Click here for a brief "textbook" explanation.
Starter vs Reliever
Thinking of this at surface level, it is logical that the starting pitcher should be more efficient. A starter is required to throw more innings and more pitches and increased efficiency reduces stress on the arm. The fact that relievers can come in and air it out does not dismiss the need for mechanical efficiency, but the nature of their short appearances may allow them more room for error. For instance, a reliever is less susceptible to muscular fatigue pitching one inning as opposed to 6 or 7, and it may be during those times of muscular fatigue that the door for injury is opened wider for certain pitchers.
As far as the conclusion goes, I do not have one yet. This is the start of an increasingly in-depth look at the physical demands of starting and relief pitching. Reviewing as much research as has been done on the topic is step one, but I'll also have some upcoming opportunities to learn from leading experts in the fields of exercise physiology and throwing mechanics.
Jeter's Consistent Adjustments
[Editor's note: Jeff Albert has agreed to join Baseball Analysts as a regular contributor. Jeff, who owns and operates swingtraining.net, first appeared on this site in August with his well-received two-part special on Alex Rodriguez and Andruw Jones. A graduate student pursuing a M.S. in Exercise Science at Louisiana Tech, Jeff has worked with high school, college and minor league baseball players (doing training and video analysis). Please welcome Jeff aboard.]
Derek Jeter is not the guy who jumps out to me as having the "model swing," but it sure is hard to argue with the results. Jeter can hit. By hit, I mean that he puts the barrel on the ball consistently (independent of slugging or on-base percentage). This was quite obvious as he made his 2006 playoff debut with a 5-hit performance.
In the span of his five at-bats, Jeter showed his versatility with the stick as he turned on a 1-0 fastball, fought back from 0-2 to shove a 3-2 fastball into left-center, served a high off-speed pitch to right-center, turned on another fastball (0-1), and finally capped it by launching a hanging 1-1 curve over the centerfield fence. So what does this say? The Yankee captain can turn on an expected fastball, fight off pitches when he is behind in the count, and also punish pitchers for spinning mistakes left in the middle of the strike zone.
Looking a bit closer at the video, I started to notice a couple of things (which are also common in other high-level hitters) that allow Jeter to excel in such a wide variety of hitting situations. Many players have difficulty covering varying pitch types in so many parts of the strike zone, but these are just a couple of things that allow the likes of Jeter to produce so many hits.
What I first noticed was the adjustment he made to the off-speed pitch hit for the home run. Most hitters are usually taught to set their timing for a fastball and try to adjust down in speed. How does this happen? Here is the home run:
There is a slight "delay" visible in Jeter's swing. Now here is a closer look at how this translates into adjusting for an off-speed pitch:
Jeter's home run from the ALDS Game 1 is on the left and the swing on the right is another home run from earlier this season. The obvious difference is the timing of the hip rotation, which logically starts earlier when reacting to a fastball. On the right, I intentionally chose an outside pitch (resulting in an opposite field home run) to diffuse any comments suggesting that he is opening up early in order to get to an inside pitch. In this case, he needed to stay as "closed" as possible in order to effectively hammer that outside fastball.
Footplant (heel landing) is a basic indicator of when the "unloading" of the swing begins and a noticeable opening of the hips for most high-level hitters begins just before the heel of the foot plants. We are seeing here that Jeter is delaying the "unloading" of his swing to adjust for the slower speed of this curveball.
Also of note - and more of a general observation - is Jeter's ability to consistently put himself in a balanced, athletic position. If you remember from the A-Rod swing analysis, his balance has essentially changed, which may have some implications to his fluctuating performance over the past three seasons in New York.
One more major factor in Jeter's consistency (and also many other high-level hitters) is his ability to set up and maintain his swing path (swing plane):
The front or lead arm will often act as the guide for the path of the swing, and this is the case here. It should be fairly easy to predict where the barrel of the bat is going to end up based on the direction of the lead arm, and that is what the lines are intended to illustrate in this clip. The yellow line at the end of the clip replaces the original red line, and the red line at the end indicates that Jeter's swing results in contact in nearly the identical plane that he had originally set up as he began to unload.
Jeter's ability to stay in this swing plane may also go a long way in explaining his ability to spray the ball all over the field. The general set up and balance of his body, along with the position of his lead arm, allows Jeter to not only authoritatively handle outside pitches, but also to pull his hands in without "rolling" his hands over. In other words, on a tight pitch inside, Jeter's lead arm pulls across his chest (via retraction of left scapula), which brings his hands in while maintaining his intended swing path. In baseball speak, this is "staying inside the ball."
The short of it is that Jeter's visual and reactive skills (recognize pitch type and location) are backed by his ability to get the bat where it needs to be (coordination of swing pattern). Players can often be heard saying that they try to "trust their hands" and Jeter can probably trust his more than most as his body sets up the path (train tracks) and the hands (train) get the barrel (passenger) efficiently to the desired destination (ball).