Mechanics and the Brain

June 2, 2015

 

 

As with any season there are a number of players whose performance doesnít line up with expectation. Sometimes itís simply a matter of the sample not being large enough for the player to revert to career norms. Other times, and what I hope to offer some useful analysis for, something has changed that might affect the playerís performance going forward or at least merits further examination/correction. Obviously I havenít analyzed everyone and the only reason Iíve delved in depth with these few is because they are on my XFL team. I will get around to more of them this month, but for now here is what I have.

 

 

Stephen Strasburg

About a month ago, Pedro Martinez did both an excellent video breakdown and a demonstration of good pitching mechanics. He was very thorough, starting with the plant foot and working all the way through the final wrist snap. During each phase he explained the importance of that piece of the puzzle. For example, the plant foot should point toward the plate so the body would naturally focus the energy toward the target rather than being re-directed artificially with the shoulder or arm, either of which would exert potentially injurious stress on that part. Also, the torso needed to be perpendicular to the ground throughout the delivery for part of the same reason. This facilitates the natural release of the hips, thereby efficiently transferring the energy from the leg drive toward the shoulder. The shoulder would then have a straight line to deliver the arm whip and the wrist snap to complete the motion. This foundation generates much of the velocity and also keeps the whipping action of the arm and wrist in a straight line with the target so that they continue to scale.

 

In Stephen Strasburgís case, it is this foundation that is creating some problems. Whether it was due to his spring ankle injury or not is unknown. What is known is that during the plant phase of his delivery, his foot is not pointed toward the plate. It is slightly off kilter. This in turn leaves him slightly off-balance, leaning to the left, which forces his hips to open early resulting in an in-efficient transfer of the energy. In order to compensate for the loss of energy, he has forced his shoulder to exert more than normal which is causing both stress (hence the occasional discomfort) and for the ball to tail away to the right of the target. In Martinezí demonstration, every movement is going toward the plate. In Strasburgís current delivery, it starts by heading slightly to the right of the plate, then corrects moving left, then corrects again by heading right. The result is that pitches intended for the left side of the plate are ending up in the middle, and pitches intended for the right side of the plate are ending up in a right-handed batterís ribs. This is confirmed by both the heat maps of his pitch location and in the increased number of hit batsmen. Last year over 215 innings, Strasburg hit 5 batters; this year in just over 40 innings he already hit 3.

 

The additional problem is that Steve McCatty isnít really a mechanics kind of pitching coach. His forte is the psychology of pitching. Someone in the Nats front office probably needs to call Pedro Martinez and ask him for a favor because without someone to break down and repair Strasburgís mechanics, this issue isnít going away. Thatís the physical side. He still needs to mix his pitches better.

 

 

Julio Teheran

Teheranís problems are a little more mysterious. Heís not using his 4-seam fastball as much and using his two seamer almost twice as often as previously. The reason for this is probably an effort to get more ground balls - which he has achieved - but the cost has been more than itís worth. His control has suffered, with his walk rate almost twice as high as last year, and heís leaving more pitches up in the zone to be hammered, resulting in a home run rate double the previous two seasons. I donít know if this is a resultant issue or just something that happened to occur at the same time, but velocity on both his slider and change-up have also dropped dramatically. For the past few years his slider has been clocked around 89 mph. This year itís below 83. Likewise his change-up has dropped in velocity from 87 to 82. Iím not sure if Roger McDowell is a mechanics guy or a psychology guy but Teheran probably could benefit from a mechanics guy and probably a return to the style he was using last year, groundballs or not.

 

 

Derek Holland

Derek Holland is enduring a similar experience to that of Strasburg, only on a much more serious scale. Last year he missed much of the year with a knee injury. When he came back, his mechanics were altered slightly in order to compensate for the weakened foundation. This year he started with those same mechanics, which were effective but not what his body had been used to, which then caused a physical problem in his shoulder. Hopefully the time off has gotten him to full health and he can resume pitching with his normal mechanics.

 

 

Jon Gray

Delving into the minors a little here, but Jon Grayís issue was largely mental. To begin the season he was trying to blow everyone away with his fastball. A good fastball, certainly, but the problem was that he wasnít able to pinpoint its location and despite the high 90s heat, batters were able to square up the center cut delivery. In the high altitude of Albuquerque, thatís a recipe for a 10.00+ ERA. At the end of April he realized that wasnít working and decided to slow his delivery down, use his sinker more and locate his 4-seamer a little better even if it meant throwing it in the low 90s. The result has been an ERA of 2.78 over his last 6 starts.He should be making starts in Colorado Ė which is at the same altitude as Albuquerque Ė in fairly short order.

 

 

Drew Hutchison

There is nothing wrong with Drew Hutchison that a good psychologist canít fix. His problem has been that he tries to overpower hitters when he sees them the third time through the order instead of using their anxieties in his favor. Everyone knows the Blue Jays can hit. So all a Blue Jay starter has to do is last 5 or 6 innings and he knows the offense will score enough runs for him to leave with a lead. That will put the pressure on opposing hitters to press in order to make up the difference. Hutchison pitches like that for the first 4 innings of the game. Batters post an OPS of .622 for the first four innings of the game. But in the 5th and 6th innings they crush him for an OPS of over 1.100. From the videos Iíve seen heís overthrowing either trying to blow them away or to empty the tank. Regardless, heís losing location and the results are a lot of hard hit balls.

 

One of the remarkable things about Hutchisonís - and for that matter Taijuan Walkerís - season so far as how disparate his home and road splits are. Hutchisonís ERA in home games is 2.97 this year. Itís 7.80 on the road. Walkerís are even more pronounced, with a 2.22 ERA at home and a 9.79 ERA on the road. I imagine there will be some smoothing of those numbers as the season progresses but it could be that they feel a greater degree of comfort pitching in front of the home fans. Something to watch.