From the beginning of baseball until the mid-80's, baseball instruction remained amazingly similar and remarkably unchanged. The instruction was comprised primarily of experience passed down from generation to generation. For the most part, pitching coaches let their eyes be their teachers. They knew what they liked. They could see what worked. And a few even tried to write down their experience.
The system wasn't perfect. Their eyes could be fooled and of course we all tend to look at things through a subjective or tainted lens. But most of the past great pitching instructors were also wonderfully pragmatic. They repeated concepts like "if it isn't broke don't fix it" and "keep it simple". They intuitively knew that if a pitcher was getting results, that was what was important. Sometimes it just didn't pay to be too smart.
The end result: after nearly one hundred years in existence, the act of pitching a baseball developed into an odd, almost neurotic mix of science, art and religion/ mysticism.
Changes in the 80s
In the mid 1980's that all started to change. Technology allowed the baseball community at large to view pitching a baseball from a different perspective. Substance slowly started to be peeled away from style. What our eyes missed because of the speed of the movement, we started to be able to piece together using high speed / digital video and 1000 frames a second technology. In many cases we didn't like what was revealed. Our quaint, perfect world was turned on its head. We needed a paradigm shift. We indeed weren't as smart as we thought. The conventional wisdom in many cases was just that: an opinion repeated so often it is accepted as fact.
In the late 1980's, the scientific community and its research wing started to measure and quantify human movement in incredible detail and with amazing precision. More and more coaches began to have college educations and bring biomechanics backgrounds into their practical and grass roots teaching/-coaching environment. For the first time we were beginning to distinguish between the style of a certain pitcher and his pitching mechanics. We were also able to recognize that even within established mechanical standards of the very best pitchers in the history of the game, there were ranges of effectiveness and very few if any absolutes.
Here's What We Know Today
From the fields of motor learning, biomechanics, sports psychology and digitally mastered video of over 50 of the best pitchers at 1000 frames a second, here's what we know today.
It is critical that we begin with a distinction between the principles of biomechanics, motor learning and physics and pitching styles. Pitching styles are varied and many. Styles are the personal signature a person brings to their skill or movement. Unless or until that style interferes with that person's ability to remain balanced, create a stable posture and keep that posture throughout that movement or interferes with that person's ability to sequence movement correctly, no style is any worse or better than any other. Furthermore trying to change a style that does not interfere with balance, stability or sequencing is neither productive nor useful. Having pitchers with varying styles can only be advantageous.
Bottom Line: Always work inside the universe of the pitcher.
If change is necessary, allow the pitcher to keep as much of his personal signature as possible. Endeavor to accentuate what he already does naturally well. Do not attempt to force your ideal model upon anyone.
If you want to be able to influence or teach any pitcher, you as his mentor must...
- Accept the person as is ... baggage and all
- Honor his past understandings, teachings and experiences
- Seek to understand his perspective before asking him to understand yours
- Believe without a shadow of a doubt that he can be better tomorrow than he is today and
- Develop a relationship of mutual trust and respect. The pitcher will not care how much you know until he knows how much you care.
It is impossible to over emphasize the importance of balance and postural stability. Regardless of style, arm slot, leg kick, grip, etc., if a pitcher cannot control the core of his body / and or his head & eyes; he simply will never be able pitch with any consistency. Balance and postural stability are not merely great ideas nor are they yes and no answers. Balance and postural stability are states; these states can be enhanced regardless of age or skill level; and they are absolutely the most important and critical things you could ever work on as a teacher of pitching.
Now how one goes about improving or enhancing those states is a far more intricate and open-ended discussion. Obviously there are many variables that could affect balance and posture. Specifically the actions of the directional or lead side of your body have direct effect upon balance and stability. Certainly, any movement away from the target prior to foot strike would profoundly affect those states. In essence, any movement away from the target will catch the body and head and eyes in a whirlpool action and pull the entire throwing package off of the target line. Therefore the action of the glove side arm has special significance.
Most elite Major League pitchers establish their glove side, stabilize it and then move their body to the glove. By contrast, this action, instead of a whirlpool, actually acts as a vice and locks the head and eyes level and keeps the energy moving toward the target. Since I was 8 years old, I was taught to tuck and pull my glove hard into my hip to speed up my rotation. I lived tuck & pull. I taught tuck and pull professionally for 5 years. The best simply don't do it. Video proves that what we thought we saw, at full speed with our naked eye, simply did not happen. Our naked eye was fooled. I know mine was. Further more I found that the tuck and pull method I was so sure of, actually assisted in creating a loss or reduction in the very elements I so believed in: balance and postural stability.
The next piece of the puzzle is correct sequencing or in other words the order in which the body ideally works at its best and most productive. The short version of this rather complex concept is that the lower half of the body leads the upper half in activation. Simply put, into and immediately following foot strike, the very best major League pitchers have ~ 60-90É of separation between their hips and their shoulders. In other words the hips are on their way while the shoulders not only have not began their rotation, in many pitchers the shoulders are actually still internally rotating or turning in at foot strike.
Obviously this interaction between the lower body and the upper body creates significant torque between the hips & the shoulders. The significance of this sequence or torque may not be fully appreciated until we contrast this with the average youth pitcher whose upper body moves at the same time as the lower body and even in many cases the upper body leads the lower. It is here where we hear the common terms 'flying open', 'rushing', 'difting'" and the subsequent pleads to 'stay back!', 'stay closed!' and 'use your legs and hips more!'. What the old pitching coaches saw with their eyes was in essence correct. Even their verbal descriptions were quite good. It isn't until you come to the conventional attempts to correct the problem do we run into some difficulties. It is here where the 1000 frames a second technology helps us solve the root causes and not get caught up in dealing with the symptoms.
The body is a bilateral system. It works at its peak when the body has created symmetry and when body parts work in harmony, in tandem, and in synergy. That's fancy words for 'where ever the throwing side arm and elbow is at foot strike, the glove side should be a mirror image of it'. There should be no movement out of sequence and no strength recruited out of sequence.' This is where some of the greatest strides have been made in pitching instruction over the past 5 years.
For years we (myself included) attempted to describe and replicate the ideal throwing arm action. A one size fits all mandate so to speak. It proved to be a FAILED EXPERIMENT.
Personal styles varied too much for such an approach to have wide appeal and application. As our knowledge grew and we were able to ask better questions, it slowly became apparent that although arm slots and arm actions did vary significantly between elite pitchers with longevity, in every single case, symmetry was not only apparent but it was exceptional.
For example, prior to very recently, if a pitcher's throwing elbow was 30 degrees behind his throwing shoulder, we called that 'wrapping' and classified it in the 'bad' category. So, since it was in the bad category, you would think very few professional pitcher's had that characteristic, right? Well, here was the rub. Many did have that characteristic. What we have just found out in the past several years is that if the elite pitcher's arm was indeed 30 degrees behind his shoulder with his throwing elbow, then his glove side elbow was 30 degrees in front of his glove side shoulder. Like wise if the throwing elbow was 45 degrees below the throwing shoulder (also an absolute conventional wisdom no-no for us in the 80s) then the glove side elbow was, you guessed it, 45 degrees above the glove side shoulder.
We found that when balance, a stable and constant posture and symmetry were present, we also found correct sequencing and degrees of separation approaching that all-important 60 degree range. The teach therefore is to work inside of the universe of each pitcher and make certain that each individual pitcher's balance, posture and symmetry are lined up. A one-size fits all approach will not work very well.
The final pieces
The final pieces are in the realm of motor learning, sports psychology and functional / core strength. Here are some final thoughts to tie the discussion up.
If the pitcher struggles with balance and posture even with your emphasis on balance and posture and even with your assistance with symmetry, he probably is not functionally strong enough or doesn't have the core strength to maintain balance and posture while performing such explosive acts. If you are lacking in core/ functional strength, all of the correct information concerning mechanics in the world today will not be able to save you. The right information will never be enough. Functional/ core strength should be the beginning corner stone of your pitching program, not the middle or a nice afterthought or special addendum.
Unless and until the player can feel what you are trying to get across it will never be assimilated into his unconscious motor program. Verbal instruction alone is very ineffective. Constantly adding visual stimulus and examples with the verbal information is a good start. Dedicating oneself to a training process that includes consistent verbal, visual and kinesthetic feedback as a complete package to the pitcher is a goal worth pursuing. Developing drills that create feel images for the pitcher has been my primary mission for the past 3 years. Our goal has been to help each pitcher become his own best pitching coach, building and empowering his abilities of self awareness, self evaluation, personal accountability, adjustability and self reliance.