Thursday, Jun 19, 2008 10:00 AM UTC

Popular baseball mechanics

Breaking down swings and pitching motions used to be insider stuff. But online, everyone's an insider.

It’s not news that we baseball fans have come a long way from the days when we used to judge players by checking their batting average or ERA in the Sunday paper or on the back of a baseball card. But some of the cool kids are even starting to move beyond the more advanced metrics that have become a part of the discussion, graduating from VORP and ISO and Win Shares and GO/AO and DIPS and mainlining mechanical analysis.

It’s the kind of inside baseball stuff that used to be found only, well, inside baseball. Fans would hear about a pitching coach, say, working on a hurler’s “mechanics,” might read about somebody breaking out of a slump by correcting a flaw in his delivery or a hitch in his swing. But who knew the specifics without having spent half a lifetime riding buses in the minors?

Now, it’s easy to know. You can go to places like the pitching or hitting mechanics blogs run by a St. Louis computer consultant named Chris O’Leary, or to Saberscouting.com, a site run by a pair of budding scouts named Frankie Piliere and Kiley McDaniel.

You can check the archives at the Hardball Times for articles written by Carlos Gomez, a former side-arming pitcher in independent ball who for a while haunted message boards under the handle Chad Bradford Wannabe and last year parlayed his online musings into a gig as a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Isn’t baseball fandom interesting? We used to just eat peanuts and get sunburned. Then Bill James made us mathematicians and the steroid era made us pharmacologists. Now we’re becoming kinesiologists. Last week I decided not to pick up right-handed pitcher Aaron Crow, the ninth overall pick in the June amateur draft, in a deep fantasy league, because I didn’t like the way he scap-loaded.

On the agenda for next week: Find out what the hell scap-loading is.

“I think it’s like many things,” says McDaniel about mechanical analysis. He’s the aspiring scout who co-writes Saberscouting.com. “It’s sort of good in moderation. It’s good when you understand the limitations of it.”

McDaniel, a 21-year-old recent college graduate who has worked in the office of a big-league team and is seeking baseball employment, says he’s instant messaged friends who work in front offices to get some inside scoop for his own fantasy drafts — and then used that information to make bad decisions.

“It’s a supplement,” he says, “something you have to be cautious with.” McDaniel says he and Piliere try to present information without necessarily drawing conclusions.

O’Leary, the computer consultant, is more opinionated. He says he got into mechanical analysis when he was coaching his oldest son’s youth-league team. A boy on the team, given a chance to pitch an inning in a blowout, was devastatingly effective, retiring the side on a dozen or so pitches. A few days later, O’Leary says, when he invited the kid to pitch again, the boy said he’d like to but the inside of his pitching elbow was sore.

“I didn’t know what that meant,” O’Leary says. “But I knew enough to know that that was bad.” Describing himself as a troubleshooter by trade, O’Leary, 40, figured out that the would-be twirler was essentially throwing a slider, which puts a lot of strain on the elbow.

“I realized, OK, if one kid can have medial elbow pain from throwing literally like 15 pitches or something,” he says, “how close to the edge am I? So I went a little crazy — my wife would say a lot crazy — getting into the mechanics thing and studying it.”

Fascinated partly because he’d injured his own arm as a grade-school baseball player, O’Leary read everything he could find online from various pitching gurus including longtime pitching coach Tom House and former Cy Young-winner and Ph.D. Mike Marshall, who claims his innovative methods can end pitching injuries, but who’s a pariah in baseball circles, largely because of his habit of calling the people in baseball circles idiots.

Then, with access to the Washington University systems because of some work he was doing, O’Leary “went even more crazy. I pulled down hundreds, 200 or 300 journal articles, everything that talked about pitching mechanics and elbow injuries and shoulder injuries and blah, blah, blah.”

O’Leary was comfortable with the medical terminology having worked summers for his lawyer father doing research on asbestos lawsuits when he was a teenager. He says he used what he learned and began studying pitchers on his own, comparing and contrasting opposite groups — the Greg Maddux-Nolan Ryan types, who had long, injury-free careers, vs. “the train wrecks, Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, guys who had short, injury-plagued careers.”

He began blogging about his findings two years ago, and shortly thereafter a big-league scout stumbled on his Web site and asked O’Leary to look at some video of pitchers he was scouting. “He wanted me to help him find the Greg Madduxes and stay away from the Mark Priors.” O’Leary’s also done some consulting for a major-league organization and some private swing analysis for a few minor-league hitters.

He says high-speed video, also known as super-slo-mo, which is becoming more common on televised games, will lead to the next breakthroughs in mechanical analysis, and he’s recently invested in a semi-high-speed video camera for his own use, though he says his baseball work remains a hobby.

As it is for most of us newly minted experts on arm slot, tempo, hand separation and plant-foot step-over. After all, we don’t really know much about this stuff — which gives us something in common with the people inside baseball.

“It’s almost like some of the sabermetric principles, where it’s real foggy, like the clutch hitting or things like that,” McDaniel says. “Everyone’s got a theory, there’s a lot of information on either side, but it’s almost impossible to really know. It’s like Tim Lincecum. If you look at all the information out there, almost everyone agrees he should be on a stretcher in four pieces. But he’s not.

“So obviously there’s exceptions. Then you have to say, ‘What are the exceptions? How can you identify them? Where does it end?’ There’s so many different variables involved, and then there’s things you can’t quantify within someone’s body. That’s why I’m real skeptical making conclusions.”

Skepticism is well and good, but I’ve got future fantasy pennants to win, so Aaron Crow and his possibly problematic scap-loading won’t be toiling for my team. I went with Yonder Alonso, a power-hitting first baseman who was the seventh overall pick. Have you seen the way he lets the ball travel deep in the zone and then rotates his hips?