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Friday, July 21, 2006

The Gene Pool Talking

I found this Prospectus Q&A interview of former pitcher Tom House by Jason Grady very interesting yesterday. In particular his comments about arm angles.

"I think we’re finally realizing you pretty much leave the gene pool alone and you position the gene pool on the rubber to accommodate what that youngster does--throwing across his body, striding straight or straight slightly open--and you spend time teaching timing than you do mechanical changes..."

"Research has revealed to us that pitchers have signatures. They are born with how they would throw a rock at a rabbit to eat. There are some conventional wisdoms that get in the way of that genetic signature: get on top, don’t throw sidearm, don’t short-arm the ball, reach back. There’re a number of them. But in effect, you should just leave whatever a pitcher does, whatever a kid does when he’s throwing a baseball with his throwing arm, just leave it alone. That’s his gene pool talking."

In other words, he's saying that teaching kids to throw from a particular arm slot is actually detrimental and that instead coaches should be focused on balance, posture, the proper way to throw breaking balls, and stride. Essentially let the kid figure out how to throw the baseball and then simply work to refine it.

To me this makes a good deal of sense. I'm often asked why so few people can throw a baseball at professional velocities and most can't and I think this cuts to the heart of the matter. It is simply "the gene pool talking" or rather, that given a particular set of physical characteristics, a particular person figures out (not necessarily cognitively but through repetition and muscle memory) how best to utilize those characteristics to put the maximum force behind the ball. In other words, it's not really something that can be taught by a father or coach.

I also was interested to hear his comments on throwing breaking pitches.

"Every pitch is thrown with the same mechanics, except for what wrist and forearm do. The biggest problem that youth pitchers have is they believe they have to twist to throw a breaking ball...After every throw, no matter position you are on a baseball field, when the ball leaves your hand, your palm will pronate into deceleration. The palm turns out [like throwing a screwball] so the reason a breaking ball is so hard on the elbow is that the kid is trying to twist into release point to create spin, then he’s twisting and untwisting in the same amount of time and the stress on the elbow joint grows exponentially greater while the arm is snapping straight."

I mentioned a few weeks ago that when I was at SABR36 I had the opportunity to hear Mike Marshall talk about pitching. Although his theories haven't enjoyed the same standing in the baseball community, if I understood him correctly, he was preaching essentially the same thing. Breaking balls are inherently tough on a pitcher's elbow because they are twisting it in the opposite direction in which it will naturally go when the ball is released. House's fix for this....

"So the fix for the whole thing is to preset stabilize. Start with the karate chop in the glove, come out and karate chop the curve ball. There is no spin. Karate chop the curve ball which puts the palm on the outside of the ball, the thumb and middle finger cutting through the middle of the ball and that’s what imparts proper rotation, safely. So whatever angle, if your palm is straight at the catcher, it’s a fastball. If you start getting towards karate chop, if you go one click, it’s a slider. Two clicks, slurve. Three clicks, curve ball. And the idea is to find whatever pitch, whatever breaking ball you want, preset that angle and keep that angle with the same mechanics your body has with a fastball from the time your hands break into release point and risk of injury is minimized."

This too sounds much like what Marshall was saying in terms of presetting the orientation of the wrist and releasing the ball with the same motion on every pitch. I'll admit that I was taught to throw a curveball by coming over the top with the my arm and "pulling the window shade" by cranking my wrist over and almost snapping the ball out of my hand. My coach, like thousands of others, taught snapping the ball as a means of practice or strengthening your fingers for this type of release. I'll have to admit that this technique was effective and my curve was my best pitch and even though I was never one whose body figured out how to throw at professional velocities, now I wonder what it would have been like at a young age to get this kind of instruction to see what kind of a difference it might have made.

You'll have to subscribe to read the rest of this fascinating interview.

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