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“His name is Franz Bosch,” Ron Wolforth of the renowned Texas Baseball Ranch explained.
Franz Bosch is a track and field coach and motor learning professor over in the Netherlands. He was studying the javelin throw; the elite javelin throwers in the world. One of them was from Finland and the other one was from the Czech Republic – the two best in the world. Those two were always battling it out and the only people they had ever lost to was each other. It was kind of like a Federer and Nadal sort of thing…a real rivalry and no one else was close.
I brought him all the way over to the Ranch and he spoke to the coaches, then I brought him over again just to talk with our staff and me. He showed me two videos side by side of the two best javelin throwers and of course I didn’t know anything about javelin and he goes ‘Alright, just looking at this, which one of these is the best javelin thrower?’
I looked at them and they were significantly different. One was very upright, his front knee was very straight at launch, his body was more upright as he threw the javelin, and then there was another one that looked more like Nolan Ryan, almost identical to Nolan Ryan at release. His front side had more flexion, his trunk far more flexed, etc. I looked at that and went hmm, ‘I like this one better.’ He goes, ‘Good choice. This is right now is the number one javelin thrower in the world.’ I’m thinking yeah, I’m smart, and he goes ‘And the only guy ever to beat him is the other guy.’
He says ‘Now, here’s my point. Why do you think this guy looks like that and that guy looks like that?’ I go ‘I have no idea.’ He goes ‘That’s a good answer. Here’s the truth. We don’t know, but I will promise you, this guy’s ankle mobility is slightly different than this guy’s ankle mobility. This guy’s hip mobility is different than this guy’s hip mobility. This guy’s hamstring flexibility is different than this guy’s. This guy’s core strength is different than this guy’s. This guy’s lever length is different than this guy’s. This guy’s shoulder mobility…and therefore based on all these this is the very best way this guy can throw it and this is the very best way this guy can throw it. So if we would have taken both of these kids at 12 and made each of them throw exactly like the other one, we would have ruined both of them.’
And I thought ‘wow.’ That was so humbling for me. Here I am thinking I’m smarter than Solomon and I got this shit all figured out, he shows me that and I go ‘ohhh smokes.’
“Traditionally, what do pitching coaches do?” The answer to Alan Jaeger’s question came quickly: “Mechanics,” I replied. “They teach mechanics.” As the obvious follow up question “How do we teach a pitcher good mechanics?” lingered in my head…slow down…what even are good mechanics?
Thinking I could find an answer to these questions, I went straight to video of the best pitchers in the world. First up, Clayton Kershaw, lower body mechanics. As I watched, I stared in disbelief. There is no way I would ever teach Kershaw’s lower body mechanics – scratch that – I would directly teach against the pause, the back knee out as he drives toward the plate, and the lack of extension in his front knee. Would I have been so foolish as to try to “fix” the best pitcher in the world? The thought alone was troubling.
When going through an existential pitching coach crisis, the best remedy is to pick up the phone, call Tom House and Ron Wolforth, ask a question then shut up and listen. Here’s what they had to say.
Tom House: “You kind of leave the throwing arm alone whenever possible. If a kid was throwing a rock at a rabbit to eat, his throwing arm action is pretty much genetically predetermined”
Ron Wolforth: “I leave the mechanical stuff alone. I try to leave as little finger prints on my guys as possible. You will not see our guys cookie cutters or clones or anything like that. I just don’t believe in it. I also believe that we can’t see under the skin, so we don’t really know what’s occurring. We see guys with different mobilities, different strength, different movement patterns and so we don’t really know what’s going on.”
These are not MLB pitching coaches adopting a hands-off approach to their multimillion dollar arms. These coaches deal with players of all levels and are among the most respected pitching gurus in the country, yet one prefers to never address the throwing arm and one opts to leave the mechanical stuff alone. Don’t pitching coaches teach mechanics? Why are these coaches considered among the best at their profession if they don’t teach what pitching coaches teach? Or maybe, we, the ones who constantly try to turn our players into something they are not, are the ones who have it all wrong.
As the slightly more pro-mechanical mind of the two, House explains that, “biomechanical efficiency is a function of three things (in order of importance): timing, kinematic sequencing, and the mechanical variables pitching coaches have been trying to teach for a hundred years. He continues, “I think most of the issues that take place with mechanics are because they are not timed properly.” Instead being concerned with unsightly still-shot positions, House is more concerned with how the entire delivery fits together. When does the inverted W take place? How is it sequenced in the context of the entire delivery? To House, these questions are much more important than seeing a still shot of an inverted W and immediately jumping to a conclusion that the pitcher is destined for the disabled list.
In Wolforth’s view, “So often people want to talk about what the car looks like rather than what the car does. There’s a purpose for a car and that’s to get you from point A to point B. Everybody’s so caught up in some of these ancillary things…God’s a better pitching coach than any of us.”
With so much animosity towards teaching specific mechanical patterns to genetically and functionally different individuals, when does mechanical teaching factor in to the everyday activities of a pitching coach? For House and Wolforth, the answer is simple: pain.
House explains, “When it comes to the pain thing, we believe, and our research shows, it usually falls into one of three or all three categories: biomechanical inefficiencies that will cause injury issues, functional strength inefficiencies, and workload issues.”
The role of the pitching coach (and/or doctor) in this situation is to find out whether the pain is causes by mechanics, functional strength, and/or workload. If there are no issues with functional strength and/or workload, leaving mechanics as the clear source of the pain, the pitching coach should certainly step in and make adjustments.
In Wolforth’s view, there are three criteria for making mechanical changes: pain, recovery, and performance. The champion of the phrase “start with the pain,” he believes “If you have no pain, if you recover very well, and you can perform…I would not change (a pitcher’s mechanics).” If you can do those three things, “isn’t that after all what you and I and everyone else is trying to get after?”
There clearly are situations where it is in the best interest of pitchers to deviate from their natural mechanics, but these situations, according to House and Wolforth, are the exceptions, not the rule.
Looking ahead, House is cautiously optimistic about the future for arm health. He asserts, “I think as a profession the pitching coaches are way better than they’ve ever been and as a profession the conditioning coaches are way better than they’ve ever been. Now we just have to figure out how to manage workloads so that these kids can have a healthy career rather than an unhealthy career.”
Wolforth sees individuality as a key to the future, along with coaches’ ability to tailor their training to individual needs. He believes that in the next few decades, we are going “to be able to find out what is an ideal way for each individual.” More specifically, “What are the things that we should be concerned with while they are throwing? What should they be paying attention to? What feelings should they be focusing on that help guide, build, or shape their own delivery? I think that’s where we’re headed.”
The theme of allowing the body to find its own ideal movement pattern is clear and features little to no room for interpretation. In the minds of two of the most brilliant pitching gurus in the country, the days of pitching coaches teaching nothing but mechanics should be on the way out and an era of natural, athletic, and biomechanically unique pitchers should be on its way in.
Wolforth says it best when he notes that although nothing is a guarantee, intervening only when there are issues of pain, recovery, and performance is “a pretty good firewall for me not to screw somebody up.” It may require a major philosophical change, but if coaches can swallow enough pride to avoid the temptation of turning every pitcher into a spitting image of the their ideal Platonic form of pitching mechanics, perhaps we can begin to embrace and not shun the so-called flaws present in the mechanics of even the best pitcher in the world. Perhaps we can allow pitchers to embrace their own signature throwing styles and put the cookie cutters away. Perhaps, and most importantly, we can shut up with our verbal mechanical cues that have little to no chance of sticking and instead find a way to help the hard-working player find their own, individual ideal movement patterns. If we do not listen, maybe Franz Bosch will be right: instead of allowing the best throwers in the world develop their own different styles, by mechanically making them into something they are not we may ruin the careers of the best throwers in the world.
Author's note: This is part one in a two part series on pitching mechanics. Part two will focus on the specific mechanical flaws (or disconnections) that can cause pain in some pitchers.
Dan Weigel is a contributor at Sporting News focusing on pitching and a high school pitching coach. Follow him on Twitter at @DanWeigel38.Tom House is the founder of the National Pitching Association and a former pitching coach for several MLB teams. Find out more about the NPA here and follow House on Twitter at @TomHouseNPA. Ron Wolforth owns and runs the Texas Baseball Ranch. Learn more about the Texas Baseball Ranch here and follow the Ranch on Twitter at @TXBaseballRanch. Special thanks to Alan Jaeger for his extremely helpful behind the scenes contributions to this article. Learn more about Jaeger Sports here and follow them on Twitter at @JaegerSports.