A bridge too far

This is the writer’s first Hardball Times article. For more about him, see “The Paul Nyman interview,” below.

“A Bridge Too Far” is a 1977 movie about Operation Market Garden, a failed attempt by the Allies in the latter stages of World War II to end the fighting quickly by securing three bridges in Holland, allowing them access over the Rhine into Germany. A combination of poor Allied intelligence and two crack German Panzer divisions meant that the final part of this operation (the bridge in Arnhem over the Rhine) was doomed to failure.

Barry Zito’s lost fastball became my bridge too far. That’s how I felt in attempting to write this, my first article for The Hardball Times. Every time I tried to attack it, I was repulsed by credibility issues. I could not, in a single article, deploy the necessary reserves of information and knowledge that I believed necessary to successfully achieve my objective.

My 15 years of experience dealing with how the body throws the baseball kept telling me I was reaching beyond what is accepted as “good pitching mechanics knowledge.” Every attempt to achieve my objective was blocked by entrenched pitching mechanics ignorance and culture. The amount of reader preparation necessary to establish overwhelming credibility would push the supply lines of throwing mechanics information far beyond the breaking point and doom the article to failure.

To back up:

On the first day of the new season, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said he was tired of addressing the diminishing difference in velocity between Zito’s fastball and curve.

“It’s been going on a year and a half now. They’re always asking me the same questions,” Righetti said. “I don’t mean to blow you off, but I can’t help you.”

The person closest to Zito’s problem and believed by the Giants to be the person most capable of fixing Zito’s problem cannot. Who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to believe I can see what they cannot and explain why Zito’s fastball has disappeared?

And, possibly even more unbelievable, who am I to explain how Zito can get his fastball back again even better than it was before he lost it?

My interest in the way Zito throws began in 1998, when Zito was touted as a prodigy of the then-popular pitching mechanics guru Dick Mills. The following is from Mills’ Website:

Here’s what the dad of Oakland Athletics first round pick Barry Zito had to say about the program back in June of 1997 when Barry was still in junior college. Barry signed for a $1.56 million bonus in June of 1999 and is a rookie sensation in the big leagues right now.

Many of the major league scouts who scout him on a daily basis often comment and compliment him on his highly productive and professional pitching mechanics. He does not hesitate to tell them that he learned all of his upper level pitching skills from your videos, teaching materials and monthly newsletter, and additionally, from the many extremely informative one-on-one telephone calls that he has had with you whenever things seem to get out-of-whack.

We can honestly say that the several hundred dollars we spent on your entire program has brought more financial rewards to our son and this family than we could ever have imagined. To this day, that expenditure stands out as the best and most productive thing we have ever done with our money.
—Joe Zito, Encino, CA

From 1998-2004 I wrote numerous pieces at the SETPRO training forum to debunk much of what Mills and others were touting as “good” pitching mechanics. Fortunately for today’s young players, Mills is a footnote in pitching mechanics history.

I have always struggled with this question: How can you say a pitcher has good mechanics when that pitcher, 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, is unable to break 90 mph? That was the question I was (still am) asking about pitchers such as Barry Zito.

It’s important to understand that I differentiate pitching from throwing. You can throw a baseball without pitching it, but you can’t pitch a baseball without throwing it. Therefore, I view throwing efficiency as being an integral part of attaining high level pitching prowess.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

I also will be the first to say that many pitchers, especially left handers, can have less than optimal throwing efficiencies and still be successful. Pitching is doing all the things that are necessary to defeat the batter. That includes not only throwing the baseball, but also attacking and deceiving the batter.

“Simply because it allows the pitcher to make more mistakes and still get the batter out.”

This was John Schuerholtz, former general manager of the Braves, responding when asked why throwing velocity is important.

But when a pitcher wins a Cy Young and puts up great numbers for three years, as Zito did in his first three years of professional baseball, the question of why he can’t throw harder is not an issue until he can’t get batters out.

It’s similar to the pitching mechanics hoopla that accompanied Mark Prior. Prior went from the campus of USC to front-line starter for the Chicago Cubs in 2002. He had a spectacular year in 2003 and many baseball professionals touted him as having absolutely perfect mechanics, the kind all pitchers should be judged by. And then, in 2004, began a rapid decline marked by injury and poor performance.

Today, Prior, after not pitching at all in 2007, is attempting a comeback. He is on the 60-day disabled list of the San Diego Padres.

Zito’s $126 million contract with the Giants has fans and much of professional baseball questioning the team’s decision-making. Is Zito a sabermetrics boom or bust? He’s a possible boom for the sabermetrics advocates if the Giants did not do the sabermetrics homework they should have. And he’s a bust if they did (statistics are not the same as flesh and blood).

Zito becomes even more interesting because another left hander, Johan Santana, eclipsed Zito’s record-breaking contract.

Zito 2008 throwing his 84 mph fastball and Santana throwing his 92 mph fastball.

My original thought was to do a piece on Zito using an analysis I had previously done on another pitcher, Steve Avery, for support.

Left clip Steve Avery 1997, 84 mph. Right clip Steve Avery 1991, 92 mph.

Why compare Zito to Avery? There are several reasons. The two having the most bearing on Zito:

1. The analysis of Avery back in 1997-1998 taught me a great deal about how the body throws the baseball. That analysis produced such concepts as scapula loading and unloading, the effects of arm action and how to use the body to throw the baseball more effectively. It also introduced me to the concept of chaos, the idea that small differences in how the body is used to throw the ball can result in big consequences, good or bad .

2. I see an analogy between what happened to Avery and Zito—early success followed by performance decline, most notably a loss of their fastball with no real explanation.

But I keep encountering the horse before the cart problem: analysis before credibility. I felt that there needed be a foundation laid (establishing credibility) before taking on Zito’s mechanics.

Thus my analogy to “A Bridge Too Far,” and trying to take and hold the bridge without taking all things into consideration and having an over-optimistic belief in one’s ability to assess the situation.

Trying to write about anything having to do with how the human body swings the bat or throws the baseball is like a loose thread of yarn on bottom of a sweater: You start pulling on it and in the end you have nothing but a ball of yarn. Why? Because of the infinite complexity associated with how the body produces movement.

Also, the existing culture and mystique that surround pitching (throwing) and hitting (swing) mechanics at the professional level are a severe impediment. Simply stated, professional baseball doesn’t have to develop players’ mechanics from scratch because it gets the choice bodies that already know how to swing and throw. Baseball’s job is to make hitters and pitchers, not develop swings and throws.

The analysis of Zito can be reduced to one paragraph or less. Zito pushes the baseball. Zito doesn’t know how to throw the baseball. Never really did and probably never will. He’s a fantastic pitcher who really doesn’t know how to throw efficiently.

Left clip Zito 2008, 84 mph. Right clip Zito 2000, 89 mph

And, based on what I know of Zito—where he came from in terms of how he thinks he should pitch (throw) a baseball—I’m quite sure he has the wrong image in his mind of what he has to do with his body to throw.

But unless you understand the basics of how the body throws, neither he nor you, the reader, would find this very interesting or very earth shattering.

After deliberations with my editors, we agreed to mount a throwing mechanics offensive supported by overwhelming force. We’ll use information developed at SETPRO these past 15 years in the form of biomechanical, physiological and motor learning and control.

Just as the Allies, instead of achieving a quick tactical victory at Arnhem, had to slog through another six months of fighting on a broad front before they crossing the Rhine, I am prepared to do the same, rather than launching a Barry Zito quick-strike tactic without laying down the groundwork.

Neither the Giants nor Zito himself understand what the problem is, never mind how to fix it. Simply put it’s a battle, part of an ongoing war.

As with the movie and the real-life World War II European campaign, there is no shortcut to understanding this mechanics stuff, even with significant preparation.

So, please come along as we prepare. Next time: “In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth… and the ability of man to throw left-handed”

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