Madison Bumgarner and Athletics for Athletes

Giants' coaches tried to change Madison Bumgarner's mechanics. It didn't work for him. (via Dirk Hansen)

Giants’ coaches tried to change Madison Bumgarner’s mechanics. It didn’t work for him. (via Dirk Hansen)

Madison Bumgarner doesn’t quite throw like anybody else. His mechanics, even after three World Series victories, still resemble the motion he crafted in high school in North Carolina. Bumgarner combines a low three-quarters arm slot with what Baseball Prospectus pitching maven Doug Thornburn refers to as a “corkscrew twist” to produce a unique and immediately identifiable motion. The corkscrew twist is particularly noticeable in these slowed-down videos of Bumgarner’s delivery:

First, a straight on look, from October 2010:

And a side view, from July 2013:

Bumgarner has succeeded his entire career with those mechanics, from his time at South Caldwell High School in Hudson, N. C., through his brief demolition of the minor leagues and through six seasons and two All-Star campaigns at the major league level. He was the 10th overall pick in 2007, a 6-foot-5 physical specimen with all the makings of the workhorse starter. If anybody was going to hold on to his weird mechanics despite the pressures of adhering to industry or organizational standards, it was Bumgarner.

But even Bumgarner had to deal with Giants coaches trying to tweak his mechanics right out of the gates with Low-A Augusta. Bumgarner told San Jose Mercury News reporter Andrew Baggarly a year later the tweaks were minor. “Just trying to have a little less tilt,” Bumgarner said, “It wasn’t a real big difference.” But as Bumgarner noted, “it ended up not really taking.” He allowed 10 runs on 15 hits in just 11.2 innings over his first three starts for Augusta and went right back to his old delivery.

Bumgarner started 21 more games for Augusta and allowed more than one run thrice. Despite the pitch counts standard for 18-year-olds at the Low-A level, Bumgarner still managed to record double-digit strikeouts six times. In those 21 starts, Bumgarner’s line in those final 21 starts at Augusta: 130 IP, 0.90 ERA, 152 SO, 18 BB, 3 HR and a .495 OPS allowed.

You know the rest of the story, culminating in Bumgarner’s third dominant postseason in as many tries and his obvious selection as the 2014 World Series MVP this October. He’s done it all despite mechanics no pitching coach would teach and many, including those employed by the team that drafted him, would try to scrap altogether.

Baseball fans are constantly looking for something new to obsess over, and perhaps no problem is quite as beautiful and complex as figuring out just how to hurl a ball 60 and a half feet at nearly 100 mph, in a repeatable fashion, all without destroying the arm in the process. The study of pitching mechanics offers a wealth of biomechanical data to mine, hours of tape to watch, and pages of theory to debate. Thus, every pitcher’s delivery has become a prophecy to be read. Between the lines, in the inverted W or the pronation or the scapular loading, lies his expiration date.

The success of pitchers like Bumgarner, Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and his herky-jerky motion, and Chris Sale and his hyper-torqued left elbow make us question, though, how much we can really read from an individual pitcher’s mechanics. The theories behind accepted pitching mechanics have shown their merit through the sheer numbers of major league pitchers to succeed under them. While it applies on a broad level, Bumgarner, Kershaw, Sale, and others throughout baseball history have proven what works for many isn’t necessarily right for the individual.

For me, it brings to mind the concept of “Athletics for Athletes” pushed by would-be athletic reformers in the 1960s and 1970s. “Athletics for Athletes” was the idea of Dr. Jack Scott, author of The Athletic Revolution and developer of the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Sport and Society. Track was Scott’s sport, and many of his ideas were formed after watching the contrast between the styles of freelance coaches hired by international athletes and the authoritarian coaches who ran American college programs. In essence, the freelance coach works for the athlete, an unimaginable idea in American college track. And it is certainly an unfathomable concept in baseball as well.

Scott is not suggesting athletes must be coddled or insulated from failure. He is merely asking college coaches to be willing to adapt their approaches to the personalities of their players. Scott writes:

A university coach should accommodate every student who wants to try out for the team. Of course, if the student does not perform at a high enough level, the coach has the right to say he cannot be on the team. But the coach has no right to require him to train by any particular method, just as a professor cannot force a student to study in any particular manner. Whether it be in the classroom or in the athletic arena, unless the student specifically seeks help, the professor or coach should render judgement only on the level of performance, not on the method of preparation for that performance. A student who gets an “A” on an examination deserves that grade regardless of what his study habits are, and an athlete who is the best runner on the team should be able to compete for his school regardless of how he trains.

For a succinct statement of purpose, Scott turned to Australian track star Herb Elliott, who wrote, “(T)he more I speak to athletes, the more convinced I become that the method of training is relatively unimportant. There are many ways to the top, and the training method you choose is just the one that suits you best.”

Scott predicted the coaching community would react to his ideas with hostility. “This peculiar reasoning poignantly illustrates the authoritarian nature of the typical coach,” Scott wrote, “‘As long as there ain’t no one best method, I’ll impose any damn system I want, and if you don’t like it boy, you had better get out.'”

Scott first presented these ideas in an industry magazine, Track and Field News. In The Athletic Revolution, he included responses the magazine received from four college coaches, and his prediction was verified with gusto.

“The majority of the athletes get a lot more out of it than they ever put into it! And how many athletes who have broken away from college coaches have gone on to be successful on their own training methods? Almost always these complaining drop outs are either underachievers or out-and-out failures who use the coach as an excuse for their own lack of success,” wrote UCLA head track coach Jim Bush. “If I were to summarize Jack Scott’s treatise, it would be simply ‘let’s do away with discipline in all forms.’ We could then get to know ourselves and truly appreciate culture, art and love in their refined forms.” Pete Morgan, Princeton’s track coach, wryly penned.

Yale and US Olympic track coach Bob Giegengack wrote, “Parents, administrators and even educators have in too many cases abdicated their responsibilities. An undisciplined man is an uneducated one no matter the number of letters after his name. In a world gone permissive, a touch of paternalism is all to the good. Our pupils are grateful and support the rules of training even if Scott doesn’t.” And finally, from Benny Wagner of Oregon State, “To my knowledge, Scott has not been a successful college athlete either working with a coach or without one; so his qualifications to criticize might be questioned. I believe that if success were necessary for the academic professor, he too would control and direct the study habits and social behavior affecting success or detracting from it. I believe, too, that students would find success more often than they do.”

“My way or the highway” still rules in interscholastic athletics, and the American athlete stuck in a poor coaching situation rarely finds himself with a choice until college, and even that choice is bound by the draconian bylaws and practices of the NCAA. At the high school level or below, in particular, only the extraordinarily wealthy or extraordinarily talented athletes have any power to decide who coaches them, and as such, any control over how they are coached. And it can only be worse at the baseball factories in the Dominican Republic, where the sheer quantity of players to move through the academies allows teams to throw kids into the fire and pick from the few who come out unscathed.

The same logic applies to the domestic minor leagues, where the leverage of the baseball trust leaves players tied to their initial organizations for at least five years. Madison Bumgarner, a first-round pick with top talent and electric stuff, has much more leverage and freedom with the coaching staff given the resources the team is spending on him. Players selected in the last 30 or 40 rounds? Not so much. When Bumgarner struggled through his first three games and wanted to give his old mechanics a shot again, the Giants’ minor league staff had some major incentives to keep him happy and let him do his thing.

That said, a number of organizations have shown a willingness to work with multiple pitching styles, and the Giants are certainly one of them. Bumgarner, Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, the defining pitchers of the Giants’ dynasty, all have their own oddities to their approach, with Lincecum’s violent mechanics in particular something many baseball men thought would have to be scrapped. Beyond those highly-touted prospects, the Giants have also found success with once-discarded players like Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmiero Petit. There is no model Giants pitcher, except perhaps that he gets the most out of his strengths.

The best example of Scott’s ideal at the major league level is probably Don Cooper of the White Sox. Cooper has a style, and he loves to teach the cutter. But he isn’t about turning each player who comes his way into the same thing. “Different people have different keys,” Chris Sale told Sports on Earth’s Emma Span last year. “The crazy thing is he’s got 20 guys that he has keys for. He works with everybody as much as the next guy, and he’s got an open door at all times. Shoot, you could call him at midnight, he’d roll over in bed and answer the phone and talk to you for half an hour if need be.” And given the quantity and variety of pitchers Cooper has made work at the hitter-friendly US Cellular Field over the years–Freddy Garcia, Gavin Floyd, Esteban Loaiza, Jose Contreras and Matt Thornton, to begin with–his approach appears worth the extra effort.

In a baseball world where an organization produces 25 active major league players from hundreds on the farm, incentives for individualized, personal coaching remain low. Some highly talented players will flounder until they find the right coaching staffs. Others will get only one chance, and still others will have been phased out of the game years before their athletic agency is recognized.

To a point, this is just part of the competition, the grind and struggle of being a baseball player. And not every athlete’s failure can be pinned on the failings of the coach or a simple mismatch of personality or preferred play styles. But too often, a coach’s rigid adherence to one true way to pitch or one proper set of mechanics isn’t about the player’s success but establishing his authority, his status as the decision maker. As Coach Wagner alluded to, the full responsibility for wins and losses is often placed on the shoulders of the coach despite his limited control over the game’s outcome. As a result, coaches often overcompensate by attempting to control as many variables as they can–hence “my way or the highway.”

This sense of control is an illusion. A coach may be able to control the mechanics his players employ, but he remains helpless once it comes to the execution on the mound, much less the player’s compatibility with the method. While nearly 150 years of baseball have helped us figure out how this whole pitching thing works, we still have a lot left to figure out, and anybody who claims to have a one-size-fits-all method is wrong. Watching the incredibly varied talents and styles that made up this postseason only hammered home that point.

This October, Madison Bumgarner dominated, inning after inning, start after start, with a motion that wasn’t supposed to work. Maybe Bumgarner’s delivery isn’t the stuff of the next Tom Emanski tapes, but at this point, we clearly can say it works for him. Coaches at all levels would do well to remember the words of Jack Scott and Herb Elliott, and the success Bumgarner and the Giants have achieved by allowing Bumgarner to play the game his own way.

References & Resources

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.
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9 years ago

Great article.

This makes me wonder if there is an “optimal” delivery for any particular pitcher, based upon all the details of the pitcher’s build. Some guys are tall and rail-thin like Sale, others are short and thin like Lincecum, others have wider frames. Relative to their height their legs, arms, fingers and feet may be larger or smaller than average, and the natural strength of their muscles, joints and ligaments can differ greatly (or even be missing, like R.A. Dickey’s UCL!)

I would bet that if you had a kinesiologist model this, you’d find a lot of variation in the optimal delivery by body type. Of course, you’d have to decide whether “optimal” refers to either (a) and optimal outcome in terms of pitch quality or (b) optimal in terms of minimizing wear and tear on the pitcher’s body. I’d probably focus on (a) subject to constraints based upon the cumulative wear you’d get.

Marc Schneider
9 years ago

The point about not forcing pitchers into a “one-size-fits all”approach to mechanics seems self-evidently true but I think the author detracts from the piece by bringing in stuff about “authoritarian” college track coaches and then essentially portraying their responses to Scott as nothing but reactionary tripe. And Scott’s analogy between studying for tests and training for athletic events seems to me a stretch.

Gabe Dimock
9 years ago

Justin Orenduff has some very intelligent and unique thoughts regarding the optimal pitching delivery. He advocates for athletic movements on the mound that result in effective and safe performance. You can find his numerous free articles here:

Here is an interesting article regarding something that 94% of hall of famers do:

9 years ago

Nice article.

I would note that the Giants have fiddled with other starting pitcher’s mechanics and failed. First was a Phillies prospect that we picked up in a trade, he had good numbers with the Phillies but the Giants for some reason just made him change everything and he did horrible for us, and we eventually released him. He moved on, probably went back to his old ways at some point, and he’s been a good pitcher for the Orioles, Alfredo Simon.

They also messed with Zack Wheeler’s mechanics too, but he returned back to them after the Mets traded for him, and it was not quite night and day like Bumgarner, but he was much better in the minors afterward with the Mets.

9 years ago

I dunno…Bumgarner’s mechanics worked pretty well for Walter Johnson.