How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant (cont.)
For some 20 years ASMI has studied pitchers in the lab by pasting reflective sensors on their bodies, capturing their pitching motion with eight high-speed cameras and running the information through its proprietary computer code. ASMI generates a report with 42 precise measurements, such as elbow, hip and torso rotational speeds, shoulder abduction (how many degrees the shoulder pulls away from its axis) and stride length. ASMI can find possible injury risks by comparing those numbers with the normative range for pitchers. (The best pitchers typically don't show abnormally high measurements in any one area; what makes them special is that they fall in the normative range across the board.) About eight to 10 major league teams, including the Red Sox, Indians and A's, send a total of about 50 pitchers to the ASMI lab each year. At a time when keeping pitchers healthy may be the single most important element in building a successful team, ASMI's work is more essential than ever.
"We've learned about what the red flags are and how to train movements that will be green flags," Peterson says, who was fired by the Mets on June 17 as part of a purge that included manager Willie Randolph. "And most of the people who cannot perform the movement patterns have some genetic disposition -- either their hips are locked or they don't have the flexibility -- so that the major red flags in deliveries you get from the lab are not fundamental-skill issues. They're physical and conditioning issues."
Most front offices, coaches and pitchers, however, rely on the same observational approach to pitching mechanics that has been in place for more than 100 years. Such analysis by "eyeballing" is combined with a preference to leave a pitcher alone, no matter how poor his mechanics may be, if he is getting good results. "That philosophy," Peterson says, "would lend itself to people who buy expensive cars and stop changing the oil and rotating the tires. 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' People don't take care of ? their home that way; they don't take care of their car that way; they don't take care of ? their bodies that way."
Mark Prior is a classic example of a high-performing pitcher who was permitted to break down because of poor mechanics. Ironically, Prior was often hailed for his "flawless" mechanics when the Cubs drafted the righthander out of USC with the No. 2 pick in 2001, though that assessment seems to have been influenced by scouts' preference for his 6' 5", 225-pound body type. Studied closely, his mechanics included two severe red flags: 1) Prior lifted his throwing elbow higher than his shoulder before reaching the loaded position, increasing the stress on his elbow and shoulder; and 2) unlike Lincecum's dynamic late torso rotation, Prior rotated his hips and torso before getting to the loaded position. With the letters of Prior's jersey already facing the target, his arm could not simply "go along for the ride" -- the ride was over, so his arm had to generate all of its own power.
Prior went 41-23 over his first four seasons in the big leagues. During that time, in 2003, when Prior was on his way to a career-high 18 wins, Peterson gave a presentation to the Oakland scouting department about "certain red flags in a delivery that we can't do much about" as the A's prepared for the draft. The idea was to avoid sinking large signing bonuses into players with a high potential to break down. (Late picks, because of their lower cost, don't carry the same concern.)
One of Oakland's scouts, responding to Peterson's red-flag warnings, said, "Hey, that's what Prior does. Are you saying that we shouldn't draft a player like that?"
Replied Peterson, "No, not exactly. He's one of the best pitchers in the league right now, but what I am saying is, If he doesn't have maximum [shoulder] rotation, it will lead to injury. It's like slamming the brakes over and over. The brake pads are going to wear out until it's metal on metal."
Prior has suffered a series of shoulder injuries that have limited him to one win and nine starts in the three seasons since. Still only 27, he is out for the season -- again -- after surgery to repair a tear in his right shoulder. "Prior is almost all upper body," Chris Lincecum says. "You could cut his legs off and he would throw just as hard. I don't like to put my finger on players, but I've been doing this a long time. I've said, 'He's going to blow his elbow out' or 'His back will go out.' Sure enough, it happens, including Dice-K [Daisuke Matsuzaka], Jake Peavy, Prior. . . . I have a hard time enjoying the game. I'm sitting there criticizing the pitcher. It hurts to watch pitchers. Seventy percent of the pros have poor mechanics."
Bobby Brownlie was supposed to be Tim Lincecum. A 6-foot righthander from Rutgers who hit 97 mph on the gun, Brownlie was regarded as one of the top pitchers in the 2002 draft. Peterson was working as the A's pitching coach at the time. Just before the draft, Oakland G.M. Billy Beane gave Peterson videotapes of some 20 pitchers the A's were considering as draft picks and told him to break down each pitcher not by stuff and performance but by the biomechanics of their deliveries.
The previous winter Peterson had met Brownlie at a banquet and told him, "Hey, I hear you're great. Congratulations, I hear you're going to be a [first round] pick." But when he watched Brownlie on the tape Beane had given him, Peterson says, "I'm literally sick to my stomach. I'm going, 'This is so sad.' "
A few days later, when Beane asked Peterson what he thought of Brownlie, the pitching coach replied, "He has certain characteristics in his delivery that will lead to shoulder problems."
The Cubs took Brownlie with the 21st pick -- bypassing future big leaguers Matt Cain, Joe Blanton, Jon Lester and Jonathon Broxton -- and lavished him with a $2.5 million signing bonus. Within three years Brownlie could not throw any harder than the mid-80s, and minor league hitters were crushing his pitches. Chicago released him in March 2007. Brownlie spent much of last year playing independent league baseball and is now pitching for the Washington Nationals' Double A Harrisburg affiliate. In May '07 Brownlie told SNY.tv, "The major question about me is why my velocity has dipped in the past couple of years. . . . There's really no answer to it; we don't know what's going on."
Says Peterson, "How many Robert Brownlies are out there every year, and how many of them can be saved? That's what drives me into the amateur market. Because he could be saved. No question in my mind."