The Rick Peterson experience opens next month for New York Mets pitchers. A few weeks before the start of spring training Peterson, the pitching coach who signed a three-year contract with the Mets in November after six seasons with the Oakland A's, will shepherd many of his new charges into the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), a biomechanics lab in Birmingham. Peterson will ask them to don unflattering spandex suits. He'll attach computer sensors to various body parts. Then he'll tell them to relax and go through their regular bullpen routines while six high-tech cameras, each snapping 240 frames per second, record every motion and muscle twitch.
"You look like the biggest idiot in town," says A's All-Star righthander Tim Hudson, a veteran of several ASMI sessions. "But if you go into it with an open mind, you'll learn a lot about your delivery that you might never have known."
Peterson, 49, has been opening minds and eyes since the A's hired him in 1998. He might be the prototypical 21st-century pitching coach. He's an information junkie whose oft-repeated motto is, In God we trust; all others must have data. But he balances that obsession with New Age visualization techniques, yoga and sermons about the importance of the mind-body union. "Any controlled movement takes skill, physical conditioning, and mental and emotional strength," says Peterson. "You need all three sides of the triangle to succeed."
Peterson's program isn't for everyone—Oakland lefthander Mark Mulder, for one, was less than enamored with some of the coach's techniques—but it has proved effective. The A's had the American League's lowest team ERA in each of the last two seasons and didn't rank lower than third during Peterson's tenure. More impressive is his track record for keeping pitchers healthy. Under his watch no A's pitcher suffered a major elbow or shoulder injury.
In 1989 Peterson, who studied psychology and art at Jacksonville University, hooked up with ASMI while he was the pitching coach for the Chicago White Sox' Double A affiliate in Birmingham. Dr. James Andrews, the guru of rotator cuff and Tommy John surgery, had just opened the institute to study methods of preventing pitching injuries. Peterson immersed himself in the lab's bio-mechanical analysis, which dissects the pitching motion and identifies the various stresses on the elbow and shoulder.
By studying scores of pitchers over the years Peterson and ASMI have, in theory, built the model of the perfect pitcher. They calculated ideal ranges for more than 35 segments of a pitcher's delivery. (For example, a major leaguer's hips rotate 500 to 700 degrees per second.) Peterson uses those measurements to identify flaws in a pitcher's motion and to design "prehab" exercises to ward off injury. "I laugh when people call this New Age," says Peterson, "because we're just measuring what all great pitchers have always done."
The Mets will find that information deprivation is also one of Peterson's favorite training tools. He had the A's pitchers regularly throwing in the bullpen with their eyes closed, making them visualize their target and rely on muscle memory.
Peterson, who was eager to work for an East Coast team so he could be closer to his wife and three sons in central New Jersey, has his work cut out for him in New York. Last year the Mets ranked 10th in the National League with a 4.48 ERA, and they don't have the A's young, impressionable talent. But Peterson has faith in his veterans: "I'm going to be learning from them as much as they'll be learning from me."