Some pitchers that I’ve played with in the past (and that I play with now) have a pretty simple approach when it comes to mechanics. Every time they pick up a ball, they simply throw it and barely think about their mechanics at all. Sure, maybe they have one or two cues they think about on occasion, but these pitchers don’t spend too much time thinking about their own mechanics or doing drills with the intent to change them. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this per se, and I’ve seen some guys be very successful like this. This is just one end of the spectrum.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are pitchers like Trevor Bauer, who have a pretty thorough understanding of how their body moves, and of how to change or influence their mechanics when they aren’t moving how they would like to. If you listen to Trevor talk about his pitching mechanics anywhere (like here), you can tell that he not only executes them at a very high level, but also understands them at a very high level. For example, looking at the elbow spiral (which is described in detail here if you have never heard this phrase before) phase of the pitching delivery, Trevor clearly understands the “spiral staircase” path that his elbow follows every time he throws a ball, and how it helps minimize the peak stress on his elbow. Obviously, his approach has worked pretty well for him, as he’s developed into one of the top pitchers in baseball, and in my opinion one of the best pure throwers on the planet, capable of throwing a 3 oz. ball 116.9 mph (skip to 1:48 for the throw).
So, which extreme should we try to emulate? Obviously, if you can get to the point that you understand your own delivery (and how to change it) almost perfectly (if this is even possible), this would be ideal, as you would be able optimize your mechanics for velocity, command, and arm health. The only issue is that getting to this point is really hard! It takes years of commitment, scrutiny over the smallest details, and constantly trying to learn more to even come close. Bauer describes in a podcast (around the 45 minute mark) an “Oreo” of understanding, in which the bottom cracker represents understanding very little to nothing about your mechanics, the top cracker represents understanding your mechanics at an elite level (which is where he considers himself to be), and the filling in the middle represents being lost somewhere in the middle. According to Bauer, it is very difficult to be effective in the middle region, i.e., the region of having some understanding of your mechanics but not grasping all the complexities, and this is where he considered himself to be for a couple years during the beginning his professional career.
I really like Bauer’s model of the Oreo, and would argue that it’s even more complicated. This simple model of a single Oreo with a top, bottom, and middle can be extended to an entire box of Oreos, if you will, with each Oreo representing a different aspect of pitching mechanics. It is possible to understand certain aspects of your mechanics very well (i.e., reach the top cracker of certain Oreos), and understand other aspects less well (i.e., be at the bottom cracker of other Oreos). For example, we could consider two Oreos to be the elbow spiral and lead leg blocking (or choose any two mechanical concepts you like). It is possible to understand front leg blocking very well and to be able to translate that into your delivery almost perfectly, but understand the elbow spiral poorly and not know what to look for on video or feel when you’re throwing on a day-to-day basis. Obviously, there’s overlap between different parts of a pitching delivery, as our arms are connected to our torso, which is connected to our hips, etc., but my point is that it is possible to understand and have more control over certain aspects of your mechanics than others.
So what does all this mean in practice? I could be way off, but my advice is to find somebody, whether it be a coach, trainer, etc. who understands the mechanical concepts at a high level that you might not understand as well, and learn from them. Right now, the two people that I have look at my mechanics on a regular or semi-regular basis are John Snelten from Prime Athletics (when I’m back home in Illinois), and Eric Jagers from Driveline. I’ve learned a lot from both of these trainers, and as a result I’ve not only improved my mechanics, but I’ve also improved significantly at understanding and critically evaluating them for myself. While it’s always good to have a second pair of eyes to look at something, being able to figure out stuff on your own is an important skill to have in my opinion. As somebody who was lost in the “filling” of the Oreo for most of my Freshman and Sophomore years at Caltech, resulting in two injury-filled seasons, having somebody to help guide you towards the top cracker (at least in regard to a specific aspect of your mechanics, i.e., the top cracker of a specific Oreo in the box), is invaluable, as it is really tough to get there on your own. I’m not sure if I’m all the way to the top of any of the Oreos in my box yet, but I’m definitely in a better place now than I was before in terms of understanding my mechanics.
A great example of this from my own training recently is the elbow spiral concept. A year or two ago, I understood what the elbow spiral was to some degree, but didn’t really have any concept of how to implement it into my own mechanics, or what it should even look like on video. I was lost in the complexity of the movement, thinking I understood the concept but not really being able to apply it in practice. However, over the course of the last couple weeks especially, I’ve really nailed down this particular mechanical concept in my training.
As you can see in the above video from the beginning of January, my elbow spiral a few weeks ago wasn’t great, and I am almost “pushing” the ball forward, rather than letting my arm unwind naturally (at least that’s what it felt like). I noticed this on video, and after experimenting with a couple new cues and a couple variations on drills (especially pivot picks), I found a movement pattern that worked, and ended up transferring from pivot picks to my overall delivery. The video below is from more recently, after I had a better handle on my elbow spiral.
The results? At the beginning of January, I was having a bit of elbow pain and my velos weren’t where I would have liked them to be. After playing around with these changes, my velos have been steadily climbing over the past week or two, my arm has been pain-free, and I hit a new mound PR of 91 (unfortunately I didn’t have it on video, but hopefully will next time) in our most recent scrimmage last Wednesday (1/30/19). This isn’t to say that every mechanical issue is correctable on your own like this, or that everyone should try to do this without someone else’s help, or that this will be a permanent fix for me, but in this case I had developed enough understanding to make the change by myself.
The point I’m trying to make here is that while it’s good to have trainers, coaches, etc. assist you in finding your optimal set of mechanics (and assist you in all aspects of training), at the end of the day the only person in charge of your own career is you. With this in mind, I think it’s wise to try and understand for yourself how your body moves the best, even if you need the help of a trainer or somebody else to get to a high level of understanding, so that you can take full advantage of your training reps every time you pick up a ball.
Image credits: https://www.minorleagueball.com/2017/10/5/16425618/prospect-retrospective-indians-trevor-bauer