Let’s face it – there’s tons of ways to throw a baseball, and many of our favorite MLB superstars do so in a less-than-archetypal manner. Jason Motte? Bad mechanics. Chris Sale? Goofy Mechanics. CC Sabathia? Strange hitch in his arm action. The bottom line with all of these guys is that they still somehow find a way to find the zone and find it often.
When we think of teaching pitching mechanics, we teach the archetype, or the most commonly referred to idea of what pitching mechanics should be. When discussing archetypes in Philosophy class years ago, the simplest definition was: The way you would describe a concept to an alien, one who had never heard of that idea before. Sure, there are 100s of varieties of Apples. But, if an alien came down and landed on earth and wanted to know what an apple was, which one would best encompass the traits of Appleness? Chances are you’d go grab a Red Delicious, right? That’s the archetype of an apple – the common idea off which all variations and varieties are based.
So with pitching mechanics we think of the same thing. I teach what I believe to be the archetype while allowing for variations that I feel are still acceptable to achieving good results. While not everyone has to look like Greg Maddux (his mechanics come to my mind as the archetype of pitching form), we do have to achieve certain maxims to be successful. Among these are landing closed, being balanced, transferring weight in a powerful and efficient manner, driving toward our target, getting on top of and behind the baseball, etc. Yet, we can achieve all of these maxims without looking exactly like Greg Maddux. We could even achieve these maxims while looking nothing like Greg Maddux. This is the beauty, and complexity, of pitching. You can look exactly like Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, Orel Hershiser, etc. and still STINK. Conversely, you can look downright goofy (Bronson Arroyo, anyone?) and be dominant. It all depends on getting to those maxims.
So, when I teach, I still teach each of my students archetypal mechanics. Yet, I don’t force them exactly into that mold. As long as they meet my maxims for efficient movement, I leave them alone. And, I often deliberately under-coach to force them to find more efficient pathways on their own. I believe I have good reason for this, as stated above.
If other pitchers can become successful major leaguers with what most of society would deem less-than-perfect, often downright weird mechanics, why can’t you? Sure, I want you to look perfect, but looking perfect is less important than performing well, as long as the imperfections aren’t holding you back.
Understand that I’m not promoting mediocrity; rather, I’m saying that there is a substantial element of what is called “self-discovery” in pitching, hitting, golfing, or any sport requiring dexterity and consistency. Finding this oneself through trial and error is as important as any bit of coaching. You don’t have to have as perfect a swing as Tiger Woods to hit it on the green. Having a perfect swing helps, but if your swing is consistent, that’s what matters most. A good golf shot that came off an ugly swing is still a good golf shot.
So, while I’m constantly on my throwers to “get on top,” “don’t swoop,” “don’t overrotate,” “track your head,” “drive your chest,” etc. etc. etc, many times I just give them a dose of reality:
Listen: You need to get the ball down to your partner’s knee. Good pitchers find a way to do it without their pitching coach telling them to. You know what it feels like when you get on top of the ball and drive it downward into the bottom of the zone. You also know what it feels like to get beneath the ball and push it up and armside. It’s unacceptable to continue to keep throwing it up in the zone when you’re capable of getting it down. Focus, refocus, refocus some more, and get the ball down.
This talk happens once a week if not more, and it gets results as much as any other cue I use. Sure – many times a mechanical problem is the reason for the ball going to the wrong location. But most of the time, the thrower knows how to correct those flaws, and let the flaws come out in the first place because of a lack of focus.
One of the biggest pieces lacking the pitching puzzle is sharp focus. When young pitchers throw, they aren’t intently focused on what they’re doing, and often throw without a goal. When we throw, our goal is always the same: Fastballs down and gloveside. Changups down and armside. Never throw the ball up in the zone twice in a row. Everyone misses once in a while, but the next one WILL be down.
Simply giving kids a goal and reinforcing that falling short of the goal is unacceptable gets them on track to make the subtle changes needed to learn to troubleshoot deficiencies in accuracy. After all, when out on the mound in a game, if a kid is throwing up the zone, what’s going through his head? “Get the ball down.” What’s his pitching coach going to say when he comes out to visit? “Get the ball down.” Good pitchers figure out how, using prior coaching mixed with their own focus and knowledge of how to adjust their body. Bad pitchers don’t, and bad pitchers get day jobs. Figure it out.