Monthly Archives: January 2014

Masahiro Tanaka – Successor to Nolan Ryan’s Flawless Mechanics

Nolan Ryan was Baseball’s greatest pitcher (and a timeless example for all “wannabes” to emulate), not only because of all the records he set, but also for his ability to stay healthy for so many years in order to set those records. His blazing fastball, “off-the-table” curveball, debilitating change-up, his “tactical” control, and his competitive spirit were the defining attributes of his incomparable mounds-man-ship.

Most people think that he was of an uncommon breed of ballplayer whose physical strength was the criterion by which he would be judged so competently. But there are many strong-bodied pitchers in Baseball who don’t make it to the Big Leagues. And there are varying degrees of finesse in those who do make it to the Major League level.

Nolan Ryan is at the top of list of outstanding pitchers in Baseball history because he fine-tuned his pitching mechanics to a point near-to-perfection better than any other pitcher (past or present). It was the ultimate use of proper “mechanics” that not only fostered the most economically sound use of his body to control and propel the baseball with maximum intent, but also secured an unusually long career.

When he began his Big League play with the New York Mets, he was a typically promising “fire-balling” physical “phenom” who didn’t have a clue as to how to maximize his efforts with power, control and endurance. Wildness and injuries plagued him until he figured out a semblance of mechanical efficiency while playing for the Angels. As he progressively redefined his body mechanics he was able to sustain higher efficiency ratings in his pitching performances as well as maintain a relatively high capacity to avoid arm and shoulder injuries.

The application of sound mechanical principle to his “art” of pitching is undeniable, but very seldom duplicated by the current stock of “pitching” professionals.  If Nolan Ryan hadn’t changed from the style of his youthful days of undefined ignorance, he would not have sustained what turned out to be a long and illustrious career.

Maximum efficiency for a pitcher includes the following components:

1) Maximum velocity (95 to 100MPH);

2) Fast breaking Pitch;

3) Desirable control (strikes, but avoiding the center of the plate);

4) Endurance (100 to 140 pitches- 7-9 innings);

5) Longevity (15 to 20 years of peak performance)

There are some Major League pitchers who are bigger and stronger than Nolan Ryan was. And some of them throw harder than he did. But there are none who have the mechanical potential to experience his productivity, longevity and injury-free accommodation – until Now!

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Curt Schilling, and Randy Johnson (who was tutored somewhat by Ryan) were two who had the best chances to “survive and achieve”, and they did. Currently, the Pitcher with the “Best -Mechanics” in all of professional Baseball is Masahiro Tanaka. The common denominator for all four of these masterful mounds-men is the simple fact that none of them straightened his pitching-arm as he began and continued the action through the course of his delivery until after the forward momentum of the turning backside of the body catapulted the shoulder, bent-arm and ball toward the plate.Randy J 15Randy J.5Nolan-Ryan 1200px-Nolan_Ryan_17C.Schilling 10-schilling11Tanaka 23Tanaka 25Tanaka 24

At that point, the arm began a straightening process that quickly and briefly extended it forward with the follow-through. The leverage that the bent arm provides diminishes the weight imposed on the shoulder and elbow, thus fortifying their strength to implement function with speed, control and optimal force. The lighter the weight, the faster the shoulder will rotate, and the faster and more accurately controlled will be the ball as it leaves the hand of the pitcher whose total body mechanics are intact.

The only fallible aspect of Nolan Ryan’s delivery was his high front-leg kick as he began his delivery. Most unscientific minds (and possibly Nolan himself) have wrongly accredited the “high leg kick” as an aspect of his success, but it was wasted motion, and compromised his status when a runner was on base. Runners could steal more easily because of the wasted and time-consuming movement. The move is wasteful because the foot has to come down to a low position before the forward body-drive begins (which is really initiated by the back bent-knee, driving forward).NolanRyan 13Masahiro+Tanaka 16

Pitchers think that the leg-momentum coming down from the “wind-up” contributes to the power drive. Actually it does nothing except waste energy that could be conserved for more practical use. The “power-drive” doesn’t begin until the front foot is near the ground.Japan v Chinese Taipei - World Baseball Classic Second Round Pool 1NolanRyan 16C.Schilling 12Randy J. 13

Most often the strongest and most promising of physical specimen incur the wrath of such blatant disregard for physical limitation. A prime example that comes to my mind was Darren Driefort, associated with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Darren had shown great promise until undue strain to his pitching arm necessitated elbow surgery.  After a second surgery was precipitated after he continued in his previous ritual of improperly d.dreifort 7.d.dreifort 8darren driefort 1implemented mechanics, his Baseball career ended.

Maximum efficiency for a pitcher includes the following components: 1) Maximum velocity (95 to 100MPH); 2) Deceptive Change-up; 3) Fast breaking Pitch; 4) Impeccable control (strikes, but avoiding the center of the plate); 5) Endurance (100 to 140 pitches- 7-9 innings); 6) Longevity (injury-less-enabling 15 to 20 years of peak performance); 7) Base-stealing deterrent (quick move to plate – no wasteful motion). Even Nolan Ryan did not possess the last attribute, but he could have.

All of the preceding components can be easily attributable to every single, able-bodied Big League pitcher of the modern era, if each would first subscribe to one critical facet of a primary pitching principle that differentiated “Nolie” from every other pitcher. The axiom would read as follows: “the farther the ball moves away from the body, as the arm is preparing to deliver the pitch, the heavier the weight will be to the stress and strain of the elbow, shoulder and torso” (not to mention “to the speed” of the throwing action).

The following pictures illustrates the GOOD VS. BAD! Masahiro and Nolie  –

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And Darren Driefort: It’s a shame, because he was a great athlete with great potential.

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To correlate the six components to optimal pitching production the following comments will clarify the propositions:

1) A powerfully built athlete, who presumably establishes his power base from a low center of gravity, needs only to facilitate a mechanism for quickly manipulating the strength of the actual throwing apparatus (the shoulder). The lighter the weight on the arm, the more economical will be the movement of the shoulder to manipulate the arm. The straighter the arm and the farther its hand is extended away from the body the heavier it will be for the shoulder to manipulate quickly. Reduction of the speed of the shoulder will ultimately reduce the speed of the ball when it eventually leaves the hand of the pitcher. Therefore, the result is a failure of the pitcher to fulfill his maximum potential.

2) The hardest throwing pitchers usually have the fastest breaking-pitches, because of the power of the body that has a low center of gravity, and the speed of the shoulder as it moves the arm quickly through the tight range of motion as the fingers and hand provide the appropriate pressure.

3) As a dart-thrower (with bent arm) is more apt to demonstrate more control than a “long-armer”, so the efficiency quotient for the optimum in accuracy is bound to be in favor of him who has to negotiate a less cumbersome task.

4) A pitcher is a finely-tuned “piece of equipment”. Maximum efficiency rating is based on his workload over time, and predicated on the strength of the individual components comprising the collective integrity of the “Unit”. He is only as strong as his weakest link. Maximum output may be good for a minimum of time before the weak link destructs and the mechanism fails. Masahiro, Curt and Randy (as well as Nolie) could go longer because the bent elbow affords less of a preponderance for “weak-linkage”.

5) Simple deduction based on conservation of human resources provides less wear and tear on the physical apparatus, thus allowing for greater longevity.

6) A “lefty” is always the best deterrent to a base-stealer, but a bent elbow and a less elaborate front-leg kick could assure a “rightie” of minimizing the threat of “thievery”. The pitcher has to remember that it is not the front side that initiates the forward momentum for the pitch. The back bent-knee thrust (from the muscles of the groin) instigates the forward linear movement of the body after the relaxed front hip and leg turn inward with front foot near the ground. The front hip  turns so that the “butt” is advancing forward as the back of the front leg and heel of the front foot are stepping  toward the plate. Then, after a short arc of the turning hip and leg, the foot plants with toes pointed toward “home”. The front leg braces in a bent position as the back bent knee drives downward until the hips and torso powerfully rotate in turn to provide the thrusting power for the shoulder and arm sequence. The “bucket-holding” position of the throwing arm quickly changes as the hand and ball are brought to their place slightly above the throwing shoulder. At that point the body is completing its forward thrust as the arm starts its quick and brief extension, at the conclusion of which the fingers of the hand release the ball at the snap of the wrist (before the arm would straighten; but never completely snap the elbow closed). The quickness and efficiency of the entire delivery is predicated on the simple proposition that the less time needed to get the arm in position to throw facilitates a mechanism for the economical display of power, speed, and accuracy.

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Now, no pitcher in professional baseball has better “Mechanics” than Masahiro Tanaka!

Coming next: Principle for Batting Excellence!

 

Infield Play:

Infield-Play

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The three major components in effecting the proper technique for fielding a   baseball on the infield are these: balance, vision, and power. As play is initiated, fielding readiness implies being in a low balanced position, eyes focused on the point where the ball would contact the bat, and the body responding to that instant with preliminary movement to brace himself in anticipation of the ball being hit to “him.” If it becomes evident that the play is “his,” the preliminary action sets the stage for a quick sequence of smooth, rhythmical, ballet-like movements that follow, in preparation for engaging the on-coming ball, as well as completing the play to its entirety.

An infielder establishes stability and balance to perform his task when his center of gravity is low. His ability to see the ball most clearly is determined by the extent to which his eyes are on a parallel level to the ball, and the degree to which the body and head maintain a stable vehicle for proper focus. Power is generated most effectively with the body in a stable, balanced position, from which all movements can be produced most speedily, and with a minimum strain to accompanying body parts.

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If the outfield can be a lonely place to play, the infield is just the opposite in that there is a more heightened sense of camaraderie as well as imminent expectation. Players are in close proximity to each other. They talk to one another. They communicate more easily. They don’t seem to have a great need to be highly creative; they usually have more action than they want or can handle.

Rather than having to be “fast” runners, their effectiveness is determined by how “quick” they are in a confined area. They don’t cover vast territory, but must be extremely adept at moving laterally with quick bursts to handle “bullet-like” projectiles with the courage, confidence, and   agility of a “mongoose.”

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“Ballerina-like” footwork and the hand and finger dexterity of a heart surgeon typify the common physical characteristics of a professional infielder. There is one quality that no infielder can be without—Courage! All infielders have it. It’s never a case of one having more than another. It is only a question of whether or not he’ll “muster it up” consistently, on every ball hit, as evidenced in the occasional “Ole.”

The best infielders use every conceivable means to gain an advantage over the ferocious ground-ball that would like to “eat them up.” Fielding ground balls properly involves a physical procedure which runs contrary to every human instinct to self-preservation—to lean forward as low as possible to the turf while a hard hit grounder is approaching your position.

It’s like going nose to nose with a rattlesnake. Now, the procedure is sound because it allows the fielder a sure tracking view from ground level.

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A tennis player returning a serve, and a batter attacking a pitched ball, understand the value of seeing the in-coming object on a parallel level. But an infielder has the added dimension of coping with the traumatic possibility that the ball could easily pop up and “bite off his nose,” loosen some teeth, or cause irreparable damage to his prospects for video endorsements.

Third and First basemen hold down positions referred to as the “hot corners.” Playing “even” with their respective bases, these two infielders are closer to the batter than any one besides the pitcher and catcher. But only the pitcher is subject to more hazardous ballistic encounters with a baseball than the third and first basemen. Since there are more right-handed batters in all of Baseball, then presumably a third baseman would be in possession of the hotter of the “hot” corners. But in general, the sense of “imminent responsibility” is the same, especially when the first baseman “holds” the runner.

While the choreography involved in fielding ground-balls amongst infielders is generally the same, there are subtle differences in “prep-time” (stance, as pitch is being delivered) between the “hot-corners” and “middle-infielders.” Time and speed are always of the essence.

For obvious reasons, to be able to respond quickly at the “corners,” those fielders assume a “tunnel-vision” mentality, positioning their bodies with a low center of gravity with eyes focused at the point where the bat is likely to strike the ball to force it in their directions. The low positioning of the body is for heightened anticipation that the ball will be hit on the ground where the eyes are able to make more acute visual contact. Anything other than a solidly hit “grounder” is a welcomed sight to any infielder. The adjustment to “lined-drives” and “pop-ups” is minimal, hence nothing much to fear. However, much applause is heralded by all onlookers after a leaping or lunging third or first “sacker” spears a wicked “lined-shot.”infield 12

The shortstop and second baseman can assume a more relaxed posture as the pitch is being delivered because they are farther away from the batter and have a panoramic view of the entire infield, which facilitates a surer sense of how the ball will come off the bat. If the ball is hit to either player, he quickly assumes the characteristic fielding position, body lowered and “face to the ball,” then glides through the ball while preparing to engage the “throwing mechanics.”infieldplay 3infield play5

The rhythm which all infielders develop when learning to “attack” the infamous batted-ball is a defensive-mechanism established to preoccupy thought from petrifying with fear the mind of the inanimate body. It’s like reverse psychology! The more fearful you are, the more you must look to be fearless. Animated body parts unconsciously convey this message. No one is totally fearless, but a sense of confidence does much to deny fear its manifestation—hesitation, misjudgment, over-anxiousness, mental and physical error.

infield 19Confidence is enhanced as one becomes assured of his ability to counteract the undermining element that elicits fear. Quick reflexes of head, neck, and hands are the usual defenders against the perpetrator of fear on the infield—that little bolt of “white lightning.”

Being hit in any part of the body by a thrown or batted baseball is not an experience that most individuals anticipate with relish. In fact, there are many instances where prospective players of the “game,” from “little-league” to “college-ball,” decided to “hang-em-up” after being hit too many times (or even once).

An outstanding 250 pound line-backer on a prominent college football team, who never hesitated taking on 300 pound line-men or powerful running-backs (or even a “Mack-Truck”) stopped playing baseball in high-school because he couldn’t get over the thought of being hit by that little white, 5 ounce, leather-bound projectile. infield 14No sane person would intentionally subject himself to the continuous prospect of physical abuse unless there was a sense of tangible hope for lessening the chances of undesirable engagement. The only legitimate solution to “the dilemma” is a “skill-development” progression that affords an “inoculatory-effect” by decreasing physical intensity and promoting a build-up of resistance to the initial, overwhelming, mental effect that the image of the “Hard-Ball” projects.

Little-leagues” have increased enrollment recently by prudently affecting the density of the ball used at their lowest levels of play, to protect their youngest prospects from experiencing the debilitating trauma of hard-ball contusions that could curtail their desires to continue to learn the game. This “inoculation period” enables the players to develop the initial skills with less trepidation, and hopefully become proficient enough to counteract the effects of higher intensity in the future.

Since “Fear” is what ultimately impedes progress of every sort, any tool that would lessen its effects could only be thought of as positive in promoting a better, more healthful learning environment for any of life’s endeavors (fielding ground-balls and batting included).

Ultimately, if you’re going to play Baseball you have to either overcome or cope with the fear of “ball-contact.” The “Seasoned—Veteran” has learned to “shrug it off” as merely part of the game that his sharply defined reflexes can help him cope with most of the time. The “Metaphysically-astute Veteran” seems to be able to overcome the physical trauma by denying that it has any affect on him, by showing his disdain with stoic indifference.

What may be the most practical but least conventional way to help infielders improve fielding and reflexes, while eliminating the fear factor momentarily, is to have them wear an implementation device (similar to a catcher’s helmet and mask, but lighter and less cumbersome) in practice. The coach could hit grounders as hard as he wants, and the fielder could perfect his trade (learning the subtleties of the ball-movement) with little or no fear, thus building confidence which improves both skill and reflexes.

At this point of considering the means to establishing optimal fielding prowess it may become evident that playing the game of Baseball at the highest level may not be for everyone. But the opportunity to get to that point and realize what it really takes to become a “big-leaguer” is a valuable lesson for which to hold enormous pride and appreciation for having gone through one of life’s human gauntlets, that will no doubt serve one well in any of the future encounters with never ending elements of conflict.