Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Kinetic Chain: Deceleration Phase and Tim Lincecum's Struggles


Courtesy: Unknown
One of the biggest mysteries of the 2012 season was what happened to Tim Lincecum. To date, I haven't heard an adequate explanation, so I've been trying to figure one out for quite some time. The pundits pointed to a decline in velocity as the main reason, opining that he was finally wearing out as a result of his unique pitching mechanics. Of course, a decline in velocity is more symptom than disease. Further, they made it sound like an inevitable and irreversible decline, but I have a hard time accepting that as being true.

Lincecum's mechanics have always made some uneasy, he brought the kinetic chain to the masses. His mechanics demonstrated that you don't have to stand 6-5 with tree trunks for legs to be a legitimate and durable power pitcher. The kinetic chain allowed him to generate substantial force from minimal stature. And, while I've often wondered whether aging might rob him of the flexibility needed to effectively utilize his mechanics, I see no reason why the kinetic chain should falter as he heads into his age 28/29 season. But, if the problem isn't an inherent and inevitable flaw in the principles on which his mechanics were built, then what exactly IS it?

Back in the day, I took a golf lesson from a teaching pro who was very good at what he did. And, part of what he did was to study outcomes and walk them all the way back to identify the swing problem. By focusing on how the results differed from what was intended, he could draw inferences about the nature and extent of the problem. For example, his fellow teaching pros would call him the Divot Doctor, because he would look at the direction and depth of the divot to determine the swing path and angle of attack. From there, he could identify the problem and determine how to correct it. Of course, he could also examine the height, shape, and distance of the shot, along with countless other outcomes of the swing, to identify the problem.

After failing to find a single person who could actually pinpoint the reasons for Lincecum's troubles (granted, Dave Righetti probably [hopefully?] knows, but if so he's not running around espousing those views), I started trying to figure it out on my own. And, starting from the premise that the underlying principles of the kinetic chain remain sound, I started studying the outcomes and trying to walk them back to the underlying mechanical problem. In the end, I think I identified the problem, if not the reason for it.


LINCECUM'S MECHANICAL FLAW?

As mentioned above, the first hue-and-cry to be heard on Lincecum's struggles was that his velocity was down. So, that was the obvious starting point. Was he hurt?

I wondered that until I watched his start on May 9, 2012, which was a typical and telling start. Lincecum's problem in 2012 was "the big inning." For whatever reason, he would frequently fall apart in a single inning, completely derailing any quality work that had come before. It wasn't all bad, all the time, it was more of a high wire act, occasionally impressive but with an inevitable tumble. The only question about his starts was when the tumble would happen. The May 9th game was no different. Lincecum cruised for the first 3 innings, striking out 6, walking 1, inducing one double play ball, and giving up 3 hits and 0 runs. Impressive, no?

Even more impressive than the results was the process. The remarkable thing was that for the first 3 innings, he was crisp. He not only had his velocity back (fastball sitting 92/93/94), but his command was back (painting corners, avoiding middle of plate). Those three innings convinced me that the problem wasn't injury related. The next inning convinced me it was mechanical.

The kinetic chain is about stacking force through a coordinated series of movements and efficiently imparting that force to the baseball. When the kinetic chain is unbroken, the pitcher reaps maximum benefits in performance. The performance of the pitch, whether (1) velocity, (2) movement, or (3) location, will be improved when the chain is unbroken. However, when the kinetic chain breaks, it can impact all three of those components of performance. In the first three innings, Lincecum looked like his old self. In the fourth inning, he looked like a pitcher with a broken chain, complete with decline in velocity and loss of command.

The other constant that I noticed with Lincecum in 2012 was that, during his big inning struggles, he frequently missed up-and-in with the fastball, brushing back right-handed hitters, and bounced his curve ball, uncorking 55-footers way off to the first base side of home plate. Not surprisingly, those pitches both made an appearance in the fourth inning.

In the fourth, his command and velocity were gone, as a result he gave up a double, single, single, and a wild pitch to start things off. His fastball was slower, missing up-and-in, and he bounced 55-foot curveballs. When it was over, he had given up 4 runs, 4 hits, 1 walk, 1 wild pitch, and 1 strikeout.     

How could it all go so wrong, so fast? That's the obvious question. But, the question that was truly puzzling to me was how he could miss up-and-in with the fastball on one pitch, then down-and-away with the curveball on the next? Mistakes up-and-in AND down-and-away? That's the question that bothered me to the core, as the flaws seemed to be polar opposites. After thinking on it (a lot!), I started focusing on the deceleration phase of the delivery.


DECELERATION PHASE OF THE KINETIC CHAIN

I have previously written about the early phases of the kinetic chain, focusing largely on generating force through each sequential move in the chain and then unleashing that force by efficiently imparting it to the baseball. I left out the deceleration phase for a couple of reasons: 1) there is more than enough to chew on with just the generating and imparting phases of the chain, and 2) there is one aspect of the deceleration phase that doesn't make intuitive sense to me.

Notable kinetic chain proponent Trevor Bauer has stated that the deceleration phase includes:

1. The glove side remains firm out front.
2. The throwing shoulder must be closer to the plate than the glove side shoulder.
3. The arm must pronate and the earlier the better.
4. The pitcher needs to continue rotating around the front hip after release.

The one part of the deceleration phase that doesn't make intuitive sense to me is the one that helped me understand Tim Lincecum's problem: number three on the list, pronation of the arm.

The deceleration phase is very important to the health of the pitcher. During a pitch, the shoulder exceeds 7,000 degrees per second of internal rotation for adult pitchers, which is considered the fastest human movement and clearly requires a proper deceleration phase. Obviously, the stress placed on the arm is tremendous, creating substantial injury risk that's only exacerbated by any mechanical flaws in the delivery.

Pronation of the arm is the rotation of the arm such that the surface of the palm is facing downward, which is the opposite of supination. This early rotation of the arm is designed to reduce stress on the elbow. Early pronation (or supination) of the arm dissipates the momentum of the arm more gradually, rather than the momentum slowing down by the banging of the elbow joint. Insufficient pronation (supination) of the arm is the equivalent of slamming on the brakes of the car every time you want to stop. The more often that happens, the sooner the brakes wear out. It's the same with a pitcher's elbow, as you want the pronation/supination of the arm, rather than the elbow joint, to dissipate the momentum.

Ok, so early (i.e. immediately after releasing the ball) rotation of the arm is a big key to proper deceleration, but how does that help us with Lincecum's struggles? Well, in pitching, the arm rotates in different directions depending on the type of pitch thrown. For example, the arm pronates (i.e. rotates counter-clockwise from the perspective of the pitcher) on fastballs, while the arm supinates (i.e. rotates clockwise from the perspective of the pitcher).

Here's a photo of Tim Lincecum throwing a fastball, notice the pronation of the arm upon release:

Courtesy: Unknown



When throwing the curveball, the arm supinates upon release, as demonstrated by the Navy pitcher in the photo below:


Courtesy: Unknown


So, back to my original question:  how could Lincecum miss up-and-in with the fastball on one pitch, then down-and-away with the curveball on the next? How can one flaw result in mistakes up-and-in AND down-and-away?

Well, it seems clear that the above photos set forth the reason for the bouncing curveball and high-and-tight fastball. Lincecum suffered from one flaw, but it was obscured by the difference between pronation (fastballs missing up-and-in) and supination (curveballs bouncing short and to the first base side). Simply put, Tim Lincecum's flaw in 2012 was a slight lag in his pitching arm.

Lincecum was able to pitch well for stretches, but inevitably the kinetic chain would break. If the arm lags behind, then the body's attempt to pull the arm along in the kinetic chain will exacerbate the effect of the pronation/supination of the arm. If the arm lags, then the coordinated movements of the body will be out of sync and the arm won't have the same snap in the delivery. The delivery will be inefficient, reducing the force generated. The shoulder rotation will begin before the arm is up in proper position, as a result the shoulder rotation will be farther along than normal when the pitching hand reaches the release point.

Given that the shoulder rotation was farther along than normal when his pitching hand reached the release point, the rotation would naturally pull the arm towards the first base side. Such an effect would exacerbate the natural pitching arm action, be it supination or pronation.

Consequently, if the shoulder rotation pulled the arm to the first base side on a curveball (supinate), then a bounced pitch to the first base side is the natural result. Further, if the rotation pulled the arm to the first base side on a fastball (pronate), then the natural result would be missing up and in to righthand hitters. In both instances, the pitching arm is unable to catch up to the upper body rotation, but the pitcher holds onto the curveball longer to finish the pitch, whereas the fastball leaves the hand sooner and is pushed up-and-in by the shoulder rotation and lagging pitching arm.

While I think this explanation addresses most of the symptoms of his struggles, the reason why the struggles emerged is much more complicated.


REASON FOR THE FLAW?

The problem that caused his struggles was that his arm lagged behind in his delivery. What I can't determine is the reason for the lag. I have two theories. First, his arm speed was simply diminished. Second, that he, in some way, altered his arm swing, increasing the distance his arm had to travel to reach the release point and causing his arm to lag behind his upper body rotation.

As to the first, if the arm itself slowed down, then it would naturally lag behind the normal tempo of his delivery. If that's the case, then the follow-up question is whether that's reversible or permanent. One interesting aspect of Lincecum's struggles is the weight fluctuation that he has undergone over the last several offseasons. Two offseasons ago, Lincecum felt that added weight, in the form of increased muscle mass, would increase his durability and keep him strong later in the season. Despite a solid season, he wasn't happy with the added weight. As a result, last offseason he committed to dropping the weight. One viable theory is that he dropped too much weight, too quickly and that his strength suffered as a result. That could also explain his inconsistency, as the rapid weight loss could also have affected his stamina and balance. That could be a legitimate reason for a decrease in arm speed. 

If, on the other hand, the arm itself is simply not able to move as fast as did in previous seasons, then arm lag could be a permanent problem. But, in light of the fact that he has shown flashes of his old velocity and the lack of any evidence of injury, it seems unlikely to be permanent.

As to the second, I don't see any indication that his arm-swing has changed. It's possible that it has, but given his flashes of good performance, it seems unlikely. It would seemingly require him to use one type of arm-swing during his good innings and another during his bad ones.


FINAL THOUGHTS

In the end, Lincecum's struggles in the 2012 season seem related to a broken kinetic chain, causing him to lose velocity and command. The chain appeared to break due to a lagging arm, which prevented the shoulder rotation from properly pulling the arm around in the delivery. The tell-tale signs for me were the 55-foot curveball and high-and-tight fastball that popped up in his big innings.

While the reason for the arm lag remain unclear, it seems like the type of problem that can be corrected. Hopefully, an offseason dedicated to rebuilding any lost strength and refining his mechanics can see him return to the pitcher he was prior to the 2012 season. The Cy Young seasons may not be coming back, but there's no reason he can't return to being the top flight pitcher he was in 2010 and 2011. I remain cautiously optimistic that the Freak can return to form in 2013.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2013 Top Prospect List: #13 Tucker Barnhart, c

Courtesy: MILB.com
TUCKER BARNHART
DOB: 1/7/1991
HEIGHT: 5-10 WEIGHT: 185 B/T: B/R

George Sisler played first base in the majors from 1915-1930. He played his final game on September 22, 1930. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1939. He died March 26, 1973. Despite his death, shortly after the turn of the century, he became a worse player. Actually, he was the same exact player, just valued far less.

Advances in statistical analysis shifted the game away from he did well. Suddenly, on-base skill and power were far more important than empty batting averages. Further, new retroactive defensive metrics simply didn't support his stellar defensive reputation.

I wonder if the game is now about to shift, in a subtler way, towards players with Tucker Barnhart's particular skill-set. Namely, top flight defensive skills behind the plate. Defensive metrics have lagged behind other metrics, especially true regarding catcher defense, but PitchFX is beginning to allow for more accurate quantification of the value of catcher defense. And, the impact appears to be far greater than previously believed.

One area where catchers have a surprisingly significant impact on the game is in "pitch framing", meaning "the ability of catchers to get umpires to call borderline pitches their way". Ryan Hanigan actually excels in this area, though Tampa Bay Ray Jose Molina is the poster child for pitch framing. A lot of the credit for the Rays surprisingly superb run prevention last year was given to the defensive shifts they employ, but it was also the first year that Molina was behind the dish. Coincidence? The Rays are one of smartest and savviest organizations around and are always chasing the competitive edge. Could pitch framing have been that edge? (You can watch an interesting video clip from the recent Clubhouse Confidential segment discussing quantifying the value of pitch framing.)

Courtesy: Norm Hall, Getty Images
A number of different studies have been undertaken and the results all reveal a substantial, though varied, impact, including findings of contributions of .7 runs per 150 pitches, 6 wins per 120 games, and 2 wins per 120 games. Gaining 2 wins, conservatively, just from pitch framing? Whatever the true value, it's not insignificant. A catcher who can properly frame pitches can provide a significant competitive advantage over the competition. Obviously, that increases the value of those players.

All of which leads us back to Tucker Barnhart, the most polished and skilled defensive catcher in the system. And, arguably one of the best in all of the minors.


AMATEUR CAREER AND DRAFT POSITION

The Reds landed Barnhart with the 299th overall pick in the 10th round of the 2009 draft. He attended Brownsburg High School in Indiana where he earned Louisville Slugger All-America honors and was named the 2009 Mr. Baseball in Indiana.


As a high school sophomore, Barnhart his .417 with 9 doubles, 10 homers, and 39 RBI. As a junior, Barnhart earned a reputation by hitting .500 with 11 homeruns, 10 doubles, and 39 RBI. As a senior, his newly acquired reputation earned him much more respect from pitchers, who worked him carefully when they bothered pitching to him at all. He hit .369 with 8 doubles, 6 homers, and 25 RBI. Barnhart handled getting fewer good pitches to hit rather well, demonstrating a maturity beyond his years:


“In my first seven games, I was walked 15 times,” Barnhart said. “But one of my goals this year was to maintain a mature approach at the plate, control what I am able to control, maximize the pitches that are strikes and drive those pitches.”

Brownsburg coach Patrick O’Neil says that Barnhart’s philosophical approach to hitting has been a big part of his standout catcher’s success.

“He takes every swing in practice with a purpose,” O’Neill said. “He helps teammates with comments, demonstrations and he assists during drills. Tucker just possesses and aura of leadership, caring and commitment. The community, the fans and the players just love to be around him.”

When the draft finally rolled around, Barnhart was rated as a 5th round talent and the 16th best catcher available by Baseball America. He ultimately slipped in the draft due to signability concerns stemming from his strong commitment to Georgia Tech, which the Reds ultimately overcame by offering 4th round bonus money, much to the chagrin of GT head coach Danny Hall who obviously thought very highly of Barnhart:

"Tucker Barnhart, to me, is one of the best position players in the country. His primary position is catcher, but he can also play third and second base. A good tribute to him would be when a guy named Dave Alexander, who used to be the baseball coach at Purdue, told me this summer that he thought Tucker was probably a better infielder than he was a catcher, and we think that he is one of the best catchers in the country. He is just a very, very good baseball player and we are excited to have him."

Barnhart is a cerebral player, even in high school he was charting pitches and doing advanced scouting on the competition during his days off. He also had the maturity necessary to bypass college and successfully step right into the professional ranks.


2012 SEASON

Barnhart spit time between high-A Bakersfield and double-A Pensacola in 2012. For the Blaze, Barnhart hit .278/.371/.409/.780 with 12/1/4 2b/3b/HRs and a 45/29 K/BB ratio over 59 games and 198 ABs. He hit line drives at a 14% clip and posted an unsustainable .342 BABIP. He also posted the best walk rate of his career, walking 12.6% of the time.

For the Blue Wahoos, Barnhart hit .200/.262/.292/.555 with 4/1/2 2b/3b/HRs and a 22/11 K/BB ratio over 41 games and 130 ABs. He again hit line drives at a 14% clip and posted a similarly unsustainable .226 BABIP. The slugging percentages are concerning, but Ryan Hanigan's career minor and major league slugging percentages are .371 and .360, respectively. So, the lack of power can certainly be overcome.

In the final analysis, Barnhart simply wasn't ready, from an offensive standpoint, for double-A. The Reds were likely aware of that when promoting him, but felt he could handle the offensive struggles that would inevitably result. Prior to 2012, Barnhart had been moving steadily up the ladder, advancing only one level per season. He spent his age 18 season in the Gulf Coast rookie league, his age 19 season in the Pioneer League, and his age 20 season with low-A Dayton.  The 2012 season was the only time he received an in-season promotion. He'll likely get a return engagement at double-A to start out the 2013 season, which will provide an interesting data point to his offensive development.


SWING MECHANICS

Barnhart is a switch-hitter. He's fundamentally sound from both sides of the plate. Unlike some switch-hitters, Barnhart's swing is similar from both sides of the plate, so one write-up can effectively cover both.

At the plate, Barnhart starts with a wider than shoulder-width stance and a high back elbow (first set of photos). As the pitcher comes to the plate, Barnhart lifts his front leg off the ground, transferring the weight to the back leg, cocking the hips, and generating load for the swing before striding forward to meet the pitch (second set of photos).  His stride is one piece, the proper length, and well-balanced. When his stride foot lands, he firms up the front side to allow for effective transfer of force to the pitch (third set of photos). He uses a short path to the ball and doesn't extend his arms too early. At the contact point, the rotation of the lower body drives him up onto the toe of his back foot, while he keeps his back elbow in close to his body (fourth set of photos). In the right-handed swing pictured below, he's reaching for a low and outside breaking ball, which causes his arms to extend farther out in front of the body, a weaker position, but that's not typical of his swing. He gets good extension and finishes with a one-handed follow-through.

Here are the two series of photos from similar points in his right and left handed swings:
















To date, he hits better from the left side, his natural side. In fact, his struggles from the right side have been so significant that some wonder whether he'll need to scuttle switch hitting entirely. To me, that seems premature, as hitters simply don't see many tough lefties until they reach the professional ranks, so a bit more experience might sufficiently improve his performance. Remarkably, in 38 ABs against double-A lefties, Barnhart struck out only 3 times, which makes his .184 batting average a bit more disconcerting. If he's making that much contact, but not getting hits, then he's either extremely unlucky or not driving the ball effectively. Even if he is forced to drop hitting from the right side, having a catcher who hits from the left side is almost as valuable as having a catcher who switch hits. It's the left side hitting that's fairly unique, giving his value a boost.  

Part of the problem for Barnhart is his size, as he only stands 5-10-ish (milb.com lists him at 5-10, Baseball America lists him at 5-8). To hit for significantly more power, he'd likely have to sacrifice in other areas. Given that his smaller size limits his maximum effective power production, to hit for more power he'd have to sell out more at the plate. Would sacrificing his contact rate for marginal gains in power production be worth it? Doubtful. I'd be more content to let him continue developing the Ryan Hanigan offensive profile.

As it stands, Barnhart already fits that profile well. He has the ability to hit line drives to all fields and draw walks at a good clip. While his shorter stature is a drag on power production, it's a boon to his on-base ability, as his strike zone is smaller than it would be for taller hitters. Pitchers have less area to attack, Barnhart has less area to protect.

Here's a look at Barnhart in action, including a slo-motion view at the very end, courtesy of RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube:







There really aren't any red flags to Barnhart's swing mechanics. Any problems he may have at the plate as he climbs the ladder are likely to be the result of a shortage of tools or physicality, not mechanical flaws or a lack of baseball specific skills. Barnhart does a very good job getting the most out of what he has, the question on Barnhart is whether what he has will prove to be enough.


DEFENSIVE SKILLS

Barnhart stands out on defense, which isn't easy to do as a catcher, but he's fun to watch. He's impressive and much of it has to do with his footwork. Barnhart has very good agility and quick feet. Footwork is an underrated attribute in a catcher, as it's utilized in numerous aspects of the game, including fielding the position, moving laterally to block pitches, and getting into proper position to throw out base-stealers.

Barnhart utilizes his good footwork to help him get into proper throwing position quickly, which enables him to control the opposition's running game. He has a strong, accurate arm and a very quick release. In fact, Barnhart consistently posts "pop times" (basically, the time between the pitch hitting the catcher's glove until the catcher's throw hits the infielder's glove at 2nd base) of 1.8 seconds, which is very, very quick and helps explain how he threw out 45% of would be base-stealers in 2009, 51% in 2010, 47% in 2011, and 38% in 2012.

Courtesy: Norm Hall, Getty Images
Barnhart also does a nice job of blocking balls in the dirt, as he moves well laterally and positions his upper body properly, square to the pitch and with a forward lean, to both block the pitch and control any rebound by driving it down right in front of him. His quick feet mean he can consistently get in front of the pitch with his body, rather than having to reach for it with the glove.

Barnhart is calm behind the plate and does a nice job of setting the target and receiving the pitch. His receiving skills are solid and he should have no trouble handling plus velocity or advanced breaking balls at the MLB level.

At the end of this video, courtesy RedsMinorLeagues on YouTube, there's a look at Barnhart throwing out a would be base-stealer at third:






Even though it's a quick look (it's hard to find video of catcher's on defense), but the footwork and strong, accurate arm are all evident.

Overall, Barnhart is very polished and highly skilled on defense. He has the rare type of defensive ability that enables him to effectively control the game. That's especially true when paired with his emerging leadership skills and his desire to perfect the nuances of the position.

When I watched him play, I wasn't focused on his pitch-framing ability, but given how calm and controlled he is behind the plate and how much he focuses on excelling at all aspects of position, he seems a good bet to be an above average pitch-framer.


FINAL THOUGHTS

Barnhart's value is driven by his defense. However, his switch-hitting ability coupled with his strong on-base skill means that he could also develop into a respectable offensive contributor as well. The obvious comparable is Ryan Hanigan, who was a college player who joined the professional ranks at roughly the same age Barnhart is now. So, Barnhart has the age advantage and likely a quicker development path (though Hanigan moved at glacial pace through the minors), but time will tell whether Barnhart can develop a comparable offensive game to that of Ryan Hanigan. That's the question that will determine whether Barnhart is a good MLB back-up catcher or something more. Whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, Barnhart is one of the safest bets in the system to reach the majors, as there's always room for one more top-notch defensive catcher.

While Barnhart is always going to be a defense-first catcher, the possible shift in our understanding of the true value of such players may make him a tick more valuable than we previously realized. By the time Barnhart is ready for the majors, we may all be singing the praises of defensive catchers and their ability to elevate the performance of all pitchers on a pitching staff.

For me, there really aren't any red flags to Barnhart's game. His various mechanics on both sides of the ball are fundamentally sound at worst and tremendous at best. His baseball specific skills, including pitch recognition and plate discipline, are refined and his character, work ethic, and makeup are all plus. So, unlike most prospects, the question with Barnhart isn't whether he'll be able to eliminate existing flaws in his game to raise his performance level, but rather whether his physical gifts are enough to give him the ceiling of MLB starting catcher.

If his bat continues to develop or the valuation of his skills shifts in his favor, then he could emerge as a starter at the MLB level. As it stands, his blend of plus defense and on-base driven offensive profile land him at #13 on the list.