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Bullpen Mechanics
— A Scout's View

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Let’s talk about Arm Slot—A video review of Jonathan Papelbon

Let me start with a question I’ve been getting more and more in the past week or so….

“Is Papelbon hurt?”

While there is no way I can say for certain, there have been several warning signs in the past week. I’m not the only one who has been monitoring the situation. Here’s what friend of the blog Steve Palazzolo had to say about Papelbon on Will Carroll’s Under the Knife column on May 9th:

“Papelbon’s arm has been noticeably lower in all or parts of his last three outings, with Friday May 4 being the worst….Recently his arm has lowered a bit and can best be described as his throwing hand getting too far away from his body. When he’s at his best, he’s getting ‘through’ the ball and throwing downhill with a straight four-seamer.Against the Twins on Friday night he was flying open with his front shoulder, causing the lower slot and hindering his deception…...Based on last year’s shoulder problems, this is obviously a concern, but it’s hard to say if he’s hurt or if it’s just a mechanical anomaly. Since most shoulder problems usually result in velocity loss, I’m hoping it’s just a temporary bump in the road mechanically and all the precaution that the Red Sox have taken with regards to treatment and usage patterns have paid off.”

Let me echo what Will Carroll said about Steve Palazzolo. Steve knows what he’s talking about. Steve and I have had many conversations recently mostly centering around Papelbon. Steve and I have also talked at length about his mechanics. He will be pitching for the Nashua Pride of the CanAm League this year, and in the near future will be the subject of an article here in my blog.

Anyways, the BP report was countered by Red Sox Pitching Coach John Farrell in a recent article.

“The arm, which was lower in spring training, was more a result of his lead arm as opposed to his actual throwing arm,” Farrell said. “As he worked on his side to side, or as he puts it, his Ferris wheel-carousel analogy, because he works side to side, he ends up getting a little bit lower in the elbow and pushes the ball a little bit. The work we do in the bullpen prior to [his appearances] emphasizes his lead arm, to get him to where as he separates, we try to get him the feeling of his left elbow actually brushing past his left rib cage. So that’s keeping it tight, and he’s working north and south versus getting out and working east and west.

“It’s nothing health-related. He’s checked daily from a strength standpoint to range of motion, everything.

It appears that Farrell agrees that there have been mechanical issues relating to his arm slot. However, he did dismiss the notion that it was related to his shoulder health.

Let’s go to the video and see what we can find out

The pitch on the left is a 95 mph fastball to A-Rod last year. The pitch on the right is a 97 mph fastball to Vlad this year. Both pitches were up and in. Both pitches resulted in swinging strikeouts. As you can see by the video, there is not much difference in these pitches arm-slot wise. There is one other difference that I’ll point out later that could be something of an issue. I COULD make a case for the ‘06’s slot being slightly higher. I won’t because the arm slot isn’t that much different.

Does it end there then?

Of course not. What Steve and I have been noticing is that it this year, when he REALLY goes after a pitch (he tries to throw it really hard), he’s much more likely to fly open with the front shoulder and sling it from a lower slot instead of going through the ball. In other words, he is applying force east-west more than north-south. Consider these two pitches:

This clip tells a story. The arm slot on the ‘06 clip (on the left) is noticeably higher. What I cut out from the clip was the action on these pitches. The pitch in ‘06 was a fastball with minimal lateral movement. The ‘07 clip was a pitch that ran (out to a lefty, in to a righty) considerably more. The extra movement is consistent with a pitch thrown from a lower slot. Still not convinced? Here ya go:

What I did here was to trace Papelbon’s arm path from release to a few frames after release. Where the arm finishes is a good indication of the path the arm has traveled. As we can clearly see here, his slot on the ‘07 pitch is lower.

What does the lower slot have to do with injury concerns?

1) As pitchers, we are reminded daily of the virtues of keeping the arm “up.” One of the clearest indications of a pitcher who is struggling with shoulder soreness/pain is a drop in his arm slot. From a personal standpoint, I know that (when I threw overhand) when my shoulder was hurting me, I would tend to lower my elbow in order to “protect the shoulder.” While I’m not totally sure of the cause/effect, I DO know that since becoming a sidearmer/submariner, I have had significantly less issues with shoulder pain. Consider this analogy: Have you ever gone to the gym for a workout and REALLY worked on your shoulders? How do they feel the next day? Do you have trouble raising your arms and getting your elbows above your shoulder plane? Yeah, me too. Sort of the same idea here except that pitchers are dealing more with ligament pain instead of muscular soreness.

2) Notice the glove/ arm path relationship after release. Here’s a still pic of what I’m talking about:

See how in ‘06 (the one on the left), his arm is under the glove? I call that cutting under the glove.
In ‘07, his arm is over the glove. That’s cutting over the glove.

Generally speaking, pitchers with flatter arm paths (lower arm slot) cut over the glove. The reverse is true for steeper arm paths. By the way, there are many, many exceptions to this, but it’s just something I’ve noticed. Here’s Randy Johnson (low slot) and Greg Maddux (high slot), for example:


I have now closely seen around 40-50 of Papelbon’s pitches from this year and last. I estimate that on over 80% of his fastballs last year, he’s cutting under the glove. This year, in most (if not all) of his fastballs, he’s cutting over the glove.

Why do I find that significant?

Consider Farrell’s quote again:

“The work we do in the bullpen prior to [his appearances] emphasizes his lead arm, to get him to where as he separates, we try to get him the feeling of his left elbow actually brushing past his left rib cage. So that’s keeping it tight, and he’s working north and south versus getting out and working east and west.”

“Keeping it tight.” Steve and I have talked about this a bit pertaining to his own mechanics. We would think that keeping it tight would be closely related to having Papelbon keep his glove up near his chest, keeping it closer to his axis of rotation (and cutting under the glove) instead of down by his thigh (and cutting over the glove).

A little anecdote…... Yesterday, while on a plane flight, I’m cutting and cropping these clips and running them over and over to see what else I can find. My girlfriend, who is sitting next to me, says (about the second Papelbon ‘06 clip) “This one’s left arm is like dead compared to the one on the right (the second ‘07 clip).” GREAT point….
You’ve heard me talk about “firming up the front side” at release before. All the extra movement of Papelbon’s lead arm and glove is indicative of a pitcher who is not “keeping it tight,” as Farrell pointed out. It is more indicative of a pitcher who is flying open and slinging it from a lower arm slot.

Anything else?

There’s one more thing I would like to point out about Papelbon’s mechanics. Did you notice how long he is with his arm? His arm completely straightens out on the way back after he breaks his hands. Watch the first few frames on the first video again:

If you’ve read my articles, you know that I prefer a shorter arm action on pitchers. I have always equated a long arm action with shoulder problems. I know there’s plenty of exceptions there too, by the way. I had planned on going into it in this article, but it would be a fairly lengthy explanation with terms such as “mechanical advantage,” “lever arm,” etc. I hope to explain why I prefer a shorter arm action (with a slight bend on the elbow at all times) in a future, follow-up article.

CONCLUSION

I don’t know if Papelbon’s shoulder is bothering him or not. There’s no way for me to know for sure. All I’m trying to point out here is that he is showing some of the signs of a guy who might bestruggling with his shoulder. I’ll echo Steve Palazzolo’s comments on the issue:

“it’s hard to say if he’s hurt or if it’s just a mechanical anomaly.”

From someone who considers himself Papelbon fan, here’s hoping that the latter is true.


Special thanks to Will Carroll and Steve Palazzolo for their excellent insights.

As always….. questions, comments, and JOB OFFERS (ahem, MLB teams, where are you?) are welcome.

ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 12, 2007 at 12:57 PM | 18 comment(s)
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   1. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 12, 2007 at 05:36 PM (#2361686)
Off to a wedding.... I hope to get to all questions/comments (if any) either late tonight or early tomorrow. I hope you all enjoy.

CBW
   2. S. Ransom Posted: May 12, 2007 at 11:01 PM (#2362081)
Thanks for the insights, CBW - when the MLB comes calling, let us know!
   3. Miko Supports Shane's Spam Habit Posted: May 12, 2007 at 11:14 PM (#2362089)
Carlos, I'd really love to know what you make of the video linked in the thread below...a Mike Marshall disciple:

http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/files/newsstand/discussion/yahoo_sports_baseballs_weird_scientist/
   4. IronChef Chris Wok Posted: May 13, 2007 at 01:34 AM (#2362166)
Off to a wedding.... I hope to get to all questions/comments (if any) either late tonight or early tomorrow. I hope you all enjoy.

Is it yours Carlos?
   5. Der Komminsk-sar Posted: May 13, 2007 at 02:10 AM (#2362179)
I'd like to know how Steve's gyro is coming...
   6. More Indecisive than Lonnie Smith on 2nd... Posted: May 13, 2007 at 01:25 PM (#2362325)
Looking at his lower body--and this may be dependent on camera angle, though I'm pretty sure it's not--Pap '07 is planting his lead leg at an angle that forces him to throw ACROSS his body, rather than the '06 version who can come more over the top. I'm not sure if this is cause or effect, obviously, but there is the added need for him to 'sling' his body around this fulcrum, which might explain the extra 'pull' of his L arm and the early opening of his front shoulder.

Also the aggression of '06 is evidenced by how his trail leg almost pops up at the end, whereas the '07 trail leg, while still with some of that action, is a little more 'draggy' in its motion. Again, hard to say if that's inter-pitch variation, genuine change, and if a change is pathologic or not.

As always, lots of fun to read/view these.
   7. Inquisitor Posted: May 13, 2007 at 03:24 PM (#2362376)
I noticed the leg difference before the "lead arm" difference as well. He's either stepping further off the mound or putting it down at a more "open" angle (as MItLS alluded to). I'd say a little more of the former than the latter, but the difference in angle is there.
   8. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 14, 2007 at 12:30 AM (#2362987)
You know, I hadn't even considered where his front foot was landing and if it was forcing him to throw across his body. Good catch...

Some pitchers who throw across their bodies tend to fly open and pull the lead arm a bit more aggressively. I wonder if the camera angle has a little to do with it but it is certainly a consideration worth noting. Excellent work fellas
   9. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 14, 2007 at 12:32 AM (#2362990)
Miko-

Dr. Marshall and I have had email conversations before and he has "called me out" to a certain degree as well. It's not a big deal, he certainly has MUCH better credentials than I do wrt to biomechanics. That's all I'd like to say about that at this time.
   10. Cabbage Posted: May 14, 2007 at 02:01 AM (#2363049)
The thing about that marshall video that gets me is that while the windup is nice and goofy, the actual forward movement of the arm looks completely normal. If you just look at the video from the point he begins accelerating his arm towards the plate, I don't see what Marshall has done differently.

Am I missing something? Do injuries occur because of what happens before the pitcher imparts all that force to the ball (which would really suprise me)?
   11. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 14, 2007 at 02:32 AM (#2363073)
Kev-

Generally speaking, yes. You could tell Prior was doing a lot of the same thing.

Cabbage-

I'd encourage you to go to his site and read through some of his stuff. He has some EXCELLENT ideas in there that I've even tried on my own mechanics.
   12. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 14, 2007 at 03:13 AM (#2363109)
That's OK. I'll live
   13. Palo20 Posted: May 14, 2007 at 03:32 AM (#2363128)
The thing about that marshall video that gets me is that while the windup is nice and goofy, the actual forward movement of the arm looks completely normal. If you just look at the video from the point he begins accelerating his arm towards the plate, I don't see what Marshall has done differently.

Am I missing something? Do injuries occur because of what happens before the pitcher imparts all that force to the ball (which would really suprise me)?
   14. Palo20 Posted: May 14, 2007 at 03:41 AM (#2363135)
Whoops, accidentally submitted just a quote above.

Anyway, some of the keys to the Marshall motion that are supposed to make it injury free:

1) Forearm pronation of all pitches--While all pitchers pronate, Marshall's guys are taught to pronate earlier which protects the elbow.

2)No reverse rotation of the hips or shoulders--All momentum is generated directly to the plate with little side to side movement.

3)Upper arm is locked at external rotation--Most pitchers externally rotate their arm as their body is moving forward which puts a lot of stress on the elbow and shoulder due to the high velocity that the arm moves. Marshall's guys kinda "set" the arm in external rotation before they bring it forward.

I don't necessarily agree with all of his stuff, but this is just a bit of the theory behind it.
   15. The Polish Sausage Racer Posted: May 16, 2007 at 06:23 PM (#2365826)
So.....is there supposed to be some meaning to the fact this is classified under "Steroids"???? Or is that just to make sure kevin sees it? ;)
   16. ChadBradfordWannabe Posted: May 16, 2007 at 06:31 PM (#2365835)
oops, good catch...fixed

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