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Swing Analysis (Special Pitching Edition): Shelby Miller

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I turn my Liam Neesonesque observation skills on the players to assess what's going on mechanically with their swings. Or in this case, their pitching motion.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Corny Introduction

Hi, I'm Xipooo.  Otherwise known as that clown that Jim lets post on his precious blog.  I have a particular set of skills.  Skills I have acquired over long sessions at the driving range with amateur and professional golfers alike.   Skills that could make me an asset to any professional sports athlete.  If you let my daughter go.... erm...  ok, too cliche.

So I know my typical expertise is in swing mechanics, and that's great but how can I possibly help a pitcher?  Well, believe it or not I know a thing or two about pitching.  It isn't even close to the same type of motion as a swing, but the analysis of bio-mechanics remains the same.  There is a kinetic sequence, a series of muscles that tug on the levers of your body to produce motion.  The faster and more repeatable the motion, the better for the athlete.

I'm going to turn my attention to the abysmal performances we have seen from Shelby Miller as of late.  Even though his last outing went "ok" by my assessment he is still far from fixed.  His general tendency is to leave pitches either up high and outside to left handed batters, or down and outside to right handed batters.  Lets see if we can understand why.

The Anal-ysis

So there really isn't anything bad to start.  The high leg kick is really a matter of preference and is the trigger for the kinetic sequence.  It's a timing mechanism.  The higher the leg kick, the more a pitcher tends to stretch forward when they plant their front foot.  It is also sometimes taught to ensure a pitcher is getting their weight fully "over the rubber", which just means they're getting balanced on their back foot.  This is similar to how a batter loads up on their back foot.

I want you to pay particular attention to Shelby's spine and shoulders.  I can only get an approximation of the spine, but the orange line is about where his spine is in space.  What is important to note is how it changes throughout his delivery and how his shoulders rotate around his spine.

His shoulders are in line with home plate, a very common aiming technique for pitchers, especially for those struggling with command issue.  By keeping the shoulders in alignment with home plate until they start their rotation around the spine, you are ensuring they don't start too early in the throwing motion.  They are the last "big muscle group" to fire in the motion, and trying to delay them is desirable because it means you have maximized the torque of the core muscles in your hips and abdomen.  More torque = more power = more speed.

Keeping the shoulders in alignment with home plate can also be a visualization tool where you want to replace the left shoulder with the right shoulder ensuring a proper full rotation of the shoulders has occurred by the end of the pitch.  But that isn't too particularly important for Shelby.  His shoulder rotation, and where his lead shoulder IS of importance though.  The direction the lead shoulder goes, will cause the throwing shoulder to follow in the opposite direction because they are swiveling around the spine.  This is why spine angle and shoulder rotation around that spine is of utmost importance when it comes to accuracy.

Here Shelby has gone full squat as he's propelling his lead foot forward while maintaining his weight on his back foot.  At the same time the lead arm is out away from his body to give as much counter weight as possible to his throwing arm.  You may not have known this, but the weight of the glove can have a dramatic effect on velocity.  The heavier it is, the more of a counter weight it can be.  Similar to a trebuchet.  The heavier the weight in the trebuchet, the further/faster it can launch an object.  I'm curious how many "smart guys" in baseball know this, but keep it under wraps.  Rule 3.06 states "The glove can be of any weight", so there may be an advantage some pitchers are making use of this little physics loophole.  Anyway, moving on.

Shelby's spine angle has clearly become bent over more, and that's "ok" because if he didn't do this, he'd fall over. As the back knee bends, he has to counter weight his lower body with his upper body so he doesn't fall over.  But there are plenty of pitchers who don't do this (see Stephen Strasburg) and it can cause some consistency issues.

His throwing arm looks to be good.  I don't see any pronation or supination of the arm, meaning we see the outside of his arm from this angle and his elbow is pointed behind him.  Some pitchers who try to add a little extra spin will sometimes manipulate their arm rotation as it goes back.  I am not an advocate of this as it can lead to some serious arm injuries.

He does have a slight flexion of his wrist, but nothing like what Corbin does.  This flexion of the wrist is often a key component to helping a pitcher "stay on top" of his pitch.  This may have led to the pitch result which was that it was thrown into the dirt just behind home plate.  Shelby is struggling a lot with leaving pitches up, and he may be exaggerating this flexion to compensate.

Notice his lead shoulder is still in good position as his shoulders are still basically in alignment with home plate.  Going back to his lead arm, one might say it is getting a tad low.

Here's the money shot.  Milliseconds before the release you can see Miller on the left has dropped his left shoulder way down while his spine is angled to the left.  Stephen Strasburg for comparison on the right has a bit more tilt, but notice the angle his right shoulder is relative to his spine (98 degrees) is closer to 90 degrees than Shelby is (108 degrees).  If you've ever heard the term "he's dropping his shoulder", this is it.  Shelby's left shoulder is not rotating at a nice flat 90 degrees around his spine, instead he is tilting his shoulders.  Add this to his already tilted spine and you have an release point that is high and away from the pitcher.   Part of the reason for this exaggerated shoulder tilt is how far leaned forward he is as well

This forward lean is causing his arm to lag behind his body which makes it difficult to time the release.  It's hard to tell from these behind the mound shots, but ideally the pitcher should be releasing at just about the time the chest is facing home plate.  Along with that, even though the spine may be achieving a significant lean forward, the very upper most part of the body (chest) should still be facing the target vertically in space.  The more leaned forward the upper body is, the more behind the head the release point is going to have to be.  By being more vertical at the point of release, the more out in front the release can be, and this allows the fingers of the hand to remain behind or on top of the ball.  The further stretched behind the upper body the arm is, the harder it is going to be to release the ball at your target because it is behind you.

The tendency with this leaning forward position is to leave the wrist in a extension position so that you are "carrying" the ball like you would a dish platter with the palm of the hand under the ball.  That type of position of the palm under the ball, leads to the fingers releasing under the ball, rather than from behind it, and causing pitches to go up out of the strike zone and usually outside to left handed batters.  When he does keep his wrist in a somewhat more flexion position, then the ball will tend to be thrown into the dirt toward the left handed batters box. This matches Millers profile exactly.

Here is his fastball zone profile against LHH.  His miss is up and away:

Here is his fastball zone profile against RHH.  His typical miss is down and away:

You can imagine that the default a pitcher wants to make is to always miss away from the batter, lest you hit them.

You can see how much more leaned forward Miller is than Strasburg at the moment of release. If you look closely, you can even tell how much further behind him Shelby's arm is compared to Stephens.  Which one do you think looks like they'd have a better control of their release?

You can also see just how much lower to the ground Shelby is.   He has such a long stride, that it would be incredibly difficult for him to not be angled this far forward.

The mechanics you want to work towards are where the lower body slows down as the upper body speeds up, then as the upper body slows down, the arm whips around the shoulder socket like cracking a whip.  Unless you slow down the upper body, the arm won't have any way to whip around.  The continuation of motion by the upper body while the release is happening, will often FEEL powerful to the pitcher, but since the arm cannot whip, there is actually a loss of velocity to go along with the lack of control.  The arm has not achieved it's maximum speed before the release of the ball happens.  That's why you want the release to be somewhere around the head or even slightly out in front.  This is when the arm has reached maximum velocity AND the hand is behind the ball instead of under it.

Look at this extension.  No wonder Miller is hitting the ground.  Being that low, and that tilted forward, of course he's going to hit the ground.

How to Fix Shelby

Well, for starters you could shorten his stride.  All it might take is a lower leg kick.  This will reverberate throughout his motion and cause his upper body to start sooner.  It might feel uncomfortable to him at first, but if you can keep him more upright and facing home plate, he should start to feel much more under control.  Additional work would have to be on the direction of his lead arm throw out.  It's a small thing to play with, but it has a big impact on dropping his left shoulder.  If he can get it to go more rotationally around his spine and less of a drop, it will help maximize the counter weight effect and thus produce speed easier.

I'd also work with him on tinkering with the flexion and extension in his wrist.  Let him use the extremes of both so he can understand where neutral is, and have another tool in his belt to help control location.  This would HAVE to happen after we got his stride and upper body right though.