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Player Scouting, Baseball Mechanics, and Sabermetric Analysis Combined into One

By Alex Eisenberg

In Search of the Perfect Arm Action -- Part 2

In case you missed it, here is part one of the series "In Search of the Perfect Arm Action". The gist of the article boils down to this (and skip this part if you already read part one):

Chris O'Leary's definition of the elbow picking up the ball is much too narrow - he sees it as a reason pitchers get into the Inverted L and W positions and sees it as a quality only in the arm actions of pitchers like B.J. Ryan:

“A better definition of the elbow picking up the ball is that the elbow stays above the level of the hand and the ball until just before the shoulders start to rotate, as you see in the arm action of BJ Ryan (who has arm problems as a result of his arm action)"

My response: Letting the elbow pick up the ball is not why pitchers get into an Inverted L and W position. You can get into an Inverted L and W position but it doesn't mean pitchers will get into that position.

This is what I left off with:

I interpret the "elbow picking up the ball" to mean the ball never getting higher than the elbow until just before the elbow rotates (about 4 or 5 frames before foot plant)...While I can continue to describe in writing what the elbow picking up the ball means"

We're going to truly see what the "elbow picking up the ball" means and the different ways to do so as well as determine if there is one right way to do it. Let's first take note of Nolan Ryan, a pitcher O'Leary likes to use as an example of good mechanics (and rightly so):

Nolan-Ryan Nolan Ryan letting the elbow pick up the ball

I think it's pretty easy to see the ball does not "pick up the elbow"; it's the other way around. Ryan is letting the elbow pick up the ball until just before his elbow rotates to a ready-to-throw position. Yes, he reaches a cocked position with his arm very qucikly, but that does not mean the elbow is not pickng up the ball.

Another pitcher, Yovani Gallardo (who I profiled earlier this year), also lets the elbow pick up the ball:

Yovani Gallardo's pitching mechanics Yovani Gallardo letting the elbow pick up the ball

*Note - you can ignore the numbers that pop up in this animation

Though the angles are obviously different, you can still see some of the differences between the arm actions. Gallardo straightens his arm out a little more than Ryan who maintains a slight bend in his arm (which I prefer). Ryan is also faster in getting his arm into a ready-to-throw position than Gallardo, but one similarity they both possess is letting the elbow pick up the ball and never getting into an Inverted L or W position, while the ball never goes above the elbow until about 4 or 5 frames before foot plant, just before the elbow begins to rotate.

For a contrast to the elbow picking up the ball, I used Jeff Manship as an example of a pitcher allowing the ball to pick up the elbow. I went back to find a better graphic of Manship to use than in my previous article and came up with this:

Jeff-Manship-Mechanics Jeff Manship letting the ball pick up the elbow

One thing I don't like about Manship's arm action is the way his arm rises through his arm circle. See how the forearm, wrist, and ball rise up, leaving the elbow relatively on the same plane (though it does rise a little)? This kind of arm action makes it harder for the arm to produce velocity because you're making it more difficult to "scap load".

Scap loading is a major proponent in producing velocity. This is the horizontal loading of the arm, meaning the arm is loaded toward first (if the pitcher is right handed) instead of back toward second base. You have all these elastic muscles and tendons in the shoulder and by loading the arm horizontally, you create tension in these muscles, creating a large amount of kinetic energy ready to be unloaded forward. If done effciently (and I can't emphasize this enough), scap loading can help a pitcher improve velociy. I'll go a little more in-depth on this topic in the near future.

However, the bigger reason Manship's arm action gives me pause is the fact he cocks his wrist as he moves through his wind-up. You can see this here:

Jeff-Manship-Arm

That straight line that you should be able to draw from his elbow to his wrist/ball can't be drawn anymore because the ball ends up above that line. I've said Manship's arm action more resembles Rich Harden, but I've concluded Harden's mechanics are more aggressive and more risky than Manship after a couple more looks at Harden.

O'Leary goes on to say this:

"Video clips of Greg Maddux, who is one of the most durable pitchers in history, show that he also doesn't pick up the ball with his elbow. Instead, his elbow always stays quite low, and his PAS hand quickly gets above the level of his elbow, during his arm swing."

Ya know, I can go along with this. When you watch Maddux, his elbow doesn't really pick up the ball, but again I go to my point of being able to draw a straight line, from elbow to wrist to ball and we'll use the animation O'Leary provides to illustrate this point:

Greg-Maddux Greg Maddux pitching mechanics

O'Leary is right that in that he keeps his elbow quite low and he really doesn't lift the ball with his elbow. However, I disagree with this part of what O'Leary says:

"First, because Jeff Manship's forearm is intact, and not broken or missing the Radius and Ulna bones, you can of course draw a straight line from his elbow to his wrist. Second, the arm action you see in the clip above is actually good and resembles the arm action of Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens (which of course is a good thing)."

What do you think? Below, I provide the arm actions of Clemens and use the Manship graphic from above: compare all three and make a determination:

Roger-ClemensJeff-Manship-Mechanics-B

Do you think the arm actions of Maddux and Clemens resemble Manship's? I don't. The differences?

The path their arms take as they work their way through the wind-up. The elbow rotation. The relative noise of each pitcher's arm as they make their way through the wind-up. By this I mean you can see how quiet Maddux's and Clemens' arms stay until just before elbow rotation. It's as if Maddux is floating his arm before elbow rotation, while Clemens keeps his arm stiff, not allowing for any unnecessary movements.

To sum this up, Clemens and Maddux don't let the "elbow pick up the ball" as much as somebody like Nolan Ryan, but they do not maintain an arm action that lets the ball pick up the elbow nor do they resemeble Manship's arm action.

The last guy O'Leary used was Roy Oswalt:

"...Roy Oswalt doesn't pick up the ball with his elbow. That's why I like his arm action. Instead, as you can plainly see, the ball gets up to the level of Roy Oswalt's elbow relatively quickly and then goes above it a couple of frames before his shoulders start to rotate."

Roy-Oswalt-Side Roy Oswalt pitching mechanics

The graphic is kind of grainy and much of his arm disappears behind his body, but the first thing you notice is the horizontal loading of the arm (see how the line does not move left, but simply moves backward?). Secondly, I would venture to say the elbow does pick up the ball, but O'Leary is right in that Oswalt gets the ball up to his elbow relatively quickly. However, that is simply because Oswalt's arm is so fast and hitch free, with little loss of momentum through his arm circle. In addition, Oswalt breaks his hands with intent. The ball reaches the level of the elbow just before his elbow is about to rotate; nothing abnormal about that. And again I'll point out Oswalt's arm action does not resemble Manship's.

The important thing to point out is that arm actions come in many forms and not any one arm action is correct. However, you'll notice all the arm actions displayed in this article are different than Manship's arm action.

So does that mean Manship is destined for injury? I think Manship's risk of injury is heightened somewhat though how much I don't know. Of course, I'm also factoring in the fact that Manship has a history of arm problems and has already undergone Tommy John surgery once before.

It should also be said Manship is a pitcher I would have no problem taking on my team. His control is excellent (notice how he firms his glove up as his front shoulder is about to open), his curveball is a plus pitch, he generates ground balls, and he strikes a healthy percentage of the batters he faces.

So that leads to the question: if you encounter somebody with an arm action you deem risky, should you go about changing it and should you try to make a player "emulate" other pitchers or let them be themselves? I'll address this in my next article for this series.