Pitching Machines

The Hamstring’s Connected to the . . . Fastball

In a warehouse in Seattle stands Abner, a box of gears and wires taller than a man. Sold by a company called Fastball Development Corp., Abner is designed to deliver pitches that mimic anything a big leaguer can throw. A batter scared to face Mariano Rivera can practice against Abner, with the pitcher's repertoire, served at exactly the right speed, programmed into the metal gears.

But we know Mariano Rivera, and Abner is no Mariano Rivera. The greatest relief pitcher never to win the Cy Young Award, Rivera is coming off a 50-save regular season. And his cut fastball is usually even more dominating in the postseason. Since taking over as the Yankees' closer in 1997, he's had 24 postseason save opportunities. He's blown only one, giving up a crucial home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997, and the Indians went on to the World Series. Since then, Rivera has been just about perfect.

Credit Rivera's hard work, talent, and genes. Explanations beyond that may be futile, because a human pitching arm is far more complex than, say, Abner's handful of interlocking gears and flywheels that reproduce pitches. And it's not only the arm, of course. Scores of muscle groups and tendons head to toe act in harmony to bring the ball across the plate. It's one thing to keep a machine like Abner well oiled. But when it comes to humans, when a pitcher doesn't pay attention to his complex mechanics, a breakdown is only a matter of time.

The unkindest cut fastball: Rivera in action
photo: Jack McCoy
The unkindest cut fastball: Rivera in action

"You can't keep pitching in a flawed way. Your arm will blow out sooner or later," says Mike Marshall, the Mariano Rivera of his day. "People don't understand the forces that interfere with consistency."

Pitchers often don't even get the best advice. Among the most malevolent forces, Marshall argues, are pitching coaches.

"They've got people teaching pitching that don't have a high school degree," says the baseball great turned Ph.D. "They don't know Sir Isaac Newton from a Fig Newton. They don't have the fundamentals of scientific research or methodology. It's a crying shame. Baseball is an over-$2 billion industry and still, the most critical aspect of the game, pitching, is taught by people who don't have a clue. They don't even know what they don't know."

The Rivera Index

Mariano Rivera has been even more unhittable than usual in the postseason—especially since he gave up that costly homer to Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997. Not coincidentally, the Yankees have been unbeatable.

Career ERA: 2.58

Career postseason ERA: 0.74

Number of postseason save
opportunities: 24

Number of postseason saves: 23

Number of postseason home runs
given up since Alomar’s: 1
(to Jay Payton in 2000)

Number of Yankee postseason
playoff series losses since
Alomar’s home run: 0

Number of consecutive
one-run postseason games
won by the Yankees: 9

Marshall is cantankerous and scathing, but the guy earned that right. During his 14-year career, he was the first reliever to earn the Cy Young Award. He also threw 100-plus innings every year from 1971 through '75 and finished his career with 188 saves and a 3.14 ERA. All the while his arm remained strong.

"People said, 'This is a physical freak,' and I'm not," he says. "I trained my arm to do it day after day after day, and I did it."

Marshall's research of his own pitching mechanics took a leap forward in 1965 when he borrowed a camera from a college agriculture engineering project that was filming the action of a corn-picking machine at 400 frames per second. He filmed his pitches and then played the footage back to analyze his motion.

Marshall, who puts his Ph.D. in physiology to work as a pitching instructor in Florida, credits himself with being the first to use high-speed filming to dissect pitching, but others would follow. Doctors and scientists in the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in California used high-speed photography, but they also implanted fine wires in pitchers' shoulders, backs, and hips to determine which muscle groups were firing during the phases of a pitch. By comparing each picture frame with the activity of muscle groups, doctors gained intimate knowledge of what happens inside a pitcher's body. The truth is it takes an entire body working in concert to throw a good pitch.

Throwing begins with the familiar leg movements, then continues with rotation at the hips, through the spine, then to the shoulder, and at the end of the chain through the elbow and wrist.

"You have to start with the laws of physics," Marshall says from his Florida training camp. "For pitchers to increase the force they apply to pitches toward home plate, they must increase the force they apply toward second base." The primary body parts used in applying force toward second base are the feet. So the mechanics of pitching starts with the legs.

Controlling the legs is also essential to keeping balance. At the balance point the weight should be on the ball of the foot, after which the pitcher can line his shoulders up between home and second base. Then the muscles in and around the hips take over, with abdominal muscles aiding in controlling the pelvis—the center of gravity.

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