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.
“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
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.
Muscles work in groups, most often working for opposite goals. Doing an arm curl works the biceps, but the triceps are also firing in order to control and counterbalance the effort. Otherwise the body would flail out of control when we tried to do anything. This concept is key to understanding what shoulders do.
The shoulder can achieve 16,000 different positions because of a lack of skeletal restraints and the versatility of the small but tough muscles that move it. Keeping the shoulder moving in the precise positions that maximize power but avoid injury is a job that taxes the shoulder even when it’s done right.
When a pitcher’s arm is cocked, the shoulder’s external rotators are dominant. Then as the arm comes forward, the arm is internally rotating, providing the power behind the pitch. There are five muscles that rotate internally—and only three external rotators.
When the pitcher whips his arm over his head to release the ball, the shoulder blade (scapula) needs to be stable to provide a fulcrum for the motion, and that requires a lot of muscle activity to just keep it in the proper place. During this phase, the upper arm bone (humerus) rotates 100 degrees in .05 of a second. Those wires really jump with bioelectricity when this is happening. After the ball is released, the elbow and wrist and hand throw off the excess kinetic energy, with posterior shoulder muscles firing to control the deceleration. The entire operation depends on the preceding step, like gears turning in a motor.
The hands, forearm, and, sometimes, sandpaper determine the type of pitch that’s thrown, putting brutal spins on the ball and subjecting batters to complex rules of physics in the milliseconds it takes the ball to cross the plate.
In Marshall’s opinion, Rivera somehow scuffs the ball because it “moves even when it shouldn’t.” But in any case, Rivera doesn’t pitch enough innings to let hitters get used to his pitches—or pitch. “He pitches so seldom he gets away with a one-pitch technique,” says Marshall. When it comes to mechanics, Marshall doesn’t see any pitcher who stands out, but he does give Rivera his due: “He has a good style for the one pitch he throws. He applies force very well. He doesn’t get his body as far forward as he should, but that’s no big deal.”
And that’s because, at the end of the day, all the training, study, debate, and surgery pale before intangible elements, like natural athletic ability. As pitchers make their way into higher levels of competition, though, their arms suffer for the success, asked to perform at the peak of their engineered ability. But that doesn’t mean those magical pitching arms should be coddled.
Marshall’s regimen for pitchers includes relentless training of the muscles specific to the task of pitching, including lifting weights. Other experts advise to shy away from weight training, fearing that the arm will wear out. Not Marshall.
“You have to stress these ligaments—you have to,” says Marshall. “You have a lot of force acting on the body no matter what you do. What you don’t need is unnecessary force.
“We don’t treat the arm like it’s fragile, like it’s going to break. We make the arm so damn strong it will never break.”