April 7, 2020

Fastball, Fastball, Fastball

August 30, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

On the web there are numerous video clips of Nolan Ryan throwing fastballs and they loop over and over, fastball after fastball ad infinitum, Ryan’s seemingly effortless delivery going on forever in some parallel universe where he will throw forever.  That was my mental picture of where Stephen Strasburg should be as he neared the end of his first season: throwing fastball after fastball after fastball.

In that same parallel web universe Strasburg is still there, that repeatable scare crow motion still at work as he reaches back for the last ounce of leverage before he release the ball toward the plate.  But all we have left are video images for now.  It is just part of a mental picture garden and I along with others are the sadder for it.

Looking for solace, I picked up the bible, Nolan Ryan’s Pitching Bible, that is.  It is a carefully presented primer for hard throwers. It is not based on empty opinion, but the long experience of one of the best pitchers in the recent decades.  In it A. Eugene Coleman addresses the issue of the fastball in the forward to the book.  Coleman’s piece is titled aptly enough, “The Vanishing Fastball,” and in it he stresses that one of the the problems with modern pitchers is that they don’t throw the pitch enough.  Coleman believes that the unique speed achieved by Ryan and Strasburg should be more commonplace.  He asserts that with proper mechanics more pitchers should be able to throw harder if they spent more time throwing fastballs, building strength and adding velocity instead of working on breaking stuff.

When Stephen Strasburg hurt his arm it was on a change-up.  Batters were sitting on his fastball and occasionally catching up to it.  So pitching coaches told him to work in his change-up more often.  No one knows whether it was that pitch that sealed Strasburg’s fate, or whether the same thing would have happened had he thrown a fastball instead of the change.  Maybe it was just his time, but after watching so many young pitchers end up in the same rehab ward as Strasburg, it seems a very good time to reconsider the basics and that is what the bible is for.

A. Eugene Coleman, in his forward to the Ryan Pitching Bible, asserts that pitchers spend too much time trying to learn pitches that will fool the batter.  Rather they should work more consistently on adding strength and control to the fastball.  Could better control of the Strasburg Express–that 98 mph blur–have limited the need to throw the change?  It’s a purely academic discussion, but one that needs more depth.

First, a caveat: this is not an attempt to say I told you so.  No one could have predicted Strasburg’s injury.  Keith Law worried about possible flaws in his delivery as did others, but the best pitching analysts believed his mechanics were basically sound.  And no one worked harder to keep Stephen Strasburg healthy than the Nationals coaching staff.  They followed the standard conditioning protocols used by pitching coaches in almost every major league organization.  But when tragedy strikes, the thoughtful will always ask what can we learn from it?  One place to look for answers is those like Nolan Ryan who believe that the accepted approach is deeply flawed.

In a USA Today interview with one of my favorite announcers, Gary Thorne, Ryan “Stresses Conditioning over Pitch Counts.”  The Nationals stressed pitch counts from the day that Strasburg signed at the deadline in August 2009.  The pitch counts in the minor leagues this year were absurd.  The young phenom worked ever so slowly up from 50 to 60 pitches and when he was hurt he was still on exceedingly tight pitch counts.  Exhibit A against baby steps and pitch counts.

When I talked to Dick Bosman several days ago he said that he noted how young pitchers are pampered–my word not his–by organizations.  “They have agents, and ownership watching over their every move,” he said.  Scott Boras and Mike Rizzo worked together on Stephen Strasburg’s routine. And there is no reason to question their sincere regard for Strasburg, but the sadness of watching Strasburg “not” pitch for a full season should encourage not only the Nationals, but others as well to re-think this entire issue.

In the Ryan Pitching Bible and in everything else he has said, the former great stresses that pitchers need to throw more not less.  It is too intuitive at one level.  Everyone who had picked up a baseball, or any kind of ball, knows that strength and endurance only come with careful and constant conditioning.  Conditioning requires long and hard work.  Pitch counts get in the way and limit that conditioning.

Ryan now owns the Texas Rangers and even before his purchase of the team he had influence with Mike Maddox–the Texas pitching coach–and their staff.  He has convinced them to throw out the pitch count as a guiding development principle. The most important thing that Ryan looks for in a starter is “dedication and work ethic.”  It is needed for the weight training and conditioning that goes on year round.  Each pitcher is different, Ryan believes and it is a touch and go process as a pitcher learns to throw more and longer into games.  But that is the goal Ryan has at the end of the day.  As a strike out pitcher he had to throw many more pitches than the current cut off of 120.  He is advocating a system for others that worked extremely well for himself and others in his day.

No one demonstrated a more focused work ethic than Strasburg.  He was a perfect pupil, but he was not following the regimen that Ryan articulates.  The only good news is that by the time Strasburg returns we will know more.  There is no doubt that Strasburg’s return will be watched over with all of the intense scrutiny that his first summer brought.  The cameras will all be there to record the success, but also waiting to see how long the next stanza lasts.  If the second coming of Stephen Strasburg is to last longer than the first, it needs a new approach.

I for one am hopeful that pitch counts will be less an issue when Strasburg returns.  Andy MacPhail said of Ryan’s theories in the USA Today article that the rest of baseball is fine with him proving them wrong.  They are willing to watch and learn.  I know Mike Rizzo is watching and there will be eighteen months more knowledge as to what works and what does not.

A year can go by so quickly, though no doubt it will be a long one for the young pitcher.  But his fans will be waiting patiently–maybe–for a real-life, repeat-performance of Strasburg.  But until then there is still the parallel universe where that same old scarecrow delivery gets repeated time after time, fastball after fastball, until the light fails.

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