“C” Is For Cookie

Media, Spring Training

And that’s not good enough for me.

ESPN the Magazine published an article about pitchers who once threw blazing fastballs and saw their velocity decline as they made their way up through the minors.

I can’t link the article by Tim Keown because it’s “insider” content; it’s not particularly relevant to this posting.

Tim Alderson of the Pirates is one such pitcher who lost his fastball. Alderson was a classic physical specimen when he was drafted by the Giants in the 1st round of the 2007 MLB Draft. At 6’6″, 217 pounds with a power fastball and a curve, it wasn’t a matter of “if” he made it to the big leagues, but “when”. The Giants have a habit of finding pitchers and developing them as evidenced by the success of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner; Alderson, as a high pick, was going to get every opportunity to follow those three to San Francisco.

Alderson pitched well for the Giants in the low minors and was traded to the Pirates for Freddy Sanchez.

Then he fell off the earth.

His numbers took a free-fall and his fastball disappeared.

Here’s a snippet from the article:

“I couldn’t even play catch without feeling uncomfortable,” (Alderson) says. And on those occasions when he threw a pitch that felt pretty good, he’d steal a glance at the radar-gun reading and see “84” cackling down at him.

Sadly, Alderson’s situation is not unique. the path that brought us to him started with a question: Why do so many of baseball’s highly prized young pitchers, free of health problems, lose significant velocity during their first few years in professional baseball? Madison Bumgarner, Andrew Miller, Brad Lincoln, Rick Porcello—even Tim Lincecum—all lost zip as young pros. Some have adapted and recovered, some have not.

The piece goes on to document the alterations in training programs of certain pitchers to regain their fastball by incorporating extreme long tossing among other unconventional techniques sometimes frowned upon by clubs; it also mentions the Pirates training program for pitchers and the excuse disguised as a reason for Alderson’s diminished velocity.

Pirates minor league coordinator Jim Benedict says physical maturity is the main impediment to Alderson’s velocity. “He’s heavier now, and the way he threw wasn’t going to fit a bigger man. He had a unique delivery in high school. It was away from fundamentals and way away from the foundation we teach. It wasn’t going to work anymore.”

Without getting into a series of snide comments about the Pirates organization as a whole, how many pitchers have the “fundamentals” they teach developed?

This has nothing to do with a critique of the Pirates or explanation of what befell Alderson and others.

That’s the point.

Trying to pinpoint what it is that causes a pitcher to suddenly lose his fastball is the same as explaining why he has it in the first place. Years ago, the Mets had a pitcher named Gene Walter who was one of the physically strongest men on the team; Dwight Gooden wasn’t as strong as Walter, but Gooden—long, lanky and lithe—had a fastball that not only blew batters away, but it had a late “kick” that made him impossible to hit when he was on top of his game in his early-20s. Walter was a lefty journeyman. The suggestion that there’s a correlation between one person and another is ludicrous.

Fast twitch fibers; flexibility; leg strength; hand size; mechanics—all play a part as to why a pitcher can and can’t do certain things.

There’s a tendency to look askance at someone who has a different style—like Lincecum. I’ve long contended that had Lincecum not had such an involved father who demanded that his son’s motion not be altered in any way, it’s very possible that he too would’ve been among the Aldersons who “lost” it for an inexplicable reason that is very clear if you look hard enough.

Perhaps the explanation lies therein.

How do you take human beings with differing styles and craft a cookie-cutter way of training them? Yes, there’s the argument that they’re all performing the same (unnatural) act of throwing a baseball; but to have one person who’s 6’6″ and 250 lbs with an over-the-top delivery and fastball/curve repertoire and force him onto the same program with a 5’10” lefty who throws an 86 mph sidearm fastball is absurd.

Some pitchers—sinkerballers for example—are better with more work; others, smaller power arms like Pedro Martinez, needed more rest.

Who can explain it? Much like the different people you encounter in life, you cannot pigeonhole them as one particular thing.

How many pitchers have been laid waste as they incorporate any and all advice they receive to get along in the organization? How many times have clubs—with good intentions and/or paranoia—shielded that which needed to be allowed to fly (Stephen Strasburg and Joba Chamberlain) and seen them get hurt anyway and/or fail miserably?

Organizations choose safety-first over accurate analysis and implementation. If a club is investing the dollars they do in a young player, shouldn’t they be on a program suited to them as individuals rather than what everyone else is doing?

Alderson’s lucky that he’s a high pick; that he was so expensive to sign; that the Pirates traded one of their best players for him; if he wasn’t, he’d either be released and bounce from one organization to another (or one country to another) trying to salvage, hang on and find that one coach who “gets” him and can unlock the potential that made him a top prospect in the first place.

Cookie cutters are for cookies. Not for talented athletes.