A Conversation With Tom House, the “Father of Modern Pitching Mechanics”

Tom House doesn’t need an introduction within baseball circles, and that’s especially true when it comes to pitching. His credentials are impeccable. A big-league reliever throughout the 1970s, the now-73-year-old went on to have an extensive coaching career, not only in MLB, but also in NPB and at the amateur level. A co-founder of the National Pitching Association, and the author of several books, House has been referred to as “the father of modern pitching mechanics.”

House addressed a variety of pitching topics — and shared a handful of interesting anecdotes — earlier this week.

———

David Laurila: Let’s start with pitch counts. Atlanta manager Brian Snitker said during an NLCS media session that he was “blown away” to learn that Max Fried had never thrown more than 109 pitches in a game, adding that a career-high should be closer to 140. He also suggested that once Fried got into his rhythm he might have been able to throw 200 pitches. What are your thoughts on that?

Tom House: “From research, there are three things that keep a pitcher’s arm healthy: workloads, number of pitches, [and] his functional strength and mechanical efficiency. The research goes all the way back to Paul Richards, who was the general manager of the Orioles. Richards was the first guy, when he had ‘the baby birds,’ the four 20-game winners. He intuited that 100 pitches was about when most pitchers start getting into muscle failure — this assuming they have pretty solid mechanics and some functional strength. The 100-pitch idea grew from there, and has kind of become the standard.

“What it boils down to is, if you can pitch… I’m going to give you a resource. If you go to ASMI.org and look for age-specific pitch totals, Glenn Fleisig and a bunch of us did the research. I know for a fact that Nolan Ryan had a 260-pitch outing one time, and came back four days later and threw a two-hitter. He was with the Angels, and I think threw 14 or 15 innings. But with pitch totals, a blanket 100-pitch per game is kind of the standard right now. Everybody works forward and backwards from there.

Greg Maddux would be a perfect example of someone that had a whole bunch of complete games and never really got into muscle failure. He also averaged just 11.2 pitches per inning. The pitch totals that are out there right now… when they’re not quite sure about mechanics, and they’re not quite sure about functional strength, pitch totals is something that the analytics people can hang their hat on. But Snitker was probably right. When you’re throwing like the kid did, 140 pitches would be a walk in the park. That said, not everybody understands mechanics and functional strength, and that’s why the pitch-total limits are what they are.”

Laurila: Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal must have thrown over 200 pitches in their legendary [16-inning] matchup in the early 1960s.

House: “Yes, they both threw a couple of hundred pitches. I think the final score was 1-0.“

Laurila: And Spahn was over 40 years old at the time…

House: “Remember, the thing that puts the stress on the arm is when mechanics, or strength, aren’t there. If they have not taken care of… a little sidebar: You prepare, you compete, you recover, and you repeat. What happens in today’s game is that a lot of these kids don’t recover properly, so they’re in a deficit when they go back out there to pitch. And the deficits compound. That’s when they end up blowing out an elbow or a shoulder.”

Laurila: How does a pitcher go about recovering properly?

House: “Well, I can give you a couple of things from the research we’ve done. On the major league level, a starting pitcher that can recover in 48 hours has a two-game swing on his [won-lost] record over a pitcher that takes three days to recover. So most of the new research in today’s baseball world is about recovery. That’s why I think that baseball has probably made more gains in the last three to five years than any time in the history of the game. That’s with bio-mechanical analytics, with functional strength, with pitch-total management, and with nutrition and blood chemistry for recovery.”

Laurila: Is recovery largely about the removal of inflammation?

House: “Inflammation is a combination of… there’s a lactic acid buildup. There is the stress involved in accelerating and decelerating the arm. If the mechanics are inefficient, it usually ends up being a problem on the front side of the shoulder, or the inside of the elbow. If it’s a functional strength issue, it’s the backside of the shoulder and the backside of the elbow.

“With the conditioning coaches and the trainers in the sport right now, we’re much more aware of how to manage the recovery. Where they’re stiff and sore, they can address a hotspot. The quality of information to go with the analytics of the game is so much more intelligent and efficient than when I played.”

Laurila: Given all the progress made in that area, can recovery time be shortened to where it would be possible to go back to four-man rotations? That’s something Trevor Bauer has expressed an interest in.

House: “Well, Trevor Bauer is one of those outliers whose arm has never bothered him. I don’t think we’re ever going to see that 250-275 inning guy again. I think the game we’re watching right now… I talked about this five, six years ago, when I saw the trend toward starting pitchers throwing fewer and fewer innings.

“A little quick story: When Nolan Ryan came to the Rangers, the first game where he had trouble, Bobby Valentine sent me out to find out how he was doing. I got to the mound and said, ‘Nolan, how you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m doing terrible, but it’s way better than what you’ve got going in that bullpen, so get the hell off my mound.’ I went back to Bobby and said, ‘OK, we’re going to have trouble getting him out of there.’

“Bobby went to take him out of the game a couple of innings later. When Bobby said, ‘That’ll be it, Tex,’ Nolan said, ‘No it won’t. One of us is leaving the mound and it’s not going to be me.’ In Nolan’s generation, if they didn’t get seven-plus innings, they felt like they were failing. But those days are done. I don’t think that stud No. 1, or stud No. 2, who signs a huge contract and is expected to throw 250 innings a year is going to be around. I think the game is going to go to 10 to 12 pitchers, no more than two times through the lineup, three days a week.”

Laurila: That said, is it actually necessary? Are pitchers are not capable of pitching more innings, and staying healthy while doing so?

House: “They are, but I don’t think anybody is willing. It’s a crapshoot to find that guy, and then if you develop him, you have to pay him. It’s the economics, the risk reward of trying to develop that stud pitcher, versus not necessarily having to pay 200 million for a seven year deal. It’s economically more sound. I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t see it. I think what’s going on right now — what we’re watching in the World Series, and what we saw in the playoffs — is exactly where it’s going to go.”

Laurila: In 1968, Mickey Lolich won Game 7 of the World Series on two days rest.

House:Randy Johnson, the year Arizona won the World Series. He came in and relieved after starting the night before. But that’s when the season is basically over, and it’s all hands on deck. Madison Bumgarner is another example. The pitch totals were off the charts, but those guys are stud athletes. They’re superstars. Even in a deficit, they can get you through a game or two in a short series called the World Series. It’s not something you’d ask a pitcher to do in August.”

Laurila: Was Mike Marshall a unicorn?

House: “Mike Marshall and Trevor Bauer are cut from the same cloth. What Mike did with the Dodgers in 1974 [106 appearances and 208 innings]… I’d get to the ballpark early and he’d be in the outfield, throwing a shot put around. I think he also threw batting practice once or twice a week that year. That’s something Trevor Bauer could probably do, but you’re right, guys like that are unicorns, or at least outliers. They don’t happen very often.”

Laurila: Several years ago I interviewed a pitcher named Josh Outman, whose father had developed a bio-mechanically-structured delivery. Outman used it growing up, but not in pro ball as it was seen as being too ‘different.’

House: “I don’t remember hearing that. I’d have to see the analytics on the bio-mechanical efficiency. That’s one thing I know we’ve done well with. I’ve probably got 900-plus major league pitchers in our computer, with 3D motion analysis, so I have a model that I’m pretty confident with. If you follow our timing, sequencing, and recommended variables — and you train accordingly — we’re pretty predictive on not hurting an arm.

“I know that a lot of stuff that Trevor Bauer does is similar to what we do, but he also does some things that work for him that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend to a lot of the people that I work with.”

Laurila: For years it was said that Chris Sale’s elbow would eventually blow out.

House: “We have his delivery — we have him in the computer — and he was very Randy Johnson-like. What I think happened to him was, number one, pitch totals. Number two was his functional strength. His mechanics were actually OK, it was his functional strength and the pitch totals that got him.”

Laurila: You’ve mentioned functional strength a couple of times. What exactly is that?

House: “You can only accelerate what you can decelerate, and you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So for these pitchers, hitters, golfers, quarterbacks — any rotational athlete — if the decelerators, the brakes, can handle the accelerators — the things that speed the arms and the legs up — then you’ve got functional strength.

“Basically, if you’re a front side guy, a weight room guy where you only work on your pecs, your biceps, and your quads, then you’re not going to be able to throw any harder than your lats, supraspinatus, and all the muscles on the backside of your arm, can slow down. If you haven’t built them up, and you try to throw harder than they can slow down, that’s when you have a blowout.

“It’s the mound that’s the issue. Basically, we’re designed to throw rocks at rabbits, to eat them. That happens on flat ground. Our research shows — this is EMG [electromyography] testing — that the energy you create when you step and throw is about four times body weight. When you get a mound, it’s six times body weight. So the only unnatural thing with an overhand throw is the mound; that’s the only unnatural thing about pitching. Going down the hill helps your acceleration, but it’s really hard on your deceleration. You have to train yourself to handle the mound, because we’re genetically predisposed to throw on flat ground.”

Laurila: You’re often referred to as the father of modern pitching mechanics. How did that come about?

House: “I think I was the first field coach to take advantage of three dimensional motion capture with the cameras and the light sensitive dots, and actually quantify movement — science-based and measurable — and come up with a mechanical model of how biomechanics and the laws of physics apply to the human body. The old school coaches and pitchers probably knew what to do, but they didn’t know why. 3D motion analysis at 1,000 frames a second allows us to actually measure, where the human eye can only see 40 frames per second.”

Laurila: You’re currently working with a new product called Mustard.

House: “You gave me the perfect segue to that. What we did with Mustard is that we took all the data capture, all the analytics, all the research that we’d captured from motion analysis, from functional strength evaluation — all that stuff — and we put it on a cell phone. With this, a mom or a dad of a 12-year-old can film their young athlete, male or female, throwing in the back yard, and we can give the same exact efficacy of evaluation that our elite athletes get.

“Mustard basically becomes a handheld mentoring device that will allow… right now, 80% of young athletes quit playing before the age of 14. Our goal is to help the moms and dads have the same information and instruction that our elite athletes get, right there at their house or on their Little League field. With that, kids will be able to play sports a little bit longer. If we get them to play through high school, then we’ve got both a healthier athlete and a longtime fan. In my opinion, sports are one of the few things left that actually teaches a youngster how to deal with what’s going on with artificial intelligence in our crazy world today.”





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

newest oldest most voted
Matthew
Member
Matthew

I made a donation to Fangraphs last week, and I think this interview alone was worth the cost.