Adam Conley Looks the Same, Is Not

Adam Conley is surprising some with his sophomore effort, just by seemingly repeating what he did in his debut last year. His velocity, ERA, WHIP — even his swinging-strike and ground-ball rates — are all about the same as they were in 2015. But he’s different! In important ways.

Late last year, in the midst of a decent debut with the Marlins that saw him hitting 94 mph on the radar gun and shutting out the Mets on their way to the World Series, the lefty starter saw a picture of himself and froze. “I really didn’t like what I saw,” Conley told me a few days before he no-hit the Brewers for seven-plus innings this year. “It didn’t look like what I thought I looked like.”

Maybe the image was something like this one from his start against the Nationals late last season. “I could see in the picture that my front side was gone completely and my foot wasn’t down,” Conley says. “My foot is floating through the air and I’m trying to throw the ball.”

But once he saw that thing, he was convinced. He had to get back to the things he’d heard growing up, when he took the drive to Pete Wilkinson’s camp to work on his pitching mechanics. He had to get away from results-oriented development — “throughout the minor leagues, they would talk about results a lot,” he said — and get back to making sure his process was good.

The effort was two-pronged. He had to make sure he was getting his power from the right places, and he had to make sure his pitches worked together. The results brought him back to where he was, in a more sustainable way, with differences that appear once you look under the hood. And as he describes it all, you start to hear all of the things that we’ve been hearing recently as the new numbers have caught up to the pitching coaches.

Though the minor-league system in Florida seems to have been focused on numbers that sound like they were tracking process and command, Conley felt they were making him focus on the wrong things. “They wanted me to throw my slider and my changeup in the zone more often,” he said. “They wanted me to get ahead more often. They were talking about results and results-oriented things. So if my main objective is just to throw a strike, there’s a good chance that I’m going to lose the aggressiveness and the athleticism of throwing that pitch just so that I could accomplish that objective.”

The pitcher “snapped out of it” once he saw that image, though. “My mechanics last year were really messed up,” Conley said. “I was getting my power from the wrong places.” He admitted that he was trying to create velocity by rotating his shoulders early — sometimes so early that his front foot wasn’t on the ground when he was releasing the ball, which sounds almost impossible. “Saying it that way sounds bad, but when you’re throwing the ball, you don’t even notice, it’s happening so fast,” Conley responded.

Here he is, in 2015, for reference.

And again in 2016. As Conley says, “If you look with the naked eye, won’t look that different, but what’s really happening is drastically different.” Maybe you can see some differences in the setup and the timing of his release, though.

Still images are problematic because of timing, but here are two images as close as possible to full foot fall as I could manage. It looks like Conley is staying back better in 2016.

ConleyFootFall15ConleyFootFall16
Look at Conley’s arm position at foot fall in 2015 (left) versus 2016 (right).

What that early rotation used to do was put too much stress on the arm. “Now I’m staying sideways until my foot hits the ground,” the lefty said of his revamped mechanics. “So now I’m creating a lot more torque and getting a lot further down the mound and getting there a lot faster and I’m creating that unwinding effect a lot later. I’ve increased my momentum and I’ve increased my ground force and I delayed my shoulder rotation.”

Within that statement are a few things that have been shown to be statistically meaningful recently by Driveline Baseball. The strongest correlations between any body movement and velocity come from trunk-rotation speed. In terms of force into the ground, the front foot, down on the mound, is the more important foot for velocity. By those markers, Conley has been focusing on the right things, probably.

Conley makes the link even more explicit when he continues on the subject. “I’m trying to get my front foot down as far as I can and as fast as I can and get really really heavy into the ground,” he said, and “I’m trying to keep my upper body late as I can. I’m creating natural tension between my hips and my shoulders that I don’t have a choice but to go forward. I’m using the force of the ground and the slope of the mound to help create energy, and using the natural tension in my body to create energy without me even having to do much.” That tension he refers to is the same thing Trevor Bauer calls “linear distraction,” which he explained to Scout.com’s Hayden Grove last year.

His effort to get down the mound and release further out in front is rewarded by another concept that has been advanced recently. “I’m getting further down the mound, and the closer you get to home plate, the lower you get,” he pointed out of his newly refound philosophy. “If this is the height I’m going to throw up here, then I’m going to have less of an angle to that spot at the plate versus if I’m throwing from lower on the mound. So I’m trying to get really far down the mound really fast and release really close to the hitter.”

Not only does he have more angle with which to play, but releasing down the mound has an ancillary benefit. “The hitter is going to see it later, the perceived velocity is going to be higher because I’m throwing it harder and closer.”

Yup, that’s perceived velocity, which had proponents early in 2014, and then proceeded to become tracked by TrackMan and now Statcast. Conley improved his extension by nearly four inches over last year — going from average to above average in the process — and that extra distance upped his perceived velocity by a full mile per hour on his fastball.

Adam Conley Extension and Perceived Velo
Pitch Average Extension 2015 Perceived Velo 2015 Average Extension 2016 Perceived Velo 2016
Four-Seam 5.88 90.3 6.09 91.5
Slider 5.81 83.8 6.10 85.2
Change 5.95 83.0 6.30 82.9
SOURCE: Statcast

Without using terms of the industry, Conley also talked about another newly-defined concept in the sabermetric world: tunneling. As Jon Roegele pointed out last year, certain pitches do better when paired with a pitch that looks similar up until a certain point in their path. Conley wants all his pitches to look similar for as long as possible.

It came up when I asked if his slider was going to be average, if he was tinkering with the pitch. His changeup is the better pitch if you ask scouts. “My goal with the slider really has nothing to do with what it looks like,” he said. “I don’t care about it, what it looks like to us watching it fly. I care about what it looks like to the hitter. To the hitter, if I can make it look like a fastball at the knees down the middle, then I’m going to get a lot of bad contact and swings, because if it’s 8 mph off my fastball, and has a little wrinkle in it, it’ll get a ground ball, it’ll get a foul ball, and they have something else to respect.”

That sounds almost exactly like what Dan Warthen said the slider should do when describing the Mets’ brand of the pitch. “We don’t want to make it break, we want to think about getting our fingers to the front of the ball and spinning the baseball,” Warthen told me then. “Then you take another breaking ball and you separate the speeds, and it doesn’t have to be a great breaking ball, it just has to be a different speed.”

Conley expanded on the idea with me. “The irony of it is that if you try to hit a spot, if you try to make the pitch do a certain thing, you get neither the deception or the location or action. If I say all I care about is the arm speed and the angle out of my hand, I’m going to get both the deception and the action.”

That’s tickling the tunneling concept, but Conley is a little more straight forward even. “Really, the idea is that all my stuff is drastically different but it comes out looking the same,” he said of his three pitches. “The last 15 or 20 feet to the plate is where it’s at. In a perfect world, all of my pitches look like my best fastball at the knees down the middle for as long as possible. By the time it’s starting to look different, the human eye and brain can’t see it any more. You have to guess what pitch I’m throwing, then. I’m trying to make that decision time as short as possible.”

During the last ten feet, the hitter can’t stop his swing — movement in that band is huge. “I don’t ever ever want a hump,” says Conley. “I want everything to look like a fastball.” Check out this great graphic by John Blanchard that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Science-of-the-Swing

Because of Conley’s mechanical changes, he feels as good about what’s to come as what has been. “To throw the ball hard feels easier,” the lefty said. “It feels like now my hand is just delivering the ball instead of making the pitch happen. My arm’s just along for the ride, then it is the driving force of my stuff. For me to even be sore after a start is rare now.”

He thinks his stuff should continue to improve. “I expect to be throwing the ball a lot harder than I am, but it’s early in the year,” he said, and a rainout affected his schedule. The new focus on his release point should also help his spin rates, he says. It has already, as his fastball and slider spins have gone from below average to above average.

Adam Conley Spin Rates and Exit Velocities
Pitch Spin Rate 15 Exit Velo 15 Spin Rate 16 Exit Velo 16
Four-Seam 2,286 89.4 2,310 91.3
Slider 2,086 89.5 2,148 81.6
Change 2,035 82.9 2,056 76.7
SOURCE: Statcast
Average 4s spin: 2226 (higher = more ride); Average Slider spin: 2,090 (higher = more movement); Average Change spin: 1,746 (lower = more drop).

In order to improve, Conley had to get back to his old ways. He had to be his own advocate and return to his old coaches — “I’ve been blessed to have great coaches that were extremely smart and had servant hearts,” he said — and put everything in its right place. He looks like he’s doing the same things, but the subtle differences are huge.

It’s those subtle differences that give the 25-year-old upside beyond even the impressive results he’s put up. Because he focused on the best processes modern pitching thought has produced, he’s in a better spot to keep betting better. Extension, spin, ride, tunneling and sequencing — they sound theoretical, but in this case they’ve been very concrete and have improved a young pitcher.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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tinit
6 years ago

Thank you for that highly informative article. I’m very interested to see if more pitchers and coaches start to actively talk about and look for some of the things that Conley is.