When we took a look at Jake Arrieta’s multi-faceted slider on Wednesday, the pitcher gave credit to ‘old-timers’ for the idea to use his legs to deaden the pitch. It turns out, there’s more old school in his mechanics than just a dragging back leg on a slow slider.
It’s not like Arrieta opened with a discussion of the way things used to be. When I first asked him about his mechanics, he felt there wasn’t one aha moment that helped him find his command and his best delivery. “I moved away from being concerned with mechanics to being more conscious of the positioning of my body and being able to put it in certain spots more consistently,” he said.
Just a natural growth, time, and a better understanding of his body had led to improvements. “Developing, maturing physically, understanding what you need to be consistent with, in order to have consistent command,” is how he put it.
But what did that mean? “For me, it boiled down to how can I get my body in the appropriate position at delivery. I figured that out,” he said. That mirrors what you might hear from a hitter. Adam LaRoche even said that “when you get to the position of impact, when you’re going after the ball, most of us are in the same spot.”
But how did he get there? “It’s about having certain feelings in the lower body and trying to connect everything,” he said. “It’s one connected piece. To me, it was a process of playing consistent long toss and being able to have certain cues throughout my delivery that allow me to stay on track.”
What you may not hear here is a specific change. There’s nothing here about working on the way he brings the ball up from behind him. There’s nothing here about an inverted W or dropping his elbow, or dragging his shoulder. Maybe he didn’t want to give those specifics, but when I pushed him once again, he said it was more about a feeling.
So you won’t see much if you put up an old delivery (2012, left) against his current one (May 2014, right). Maybe the new one is simpler. He starts from a different position.
“There’s no perfect delivery, there are no perfect mechanics,” he said, not frustrated by the badgering, but also not about to put his improvement all on one change. “It’s all about being able to have a comfortable delivery that you can repeat a hundred times per start, which is what I have now.”
Turns out, these ideas — like the idea that he can deaden his slider by using his lower half — came from yesterday’s game. And Arrieta was passionate about this one:
“You look at guys that pitched in the sixties and seventies, with moving parts all over the place, Jim Palmer, Bob Gibson, those guys, and people kind of strayed away from that and moved gradually to a more robotic type of delivery. I think that takes a lot of the athleticism out of it. If people could get back to being more athletic and understanding their body and the way it moves, I think that’s the more appropriate way to find out what’s the appropriate delivery for you.
It’s all individually based. Guys are done a disservice sometimes when people try to make them the guy that they want them to be rather than trying to reinforce the guy that they are, and helping them understand where their body needs to be at release. It doesn’t matter what you do on the mound or what you do going down the mound, what matters most is the position you are in at release. For me, it took a while to understand that, but now that I have that understanding, it makes things a lot easier.”
Ask Kyle Boddy of pitching lab Driveline Baseball about this idea, and he applauds it. “People obsess over their “mechanics” instead of just figuring out how their body best works to achieve a task consistently. I totally agree with the idea that in the 1990s and early 2000s that pitchers started to become very compact, robotic-like. There is a definite movement away from this in a lot of areas.” Boddy cited repeatability as a “driving plank” of his lab, which has had some notable success recently improving Trevor Bauer’s command, among others.
Arrieta had another analogy to help back up his point, and it came from another sport. “I compare it to a golf swing a lot of time,” the pitcher said. “There are times when your lower body is going to be ahead of your upper body or vice versa. In a golf swing, those are things you can be aware of mid swing and make the adjustment. If your upper body in the backswing is late, then you got to get your hands going a little quicker. If, on the downswing, your hands are moving quicker than your hips, then you gotta increase the speed of your hips. Same thing with your delivery. If you leak out front with your lower body, you have to be aware that your arm and your upper body has to catch up.”
This analogy wasn’t as exciting to Boddy, but he still understood the pitcher. “A certain percentage of the time, you will just not execute properly and the ball will miss by a wide margin. No different than a fielder throwing it away or a hitter taking the worst hack ever at a center-cut fastball at 91 MPH. So I don’t necessarily agree that you always have to make adjustments on the fly, it’s OK to fail and screw up — as long as execution on the whole reaches a high percentage,” the coach felt.
If there’s a two-part answer to Arrieta’s breakout last year, step two was all about figuring out how to use the slider many different ways. But the pitcher was succinct when it came to step one — “it all starts with command” — even if he had many (old-school) thoughts about how he found the right mechanics to harness that command.
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.