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Separation: A new pitching series from PSA

There is something special taking place under the tutelage of Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake.

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New York Yankees Gerrit Cole throwing in the bullpen at spring training camp in Tampa Photo by J. Conrad Williams Jr./Newsday RM via Getty Images

If I had the ability to play in MLB, I’d be a pitcher (probably a reliever since I’m a bit unhinged to begin with). Don’t get me wrong; offense is fun, sluggers are cool, and it’s been said that a certain demographic digs the long ball. However, there are particular aspects of pitching that appeal to my hard science background and analytical lens through which I choose to view the game and the world.

Pitching is the ultimate intersection of physics, anatomy, biomechanics, and that ineffable human quality of perseverance to never stop pursuing improvement and perfection. There is something distinctly human about the ability to achieve whatever we set our minds to with enough motivation, the right tools and support, and some good old-fashioned elbow grease.

I think that pitching is the one of the highest forms of that pursuit in the sports world. It involves pushing one’s body to the maximal limits of physiological capability, requiring extreme levels of force and precision that might seem inordinate for a machine, much less a human arm. And yet here we are, with people able to throw a five-ounce orb over a hundred miles an hour, imparting thousands of RPMs of spin, and hitting a target with a hair’s breadth of margin of error.

What’s most exciting for me is the advancement in technology that allows us to not only know how and why a ball is spinning and moving a certain way, but how one can make the biomechanical adjustments to achieve any desired result. We now know how the tiniest changes in finger placement, arm angle, and spin axis can create vastly different movement profiles. We understand how the slightest variations in seam orientation can induce deviations in movement from what the hitter expects — something Esteban has written on extensively as our in-house seam-shifted wake (SSW) expert. There is a certain mystical elegance to having that level of granular understanding of the human body.

That brings me to today’s topic, or rather the topic I will be introducing today. Let’s talk about pitch movement — specifically, separation in the movement profiles of the pitches in an individual’s arsenal. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be highlighting the Yankees pitchers who have altered the movement profiles of their pitches in order to create separation in the way said pitches travel toward the plate.

Why is separation important? Well, it’s certainly not a novel concept. Pitchers have understood for decades that creating separation between two pitches’ velocities can have profound effects. It’s why the fastball-changeup combo remains one of the most effective ways to attack batters. Upsetting a hitter’s timing is one of the core principles of pitching. Pairing a slow pitch with a fast pitch causes the hitter to not only swing early at the slow pitch but can make them late on the fast pitch — now they’re unable to hit either offering.

Separation in movement operates under the same principle of disrupting the hitter at the plate. Only, instead of forcing the hitter to cover two pitches that arrive at the plate at different times, you’re now forcing the hitter to cover two pitches that arrive at the plate in different places. Again, having pitches that move a lot is also not a novel concept. But now that we understand how important aspects like tunneling and deception are, having pitches that diverge becomes all the more important.

For example, if the pitches in a pitcher’s repertoire all resemble each other from a movement standpoint, the hitter only has to cover a limited region depending on how the ball comes out of the hand. Tweak the movement profiles so that said pitches diverge and all of a sudden the hitter has to cover a much larger area on any given pitch, in a way almost diluting his effectiveness across a wider region. Furthermore, even if the hitter manages to broaden his plate coverage, this added emphasis on divergent movement makes it that much harder to track the baseball and match one’s swing plane to the ball’s trajectory. This makes intuitive sense — it’s difficult to get your barrel to a ball that’s breaking multiple feet.

This is the overarching principle that has guided the pitching staff’s embrace of the whirly slider. Contrasted with your typical drop slider, having a slider that breaks on two planes and with a large horizontal component carries the baseball farther away from the barrel of the bat, greatly inducing the pitch’s whiff capacity and forcing the batter to widen the hitting area he is responsible for.

I can’t remember the last time I was this excited about Yankees pitching. While it may be perilous to attach too much praise on a pitching coach, it appears that the Yankees have unearthed a real gem in Matt Blake. He was lauded as a pitch design guru during his time with Cleveland and we are starting to see the fruits of his labor with the Yankees. I’m equally excited to share with you the pitchers who have undergone the biggest transformations under his watch in the coming weeks.