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What's In A Turnaround?

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An entry about Gil Meche with a lot of pictures and surprisingly little text. At least, I don't intend for there to be that much text, although you know how I can go on about stuff. 2005 images come from his start on August 8th, while 2006 images from his start on June 17th. These dates were not selected for any particular reason, other than the fact that they're both home games, which gives me the same camera angle.

The point of this piece is to determine whether or not there's any mechanical difference between last year and this year's version of Gil Meche. At this writing, I don't know if there is or isn't. I'm just now about to actually look at the pictures for the first time since uploading them to my laptop. This is meant to be both casual and experimental.

And away we go:

(1a) 2005 Curveball/Fastball

(1b) 2006 Curveball/Fastball

(2a) 2005 Curveball/Fastball

(2b) 2006 Curveball/Fastball

(3a) 2005 Curveball/Fastball

(3b) 2006 Curveball/Fastball

(4a) 2005 Curveball/Fastball

(4b) 2006 Curveball/Fastball

Looking at the images, many of them appear pretty similar. You could break out a protractor and argue that there's a little arm slot difference between the 2005 fastball and curveball in 3a, but that seems like a reach, and if you need to use a protractor to figure out if you're right or not, chances are the hitters aren't picking up on anything in the split-second they have to think about what they're going to do.

That said, I do see two differences between 2a and 2b. Quick summary:

2a:

-right arm bent, ball pointing to shortstop
-upper body and hips ahead of elbow, which is behind the shoulder line

2b:

-right arm straighter and lower, pointing more to second base
-upper body and hips locked in with elbow, which is in line with the shoulders

Going through a bunch of archived video from the last two years, this difference appears to be consistent - in 2005, Gil routinely overrotated his throwing arm, extending behind the "driveline" from his shoulders to home plate. In 2006, he doesn't do that as much anymore. The bent arm is also a consistent difference, as Gil's right arm is a lot straighter now when he reaches back than it used to be.

Not evident in the pictures is that there's also a difference in how Gil reaches back; where he used to move his arm back on a plane that's roughly parallel to the ground, now he reaches down and back. This is probably an adjustment he and Chaves worked on over the winter, and it comes with two benefits - one, Gil is able to better coordinate the movement of his arm with the movement of his body, and two, it helps him move the ball further away from home plate without deviating from the driveline, which allows him a greater area over which he can apply force to the ball. That's good. The 2005 pictures suggest more a kind of short-arming action, which is bad.

By keeping his elbow in line with his shoulders rather than behind them, Gil is not only reducing his injury risk, but he's also avoiding the kind of unnecessary centripetal force that acts on the ball when you overrotate. In 2005, Gil's arm moved in more of an arc than a straight line, and when there are forces trying to pry the ball out of said arc at every given instant, the result is often poor command. Now it looks like he has his whole body working as a single unit, with the elbow moving in a line with the shoulders and hips. That gives him greater control of where the ball is going. With that in mind, is it a coincidence that his K/BB has improved from 1.15 to 2.00?

I also don't want to diminish the potential significance of what the hitter sees when Gil is fully reaching back. A year ago, Gil bent his right arm and pointed the ball towards SS/3B, showing it to the hitter well ahead of release. It remained in view for the rest of his delivery. Now, it seems like Gil is keeping the ball behind his body when he reaches, hiding it from the hitter until he begins forward rotation. This gives a hitter less time to react and, in theory, increases the probability of confused, ugly swings (although I don't know if this is actually true, it makes sense). This is one of the ways that a guy can be "deceptive" and have his pitches "sneak up on you," to go with some of the more common buzzwords. A handy rule of thumb is that anything that delays a hitter's decision of whether or not to swing works to the pitcher's advantage. Gil's doing that a little more now than he used to.

Now, I don't want to give these little mechanical changes credit for Gil's entire improvement; it could be something mental, or a change in pitch-calling, or something physical that's too subtle for me to discern on fuzzy MLB.tv archived feeds. Or something else. I could be making way too much out of what really aren't major differences, which is a risk you take when you go into an experiment subconsciously expecting to see something (up yours, scientific method). I'm not an authority on the subject, so I honestly don't know if I'm even close to being on the right track.

That said, while this was all in fun and completely informal, I do think it's worth considering that these slight mechanical adjustments are at least partially responsible for Gil's improvement. It's easy to sit here and say "oh, his strikeouts are up and his walks are down," but sometimes you want to try and figure out why that's actually happening in the first place, and if nothing else, I think this is a good place to start. What it comes down to is that there is a little mechanical evidence that Gil Meche is a changed pitcher from the one he was a year ago after all, and that therefore his performance may not be a random statistical fluke. That's really all I was hoping to get out of this.

Oh, and no, I still can't bring myself to trust him. But I'm stubborn.