Heels of Change: Focus on Biomechanics Leads Twins to Increased Velo
Image courtesy of © Aaron Doster-USA TODAY SportsIn some regard Johnson’s emphasis on getting into the heel feels like this year’s thing. When Neil Allen first arrived with the Twins as the new pitching coach in 2015, he spent all spring convincing pitchers they needed to throw more changeups. Twins pitchers talked about the importance of throwing changeups to same-sided hitters or throwing them back-to-back. More changeups was Allen’s thing.
How did that work out? The team’s changeup usage rate rose a bit but the results didn’t follow suit. Through Allen’s tenure, the Twins held a 4.58 staff ERA, 26th out of the 30 clubs.
Johnson’s message, however, is one that concerns a pitcher’s entire foundation. Embracing it can be career-changing.
When you ask him to elaborate on what makes this seemingly minor portion of the entire delivery such a critical component, Wes Johnson’s face lights up and he goes into his full biomechanical spiel.
“We know that hip speed is a function of velocity and command as well,” Johnson begins in his upbeat southern accent. “And hip speed is generated through your glutes and we’re just trying to activate the glute medius. We’re trying to get the glute med to activate first instead of your quadricep because when a guy’s quadricep activates first, his hip speed goes down. So we’re just trying to activate the glute to get the hips to rotate faster to get command and-or velocity, whichever one.”
If that was too technical, Kyle Gibson later offered an abridged explanation: “The goal is to use the big muscles in your legs.”
It’s fairly basic. Pitchers who drive off of their toes first are not maximizing their velocity potential.
Johnson admits that the concept isn’t for pitchers to actually drive off their heel, it’s to get them over the middle of their foot more. Cueing them to over-exaggerate and focus on the heel puts them in better position. When pitchers drive off their toes, they not only leave some MPHs on the table, they tend to have more inconsistent direction to home plate, wreaking havoc on their command as well.
His reputation as a collegiate pitching coach is sterling and that was built on a velocity increase system he created. While with Dallas Baptist University, Johnson would take pitchers who were throwing in the upper 80s and have them reaching mid-90s within a couple of years. It happened again at Mississippi State and again at Arkansas. Johnson found that when more emphasis was placed on the lower half, velocity followed.
Just like he did with his college athletes, when he was first hired by the Twins, Johnson said he spent days studying his pitchers to see who could use some adjustments. “I watched too much video. My wife is probably wondering what I was doing all offseason,” he says with a laugh. But the preparation from him and the rest of the Twins’ coaching staff allowed Johnson to have conversations with pitchers when they reported.
“Wes has come in and this is his first spring training in professional baseball. I don’t take that lightly, I don’t think anybody should,” remarked manager Rocco Baldelli. “That is not the easiest of tasks to just come in and take control, as the pitching coach, of your staff. He put in a ton of work this offseason to lay the groundwork to be able to come in here and not just function but do some really nice things.”
Being able to function as the new pitching coach is a bit easier when one of the veteran leaders of the staff is a big proponent of Johnson’s practices.
Gibson is very familiar with these principles. Before the 2017 season, Gibson spent time at the Florida Baseball Ranch, retooling his mechanics with owner Randy Sullivan. Johnson, who had spent years working with Sullivan and other baseball outsiders, had a hand in creating the Durathro system which Gibson used to overhaul his arm action. But it was changing his lower half movements that sparked something for the right-hander, notably using Johnson’s cue of driving off his heel versus his toe.
“I stepped across my body more in 2015 and 2016 and the only way you step across your body is by going off your toe,” says Gibson. “I wasn’t working on my direction when I was going through the Florida Baseball Ranch [arm] stuff but as soon as you get on your heel, and push off your heel, your direction to home plate gets more straight.”
Like Johnson, Gibson is an avid film-watcher. He says he can quickly spot the flaws in himself and others from shots on the center field camera.
“TV is a pretty good angle because you can see where a guy’s knee is,” Gibson says. “As soon as your knee gets over your toe, you’re pushing off your toe more. If your butt sits back and your toe stays behind your knee then obviously the kinetic chain is saying that you are more into your glute, more into your backside.”
Gibson transformed his mechanics, engaging his lower half more, activating those “big muscles” in his legs.
Gibson unlocked some additional heat but he also felt like he was able to locate all of his pitches better as he drove toward home plate compared to when he was stepping across his body. By the second half of 2017, when the new arm path and lower-half mechanics began to feel natural for Gibson, his career turned a corner.
His body direction is what helped him against left-handed opponents in 2018. Previously he rarely went inside to lefties. From 2013 through 2016, he threw on the inner-third of the zone to left-handers just 30% of the time, opting to stay on the outer-third (49%). In 2018, no longer cutting himself off mechanically, Gibson attacked inside to lefties (48%) to great success.
Johnson said coming into camp, he and assistant pitching coach Jeremy Hefner had spent endless hours creating individual plans for the entire staff at the major-league level. He knew that if he presented video evidence and data, players would respond favorably to the adjustments.
“We talk to them about the biomechanics side of it and what you’re seeing, and tell them why you are doing something which, to me, is the biggest factor because if we’re just coming in and saying ‘you gotta stay on your heel longer’ that’s crazy,” says Johnson. “We need to tell them why we are doing it and the success rate and show them video and show them guys who have had success doing it.”
Gibson’s success helped the conversation move forward with other players. He convinced Jake Odorizzi to visit the Florida Baseball Ranch this offseason. Kohl Stewart also made a visit. There’s also Martin Perez, who witnessed a spike in velocity at the end of 2018. Johnson said the message they gave Perez was to get in his heel more and move more athletically. His velocity has been consistently up at 95-97 all spring.
In addition to established pitchers like Gibson and Perez, Johnson and Hefner want to infuse the concept to pitchers who are currently on the fringe, hoping to stick in the big leagues, such as Chase De Jong.
The 25-year-old De Jong has 47 major-league innings to his name. A former second-round draft pick, De Jong’s career has stalled at the Triple-A level. He doesn’t possess the high velocity normally seen by modern pitchers – averaging sub-90 on his four-seamer – and he has walked a few too many hitters (19 batters in 47 innings). Still, De Jong represents an arm the Twins would like to maximize.
“They showed me in the video they said, hey, you’re doing this and it’s causing this,” De Jong explains. “[Staying on the heel] is the minor mechanical critique he’s made with me. I feel like it’s helped me stay strong on my backside and, directionally, it has helped with my lines tremendously.”
Johnson agreed with De Jong’s assessment.
“I look at [De Jong] and you look at that and when he’s been really good it’s his direction,” says Johnson. “He may have seen a one mile an hour tick in velocity so it wasn’t a ton for him but his direction and command was really good.”
“Sometimes in pitching you can chase symptoms,” De Jong acknowledges. “You’re leaking out front, you’re doing this, you’re doing that, but when you actually get to the root of the problem and address that and just focus on that, the other stuff fixes because that’s what was causing it.”
Similar to what Gibson went through in 2017, De Jong recognizes that implementing a new feel into his mechanics isn’t something that will produce results overnight. After all, his first foray this spring was rough. De Jong will start the 2019 season in Rochester, hoping to lock in the new movement patterns and eventually contribute with the Twins this summer. He will be joined at the Twins’ top affiliate with Stephen Gonsalves, another pitcher trying to incorporate Johnson’s cues.
Johnson uses Gonsalves as an example of how the process isn’t a straight line. In one outing this spring Gonsalves saw hit velocity tick upward. In the next, it went back down.
“You wish that it happened overnight but it doesn’t. It’s a process,” admits Johnson. “So you’ll see a bit of that rollercoaster wave action with those guys where you’ll see a little spike in velocity and then the next time it will flatten out, then spike but it’s because they are learning how to do it.”
And that is Johnson’s biggest point: It’s a process.
There is no guarantee of immediate success with any of the pitchers. While Gibson may have been able to advance his career through these methods, it did take him a little over half a season to feel comfortable. Many of the pitchers attempting to incorporate the new biomechanics may not see the consistent results for another season or two.
That being said, if Johnson’s collegiate track record is any indication, the Twins should see that velo clout soon enough.
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