Scouting Shawn Tolleson, Baylor University

March 4, 2009 • Scouting

In his second year back from Tommy John surgery, Shawn Tolleson is expected to be among the top draft-eligible sophomores taken in the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Baseball America even pegged him as the #29 overall draft-eligible college prospect.

After hitting a groove out of the bullpen last season, Tolleson has returned to the starting rotation for 2009. Through 2 starts, though, Tolleson has yet to find his rhythm. I was on-hand at the Houston College Classic when Tolleson and Baylor squared off against the University of Houston.

Game: February 27, 2009 vs. University of Houston

Pitcher IP H R ER BB K
Tolleson, Shawn 6.2 6 2 2 3 5

Fastball. Tolleson's fastball started out in the upper 80s and might have scraped 90 on a few radar guns but dipped into the mid 80s before he was pulled. The pitch didn't appear to have much sink, but his 10 ground outs and 2 fly outs suggest it was there. His command of the pitch was no better than college-average.

Slider. His slider was all over the place but had good movement when he was able to keep it down. Its break was unpredictable as well, sometimes sharp, sometimes lazy, and sometimes just spinning.

Change up. Despite his limited fastball velocity, Tolleson was able to get decent separation with his change up but without much tumble or fade. The change up was rarely thrown, and right now, it's clearly his third pitch.

Mechanics. Take a look at the video below. A couple of things jump out right away. The most obvious for me is his inverted W.

In Tolleson's delivery, his inverted W leads to a really late forearm turnover and significant reverse forearm bounce. These arm actions put the ulnar collateral ligament at great risk. I am not surprised that he needed Tommy John surgery coming out of high school, and I believe that these mechanics are likely to lead to more elbow trouble down the road.

In the video, it is also quite clear that Tolleson strides toward the third base side. This establishes a drive line that is not directed at the target and requires the trunk and throwing shoulder to compensate by throwing across his body just to get the ball heading toward the catcher instead of the on-deck circle.

This compensation also leads to a violent follow-through where his humerus nearly collides with his face before flying down across his torso.

When his humerus nearly slams into his face, it is likely compressing the long head of the biceps brachii against the bony structures of the shoulder girdle. During deceleration, the biceps flexes and creates tension in its long head which attaches to the glenoid labrum. The tension is magnified by the compression, and when this tension is violent enough, it pulls on the labrum and can lead to fraying and tearing (SLAP lesions). This is not necessarily a problem in Tolleson's case; the 210 frames-per-second video doesn't slow down this part of his delivery well enough to draw a conclusion.

When Tolleson drives his arm across his body, his humerus is next to his right ear one moment and down across his torso the next. This is like whiplash for the supraspinatus muscle, the most frequently torn rotator cuff muscle in overhead-throwing athletes.

Overall. Tolleson is likely still trying to get all the way back from Tommy John surgery, but in this game, he looked less like an early round pick and more like a guy who could go undrafted. Based on his late season success last year, I think it's unlikely that he will continue to struggle, but if his struggles do continue, he could return to Baylor for his junior season.

He has several risk factors for future injury: inverted W, late forearm turnover, reverse forearm bounce, and throwing across his body. As a pitcher who has a significant injury in his past, his mechanics are definitely a concern going forward.

For me, Shawn Tolleson is a wait-and-see player. He has shown great potential in the past, and despite his struggles on this night, he was able to put together a quality start. If his stuff can return to its previous level, he could be worth taking a chance on.


Video scouting first look

February 24, 2009 • Scouting

Here's a first look at some scouting video shot over the weekend. Shown here is a pitch thrown in the 3rd inning of Game 1 of Saturday's double header between UT Dallas and Texas Lutheran University. UT Dallas came back from being down 13-3 to win the game 14-13 with an 11-run 5th inning.

The pitcher in this video is UT Dallas starting pitcher Jonathan Reeder, a left-handed junior transfer from Eastfield College. UT Dallas is a 4-year Division III school, and Eastfield is a Division III junior college. Back in the winter of 2007-2008, I worked with Reeder on his delivery for a few bullpens - not enough time to officially consider him a student of mine, though.

You can clearly see his pronation, and for this pitch at least, his arm doesn't fly across his body during the follow through. Though he shows some late forearm turnover, the rest of his arm action is very healthy. I also think his back side could add a bit more energy and help drive his throwing shoulder with more power.

Since recording this video, I have found a couple of tweaks that will improve future video quality including a YouTube optimizer setting. The video here was recorded at 420 frames per second, so the motion detail is outstanding.

They won't be the sharpest videos you've seen, but they should get the job done.


The Magnus effect: why pitches move

February 19, 2009 • Training

When a ball spins, it creates an envelope of air around it called the boundary layer. This boundary layer moves with the ball whether it spins forward or backward or sideways. The interaction of this boundary layer with the surrounding air results in an outside force that changes the path of the baseball. This is the Magnus effect.

Named for German scientist Heinrich Magnus, this effect is a principle of fluid dynamics that describes the lift created by the spin of an object that is moving through a fluid (gas or liquid).

To better understand lift, here is a brief look at how airplane wings create lift. The shape of airplane wings causes air to move faster over the top of the wings than it moves beneath the wings. The faster moving air results in lower air pressure above the wing and greater air pressure beneath the wing. The greater air pressure pushes the wing up; this is lift.

HOW SPIN CREATES LIFT

The spin of the ball dictates the rotation of the boundary layer. When the ball has back-spin, like a fastball, the boundary layer under the baseball shoots air forward into the air that is trying to move around the baseball. The opposing air flows result in slower air movement and higher air pressure underneath the baseball.

On top of the ball, the boundary layer shoots air backward in the same direction as the air that is trying to move around the baseball. These air flows compliment each other and combine to create faster air movement and lower air pressure on top of the baseball.

The combination of slower air movement under the ball and faster air movement over the ball creates lift that opposes gravity - a "rise". The Magnus effect, in this case, acts just like an airplane wing.

For a curveball, the top-spin is like turning that wing upside-down. The opposing air flows are now on top of the baseball, and the complimentary air flows are on bottom. Here, the Magnus effect creates lift that compliments gravity - a drop.

With a tilted spin axis, the Magnus effect creates a tilted lift. A left tilt adds right-to-left movement when the pitch has back-spin and left-to-right movement when the pitch has top-spin. A right tilt has the opposite effects.

When a pitch spins perfectly sideways, like a screwball or a sweeping curveball, the Magnus effect does not create a "rise" or drop. Instead, it creates sideways lift. Viewed from the top, clockwise spin results in left-to-right lift, and counter-clockwise spin results in right-to-left lift.

Curveball - Forward Spin
Curveball - RHP Perspective
Sweeping Curve - Side Spin
Sweeping Curveball - RHP Perspective
Screwball - Side Spin
Screwball - RHP Perspective

MAGNUS EFFECT ON OTHER PITCHES

The Magnus effect is greatest when the ball's spin axis is perfectly perpendicular to the velocity of the baseball. As the spin axis turns (or yaws, if you're into that sort of thing) from perpendicular to parallel to the baseball's velocity, the Magnus effect decreases accordingly. Likewise, the magnitude of the Magnus effect increases as the spin axis moves from parallel to perpendicular to the baseball's velocity.

Gyroball

When the ball's spin axis is perfectly parallel to its velocity, the Magnus effect is null, barring crosswinds. In this case, the ball spins like a bullet - clockwise for righties and counter-clockwise for lefties when viewed from the pitcher's perspective - and no part of the boundary layer opposes or compliments the surrounding air flow.

A pitch with this spin is called a gyroball, and despite what was widely reported when Daisuke Matsuzaka came to the states, the null Magnus effect makes this the straightest pitch that can be thrown.

Wind tunnel studies have shown that this type of spin results in a smaller wake behind the ball. A smaller wake means less wind resistance which means a gyroball does not slow down as much as a fastball does on its way to the plate.

Slider

A slider is intended to have glove-side lift, but Pitch-f/x data suggests that sliders move less than any other commonly thrown pitch. On Pitch-f/x charts, sliders are usually grouped around or very near to the chart's origin where zero horizontal movement meets zero vertical movement. This suggests that most sliders spin like gyroballs. I tend to agree.

Good sliders, though, will have a spin that is somewhere between that of a curveball and that of a gyroball. Such spin will create the sliding movement and, depending on the degree of tilt, a varied amount of additional drop for the pitch.

Cut fastball

If a slider's spin is between that of a curveball and that of a gyroball, the spin of a cut fastball should be between that of a fastball and that of a gyroball. Where a slider ideally has some top-spin, a cut fastball has a large amount of back-spin.

The combination creates lift nearly identical to a fastball, but because the spin axis is turned slightly to the pitcher's glove-side, it also has glove-side run.

Split-finger fastball

Split-finger fastballs can be thrown with one of two different spins. The first spin is simply a slower back-spin than a normal fastball that creates less lift than a normal fastball would. When thrown at nearly the same speed as a normal fastball, the split-finger fastball appears to drop due to the smaller lift.

The second spin is actually top-spin. This is the ideal spin for an effective split-finger fastball because the forward tumble creates a drop like a curveball. The velocity of the pitch is similar to a fastball, but the spin is like a curveball albeit with a much slower rotation.

When top-spin is present in this pitch, it is sometimes called a forkball. A forkball is usually held with a deeper grip than a split-finger fastball, but the two pitches are practically identical give or take a couple of ticks on the radar gun.

Sinker

Some sinkers spin like reverse-cut fastballs, and some sinkers spin like reverse-sliders. Most are somewhere in between. A power sinker, like the one thrown by Brandon Webb, spins almost like a screwball but with fastball velocity.

The same rules that apply to cut fastballs and sliders also apply to sinkers. The difference is that cut fastballs and sliders have glove-side lift while sinkers have arm-side lift.

THE ROLE OF SEAMS

The 108 stitches on a baseball grab the air around the ball and create a larger boundary layer than a ball with no seams would create. The horseshoe shape all around the baseball allows a pitcher to throw just about any pitch as a two-seam pitch, a four-seam pitch, or something that isn't quite either of those (a three seamer?). Most sliders fall into the third category.

A four-seam pitch spins on an axis that allows four seams to influence the boundary layer. The four seams are evenly spaced (balanced) around the baseball. This symmetry creates a stable and relatively predictable Magnus effect.

A two-seam pitch, though, spins on an axis that unbalances the seams even though all four seams still influence the boundary layer. This axis puts a seam loop on either side of the ball, leaving the two connecting seams close together on one side of the ball.

With the axis turned slightly to the left or the right, one of the seam loops moves toward the point of pressure (where the ball breaks through the surrounding air and experiences the greatest wind resistance), and the other seam loop moves away from it. This axis exaggerates the Magnus effect of the seam that moves toward the point of pressure, and reduces the Magnus effect of the seam that moves away.

The dominant seam, because of its almost circular shape, creates a point of nearly constant friction as it pushes boundary layer air almost directly into the air breaking across the point of pressure. When the seam catches that angle just right, the baseball will dart left or right depending on which seam is dominant.

CLOSING THOUGHTS AND OTHER NOTES

I've talked a lot about how a pitch spins and why it moves the way it does, but I haven't yet touched on the magnitude of the Magnus effect. The obvious part is that greater movement is due to a greater Magnus effect. The not so obvious part is how to increase the Magnus effect to create even more movement. The simple answer is to give the ball more spin.

The faster a ball spins, the greater the resulting Magnus effect will be.  Squeezing just one extra rotation out of a pitch can have dramatic results on the pitch's movement.

You may have noticed that I didn't talk about the knuckle ball at all. Well, the knuckle ball doesn't spin, so it has no Magnus effect. A knuckle ball's movement is strictly an aerodynamics issue where the seams cause immediate disruption in the surrounding air flow rather than through a boundary layer. On the pitch's way to the plate, chaos theory takes over and the knuckle ball waivers as the seams catch air and unpredictably change the path of the ball.

Finally, release angles play a sizable role in creating "hidden" movement. For example, if a pitcher releases the ball two feet outside of the rubber, it has to move roughly 3 1/2 feet to reach the opposite corner of the plate.  Sliders and curveballs with glove-side lift will look like they are moving nearly 4 feet as they cross that corner, even though they only break about 3 to 5 inches.


Texas Rangers Win-Curve Part II: Playoff Probability

February 4, 2009 • Analysis

This is Part II of a series that examines the Texas Rangers 2009 revenue outlook in a rough version of the framework laid out by Vince Gennaro in his fantastic book Diamond Dollars. Check out the Offline Reading list for other great reads.

In Part I, Texas Rangers Win-Curve Part I: Wins vs. Attendance, I walked through a model for predicting 2009 home attendance based on the team's on-field success as measured by wins.

Part II aims to add another piece to the puzzle by determining a team's chances of making the playoffs for a given number of wins.

WHAT EVERYONE KNOWS

Two types of teams make to the playoffs: 3 division champions and 1 wild card team.

The more games a team wins, the better its chances are for making it into the playoffs by either method.

In reality, for a given number of wins, a team will either make it to the playoffs or not. There are only two outcomes: 'yes' and 'no'.

MODELING THE DATA

Because there are only two outcomes, the data can be modeled with a logistics curve. The curve is created by a generalized binomial regression. Basically, using an independent variable (wins), it determines the probability that the dependent variable (team makes the post-season) is true.

I gathered 11 years of historical data for the American League in its current alignment - since Tampa Bay's inaugural season in 1998.

I ran regressions for each division and for the American League as a whole.

THE RESULTS

Wins vs Post-season Probability - American League 2009
Wins vs Post-season Probability - American League 2009

One hypothesis that I was eager to test was that for teams in smaller divisions, like the 4-team AL West, the odds of winning the division (and therefore the odds of making the playoffs) are greater than for teams in a 6-team division like the NL Central.

I tested this hypothesis by comparing the curves for each of the three divisions against the American League curve. Essentially, all 4 curves are the same but shifted either to the left or to the right.

The AL West curve, surprisingly, is shifted right, meaning it is harder to make the playoffs in the AL West than in the AL as a whole. The AL Central curve is shifted left, and the AL East curve showed a right shift approximately equal to the shift in the AL West curve.

At 92 wins, an AL team has had a 66.96% chance to make the playoffs. The AL West, AL Central, and AL East have had 62.69%, 78.24%, and 61.94% chances, respectively, at the 92-win level.

Since it has been easier to make the playoffs in the 5-team AL Central than it has been in the 4-team AL West, the hypothesis does not hold up. The difference between the AL West and AL East was barely noticeable.

AL West
AL West
AL Central
AL Central
AL East
AL East

TEXAS RANGERS POST-SEASON PROBABILITY

The two curves that apply to the Rangers, the AL curve and the AL West curve, are fairly similar. At 80 wins, the AL curve shows a 0.35% chance, and the AL West curve shows a 0.24% chance.

In what appears like it could be a weak division in 2009, 85 wins might be enough to get the Rangers in. Historically, though, 85 wins has resulted in only a 4.70% chance on the AL curve and an even smaller 3.58% chance on the AL West curve.

If the Rangers make the improbable jump from 79 wins to 95 wins, the AL curve gives them a 90.88% chance of making the post-season, while the AL West curve gives them an 89.59% chance.

Based on the 2009 outlook, if any AL West team can get to 95 wins, it should win the division handily. One team reaching that level would have a fair amount of shock value by itself, but if two teams hit the 95-win mark, it would be absolutely stunning.

APPLYING THE POST-SEASON EFFECT

When a team makes the post-season, the fan response typically includes increases in season ticket sales, television ratings, and merchandise sales. This post-season effect has a tangible benefit on team revenue for current and future seasons.

According to Gennaro's model, a net present value (NPV) is calculated for the post-season effect. For each win, the NPV is multiplied by the post-season probability for that win total, and the resulting value is added to that point on the win-curve.

In Part III, the dual focus will be on turning attendance figures into attendance dollars and assigning a value to the post-season effect.


Brandon McCarthy: Notes on weight gain

January 30, 2009 • Training
Texas Rangers RHP Brandon McCarthy. (Source: nyrangers3019, rootzoo.com)
Texas Rangers RHP Brandon McCarthy. (Source: nyrangers3019, rootzoo.com)

Several days ago, it was reported by several local media outlets that Brandon McCarthy choked down 7,000 calories a day this off-season to add about 25 pounds to his slender frame. This weight gain has a lot of fans excited about the positive impact it could have on his 2009 season.

The expectation is that McCarthy will be stronger and more durable going into 2009 than he has ever been before, but while he may be stronger, he may not necessarily be any more durable.

At 7,000 calories a day, there is virtually no chance that all 25 pounds are added muscle, and even if it is all muscle, that isn't necessarily a good thing.

Since coming to the Rangers before the 2007 season, McCarthy has battled a stress fracture in his right scapula, a strained flexor tendon in his flexor-pronator mass, and a strained flexor tendon in his right middle finger.

GROUND ZERO

McCarthy's injury trouble started with a stress fracture in his right scapula in July 2007. A stress fracture occurs when a bone "flexes" repeatedly - an action obviously not meant for bones. The injury indicates that the bone is being bent, stretched, or pulled by some unnatural movement, but it is not out of the question that natural movement can cause it as well.

Following his 2007 shoulder injury, McCarthy spent the off-season working hard to get stronger for 2008. Word had it that he was up about 15 to 20 pounds. Without a doubt, his focus was on staving off another shoulder injury.

The nature of a stress fracture indicates (but does not guarantee) that a mechanical flaw is responsible. The other two injuries are indicative of a lack of physical fitness.

When throwing a pitch, the arm and hand have to be strong enough to overcome the inertia created by the rest of the body. If the inertia is stronger than the bones and soft tissue, the unfit tissues tend to break down.

THE WEAK LINKS

Strains occur when muscles attempt to handle larger loads than what they are capable of handling.

McCarthy's body got stronger, and thanks to both his increased mass and increased strength, he was creating more intense loads for his elbow, wrist, hand, and fingers. His forearm was not ready for the increased load, and his forearm flexor tendon suffered a very serious strain.

Pitching with a compromised flexor tendon puts the ulnar collateral ligament at serious risk for strains and ruptures, and it's usually pretty painful.

After spending several months strengthening and conditioning his forearm, McCarthy finally returned to the mound. With a stronger forearm, the next injury occurred at the next weak link in the kinetic chain, the flexor tendon of his right middle finger.

DOING THE MATH

If you've followed what I've said so far, you can see how it's important for a pitcher to be strong from his toes to his finger tips.

A pitcher's arm must be strong enough and conditioned to handle the loads generated by the rest of his body, otherwise, even someone with anatomically perfect mechanics can suffer muscle strains, fatigue, tendinitis, or worse.

Richard Durrett of the Dallas Morning News wrote the following on January 20, 2008 during the Rangers pitching mini-camp:

McCarthy said he's worked hard to strengthen not only the area that has proved bothersome, but also the areas around that.

To me, this is far more encouraging than reading that he gained 25 pounds. Perhaps now, his arm is ready to take advantage of the leverage his 6' 7" frame is capable of generating. If it is, McCarthy is primed for a break out season.