Last Saturday, Jose Fernandez threw seven innings of one-hit baseball. At 20 years old, Fernandez is showing signs of being the Marlins’ rotation ace. It seems like it might be a good time to review his pitching mechanics.
Part One: The Approach
Devoid of the theatrics and twitches endemic to pitchers like Heath Bell, Fernandez’ approach is relaxed and confident. Standing square to the plate and holding the ball in his glove at roughly sternum high, he wastes little time receiving the sign from the catcher and starting his windup. From the stretch, he keeps the ball behind his back leg until he receives the sign and assumes the set position.
The main benefit he receives from his approach is that he asserts control over the timing of the play. By getting set as quickly as he does, he forces the hitters to adapt to his schedule. It is a subtle shift in the balance of power between the belligerents.
Part Two: The Delivery
A pitcher’s delivery can be broken into four broad steps; the rock-back, the pivot and leg lift, the drop and drive, and the release. Jose Fernandez is one of those pitchers whose delivery doesn’t include any oddities during these four steps. Examples of oddities include Felix Hernandez’ odd double-tap at the start of his rock-back step, Juan Marichal’s extremely high leg kick, Tim Lincecum’s ultra-deep drop and long stride, and Heath Bell’s nearly upright posture at the release point.
An example of another pitcher with the same quiet, textbook delivery as Fernandez is the Dodgers’ Josh Beckett.
There are some elements of Fernandez’ delivery that bear highlighting. During his pivot and leg lift, Fernandez raises his knee high enough that his thigh passes the horizontal plane, and he closes his hips slightly. At the same time, he keeps his hands low, near his belly button. The high knee, closed hips and low hands help keep the ball hidden from the batter for the longest possible time during his windup. Also note that he does not separate his hands until he begins dropping onto his back leg.
When Fernandez has completed his drop, and is starting to drive to the plate, he has a tendency to sweep his front foot around to the plate rather than extend it directly to the catcher. Sandy Koufax did the same. Obviously, it worked well for Mr. Koufax. However, a sweep can make it more difficult for a pitcher to be consistent with his alignment to the plate, and it is alignment that controls whether a pitch hits the inside or outside corner. In the starts where Jose has difficulty commanding the corners, look for inconsistency in his alignment. A sweeping front foot carries his inertia from right to left, at a time when it is preferable to have every scrap of energy traveling to the strike zone.
Pitchers with long Hall of Fame careers like Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, and Nolan Ryan all have a leg-to-leg stride angle of between 110 and 160 degrees. This long stride is driven by the explosive extension of the back leg and is what generates the inertia that allows a relatively slightly built pitcher to achieve fastball speeds of 95 MPH and up. Jose Fernandez’ stride angle looks to be in the 120-degree range, which is consistent with his 95-97 MPH fastball.
Part Three: The Release
The biggest single factor that separates Major League pitchers from ordinary humans is the ability to consistently deliver quality pitches. Consistency is the key. Not long ago, Sports Illustrated posted this animated .gif of Yu Darvish delivering his five primary pitches. In addition to his powerful drive and long extension, every pitch from Darvish looks exactly the same to a hitter until the ball exits his hand. It would be interesting to see the same treatment of Fernandez’ four primary pitches. From casual observation and limited analysis, it looks like Fernandez is well on his way to that level of consistency. His nine strikeouts on Saturday imply that he’s doing at least a passable job. Fernandez also does an excellent job of getting his chest down at the release point, which is another indicator that he is maximizing the drive from his back leg. With the amount of momentum he is generating, his front foot acts like a brake, and his upper body is simply rolling over the braking point, much like a crash test dummy rolls over the seat belt when the car hits the test barricade. That rollover creates whipping motion that adds velocity to the pitch.
Part Four: The Follow-through
In the millisecond that the ball loses contact with the pitcher’s fingers, the pitcher becomes another infielder, and that is one area that is of concern with Jose Fernandez’ mechanics. When he releases the ball, his momentum carries his back leg far enough up in the air behind his back that he has to crow-hop a step to recover his balance, and the strength of his hip rotation is enough that he lands facing the first base on-deck circle. A landing like that can have serious consequences in the event of a comebacker. He managed to field one on Saturday, but it wasn’t pretty, and he certainly was not in a good fielding position when he gloved the ball. Lots of pitchers today have an uncontrolled landing, and they are the ones who are taking the hard shots. For long-term avoidance of the DL or worse, the emergency room, Fernandez needs to spend some time learning how to deliver his pitches while landing like an infielder.
Jose Fernandez is the real deal, and his pitching is making a case to name him the ace of the rotation. With Henderson Alvarez and Nate Eovaldi on the mend, the Marlins’ rotation continues to be the brightest spot for the 2013 season.
UPDATE (8 May 2013): Unfortunately, Part Four of this piece became all too relevant last night in Tampa, as J.A. Happ got an ambulance ride after taking a CB in the ear hole. He landed upright and facing third base after delivering his pitch. Indicators this morning point to him getting out of the hospital today. We here at the Maniac wish him a speedy recovery.