Move Over, Moneyball
Stat nerds are out! Biomechanics nerds are in!
There are some inherent frustrations in this approach to baseball fandom. With reams of statistics now available to anyone who cares, the average fan can make his own judgments with regards to the numbers. But when it comes to mechanics, it still feels like we're in the Dark Ages. There's a clear thirst out there for this kind of stuff, but it's hard to tell which (if any) of these message-board guys knows what he's talking about. Mechanics analysis is so subjective, and such an esoteric niche right now, that the fan has little recourse but to put his faith in guys who claim to have some expertise.
As with any trend, the mechanics movement has its emerging gurus. At the Hardball Times, someone named Carlos Gomez (a self-described "retired pro baseball player" and "mechanics geek") has written a series of columns on pitching mechanics. His essay on Matsuzaka's motion praised Dice-K's "aggressive" leg swing and "elbowy" arm action. Sounds legit, but I have no way of knowing for sure.
Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll has also positioned himself as a mechanics expert. Carroll (who at times seems ickily comfortable with self-promotion) makes confident predictions about which pitchers are injury risks due to flawed form and which boast deliveries so smooth as to make injuries unlikely. Again, I just have to take him at his word. Carroll's analysis of Matsuzaka—a featured video clip at MLB.com—throws up side-by-side video of Dice-K and Roger Clemens, noting how similar the deliveries look. But it's my feeling that at least half the hard-throwing right-handers in baseball would look nearly identical to an untrained eye.
Also consider that in late 2003, Carroll (and co-author Nate Silver) wrote that Cubs pitcher Mark Prior
might be a special case, not because of his numbers, but because of his mechanics. What does a biomechanist see when Prior takes the mound? There are five major principles of proper delivery that can be summarized as balance, posture, anatomical position, rotation, and release. Prior is textbook with all five.
Prior is also now an injury-ridden mess. Carroll blames this on the heavy usage Prior has endured in his young career. But you'd think "textbook" mechanics would let him handle a heavy workload without major problems. Other pitchers have done that.
To be fair, there's no shame in getting something wrong here. The truth is, nobody knows anything. Even professional baseball scouts, the original mechanics obsessives, are constantly misjudging a prospect's prospects. The discipline remains more art than science.
But wait until we find the Bill James of mechanics analysis—someone who finds a way to bring unimpeachable rigor and objective measuring sticks into the fold. No doubt at that point there will be a rush to form fantasy mechanics leagues. And a few restless fans will be driven to find a new, unspoiled conceptual framework for enjoying the game. Speaking of which: Are there any Jungian baseball analysts, yet?