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Ben Lively, a Mechanical Analysis

The Guardians see a mechanical tweak he could make, I’m sure of it.

Minnesota Twins v. Cincinnati Reds Photo by Aaron Doster/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Before I begin I want to lay out my qualifications as well as a few caveats about what I’m going to be discussing here.

First of all, I am in the process of becoming a Driveline Baseball certified pitching instructor. I’ve completed their course but am waiting on the next live session that fits with my schedule so I can finalize that and be officially certified. I’m no major league pitching coach, but I’d certainly like to think I’m smarter than the average bear when it comes to this stuff.

Second, I don’t have access to biomechanical data, motion capture, high speed camera, etc. stuff when it comes to Lively’s pitching motion so there will be a fair degree of guesswork involved, but the naked eye and pitch data seem to support my hypothesis.

Third, fixing these things aren’t as simple as saying “well just do it this way.” The pitching motion is incredibly simple, yet complex. All you’re trying to do is impart force to the back of the baseball as efficiently as possible, but getting your body to do it properly requires training. The number one mistake that pitching instructors make is “over cueing.” A cue would be similar to a swing thought in golf like “keep your elbow down.” But as we’ve learned over the last few years, our brains aren’t really that good at consciously directing our bodies to do something specific like that within the context of the split second timing windows required for an effective movement pattern in a sport. Telling a kid to “drive off their back leg” or something to that effect oftentimes causes more problems than it solves. The brain/body connection simply isn’t set up to make adjustments that way. Making actual mechanical adjustments takes time, frequent isolation of movement patterns, and then training the body to move that way. Once you hit game time you shouldn’t be thinking about anything mechanical, just let it rip.

Fourth, and this is the most important, please don’t try and take notes from this to apply to your own pitching motion, or your little leaguer’s, or a player that you coach. I’m pairing down and simplifying a lot of the language to not overwhelm with info, it’s impossible to say whether any adjustment I point out here is right for you or your player without seeing their mechanics in their entirety.

So, with all that out of the way, here’s something I’ve noticed with Ben Lively that could point to why the Guardians signed him, and how their pitching lab may see him.

This came to me when someone pointed out a bit of an anomaly in Lively’s pitch data. He averages more velocity on his sinker (91.5) than he does on his 4-seam (90.5). That’s a fairly uncommon quirk to have as just from a pure physics standpoint the traditional 4-seam grip should always be your fastest pitch, when you throw it you’re putting all of your force directly behind the baseball as opposed to slightly offset to impart spin, and the 4-seam axis ensures that the ball flies fairly straight. There are, as far as I can tell, only two reasons that this would occur. Lively is either intentionally trying to throw his 4-seamer slower than his sinker (which you’d never want to do), or he has something mechanically causing this quirk. Unless there’s some new metagame in pitching that wants a slower 4-seamer, I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

So what would cause this?

This is where some of the guesswork and naked eye stuff comes into play, but I want to show you two pictures. They’re both blurry as they’re captured directly from game footage on YouTube which is only at 60fps, not great for capturing stills of high speed mechanics, but it at least gives us a clue to something.

The picture in the black City Connect uniform is Lively throwing a sinker, the one in the white uniform is a 4-seam fastball. They’re both in home games so it should be roughly the same camera angle to avoid tricks played on our eyes by perspective. What I’m paying attention to is wrist/hand position. Both of these images are captured at exactly the same point in the motion, right as the “takeaway” phase (hand separation) is completed and as he’s beginning his transition into the actual throwing motion. Lively has what we call a “longer arm action” which is defined by how far away from your body your hand is at the farthest point of your separation, not necessarily the length of the arm path to get there. The length of your arm action dictates what your hand/wrist position should be at the furthest point of the swing.

When a guy has a shorter arm action we want to see a neutral to slightly supinated wrist position at the farthest point of the takeaway phase, whereas for a longer arm action we want the wrist to be pronated. If those words mean nothing to you, hold your arms out in front of you palms down, like Frankenstein’s monster. Now rotate your wrists so your thumbs are pointed down, that’s pronation. Thumbs up (karate chop) would be supination.

There’s a litany of reasons why, but for the purposes of this we’ll simplify it to say that this is so that everything else happens “on time” for the rest of the delivery. What I notice in Lively’s delivery is that for his sinker he pronates very well in his takeaway, he’s sort of turning his wrist to “show the ball to the second baseman” as your little league coach probably once told you to do, with his fastball he appears to be in a more in a neutral position. This may seem like something super minor but it can have a massive impact on one of the most important aspects of the pitching motion, arm position at foot strike. Essentially once your front foot lands after your leg lift you want your arm to be “up and cocked.” Being “late” on this is also known as having a “lagging arm” which can take away a couple ticks of velocity, which would be enough to give us that 1 mph difference between his 4-seam and sinker. It’s worth noting too that beyond just the general velocity this will also impact the consistency of his velocity, so while I don’t have the data in front of me, I’d bet that he has a much tighter range of velocities he threw his sinker at this year than his 4-seamer.

So why is he able to pronate on the sinker and not the fastball? It’s actually fairly simple. A bit of a hack pitchers use is to preset the wrist position of the pitch they’re throwing in the glove when they’re in the set position or before their windup. A sinker is a pitch you pronate through as you throw it, so it’s likely that Lively presets his wrist slightly pronated in the glove when he comes set, and that it’s enough to encourage that pronation on the wrist during the takeaway phase.

Now that we’ve identified a potential problem, how do we fix it. This is, to me, why it’s so interesting that the Guardians signed him because one of the potential fixes couldn’t be more in their wheelhouse. Option A is simply to get him to pronate more consistently in his takeaway phase, it’s a quicker fix for sure and you could absolutely see benefit from it. The other option, and this is where the Guardians excel, would be shortening his arm path. The Guards absolutely love the compact arm swing that limits how far away from the body the hand goes. They’ve encouraged seemingly every pitcher they acquire towards that way of thinking. I’m sure many of you remember when Aaron Civale and Shane Bieber tightened up their arm action into that more compact motion that almost looked like they were short arming it (Civale in particular) but it doesn’t have to be that drastic. Remember all we care about is where the hand is at takeaway and whether it’s tight to the body or extended out away from the body.

A more recent example of a pitcher the Guardians have had make this change is Tanner Bibee. Bibee is also a great example of how it’s not the distance the arm travels in the swing but the distance of the hand from the body that matters. Notice how in the footage from his time in college his hand goes more towards second base with a pronated wrist position whereas now it ends up slightly supinated right next to his back knee as he transitions into the throw.

(The footage of Bibee in college is low quality enough that I figured video would be better than a still image to illustrate the point)

Tanner made some absolutely massive jumps in velocity and all around stuff once he got into the Guardians system, and while it isn’t the only adjustment they made tightening up his arm action into a more efficient motion certainly played a role in that. This isn’t to say that a longer arm action is bad, however I would argue that it’s easier to be consistent and repeatable with a shorter arm action. Repeatability in mechanics is absolutely critical and I’d argue the #1 thing the Guardians focus on with pitchers.

So what does this mean for Lively? Well I’m obviously not privy to the conversations the Guardians pitching dev staff is having with him, but I highly suspect that you’ll see him come into spring training with a shorter arm action. If he does it’s not unreasonable to think he could gain 1-2 MPH on the fastball and more consistency on his breaking stuff. Is this signing going to turn us into immediate World Series favorites? No, probably not. Is Lively going to make these adjustments and suddenly turn into a Cy Young candidate? Also no, but this is a savvy move to pick up a guy whose mechanical deficiencies line up well with the areas you’re proficient at teaching, and it’s not unreasonable to think that they could turn him into a reliable back of the rotation guy who has a great night here and there.

I personally really like the signing and while I’d certainly like to see them address the lineup, getting wins in moves like this are where small market teams like Cleveland make a living.