11 months ago
“We have these contractual non-disclosure agreements with all of our teams,” says Michael Witte. The result is that Witte can’t get into the specifics that enabled him to create a “two-man company” with his son that has “become a secret pitching acquisition and development edge for more than 40 percent of teams in the game.” (The NDAs also prevent them from working with clients outside of Major League Baseball—if you’re not the Yankees, please leave them alone.)
Witte can discuss the ways MLB deals with a new insight, in terms of embracing it, resisting it and expanding upon it. This is how—decades after Witte thought his pitching career was over—an illustrator for publications including The New Yorker, TIME and The Wall Street Journal began a parallel career in baseball.
The Problem. Throughout baseball history, pitchers have blown out their arms. While surgery makes it possible to extend careers, it doesn’t necessarily enable players to perform at their former levels. Take Jose Rijo. He made an All-Star team, led the NL in strikeouts and picked up the 1990 World Series MVP as his Reds won the title. Then he got hurt and went five seasons without playing at all. He had three Tommy John procedures and two additional arm surgeries as he battled all the way back to the bigs.
Once there, the story gets less inspiring: Rijo managed only five wins and 94 innings before his career ended completely.
Or consider the case of Rick Ankiel. A promising young pitcher, he never overcame a fit of wildness in 2000, to the point he gave up pitching and became an outfielder. (Years after his retirement, Ankiel wrote of “the yips” and how they managed to “completely take over the next four years” of his life.)
“Every athlete how a sense of what they’re doing and how secure they are in doing it,” Witte muses. “If the mechanics are flawed, athleticism can cover that, but at some point, there’s a tipping point: The flaw meets stress. That stress is going to cause that athlete to be more and more aware of the flaw in the mechanics. Once that sets in…”
What if you could find the pitching form that minimized injuries and instilled players with a confidence in their mechanics that could withstand even pressurized moments?
Enter the cartoonist.
The Insight. Witte’s pitching career peaked in high school, specifically junior year when he blew out his arm. He “wasn’t quite the same” the next year and when he went off to Princeton wound up “13th out of 13 on the freshman pitching depth chart.”
“That was basically the end of my baseball pitching career, as far I knew,” Witte recalls. Yet he connected with baseball in other ways. He collaborated on the baseball comic strip Scroogie with the late All-Star reliever, Tug McGraw. (McGraw is best known today as the father of country music’s Tim McGraw.)
Witte also wound up coaching three sons in Little League: “Just to be a better coach, I started studying great historic pitchers.” He approached the footage “from the point of view of being a cartoonist/illustrator,” which provided an “implicit understanding of anatomy because I’d been drawing every day for so many years.”
This meant he literally watched film “one frame at a time.”
Witt journeyed deep into baseball history: “There was a flip book of ‘Three-Finger Brown’ produced in 1906 or so. Somebody put it together as a video.” The result is that it’s possible to study the mechanics of a pitcher who retired over 100 years ago. (Incidentally, Mordecai Brown got his magnificent nickname because a childhood accident on a farm mangled his pitching hand.) This is Brown pitching:
(This is a Witte illustration of him.)
Witte also read everything he could find that touched on pitching and hitting. He tried to apply this knowledge to the footage he observed so closely. He had a revelation: “I kept on discovering that what was I was reading was almost the opposite of what was occurring with great pitchers. I eventually came to the conclusion that conventional wisdom about how to hit and throw a baseball was totally wrong.”
While Witte declines to get into detail, he says he found there was a classic pitching form that appears throughout baseball history. Certain great pitchers simply did things right, almost instinctively—baseball instruction didn’t necessarily advocate this form, so there was no reason for them to learn it. (Which is not to say they did everything right—more on that momentarily.) They had mechanics that enabled them to have success and longevity, whether it was Cy Young or Bob Gibson.
Witte strove to understand and refine this theory, frame by frame.
While Witte sees improvement in recent years, he is generally disappointed with the development of MLB pitchers: “I think Major League Baseball does a terrible job of teaching how to throw a baseball.”
The Access. Now we return to high school. “I’d been a scholarship student at St. Louis Country Day School,” Witte says. “Many of my schoolmates and classmates were quite wealthy and became wealthier as they went on in life.” Indeed, three of them bought the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996. One would invite Witt and other friends to spring training games: “Unbelievable opportunity to sit in the front row of the owners’ box seats and watch the game.”
As he watched, Witte noticed kept noticing that the Cards were “losing a lot of their pitchers to arm injuries.” He thought he knew why. Eventually, he “finally summoned the courage to turn to my friend Drew Baur and say, ‘I hate to tell you, Drew, but such-and-such pitcher is not going to last very long.’”
Sure enough, Witte was right—not just about this pitcher but others too: ‘My predictions kept coming true.’”
(Incredibly, Witte also had a high school connection to a second team, having gone to school with the future Kansas City Royals general manager “Herk” Robinson. In 2000, Robinson introduced him to pitching coach Brent Strom after Witte said, “Herk, I hate to tell you, but your pitching coach is teaching every one of your pitchers to blow their arms out.” Strom in turn initially looked at Witte “like I’m a turd on the grass.”)
The Opportunity. Eventually, Baur and the Cards decided that they “wanted to know what I knew.” Witte was invited to spring training: “I packed up a bunch of videos-” (Howard Megdal’s book The Cardinals Way: How One Team Embraced Tradition and Moneyball at the Same Time describes Witte as bringing “close to a thousand VHS tapes of old-time pitchers he had studied” and characterized him as “kind of like a brilliant mad scientist.”) “-and went down to give a presentation to their ownership group. They seemed convinced, which was really quite remarkable.”
Now Witte just had had to be vetted by “a guy named Jeff Luhnow.” Luhnow was also someone from outside the traditional MLB mold: “Absolutely no baseball background.” However, Luhnow “did a project for the owner of the Cardinals” and was so impressive that he wound up in “charge of redoing how the Cardinals were developing players.”
“I spread out all my videos and showed Luhnow three,” Witte remembers. “That is all it took.” He was hired: “From 2005 on, I was an official consultant to the Cardinals on pitching.” It was unlikely enough that it drew attention from outside the sports world, including a piece in The New Yorker. (Witte notes he was baffled by the article describing his initial interest in pitching form as an “effort to relieve the monotony of his days” as an artist, as opposed to a conscious decision to gain insights for Little League coaching.)
The Resistance. Let’s go back to the Royals. While that first meeting with Strom started awkwardly, they quickly realized that Strom had “actually been thinking along the same lines that I was talking about.” (Indeed, Strom had a “big binder with pictures of great historic pitchers.”)
After talking with Witte, Strom wound up “changing his fundamental approach.” Witte reports that the Royals soon saw a drop in team ERA.
They also saw something else: angry players. “Young pitchers were coming up from the minors having pitched in the conventional model. Strom was saying, after all that work, ‘Hey buddy, you can’t pitch that way. You’re gonna blow your arm out.’ They started complaining.”
Soon Strom was looking for a new job.
A similar clash happened with the Cardinals. Witte recalled that when he first showed those videos, two people happened to peek in: manager Tony La Russa (a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee) and his longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan. They gazed upon Luhnow and Witte, a duo lacking “any kind of formal baseball background.” Witte can still remember their expressions: “Just total disgust.”
The result was a “total big fight internally.” Witte said the team even drafted pitchers who fit the pitching model he advocated and Luhnow embraced, only for coaches to change their mechanics back to the “conventional method.”
“We prevailed,” Witte recalled. (He was even joined by an old friend: “When I started working for the Cardinals, they needed somebody to work in their minor league system as their pitching coordinator. I recommended Strom.”)
Vindication came when the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011. While quick to note his efforts were just one piece of the puzzle, Witte does believe he made a definite contribution to the team’s pitching: “It doesn’t get much more vital than that.”
The Spread. With the championship, Luhnow “became a very wanted property in baseball.” He soon left to become general manager of the Astros. He also brought over Strom to serve as pitching coach. (Strom’s replacement was Tim Leveque—Witte recalls how Leveque visited his studio in Nyack, New York years earlier to learn about pitching mechanics: “He basically subscribes to my theory.”)
In 2017, Luhnow and Strom proved their methods could work outside of St. Louis when Houston won its first World Series in franchise history.
By this point, Witte had teamed up with his son to consult for a number of teams. He reports his clients seemed pleased with their ability to evaluate hundreds of prospects to locate those who would provide “value in the 15th or 16th round.”
“We’re, to a certain extent, just identifying the pitchers who somehow do it naturally or are not following Major League Baseball’s methods that are wrong,” Witte says.
The Evolution. Witte is quick to note there are many things about pitching he either doesn’t particularly understand (“Strom is a total master of spin in baseball and that’s something I don’t know a damn thing about—I don’t know pitching grips”) or address. (On pitchers tipping their pitches: “I don’t even look for those particular kinds of things.”)
But Witte’s evaluations continue to grow more thorough. He says he and his son now consider “over 200 different factors” with observations that get down to “minute little things, like positioning of the pinky finger.” (Witte notes that his drawing background helps greatly with this level of detail: “As an artist, I can draw anything I’m looking at.”) Ultimately, they “grade our pitchers across five categories in terms of risk for injury, from low risk to high risk.”
“We can look at a pitcher and—it’s almost sad—but we can identify almost immediately if a kid’s not going to make it,” he says. “We can pretty much determine that the future’s not bright for that poor guy.”
Using the Information. “My son always says that I’m looking for the perfect pitcher and I tend to dismiss pitchers who are marginally different than the classic model,” Witte admits. (Not that any pitcher is perfect: “There’s always a deviation from this ideal model.”) Even so, Witte acknowledges that flawed pitchers can “still have substantial value.”
Take Yu Darvish. Twice MVP in Japan, he has frequently been great in America. (Already a four-time All-Star, he reached 1,000 strikeouts in both fewer innings and fewer appearances than any pitcher ever.) But he also had Tommy John surgery in 2015 and during the 2017 World Series abruptly fell to pieces—2-0 with an ERA under 2.00 after his first two starts of the postseason, he went 0-2 with a 21.60 ERA in the Series.
There’s evidence suggesting Darvish was tipping pitches, but Witte notes he might have simply hit a wall: “It may have been by the end of the season, he may have been tapped out.” (“Tapped out” can mean feeling “minimally different”—Witte says baseball is a true game of inches and even a slight change can be the “difference between a ball perfectly placed or a ball over the plate.”)
Witte believes Darvish’s difficulties were foreseeable. He doesn’t find Japan’s instruction a particular improvement on America’s: “I don’t think Japanese pitchers necessarily have optimal mechanics at all.” Beyond this, Japanese pitchers tend to throw more pitches. (In his last season before coming stateside, Darvish threw over 130 pitches seven times.) That leads to this simple equation: flawed form + constant throwing = injury.
“I would have predicted that Darvish, based on his earliest mechanics, would have Tommy John surgery,” Witte says. (Tommy John surgery is a procedure to repair the elbow named after the first pitcher to undergo it.) Even if Darvish ever fully reclaims the level of performance he had before surgery, Witte worries Darvish will just keep using the same mechanics and wind up injured again.
Yet despite these concerns, Witte still believes that Darvish has value: “He has performed quite well in baseball. You can’t discount somebody like Darvish.” Witte notes that Japanese pitchers also undergo a “sort of a survival of the fittest process,” with the result that pitchers who succeed in Japan’s majors and then carve out a career here tend to be exceptionally tough. (Think Hideo Nomo, the 1995 Rookie of the Year who started the wave of Japanese players coming to America.)
So how do you evaluate someone like Darvish? The talent’s undeniable, but there’s reason for long-term concern. Do you look at a pitcher like that and conclude, “We can work with him”? (The Cubs certainly think so, having signed Darvish for $126 million over six years.)
Witte says pitchers can always be improved in theory: “Our analysis does include two or three paragraphs of how to best alter the mechanics of the pitcher in the direction we suggest.”
However, he and his son “don’t actually get involved in the teaching ourselves.”
And he says projecting how a pitcher could be altered is an inexact science indeed: “One never knows if you’ll get a pitcher who’s willing to change or able to change. That is a talent itself, to be able to change.”
The Next Step. Witte is deeply fond of Strom: “Strom is one of the brightest people out there in terms of his approach to pitching. He’s unafraid to approach something new—he’s constantly considering something new every minute.”
While many see baseball as a sport that clings to traditions, even ones that don’t necessarily make sense anymore—seriously, why do managers still wear uniforms?—there are constant changes. Each time a team fires a GM and brings in the new boss, everything can suddenly be very different. (Witte notes that each new hiring can mean a relationship ended with a team he has long worked with or a chance for work from a franchise suddenly willing to try their services.)
At age 74, Witte keeps evolving too. He thinks baseball has room for huge improvements: “It could be just extraordinary if the proper pitching and hitting model were in place from a child’s introduction to the game.” He is currently studying “all the top draft picks in baseball over the last 20 years for one component.” While he still has “about 100 pitchers” to analyze, he’s excited: “I think it’s a total revelation that’ll change the way we look at the whole delivery.”
He believes he may have found something that could eventually solve one of his work’s central challenges: Determining which pitchers with flawed mechanics still have “considerable value.” (“One of the things that I’m researching now may help figure that out.”)
Witte says he has no plans to stop digging deeper: “At some point, Major League Baseball may figure it all out and it will be done by algorithms. Until then, I’m having a good time doing it this way.”
Then again, there’s always the call of the golf course. Not to play, but to examine: “I think I’ve solved the mechanical secret of the golf swing.”
Below, a player adored by anyone who ever watched the Cardinals: Stan “The Man” Musial.