Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

April 2007 Kansas City Star

The Marshall Plan
The former Cy Young winner teaches a different pitching motion, one that’s made him an outcast.
The Kansas City Star


Its 8:30 in the morning, rush-hour traffic is just getting serious, and already this is a good day.  Mike Marshall bounds out of his beat-up, beige S-10 pickup, wipes his hands on the shoulders of his sweatshirt, and shuffles over to his 11 pitching students.

He is a former baseball star, but right now he’s Roger Ebert.  He looks up from a clipboard at his college-aged students, his voice growing louder as he talks about “Amazing Grace,” the movie he saw last night.

These recommendations usually come so detailed the guys don’t go because they already know what happens.  But not today.  All he says is that this movie’s incredible.

“You spend your lifetime working on something that everybody ignores,” he says, “and then you’ll understand.”

Jeff Sparks, Marshall’s prize pupil who pitched briefly in the majors, is listening closely, the way he always does when Marshall talks.

“If you say it’s that good,” he says, “I’ll see it this afternoon.”

Mike Marshall turned 64 this past January.  The years have taken the hair off the top of his head but none of his passion.

A lifetime of work plays out at the pitching academy he runs in what amounts to a large back yard off Highway 301, behind a white picket fence, across the street from the tow service.  He is an outcast in the game he loves because of the work he does here.

A Cy Young Award and Ph.D. in kinesiology make Marshall, as a close friend says, “a peer group of one.”  He is the butt of jokes within baseball, and the disrespect is mutual.

“Baseball’s been around what, 130, 140 years?” Marshall says.  “They’re still teaching the same motion of the first guy who won a ballgame.  There’s not one of them who knows anything of science.  They think Sir Isaac Newton invented the Fig Newton, and that’s why he’s so revered.”

Marshall won’t apologize for the packaging in which he presents his thoughts.  Ask him if he thinks his message would be better received if he toned down the delivery, and he’ll only grow more aggressive with his tone.  He says “ignorance is ignorance” and that his only motivation in all of this is to eliminate arm injuries.

“It’s a real corner he’s in,” says Michael Greenisen, a close friend who works at NASA.  “Mike lays it out, ‘This is the way it is,’ and if you don’t agree with it or can’t deal with it, that’s not his problem.  But refute it.  That’s the bottom line.  If you don’t believe it, then refute it.  The issue is they can’t, and it frustrates the hell out of him.”

Brian Sabean once hired Marshall as his pitching coach at the University of Tampa.  Bill Stoneman pitched four seasons with Marshall in Montreal.  Sabean is now the general manager for the Giants, Stoneman’s the GM for the Angels, and neither will return Marshall’s calls.

Back in 1974, Marshall broke records that still stand by pitching 208 1/3 innings in 106 relief appearances for the Dodgers.  Their current minor-league pitching coordinator played college ball for Marshall, but he says the team won’t take him seriously either.

It’s difficult to get anyone to speak publicly about Marshall.  Privately, they say Marshall does himself no favors with his abrasiveness and arrogance.  But even so, baseball coaches and officials say the idea of radical and widespread change to the pitching motion is as impractical as it is unfeasible.

“It’s a little bit too extreme for my tastes,” says J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ director of player development.  “It’s hard enough getting guys to agree on the four-seam fastball or two-seam fastball, let alone something that extreme.”

The price tag for 40 weeks at Marshall’s academy is about $3,000.  It includes a bed in one of two on-site duplexes, and the lessons start with pronation — the key to all of this.

Marshall’s pitchers turn their wrists away from their bodies upon release, thumbs down — exactly the opposite of the traditional motion.  Take a second to do this, and you’ll see it looks like an arm injury waiting to happen.

But Marshall’s research shows the same muscles used in pronation actually protect the elbow from muscle and ligament tear.  He lost 12 degrees of motion both ways in his pitching elbow doing it traditional, then became one of the sport’s best pitchers and avoided serious arm problems doing it his way.

It’s a leap of faith, but one backed by biomechanics.  His guys pitch seven days a week, year-round, a big difference from the caution used with most pitchers today.  Marshall says he’s never had a student suffer any arm injury.

“And if they ever did,” he says, “I’d quit.”

The pronation release is easy to miss at first because it’s wrapped inside a delivery like nothing you’ve ever seen on a baseball field.  Marshall sees a lot of wasted energy in that traditional motion.

Why should a right-hander bring his arm toward first base behind his back, swing it around toward third base, and then follow through back toward first?  Instead of redirecting all that energy, why not keep it in a straight plane toward the plate?

This is what Marshall teaches, and the result is a rock-step straight back toward second base, then forward toward the plate — almost like in fast-pitch softball, except with an overhand release.

Directing all the bodily force the same way is why Marshall says he can add around 5 mph to anybody’s fastball.  The different muscles in pronation are why he says arm injuries can be eliminated.

The workouts feature throwing 15-pound iron balls, twisting the handles of buckets filled with 20 pounds of concrete, and practicing their delivery with 25-pound wrist weights.

His students now are mostly guys who couldn’t get scholarships out of high school or are now rehabbing arm injuries.  They work hard, but expecting these guys to pitch in the majors is like trying to win the Kentucky Derby with a pony.

“Everybody I’ve ever talked to that’s done Mike’s exercises has been better off for doing it,” says Tommy John, a former teammate.  “And I don’t know anybody who’s ever hurt their arm doing it.”

Jeff Sparks turns 35 years old today and that makes him a relatively young man in most every walk of life.  But Sparks wants to pitch for a living, and that makes him old and quickly running out of time.

He’s currently working the inside seasonal section as a customer service associate at Lowe’s, which is a long way from the big leagues.  Earlier this year, he went to the Tigers’ open tryout for the sixth consecutive year, and he was ignored for the sixth consecutive year.

“I went over when I was done and I stood right next to (some coaches),” he says.  “I said, ‘What’d you think?  Pitches not good enough?  What didn’t you like?’  None of them would answer me.  The guy I asked turned his head and talked to the guy next to him.  I walked over to that guy, he wouldn’t even look at me.”

This is a stark change from seven summers ago, when Sparks was a promising young reliever for the nearby Devil Rays.  He struck out 41 batters in 30 1/3 innings and had a 4.15 ERA in 23 appearances for a franchise that’s always been desperate for pitching.

But in May 2000, against the Rangers, Sparks walked all three batters he faced on 14 pitches.  He shook off catcher Mike DiFelice over and over, wanting to throw a screwball — the signature out pitch of Marshall and his disciples.  By the time manager Larry Rothschild went to the mound, DiFelice was already there screaming.

The scene was all over TV that night, and Sparks was demoted to Class AAA the next day.  There, Sparks clashed with his manager and was again demoted, this time to Class A.  Tampa released him after the season.

Marshall’s students tend to take on his stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise that is at the crux of his inability to be heard.  Sparks and Marshall have openly bad-mouthed both the Devil Rays and Rothschild, who declined comment for this story.

His ideas and beliefs leave no room for give-and-take.  Ask Marshall about it, and he defiantly asks why he should compromise when he’s right and they’re wrong.

Eddie Bane worked in the Devil Rays’ scouting department when Sparks was in Tampa and still thinks Sparks could have had a long and productive career.

“But he was as stubborn as Mike,” Bane says.  “And there was no way other than Mike’s way.  That’s one of the things people would have a hard time with, including myself.  With Mike, there’s only one way to do it.”

Marshall pitched for nine teams in 14 years, and even now, he talks about R-rated verbal arguments with coaches — like the time he used scissors to trim a team official’s suit pants into shorts after a disagreement.

Twenty-six years after retirement, Marshall’s baseball friends make up a short list.  Near the top is Red Adams, Marshall’s pitching coach with the Dodgers, who always trusted Marshall’s methods.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, you know,” Adams says.  “He had his strengths and he knew what those were, and he did a hell of a job for us.”

And that’s the other part of this, the reason Marshall’s credibility just won’t go away: his methods seem to work for most everyone who tries them.

Rudy Seanez first came to Marshall in 1989 after being a September call-up for the Indians.  He didn’t convert completely, but took parts of Marshall’s workouts and mechanics and added nearly 10 mph to his fastball in one offseason.

The next spring, he made his first big-league roster out of camp and has pitched 15 seasons since.  He gives much of the credit for his career to what he learned from Marshall.

“I had no idea how hard I was throwing until I got to spring training,” Seanez says.  “That’s when I realized, ‘Man, this did wonders for me.’  It works.  I’ve seen it work.  I’ve seen it work firsthand on a couple of guys.”

It’s just shy of noon, and the day’s workout is complete.  Marshall is standing outside his home, two blocks down Vinson Avenue from his academy, talking pitching and thinking about that movie.

This crusade so far has led him mostly nowhere.  As long as legitimate big-league prospects won’t train with him, the chances of Marshall’s teachings going mainstream remain slim.

But he won’t quit now, not ever, and this brings him back to “Amazing Grace.”  In the movie, William Wilberforce works tirelessly through the British Parliament in the 18th century, determined to end slavery in England.  One character in the movie was an ex-slave trader turned minister and abolitionist.

“This guy lived with 20,000 ghosts of slaves he transported on his ships,” Marshall says.  “It was horrifying him and to me, the message resounded.  How do they live with the knowledge of all the pitching arms they’ve destroyed?  Do they honestly believe they had nothing to do with it, that it wasn’t what they taught?  Are they that ignorant?

“Yeah, I felt that connection.”


     Thank you for sending me a copy of the article.  It will give all my readers a chance to read what a reporter wrote after watching my baseball pitchers perform.

     I love reporters.  They come prepared.  They ask the tough questions.  They listen and watch carefully.  They write both sides of the argument.  I wish that we could have a series of debates where, like we were candidates for the Democratic or Republican nomination for President, reporters would question those of us who feel qualified to teach baseball pitching.  Then, the parents of youth baseball pitchers could decide who knows what he is talking about.

     I agree with you that, without ever talking with me, professional baseball people comment on my 'stubbornness.  However, even with the epidemic of pitching injuries, they are the ones unwilling to even investigate the problem.

     How, when they refuse to try to understand what I teach, can they comment on the value of what I teach?

     Even though they believed that Jeff Sparks had the talent to have a long and successful major league career, because he knew that if he returned to using the 'traditional' baseball pitching motion, then he would again injure himself and told them that, they released him.  It was their way or the highway.  That is the definition of stubbornness.

Happy Pitching Everybody
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