Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

June 12, 2007 Los Angeles Times

Marshall's Unpopular Mechanics
Los Angeles Times
June 12, 2007
By Kevin Baxter


Former Dodgers reliever still hopes to give pitching a new twist, but he says baseball resists.

Clint Wilson figured he'd be pitching baseballs in some pristine minor league ballpark by now.  Or at least at Penn State, the Big Ten school not far from his parents' home in rural Pennsylvania.

Instead, he's standing in a clump of weeds a couple of dozen yards from a busy truck route throwing four gallon bucket lids into a net.

This, he is convinced, is the first step toward the big leagues.

"I got my career back," says Wilson, who was told to give up baseball after a life-threatening blood clot landed him in a hospital three years ago.  "I'm throwing so much harder.  But I still feel like I can be a lot better than what I am right now."

Joe Williams appeared to be on the fast track toward pitching at Shea Stadium before hurting his back, then his shoulder two years ago.  Now the former minor league all-star stands near Wilson, throwing an eight-pound iron ball against a padded wall.

"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want to play baseball for a living still," Williams says.  "I've got the rest of my life to work."

Once-promising prospects, Wilson and Williams have been repeatedly cut by doctors and coaches who chipped away at their bones, their tendons and their confidence.  So with little more than their dreams to hang on to, they've come to west-central Florida to rebuild their arms and spirits at the Pitching Research and Training Center run by former Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall.

Despite the cutting-edge name stenciled on a tired white picket fence that surrounds the 8-year-old facility, Marshall's center seems more like a farm — right down to the spartan duplexes that bookend the practice field.  There the players sleep three to an apartment, sharing a dirty kitchen, a living room with worn furniture and threadbare rugs and a small bathroom with one another as well with an army of ants and roaches.

"When my parents saw it," Wilson, 20, says in a whisper, "they were like, 'We still have the check.  Do you really want to stay down here?'"

He did, so his parents went ahead and paid the $10 a day for rent and $10 a day for instruction it costs to attend Marshall's nine-month course.

"I kind of like it down here," the 26-year-old Williams said.  "This is almost like being in college again. It's like a frat house."

But it's doubtful the left-hander, once a biology student at Chicago's St. Xavier University, ever had a professor like the man he calls "Doc."

Short, bald and wearing baggy sweat pants and a moth-eaten, baby blue T-shirt turned inside out, Marshall does not look like a scientist — never mind the story that he turned down a job at NASA partly because it didn't seem intellectually stimulating enough.

So instead of figuring out new ways to launch rockets, he has decided to concentrate on finding newer and better ways to launch baseballs.

"These guys are my guinea pigs to learn how to prevent pitching-arm injuries for everybody," he says of his students.  "They come down here and they bust their [butts] to learn these skills."

And to forget just about everything else they know about pitching.

Marshall, for example, has scrapped the traditional twisting windup that pulls the arm away from the body before delivering the ball with a pronated, thumbs-up release, instead teaching a supinated, thumbs-down release and an erect, straight-ahead delivery with a quarter turn that leaves his students looking more like javelin throwers than pitchers.


     Unfortunately, Mr. Baxter confused supination and pronation.  When, by supinating their pitching forearm, baseball pitchers turn their pitching thumb upward at release, they injure their pitching arms.  When, by pronating their pitching forearm, baseball pitchers turn their pitching thumbs downward at release, they protect their pitching arms.


In addition to the new delivery, the students also must learn the vocabulary that describes it.  There's the pendulum swing, the "maxline" pitches that dart to one side of the plate and the "torque" pitches that shoot to the other.

It's odd, but it works, relieving stress on the muscles and bones, say Marshall and his followers.

"I can't say enough great things about him.  He saved my son's arm," says Allen Wilson, a youth baseball coach in central Florida.

Says Lon Fullmer, an Orange County youth coach who has studied Marshall's method:  "He dumped a cold bucket of water on my head and told me I didn't know what I was doing.  He was basically right.  I was ignorant."

But despite those results and a pedigree that includes a Cy Young Award and a doctorate in kinesiology, professional baseball has kept Marshall and his ideas at arm's length for what he says are personal reasons.

"They just didn't want my ideas to get in," Marshall says.  "That's ridiculous. But that's the small-mindedness of Major League Baseball.  They don't know what the hell they're doing.  And if I get in, everybody will know that they don't know what the hell they're doing."

It's a conspiracy that involves not only managers and pitching coaches, but general managers, farm directors and, presumably, the Trilateral Commission.  Yet just because Marshall is suspicious doesn't mean he's wrong.  Just ask Jeff Sparks, the only one of the 100 pitchers who has gone through Marshall's full program and made it to the majors, striking out 41 batters in 30 1/3 innings as a reliever with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.  He lost his job because, he says, the team didn't understand the way he pitched — and didn't like the fact that Marshall had taught him how.

"It wasn't anything else as far as I know," says Sparks, who had a spectacular blowup with his catcher and a minor league manager before his release.  "[But] there are no other ways.  You can't throw every day the other way.  It hurts to throw the other way."

At 35, Sparks' big-league pitching days are behind him and he's training to be a firefighter.  But he still shows up most every morning to help Wilson, Williams and the six other pitchers in various states of career crisis who make up the latest class at Marshall's camp.

"These are great people.  But not one of them got a scholarship offer to college," Marshall says.  "Who, that gets drafted, is going to give that money up to come here and train with me?  Asking me to get the pitchers I train in the big leagues is like asking a horse trainer to get a pony to win the Kentucky Derby."

When it comes to pitching, Marshall bends traditional thinking in other ways as well.  Running, for example, has become de rigueur for professional pitchers — and it's something Marshall, at 64, still does every day.

But he doesn't ask his pitchers to do it.

"You can't run the ball across home plate," he says.  "The only way you can get the ball over home plate is by throwing."

Nor does he have them ice their arms, work up a sweat before throwing or rest for even a day during his 40-week training sessions.

Marshall, who calls himself a researcher, not a coach, doesn't mind walks and prefers strikeouts to any other kind of out.  And don't even get him started on sabermetrics.

"You don't have to know anything about baseball.  You just need to do statistics," he says.  "That's ridiculous.  You want batters that get on base?  Then teach them how to do that.  You want pitchers that strike out more batters, give up fewer hits per nine innings, then let's teach them how to do that."

Which brings us back to Marshall's school-cum-laboratory, where Charlie Long, who couldn't even make his high school team, is spending part of his 90-minute morning workout flipping a football end over end in a drill that teaches the physics of rotation.  And in addition to throwing footballs, bucket lids and iron spheres that look like small cannonballs, Marshall's students also do as many as 96 repetitions of their pitching motion with wrist weights of up to 25 pounds before stepping on to one of a half-dozen slightly raised mounds and pitching into a net.

"It's preventing injuries," Marshall says of the routine.  "Making the bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles that are involved in this pitching motion as powerful as possible."

Marshall began developing his program in 1967, after his rookie season in the big leagues, when his arm was so sore he couldn't raise it high enough to shave.  Marshall, who spent his off-seasons as a graduate teaching assistant in kinesiology at Michigan State, set out to find the cause of the soreness, ordering X-rays and studying his delivery on high-speed film.


     Remember, Mr. Baxter has confused supination with pronation.  What he should say next is that 'The culprit, he determined, was the traditional thumbs-up supinated release, which unnaturally stressed the bones and muscles around the elbow and shoulder.'


The culprit, he determined, was the traditional thumbs-down supinated release, which unnaturally stressed the bones and muscles around the elbow and shoulder.  The only pitch delivered with a pronated release was the screwball, and Marshall soon perfected it — which not only relieved his sore arm but quickly made him one of the premier relievers in baseball, one who won the National League Cy Young Award in 1974 and finished in the top seven in the voting four other times.

It also made Marshall a workhorse.  In 1973 and '74 he averaged 99 appearances — including a record 106 games in 1974 with the Dodgers.  Only two other pitchers in history have made more than 90 appearances in a season.  And Marshall kept pitching even after retiring from the big leagues, throwing in adult leagues until he was 56 — once pitching four complete games in 30 hours, he said, the final one a perfect game.

"What I did baseball-wise, it was all scientifically related.  If I know something that will make me better, I do it," he says.  "It's easy to eliminate injuries.  It really is."

Williams, the former New York Mets farmhand, says it all makes sense to him.  Especially the straight-on delivery that carries pitchers directly toward the plate.

"I always knew you had to throw in a straight line.  It's the shortest distance between two points," he says.  "But I didn't know how to do it.  Then I came across Doc's stuff and I was like, 'Oh, well, this is how you can do it.'"

More important is the fact that Williams, who showed up in Florida with a slight tear in his labrum and frayed tendons in his rotator cuff, hasn't experienced any pain throwing Marshall's way.  Same with Sparks, who hurt his arm in high school, then pitched nine pain-free years with a damaged elbow that eventually needed Tommy John surgery.  And Wilson, who said his pitching arm used to shake uncontrollably between innings in high school with what was diagnosed as tendonitis.

"In the beginning it's really weird," Wilson says of the learning curve needed to master the Marshall technique.  "It took me probably half a year just to finally be getting it a little bit."

Not that he had much of a choice.  He said his throwing motion in high school produced the blood clot that nearly ended his career and his life.  After surgery to cut a wedge from his collarbone and remove parts of two ribs, Wilson ballooned to more than 300 pounds and his fastball looked like his old changeup.

Throwing Marshall's way — which has cut the side-to-side motion of his delivery from 8 1/2 feet to 18 inches — he's not only pain-free but his fastball is near 90 mph and he has four breaking pitches, including a sharp curve that drops straight down in the strike zone.  And though Wilson says his new windup is so bizarre he can't help but be self-conscious on the mound, when he used his new curve for the first time in a Pennsylvania summer league last year, opponents weren't so curious about how he threw it as they were about what it did.

"They're coming up, 'How can you hit that?' " Wilson says.  "It's weird."


Mike Marshall earned three degrees at Michigan State, including a PhD in kinesiology.  His best season came with the Dodgers in 1974 when he broke his record with 106 appearances and set records for most relief innings pitched (208 1/3) and most consecutive games pitched in a season (13).  He became the first reliever to win a Cy Young Award.

His career statistics:

|Year|   Team   | G  |  W-L  |  ERA | SV |   IP  |
|1967| Tigers   | 37 | 01-03 | 1.98 | 10 | 059.0 |
|1969| Pilots   | 20 | 03-10 | 5.13 | 00 | 087.2 |
|1970| Astros   | 04 | 00-01 | 8.44 | 00 | 005.1 |
|1970| Expos    | 24 | 03-07 | 3.48 | 03 | 064.2 |
|1971| Expos    | 66 | 05-08 | 4.28 | 23 | 111.1 |
|1972| Expos    | 65 | 14-08 | 1.78 | 18 | 116.0 |
|1973| Expos    | 92 | 14-11 | 2.66 | 31 | 179.0 |
|1974| Dodgers  |106 | 15-12 | 2.42 | 21 | 208.1 |
|1975| Dodgers  | 57 | 09-14 | 3.29 | 13 | 109.1 |
|1976| Dodgers  | 30 | 04-03 | 4.45 | 08 | 062.2 |
|1976| Braves   | 24 | 02-01 | 3.19 | 06 | 036.2 |
|1977| Braves   | 04 | 01-00 | 9.00 | 00 | 006.0 |
|1977| Rangers  | 12 | 02-02 | 4.04 | 01 | 035.2 |
|1978| Twins    | 54 | 10-12 | 2.45 | 21 | 099.0 |
|1979| Twins    | 90 | 10-15 | 2.65 | 32 | 142.2 |
|1980| Twins    | 18 | 01-03 | 6.12 | 01 | 032.1 |
|1981| Mets     | 20 | 03-02 | 2.61 | 00 | 031.0 |
|Totals         |723 |097-121| 3.14 |188 |1,386.2|
Source: baseball-almanac.com 
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