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Grooming pitchers a tall order for Pirates

| Thursday, March 21, 2013, 11:32 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Pirates pitcher James McDonald talks with pitching coach Ray Searage between innings against the Orioles on March 1, 2013, in Sarasota, Fla. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher James McDonald releases a pitch during a game against the Orioles during a spring training game in Bradenton, Fla.

SARASOTA, Fla. — At 6-foot-4, James McDonald fits the template of the modern Pirates pitcher.

Tall pitchers are intimidating. They create a lot of downward plane with their pitches, which can frustrate batters.

“Part of our core philosophy in acquiring pitching, starting pitching especially, is we do want guys who are taller,” general manager Neal Huntington said. “If you stay tall, have good posture and don't tilt your head, you can drive the ball downhill. You've automatically got an advantage over a 5-10 (pitcher) who, even up the 12-inch slope, is coming from a lower plane.”

Because a steep downward plane should help induce groundball outs, some taller pitchers try to get an even greater advantage by using an over-the-top delivery. However, doing that — as McDonald has discovered — can corrupt the pitcher's natural mechanics and cause him to struggle with control.

“He's got to keep his head to the target as he goes downslope,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “If he pulls off, that's going to be the errant fastball that stays up — very hittable.”

McDonald normally throws with a three-quarters delivery. When he slips into an over-the-top style, his head tilts out of line with the rest of his body, and his mechanics crumble.

“There will be times I feel like I'm trying to do too much,” McDonald said. “Sometimes, I catch myself trying to create pitches, trying to make it nastier. I don't have to do that. I've got this height for a reason. Just throw the ball to the mitt.”

It's not as easy as it sounds, especially for McDonald and other skyscrapers in the Pirates' system such as Jameson Taillon (6-6), Gerrit Cole (6-4), Duke Welker (6-7) and Luis Heredia (6-6).

“A lot of times in the spring, it will take me awhile to get all my body parts moving together,” McDonald said. “I'm so long and lanky, and it feels awkward. I've never been a short guy, but I think it's easier for a tall pitcher to get out of whack quick.”

Going over the top doesn't really aid a tall pitcher very much. Doug Thorburn, a researcher for Baseball Prospectus, found that an over-the-top delivery creates about one degree of downward trajectory, and the end result is about 0.5 percent increased groundball rate.

Thorburn studied release points extensively as motion analysis coordinator and coach for the National Pitching Association. When he saw McDonald pitch last season, Thorburn quickly spotted problems.

“I didn't like his posture, even when he was pitching great,” Thorburn said. “I kind of predicted he was going to fall off a cliff at some point because guys with that kind of posture really struggle to repeat (their delivery). He continued to prove me wrong for another month, doing really well and repeating that delivery, and then the wheels really did fall off.”

McDonald went 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in 17 starts before the All-Star break. In 13 games after that, he went 3-5 with a 7.52 ERA.

“Until he is functionally strong enough to maintain his delivery, keep his head up and maintain his balance, he's going to be inconsistent,” Thorburn said.

Thorburn said a pitcher's posture often improves over time.

“Look at Josh Beckett the first couple of years — he was crooked like a question mark. Now, he's straight up,” Thorburn said. “Felix Hernandez's posture gets better every offseason. Roger Clemens was completely over the top as a rookie with that big curveball. When he was with the Astros, he was more of a splitter guy, and his posture and balance were perfect.”

McDonald, 28, has been making an effort in his spring training starts to focus on his posture. His mechanics have slipped at times — usually after a leadoff hit, when McDonald needs a groundball double play. Mostly, though, he's been succeeding.

“Even when I'm just playing catch I try to throw it the same way,” McDonald said. “If you get into one little bad habit, you can take it into the game. It's so important, especially for a tall pitcher, to be consistent. That means, no matter what you're doing, you have to always practice throwing the right way.”

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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