Mechanical tweaks or the placebo effect?

Winning games and gaining no ground
Melky Mesa named Florida State League Player of the Year

When players struggle we want answers. It’s in our nature to seek the cause of a change. When A.J. Burnett fell apart in June we could easily point to Dave Eiland’s absence as the reason. Every time Derek Jeter slumps at least one person claims he’s hiding an injury. If any new player has a tough time it’s clearly because he can’t handle the pressures of playing in New York. The list goes on and on, but it seems that we always search for a single cause to explain everything.

The coaching staff seemingly understands this phenomenon. Every time a player goes through a rough patch we hear about the staff working with him on something specific. Derek Jeter, who prides himself on not using video to analyze his swing, took to the monitors with Kevin Long this season. A-Rod wasn’t hitting for much power, so he and Long worked on opening his hips. The list goes on forever, but two instances this year stand out.

(AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

For most of the season Curtis Granderson has looked lost at the plate. He has had a few hot streaks and has hit a few big homers, but for the most part his production has declined from even last year, which was a step down from his excellent 2007 and 2008 seasons. Earlier this month he and Long worked on his swing mechanics. Since then he has hit .258/.352/.484, which, while not stellar, is still an improvement. He has also cut down on his strikeout rate and increased his walk rate. It seems as thought the tweaks worked.

(AP Photo/John Froschauer)

After a rough start Javy Vazquez returned to form, and from mid-May through the All-Star break he was the Yankees’ second best starter behind CC Sabathia. Vazquez came up particularly huge in June when Burnett had trouble recording outs. But in August Javy experienced difficulties. The Yankees termed it a dead arm, which caused his velocity, already significantly below last year, to fall even further. Not satisfied with just the dead arm explanation, Dave Eiland went to work. As Chad Jennings noted last night, he seems to have found something.

There is a slight mechanical adjustment that seems to be helping Vazquez’s fastball. When he lifts his left leg in his delivery, Vazquez is bringing the leg farther back. It’s not more of a twist, he said, and the leg’s not coming up any higher, it’s just coming a little farther back toward second base.

“The arm angle also has to play a part of it, but (pitching coach Dave Eiland) feels like that’s going to give me better momentum, and it has,” Vazquez said. “The ball was true to where I wanted it to be.”

Considering Vazquez’s success, along with his velocity, during his last two relief appearances, it seems that Eiland’s mechanical tweaks worked. Notice, though, how the word “seems” appears frequently in the preceding paragraphs. It means that we can’t really prove any of these claims.

The problem with using these correlations to create a causal case is that we rarely see an incident with just one cause. We often see myriad little things, rather than one big thing, cause something to happen or to change. Sure, you can see that Granderson keeps both hands on the bat longer, and if you studied video you might be able to see the difference in Vazquez’s leg kick. But there is probably much more going on than we can readily see.

The placebo effect could very well be at work here. Both Granderson and Vazquez knew something was going wrong, so they made efforts to improve. Both instances involved concrete changes — the hands for Granderson, the leg kick for Vazquez — so the players could have a specific area of focus. Now that we’ve seen both players show signs of improvement we can look back to that one instance and attribute the mechanical tweaks to the change. But really, the mechanical tweaks might serve as nothing more than a confidence boost. We have no way of knowing for sure.

A-Rod lacks power, works with Long, hits three homers in a game. Granderson strikes out a lot and has trouble getting on base, works with Long, cuts down on his strikeouts and starts getting on base. Vazquez starts throwing in the mid-80s with poor command, works with Eiland, starts throwing 90 with precision. In all of these cases it’s easy to make the connection, but the easy answer isn’t always the right answer. In a game as complex as baseball there are almost always multiple factors at play, and confidence does not rank least among them. It’s great to see Granderson and Vazquez showing signs of life after working with the coaching staff. But I’m not quite ready to chalk up their recent success to those tweaks. There are just too many other factors at play.

Winning games and gaining no ground
Melky Mesa named Florida State League Player of the Year
  • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

    Excellent article.

    • CS Yankee


      However, I never took any placebo’s!


      • jim p

        I’m addicted to placebos.

        /Steven Wright’d

    • Not Tank the Frank

      Lots of good content today from the RABers. This is the fourth article today and we still have three hours till game time. Keep it comin!

    • Mike HC

      Agreed. Excellent article.

  • Steve H

    You can certainly make a case that the work done with Vasquez almost definitely helped, as a change in velocity is a true measurement without many concrete variables. For the batters who knows. I don’t follow other teams as much as I follow the Yankees, but when Eiland and Long go to work, it seems to work pretty well, no? I don’t know if other teams’ coaches have as much success. They may and I just don’t hear about it. Placebo or not, it does seem like Eiland, and especially Long do a pretty good job.

  • Pat D

    What I think would be a telling sign in something like this is whether or not the effects continue.

    At my job, I get “coachings.” I get feedback and for a few days after, I’m usually pretty good at applying that feedback. However, I often will revert back to old habits and not using feedback I’ve been given after a few days.

    Perhaps seeing continued changes, or consistent results, is the way to judge if this actually works?

    • king of fruitless hypotheticals

      does somebody follow up with you a week later? 20 instances later? i would hope the coaches follow up on big changes like this after each game or after so many instances.

      • Pat D

        Well, they were weekly, until they decided to change that policy a couple weeks ago.

  • ZZ

    The general premise of the article makes sense as there are always a myriad of factors at play in terms of doing something as complicated as hitting a baseball or throwing a baseball, but the idea that we can’t really prove any of these mechanical tweaks are at least one of the factors is incorrect.

    Saying that we cannot prove that the adjustments made are a cause of the results is akin to saying I know what adjustment was made, but I do not know what effect this is supposed to have on the baseball field and what these mechanical adjustments allow a player to do differently.

    It is more accurate to say that most fans simply are unable to break down and recognize the sequences that occur in a given at bat for example, and therefore cannot prove the mechanical adjustment’s effect on the outcome.

    • The209


      You can even take that a step further and say most “analysts” and armchair-statisticians “simply are unable to break down and recognize the sequences that occur in a given at bat.”

      Which makes it so laughable when you see the traditionalists and the sabermetricians get on each other, and neither one knows exactly what they’re analyzing.

  • Ross in Jersey

    I’d lean towards Placebo. We’re talking about established, major league talent that have had underwhelming years. The results after “tweaks” could just be players who are good at baseball performing to their ability level again.

    Maybe the tweaks help them mentally more than physically, giving them an excuse to break the season into “pre-adjustment” and “post-adjustments” splits to stop them from worrying about past performance.

  • Poopy Pants

    I’ll vote for ‘mechanical tweaks’.

  • Steve H

    Since then he has hit .258/.352/.484, which, while not stellar, is still an improvement.

    And technically, once put into context of an above average CF defensively, that’s just about stellar.

    • Pete

      was about to say the same thing

  • Ted Nelson

    I certainly agree that sometime there are multiple factors in play. Sometimes it may be simple luck determining some of the results and us drawing causation on irrelevant correlations.

    However, I would also say that sometimes there is one big thing or a small number of things wrong, you fix it or them, you improve… pure and simple. I don’t think you can just deny that sometimes players make adjustments that help their game because it’s hard or impossible to explain/quantify.

    I’m a lousy golfer, but I’ll get into a habit of not doing or doing something and get even lousier. If I realize what it is and correct it, I get better.

  • Klemy

    Article makes good points. Definitely something to consider. I guess there really is no way to tell for sure.

    • ZZ

      That depends what you are trying to prove.

      If you are trying to prove that a mechanical adjustment has helped, there are definitely ways to tell for sure. If you are trying to prove that a mechanical adjustment is the sole cause for the effect, then no you can’t tell for sure. But, the latter is a pretty simplistic notion.

  • Yank the Frank

    A wise man once said “half of this game is 90% mental” or something to that effect.

    • rek4gehrig

      “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical.”

      • jsbrendog (returns)

        drink yoohoo. cause it’s good.

  • jsbrendog (returns)

    is long also helping granderson with his switch hitting?

    it is funny how the littlest thing that can seem so insignificant can make such a big difference…or not….but maybe it does…

    stuff like this is why i come here.

    • Steve H

      is long also helping granderson with his switch hitting?

      I laughed.

  • MikeD

    I think there’s a tendency to dismiss the work of batting and pitching coaches. Their work is probably more critical on a day-to-day basis in the minors where they are teaching players to maximize their abilities, while correcting flaws that might prevent a player from reaching the majors. Yet even the best of players fall into bad habits, some more reguarly than others, or will need to make changes as they age and the league adjusts. That’s where the coaches can help.

    Is that the case with Javy and Curtis? I guess the point is it’s too early to say. With Javy, it could simply be a case of having a little rest, and being able to throw just a little harder because he’s coming out of the pen. With Grandy, he’s actually been slumping a little more again, yet even his outs have been harder hit.

    Dennis Eckersley once was a good starter whose career appeared to be coming to an end until he went to the pen. Perhaps at this point in his life, Javy is a better reliever than starter.

    • ZZ

      If you are attributing the uptick in velocity to the pen then you are ignoring the change in the way Vazquez is throwing the ball.

      • Ted Nelson

        ZZ, I think you missed the context in which MikeD made that point. He said MAYBE that’s the case, not that he is attributing anything to anything.

        Javy pitched 4.2 innings out of the pen yesterday, though, so I wouldn’t really compare him to a closer if the velocity stayed high after 4 innings. Maybe there’s something mental about coming out of the pen and giving it your all, but he got more outs than the starter.

  • Dela G

    I think it might be the vista roof

  • A.D.

    Derek Jeter, who prides himself on not using video to analyze his swing

    Why would he be proud of this?

    • Tank Foster

      I don’t know about the “pride” angle, but it is perfectly reasonable for a player to decide he should not use video analysis.

      Every person learns differently. Some times, too much information, or the wrong type of information, can do more harm than good.

      Jeter may be like one of the “feel” players in golf, who avoid video analysis of their swings and try to fix problems with mental imagery or other kinesthetic methods.

      An athlete like Derek Jeter, with a record of very high performance for a very long period of time, has probably figured out the best way to keep himself and his game properly tuned.

      That doesn’t mean that he couldn’t change his mind, and decide it was time for another approach, but just because the video camera is there, doesn’t mean that it will work for every player.

    • Pete

      It’s easy to perceive obvious “flaws” in your swing that are really nothing more than false herrings – things which look ugly but provide no actual hindrance to a swing’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, actual problems can be extremely subtle on video and easy to miss for somebody whose expertise is not in video analysis

  • Tank Foster

    Great post.

    Another thing to consider is that we only hear about certain instances of specific player/coach interactions. But it’s not like Dave Eiland and Kevin Long have been helping only Javy and Curtis recently. The coaching staff is always working with multiple players.

    I think coaches can help players, but to make a reasonable evaluation of a coach’s value – even if you could separate coaching effect from placebo effect – you would need a complete picture of all the interventions the coach has tried, and the effects on all the players.

    It’s actually one of the nice things about sports – the fact that you can’t really determine with certainty the best way to coach or the best things to coach. Baseball is now so overrun with a left-brain, quantitative, scientific approach, I find it refreshing that there are still some areas where the right brain is still important.

  • BigBlueAL

    Jose Bautista must have taken some helluva placebos this season.

    • tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Ridiculous Upside the Elder

      Jose Bautista Bitchtista must have taken some helluva placebos this season.


      • Pete

        Jose Bautista Bitchtista Bitchtitsta must have taken some helluva placebos this season.