Baseball Men - The Teacher

Our ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Dr. Tom House, former pitching coach to Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan.

In baseball's bad old days, it was just expected.

 

There were no sophisticated training tapes or teaching academies or coaching gurus decades ago, so most amateurs were essentially expected to teach themselves how to pitch. When youngsters like Jim Kaat, Sparky Lyle, or Catfish Hunter learned how to play, it was mostly in the self-teaching that came through endless sandlot game trial-and-error. Even as young professionals, pitchers were on their own, as most Minor League ball clubs lacked dedicated pitching coaches.

 

You might think that untutored baseball kids might have a competitive disadvantage once they entered the highest level, but the fact is that most Major League pitching coaches of the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's had little or no real knowledge of pitching counts and optimal mechanics, let alone systematic studies of sophisticated subjects like human physiology or athlete psychology. Apart from a standout coaches like Johnny Sain or Johnny Podres, standard operating procedure had a pitching coach of the day hanging on to his job through familiarity with mossy old conventional wisdom on pitching. That, and status as the manager's drinking buddy.

 

The worst part of baseball's ignorance wasn't in a lack of performance, but in a very human toll. Some truly exceptional hurlers of the bad old days did possess miraculous ‘rubber arms' invulnerable to ordinary wear-and-tear, but many more pitchers ended up like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who were effectively finished by age 32. Still other hurlers only managed to hang on despite the inevitable physical break-downs, but an untold number of would-be stars suffered career-crippling or career-ending injuries before they ever reached the Major Leagues, much less their full potential as Hall of Fame talents. With pitchers pitching until they dropped, drop they did. Noted sabermetrician Bill James has estimated that as many as 90% of all pitching prospects of past eras blew out their arms as amateurs or Minor Leaguers.

 

An old expression has it that ‘In baseball, you don't know nothing'. Back then, for pitchers, it was all too true. A brutally simplistic mentality had the terrible force of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more ‘experts' who simply assumed that ballplayers would be hurt, the more inevitable those destroyed careers turned out to be.

 

But there's good news nowadays. Much of that baseball history is just that - history.

 

In the new millennium, the Pastime has seen a new generation of pitching experts who have educated themselves on the craft and science in pitching, to the point where the most sophisticated, systematic treatises are never farther than a nearby bookshelf or DVD catalogue. In addition, coaches and instructors have gained all sorts of information on proper, healthy workloads, and reinforced those insights by putting hurlers through the kind of careful conditioning exercises and nutrition programs that prevent injuries in the first place. It's a whole new world for anyone interested in learning or teaching the game.

 

When injuries have occurred for today's players, sports medicine has introduced incredibly sophisticated MRI's, X-rays, and surgeries to diagnose and, where necessary, recover talented pitchers' arms. Gone are the days when ‘Tommy John' ligament replacement surgeries were likened to miracles and ‘bionics'. In 2005, the procedure has been accepted as a relatively unremarkable rite of rehabbing passage for stars from John Smoltz and Mariano Rivera on down.

 

The complete transformation in baseball's pitching has come through a wide array of cutting-edge coaches, doctors and therapists, but perhaps no one in the game has the kind of far-ranging, lived, and applied experience to match Dr. Tom House.

 

House started off as a pitcher himself, mostly for the Atlanta Braves, where he compiled a lackluster numbers (a mediocre 3.79 career ERA in a pitcher's era) from 1971 to 1979. The lefty reliever's education started in his reliance on finesse, but later arm injuries spurred further research into early sports medicine, from stamina conditioning to arthroscopic surgery and physical therapy. In time, House, working with consultants and doctors from the 1970's on, gained the expertise to author more than 20 books and instructional videos on pitching. While he's long served as an advisor to the American Sports Medicine Institute and helped design the first stop-motion computer analyses for athletes, the ‘Dr.' title comes from his Ph.D. degree in sports psychology.

 

House put all that training to use in practical Major League settings after his retirement as a player, most notably as Bobby Valentine's pitching coach for the Texas Rangers from 1985 to 1992. Coach House might have gained the most public attention for having his staff toss footballs between starts, but Major Leaguers probably remembered him best for helping revitalize the career of a veteran power pitcher named Nolan Ryan and launching the career of a struggling young power pitcher named Randy Johnson.

 

Since moving on from Texas more than a decade ago, House founded the National Pitching Academy and now serves as a coordinator of its 12 baseball academies across the United States and Canada. His instruction staff helps several hundred young ballplayers and several thousand parents and coaches every year - a student roster that's included stars like Kenny Rogers, Mark Prior, Robb Nen, Kevin Brown, and Orel Hershiser. Today, House is recognized as one of the most innovative, sought-after baseball teachers in the world.

 

It's been a varied and eventful career, one that's bridged one bygone era's rock-bottom expectations and the modern era's downright revolutionary improvements. Recently, a very busy Dr. Tom House took the time to discuss a young player's education and a veteran educator's insights.

 

 

Did you come across many influential coaches when you were developing as a young ballplayer?

 

In those days, it was Little League, Pony League, Colt League, Babe Ruth, American Legion, then college and professional. And, at every level I played, I was fortunate enough to come across a coach that gave me something to hang my hat on.

 

One of the most important early teachers was in high school, with a guy named George Van Zant. In my freshman year, he told me I wasn't very big and I didn't really throw hard, so I'd have to be very well prepared and throw strikes and hold runners close. In other words, be skilled rather than talented. I got that message really, really early. He gave all of us on the team, not just me, a template for improving past high school, even though I didn't have some of the size and power of other athletes.

 

From high school you moved on to USC's famed program, headed by Rod Dedeaux. What do you remember about Coach Dedeaux in the late 1960's?

 

He was probably the single best mentor I've had in the game, both on the collegiate and professional level. Rod Dedeaux was like a second father to me. He's a pretty special guy.

 

Rod emphasized the thinking part of the equation but, at the same time, it was ‘Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!' and ‘If they could beat the Trojans, they'd be Trojans'. He'd say things like, ‘They're in big trouble. We're only four runs down and they have to get us out three times - they've got no chance'. Call it what you want, but we always went between the lines prepared to win and enthusiastic. When we did lose, he never berated us, he just asked us why we could improve ourselves and win the next time.

 

So, overall, I was very, very lucky in my education as a young player. Every step of the way, there was always someone there to provide another missing piece, to help me develop a larger vision of the game. In college, it was Rod Dedeaux.

 

Did you come across any other influential teachers along the way?

 

I was pretty much a dismal failure as a starting pitcher for the Braves but I ran another fellow who was a, I'd say, a visionary, but also a mentor, Clyde King. In my fourth or fifth year in AAA ball - my career was pretty much winding down - Clyde said, ‘Tom, we're going to take you north and put you into every possible game to see if we can turn you into a relief pitcher'. That was in the late ‘60's, early ‘70's, where you first saw some of the specialists we have today - set up guys, mop-up guys, closers. I became a lefty specialist who could close in a pinch.

 

Well, it's interesting that you ran into Clyde King, in that your careers had the same general outlines - you had some good days as Major Leaguers, but most of your impact came after retirement, when you became baseball coaches and teachers.

 

He was an educated guy, a soft-spoken guy. Clyde was really the perfect guy to nurture someone like me, who was always wondering if he had what it took to succeed on the highest level.

 

When you did make it to the Majors, starting in 1971, you had to go through several major injuries. How did that impact your later career path?

 

Not only did I have a good baseball education on the field, but I also had four knee surgeries, which got me in touch with Dr. [Robert] Kerlan and Dr. [Frank] Jobe and these other orthopedic surgeons. As it happened, while I was into my own transition into weight training and flexibility and recovery, I found out sports science and medical science were doing these unbelievable things on their own - things like motion analysis and EMG testing and force plates. Drs. Kerlan and Jobe, for instance, were among the first doctors to get interested in rebuilding arms and shoulders in the way others had rebuilt knees.

 

Their work got me interested in new questions - ‘Why do pitchers break down?', ‘What can you do to prevent injuries before they even happen?'

 

I really had no clue what I was doing at the time - I was reacting to what had happened in the injuries - but, because it happened, it allowed me to see the world a little differently than a view of ‘Here's the baseball, here's the bat, here's the glove, go out and go play'. I happened to stumble along at the right time and place. It was another blessing; because I had interaction with the medical side, I began to match it up to what I'd learned on the field.

 

You mean, in that you had to learn about pitching skill and rehabilitation by necessity?

 

Exactly. While we were doing these on-field things, I was also doing a lot of stuff to improve myself off the field as well. That's when I first got into weight training and nutrition for recovery. It was a leap of faith into something new.

 

To give credit where credit is due, I always had a mentor. When I retired and became a pitching coach, there was always a Bob Cluck or a [former Rangers scouting director] Sandy Johnson or a Bobby Valentine to pursue non-traditional ways. I'd like say there was a master plan. There wasn't; I got lucky.

 

It was a different time, when you were playing in the 1970's and starting off as a pitching coach in the early 1980's. I mean, ‘dead arms' were still being taken for granted as a necessary price of playing the game.

 

That' right. That's what I heard early on - ‘That's just baseball's way'. The game was a very self-closed environment. New ideas are still resisted, sometimes, in baseball, but we live in an information age. Why not take advantage of it?

 

The game seemed to be tradition-bound in the worst sense, back then. When guys would routinely blow their arms out, a lot of baseball ‘experts' just shrugged and moved on without a second thought to the root causes.

 

They didn't know. They just didn't know. They were operating from a lens that didn't allow for anything outside baseball. Including advanced medicine and science.

 

And yet, trying to look at the game in a more scientific way must have been incredibly frustrating for you. Consider the seemingly unlimited ways that different pitchers can be effective with different body types, deliveries, pitches, philosophies, etc.

 

Sure. Guys like Juan Marichal and Warren Spahn, they didn't have overpowering stuff, but they did have different release points, different arm angles, different speeds and leg movements. That's what made them so surprising to hitters, and a large part of what made them so successful over the years.

 

At the same time, we found that the same basic things always apply to effective pitchers - mechanics, usable strength, mental/emotional approach, and nutrition. What we decided to do was create an ideal model, and we did this by studying as many Major Leaguers as we could.

 

You and your colleagues started coming up with a new vocabulary and framework - you started talking about the difference between arm strength and arm speed, and real velocity versus perceived velocity, for example. Pitching coaches had instincts about that stuff for years, no doubt, but I think you were among the first to start thinking in a systematic way.

 

It wasn't any conscious thing. It just happened that way. With every new question came a bunch of answers, which would yield still more questions. The process sustained itself. We started bringing all sorts of pieces together. We banged our heads in enough places that we finally found some answers.

 

Thanks to guys like Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus, there has been so much quantification to the ‘I guess' and ‘By golly' stuff we did when we started out. Cool studies have been done on when muscle failures occur, and the correlation between pitch counts and effectiveness.

 

Even Grady Little would agree with that at this point.

 

Well, I suppose so.

 

I mean, we're at the point now that analysts have come up with this equation, ‘p-cubed' I think it's called, that can predict prime candidates for the future disabled list. That's incredibly powerful. The evidence hasn't gone away and the orthopedic community is pushing it, because they're tired of doing reconstructive surgeries on 13, 14 year-old kids.

 

It's intriguing stuff, it seems to me, because it goes to the heart of baseball's appeal. A relatively ordinary guy can go far in baseball as long as he has a good appreciation and dedication to the craft in the game and can stay healthy.

 

There are certain sports out there where size is important but not necessary. You think of sports like baseball, tennis, golf, where preparation and consistency allow you to compete. John Q. Public can relate. Obviously, when Nolan Ryan walks into a room, people are enthralled with a Hall of Famer, but hard-working blue collar guys still think they might have a chance as Major Leaguers. [Relatively slow-throwing] guys like Randy Jones, Jamie Moyer, they represent hope.

 

Well, for all your focus on motion analysis technology and scientific nutrition and the like, you also earned a degree in psychology. Why did you go in that direction?

 

At one point I had a weird feeling that I wasn't getting through to some of my kids, my students, and I didn't know why. I figured if took a couple courses in psychology, I might understand what Yogi Berra was talking about when he said ‘90% of this game is 50% mental'. (laughs) 

 

And, the more and more I got into it, the more I realized that the mental-emotional management skills really were as important as the physical, nutritional, and bio-mechanical skills. 

 

In that they were parts of a comprehensive understanding of the game?

 

Hopefully. Almost 99% all the parents, coaches, and pitchers come to National Pitching Academy for mechanics. Well, they may come for mechanics, but they get the other three pieces - usable strength, mental/emotional approach, and nutrition - whether they want them or not. They get the whole package because, without the whole package, you've got a one-legged table. We have this philosophy about developing the person and the pitcher.

 

Just before, you mentioned that 13 and 14-year-old pitchers are still getting hurt. In your view, is it because kids are throwing too many curveballs?

 

Not necessarily.

 

Biomechanically, there's no difference between a big leaguer and a Little Leaguer. They have to do the same things - get a ball over home plate efficiently. It's a different construct in terms of strength training, but no matter what age, and there has to enough  resistance training to support the pitch totals.

 

If you throw in the right totals and use sound mechanics, no pitch really puts any more stress than any other pitch. Throwing too many pitches, whether breaking balls or fastballs, that's when things go south. That's when the wear-and-tear affects an elbow.

 

I was fortunate in that my own coaches didn't have a problem with me as a 13, 14-year-olds throwing curveballs and changeups and mixing and matching, rather than just staying with fastballs and changeups. For that reason, I learned how to throw breaking pitches very early - I want to say around the time of Pony, Colt League. I realized that the pitch was effective for me in the same way a bigger guy could use a hard fastball.

 

Then why do you suppose kids are still getting hurt nowadays?

 

Kids today pitch too much, but they don't throw enough. By that, I mean, in my generation, there were sandlots and we were outside throwing something all the time. My brother and I wore out three garage doors, throwing tennis balls at a kid with a broomstick in his hand. It was ‘Stan Musial' versus ‘Sandy Koufax'.

 

But kids today don't do that now, physically, because they can play on-screen somewhere with a videogame. It's a different environment. Kids have to throw more - just tossing a ball around - before they learn how to pitch on a mound, and they have to learn how to pitch properly before they can go to breaking balls and the rest.

 

Leo Mazzone, among others, seems to take that approach. He's said arms and shoulders are like other muscles - they get stronger the more they're used.

 

Leo Mazzone, as he would say himself, has a knack for stating the obvious. Low-stress, flat-ground throwing builds endurance.

 

What's your general approach when you teach pitchers?

 

I would love to say there's genius involved. There isn't. You do the hard work and go through your checkpoints - go all the way to the beginning, look at balance, then posture, then stride, then momentum, extension, right on down the line. Because, if you make an adjustment out of sequence, you're probably making a new problem in that change.

 

The other thing is, I'm always learning, too. I've tried to surround myself with really smart people - I'm talking about guys like Valentine and Tom Robson and the San Diego School of Baseball, Roger Craig, Bob Cluck, Bob Strum - and we try to accommodate new ideas without getting ego in the way.

 

If you share the little tricks you learn on your own with guys who know other little tricks that they learned on their own, it builds knowledge that can make the whole organization better. It's a really neat formula.

 

How do you try to get through to your students on a personal level?

 

Whatever it is, you have to provide a piece to their puzzle, to where they commit to making a change. Experienced coaches and teachers, I think, have an intuitive feel for doing that. Even those without a long track record can still help individuals if they can relate with research and stories.

 

The philosophy at the NPA, and it's an ongoing thing, is - we try to look at the world from our students' eyes, whether they be Little Leaguers or Major Leaguers, and provide  solutions in that way. That makes things a lot easier. Do they require a drill sergeant approach, a big brother approach, or something in between? To have one approach only, you have only one group of athletes you can reach.

 

Well, I'd like to ask about your approach with a fellow USC alum, Randy Johnson.

Why do you think he was willing to listen to your advice in 1992, when he was still struggling as a .500 pitcher in the Majors?

 

It was just time. He'd probably heard what Nolan and I had told him many times before, but he'd probably reached the point where he knew what he was doing wasn't working. There was finally a compelling reason for him to change.

 

If you have a better key, a lot of doors will be open. Problem identification is half the solution, but you need a talented person, someone like Randy, to buy into the solution.

 

I have to think that's not always the case with ballplayers. Most pitchers grow up with an ability to overpower hitters on raw talent. Trying to get him to learn about the details of mechanics and leverage and balance and the rest might be a challenge.

 

What you just mentioned a scenario where guys are almost unconsciously competent. Plenty of players can succeed without really knowing why they succeed, and that can work - until they start failing. One way or the other, sooner or later, they've got to know why they're good. They have to make the adjustment, and someone has to be around to provide the information for them to make adjustments.

 

Hey, it's hard sometimes. There are so many people in baseball with good intentions, but their information isn't very good. After a while, athletes can become desensitized, because they've heard words delivered without much of a thought process or scientific background.

 

Do you prefer teaching kids or Major Leaguers?

 

I'm in front of 200, 300 collegiate and professional players and 6,000-8,000 parents, coaches, and kids every year, and it's fun to see changes on both sides.

 

When you're dealing with an elite athlete, you might change 3% of what he does, but that 3% might make him a million dollars a month. With a kid, on the other hand, you have a blank slate. I really don't have a preference. Every scenario has its own rewards.

 

You recently talked about your steroid usage in the 1970's. How did that affect you as a player?

 

It never really was an issue with teammates or coaches or the organization. In those days, I was more concerned about being caught lifting weights than with an illegal substance. As a matter of fact, I doubt steroids were even identified as an illegal substance at the time.

 

What I found was that steroids didn't help my fastball at all. I thought that getting stronger would help, but what I found that there was way more to it than getting bigger and stronger. I ended up getting too heavy for my frame. It was a personal thing that, after a couple of winters, I became a dead end for me. I considered it a failed experiment.

 

How did the experience affect you as a teacher today?

 

In every nutrition lecture - and this was way before the media started howling at the moon about steroids - I talk about my personal experience. I talk about alcohol, tobacco, amphetamines, recreational drugs, and steroids as things to avoid. It's a false sense of security - they're all alike in that they make you think you're more than you are. It's the same problem with a different name.

 

All steroids and growth hormones, and all those testosterone enhancements, are short cuts. They're bad choices. Working smarter with better instruction - it's a much better choice, and it can all be accomplished naturally. Nolan Ryan is a perfect example as someone who got very strong naturally.

 

How do you feel about the media's focus on baseball and steroids?

 

Here's a thought - everyone talks about home runs and throwing harder and all that stuff in the modern era. Well, I honestly believe that it's the acceptance of weight training and proper strength/flexibility that's made the difference. Combine that with the smaller ball parks, no foul territory, and other factors, and you have a different game.

 

Who are your favorite active players?

 

Probably the best pure pitcher out there is Greg Maddux. He gets people out with a whole lot of different things - movement, location, change of speed. He fields the position, he holds runners close, he hits, he runs the bases. Maddux is pretty much the consummate craftsman.

 

Pedro Martinez, he's Greg Maddux with better stuff. Roger Clemens, he's the modern version of Nolan Ryan. We'll probably never see anyone else with that kind of work ethic over 22, 23 years. Nolan Ryan, for me, was the best-prepared super-talent I've ever been around, just in his combination of genetics, work ethic, and application.

 

Of the younger players, there are players like Johan Santana, Chris Carpenter, Mark Prior, A.J. Burnett, Dontrelle Willis, the kids with the Astros. I think baseball's full of young pitching talent right now.

 

How would you compare the talent level relative to, say, 30, 40 years ago?

 

I think there is just as much talent as when I signed, maybe a lot more. The development of that talent is so much better.

 

Everyone can improve but I honestly feel that athletes, overall, take much better care of themselves. Right now, the game has better instruction and performances than it has ever had. We're still figuring out new things, but our knowledge base is much greater than when we started out.

 

After all this time, are you still learning new things in baseball?

 

Absolutely. It's about having a passion for what I do and refusing to get stuck on one idea. If I ever reached the point where I thought I had it all figured out, (laughs) I'd probably retire.

 

It's funny. I hear football coaches and even basketball coaches being described as ‘geniuses', but I've never come anything like that attitude among managers or coaches.

 

I can't speak to other sports, but in baseball, those people who think they have it figured out - they're scary. They can do more harm than good. While there are certain managers and teachers I respect to the skies, I've never met anyone who has it all figured out in this game.

 

Given your experiences over the years, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or do you have mixed emotions?

 

I feel just as strongly about the game as when I was a 7, 8-year-old boy in Portland, Oregon, dreaming about becoming a Minor Leaguer or a Major Leaguer.

 

I had lunch with my mother a little while ago and she said, ‘When are you going to get a real job?' I said, ‘Mom, this is it'. She said, ‘You're still doing that American Legion thing?' You know what? I am. I'm still doing the stuff I dreamed of as a kid. To make a living out of play is awesome. As far as that goes, I'm a 59 going on 12-year old.

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