Mike Marshall, RIP: A prophet scorned

Mike Marshall

Mike Marshall, pitching in the 1974 All-Star Game.

One of Jim Bouton’s teammates on the Ball Four Seattle Pilots was a young righthanded pitcher named Mike Marshall. “I’m afraid Mike’s problem,” Bouton observed, “is that he’s too intelligent and has too much education.”

Marshall’s intelligence and education brought him a groundbreaking 1974 Cy Young Award—the first relief pitcher so honoured. It also brought him a doctorate in exercise physiology, a lifetime of learning, remaking, and trying to teach his art, and further affirmation of his sense that baseball’s entrenched couldn’t decide whether he was a nutbag, a menace, or both.

The doctor has gone to the Elysian Fields. Marshall died Monday at 78. His ideas about pitching remain, even if it took baseball a near-eternity to catch on and even if the game’s most advanced thinkers still don’t get a lot of them.

On the mound, Marshall set one of those records that sets the old school alight and indignant at once. Alight because he appeared in 106 1974 games, pitching 208.1 innings every one of them in relief, and was credited with fifteen pitching wins in relief, not to mention a 0.75 earned run average in the only postseason in which he got to pitch.

Indignant, because that old school continues lamenting the lack of durability among even relief pitchers nowadays. The old school’s ongoing failure to comprehend that no two human beings, never mind pitchers, are constructed entirely alike is one thing Marshall spent his post baseball life doing his best to transcend.

Four years after his Cy Young season, Marshall completed a doctorate in exercise physiology. His graduate education began as much on the mound as it did in the laboratory. If you’d asked Marshall himself, as ESPN writer Jeff Passan once did when Passan still wrote for Yahoo! Sports, Marshall would have told you the mound was his laboratory.

“I’m a researcher,” Marshall told Passan in 2007. “People forget that about me. That’s where my heart is. I pitched baseball, really, as the lab experiment of my research to see if it worked. Turned out it did. I don’t need any more validation that I know something about baseball. I know what works. That’s the greatest truth there is. I have a responsibility to give it back. Nobody wants it? Hey. That’s not my problem.”

Tommy John was one teammate who wanted it long before Marshall attached a doctorate to it. Marshall figured out (and loved reminding people) it was John’s ulnar collateral ligament that blew on the lefthander, leading Dr. Frank Jobe and the surgery that’s long since borne John’s name. Passan noted in ’07 that Marshall also suggested John adopt a regimen including exercises involving swinging his arm at his side with an iron shot-put ball.

Thus did John pitch thirteen major league seasons after his groundbreaking surgery.”We would just look at him and go, ‘He’s kind of wacko’,” John once said. “Yet you saw these feats. What I saw him do, there had to be a reason for it.”

One point in Marshall’s favour was that he didn’t come from the Dick Radatz school of hard-throwing relief monstrosities. His money pitch was a screwball of the kind that normally compromises if not ruins pitching elbows in younger men (Hall of Famer Warren Spahn developed his somewhat late in his career), but he was a pitcher who preferred to out-think both the opposing batter and his own body.

It wasn’t his intellect but a childhood accident that launched Marshall’s interest in kinesiology, that study of the human anatomy’s mechanics. At age eleven, he rode in a car with his uncle and the car was hit by a train, killing the uncle and hospitalising the boy with back injuries. During that hospital stay, the boy became fascinated with just how the whole human body actually works.

He earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan in 1965, while he was in the Phillies’ organisation. “Marshall applied his college course load to pitching and began to develop his own theories of pitching and pitching mechanics,” wrote Bruce Markusen in The Hardball Times in 2010.

He even devised an unusual pickoff move, in which he twisted his body in the direction of first base while making a throw to second base. The move looked painful, to say the least, but Marshall executed the maneuver without hurting his arm.

What Marshall sought most, after a delivery flaw caused him shoulder issues, was to simplify both the art and the physics of pitching on behalf of performing it as painlessly as possible for as long as possible.

“[H]e used high-speed film to analyze himself and noticed that if a pitcher pronates his forearm, it protects his elbow and shoulder,” wrote Passan, “pronating” being turning your hand so your palm faces down or in. “Marshall continued to refine the motion, adding the pendulum swings, where musculature prevents elbow-ligament damage, and the step forward, to prevent the arm from flying out and locking up. Marshall’s theory: Apply all force toward home plate instead of wasting it laterally with complicated wind-ups.”

Mike Marshall

“I’m afraid Mike’s problem is that he’s too intelligent and has too much education.”—Jim Bouton, Marshall’s teammate on the Ball Four Seattle Pilots.

Marshall began to look like a comer at last with the Montreal Expos of 1971-73. After the Expos traded him to the Dodgers for aging outfielder Willie Davis in December 1973, Marshall performed the impossible in relief. After 1974, though, Marshall’s flaws—including an impatient personality, an intolerance toward those who didn’t at least listen to his developing beliefs, and unapologetic activism in the Major League Baseball Players Association—got him traded to the Braves in mid-1976.

He finished 1976 strongly enough with the Braves but four bad appearances to open 1977 got him sold to the Rangers, where he struggled with injuries before becoming a free agent for the first time. He signed with the Twins and, at ages 35-36, had two sterling seasons before a bad 1980 opening got his outright release. Except for the Mets taking a flyer on him for 1981—and him responding with a 2.62 ERA in twenty games at age 38—Marshall never pitched in the Show again.

He took up the life of the itinerant pitching guru after throwing his last major league pitch. If it was too late for him to continue refining and developing his theories for his own work, he could still bring it to those aspiring to the art after him.

“A major part of Marshall’s teaching involves the highly unusual pitching motion that he advocates,” Markusen observed.

With this delivery, the pitcher has no real leg kick. He does not rotate his hips toward second base. After the pitcher lifts the ball over his ear, he follows through with an extreme pronation—turning the wrist outward with his thumb pointing toward the ground. By following these precepts, Marshall believes, pitchers can become injury free.

I’ve seen Marshall demonstrate this pitching motion on HBO and the MLB Network. It looks painful and awkward. Then again, maybe I’m just imagining that it’s pain-inducing because I’m so used to watching the classic pitching delivery. After all, Marshall knows a lot more about the human body, and the ways that its limits can be stretched, than I do.

Marshall also developed theories and demonstrated their operation regarding the rate and ways a baseball turns out of a pitcher’s hand decades before anyone else thought of analysing spin rates. “Even today, Marshall’s theories are finding new life,” Passan wrote for ESPN upon Marshall’s death.

On his website in 2003, he posited a theory he called “The Marshall Effect” . . . The premise was that the way a baseball is made, the Magnus effect—the phenomenon that predicts that a ball moving through space should do so rationally—was incomplete. There was something else making balls move, and Marshall believed that it had to do with the seam orientation of pitches. Eighteen years later, the concept Marshall introduced — now being referred to as seam-shifted wake—has invigorated a baseball physics community that believes it is perhaps the most important breakthrough in decades for understanding how pitches move.

Marshall ran his own low-rent teaching academy for a couple of decades. Descriptions melded together might make you think of a makeshift pitching lane with maybe a couple of small sheds and shacks, but there he worked and thought and taught, in the futile hope that maybe someone within baseball’s artery-hardened establishment would decide that maybe he really wasn’t baseball’s version of Anton Mesmer.

“I got tired of appeasing the stupid,” Marshall told Passan in that 2007 encounter, answering why he finally quit corresponding with most people inside the official game.

“Put it this way,” said Jeff Sparks, once an also-ran Tampa Bay relief pitcher who found and got wise to Marshall’s philosophies when it was too late to save his pitching career but not too late to learn regardless. “If [Marshall’s] way of throwing becomes the mainstream, what does every pitching coach who has been preaching the traditional pitching motion forever and has no idea how to teach this have?”

“[T]he baseball world sees him for what he hasn’t done, and that is consistently produce major-league-caliber players,” Passan observed then. “And so develops the Catch-22: Teams think Marshall is too much of a kook to send him top-of-the-line talent and elite players avoid him because they don’t want any sort of associated stigma.”

That wasn’t good enough for Markusen, either. “Really, what would be the harm in some major league organization taking a few of its struggling young minor leaguers—pitchers who are not considered prospects—and having them adopt the Marshall philosophy?” he asked. “If they have no chance of reaching the major leagues using their current mechanics, what would they stand to lose by giving another approach a try?”

It was done all the time before and after Marshall developed his pitching thought, just not Marshall’s way. We’ve read how many stories about this or that pitcher changing approaches and deliveries to go from nothing special to never better? We’ve pondered how many times that pitching really isn’t just a matter of rearing back and firing without control, thought, or purpose?

We’ve pondered how many injuries to how many pitchers that we’ve thought to ourselves could have been avoided with more intelligent management and something better than a still lingering inclination toward patch-him-up/get-him-back-there quackery?

Marshall now reposes serene in the Elysian Fields, where Jim Bouton might have welcomed him home telling him, “Around here, you’ll probably get occasional visits from other prophets. Other people the world thought were out of their minds, too. About things a lot more grave than getting hitters out, winning pennants, and trying to save pitchers.”

Away from baseball, those who surely didn’t believe Marshall was out of his mind included especially his late first wife, Nancy; his second wife, Erica; and, his daughters Deborah, Rebekah, and Kerry. They mourn something unique having gone from their world, and ours, a truly individual mind. We’re left only to ponder what he might have contributed if that mind trained elsewhere than upon the game he loved.

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