Colin Rea put up the best numbers of his 10-year professional baseball career last season and won the Triple-A Pacific Coast League’s pitcher of the year award.
He still wasn’t satisfied.
The 6-foot-5, 235-pound right-handed pitcher from Cascade, Iowa, recently began studying the biomechanics of some of the more durable pitchers in Major League Baseball. And he has been implementing different philosophies while working out at the Chicago Cubs’ facility in Mesa, Ariz., in preparation for a season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The easiest way I can explain it is I’ve been going about the mechanics of how to throw a baseball wrong my whole career,” Rea said. “I’ve always thought, ‘Get on top of the baseball and drive it down.’ But this sport is all rotational, just like golf, and the most effective motion for pitchers — and hitters, too — is to rotate as fast as possible around the spine, using your hips and ribs. Well, I wasn’t doing that. I probably have never done that.
“So, that’s something I’m working on now. I still have a ways to go, but I feel like I’m getting that rotation. I feel like I have so much more power and consistency. I can tell the way I bounce back the next day. I’m not sore at all after throwing bullpens and live batting practices. It’s nothing you’d probably be able to notice if you watched it on video because it’s not something real major, but, with me, after learning it and watching a ton of video on it, I can tell.”
Rea won the Pacific Coast League’s pitcher of the year award last season after career-highs in wins (14-4), innings pitched (148) and strikeouts (120) in his first season with the Cubs’ Triple-A affiliate in Des Moines. He spent his first eight years in the San Diego Padres organization, with the brief exception of a 2016 trade to the Miami Marlins that MLB voided because the Padres didn’t disclose injury information on him.
Rea did not miss a start last season after coming back from 2016 Tommy John surgery that cost him the 2017 season and led to up-and-down results in 2018. Last season, he finished second in the PCL with a 3.95 ERA and helped the I-Cubs win the American Northern Division championship after making a different kind of mechanical tweak.
“Last year, I learned a lot about how your lower half should move and the most efficient way to move your legs and use your legs,” Rea said. “Now, I’m combining that with how to rotate with my upper body.”
The most-recent philosophy didn’t come from the Cubs’ organization. It’s something Rea has been researching on his own in an effort to prolong his career and, hopefully, return to the big leagues.
Rea made his MLB debut in 2015 with the Padres and went 7-7 with a 4.69 ERA in 26 appearances over two seasons.
“I’m constantly trying to learn and get better, which is what it comes down to,” Rea said. “If you don’t, you’re not going to last long. I’ve always known there’s a certain way to do it, but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I always thought you had to use more of a linear approach, rather than rotational.
“But there are a lot of studies and research that shows the healthiest way to throw is to rotate through the spine. It kind of excites me to know that I’m finally getting a grasp on how we’re supposed to move. There’s a long way to go, but it feels pretty good right now.”
Rea adopted the philosophies of renowned Houston Astros pitching coach Brent Strom, who helped transform Gerrit Cole into one of the best pitchers in the game.
“If you compare video of (Cole) from 2015 with Pirates vs. last year with Astros, you can tell he learned how to rotate quicker and more efficiently,” Rea said. “The more you watch it, the more you can spot the guys who do and the guys who don’t.
“I try to watch guys who are similar body types to mine, like Justin Verlander. He’s obviously doing a lot of things right, and he’s been durable. He throws hard. The Astros teach movement with their pitchers, and Strom is one of the best in the world at it.”
Strom went 22-39 with a 3.95 ERA as a journeyman pitcher in the 1970s and became the second MLB player to undergo Tommy John surgery. The 71-year-old has become one of the most influential sources for pitching mechanics since becoming a coach in 1992.
“There is no definitive literature on the perfect delivery, because you can’t get inside the body,” Strom said after being hired by the Astros in 2013. “But there are certain movement patterns — modeling and developing a kinesthetic feel by the pitcher — that can help.
“How a pitcher moves, where his body position is at any given time, where the stress factors are — there are things we can help enhance. There are also things we have to be careful about. If you try to do too much, you lose the uniqueness of a pitcher. It’s a balancing act.”