We Make Good Pitchers Great!

Jan 22 2016

Tom House: the baseball eccentric who teaches Tom Brady how to throw

Former Braves pitcher Tom House was better known as the man who caught Hank Aaron’s home run. But then he started to theorize
and now two of the star quarterbacks in this weekend’s NFL title games swear by him

It’s 8 April 1974, and Tom House congratulates Hank Aaron on his 715th home run hit. In eight years, with three teams, House won only 29 games.
 It’s 8 April 1974, and Tom House, right, congratulates Hank Aaron on his 715th home run hit. In eight years, with three teams, House won only 29 games. Photograph: Corbis/Bettmann



High above the baseball field at USC a pitching Buddha sits in an office surrounded by his computers and printouts, on the search always for a new wrinkle, a different way. Baseball fears Tom House’s influence. Golf loves his theories. Football is intrigued by his methods. And two of the star quarterbacks in this weekend’s NFL title games swear by him.

Tom Brady and Carson Palmer are among the many passers who walk up the drive named for Mark McGwire, climb the stairs and step into the small office House shares with his handful of associates. They listen as he explained how he spliced their throwing motions into hundredths of seconds and identified flaws invisible to the human eye, which can only see 32 frames a second. Then they let him fix their multi-million dollar throwing motions.

And undoubtedly they chuckle as he says: “Those fucking things don’t lie.” This is because you’re going to learn a lot of truths when you can watch life happen at 800 frames a second. At that speed, even Tom Brady is going to have plenty of imperfection.

“We’re pretty good. Like, real good” House says, slumping on a couch in the office, adjusting the glasses that along with the brown moustache make him seem younger than his 68 years. “Our if-thens … we can actually tell you point in time exit velocity capacity, and predict what it will be if you do this and this. In other words, we can tell you what you are today and tell you that if you do this with your legs, this with your torso, this with your arms as far as conditioning is concerned and do the same with the vectors of your body, then in six-to-12 weeks you will be throwing this hard.”

He pauses.

“That’s why we keep having people show up,” he says.

Down below, in the third-base bullpen, an eclectic group of athletes gathers in a winter morning chill. A rising pitching prospect from the Minnesota Twins stretches near a Yankees farmhand. A pitcher washed out of baseball is wondering what it will take to get one last shot. A quarterback fresh out of SMU and wearing white ping-pong balls strapped to his body is throwing a football in a batting cage before an eight-camera armada. A small-college pitcher sits with his mother while a young Ivy League quarterback eyes this gathering with a look that seems to say: Brady comes here?

But it all works, House says, because the principles are the same. The lessons taught to a high school freshman pitcher are the same for NFL quarterbacks. What the kid sitting with his mother will take from today is remarkably similar to what Brady and Palmer and Drew Brees and Alex Smith hear whenever they sit in this bullpen.

Tom House: ‘I’m Forrest Gump, if I had to give a description of myself.’
 Tom House: ‘I’m Forrest Gump, if I had to give a description of myself.’ Photograph: Mark Boster/LA Times via Getty Images

He knows why they are here, why Cardinals star Jaime Garcia is on his way from the airport on this morning, why Brady and Palmer and Brees return, why Tim Tebow called him years ago and asked for help in getting back to the NFL. He has science; the other pitching instructors and quarterback gurus do not. This is the difference, his calling card. His resume says he has a doctorate in psychology. He says the study of mechanics that he does in the office above the baseball field at USC is certified by an institutional review board at USC. This, he insists, is what makes him different.

He does not refer to what he does here as coaching. Instead, he says he conducts: “human trials.”

What other quarterback gurus are doing that?

“Tom says when you pass a certain age you really got to learn to re-learn,” human trial patient Tom Brady told the Los Angeles Times’ Sam Farmer in 2012.. “A lot of it’s re-learning different things that maybe you’ve done, or have become habits that you’ve done thousands and thousands of times, (and) that you really need to train yourself a different way to improve certain aspects of your mechanics.”

On an April night in 1974, House stood in the Atlanta Braves’ bullpen and watched the ball Hank Aaron hit to break Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record fall toward him. He leaped, stuck up his glove, and felt the ball smack against his hand. There’s a picture of him shaking Aaron’s hand in the mayhem after his blast. For years, this is how America knew Tom House. He was the guy who caught Hank Aaron’s home run.

He was hardly a memorable pitcher. In eight years, with three teams, he won 29 games, had a 3.79 ERA and walked nearly as many as he struck out. His lone redeeming skill was being left-handed. Had he been right-handed he never would have pulled on a big-league uniform, let alone be standing in the Braves bullpen on that night 42 years ago.

It was almost as if that baseball was meant for him, as if it had chosen the iconoclast in the Braves bullpen to thrust his name before the world. His pitching wouldn’t take him far, but someday a curious mind would put him together with the biggest names in football.

“I had no friggin’ clue what I was doing,” he says with a laugh. “I’m consciously confident, maybe. I’m Forrest Gump, if I had to give a description of myself. I hope I don’t get in trouble for using his name, but it’s kind of stumbling into things without having any clue why.”

A few years before he retired he sought out Gideon Ariel – a sort of sports iconoclast in his own right. Ariel had developed a way to film what House calls “rotational athletes” – anyone who uses their arm in an overhand motion. Together they taped everything from tennis players to baseball pitchers to fly-fisherman. As the data piled up they tried to assess it. What could they learn?

Slowly, things began to make sense. If a baseball pitcher kept missing his intended location low, it was because he was moving his torso the wrong way. They realized that pitchers who had one kind of length to their stride when they delivered pitches had fewer injuries than those who didn’t. Eventually they had developed a model that focused on quantifying the movement in each athlete’s motion, and finding the ideal timing to maximize velocity and accuracy and minimize the strain put on a player’s arm.

“He wanted to be scientific instead of guessing,” Ariel says.

The two stopped working together years ago, and rarely speak. But Ariel wasn’t surprised to hear House had become the trusted adviser of football’s most glamorous quarterback.

“I’m sure he’s doing very well,” Ariel says. “He’s using the right system. Coaches can’t quantify (a quarterback’s) motions. They don’t have the tools.”

For a time, House was a big-league pitching coach. His biggest fame in this capacity came with the Texas Rangers in the 1980s, working for Bobby Valentine, then in his first managerial job. House brought his theories to the Rangers with varying success. He gained notoriety for making his pitchers throw footballs in the outfield before games, something he admits now was more of an experiment than something with tangible purpose.

The Rangers never had outstanding pitching staffs in those days, though that might have been a condition of playing in a hot climate in a park favorable to hitters. Craig R Wright, a pioneer in baseball’s statistical-analysis movement, worked with the Rangers at the time, and eventually wrote a book with House. He does not remember his co-author as a great pitching coach.

Tom House, middle, and umpire Don Denkinger restrain Texas Rangers pitcher Dave Stewart in Anaheim in June 1985.
 Tom House, middle, and umpire Don Denkinger restrain Texas Rangers pitcher Dave Stewart in Anaheim in June 1985. Photograph: Doug Pizac/AP

House focused too much on the development of a pitcher rather than thinking what that pitcher could do for the team right then, Wright says. He was too interested in the quality of a pitcher’s pitch than its effectiveness. There was often a difference between the two. Wright always thought House would make a better roving minor-league pitching instructor – someone who could drop into some small city ballpark, adjust a prospect’s flaws, then move on.

But Wright also remembers great successes. House, he says, turned Charlie Hough, a mediocre knuckleball pitcher into a durable, effective starting pitcher, and he helped Nolan Ryan control his blistering fastball. Ryan, of course, was probably destined to be in the Hall of Fame when he got to the Rangers in 1989 at the age of 42. But Ryan always had trouble throwing strikes consistently. It was House, Wright says, who solidified Ryan’s mechanics and helped his first three years in Texas become some of the most efficient of his career.

“Whenever I see a guy who had his fastball jumping all around, that usually is related to the inconsistency of his (front foot) landing spot,” Wright says. “I find that happens about 90% of the time. I learned that from Ton.”

Up in his office at USC, House sighs. Baseball is strange about him. The big league teams tend to hold him at a distance. Instead of having credibility in baseball front offices because of his career as a player and pitching coach, the opposite is true.

“Baseball is very reluctant to accept anything new from the field, let’s put it that way,” he says. “A lot of stuff (like statistical analysis) trickles down from the front office but not from the field. I will have to admit there could probably have been a better person than me delivering science to baseball.”

Like who? He is asked.

“If Sandy Koufax would have been delivering it, it would have been instantaneous, but when you’re a marginal part-time reliever, you know? It doesn’t mean much.”

He chuckles.

“Surprisingly, those guys don’t need to have science,” he says.

Football, however, listens. While baseball executives would rather not hear from him, several NFL coaches have sought his advice. The NFL, he thinks, is more open-minded; its coaches are seeking new ways to win a tiny handful of games. If an old relief pitcher with a table filled with computers can find magic in a quarterback’s arm, plenty of NFL coaches are willing to see what he has to say.

House is secretive about his clients. He only talks about specific quarterbacks and their workouts if they clear the interview. Likewise, he reveals little about his work with NFL teams except to say that he works with three head coaches. And of those three, the only name he will reveal is that of new 49ers coach Chip Kelly.

“I don’t think he’d mind me bringing his name up,” House says. “Chip Kelly has no problem sitting myself and [House’s assistant Adam Dedeaux] down with his whole coaching staff and talking through it. I’m talking conditioning coach, nutrition coach, line coach, whatever. He’s an avid learner. He’s always looking.”

It must strike him as funny to be a sage for some of the world’s best quarterbacks, but he shrugs when asked about them. He says he has “the Rolls-Royce sample,” meaning the best of the best. Players like Brady, Palmer and Brees listen. They absorb. They understand things faster than the baseball players. It’s been his experience that baseball players don’t come to him unless they are failing. Only then are they willing to have him film their motion and seek the in hundredths of seconds. The NFL quarterbacks come because they want to be even better than they are.

“The quarterbacks who come to us are pretty sharp,” he says. “They learn quickly. They are kinesthetically blessed.”

He stands up to leave. The group of pitchers and quarterbacks in the bullpen are waiting for him to give a lecture on nutrition. Then they will head into the sun and throw – the pitchers with baseballs, the quarterbacks with footballs. And to anyone who steps into the baseball stadium at USC at this moment would be perplexed by the little white baseballs and huge brown footballs whizzing through the air on a baseball diamond.

And it’s a long way from the night Hank Aaron’s home run landed into a future pitching Buddha’s glove.