What Can the Ditching of US Airways Flight 1549 Teach Us About the Future of Baseball Skill Development?

By Coach Ron Wolforth-


For those of you who don’t know the story or for those of you who remember the incident but the details escape you, let me quickly give you the Cliffs Notes version of the events, and then explain why I believe the lessons of that story can be applied to those of us involved in baseball skill development today.


“The accident, which became known as the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’, involved US Airways Flight 1549 which, in the climb out after takeoff from New York City’s LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009, struck a flock of Canada geese just northeast of the George Washington Bridge and consequently lost all engine power.


Unable to reach any airport, pilots Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles glided the plane to a ditching in the Hudson River off Midtown Manhattan. All 155 people aboard were rescued by nearby boats, and there were few serious injuries.




A National Transportation Safety Board official described it as ‘the most successful ditching in aviation history’. After a thorough investigation, the Board rejected the notion that the pilot could have avoided ditching by returning to LaGuardia or diverting to nearby Teterboro Airport.  The pilots and flight attendants were awarded the Master’s Medal of the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators in recognition of their ‘heroic and unique aviation achievement.’”


That is the version a vast majority of us who recall the story remember.


But as the late Paul Harvey used to opine…”Now for the rest of the story”.


Now for the Rest of the Story

-Paul Harvey


As one can imagine, we have been investigating airline crashes since 1946. Our interest is obviously a very sincere and intense one, and again, as we might imagine, we have gotten much better at the depth and completeness of such investigations over the years. The black boxes which record incredible amounts of data during the flight, along with the amazing technology available to us today, really help pinpoint what went awry.


Possibly nothing is more important in any investigation than the cockpit voice recordings which tell us how the pilots were interpreting the events as they unfolded. Remember this as we go forward. Often the X factor isn’t in the data itself, it’s in how the data is being interpreted.  That interpretation is often the difference between success and failure and in this particular story, the difference between life and death.


During the investigation of the crash landing, the initial simulations seemingly “proved” that the damaged plane could have made it back to LaGuardia and that “Sully” placed his crew and passengers in unnecessary peril. However, several assumptions were being made by the investigators that simply did not jive with conditions in real time.  Only after Sullenberger pointed them out were the simulations corrected and the real truth revealed.


Had Sullenberger simply accepted the data, the investigators’ initial premise and their subsequent interpretation of that data, his legacy might have been quite different than that of the true hero he is recognized as being today.


The Miracle on the Hudson is a terrific example of how otherwise good, honest, competent people can be mistaken and misled by a faulty premise(s) and/or inaccurate/incomplete data.


Some people skimming this article might mistakenly believe that this message is anti-data, anti-technology or anti-analytics. They would be very wrong. Data and technology are a godsend to those of us in the trenches everyday who are trying to develop high level motor skill programming in our clients and in our players.


Information, especially objective measurement obtained via reliable technology, can and will be a center piece toward that “brighter” future. But at the end of the day, data, research, and technology are simply information… no more, no less. Regardless of the quality, reliability, or validity of any information, that information is only as good, useful, meaningful or productive as our interpretation of that information.


Garbage In, Garbage Out


It is common jargon in today’s fast paced world to lament, “Garbage in… garbage out”, making the point that our interpretation of and our subsequent utilization of any data is only as good and reliable as the data itself. In other words, if we are working with faulty, skewed, or incomplete data, our utilization of that data will almost certainly be less than optimal.


Most coaches and athletes get this connection.


Flawed Premise and/or Flawed Interpretation Equals Flawed Application


In my opinion, it is critically important that we constantly re-examine our processes in utilizing the latest technology.  We must recognize the critical counterbalance to the “garbage in, garbage out” postulate which I believe is something along the lines of: “Flawed premise and/or flawed interpretation equals flawed application”.


In other words, just like in the early stages of the investigation of Flight 1549, if we begin with a faulty premise, or we build our processes from a defective, flawed, or a perfunctory interpretation of the data, then our application will be less than optimal as well. Possibly even dangerous.


In short, not only does the efficacy of the data matter, so does the very premise of our inquiry and the subsequent interpretation of that data.


A Common Mistake


If those of us who have coached or trained athletes for any extended period of time are completely honest, we know we’ve made that mistake. As we grow and learn, we make the mistake less and less, or hopefully, we don’t make the same mistakes again. However, the real world regularly requires us to make decisions and we simply make our best judgements based upon the information we currently have available to us. Sometimes our thesis or interpretation is erroneous or imperfect. That is the reality of being a baseball coach, trainer, or manager.


Today, because of emerging technology such as TrackMan, FlightScope, Rapsodo, Yakkertech, etc., etc., we find ourselves at the dawn of new and exciting data points along with our interpretations as to what these data points may mean.


Seemingly every week I see good, honest, competent men be mistaken and misled by faulty premise(s) and incomplete data in an apparent race to prove their innovative talents and insights. We as human beings can’t seem to resist our desire to try to explain the unexplainable. 


The passionate desire for breakthroughs and discernment is not a bad thing, in fact it’s a very good thing. But such fervor comes with a caution. At the Ranch Consortium it is our opinion that we must be perpetually led with a healthy skepticism, a strong sense of awe and humility regarding the complexity of human movement, and a deep foundation of common sense. In other words, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. If the conclusions feel like we’ve traveled a bridge too far, we usually have.


We believe our future success is predicated upon being sufficiently and accurately grounded in the foundational lessons of the past.


Here are the 5 foundational pillars we, at the Ranch Consortium, believe must always remain as guideposts as we interpret data and subsequently apply our conclusions to the challenges of the day:


#1 Start with the Pain- Nothing can be achieved and sustained over the long term without health and durability. It is job one. What is second place is far, far less important. Far too many people in the baseball universe simply give lip service to regular arm discomfort and durability, and too many mistakenly believe that injuries are just a matter of risk-reward or of simple workload.


Health and durability are an extremely complex, multitudinous, and hyper-personalized equation. Everything matters. 


Case in point: I speak with Justin Verlander almost every other week even though he already has one of the best pitching coaches on the planet in his dugout in Brent Strom. Our conversations are almost always centered around health, durability, recovery, and consistency.


Even with arguably the best pitcher on the planet, health and durability trumps anything technology may offer in the short term. In truth, unless JV is healthy and durable, he can’t fully utilize the incredible insights that technology might otherwise offer him. Justin intuitively gets this and it’s why, in my opinion, he is still throwing at velocities similar to when he was 28 years old and is so consistent outing after outing.


Kudos to both JV and Stromy, they truly understand the priorities here and the results speak for themselves.         


When we say “everything” matters with regards to health and durability, here is what we mean:


The Ranch’s “6 Essential Performance Constraints” That Possibly Could Interfere with Our Development (Listed in Order of Importance) …


  1. Physical Structure / Alignment / Strength Balance- Anatomical / Function Related
  2. Movement Pattern- Mechanical Inefficiencies Related
  3. Preparation Related (Warm up, Seasonal & Game Ramp Up, Arm Care/Prep)
  4. Training Related (Strength, Mobility/Flexibility, Conditioning, Throwing Program)
  5. Internal Systemic Related (Sleep, Nutrition, Hydration)
  6. Workload Related (How many per inning, per outing, per season; histrionics, increases over the previous year?)


#2 Recovery / Consistency- The individual athlete’s ability to return to full functionality/capability after a specific stressor (training or game performance).


Too often in my observations, pitching coaches unwittingly disregard and/or discount the absolutely critical importance of pain, discomfort, fatigue, and the time required for the pitching athlete to return to full physical capability in their training and in their game season in lieu of more exciting things such as velocity, spin rate, spin efficiency, heat maps, and pitch design.


#3 Velocity

#4 Command

#5 “Stuff” / Deception / Pitch Design / Creating the Swing & Miss




Just as in the early stages of the investigation of Flight 1549, if we begin with a faulty premise or we are building our processes from a defective, flawed, or a perfunctory interpretation of the data, then our application will be less than optimal as well. Possibly even dangerous. In short, not only does the efficacy of the data matter, so does the very premise of our philosophy and the interpretation of that data.


From our perspective at the Ranch, while we love the insights and objective information our technology gives us, we must always strive to keep the main thing the main thing. Technology is a great servant but a horrific master. 


– – – – – – – – – – –


This December marks the 20th Anniversary of our Ultimate Pitching Coaches Boot Camp.  This event is recognized as the Gold Standard of coaches clinics.


To celebrate this anniversary, we have themed the event “Back to the Future” and we’re bringing the best of the best back to present this year including Brent Strom (Houston Astros), Derek Johnson (Cincinnati Reds), Wes Johnson (Milwaukee Brewers), Andy McKay (Seattle Mariners), Paul Nyman (SETPRO),  Jerry Weinstein (Rockies) and Randy Sullivan (FBR) along with 3 new up and comers in the baseball universe and of course, the TBR staff.


All the details are available at www.CoachesBootcamp.com.  Save $100 if you register by October 1st.  For group pricing, call our office at (936) 588-6762.  Can’t make it in person?  No problem.  DVDs are also available by going to www.CoachesBootcamp.com.



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