Alex Smith

So Alex Smith and a pitching coach walk into a bar…

What do Alex Smith and Barry Zito have in common?

Back in February, I explored the possibility of Zito improving in 2012 to the point of redeeming himself in the eyes of Bay Area fans, and in the process following in Smith’s footsteps to a certain degree. So far, Zito’s busy maintaining a low ERA early in the 2012 season.

Interestingly, according to a report by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Smith is following Zito’s lead in order to improve his passing ability and quiet the doubters that still exist after he led the 49ers to a 14-4 season.

Zito’s problems throughout his Giants tenure have been related to two things above all else: velocity and command. In March, Smith turned to former Major League pitching coach Tom House to make improvements in both areas.

House, who works as a volunteer pitching coach for the USC Trojans, held a clinic in late March at the Rod Dedeaux Research and Baseball Institute. The clinic is aimed at improving mechanics and arm strength for NFL quarterbacks. Other NFL stars that showed up included Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Tom Brady.

The most common gripe among Smith’s detractors: his inaccuracy, especially on sideline passes. Saying that Alex simply lacks the inherent ability to hit his targets or the courage to make dangerous throws were the best explanations many fans could muster. House believes he has discovered the root of Smith’s issues with location — the two shoulder surgeries he underwent in ’07 and ’08. House believes he’s found a solution.

Smith had subtly altered his motion after his surgeries, most notably shifting his head to the left as he threw. Smith was using his head as a type of lever to compensate for a lack of strength post-surgery. Smith, in other words, had manipulated his motion in an effort to find a proper release point.

House used three-dimensional video analysis, breaking down Smith’s form at a thousand frames per second, to examine the position of his head, hips, shoulders and arms when he threw a football. The video sessions were held inside USC’s batting cage.

Zito worked with House from the end of October until just before Spring Training, and that wasn’t Zito’s first go-around with House. They’ve been working together on and off since Zito pitched for the Trojans in 1998. Although he hasn’t been completely lights out, Zito has shown improvement over his 2011 season. Smith hopes to replicate that progress.

From the sound of House’s report, Smith earned a gold star over his time in the quarterback camp.

“He did really well. If he was a pitcher, which is my expertise, I would have given him an ‘A’ for not only his attention, but his capacity to learn. The cool thing is he’s thrown perfectly in his life before — before he hurt his shoulder. It was just a matter of rediscovering what he did before his initial surgeries.”

Smith’s work ethic has never been questioned, so if House’s diagnosis is accurate we should expect to see some improvement. Come August, 49ers fans may be watching a different Alex Smith; one who’s more apt to throwing sideline strikes.

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