If my arthritic right heel lightens up, I may attempt a video today where I demonstrate the advantages of using different arm angles—or the possibility thereof, anyway. (I can’t show the advantages unless I can put you in the batter’s box; and at my age, my best pitch is unlikely to intimidate or bumfuzzle a good teenaged hitter.) Do you know that successful pitchers of yesteryear once did this routinely? Why wouldn’t they? Throwing the same pitch from a different angle is equivalent to throwing a different pitch, as far as confusing the hitter goes; and the change of angle is likely to ensure that, in fact, the pitch will move differently, as well.
In an era when hurlers like Johnny Cueto and Pedro Strop are slipping in an extra kink in their wind-up or not always coming set with no runners on base (Satchel Paige must be smiling up there), a pitching tip that doesn’t involve turning on the after-burners may be ripe for reconsideration.
Now, when this strategy popped into my head the other day, I recollected that I had volunteered it to my son’s coach back in his high school days. I probably packed it away in memory’s attic because the coach immediately rejected it. (No surprise there: he would always reject any suggestion from any dad.) Even at the time, however, I remember being struck by the lameness of his curt answer. He said that a change of motion would signal the hitter what pitch was coming. Drop down to submarine level, and he thinks, “Oh, one of those: the low one that corkscrews in.” Throw from just above sidearm, and he thinks, “Uh-huh: here comes the slider.”
In the first place, I really doubt that most hitters at any level could process that the arm slot was changing as the routine wind-up shifted an instant before the ball’s release, then further match the surprise angle with a particular kind of recollected pitch. Especially in the case of guys with limber arms that can go to odd places, the batsman will not have seen this pitcher two or three times in the game already—for we’re describing a reliever. In the second place, even if the hitter’s calculations could occur so quickly, how would he know that the submarine angle means a fastball or change-up rather than a slider? Are we talking about a pitcher who has only one item on the menu from all of his angles? Why would we assume that… other than to stop pesky dads in their intrusive tracks?
To be sure, altering the arm angle within a sequence of pitches to a given hitter requires great skill. You run the risk not only of missing your target badly on the first attempt at surprise, but also of messing up your mechanics when you try to recover your more routine motion. I have no doubt that this is precisely why contemporary pitchers don’t plunder history for the technique: it’s just too hard to master. Their coaches are badgering them, instead, to keep repeating exactly the same motion. Every time.
But here’s my answer to that: if it weren’t hard, everyone would be doing it. As a pitcher of unusually short stature, I would want my secret weapons to be really tough to perfect. Mother Nature has already given my competition several advantages. If I can claim an advantage or two of my own, therefore, simply by working extra-hard, then I’m happy. I’ve found a way to level the playing field—and all I have to do is practice more and better than my rivals!
Always remember to “practice smart”. Hard work without a clear objective may well be wasted effort. Practice hitting your spots from different release points. Ignore velocity, at least until you nail down accuracy. Perry Husbands wrote a book called Downright Filthy Pitching a few years ago wherein he explains, with the aid of many charts, how the same pitch thrown at the same speed becomes different pitches at different points. A low-away fastball is as good as a change-up, since the bat’s barrel leaves the zone of possible contact very quickly. A high-in fastball at the same speed becomes a rocket, because the barrel has to get out in front of the plate super-early to make contact.
In other words, Coach I-Don’t-Talk-to-Dads, even if a pitcher has nothing but a fastball from either of two arm angles, he will have at least four pitches with an accompanying mastery of location. You should know that, Coach, if you’re really the genius you pretend to be.
(N.B.: The video proposed above was later produced and uploaded. See it here.)