arm health, baseball history, Deadball Era, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Pitching

Wee Willie” Sherdel

I began peering back into distant baseball history perhaps twenty years ago, when my son was becoming strong enough to lift a bat and I was discovering my own deficiencies as a hitting instructor.  Oh, I also boned up on the latest hitting pedagogy—which was part of why I fled to the ancients with increasing interest.  The “cutting edge” instruction about batsmanship was clearly meant for tall boys, and clearly producing a lot of poor contact even in them.  The notion that hitters once upon a time logged 600 at-bats and only two dozen strikeouts in a season intrigued me more and more.

What I didn’t do at the same time was pry into the dusty annals of pitching.  That turns out to be a formidable challenge, as I try now to direct more attention toward the mound.  For one thing, most of us are more attracted to hitting in our youth.  Kids tend to dream of being Mike Trout (or Mickey Mantle, in my day) rather than Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer.  Christy Mathewson and Pete Alexander were not photographed as often in some stage of their delivery as Cobb and Ruth were in some stage of their swing.  And for that matter, a player may actually find it easier to freeze for a camera with a primitive shutter-speed as he swings a bat than as he slings a ball.  Certain classic “stills” of mound stars looked awfully bogus even on the baseball cards of my childhood (and I don’t date back to the days when cars had running boards).  For instance, the pitcher would be shot with both feet forward, toes squared to home plate, knees bent, and a ball-laden hand coming more or less at the lens as his eyes pretended to drill the catcher’s target.  Not many useful clues there: too much dynamism has been gutted and stuffed by the camera-wielding taxidermist.  In contrast, a hitter holding his coil into a load or his finish after contact will somewhat interrupt the flow of explosive energy, but not to the degree that the careful detective can’t draw some important conclusions from the film’s evidence.

(After writing all that, I realized that the Pitching tab at SmallBallSuccess.com actually presents the reader with some visual clues to reconstruct yesteryear’s dominant mound technique.  These are few and tendentious, but they do exist.  See also my video, Reconstructing the Pitching Technique of 90 Years Ago.)

Honestly, I didn’t get started down the path I intend to map for you in this discussion by looking at old baseball cards.  My labors at SmallBallSuccess.com have repeatedly brought me to the conclusion that players of shorter stature and broad body type can probably fire pitches in ways that wouldn’t be recommended for taller, thinner guys.  I know that I myself was always able to throw sidearm and submarine without any strain.  The motion was natural to me.  My son also seemed to take to odd arm angles like the proverbial duck to water.

That’s not to say that when elite contemporary pitching gurus like Paul Reddick share their teaching, I don’t listen with respect.  A lot of Reddick’s fundamental advice seems rock-solid to me, such as his rejecting the traditional lesson that the hurler reach and hold a “balance point” straight up-and-down over the rubber before delivering.  Ouch—I once taught kids that lesson myself!  But Paul is right.  Boys who try to go from 0 to 85 after a moment of complete stasis risk damaging their arms, and at the very least have trouble finding the zone.  Their hand comes back much too soon, their back arches as they deliver, and their lead foot falls out to the side.  Today’s revised coaching orthodoxy (and not just Paul’s teaching) urges us to “stay in a tunnel”.  Stride powerfully straight toward the plate, and let your leading shoulder rush into the glove elevated by your bent front arm.  Be Nolan Ryan or Roy Halliday, not Juan Marichal or Luis Tiant, Jr.

The trouble was that I myself could only stick with the program up to a certain point.  I think the Reddick “wall drill”, where you set up with a confining structure next to your rear shoulder and practice delivering pitches without striking that wall or fence as your hand rises, is brilliant.  I also agree that you don’t want your head to roll back or your spine to arch.  But… but the “stay in the tunnel” thing has always severely cramped me.  I’m just too broad-framed.  My stride is also too short to give me a fighting chance at equaling the acceleration of taller competitors, although I have very strong legs.  If I were to be judged (assuming that I were forty years younger and trying out for a spot in the bull pen) strictly according to the Reddick paradigm, I’d never make the cut.  Neither would practically any other short kid.  Guys who can master that model do throw very hard… but the model also filters out those of short-and-broad build, an exclusion which is always justified by pointing at the JUGS gun’s objective testimony.

What if my type of build could keep from loading up too soon, keep from arching the back and rearing up with the head… but also throw the lead leg powerfully outward?  Not directly toward the plate, where our diminutive stride would produce little advantage, but to the side like a Ted Williams aficionado throwing his front hip in a swing?  Such “falling away” produces arm strain and inaccuracy only when the pitcher is trying to throw high-overhand—from as close to high noon as he can get.  What if, instead, this “fire plug” pitcher were to use his muscular core in a sidewise motion of unfolding that drew his throwing arm along the slanted plane blazed by the opening leg?  Now he would be delivering from ten o’clock, or even nine-thirty—and the sidewise thrust of the “fall away” step would trail both arms fluidly along its incline rather than depriving a high-overhand delivery of a stable base because lower and upper body weren’t traveling the same course.

Do you know what’s just occurred to me?  The “balance point” business also becomes much less sinister if you intend to open out while keeping your arm angle low.  That’s because the lift of the forward leg is no longer a direct entry into the surge toward home plate: it’s a preparation for surging in another direction.  No longer is the energy flow interrupted.  The lift’s objective might be considered potential rather than kinetic: i.e., your knee’s pump is storing up energy to unleash sidewise when you choose to “go”, not trying to harness the energy created immediately when you’re tilting with just one prop beneath you.  This could explain why Satchel Paige and other oldtimers (hello, Luis Tiant, Jr.!) were able to mix various degrees of hesitation so effectively into their delivery.

To be sure, if all variables were controlled, such “kinky” style would probably still fail to rival the Reddick model in pure velocity—but it would produce more velo than the short mound-aspirant would have been able to achieve through the new-mainstream model, and it would also confront the hitter with a perplexing release point and a pitch that never keeps to a rigidly flat line.  I know Paul Reddick understands the merits of “perceived velocity” (i.e., hitter’s reaction time) and movement.  When the hitter needs an extra split-second to find the ball, the pitch essentially travels five or ten mph faster; and when that ball is severely breaking east to west even as it descends north to south, getting a barrel to it becomes an immense challenge.

Last week I posted a two-part video detailing my latest excursion into the forbidden land of sidestepping, low-overhand pitching.  (Part One is a discussion that sets up the trial; Part Two shows me attempting to apply my principles from the left side, where my natural aptitude wouldn’t be able to cover up theoretical errors.)  I hope to explore this subject further when my health stabilizes.  Because of all the hormone-suppressants I’m on as my prostate cancer is chased into oblivion, my joints and muscles don’t repair themselves as fast as they used to after a day of vigorous exercise.  As any ballplayer knows, you have to stay open to making adjustments!  Well, I’m still seeking out the happy middle ground between denying fuel to cancer and denying my muscles the food they need for recovery.  Be patient with me.

Anyway… it was in this experimental theorist’s frame of mind that I happened to watch a terrific DVD from my collection titled 1913-1938: The Sports Album (Rare Sportsfilms, Inc.), a succession of very early newsreels apparently created as filler for use between feature movies.  I couldn’t help but notice how many more pitchers were throwing in the fashion explored by my experiments than in the Reddick way.  Long strides toward home were virtually unheard-of (though it looks like Dizzy Dean was in that category–and Lefty Grove was folding his front arm into his body just to keep it out of the way).  High-overhand arm angles were very rare.  While it’s true, furthermore (as so many of you keep telling me), that pitchers before World War II didn’t throw nearly as hard as they do today, it’s also true that they were far more durable.  Going nine innings every start was an implicit assumption; logging 300 innings for the season wasn’t at all unusual.  Four-man rotations were the norm.  Yes, many hurlers of great promise blew their arms out under this regimen… but how many of our young prospects do the same, and are redeemed from the junk heap only because of advances in medicine?

I’ll leave off today by conceding that not all of my sidestepping exemplars were short, broad fellows.  Wee Willie Sherdel wasn’t extraordinarily wee at 5’10”; neither was Fidgety Phil Collins at 5’11”.  Dickey Kerr, Dolf Luque, Bobby Shantz… yes, they would have been under average (at around 5’7”) even for position-players.  But Pete Alexander and Dazzy Vance also made my list; and Walter Johnson, though I didn’t observe him to fly open, certainly didn’t lunge lengthily toward the plate.  Ditto for the immortal Satchel.  I’d say that the low-overhand flip was simply the standard of the day—and that it was demonstrably healthier for the arm than the style we now prescribe.  That I’m holding it out as an option for shorter pitching prospects is somewhat dictated by the hard fact that those lads won’t be taken seriously no matter how well they emulate the Reddick model.  Paul once responded to a dad’s online query about submarine pitching (I’ve never forgotten the words), “It’s just a gimmick.”  No interest whatever in exploring that option.  Such is the cocksureness of Space Age science: “We have the formula for rocket fuel, so stop trying to mix in Tabasco sauce!”

Well, try lecturing the Tampa Bay Rays in that manner, or any other innovative organization that has very effectively deployed unusual release points on the mound.

2 thoughts on “Excavating Treasures From Forgotten Techniques: Pitching”

  1. I heard John Smoltz say the other day that the MLB is finally coming to the same conclusion. Just hitting off of pitching machines, I find an off-speed pitch a lot harder to smack than a fast one. So… I wonder when the message will filter down to colleges and high schools?

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