arm health, baseball history, coaches and trust, Deadball Era, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, submarine pitching

More on Yesteryear’s Pitching: The Lower Arm Angle

At the moment, I can neither throw a ball nor swing a bat a full speed without risking re-aggravation of strained ligaments.  It’s frustrating, because I have a lot of experimental craft on the runway that I’d like to give a trial flight.  My problems began when I hit the weights too hard after returning from five weeks of very successful cancer therapy.  That pulled something in my right arm.  I wanted to do a pitching video, so… well, I decided simply to throw lefty and thereby put my ideas to a even better test (since natural coordination wouldn’t be able to come to the aid of bad theory).  The only trouble there was that the test involved throwing the stride-leg powerfully open while having the lead arm trail it a bit: the “stretch the rubber band” dynamic.  I appear to have stretched a rubber band high up in my right thigh rather too vigorously.

Some of you will recall reading about Dizzy Dean’s ill-advised effort to return too soon after the 1937 All Star Game where Earl Averill smacked his toe with a line drive.  Through favoring the sore foot, Diz placed inordinate strain on his throwing shoulder… and one of the great pitching careers of the pre-war generation came to an abrupt end.  We should all be mindful of that cautionary tale.  It happens over and over in the baseball world.  Injuries just pile up like cars in a train wreck because of trying to work around the initial tweak.

It’s probably just as well that I discuss pitching indoors now when I make videos.  My demonstrations on the subject aren’t particularly dazzling, anyway.  I did an indoor shoot this past weekend (well, it was actually filmed out in my driveway) which pursued further the topic of the low overhand angle.  As I try to apply to pitching the techniques I used in earlier years to research hitting (digging up old newsreels, isolating clues in old photos, etc.), I find myself more and more convinced that, before World War II, throwing from a low angle—almost sidearm—was the norm.  Commentators of yesteryear often don’t remark upon the degree of that angle.  Overhand is overhand.  Because the almost-sidearm slot was so common, in any case, I doubt that many who observed it would have considered it worthy of note.

Excuse me if the rest of this column repeats in places my comments of two weeks ago. The repetition isn’t intentional. I think I’m going a little loony in my confined-to-quarters state (which compounds our whole nation’s confined-to-quarters state, of course). I believe a good bit of new also nestles in the old. Eventually, I’d like to work this research into a book.

Here are some names you didn’t see before: Robin Roberts, Johnny Sain, Preacher Roe, Eddie, Lopat, Max Lanier… those are a few exemplars of the style whom I’ve identified from film footage taken after the war.  Even in still shots, such as those taken for baseball cards, I can amass reasonably reliable evidence by keying on four giveaways corresponding to the pitcher’s four limbs: 1) his front leg strides out to the side rather than straight toward home plate; 2) his trailing front arm also flops out to the side rather than folding into its driving shoulder; 3) his throwing arm obviously comes through at a low angle; and 4) his rear foot may be left dangling in the air and somewhat to the side rather than dragging the mound’s dirt, this because so much momentum is carrying him off to the opposite side.

Now, Items 1 and 2 above get almost universally flagged by today’s pitching coaches as bad form.  I agree, by the way, that stepping to the side can be bad news.  It can cause the pitcher to arch his back and follow through with over-emphasis on his throwing shoulder (and, yes, I discussed that extensively in the earlier post).  You might say that, in siphoning his thrust away from the plate, the hurler has to make up for that lost energy from the back side.  Eventually, this can lead to career-ending damage of the rotator cuff.  No, not good.

But… but if the front arm trails the striding leg in a low, broad sweep (i.e., what I was trying to do from the left side when I strained a ligament somewhere in my thigh), it keeps the head down.  With that arm extended and low, the back cannot arch; and with that arm continuing sidewise in a sweep, the energy flow is held in a channel that runs somewhat skewed to the rubber-to-plate line.  Everything is working together now: all movement is traveling roughly in the same plane.  You’re not drawing and quartering yourself as this leg goes here and that arm goes there.

I’m pretty sure I wrote all that two weeks ago, as well. What I didn’t add is that my infamous “lefty” video is a negative proof of the “dynamic front arm” theory. My left arm, in attempting to throw from a low angle, never got down nearly far enough: my limbs didn’t reach the same plane.  From one perspective, this could account for my injury. I believe the right arm—the front one—was straining both to resist the opening leg for a split second and to pull the pitching arm down into its path. The rubber band probably would have worked fine if I’d stretched it along a true line… but I wrapped its middle around a nail and then had the far end straining upward as well as backward. Ouch! That hurts just to put into words!

Granted, you would tap more energy if you pointed your plane of movement directly at the plate.  This is what our speed-adoring contemporary coaches emphasize to their pupils.  Yet what if your body type just doesn’t have the slender, svelte, supple cut that allows it to “drive through a tunnel” at the target?  What if you’re wide in the hips and shoulders, as a lot of shorter people are?  Might your maximum of energy not be tapped in a more sidewise motion that utilizes your powerful core muscles?  Even if the straight-to-the-plate delivery shows up on the drawing board as more dynamic, another delivery may best harness the horses that happen to be in your personal stable.  Those horses can pull you to pieces, yes, if you ignore physics… but your own physical profile profile needs to be a factor in the formula.

Ah, but then there’s the question of accuracy, protests today’s coach.  It’s much harder to hit a target falling off to the side than striding straight toward the bull’s eye.  I’ve heard this explained as a physical certainty: i.e., that a sidestepping delivery cannot possibly steer balls through the strike zone with consistency.  Yet I find it no less improbable, considered abstractly, that a human arm—which is built to rotate at the shoulder’s side rather than directly over it—should be able to guide the ball exactly where the foot steps.  Face it: hitting the target from any angle requires practice.

And the low-overhand or sidearm angle has this benefit not to be found in “high noon” deliveries: its pitches show prominent east/west as well as north-south motion.  That’s precisely why accuracy can be a problem—but lively movement along two axes can also be a huge advantage.  It’s something more for the hitter to worry about.  I wouldn’t hesitate to say (and I say this from my much broader experience as a hitter) that, if a little velocity has to be traded for livelier movement, then the trade is well worthwhile.  Good hitters will eventually time the best fastball in the world, and sooner rather than later.  It’s the pitch that darts around in two planes which gives them fits.

I know I mentioned before that, because of my personal body type, I was always a natural sidewinder.  So was my son. By the way (warning: “proud papa” moment)… you can see this diminutive submarine slinger finishing off a D-2 rival here if you run the clock up to about 3:30 (that is, three hours and thirty minutes).  The bases are loaded with only one out.  I have a hard time imagining that a flame-throwing reliever could have handled the two bruisers at the plate as well in that situation.  They’re so cranked up to attack the next pitch that they’ve practically unbuttoned their jerseys.  Do you really want to try to beat those fellows with your best fastball as the game teeters on the line… or would you rather let them get themselves out trying to swat a moth?

I would add to this example of practical success the comment that, in a decade of throwing from down under, Owen never had significant arm trouble.  Neither have I, as a sexagenarian messing around with low angles.  Muscle tears, yes, and even ligament damage from the left side… but never in the arm.  As often as people ask me, “But doesn’t that hurt your arm?”, I can only answer, “Not if you do it right.  If you get your whole body in sync, it’s probably much safer than throwing high-overhand.”

When you take stock of how many guys used to pile up innings from the nine-thirty angle and then look at how many elite pitchers are breaking down today, you have to wonder if the lower angle isn’t actually more healthy.  Once again, apologies for recycling the point… but let me add a brilliant example I didn’t use before. Robin Roberts was often given just two or three days rest and almost never relieved: he logged over 300 innings from 1951 through 1955, leading his league in that category every year.  Eventually, later in the decade, something popped in his shoulder (as he reveals in his autobiography), and he had to learn how to retire hitters with pure control and guile.  What sabotaged his arm’s health, however, was the idiotic abuse of his talents so prevalent among managers of the time, and not the angle of his delivery.

As I stress in my videos on this subject, not all of yesteryear’s low-angle pitchers were short… far from it.  Roberts was a six-footer. Even in the Teens of the previous century, a pitcher under six feet in height was fairly rare.  But if you’re short by today’s standards yet are determined to pitch, a lower angle may be your ticket to making the team.  Tall, lanky guys like to drop down, too (look no farther than Randy Johnson).  That’s why I’d suggest the opening of the front leg, which can transfer stress to places where you’re built to bear it—in your broad, powerful core—if you you do it right.  I’m not talking about slinging pitches over your body from the on-deck circle with your Kraken-like reach: I’m talking about being compact and synchronized.  Learn to harmonize everything, and you will both pick hitters apart at the plate and keep your health for decades to come.

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.

baseball history, fathers and sons, footwork in the box, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitching, pitching velocity, Uncategorized, weight transfer

Using Baseball to Stay Sane in Lockdown

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I hadn’t really been thinking about “backyard baseball” as a distraction from the anxieties of a thoroughly miserable year, even though I’ve been using it that way for months. As I build myself back up from battling prostate cancer earlier this summer, swatting a few balls off the pitching machine has become a favorite diversion. Occasionally, I blunder upon what I think is a significant insight and create a video. Over the past two weeks, though, my camera has remained veiled. I haven’t been able to speak clearly, thanks to a round with something called Bell’s Palsy—a fairly benign debility that seems to ride in piggy-back on sinus infections and clears up without treatment after two or three months. Or sometimes as much as six months. Yikes! That’s a long haul between videos!

But I think I’ll be filming again in just a few days. The Plasma Emission Radiant Light machine that I purchased to help me chase cancer cells away (I discovered Rife technology first at the Immunity Therapy Center in Tijuana) turned out to have a program set for—of all things—Bell’s Palsy. I’ve run it each night for almost a week now, and I’m making very rapid progress.

Really, though… what a year! And it’s far from over. This past weekend, a person who sits right atop of my Most Important People in the World list phoned me to say that he had checked himself into the hospital with acute depression and thoughts of suicide. Thank God he had sense enough to seek assistance! Would you believe that in the 18-to-24-year-old demographic, death is twenty-six times more likely to occur from suicide than from COVID-19? Young people, with their active social lives, their heavy dependency on peers for the formation of an evolving ego, their struggles to get firm footing in the world of gainful employment, and so on have a heightened sensitivity to the effects of lockdown. Deny them the freedom to mingle with others, week after week after week, and some just give up on life.

It’s in the light of this sobering realization, especially, that I’ve been thinking explicitly about baseball as an escape valve. And I don’t mean watching the MLB on ESPN. What’s going on there is a brave try at entertainment… but it’s not the same without crowds, and—alas—it’s more of the same with regard to the quality of play we’ve witnessed in recent years. Hitters try to work counts, taking close pitches even when they have two strikes. Pitchers, all too often, don’t seem to have been prepared by “summer camp” to pound the zone. We see a lot of walks mixed in with a lot of strikeouts. So the spectacle is usually pretty boring… and then, of course, you’re not getting that all-important sunlight that helps you biochemically to sustain a good mood when you watch someone else play the game. Particularly if you had hopes of using Summer 2020 to shine before scouts or to hone your skills before the 2021 season, you have to be completely bummed out about how this year has gone.

But to turn the situation on its ear, you might say that no time has ever been more apt for trying out outlandishly unique methods. I recall Walt Hriniak writing at the beginning of A Hitting Clinic that the hardest players to coach were those who were just good enough to stay in the line-up. They knew they weren’t all that good; in fact, they were painfully aware of their precarious position at the very edge of the tolerable. At .240 or .250 (what would it be today—.205?), they couldn’t afford to get any worse, and tinkering around might just sabotage what little proficiency they currently possessed with a bat. A similar mindset probably keeps any player in any league from breaking down his technique and rebuilding it just as the season is about to start. You’re not sure if trying such-and-such might improve your game or not… and as your game stands, you’ll probably make the team. Better play it safe and not mess with “good enough”.

I wonder how many ballplayers this timidity keeps from reaching their potential? My point in the present circumstances is that no one need be thus timid. Many of you may not even have another teammate to practice with. You’re on your own. So if your pitching or hitting is marginal, why not attempt a radical overhaul while nobody’s looking? Go play ball by yourself. Put a plate in front of the L-screen and pitch. Use a batting cage if you have access to one; or if you don’t, find a machine that challenges you but won’t produce breakage in nearby windows.

I wish I had a dime for every time I discovered an improvement while messing about with my Personal Pitcher, a gizmo that spews golf-sized Wiffle balls. I had such an experience just last week. I wouldn’t have believed that loading the bottom hand ever so slightly higher than the top hand would generate a swifter, more powerful linear attack into the pitch… but so it does. I’ll analyze more closely what I think goes on here at a later time; but in a nutshell, it seems that giving the bottom hand more of a “run” into the pitch yields a straighter, faster drive in the barrel. Think of a bullet traveling down a longer bore: its path to the target is more accurate thanks to the additional guidance it receives… or something like that.

(By the way… I found that my beloved, archaic shuffle into the pitch—the load from the mobile back foot whose shift is catalyzed by the lifting barrel—appeared briefly in a 2004 game between the Mets and Astros. Pedro Martinez was facing Pedro Astacio. Good game! Jose Reyes was the bad boy who attempted a move that I thought had been abandoned fifty years earlier; and, no, it didn’t produce a safety for him. But what a surprise, just to see that someone in the game so recently was bringing to it such a degree of resourcefulness! Times of confinement like these are also excellent occasions to dust off the old video library and look therein for new ideas.)

I’ve resumed messing about with pitching, as well. In fact, having most of my prostate removed has left me incredibly more agile in my throwing motion, so my problem was obviously affecting me physically for a long time in ways that I never suspected. I continue to operate on the assumption that having all the body’s members rotate in the same “wheel” generates speed while also greatly reducing risk to the throwing arm. In the process of trying to build on that assumption, I seem to be finding that thrusting the forward elbow within the “wheel of delivery” at just the right moment and with conscious vigor greatly improves accuracy as well as velocity. I’d like to test this theory much further, and especially to see if it produces good results for me from the left side, where my throwing motion isn’t at all natural. I’m excited by initial results.

I repeat that these are discoveries made almost haphazardly. They occur largely because I just happened to be outside with a bat or a ball messing around. Sometimes I conceive of a theory lying in bed at night and then give it a test flight the next day; but either way, I probably wouldn’t enjoy nearly the degree of serendipity that I do if I were working out with teammates and feared looking like a complete idiot! One test that I lately tried proved painful and may very possibly not be resumed: swinging cross-wristed. I know that a few Deadball players like Dave Bancroft (HOF) somehow employed this style successfully; even a young Henry Aaron favored it before a scout told him confidentially that the professional game would never take him seriously if he didn’t adopt the orthodox grip. So you know that cross-wristed hitting was paying off for a smattering of well-coordinated batsmen in some curious way or other. I wasn’t able to convince myself that I’d uncovered its secret. Maybe some other time.

Have fun with the game. Be daring. Maybe you won’t be able to integrate any little nuggets that wash up as you fool around into your advanced game. Foolery, though, is part of the game’s joy: being a kid, going a little crazy as the sun shines. Couldn’t we all do with a dose of that joy these days?

arm health, baseball history, general health, hand use in hitting, low arm angle, off-season preparation, pitchers of short stature, pitching, pitching velocity, strike zone, Uncategorized

Throwing Lefty: Not As Hard As You May Think

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One thing’s for sure: we all have a lot of time on our hands right now.  I need to keep a tight rein on myself beyond this point.  I have another blog where I vent my frustration with the Nanny State and with our day’s saturation in unresearched factoids and malicious propaganda.  Part of the reason I flee to baseball is so that the acid of those reflections doesn’t dissolve what’s left of my sanity.

So… here’s a thought.  If you want to pitch but are of short stature or otherwise limited by unpromising parameters, why not throw left?  I know, I know: it’s not like you can just go out and become a southpaw the way you can learn to pick a guitar in a few months of practice… or is it?  Are we so very sure it’s not?

I’ve often found that the learning curve involved in preparation for a seemingly impossible undertaking is very steep only on the initial slope.  Unlike climbing Everest, which gets steeper as one moves higher, the roughest spots confront the first few steps.  Mountain-climbing is itself a good example.  Overcoming a fear of heights, learning to keep one’s balance, resisting the natural sense of panic or rush… these are all tasks that might crush the novice.  If only he can get past them, then subsequent stages of achievement fit together much more speedily, like a jigsaw puzzle already half-assembled.

I think the heftiest obstacle to throwing left-handed is just the “I can’t do this” feeling which greets your first tries.  Be analytical.  Why can’t you do this?  Why can you do it right-handed: what are you doing one way that you’re not doing the other?  Break it all down.  What’s your first move from your good side?  Are you replicating that move from the other side?  Follow Phase One with Phase Two.  Where does the train jump the track?  Be hyper-aware of how all parts are connected.  If your left hand seems to come up and rotate back much earlier than your right, that’s probably because your back is arching—which, in turn, is probably because your head is falling off to the side rather than driving forward, a movement itself caused by the front shoulder’s flopping open immediately rather than mapping out a powerful, fluid path toward the objective.  Very, very often in pitiable weak-side endeavors, the hidden culprit is the strong side.  When it doesn’t get to take the lead, it wants to pack up its marbles and go home rather than assume a supporting role.

At the very least, acquiring a little dexterity (literally, “right-handedness”) on your weak side will make you better informed about your strong side.  I really like the low overhand angle—almost sidearm—that I call “9:30” or “10 o’clock” (with 9 being full sidearm).  I throw that way from the right side with very little effort or discomfort, whereas a more overhand delivery puts a strain on my physique (since my frame is quite broad for my height).  As a matter of fact, I just posted a video summarizing my current “best advice” about delivering from this arm angle: see “Update of the Low Overhand Motion”.

I would likely never have known the importance of keeping my throwing hand from rising too soon if I hadn’t encountered a little pain when making that error left-handed.  Now I know, consciously and objectively, that I want to keep my hand from reaching full cock until my chin breaks away from my front shoulder… and by that point, I’m already far from the up-and-down on the rubber, and am indeed about to leave that perch behind entirely.  In the future, if my right-hand mechanics were to get fouled up, I’d have those items on my checklist.  In other words, through having made my strong-side successes explicit by trying to repeat them on the weak side, I know pretty much exactly what’s happening when things are going well.

Naturally, this all applies equally to hitting.  But switch-hitters, rare as they are, seem a thousand times more abundant than switch-pitchers.  Or since switching is in itself a very labor-intensive skill, even if you have good coordination from either side, let’s look at it from a less fanciful angle.  Guys who bat with their stronger hand on the bottom aren’t all that rare (George Brett, Wade Boggs, Freddie Freeman… and even the much rarer lefty-batting-right isn’t unheard-of, as in the case of Rickey Henderson or of my hometown hero, Carl Warwick); yet guys who reach for doorknobs with their right while throwing left are one in a million.  I can think only of Tris Speaker and Billy Wagner, both of whom became southpaws because of injury to their right wing.

So the insight seems to be this: pitching from your weaker side is a heck of a lot harder than hitting from that side.  There are actually several advantages to having the stronger hand down on the bat’s knob; there are none to having the stronger arm driving toward the plate with a glove on.

Why bother learning to pitch left-handed, then, since it’s sure to be extremely challenging?  Like the Everest-climber, you could say, “Because it’s there”… but ballplayers have better things to do than accept idle challenges just to prove their character.  The game demands exhausting practice even of the most natural skills.  No, the basic reason is precisely because so few pitchers throw left-handed.  As a result, right-side hitters (about ninety percent of the typical line-up) don’t quite know what to do with offerings that come veering into them.  They’re used to crowding the plate in order to rake an evasive slider and be quick on a sneaky inside fastball.  When a pitch, especially from the 10 o’clock angle, comes looping under their barrel, they roll over the outside offering and completely whiff on the inside one—or else pull it far foul or smack it off their toe.  Our lefty has to keep that inside one low, to be sure: he has to exploit the physical fact that the bat lifts into the hands at a severe angle when it’s trained through the low/inside quadrant.  The high pitch is better off staying outside (or else chin-high… or both).

I speak here in the assumption that Lefty is a natural right-hander who (unlike Billy Wagner) has never learned to throw very hard from his weaker side.  As long as he has mastered control, he doesn’t really need velocity—or not nearly so much as the right-hander.  He’s better off trying to be Whitey Ford than Randy Johnson.  Attempting to rush it up there when Mother Nature isn’t sending him a lot of immediate bio-feedback is a good way to become a permanent righty, whether he wants to be or not.

But there’s the dilemma: consistent accuracy from your weaker side poses a tremendous challenge.  Well, that’s where practice comes in—that’s why you shouldn’t try this unless you’re willing to grind it out, any more than you should aspire to play flamenco guitar in two weeks.  Nevertheless, I think accuracy is a much more desirable target than velocity.  Not only will it get more hitters out: it will expose your arm to less risk, since your mind will be better focused on specific movements and less inclined to override your body’s incidental warnings.

Start small—start tiny.  Throw indoors, without actually throwing: just rehearse the motion, over and over.  When you do throw baseballs at a screen, stand close.  Don’t tempt your mind to chase after velocity in the early stages.  As long as you’re a mere fifteen or twenty feet from the target, the devil in you won’t be whispering, “Let’s see if we can get this one to pop!”

Well, that’s my crazy idea for today’s crazy times.  If you want to see a video that I made just a few days ago on this very subject, click here.

arm health, coaches and trust, fathers and sons, low arm angle, pitchers of short stature, pitching, submarine pitching, Uncategorized

Short People Need Not Apply?

I haven’t been following the World Series live, though I know that entrusting it to the DVR is risky.  (Dish Network’s software managed to cut off the bottom of the ninth in the final game between the Yanks and the Astros—and I’m a big Altuve fan!)  The extra minute of ads (three rather than two) between half-innings and the know-it-all announcers who constantly filter the action for occasions to vomit factoids (I’ll mention no names, T.V.) are really hard to take.  I prefer to have a fast-forward button and long decompression breaks at my disposal.

No, I’ve been devoting my baseball life these days mostly to thinking about pitching, which I promised to revisit with a few new submarine experiments.  In waiting for the weather to cooperate and my body to acclimatize itself to some irregular motions, I happened to pick up a copy of The Art and Science of Pitching the other night.  The title immediately made me think that the authors were implying a fusion of what Ted Williams and Charley Lau did for hitting: science and art all rolled into one.  The final word on the subject.  And with Tom House, Nolan Ryan, James Andrews, Randy Johnson, and over a dozen others of similar quality on the National Pitching Association advisory board, the final word may just have been said.

Yet House’s name was the only one among the three actual authors that I recognized.  (Gary Heil turns out to be a lawyer, and Steve Johnson a baseball lifer who has mostly coached at lower levels.)  Besides, this final word was published thirteen years ago (2006).  I dimly recall giving the book to my son for Christmas.  It doesn’t look as though it was ever so much as thumbed through.  I can kind of see why.  The language isn’t exactly what an eleven-year-old would have found riveting (e.g., “Set the posting foot on the rubber to optimize the dragline, relative to the center line of the rubber and plate”).  Even when clearer, the wording tends to break complex movements down so far that you’d find yourself repeatedly interrupting what you’re trying to practice in a effort to check where the lead shoulder or the back foot is—as if you could!  “Rotate your hips forward, roll the back foot over, and release it to drag, while moving your upper body as far forward as possible without causing shoulder rotation….”  Yeah, let me work on that… let’s see….

In fairness, the book was probably intended for coaches exclusively—and I don’t want to create the impression that it isn’t full of sound advice.  The emphasis seems to fall heavily on doing explosive, mobile drills requiring synergy, as opposed to lots of weight-lifting that builds useless (sometimes inhibitive) muscle for pitching.  And I noticed that these fellows had discovered that the up-and-down, frozen-frame “balance point” was a non-starter at least as early as my favorite pitching guru, Paul Reddick, was spreading the news.  The body should already be tilting forward before the front leg lifts.

Yes, but… but is the harm of throwing over the body (i.e., letting the front leg land where it cuts off the upper body’s flow toward the plate) really a “myth”?  That’s hard for me to buy, inasmuch as my forward knee has always begun hurting whenever I’ve done this for weeks at a time—and I don’t see how any other body could hold up better.  The “science” of the book (and I hadn’t realized that Tom House, bless him, is actually “Dr. House”—no Hugh Laurie jokes, please) almost seems to be a bit razzle-dazzle.  Just because you’ve geared a guy up with tracers in an otherwise black room and compiled time-lapse shots of his delivery doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve proved anything.  Even if you superimpose a human skeleton on the dot-references (a perfect costume for Halloween!), you’re not really showing that the body in question won’t wake up with new pains.

Okay, okay… I’m being unfair.  I finally decided that my inclination to pick at the book’s edges was concealed frustration over its having nothing to say about the odd arm angles we cultivate at SmallBallSuccess.com.  In fact, even some of those long-striding drills straight off the rubber that leave our hurler almost in the grass—beautiful things to admire from afar—just don’t seem to me very relevant to a shorter body type.  Again, for the umpteenth time, I’m detecting the message, “Shorter people need not apply.”

Now, Tom House is scarcely what I would call the “coaching establishment”.  These lines, for instance, leapt out at me: “Therefore, for decades, coaches developed their instruction based on flawed data.  Coaching was based on conventional wisdom repeated so often that everyone began to accept it as fact.  When combined with information that was wrong, inappropriate, or improperly used as the basis of a teaching protocol, this ‘wisdom’ created an environment in which motor-learning problems become the norm, not the exception.”  Not sure I know precisely what every word of that means… but I understand enough of it that I want to jump up and applaud.

I just wish this book’s kitchen drawer had a few more cookie-cutters.  Reading Orel Hershiser’s concern about his 6’7” son’s receiving the right mound lessons in the book’s foreword (Hershiser: now, there was a guy who seriously bowed his back!) strikes a general chord with all of us dads; but some of us, you know, don’t have a kid who enters the starting gate at six-foot-anything.