Pitching

Warning: The suggestions on this page come with no guarantees, and you apply them to your game at your own risk.  Never attempt a pitching motion which does not feel natural and fluid–and always stop your session instantly if you feel sudden joint pain as a result of your movements.

Probably 90% of pitching today is over the top–from 10 to 11 o’clock, so to speak.  The overhand pitcher is essentially a wheel abruptly pushed into a falling spin.  He launches his cartwheel off the rubber with a strong back-leg thrust while assisting the plunge toward the plate with an explosively opening front hip and shoulder (in that order).  The throwing arm is the wheel’s next-to-rearmost spoke (the rearmost being the back leg), and the pitcher’s hand comes flying through in a downward line straight at the target.

Wide wheels cover more ground and move faster along the rim.  A tall guy has longer “spokes” from which to hurl the ball: because his hand extends farther from the center of rotation, it shoots forward with greater velocity.  His longer legs also make more effective use of the mound’s descent, carrying the delivery almost into the infield grass; and simply because of this great stride, as well, he actually releases the ball closer to home plate–which doesn’t increase pure velocity but reduces the distance over which the pitch has to travel.  Every split second gained is an advantage.

The short pitcher enjoys none of these advantages.

The Just-Above-Submarine (9:30/10:00) Arm Angle

Probably the best option for a pitcher who wants to sustain respectable velocity while utilizing the advantages of a shorter, broader body type (and there are some) is a very low overhand motion.  We call this the “9:30” slot (referring to the clock’s hour hand where it rises just above a flat lateral line).  If your shoulders are set square and wide, then this motion allows you to integrate their breadth directly into speeding up the ball.  Should you try to come more over-the-top, your broad shoulders would be less perfectly aligned with the intended plane of the wheel’s spokes; and, from a very high angle, they might even get in the way of throwing, which is perhaps why some hurlers arch their backs after the Tim Lincecum fashion.

Opening up explosively out if the 9:30 angle involves a slightly different stride from the one used for higher, more conventional angles.  If you step straight toward the plate as you would from a higher arm angle, then your lead hip and your following torso cannot pull the pitching arm dynamically to its release point.  The more conventional pitcher wouldn’t want to veer off the rubber-to-plate line, because this would tend to make the ball stray high and inside (to a righty hitter) or excessively low and away.  Such errancy can still happen from the lower angle, too: you have to make very sure that you launch decisively forward in your delivery.  We like to recommend that the pitcher come forward so low and hard, in fact, that his trailing foot actually lands nearer to home plate than the foot he first lands on.

thumbnail-25
In this and the photo just below, notice the differences in how the two pitchers land…

Strong legs and especially core muscles take center stage for this performance and for sidearming and submarining (see below).  Broader frames tend to have stronger muscles at such critical points.  These muscle groups power the arm’s forward snap with inner force rather than gravity.  Height really doesn’t count for much in the equation.  Not that legs and hips are ever minor participants in any pitching motion; but with lower angles, you’ll never get low enough as you load up if you don’t have balance and drive below the belt.  Legs and hips lead the flow of motion into the flexing torso.

We particularly favor the “hack” of bouncing ever so slightly and briefly on the rubber before launching into the delivery.  This not only gets you up on the ball of your rear foot, where you can drive with greater explosiveness; it also seems to help the shoulders drop and stay closed as the front foot slips away.  We want that foot to take a “greedy” forward stride–but, to repeat, not so much so that it doesn’t open up an angle of maybe 10 or 20 degrees to the plate.  (That is, if you drew a line straight from mid-plate to mid-rubber, your landed foot would describe a third point whose line back to mid-rubber would create a 10-degree or more.)

thumbnail-24
Over-the-toppers Glazner and Rixey have their limbs aligned along a rubber-to-plate axis, while 9:30 guys Cooper and Sherdel have rear arm and leg following a crosswise axis.

Walter Johnson was endowed with such an incredibly wide wingspan that he could bring his front foot down scarcely ahead of where he’d lifted it: his arm swished through like a cracking whip, all on its own.  Ordinary mortals can’t do this sort of thing.  A shorter, wider body would do well to get low and drive hard.  A great many mound-artists of Walter’s era and just after were much shorter and yet used his 9:30 slot to devastating effect.  Most of these latter got their legs far more involved than “The Big Train” did.

Some notable examples?  Dickie Kerr and Dolf Luque, whose successful careers ended in 1925 and 1935, stood at 5’7″.  Pitching in the 1870’s, Candy Cummings was 5’9′ and tipped the scales at a mere 120 pounds.  Art Nehf, a star of the late Twenties, measured at the same height, and his contemporary “Wee Willie” Sherdel was actually an inch taller.  More recently, the slight Bobby Shantz stood at 5’6″ and yet managed to carve out a career that took him from 1949 to 1964.

Besides finding newsreel footage of some of these stars, we’ve been able to construct a test for use in reviewing old photographs.  The over-the-top pitchers tend to finish with their throwing arm essentially vertical to the ground and their rear leg trailing almost straight behind them; the low-angle guys, in contrast, will have their arm wrapped horizontally around the torso and their rear leg slung out noticeably to the side.  Using this simple technique of analysis (which is necessary because so little moving film footage from yesteryear exists), we have determined that a very high percentage of pitchers before World War II employed something like the 9:30 slot.  Some card collections lead you to believe that the figure might have been over 50 percent!

thumbnail-23
Urban Shocker, Art Nehf, and Ben Karr

Mychal Givens may be the most brilliant example of a contemporary pitcher who throws at about 9:30.  Givens is a star, and potentially a superstar.  His success proves that this motion isn’t just a curious-looking dinosaur from the distant past.  Kirby Yates, a more recent arrival on the scene, also deserves consideration… but he’s discussed below in a different context.  (See New Directions of Research.)

Discussions:

Demonstrations:

Videos are organized from earliest to most recent, with the bottom title being the very latest.

Sidearm and Submarine Arm Angles

Originally we preferred an 8 or 8:30 angle to anything at 9 o’clock or higher.  Once you come fully parallel to the ground or edge a bit above that plane (we reasoned), your rear shoulder is bound to roll out after your front one as you attempt the sidestep.  In other words, we were nervous about the issue of control raised in the section above.

We’ve since calmed down about that, especially after noticing in our research how many great pitchers of the Twenties and Thirties managed the 9:30 angle without piling up walks.  But the still lower angle is still an interesting option for the shorter body type.  Velocity will diminish from down here–but the ball leaves the hand from a spot that really confuses most hitters, and it often acquires some nasty spin, as well.

Now, a submariner doesn’t need a particularly long stride.  He’s lifting up instead of pulling down, so the fall doesn’t translate directly into velocity.  Besides, if he were to take all of his appendages straight toward the plate, he couldn’t release his pitch: his back leg would get in the way as it landed.  (Imagine trying to pitch overhand around a spare leg growing from your shoulder!)  All submariners therefore pitch by coming somewhat around their legs and “throwing over the body”, as opposed to the utterly impossible 6 o’clock release.  This further reduces speed.  The only way such a delivery can make up for lost velo is through utilizing a lanky arm capable of an emphatic whiplash motion.

Someone with a short frame may have long arms: great height is mostly concentrated in the legs.  Nevertheless, submarining is rarely considered a short guy’s gig, if only because all the “tricks” it practices upon the hitter–especially the mass of flailing limbs and the release closer to the foul line–are enhanced by a long, lean frame.

bc pitching 2 Yet we’re not giving up on the approach.  The young man pictured here (who measures a hair or two under 5’9″) is coming from a little under 9 o’clock, as you can see.  You can also tell from his upright position that he possesses a strong core and legs.  This is common in shorter body types: they’re often more muscled up because their frames are broader.  Since they tend to carry wide shoulders, a sidearming delivery can come quite naturally to them.  Yoennis Cespedes can flick a ball back to the infield from his side pocket, and Willie Mays could probably have tossed a rope to the plate from that area.  Those are two really broad-shouldered guys!  (Willie was very high-waisted but only stood about 5’10”.)

Now, a lot of sidearmers throw over the body, as if they were submarining.  These are usually the lankier fellows.  Once again, we see the extensive reach being tapped for velocity in a motion that can’t access it effectively through the legs. bc pitching

If the front side is actually allowed to fall away from the plate somewhat (again, a big no-no for overhand pitchers), then a path is fully cleared for the back side to come driving through.  The “somewhat” is key.  We aren’t suggesting a hefty outward swing, like a hitter’s who steps in the bucket–only a modest sidestep.  Nevertheless , if a deep submariner were to let fire with even the faintest opening up of this kind, he’d plant the ball far up the backstop over the on-deck circle: his angle is too low for him to hit the plate once he veers outward ever so slightly

From his higher angle, however, a sidearmer (or “high submariner”) can profit from the opening delivery path, just like the 9:30 pitcher.  He merely needs to keep his head down and his front shoulder closed (like a step-in-the-bucket hitter) until his weight shift drives the upper body open.  Critics will all raise the same warning–and they’ll be right: there’s a risk in the back shoulder’s chasing straight after the front one, before the weight shift.  Such awkward rushing would once more pull the ball high and outside (though not send it over the screen).  Let’s not do that!  The back side must be allowed to snap toward the plate in a fluid follow-through.  Stay low all the way through.

bc pitching 3Sidearming is largely unexplored territory in today’s baseball teaching, though a lower arm angle was immensely more common a century or so ago.  The approach is ignored now  because, very probably, short pitchers are “weeded out” at higher levels rather than exploited for their special gifts.

If you find that a sidearm flip comes naturally, you might give this motion a try on the mound; but if you have to work at it and feel awkward, you should stay away from it!  Never force your body to do something that it’s just not built to do.  We’ve seen some criminally bad sidearm deliveries over the years–those kids’ coaches should be stripped of their clipboards and stopwatches!  Don’t get in a tug-of-war with Mother Nature: the two of you need to be on the same side of the rope.

By the way, you can combine sidearm and submarine angles–or either or both of these with a more conventionally overhand angle.  Even after World War II, many pitchers were doing just this with great success; that’s one of many reasons that I believe we underestimate how hard yesteryear’s pitching was to hit just because it lacked the velocity seen in today’s elite hurlers.  John Smoltz sometimes came sidearm, but few others since the Fifties have tried the technique.  It requires much hard work to perfect, and pitching coaches will almost universally dissuade you from messing with it in a “keep it simple, stupid” kind of mindset.

Discussions:

Demonstrations:

Videos are organized from earliest to most recent, with the bottom title being the very latest.

New Directions of Research

Ideas often come to us as a result of “fooling around” (and, contrary to popular perception, this is generally true of science: the final write-up presents the new theory as the last link in a closely reasoned chain… but its inspiration may have arrived during a jog or in the shower).  Here’s an approach that’s currently the object of our experiments.  Major premise: the shorter, broader body type can generate arm speed particularly well by throwing somewhat across its frame (as from a 9:30 slot) rather than by falling down off of its highest reach (as from an 11:00 slot).  Minor premise: the forward leg assists throwing across the frame better if it plants slightly open, as opposed to cutting off lateral motion by planting in the line pointing straight to the plate.  Conclusion: the 9:30 delivery would be less impeded and tap into more velocity if the front leg didn’t lift backward at all, but instead simply drove straight to its slightly open landing point.

Well, there’s an attempt to present a theory as a chain of reasons.  The more honest explanation of the idea is that this motion feels good and achieves greater velocity somehow or other.  The cause of the latter may be more that the motion involved in a hip slung open from its coil above the rubber is lateral, yes–but confined to too high a plane for the lowered arm.  Friction is produced which reduces velo, and which might even lead to injury.

Illustration: look at Kirby Yates.  He possesses a very broad, powerful body; and at 5’10”, he’s no towering giant.  Yates delivers his pitches from an angle not far above sidearm.  How does he get to his release point?  By striding straight toward the plate (and maybe a bit open) right out of his set position rather than pumping his knee back over the rubber.  The knee pump is there–but it’s straight up into the chest without any coiling motion in the hips.  The lower-body explosiveness is concentrated into a low drive at home plate.  The forward leg-plant immediately creates a firm prop around which the lateral drive of core muscle may freely, fluidly pull.  There’s no throwing “over the body” (the expression commonly used when the pitcher’s planted leg is angled toward his throwing side upon release): the way is cleared, and no energy is siphoned off in the effort to steer around bodily obstacles.

We hope to have videos of our own enactments up very soon.  We’ve already noticed that one thing is to be very much emphasized: do not raise your throwing hand too soon.  Let the low, explosive drive toward the plate “leave behind” that hand (to use an image often employed in describing a striding batter’s hands).  By stressing an extreme delay in the arm’s lift, you ensure that the forward leg is down securely and, thus, the lateral path for your catapult delivery completely open before you pull the trigger.