Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com.
Position players scornfully deride pitchers as being “non-athletes.” Most pitchers cannot hit or run, and few field the position well. Yet a team cannot have too much pitching, and a team cannot win championships without solid pitching. There is no truer axiom in baseball than “good pitching beats good hitting.” The purpose of this article is to describe the mechanics of pitching, but, unfortunately, instructional techniques cannot create 90+ mph velocity. That ability cannot be taught, but good mechanics can increase the velocity that a pitcher has and can improve his control. Although this discussion examines pitching mechanics step by step, the pitching motion and delivery are, or should be, fluid and seamless. All examples of what the pitch will, or may do, are of a RH pitcher throwing to a RH hitter and of a LH pitcher throwing to a LH hitter.
There are several ways to grip the baseball, and no one way is “right” to the exclusion of all others. Except for the changeup, only the index finger, middle finger and the thumb should be used to grip the ball and the ball should be held as far toward the fingertips as possible without losing control of it. The fingers may be apart or together and may be placed with the seams or across the seams. A fastball gripped with the seams is a “two-seamer;” it usually runs in on the hitter and may sink. An across the seams fastball is a “four-seamer;” it has little to no movement and, if thrown very hard, may rise or “hop” as it approaches the plate. Most pitchers grip a curve with the seams, using the middle finger or, more often, both fingers on the seams. A slider is gripped with the seams but off-center on the outside of the ball. A “cut” fastball is a two-seam fastball gripped slightly off-center.
The pitcher should experiment with different grips to see what works best for him, but a two-seam grip provides maximum movement. A pitcher should be aware that opponents will be watching his grip closely to determine if he is tipping his pitches by holding his fastball with his fingers apart and his curve with his fingers together or by other characteristics of his grip that may be unique to specific pitches. Hiding the ball and the grip in the glove until the last possible moment is important so that the hitter will not know what pitch is coming before the pitcher releases the ball. Alert base coaches often call pitches for hitters merely by watching how the pitcher grips the ball.
To take the sign from the catcher, the pitcher should stand in a comfortable position facing the catcher with his pivot foot (throwing hand side) on the pitching rubber so that the front edge of the rubber is beneath the instep or ball of the pivot foot. By overlapping the rubber with his pivot foot, the pitcher will be able to pivot without lifting his foot and to turn more easily in his windup. Prior to the windup, his landing foot (glove side) may be either on the rubber or slightly behind it. He may have the ball in his glove or in his throwing hand, but hiding the ball and grip in the glove is preferable. Once the pitcher puts his hands together, however, he cannot separate his hands with his foot on the rubber or he commits a balk.
After getting the sign from the catcher, the pitcher should begin his windup with a slight rocking step straight back with his landing foot. There is no single correct way to begin the windup as long as the rocking step is small and straight back, not to the side. As the pitcher takes his rocking step, the hands may go up over the head or stay at chest or waist level. This is the momentum building part of the windup, and it is important that the pitcher’s momentum is in a straight line, first back to begin the windup and then through the target as he delivers the pitch. When he turns, his back should remain straight, at a right angle to the rubber, and he should not lean either forward or backward.
After the pitcher completes his rocking step, he will pivot into his throwing motion. As he turns his front (glove side) shoulder and hip, he will place his pivot foot in front of the rubber, parallel to it, and he must keep the outside of his pivot foot in contact with the rubber as he turns. Balance is very important during this phase of the windup because several different movements occur simultaneously. During his pivot, he turns his shoulder and hips to a closed position and lifts his landing leg and knee up toward his chin as his legs and hips rotate during the pivot. The height of the leg kick depends on the preference of the individual pitcher, but it must not upset the pitcher’s balance. With correct balance, he should be able to stop “stork-like” when the pivot is complete and be able to hold that position.
Upon completion of the pivot, a LHP will be facing first base and a RHP will be facing third base, the landing leg and knee will be up, and the hands will be together with the ball in the glove. This turn and leg kick is a gathering movement, and at the end of it, the pitcher should be balanced with his weight over his pivot foot and ready to begin his stride and delivery to the plate. From this balanced position, the pitcher then drives his body toward the target, and, simultaneously, his throwing arm, after first reaching full extension, delivers the pitch to the target.
This is the most important part of a pitcher’s mechanics. Although much of a pitcher’s windup and throwing motion may be performed in different ways according to each individual pitcher’s preferences, the following mechanics involved in the delivery of the pitch should be used by all pitchers to maximize performance.
The pitcher’s front side, especially his front shoulder, is used to aim the ball to the target. His eyes should never leave the target as he winds up and prepares to throw the ball. He should focus his eyes on a small spot within the pocket of his catcher’s mitt, not just the mitt. He should block everything else out but that target, and he should never look away from the target during the entire windup and through delivery of the pitch.
The pitcher’s front shoulder will take the ball to his target; he should imagine an arrow that enters his back shoulder and protrudes from his front shoulder pointing to the target. As he strides toward the catcher and delivers the pitch, he should point that arrow at his target and should endeavor to drive the arrow and his front shoulder directly through the target within the catcher’s mitt. This effort will make the pitcher keep his front shoulder and hip closed, and keeping the front shoulder closed until the last possible instant is very important.
The pitcher must not allow his front shoulder to fly open too soon, and the shoulder will open naturally as the throwing arm comes forward with the pitch. If the front shoulder flies open early and does not drive toward and through the target, the body’s momentum will be falling off to the glove side, not toward the target, and the throwing arm will trail behind the pitcher’s body during the throwing motion. If the pitcher rushes his motion to catch his arm up to his body, the result likely will be a bad pitch low and away. If the pitcher’s arm cannot catch up to his body, the result will be a high release point and a bad pitch up and in. Using the front shoulder to aim the pitch by driving the shoulder and the pitcher’s momentum through the target will keep the shoulder closed as long as possible.
During the pitcher’s pivot and his leg kick, he turns his hips and front shoulder away from the hitter. When his landing leg reaches the top of his leg kick, he should be balanced with his weight over his pivot foot, and his hands then will separate as he moves his arm into the throwing motion and his body toward the target. His grip on the ball should be “fingers up, thumb down” as his hand separates from the glove and throughout the delivery of the ball to the catcher. That grip will place his index and middle fingers on top of the ball and his thumb under the ball.
When the throwing hand separates from the glove, the pitcher should visualize handing the ball to the center fielder. This effort will cause him to reach as far as possible toward center field and will give him the maximum possible extension of his arm just prior to starting his throwing arm forward. His throwing hand will move in a semicircle from separation of the hands to full extension – first down, then up as he reaches toward center field with the ball. Reaching toward center field will prevent the “short arm” throw, which is similar to throwing a dart, and full extension of the arm will give him as much power and leverage on his pitch as his body will allow. His grip should remain “fingers up, thumb down” throughout the extension of his arm and the delivery. A pitcher should never cup the ball in his hand at any time during the entire motion.
After the pivot and full extension with his throwing arm, the pitcher will move his arm forward into his throwing motion. He must keep his throwing arm away from his body and his hand away from his head so that he can extend his arm and throw the ball in one continuous motion. He must keep his elbow up at least as high as his throwing shoulder as he throws the ball. This will keep his hand on top of the ball, which is essential. The pitcher should try to throw the ball “down” so that it will change planes as it approaches the hitter. If he allows his elbow to drop on a fastball, his hand will get under the ball, and the result will be a bad pitch sailing up and in. If he gets his hand under a curve, the pitch will flatten out, spin and hang rather than break. Staying “on top of the ball” is the single most important principle of pitching mechanics, in my opinion. Nothing good happens when the pitcher’s hand gets under the ball, and this will occur when the elbow drops lower than the shoulder.
The stride toward the plate is propelled by a rotation of the hips and torso, like an uncoiling spring with as much power as possible, to pull the body forward with the pitch. The step with the landing leg should be no longer than to allow the pitcher to land on the ball of his front (landing) foot. His stride should be completed and the landing foot and leg planted firmly at the time the pitcher reaches the top of his delivery. If he overstrides, he will land on the heel of his front foot, and that will force the pitch up. His front foot should land on an imaginary straight line drawn from his pivot foot on the rubber directly to the target, and the toes on his landing foot should point directly at the target after landing. If his landing foot is on the throwing arm side of the imaginary line, his front shoulder is staying closed too long, and he must throw across his body. If the landing foot is on the glove side of the imaginary line, his front shoulder is opening up too soon, and his arm is behind his body.
At the end of his stride, the pitcher should land on a bent front leg because landing on a stiff front leg also will force the pitch up. His back leg should be bent as he pushes off the rubber, although not necessarily to the extreme of the Tom Seaver “drop and drive” technique. He should drive off the mound by pushing hard against the rubber with his pivot foot and, at the same time, by pulling the throwing side through the target with a strong rotation of his hips. He should try to explode off the mound toward the target, without jumping at the hitter, and as he delivers the pitch, he should try to drive his entire body through the catcher’s target generating as much power as he can muster from his hips, legs and torso.
Pitching from the stretch uses only the second half of the mechanics used in the windup. The pitcher begins with his pivot foot parallel to and in contact with the rubber and his landing foot in front of the rubber. A RH pitcher should take the sign with his left shoulder and foot in a slightly open position so that he can see first base more easily when he comes to the set position. A LH pitcher, of course, is facing first base throughout the stretch and delivery.
After taking the sign, the stretch is nothing more than a short step forward and back to the original position of the landing foot. At that point the hands will be together with the pitching hand and ball in the glove. This is the set position, and the pitcher must remain still in this position for at least one second or he commits a balk.
From the set position, mechanics of the delivery to the plate are the same as from the windup, beginning with the leg kick. The slide step, which is used to deter base stealers, is a pitch with no leg kick at all; from the set position, the pitcher just steps quickly toward the target and throws. This legal form of a quick pitch cuts down on the runner’s jump and gives his catcher extra time for the throw to second. Because pitching from the stretch is from a dead stop with no momentum from a windup, the pitcher must pay extra attention to driving hard off the mound toward his target and to having a strong finish with his throwing side.
The Finish and Follow Through
Finishing the pitch with the throwing shoulder and back side, from the windup or from the stretch, is very important to keep the ball down and to maximize velocity. After reaching his balanced position at the top of his leg kick, the pitcher will drive hard with his hips and torso off the mound, with his front shoulder closed and pointing at the target, and he will land on the ball of his foot on a bent front leg. From a position of full extension, his arm’s coming through the throwing motion will open his front shoulder naturally so that he will land facing the hitter. The pitcher must expend his maximum effort in the delivery as he releases the ball. His arm and wrist should be loose and relaxed, and he should release the ball with strong forward wrist action and a strong downward pull with his wrist and with his fingers. He should think about releasing the ball well out in front of him to keep the ball low, and he should tell himself to pull the ball down into the target.
He then must finish the pitch, first by driving the pitching shoulder and back side through the target, and then by reaching with his pitching hand for his hip pocket on the opposite side of his body after he releases the ball. His pivot foot should land more or less parallel with his front foot, about as wide apart as his shoulders, and he should stay square to the hitter and immediately be ready to field the ball hit back up the middle. By finishing the pitch off with his throwing shoulder and back side, he will be forced to “bend his back,” and that effort will help him to have a low release point and will enable him to keep the ball down. Excellent mechanics mean that the pitcher is throwing the ball with his entire body – legs, back, shoulders, hips and butt – and not just with his arm. Whatever natural speed and power his arm has can be increased by good pitching mechanics.
There should be no mystery to this pitch: the pitcher throws the ball as hard as he can. Velocity varies from pitcher to pitcher, of course, and the grip and the arm angle or arm slot can affect the movement of the pitch. In general, the more toward straight overhand the arm angle is, the less sideways movement the pitch will have. Unless the pitcher is Sandy Koufax, a straight (no movement) fastball is very hittable, no matter how much velocity the pitch has, and few pitchers use a straight “over the top” arm slot for their delivery.
The most common arm angle used is “three-quarters,” which is approximately halfway between straight overhand and sidearm. In general, the more toward sidearm the arm angle is, the more sideways movement the pitch will have. A three-quarters arm slot will enable the pitcher to keep his elbow up easily, and it will result in sideways movement on the pitch. The pitcher can increase the sideways movement by pressure on the ball by his fingers; with increased pressure from his index finger, the ball will move in and sink, and with increased pressure from his middle finger, the ball will move away.
The pitcher must remember to keep his hand on top of the ball at all times. This will add a downward movement to his pitch, in addition to the sideways movement he creates, and even a sidearm pitcher can get on top of the pitch by keeping his hand on top of the ball. When the pitcher’s elbow drops and his hand gets under the fastball, the result is a high and inside pitch. When the elbow starts to drop, an alert pitching coach will know that his pitcher is getting tired, and an alert catcher will be able to understand and to remind his pitcher why the fastball has been up and the curve flat.
Throwing a curve should not be hard on a pitcher’s elbow. There should be no last second snap of the wrist when throwing a curve, however. A late wrist snap will put pressure on the elbow. If thrown properly, a curve will put no more strain on the elbow than a fastball does.
From the beginning of the windup to pivot and full arm extension, a pitcher’s motion in throwing a curve is not different than throwing a fastball. From full extension to the top of his delivery, however, the pitcher is preparing his arm and hand to throw the curve. As the pitcher starts his arm forward in his throwing motion, he should gradually turn his wrist outward and his palm inward as his arm moves toward the top of his delivery.
At the very top of his delivery, his throwing arm will be a perfect capital L, although his elbow may be slightly in front of his hand as the hand starts forward with the pitch. His wrist will be straight, not bent or cocked, and his throwing hand will be turned inward with the palm facing the side of his head. The turn of the palm of the throwing hand inward is the only difference between a fastball and curve at the top of a pitcher’s delivery. His elbow will be at shoulder level, and his forearm and upper arm will form a right angle. His fingers will be on top of the ball, and at that point the pitcher throws the curve by PULLING DOWN HARD with his forearm and fingers, especially the middle finger, as his hand and arm come forward in his delivery. He must pull hard straight down all the way through his finish and follow through.
If thrown properly, the curve will come out of the pitcher’s hand rolling over the first knuckle of his index finger with a downward spin, or rotation, on the ball. The ideal curve will break both across and down. There should never be a wrist snap or twist at the end of the delivery of the curve, only a very hard downward pulling action from the top of the delivery through the finish and follow through after the pitcher has set up the position of the arm, hand and ball at the top of his delivery. The pitcher may throw the curve hard or may use a slow curve as an effective off-speed pitch. If the slow curve stays high, shortening the stride will help the pitcher to pull the ball down. Thrown properly, this curve is easy on the elbow.
A slider is not easy on the elbow, and young pitchers should not throw it at all, in my opinion. Pitching coaches teach the slider two ways. The first method, which puts great strain on the elbow, is to grip and throw a slider exactly like a fastball until the moment of release. At that moment, the pitcher snaps or twists his wrist as if he were opening a doorknob. This snap will put “slider spin” on the ball, but it also puts considerable strain on the elbow at the same time. Young pitchers should never use this method to throw a slider, if they throw it at all.
The second method used to throw a slider, which is much easier on the arm, is to grip the ball off-center to the outside of the ball and to throw the ball as if the pitcher were throwing a football. The wrist will be turned slightly outward just prior to release, but instead of a wrist snap, the off-center grip and the wrist turn will enable the pitcher to put “slider spin” on the ball, much like a football quarterback spirals a football. Thrown properly, a slider has a spiraling spin, and the catcher can see the distinctive white dot in the center of the red seams? spiral spin.
If the pitcher stays on top of his slider, he can get a downward break in addition to the slider’s normal late, sharp and relatively small sideways break. A slider should be thrown as hard as a fastball and is designed to make the hitter think that a fastball is on the way.
A changeup is a “feel” pitch and is difficult to master and difficult to teach. It is an off-speed pitch, of course, and must be delivered with the same arm and hand speed as the pitcher?s fastball for maximum effectiveness. There are several ways to grip the changeup. Some pitchers grip the ball with all the fingers but in the back of the palm, others circle the index finger and thumb on the inside of the ball and grip the ball back in the palm, some use a split finger grip, and still others grip the ball normally but deliver the pitch with a downward pulling motion similar to pulling down a window shade with the throwing hand facing the “window.” A 10-15 mph difference in velocity from the fastball is an ideal changeup, but the most important principle for a deceptive changeup is arm and hand speed that looks like a fastball to the hitter.
This is a destructive pitch, and young pitchers should not be taught to throw it. The pitch breaks in the opposite direction from a curve, and to throw it, the pitcher must snap his wrist inward and turn his palm outward as he releases the ball. A screwball puts tremendous stress on the arm and elbow, and some major league pitchers who use the pitch have been unable to straighten their throwing arms after years of throwing the screwball. The pitch requires an unnatural throwing motion and is best never learned.
Split Finger Fastball or Forkball
Made popular by the Pirates’ Roy Face in the late ’50s and early ’60s, this pitch had a rebirth in the 1980s, thanks to the Giants’ Roger Craig and his prize pupil, Mike Scott of the Astros. A pitcher puts his two fingers outside of the seams of a two-seam fastball grip. He should not push the ball so far back between the fingers so that the wrist becomes inflexible. If he does, damage to the elbow may result. This pitch is thrown like a fastball, and the ball has little spin and tumbles as it comes out of the hand. Whether it is thrown hard or used as a changeup, the pitch will go straight down as it approaches the plate.
A pitcher must be confident, almost cocky, and he must be very competitive. He must believe that he is better than the hitter. To be successful, the pitcher must not be afraid to throw the ball into the strike zone, and he must not be afraid that he will give up a hit or surrender a walk. He must concentrate on each pitch and on the exact spot to which he will throw the ball. Most important, as soon as he releases the ball, he must forget the last pitch and concentrate on the next pitch.
A pitcher must realize that hits and errors are part of the game, and he must pitch through his mistakes and those of his teammates. He should work through the game pitch by pitch, and he should not allow his concentration to waver or to be distracted by negatives. He must have selective amnesia and forget quickly any unsuccessful moments. He must throw strikes, use his defense, battle against adversity and be the mentally toughest player on the field. If he can do all this, his team will win consistently. To a pitcher, winning the game is all that matters.
Jim Raup pitched and coached at the University of Texas and spent nine years as a head baseball coach at Brenham and McCallum High Schools. His teams won numerous regional and district championships and made three trips to the State Tournament. The 1970 Brenham squad won the Texas State Championship. Many of his high school players have gone on to excel at the college and professional level. He also provides radio color commentary for Houston’s Texas League affiliate, the Round Rock Express.