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Sample Chapter from Saving the Pitcher by Will Carroll


Chapter 5

With a knowledge of what parts make up the functional kinetic chain of the ideal pitching motion, we can now look at what events, in sequence, must occur in that motion. It is impossible to describe the ideal pitching motion without discussing the timing in relation to that motion. In this case, a video or seminar is much better as a descriptive or teaching tool than is a book. We'll try to make do. Our advantage is that we can discuss pitching in the abstract, showing what works for every pitcher and avoiding the mistakes our eyes can force upon us.

In order to understand what he was doing in his pitching, Dr. Mike Marshall knew that he couldn't trust his eyes or his pitching coaches. In the late 1960s, Marshall became one of the first pitchers to have his motion filmed by high-speed cameras. He did this during his studies in kinesiology at Michigan State University that led to his doctorate.

"You can argue with me," Marshall says, "but it's harder to argue with Sir Isaac Newton." Marshall has a point. (Newton has been dead since the seventeenth century, making discussion difficult at best.) Instead of basing his teaching on imparted wisdom, each of the parts of Marshall's motion is scientifically based on Newtonian physics.

Immediately, baseball resists such scientific analysis. While there is no shortage of intelligence in the game, trying to find a good discussion of higher math or science will gain a player about as many friends in a locker room as setting fire to someone's cleats. (Well, actually, a good hotfoot can be appreciated in the game.)

I hope you won't have the same reaction to physics. While you certainly don't need a doctorate-level education to make use of it, there are a few simple physical principles to understand before moving on to discuss the application of these laws to pitching.

Newton's First Law deals with inertia: A body remains at rest, or if in motion, it remains in uniform motion with constant speed in a straight line, unless it is acted on by an unbalanced external force. In simpler terms, a ball wants to either stay in the glove or go straight toward the plate. This is a simple experiment. Stand on the mound and put the ball in your glove. Wait. You'll see that the ball indeed does stay in your glove unless you do something with it, like drop it or throw it.

In other words, the ball has no action without the force being imparted to it by the pitcher. But is the second part of this First Law—the straight-line motion—also true? Of course! But a pitcher can intentionally or unintentionally use external forces that cause a ball to move from a straight line, or external forces such as gravity can act on a ball.

The rule of "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points" holds true here as well. While throwing the ball in a straight line is not always the most effective pitch, it is the shortest path to maximize apparent velocity. This straight line will become very important later, so don't let go of the concept.

We move on to Newton's Second Law, which deals with acceleration, a topic near and dear to every pitcher's heart. This law says: The acceleration produced by an unbalanced force acting on an object is proportional to the magnitude of the net force, in the same direction as the force, and inversely proportional to the mass of the object.

It is difficult to simplify this law. In essence it gives us the groundwork for determining how much force is necessary to create the acceleration that is desired. Through algebraic calculations, Marshall is able to identify the forces necessary to accelerate a ball from rest to the maximum possible velocity.

Using this calculation and observed pitching motions, Marshall first determined that most pitchers in the major leagues threw a fastball that traveled at ninety miles per hour. He also was able to determine through a study of high-speed film that the average time of force application was two-tenths of a second. Using these as parts of the calculation, Marshall determined that a pitcher must exert just over six and a half pounds of pressure on the ball for two-tenths of a second in order to create the desired ninety-mile-an-hour fastball. (Marshall actually uses feet per second in his calculations—132 feet per second sounds a lot more impressive.)

Within the bounds of this Second Law and the calculations, it is easy to see how to increase the velocity of a pitch. The pitcher must either increase the force applied to the ball or increase the length of time the force is applied. Subtracting 25 percent, of application time forces a pitcher to increase the applied force by 33 percent. Increasing the application time by only 10 percent, to 0.22 seconds, increases the velocity of the pitch over eight miles per hour, to ninety-eight miles per hour. Yes, it's that simple—in the calculations if not the application—to gain velocity.

The Third Law brought to us by Sir Isaac Newton is perhaps the most widely known: For every Action force, there is an equal and oppositely directed Reaction force.

Given the rules and practicalities of baseball, there are only a few choices for the pitcher in generating these forces. He can push against the rubber, against the ground, or even against himself.

One school of pitching instruction, widely advertised, has as its most basic teaching this gem: "Do not push off." Instead, pitching coaches who subscribe to this theory teach their pitchers to merely "fall" off the mound from the ready position. The law of reaction shows that while it is certainly possible to generate force from another location, the First and Second Laws suggest that the easiest way would be to drive off the available anchor in a straight line toward home plate. If someone does not wish to use all the available tools, they may be successful, but they will certainly require more work.

Newton's knowledge in hand, we can now apply his principles toward an ideal pitching motion. While it is unlikely that any pitcher at any level can have ideal form on every pitch, by being close to it, or at least avoiding the most damaging flaws, a pitcher can avoid the most dangerous of technique injuries. Just the term "technique injuries" is a very powerful concept. Using the proper techniques even within expanded parameters of what is considered prudent usage, injury can be minimized or even completely avoided.

The ideal form for pitching is something of a Platonic ideal. It will seldom be truly perfect in the real world, and we must remember Law's Rule (named for sabermetrician Keith Law of the Toronto Blue Jays): sometimes tinkering with an effective motion can make a pitcher less effective, even if more efficient. The key to finding the ideal form for an individual pitcher is not to mold every pitcher into a one-size-fits-all motion, but to bring each pitcher closer to the ideal within the bounds of his own effectiveness.

From the ready position in either the stretch or the windup, the ideal motion brings the shoulders in a direct line with the elbows. In this position, called "Flex T" by Tom House, the pitcher should be able to have a broomstick held from elbow point to elbow point. The pitching elbow must never go behind this theoretical line. Doing so would cause the arm to pull across the body and add force that could cause the forearm to fly open and put unneeded and damaging force on the inside of the elbow.

The theoretical line of the shoulders does not need to cross another theoretical line from home plate to second base. Instead the shoulder line should not rotate beyond pointing the pitching shoulder (right or left, as appropriate) directly at second base. Additional rotation at this point exposes the ball and requires that the pitcher bring the ball back in an arc to come to the driveline.

The driveline, you will remember, is yet another theoretical line from the ball in the Flex T position, past the pitcher's ballside ear, and straight to the catcher's mitt. Of course, with breaking balls, the path of the ball will alter from the driveline due to external forces. The driveline may be theoretical in nature, but it is absolute as well.

The pitching foot (same side of the body as the pitching hand, or "ball-side") should be turned slightly forward of parallel to the pitching rubber. The angle can be adjusted to comfort, but the pitcher and coach should seek to find the angle where the front of the thigh and glutes are doing more of the work than the inner or outer thigh. It is no secret that the thigh is stronger in front than inside. Do you know anyone who can kick a ball farther using an abduction motion? Yet this is exactly what most pitchers are taught to do! The proper motion for maximal force generation is more akin to the "donkey kick" motion than to a jumping jack.

It is not important for the pitcher to raise his leg a significant height, but it is important for the pitcher to maintain a balanced, strong position. While some pitchers, such as Nolan Ryan or Dontrelle Willis, can use a high leg kick to recruit additional force, most pitchers will only throw off their balance and waste force and momentum out of the driveline. I would recommend that a pitcher raise his leg as high as he is comfortable and balanced, but my bias is to keep the leg even with or lower than the "thigh flat at waist level" used by most pitchers.

Pushing uniformly, not suddenly, off the rubber, the hips begin to turn, generating velocity. The shoulder line turns not just from a home-second to first-third orientation, but instead goes powerfully through a 180-degree turn, moving from home-second to second-home. The stride leg is moving forward, carrying both the center of gravity and the driveline release point forward.

As the center of gravity moves over the front foot, the front leg does not act as a block. Instead the pitcher continues to "walk" forward over the front leg in a straight line parallel or equivalent to the driveline. There is actual force production by the glove-side foot as the pitcher continues his motion forward. As the shoulder line reaches its point of maximum velocity, the forearm powerfully accelerates from its cocked position near the upper arm, adding to the force applied to the ball. This late movement of the forearm not only generates velocity but does so at a location that will cause the release point of the ball to be slightly ahead of that by pitchers using a traditional motion— sometimes by as much as one foot. Shortening the distance the ball travels creates an apparent increase in velocity and reduces the batter's reaction time.

It is important to note that this actual reduction in distance and apparent increase in velocity is the one true advantage that a taller pitcher has over a shorter pitcher. While Randy Johnson (standing six feet eleven inches) throws his fastball at ninety-five miles per hour, Billy Wagner (standing five feet eleven inches on his tiptoes) can also generate that velocity and more. But a study of their motions in game film shows that Johnson releases the ball nearly eighteen inches closer to the plate. This small reduction in distance gives Johnson's ball an apparent four-mile-per-hour "boost." It is, in effect, as if Johnson were pitching from a different mound, one built at fifty-nine feet from home plate rather than the regulation sixty feet, six inches.

As the forearm accelerates, it also powerfully pronates. Pronation in this sense is the motion that turns the thumb of the pitching hand down or re-creates the motion of pouring out a glass. This pronation motion not only gives a final boost of acceleration to the ball but protects the elbow, allowing a natural deceleration.

The ball is released in varying fashions according to the intention of the pitcher, but in all instances the last point of contact will be the tip of the middle finger. Even with a curveball that will often apparently last contact the index finger, highspeed video shows that the ball rolls over the index finger with the middle fingertip imparting the last contact and force. As the ball is released, the pitcher continues forward rather than overrotating and falling off to either side of the driveline. Not only will this put the pitcher in a good defensive position, it will ensure that a maximum of force is directed in the driveline and imparted to the ball.

An illustration of pronation of the forearm, as Mark Prior throws


SAVING THE PITCHER. Copyright © 2004 by Will Carroll. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

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