Up to this point in the website we have almost exclusively discussed the positions of the arms and hands in developing proper throwing technique. The reason for this emphasis is that if the throwing arm doesn’t get into a strong position the player will not safely and powerfully be able to use the lower body and trunk to accelerate the arm to achieve maximum velocity. As we have stated previously, if you don’t fix the early Arm Action, you won’t be able to optimize the rest of the mechanics. In addition, if you don’t get the Arm Action optimized you can’t really focus on the lower body and trunk for rotation.
Throwing Is Rotational Not Linear
So, what are the basic movements that the largest muscles of the body should be trying to achieve? First, players and coaches need to understand that a powerful throwing motion is primarily rotational. From a distance it may look linear, but hard throwers utilize their bodies to rotate around their spines.
The easiest way to confirm that throwing is rotational is to look at the mound after a quality pitcher has worked a few innings. The mound will have a hole close to the pitching rubber and another at the landing spot for the stride foot. These holes are present because the pitcher rotates his feet and digs into the dirt (the same is true for hitters as the batter’s box exhibits holes for both feet after a few innings).
The rotational aspect of throwing may not seem obvious because most pitchers stride linearly toward home plate. However, this stride really isn’t a major part of the actual throwing action, but rather the preparatory portion of throwing mechanics prior to rotation.
The Magic of the Quarter Turn
Throwing a baseball powerfully occurs during a quarter turn of the upper body. The throwing action starts with the shoulder line aimed at the plate and ends with the chest facing the plate. The arm moves from no external rotation in the shoulder to full external rotation in the shoulder and ends at full extension of the arm. That’s how simple the act of throwing is. In the quarter turn of the upper body the baseball goes from zero miles per hour to maximum speed. All the other aspects of throwing are either in preparation to make the quarter turn or to insure that the arm decelerates over a long distance after the ball is released at the completion of the quarter turn.
So, all the early parts of the windup or stretch are really executed to simply maximize the rotational velocity of the upper body. When the upper body rotational velocity is maximum and is timed correctly with the Arm Action, the result is that the two velocity components can actually add together.
Positioning Of The Pivot Foot
As the prior “quarter turn” discussion explained, we need to get the shoulder line pointed at the target early in the throwing sequence. We will start by getting the pitcher’s lower body into position. The key is to establish the back foot square, or at a right angle, to the target. For a pitcher on the mound, a square position is aided by the pitching rubber in creating the correct alignment of the pivot foot.
The pivot foot needs to be square to the target until the stride foot lands…
However, when not on the mound (during flat ground work) the pitcher needs to be aware of the positioning of his pivot foot so that it’s always square to the target. It’s important to understand that the instruction we use for pitchers throwing on flat ground is different than what we use for position players.
When an infielder or catcher is getting ready to throw the baseball, his first action after catching the ball is to take a short jab step with the back foot in front of the body. This jab step squares the pivot foot to the target and begins some momentum toward the target. The position player’s technique is focused on aligning the front shoulder to the target quickly to optimize accuracy while generating velocity. The forward jab step is the best way to insure the position player directs his front shoulder toward the target and can get rid of the baseball quickly.
For a pitcher, however, we use a different technique with the pitcher jab stepping behind the body. The reason we have the pitcher step behind his body is first to guarantee that the upper body and the lower body are closed to the target and second to maximize the pitcher’s ability to keep the weight back. These two issues are more critical for pitchers since the need is to get every bit of velocity that’s possible.
Pitchers are plagued by opening their hips and shoulders too early and allowing the downward slope of the mound to pull the weight forward. These two facts for pitchers throwing off the mound create the need to overcompensate during flat ground work. The techniques we use are focused on keeping the hips and shoulders closed to the target and maintaining the weight back. In the following three pictures of Kolt you can see how the jab step behind automatically puts the weight on the back leg and also automatically closes the hips and shoulders to the target line. When the pitcher moves to the mound we want the flat ground work to transfer so the key points are duplicated.
Movement Of The Stride Foot
The movement of the stride foot should be the same whether the pitcher is throwing on flat ground or on the mound. In both cases, the outside of the stride foot first moves closed to the target and then as the stride foot extends to landing the foot moves more in line with the target. To be clear, for a right handed pitcher, the heel of the stride foot needs to start in line with the outside of the right hand batter’s box and as the foot approaches landing the side of the foot is in line with the plate. We emphasize taking the heel of the stride foot forward so the player doesn’t have a tendency to open the stride foot too soon. The movement of the outside of the stride foot is made with the weight on the ball of the pivot foot as shown in the prior sequence of Kolt.
Your weight needs to be on the balls of your feet in order to make a strong hip and trunk rotation…
To summarize, the pivot foot is square to the target, the weight is held back on the back side, the stride foot starts “over-closed” and as it approaches landing the side of the foot should be directed to the target. As we have previously stated, when the stride foot is about to land the elbow is above the shoulder and the ball is above the head.
The lead shoulder and lead leg need to be over-closed slightly as you approach the stride foot landing”…
Upper Body Tilt
So, how do you stride forward and keep your weight primarily on the back leg? The answer is upper body tilt, another “old school” idea. An upward tilt of the hips and shoulders helps load weight (energy) back onto the inside of the pivot leg.
Again, we’ll use an analogy to try to understand the reasoning. For this example, consider that the pitcher is similar to a center pivot balance scale.
Now, consider the center pedestal of the scale to be analogous to the pitcher’s pivot leg. The weight in the right-hand scale pan would be the weight of the stride leg as it moves toward the landing position. For the scale to balance and prevent the right-hand scale pan from falling, weight is needed in the left-hand scale pan. Tilt of the upper body and hips is the equivalent of adding weight into the left-hand scale pan. By tilting the hips and upper body upward we add some weight behind the pivot leg and that weight attempts to balance the weight of the stride leg as long as possible. You can see this hip and upper body tilt in the following picture of Paul. Even though the mound slopes downward, Paul’s hips and shoulders are directed upward to balance the scale.
The better the pitcher can maintain the weight back on the inside of the pivot leg during the stride the less likely he will end up with his weight drifting forward. Maintaining the weight back on the inside of the pivot leg is the key to storing energy in a strong position that will allow a powerful, quick rotation of the hips and then upper body. The next section discusses the importance of the sequence of hips before shoulders in the rotation.
Hips Lead The Action
With the weight back and the front foot about to land, it’s important to recognize that the stride foot needs to land on the ball of the foot, not the heel. The reason the stride foot lands is because the hip rotation starts just before the time the stride foot is about to touch. Effectively, then, the stride foot is rotated or pulled down, rather than being placed down. This is a subtle difference, but is important since the early rotation backward of the lead hip is the start of the actual throwing sequence and is critical to maximize rotational velocity of the upper body. When the lead hip begins to rotate, the shoulders are still in line with the target so the “torso spring” begins to wind.
The emphasis on hip rotation is with the front part of the hip, rather than the back of the hip. The feel the pitcher needs is that at the end of the stride he is pulling the lead hip open and down. It’s a feeling of almost rotating the lead hip behind him. The concept of driving the hips open from the back tends to create a “drop and drive” type mentality that tends to push the weight forward. Opening the lead hip or pulling the lead hip backward and downward develops a pure rotational feel. The downward rotation of the lead hip helps take the tilt away so that during the powerful part of the throwing action the hips and shoulders are level.
Often I will stand behind the pitcher and grab his belt at the front hip. Then, when his stride foot is about to land I’ll pull the lead hip back and down abruptly. Almost invariably, the player will throw the ball very well with this assistance. The key then is to have the player duplicate this lead hip backward and downward movement just before the stride foot is about to land.
Coordination Of The Arm And Hips
From earlier discussions, we know that when the ball of the front foot is about to land (not the heel), the throwing elbow needs to be above the shoulder, the ball above the head and the ball pointed away from the target with the elbow bent more than 90 degrees. We have also discussed previously that the arm needs to externally rotate in the shoulder socket.
So, how do we coordinate these movements to achieve the desired result? First, when the front hip starts to pull back and down the throwing arm starts to externally rotate in the shoulder. These two movements should occur simultaneously. At this point the shoulders are still in line with the target. As the hips continue to rotate open against the closed upper body the arm will continue to externally rotate.
There is a point reached where the upper body starts to rotate in response to the hips opening and winding the “torso spring” to the maximum. The hips to shoulders angle will vary from pitcher to pitcher depending on the amount of flexibility he has. At the maximum hip to shoulder angle, the hips to torso “spring” will be wound fully and the arm to shoulder “spring” should be wound fully. With both springs coiled, the pitcher focuses on rapidly turning his upper body to catapult the arm.
It’s very important to recognize that for all this preparation work, the arm is relaxed and there is really no extra effort or movement of the ball. This is one of the most difficult concepts to master since most players have always thrown the ball with their hand and arm as the dominant mechanisms. The concept that is critical to understand here is that the actual act of throwing with the arm happens very late in the whole sequence of events after the big muscles of the body have stored the maximum amount of energy.
Just as it isn’t natural for a young player to instinctively have a loose reverse arm swing, it isn’t natural for the player to be closed to the target leading up to the stride foot landing. This is also another area where most pitching coaches differ from this instruction. Most coaches want the player to point the toe at the target in order to emphasize locating the pitches. This goes back to the fact that most coaches prefer soft throwers (relatively) that can paint the zone rather than hard throwers that have imperfect location. As stated previously, the approach of our instruction is to learn to throw hard and then develop the ability to locate. The higher the competitive level you play, the more higher velocity can be an advantage. Obviously, location is always very important, but you don’t learn to throw hard at an early age by “playing darts.”
The closed position forces the upper and lower body to store energy that is available when the stride foot is about to land. If the player starts slightly closed and maintains the closed position, he should be ready to “throw the ball starting with his legs.” This is again a point for coaches to overemphasize or exaggerate, because the natural tendency for most young players is to have the front shoulder and front hip open when the stride foot lands. By overemphasizing the front side being closed, the hope is that the player will result in a slightly closed action up until the stride foot just touches.
In summary, then, the most common stride problems occur because the lead shoulder opens early and the hips open early because the toe of the lead foot points to the target too early. From this early open position, a large portion of the available rotational energy has been eliminated and the pitcher is forced to throw the ball almost exclusively with his arm. This throwing technique can place undue stress on the shoulder and elbow and won’t achieve optimal velocity. Unfortunately, this throwing motion is typical of large numbers of pitchers that have come for individual instruction over the years.