Pitching For Success

Joey Housey

Finding the Root of the Problem

One of the most common problems I see in pitchers while going about their bullpens, throwing program, etc. is the inability to find the true root of what they feel when throws feel “different” in a negative way.  After a poor throw or pitch, I will see pitchers do a simple, dry, recap of what they “felt” was wrong.  Nearly 100% of the time they will shadow this wrong-doing by simulating some movement with their upper half, usually something with their glove side or throwing arm.

The problem here is that the “bad” feeling they just felt with their upper half is, most of the time, spot on…But, it most likely was the byproduct of an improper movement stemming from their lower half, aka the “root” of the problem.  Pitchers, especially at the college and professional level, have made quality pitches thousands and thousands of times… They know how their arms are supposed to work, it is second nature.  So, for a player to shadow or do a dry rep of some kind of “reminder” with their arm or glove side after a poor throw is due to an inability to recognize where the problem is stemming from.  Every throw made, your glove side and arm are working in the rhythm that has produced thousands of good throws over the course of years.  When you throw, say, 20 pitches or throws during catch, it’s not like you consciously did something on the 18 good throws that you didn’t do on the 2 bad ones..But, instead, what was the rest of your body, from your head down, doing that caused your glove side or arm side to be “out of whack”?

For example, one that I see most commonly is a post-throw, dry rep, of a pitcher “reminding” himself to get his front side cleared so he can give himself the “freedom” to locate throws/pitches where he wants.  Well, chances are that plenty of the other throws he is making are quality pitches/throws without having to think about clearing his front-side… But, the ROOT of the problem to this example stems from the lower half.  If you are in a “hurry” to push, laterally, to your catcher/throwing partner, you will hit ‘foot strike’ prematurely, aka not giving your glove side and arm enough time to “work” to the proper position.  When your front foot lands in the throwing process, its telling your body “I’ve got to god rid of this ball.”  When have you ever seen a pitcher land and then take an extra second to continue working his arms so that it can get to the proper placement? Never.  Therefore, when you hit foot strike and it’s “go-time”, if you prematurely reach that position, you have not given your glove side and arm enough time to reach the point where good throws/pitches happen… You will block yourself off with your gloveside and simultaneously feel “late” with your throwing arm.

So, take the time to try to identify the true root of what is happening on good versus bad throws.  Just like many ailments or mild injuries, it is rarely the case that where you’re feeling the pain is the actual source of the problem, this is termed as ‘referred pain’ in the medical world.  Same goes for throwing/pitching.

The Importance of a Flatground/”Touch and Feel” Bullpen

While flatground/”touch and feel” bullpen (TAFB) work has become popular throughout all levels of baseball, we may not be getting the most out of it.  A flatground/TAFB is a minimal effort exercise meant to create a greater feel for your delivery.  It should not require a great amount of physical exertion and this should be reflected by  stride length and arm acceleration; out over the front leg, accelerating through a consistent release point.

So how will this make you a better pitcher?  It takes a while for young pitchers to be able to relax enough on the mound to be able to make adjustments on their own.  But, if they are conscious of what they are doing right, they will know when they do something wrong.  When a pitcher is not able to recognize right from wrong, he is not at a level, yet, to be his “own best coach” because he does not fully understand how his body works.  Simply put, it does not give a pitcher the ability to be as consistent as he can be.  Consistent doesn’t necessarily mean a great statistical outing every time we take the mound, but it does mean that it gives us the best CHANCE!

How slow can you simulate your delivery in a flatground/TAFB and still KNOW you will make quality pitches time and time again? FEEL the rhythm and timing… KNOW when you NEED to start accelerating your glove side and throwing arm in order to GUARANTEE yourself that you can make the ball carry through the strikezone.  Your lower half will respond, NATURALLY!  Work on repeating pitches through the outer half of the zone.  Don’t feel the need to switch location after every pitch.  Master the rhythm that allows you to work the outer half.  After all, 80% of pitches are meant to be on the outer half!!  So why not master the location we will be working towards the most?  Once you can do the above, you are capable of being not only your own best coach, but also a pitcher that is reliable and consistent every outing.

How Much Should You Throw?

When professional pitchers enter the off-season and do not throw for an extended period of time, once they do start a throwing routine, in preparation for spring training, it is gradual.  Times per week, intensity, and distance are all structured accordingly, allowing the pitcher to ‘build-up’ stamina and get back in to good throwing shape.  This gradual process can take anywhere from 4-8 weeks before the pitcher is expected to step on a mound and perform at full potential.

In order to maximize your ability as a pitcher, you need to throw.  If you are only throwing (whether it be playing catch or a bullpen) only when you feel ‘great’, you are throwing too little.  Throwing is a physically stressful activity/workout.  Your body and arm needs to be trained to acclimate to the stress.  Therefore, normal soreness/stiffness in preparation for a season should not be recognized as a danger-sign but rather an opportunity to “work-out” your stiffness via throwing and continue the process of letting your brain recognize that, in order to comfortably adapt to the workload you desire, your arm needs to be able to handle it; it needs to be stronger.  There is a DIFFERENCE between soreness and pain.  Soreness should be expected when getting your arm in good throwing-shape, but it does not mean you should wait until all soreness goes away in order to continue your throwing program.

High school throwing programs, in general, are not well-structured.  While playing and now on staff at the University of Oregon, I have seen tremendous jumps in velocity from the majority of incoming athletes.  Why?  A good weight-lifting routine, arm-band exercises (such as Jaeger J-Bands), and medicine ball routines are all excellent supplemental factors.  But it is important to realize that they are supplemental routines that coincide with a well-structured, strenuous throwing program.

Professional pitchers throw daily.  The type of throwing they do will vary from day-to-day because of individual routines. In order to acclimate your arm to take on the strenuous workload of a full season, the investment made in a well-designed throwing program, prior to the season, is essential.

Pitching Inside

With all that is said about pitching inside, you would think that most of your outs come from inside pitches.  This is NOT the case.  Most outs are gotten with your quality ‘stuff’ on the outer half.  With that being said, the respect you gain from the hitter helps you do that.  So how do you gain that respect?  You gain this respect by showing the hitter that you have enough command of your fastball to throw an inside strike and having no fear of missing inside.  Very simple.  This keeps them ‘honest’ and keeps them from diving towards the outer half, making solid contact with outer half pitches that you SHOULD be getting outs with.

Anyone that has pitched knows that this is far easier said than done. We know that there is little room for error in pitching inside especially with runners in scoring position. So along with the confidence that we have fine tuned mechanics to make the pitch we also need the conviction to make the pitch as well. There’s nothing worse than being on the way to release and start thinking “maybe” and guide the ball. This always ends in a costly mistake.

What separates the good hitters from average or below-average hitters is the ability to handle well placed outer half pitches.  Take note while watching batting practice of how many balls are actually hit hard to the opposite field… You would see a culmination of pop ups and rolled over ground balls due to a poor bat plane to the ball.  So, in essence, establish the ABILITY to pitch inside to the extent where the hitter can be kept ‘honest’, but do not underestimate the power and effectiveness of being able to primarily locate on the outer half.

‘Clearing’ Your Front-Side

Previous posts of mine have touched on the importance of gaining rotational acceleration through ‘release’.  Building on this, I want to touch on the importance of ‘clearing your front side.’  In today’s pitching realm there is a misrepresented preaching of keeping your glove so tucked against your chest that it essentially does not allow your lead shoulder/chest to open in sync with what the rest of your body is trying to do.  While we do not want our glove-side to “fly open” aimlessly and spin our shoulders in an ill-advised manner, we do want to allow our front-side to open as we get close to ‘release’.  This will allow our throwing arm to continue accelerating through the middle/outer half part of the zone and let our backside maintain momentum, effortlessly, through extension.

As you have read in previous posts, I often reference the body mechanics of ‘punching’ to pitching.  A simple way I have helped pitchers who have a “dead front side” (front shoulder closed too long) is with the following analogy (I will give the example in reference to a right-handed pitcher).  If you are squared up to a punching bag, and you had to throw a left-hand jab punch, followed immediately by a 100% effort right-hand punch, how would you do it?  First you would throw the left jab and, in order to throw that second punch with 100% effort, you would begin accelerating your left elbow backwards while rotating your palm upwards, creating torque/tension through our chest/shoulder region in order to create maximum momentum and power for our second punch.  Your body will NATURALLY respond this way if there is a sense of urgency to throw that second punch.  As soon as we hit the bag with our left jab, we HAVE to start throwing that second punch…

When doing this, or practicing this while throwing, begin to evaluate how ‘clearing’ your front side properly allows us to get better extension.  This goes hand-in-hand with creating better “carry” on the ball.  A pitcher with a “dead” front side will lack “carry” on the ball and struggle to effectively be able to command the outer half of the zone with consistency.

Don’t be afraid to expand out of your comfort zone when giving thought to adjustments.  Maximize the feel of the adjustment rather than trying to be perfect right from the “get-go”. A baseball is light in weight, therefore this bad habit of a “dead” front side will allow our body to throw in this unnatural way.  A heavier object will require you to clear your front side if we are trying to throw the object with any kind of real force.  A prime example of this is exemplified by Javelin throwers.  The following link is a compilation of professional Javelin throwers.  It should be viewed by all that want to visually see how ‘clearing’ your front side is a must for not only velocity, but for extension and, ultimately, overall command of the zone.   https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=qVO89xE8o1I

Let Natural Happen

In today’s baseball society, there is so much of an emphasis on “throwing strikes” from a very young age.  Young pitchers are competing on teams where the stress is on winning at all costs with a lack on emphasis on actual development.  If an 11 year old pitcher “throws strikes” at that age, chance are, he will be pretty successful in the current period.  But, does this necessarily mean that the delivery he is using on a 48 -foot mound is actually giving himself the best chance of continuous development as he gets older?  My short answer would be, in most cases, no.  The following example is one I have used with dozens of pitchers ranging from 12-22 years old.

Anyone who follows professional baseball knows the role that the Domincan Republic plays in getting their players signed to come over and play in affiliated (MiLB) organizations.  The Dominicans are “hungry” for a chance to play in the United States.  They know that throwing ‘hard’ gets the most attention.  For that reason, when they pitch, the emphasis is put on velocity.  They are not taught drills that infect mainstream American pitching.  They simply let their body do what it needs to in order to ensure that they will throw the ball as hard as they possibly can.  The funny thing is, when your body is working in such rhythm to maximize velocity, it is simultaneously giving you the best chance to command the strike zone.  Dominican pitchers often get a bad rap for having a lack of control when they first sign.  While this may be true at first, their ability to develop and fine-tune their optimal body mechanics is made easier because of how ‘natural’ they are.  A quick proof of this falls within the term “extension.”

Everyone has heard of this term “extension” and I will make another post in more depth about this.  But simply put, “extension” means allowing your body and arm to continue its momentum toward the plate for as long as possible, maximizing the margin of error you have through release.  This creates ‘carry’ on the ball and becomes vital when breaking balls and other secondary pitches are experimented with.  Again, I will go into more detail on this in a later post.

So, let natural happen!  As Andre Agassi noted when he was developing his serve, he worried about serving the ball as hard as possible first, and then once he achieved this optimal rhythm and tempo, he THEN worked to master the service velocity to be in play (command).  A famous study of pianists was done some years back and has been noted by some greats, like Cal Ripken Jr.  The study found that ‘mastery’ of a skill takes roughly 10,000 practice hours!  So from a young age, pitchers should focus on mastering a delivery that allows optimal velocity, and continuosly tailor that ‘feel’ as this 10,000 hour-mark is approached.  ‘Quick fixes’ and unnatural mechanics in an attempt to throw more strikes will only inhibit a pitcher’s ability to master his craft and restrain his ability to reach maximum potential in the long-run.  One has to be willing to invest in the longterm outcome and risk “walking” a few more batters in the present and trust that “taking one (perceived) step-back, now, will let them jump 10 steps forward in the future.”

‘Extension’

The term ‘extension’ is thrown around a lot but is commonly used without a true understanding of what it actually means. First, it should be noted that maximizing extension begins with the ability to ‘stay back’ the correct way.  A crucial part of extension is mindset.  The mindset for pitchers should primarily consist of throwing the ball “through a spot” and not “to a spot.”  When trying to throw a ball “to a spot,” pitchers will have the tendency to cutoff a pitch and lack carry on the ball.  This is especially important with breaking balls and change-ups.  We want to have the mindset that if there were a second catcher 5 feet back from our actual target, we would be able to make each pitch carry through both.  Now, there are times when it is advantageous to be “fine” with our pitches, but for now, let’s focus on making a bunch of good pitches, not great ones.  Tom Browning, long-time big leaguer with the Cincinnati Reds and the only Red to throw a perfect game once told me, “Making good pitches gets outs; trying to make great ones gets you in trouble.”

Extension is a product of how well your body works together.  An easy way to practice getting good extension is with throwing a punch at a target.  If someone is holding their hand chest-high four feet away from you, it would be easy to hit that hand with any kind of “delivery.” Now what if that person holds his hand 6 or 7 feet from you?  From your leg-lift position, how would you go about punching that hand now?  Essentially, you have to be able to provide enough momentum from your backside to allow your upperhalf to work like a ‘whip’ in order to get to, and through, that target.

A key part to the equation noted above is the rotation of your body.  If you glide straight at your target with NO rotational force, you will not be able to get THROUGH the target.  Your back knee will bend straight towards third base (for a right-handed pitcher) and your “push” will be more vertical than lateral.  Rotational force allows your knee to keep gradually bending inwards (down the thirdbase line) so that when the final “push” happens, it allows us to gain more ground, powerfully, as you rotate OVER your front foot.  Think about a base runner that is about to steal secondbase: he has his spread stance, and when he decides to start stealing it is a rotational acceleration push that happens naturally.  He does not simply push directly towards secondbase, he pushes while rotating his body in order to face second base head-on.

In summary, the ability to ‘stay back’ correctly, the right thought process, and rotational acceleration combine to creat extension.  Extension maximizes our ability to let our arm and body continue through the target for as long as possible, creating better “carry” on all of our pitches.

Give Yourself a Guarantee

One of the most underrated aspects of pitching is playing catch.  Playing catch should not be done to just get your arm loose.  There are too few times when you actually get to be on a mound for a bullpen or game situation.  But you likely play catch 4-7 times a week.  So, let’s become a better pitcher in catch play.  What I mean by giving yourself a “guarantee” is learning to be within a narrow window when you do any type of throwing with an emphasis on the middle-outer half of your target/zone.  If you are a right-handed pitcher, you should not settle for throws during catch play that are continously at your partner’s left side of his body.  Try to “work” his right hip area with some good carry on the ball.  80% of our pitches will be on the outer half, so if there is one region we want to be able to execute to with ease, it is the outer half of the zone.

When your body and arm work together correctly (‘staying back’ the right way, having rotational acceleration, and extension), the ball wants to go ‘through’ the outer half.  Start making this outer half your focus for any kind of catch play, flat ground, or bullpen.  When you master this ability with minimal effort of “trying to be on the outer half”, your body is working optimally.  If it is not a strength of yours, work on it.  Too often I watch bullpens or flatgrounds and when the pitcher executes an outer half pitch on his third or fourth try, he will immediately call a new location after finally getting the outer half pitch he took 4 times to execute.  This is luck.  It will eventually happen if you try enough.  Stay on that outer half location until it becomes easy for you.  Even if it is just with a fastball.  Once that rhythm and tempos is mastered, pitching will become a lot simpler… With all pitches;  Less ‘backed-up’ curveball, choked change-ups, and unfavorable counts.  If you are going to keep getting better, then you have to stop relying on luck and quick fixes and put more of an emphasis on repeating a good delivery that gives you a sort of “guarantee.” Not every pitch will be where you want it, but this “guarantee” lets us have the ability to make good pitches more often and allows our bad pitches to still be in, or right around, the zone.

What ‘Staying Back’ Really Means

There’s a lot of terminology around in the pitching world today, and one you hear often is ‘staying back’.  So what is it?  Very simply, it’s having enough weight remaining on our backside to create that little “push” that gets us started and that we are able to maintain that “push” into a controled lateral glide.  It’s important because, if we don’t get to feel that “push”, chances are that we are being pulled to the plate by our leading front side.  That results in our arm having to catch up to our body and dragging through a lower “slot”, a “short-cut”.  This will not allow us to achieve the good, downhill leverage out-front.

Staying back can happen in an instant and does not require you to stand straight up over your back leg for this to happen.  As we get started correctly, and go in to our lateral glide, our arm has time to work to the “top”.  This rhythm and timing helps us to accelerate through a consistent release point, out over our front leg.  That should be our goal whether we are throwing a fastball or any offspeed pitch.

To help better explain what this looks like to ‘stay back’ correctly I will provide a non-pitching example.  As a pitcher, you probably ‘stay back’ while doing other athletic movements, naturally.  So, the process should actually come natural if we are not overly concerned with trying too many things at once.  For example, throwing a punch.  If there is a bunching bag about 4 feet in front of you and you start in a stretch-type stance… You lift your leg (this doesn’t have to be a full leg lift, let’s get the feeling down first…so try just hovering your foot off the ground), now when you start pushing to hit that bag as hard as possible, chance are you will be ‘staying back’ the right way. An easy way to think of this is that when you are gaining ground, laterally, to that punching bag, your upper body should be maintaining more weight on your backside than frontside… Now, when does your upper body really start accelerating?  It starts accelerating when you actually start throwing that punch!  If my hand is cocked-back for a punch, my body does not need to be traveling anywhere yet.  But, when I start punching, that action will dictate when your upper half needs to travel with your hand, naturally.  This ensures optimal acceleration and power through your punch because our backside (that has most of our weight) transfers that weight through our punch.

Making Your Arm Work Like a ‘Whip’

There’s a reason so many catchers are converted into pitchers if catching is not going to ‘work out’ for them at high levels (college or professional baseball).  Because it is easier to visualize this concept of your arm working like a ‘whip’ when talking about catchers, it will be the basis of our examination here.  Catchers have to get rid of the ball quickly, with as much velocity as possible.  The common phrase known to most is how they “get the ball to their ear” as soon as their hand transfers the ball out of the glove.  Visualize this for a second: you can visualize how their hand is near their ear and their elbow is ‘cocked-back.’ The combination of this action and the next is what will allow your arm to work like a whip for maximum velocity. From this position we are visualizing, the next movement made is to let the elbow and shoulder ‘take-over’ while the hand follows behind.  This emphasis being put on the effort of the elbow/shoulder ALLOWS your arm to work like a whip.  If the emphasis is always on what the hand is doing, you may be working in a ‘one-piece’ arm action, like an “Iron Mike Machine.”  Two-pieces works faster than one-piece because of the torque loaded up on your shoulder, kind of like winding a rubberband tighter and tighter then letting go and seeing how fast that band unravels effortlessly.

So, in relation to more of a pitching arm-action, once you break your hands, instead of “cranking” your arm by letting everything follow where your hand is going, let your elbow and shoulder start “cranking” and allow your hand to simply follow.  Think about when you grab the string handle of a lawn mower and pull it to make it start.  You grab the handle, and you pull your elbow up and let your hand-gripped handle follow, you don’t “windmill” that handle with a straight arm to pull it hard enough to start it, do you?

This habit can be tough to fix, and I have worked with plenty of pitchers who have a tough time breaking this habit.  For this reason, as I would say for many of the adjustments you work on, practice overemphasizing the adjustment.  Oftentimes, you will “think” you are doing something more than you actually are, so don’t try to be perfect when working on an adjustment.  Overemphasize it to really create the feel and then tailor it to fit your exact arm action.

Post Navigation