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May 3, 2013

Raising Aces

Time to Unwind

by Doug Thorburn

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The pitching delivery has evolved throughout the history of Major League Baseball. There are elements of old-school pitching mechanics that are now artifacts of a bygone era, and though one would expect the modern iteration of pitching instruction to have greatly progressed over time, there are some ways in which the pitchers of today have regressed compared to their predecessors. A few of these topics have been covered in previous editions of Raising Aces, such as the modern-day emphasis on angles and deception that has resulted in over-the-top arm slots and closed stride patterns.

The windup is a fundamental component of the pitching delivery, one so basic that its utility in the game is never questioned, yet it serves as a classic example of the ever-changing practices of the pitching-industrial complex. Pitcher windups have morphed over the past 70 years, and what was once a series of movements has been simplified to the current model, which basically involves a side-step and pivot, essentially putting the pitcher in the stretch position at the time that he initiates the lift phase of his motion.

I am generally in favor of simplifying the delivery, as many pitchers sacrifice efficiency and waste energy when they overcomplicate the mechanical sequence. In the specific case of the windup, however, new-age philosophies have sacrificed some of the mechanical advantages that defined the best pitchers of previous generations.

Warren Spahn demonstrates the elements of a classic windup in the above clip. He swings his arms as he takes a step behind the rubber, brings the hands over his head, and then proceeds to burst forward in a fluid motion. There is no “stop at the top” of his leg lift, but rather a continuous line to the plate that ends in a long stride and a deep release point. Spahn generates considerable momentum from the windup, as he takes advantage of the powerful position that is created by the step behind the rubber to generate energy with his lower half and thereby take maximum advantage of the mound's slope. Such high levels of momentum were very common during the Golden Age of Baseball, even when pitchers were in the stretch, as demonstrated by the great Bob Feller:

Pitchers dominated the game in the 1960s, and the height of the pitching mound has become a focal point for post-hoc explanations of the era’s eye-popping stats. The excuse has gained such traction that one might assume that the mound of the sixties was fundamentally different from that of any other era, even though the league-standard height of 15 inches had been in place since 1903 (although some teams were accused of bending the rules, changing the height based on the day's pitcher). However, the imbalance of the run-scoring environment of the mid-to-late sixties precipitated the shrinking of the mound to a maximum height of 10 inches, beginning in 1969, and there it has stayed ever since.

The common hindsight view falls short in explaining the causal link between mound height and the ripple effect on offense. The generally accepted theory is that throwing from a higher perch created an extreme advantage through the generation of downhill plane, creating steep pitch trajectories to inhibit opposing hitters. The downhill plane was certainly a factor, yet there is another element that has become somewhat lost over time, and that is the tremendous advantage to be gained via pitcher momentum. The steeper slope of the mound allowed pitchers to take greater advantage of gravity with a faster charge toward the plate, with ripple effects of a deeper release point and increased levels of kinetic energy to transfer onto the baseball.

The mascot for pitcher dominance in the late sixties was Bob Gibson, whose powerful delivery and elite stuff completely overmatched the batters of his era, and whose 1.12 ERA of 1968 may have been the statistical straw that broke the camel's back, resulting in a lowered bump on the baseball field.

Gibson's delivery would likely be described as “violent” by today's standards, but his extreme momentum and incredible torque produced ridiculous arm speeds, with pitches thrown from a distance that felt right on top of the hitter. The technique was as intimidating as it was advantageous, and in video of Gibson pitching prior '69, it looks like he is launching off of a ramp.

The slow motion clip gives a better feel for the raw components that made it possible for Gibson to generate so much kinetic energy. He puts himself into a powerful starting position by stepping behind the rubber, much like Spahn in the previous video, and he begins the directional charge toward the plate in conjunction with the pivot of his posting leg. Gibson leads with the hip as he reaches maximum leg lift, and his heavy momentum so early in the delivery allows him to execute a smooth yet powerful transition into foot strike.

The focus on mound height has helped to fuel a generation of players and coaches who attempt to achieve high release points in the quest for downhill plane, with the common side effect of poor posture due to the degree of spine-tilt necessary to bring the arm over the top. The irony of this tenet of conventional wisdom is that spine-tilt effectively shrinks a pitcher's distance at release point, which negates many of the advantages to be gained from excellent momentum such that the two major factors which influenced the mound-height advantage are now being pitted against one another in a battle of pitcher attrition.

This battle was also fought on the field in the sixties, in the form of Sandy Koufax.

Koufax had incredible momentum, but he was also an over-the-top guy with terrible posture but a high arm slot. The high slot gave his legendary curveball a frighteningly deep trajectory, and the thrust of momentum gave him a long stride that helped to overcome the distance-shrinking effects of spine-tilt. The speed with which Koufax charged down the slope was evident from both the windup and the stretch:

The poor posture was provoked by rough balance in the early phases of the delivery, as was commonplace for his generation of pitchers. Pitchers then didn’t value balance the way they do today, and nearly every pitcher from the era would keep his weight shifted back, with a head that lagged behind the center of mass until foot strike. The momentum-driven windup was still prevalent in the 1970s, but the preference toward high release points also began to creep into the majors.

Jim Palmer took notes from his predecessors when it came to using his windup to speed down the slope, but he also exhibited a blatant manipulation of posture to achieve a taller arm slot, with heavy spine-tilt that he triggered relatively early in the delivery. Contrast his approach with that of his contemporary, Tom Seaver, who valued all three elements of balance, momentum, and posture.

It is more difficult for a pitcher to balance himself with such high levels of kinetic energy, so many modern strategies have sought to quiet both elements, encouraging better balance yet restricting momentum in the effort to quiet the delivery.

The modern windup is borderline useless, as the pitchers of today no longer gain a mechanical advantage when pitching with the bases empty. Many pitchers perform better out of the windup, but the tendency is directly related to the disparate timing patterns when pitching from the windup versus the stretch. Modern pitchers are often coached to slow down from the windup yet to hurry from the stretch, further exaggerating the difference in time signature required for the two motions, and those who have learned to integrate a slide step face an ever greater challenge. A pitcher who focused all of his efforts on a single motion could reap huge rewards with respect to pitch repetition and command.

Pitcher development would be greatly accelerated if the athletes could concentrate on mastering only a single timing pattern. Pitching exclusively from the windup is clearly not an option, but a player can choose to make all of his pitches out of the stretch position. The logical reason to adhere to a windup would be a mechanical advantage, but that advantage would have to be great enough to overcome the associated inconsistency stemming from multiple timing patterns. Meanwhile, the oversimplification of the modern-day windup has killed the marginal value to be gained compared to the stretch.

Some pitchers have already progressed to this new stage of enlightenment, most of them relievers, but at least one prominent starter has cured his previous battles with timing by ditching the windup and focusing all of his efforts on a singular delivery.

If it's good enough for Yu, then it's good enough for me.

Doug Thorburn is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Doug's other articles. You can contact Doug by clicking here

Related Content:  Pitching,  Mechanics,  Delivery,  History,  Windup,  Motion

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

bobbygrace

It's comparatively easy to see how a pitcher with a majestic Golden Age windup generates momentum, but I have a hard time discerning how a pitcher generates momentum from the stretch. Does it all have to do with the pivot?

May 03, 2013 06:26 AM
rating: 1
 
Matthew Trueblood

Doug could correct me here, but from my reading and observations, it seems to be all about the push of the back leg and hip. A good kick from the stretch keeps the hip and front side firmly closed, and the pitcher pivots the back hip toward home plate while pushing forward with the post leg to create forward momentum even before we perceive forward movement. The energy is mostly potential, but that's okay: As the stride leg begins its descent, there's a sort of controlled explosion, a firing of the hips that starts with that back side. You ride the back leg down the mound.

May 03, 2013 08:08 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

The "push off the rubber" paradigm can be quite misleading, as can the "tall and fall" terminology. Of course we're just talking semantics, but watching how players respond to those methods of instruction reveals the issues. The "push off the rubber" guys tend to collapse the back leg at or before max leg lift, disrupting balance and/or initiating a drop-n-drive, and the "tall and fall" guys fail to use their starting position to generate much momentum.

At the NPA we used the terminology "Lift and thrust," because it invoked the necessary mechanism of leading with the front hip and initiating an early charge toward the plate. Essentially, the pitcher thrusts the lead hip toward the plate in conjunction with the lift phase, and the goal is to achieve a similar (but more balanced) look to Gibson in the 2nd GIF.

May 03, 2013 13:09 PM
 
Leg4206

Another fascinating read.

Regarding Koufax' posture with the weight back/lagging head/lower back shoulder early in the delivery, I thought I heard one of the guys on MLB Network the other night imply that this posture (or a less-pronounced version) helped drive the front shoulder down which helped keep the pitch down in the zone.

I might have misunderstood his statement, but is/was that a commonly held belief? Alternatively, do you know why pitchers of that era employed that technique?

May 03, 2013 07:45 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

I hear the heavy accent of conventional wisdom! The problem is that, leading up to release point, spine tilt will disrupt balance in a side-to-side motion, not backwards-forwards. Koufax did have some extra tuck of the glove-side, which can give the impression of pulling down the release point. But that only makes sense if the pitcher is using a "Captain's Wheel" method of rotation that locks the shoulder-axis, and that outdated method is much less efficient than the technique of hip-shoulder separation. It is possible that Koufax was following that instruction, though.

I should also note that the first GIF of Koufax is a warmup pitch, and as such his spine-tilt is not exaggerated - it actually looks decent in that GIF. The momentum in that GIF also does not demonstrate his peak speed to the plate. Unfortunately, I did not find another GIF with such a great camera angle, so I went for it.

May 03, 2013 13:17 PM
 
mcesare

Today's NY Times has an article about Yankee coaches. included is a story of how the pitching coach, during Kuroda's last start, fixed his control problems early in the game by having him pitch from the stretch the rest of the way.

May 03, 2013 08:48 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Beautiful - Thanks for the anecdote!

May 03, 2013 13:18 PM
 
godfather

Perhaps because they were going nowhere with it, maybe because they couldn't handle it, but the elaborate windup fell in popularity more than five decades ago (see Don Larsen, Bob Turley and other power pitchers who found that better balance/control meant better results). As for the coddling of pitchers along the line, it's been coming since the advent of Little League. What Spahn and Marichal went through to throw a pitch was remarkable, but they were artists who could replicate uncannily, making their monumental 16-inning, 1-0 game even that much more stunning.

May 03, 2013 08:51 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

I agree that there is a natural trade-off between balance and momentum - it is more difficult to harness higher levels of kinetic energy. However, the old school pitchers were intentionally manipulating both aspects - momentum was directed at the plate early during the lift phase, and poor balance was a side effect of the "rear back and chuck it" idea.

I agree that the best pitchers were uncanny in their ability to repeat, and my point wasn't necessarily that the old school guys had it all figured out. I see greater momentum than today, but much worse balance, and both were tied to intentional manipulations of the motion. Then conventional coaching did away with both of them, rather than sticking with great momentum along with a renewed emphasis on proper balance - the best pitchers earn high grades for both.

May 03, 2013 13:23 PM
 
ScottyB

My favorite windup was Luis Tiant. I understand why you went with all-time greats for your examples, but can I get a bonus gif?

Fantastic article, by the way.

May 03, 2013 09:14 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Tiant was awesome. He probably deserves his own article - or at least an Unfiltered piece.

I'll look into it and see what I can find.

May 03, 2013 13:42 PM
 
jdeich

You'd want to somehow tease out the effect of windup vs. stretch, controlling for the fact that better pitchers have fewer baserunners, and there are strategic differences in pitch selection with runners on base. (Simple examples: More incentives for fastballs that the catcher easily handles. Less willingness to bury splitters in the dirt. Trying to coax grounders with a runner on first.)

Maybe looking at how individuals perform in blowouts, where the running game is less important and pitchers are instructed to just worry about getting the batter out. Or looking at PitchFx so that you're looking only at the velocity/break/whiffability of one pitch at a time, etc.

If the effect of a full windup is tiny, your suggestion of always pitching from the stretch would be a strategic breakthrough.

May 03, 2013 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Trueblood

The answer to the question of whether the windup has become a counterproductive vestigial mechanism can't be answered statistically. The number of factors for which you would have to control is too large. Even if you did it, you'd be left with a useless extraction.

No, the question has to be answered physically, and there will never be a time when all pitchers will be better off pitching from the stretch or from the windup. It has to be case-by-case.

May 03, 2013 10:32 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

This.

Thanks for helpful comments, Matt! Great stuff

May 03, 2013 13:24 PM
 
PeterBNYC

Doug: Terrific article. I learn something new every time I read a piece of yours. And I grew up watching Spahn, then Koufax, then Gibson, then Seaver! All masters, each in their own way. Clearly their longevity and HOF numbers were a by-product of (instinctive?) deliveries worked out on their own? Was there any pitching coach of the era to whom we could attribute any of their style? Thanks,

May 03, 2013 10:32 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

I can't attribute these tendencies to one specific coach, and they seem to be conventional wisdom for the time. As is the case with pitching, many of the best players have figured things out for themselves, sometimes in spite of the coaching that they have received. This was especially true in the good ol days.

May 03, 2013 13:26 PM
 
jcjohnson

Fascinating. I love this series.

I believe it was you who showed this in a prior piece, but I recall seeing somewhere gifs of Clemens' delivery from early and later in his career, showed a dramatic decrease in the extra moving parts in his windup, including lifting his arms above his head as the windup initiated. It would be interesting to see other examples of pitchers whose careers spanned the era in which windups were simplified.

May 03, 2013 10:54 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Good call. I noticed the same thing when watching clips of Mike Scott the other day - he had a modified/reduced '80's version of the step behind the rubber, but it was still there, and the modern iteration of the windup has come about relatively recently.

Thanks for the idea for an article topic. I will put it on the list.

Here's the Clemens article: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=19367

May 03, 2013 13:28 PM
 
BarryR

Wonderful piece, Doug. We had a conversation about this very topic last Saturday at Dodger Stadium, so it's nice to see the video and the specific analysis of the old-time windups we talked about.
A few thoughts:
1)Given the lessening of the effect of the momentum-driven long stride with the lowering of the mound, is this style of release simply not applicable to modern pitchers, or would it still help, if not as much as in the sixties?

2)I seem to recall Nolan Ryan having a significant windup/release in the 1970s. I could be wrong, but I'd like to see his action compared to the sixties guys.

3)There aren't a lot of complete game films from 50 years ago, but there are some World Series films out there, notably involving Gibson vs. the Yankees and Tigers. I would be interested in your analysis of Gibson's motion with the bases empty vs. men on. I would ask about Koufax, but there weren't enough men on in Game 7 of 1965 to really tell anything.

Good meeting you last week and keep up the good work.

May 03, 2013 11:18 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew Trueblood

To #1, I would respond by observing that some purpose must still be served, because you can see some guys who still use a long, long stride to generate momentum. It usually hurts their posture, and the exaggerated windup mechanics aren't usually there, but that stride still helps some smaller guys really launch the ball. Trevor Bauer comes to mind.

May 03, 2013 11:41 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

1) It's definitely applicable to modern pitchers. Sure the lower mound means that pitchers can't reap the same magnitude of momentum as with a steeper slope, but the benefits of momentum and stride are absolute in nature. More momentum is always a good thing, so long as the pitcher can maintain balance. If anything, a lower mound means that the pitcher has to generate more of the momentum with his lower-half, rather than rely on gravity, and that should make it easier to stabilize.

2) Nolan was the man, and he improved his delivery throughout his career. He is a fascinating case study, but I am admittedly biased - Nolan was the foundation for much of our research at the National Pitching Association (Tom House was his P-coach in Texas).

3) Thanks for the tip. I'll check it out!

May 03, 2013 13:31 PM
 
Tomrphk

With the excpetions of Feller and Seaver all the other old time pitchers at some point during thier leg kick straighten thier plant leg so that it is parrel to the ground. For me this is just an interesting bio mechanic observation and I wonder if it is mostly for balnce to help with the bad posture.

May 03, 2013 11:19 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Great observation, Tom. I think that you are right on, and though I don't know for sure, I can certainly see the line of thinking that the straight front leg is working as a counter-balance for the lean-back. Or perhaps it was just a conventional piece of instruction with minimal utility. Tough to tell for the practices of this time period.

May 03, 2013 13:33 PM
 
lewish

Doug- a bit off topic, but does a curve balls depth only have to do with the drop from its apparent peak to where the catcher catches the ball or can it ever refer to how late the ball breaks. Thanks! Another great article.

May 03, 2013 11:40 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

Depends on the type of curve. If throwing a supinated curve, then release point height establishes the baseline for trajectory. But guys who use the dangerous twister curve will actually have the baseball leave the hand at a different trajectory than the supinated curve (or a regular fastball, for that matter). The twister curve often appears to have a "hump" in its flight path.

Of course, there are other variables that determine the magnitude of break, as well.

May 03, 2013 13:35 PM
 
dbiester

Doesn't a longer stride have to produce more momentum?
How does Lincecum fit in -- as if he is getting the long stride but without starting from behind the rubber?

May 03, 2013 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Doug Thorburn
BP staff

The causation arrow is reversed - more momentum produces a longer stride, not the other way around. A long stride can also be influenced by style of leg lift, as in how long the pitcher keeps the lift leg off the ground as the COM travels down the mound with momentum. Taller leg lifts typically beget longer strides.

Lincecum is all about momentum. When he's on, it's a pure 80 on the mechanics report card. He is the only pitcher in the game today who earns an 80 grade, and when his delivery is clicking, he can generate it from both the windup and the stretch.

Timmy's dad taught him that delivery, and he based it on the motion of Koufax. Hence the similar emphasis on momentum as well as spine tilt - a dangerous combination, FWIW.

May 03, 2013 13:38 PM
 
R.A.Wagman

Doug - this study was absolutely fascinating and got me thinking about the side effects of added momentum in pitching. Could the old-school momentum from the wind-up also lead to less stress placed on the levers of the arm (shoulder, elbow)? If so, could a re-introduction potentially lead to fewer catastrophic arm injuries?

May 03, 2013 19:43 PM
rating: 2
 
BayCityM

Doug- You crushed it again. We made the decision to have all of our high school guys throw from the stretch at the JV level and have seen improvements. After reading this about MLB guys what was once a tough decision for us is now a no brainer.

Thanks for your work at BP.

May 05, 2013 18:22 PM
rating: 1
 
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