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January 24, 2014

Raising Aces

Classic Deliveries: Fade to Black and White

by Doug Thorburn

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Over the past two weeks, we’ve looked at the pitchers who gained entry to the Hall of Fame during the formative years of my youth. Most of these pitchers hailed from the 1960s and '70s, with the occasional senior citizen (read: Hoyt Wilhelm) having gained notoriety in the '50s. The footage becomes more scarce—and less colorful—as we progress back in time, and the lack of video clips makes it more difficult to break down the pitching mechanics of the founding fathers of Cooperstown.

Some footage exists, and there are fascinating lessons to be learned from the original kings of the hill, but we have to ratchet back the analysis in order to reflect the error bars inherent in sofa-scouting the pitchers of 70-100 years ago. Rather than a comprehensive list of pitchers who earned enshrinement prior to 1980, the following rundown includes nine of the most dominant arms to enter the Hall during the first 40 years of voting. Complete mechanical report cards are offered for a couple of pitchers who transcended the color barrier of television, where additional footage allows for a more thorough analysis, but the majority of these players will be limited to a simpler assessment of strengths and weaknesses.

Note: We’re trying out a new GIF format this week (refresh the page if the videos do not play automatically). Scroll over the red arrow in the bottom-right corner of the video to see a drop-down menu of controls to pause the video, advance frame-by-frame, or change the speed of playback.

Robin Roberts
Inducted in 1976

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

70

Momentum

60

Torque

60

Posture

70

Release Distance

60

For an explanation of the grading system for pitching mechanics, please consult this pair of articles.

Roberts often gets lost in the shuffle of all-time greats, but his numbers stack up with any pitcher of his era, and his excellence is apparent when looking at the back of his baseball card (as Tony Gwynn can attest). Roberts' mechanical report card is just as impressive, with plus grades spread across all categories. His balance and posture were particularly strong, and he maintained solid momentum that was both quick and consistent, with a strong first move to the plate and a smooth transition after maximum leg lift.

His mechanical efficiency was reflected in the numbers, as Roberts led the majors in K-to-walk ratio five times and also led in innings five times. From 1952-54, he led the bigs in both categories, and when all was said and done he had thrown a remarkable 305 complete games. Roberts remained a dedicated Phillie even after retirement, and he was known to hang around the Philadelphia clubhouse to talk pitching with the players. To quote former Phillie Brad Lidge, Roberts was there “not just to preach about things that he did when he was throwing, but to get into a good conversation with guys.”

Warren Spahn
Inducted in 1973

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

40

Momentum

70

Torque

60

Posture

40

Release Distance

70

Spahn had the huge leg kick that was popular in his time, resulting in the bail-out of his balance that accompanied the strategy. His foot was nearly in a higher position than his head at maximum leg lift, though his technique was not as egregious as Juan Marichal, and Spahn was far better than his NL counterpart at staying over his center-of-mass and regaining balance after foot strike. The leg-lift technique was part of a concentrated effort to gain excellent momentum, and though Spahn was slow during the arm-swing portion of his windup, he initiated a ferocious burst toward the plate as soon as his foot lifted off the ground.

Spahn finished with below-average posture at release point, but one can understand the difficulty of maintaining stability in light of his high-voltage power. The southpaw also generated plus torque, with extreme upper-body twist that took place in conjunction with his rear-leaning imbalance as he reared back to fire his bullets. Spahn had a tall release point but also achieved great extension thanks to the combination of a big leg lift and plus-plus momentum.

Sandy Koufax
Inducted in 1972

Mechanics Report Card

Balance

30

Momentum

80

Torque

60

Posture

50

Release Distance

70

Similar to Spahn, Koufax featured the high leg kick and exaggerated lean-back that typified many of the pitchers of the 1960s. His imbalance was more pronounced than that of Spahn, and Koufax did not recover to find as much stability after foot strike, but his extreme rock-n-roll delivery did finish with decent posture (55 at peak) despite all of the mechanical obstacles that potentially could have deterred the Left Arm of God.

The key to Koufax's delivery was elite momentum, with an incredible burst to the plate that started from first forward movement and carried him though through foot strike. He directed his energy on a line toward the plate, allowing him to achieve a deep release point to further enhance the element of deception. The lefty's curveball was one of the best of all time, and his release-point extension gave batters even less of an opportunity to react to the hammer. Pitchers with 80-grade momentum are exceedingly rare; perhaps the only contemporary example is Tim Lincecum, whose father taught him to pitch by using none other than Koufax as a mechanical template.

Bob Feller
Inducted in 1962

Strengths: Feller personified 80 torque, fueling heat that devastated American League hitters from the time he was 17 years old. He used a massive twist with his upper half with an exceptional delay of trunk rotation after foot strike, allowing the lower half to further increase his hip-shoulder separation. His power repertoire was further supported by plus momentum, but the most astonishing aspect of his delivery was Feller's ability to sustain excellent posture despite the high levels of kinetic energy.

Weaknesses: The big-kick strategy threw off his balance during the first gear of his delivery, but Feller recovered quickly. The right-hander had incredible strength that he used to re-stabilize his delivery during the stride phase and maintain balance after foot strike while the storm of rotation rained down.

Lefty Grove
Inducted in 1947

Strengths: Grove had a simple, repeatable delivery. The mechanical details were solid yet unspectacular, likely earning 50-60 grades for balance, momentum, and posture. His torque featured a big twist with the upper body, though his gears did not align in a way that would maximize his timing of rotation, with hips and shoulders that fired within a narrow time window.

Weaknesses: His release distance was the weak link in the delivery. Despite plus momentum, Grove did not get much extension with his stride due to an early foot plant and a truncated leg lift. Combined with merely solid-average posture, Grove had more in the tank to achieve a deeper release point.

Carl Hubbell
Inducted in 1947

Strengths: There are a lot of similarities between Hubbell and Grove, beyond their handedness. Hubbell's motion was even more direct, featuring fewer “moving parts,” as the scouts would say, with less lean-back towards second base as he initiated momentum. The result was near-perfect posture and a sidearm delivery that led to pinpoint control and two MVP awards.

Weaknesses: His delivery was relatively tame, with modest momentum and less torque-load than his fellow early-adopters of the Hall. The lack of power in his game was the only mark against him, but these elements conspired with a shorter leg lift to to limit his release distance.

Pete Alexander
Inducted in 1938

Strengths: Certain trends begin to emerge as we head further back in time: the name of the game was simplicity, with the goal of repeating the delivery. The mechanics of Alexander look almost like that of a right-handed Hubbell, with great balance and excellent posture.

Weaknesses: With the ease of motion came a lack of power, and Alexander's torque measured very low on the scale. His timing of rotation allowed the hips to do most of the work for him, and his easy pace to the plate produced a somewhat shallow stride. That said, even the low-octane deliveries of 100 years ago would earn better grades for momentum than many of today's pitchers, simply due to the fact that pitchers like Alexander got moving directly toward the plate from first movement, rather than “staying over the rubber” or “stopping at the top” to find balance.

Christy Mathewson
Inducted in 1936

Strengths: Mathewson's motion had a great combination of strength, ferocity, and stability during the high-energy phases of his delivery. His big torque came from a strong core that supported a big twist with the upper body in addition to a rock-n-roll motion. Big Six finished with strong posture despite a high arm slot, which was an especially rare feat for the pitchers of his time, especially considering his high-end power grades.

Weaknesses: His early balance was weak by today's standards, but was par for the course during his era. Mathewson also had a short stride due to a low leg-lift and quick time signature, though these elements were again common for his time, as exemplified by Alexander and Hubbell.

Walter Johnson
Inducted in 1936

Strengths: Great balance. Outstanding momentum. Absolutely ridiculous torque, with a well-orchestrated combination of upper-body load and timing of rotation. He finished the delivery with plus posture and excellent extension at release point. It all added up to one of the most efficient deliveries of all time, and I am waiting for the Randy Johnson episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” to discover that the Big Train is perched on a branch of his family tree.

Weaknesses: None.

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

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