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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

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