There’s a lot that goes into becoming a consistently accurate baseball pitcher. We always encourage regular practice and a range of training drills for pitchers but a proper understanding of pitching mechanics is necessary to ensure that your training is effective.
That’s not to say that putting in the hours on the pitching mound isn’t great, but if the physical mechanics are wrong, the practice only reinforces poor technique and increases the risk of shoulder injuries further down the line.
When pitching is in its developmental phase, safety is paramount. The first thing for coaches and parents to focus on when teaching pitching is technique. Once the technique is in place other elements of the pitch such as power, accuracy and curve can be introduced but only if the proper mechanics are understood and used.
Obviously, every baseball player has his or her own style when it comes to pitching but proper pitching mechanics are still at the core of success and injury prevention. Every time a player throws a ball at high velocity, they’re putting a lot of strain on the muscle groups around the shoulder and throwing arm, so anything that reduces the stress can only be a good thing, right?
Injury Prevention: The 101 on the Dangers of Pitching
Staying healthy is the key to becoming a successful pitcher. If you’re sidelined for an injury for half the season you’re going to be left frustrated. What’s more, recurrent injuries can resurface again and again so ensuring proper pitching arm care is essential.
Pitching is a dangerous skill. The physical act of pitching is composed of high velocity movements at once at lots of different angles and puts an incredible amount of strain on your body. Every time you throw a ball, you’re actually creating microscopic muscle tears which can lead to long term, chronic problems if not allowed the correct recovery.
Here’s a run down of the best ways to prevent injury and look after your arm:
- Warm Up – Always carry out an effective warm up before pitching to get oxygenated blood flowing to your muscles
- Mechanics – You’re about to find out more about the core mechanics of pitching and how to adopt them. Using the correct pitching technique every time will allow you to avoid serious injury.
- Cool Down – As with the warm up, your body needs to cool down after exercise in order to recover properly and avoid cramps and dead arm.
- Rest & Recovery – After pitching you need to allow time for your body to recuperate. A couple of days off after an intensive session is advisable. Aim to take a few months off a year during the off season to allow your body ample recovery time.
- Know Your Limits – This one’s simple really; if your body is aching it’s communicating with you and asking for a break.
- Diet & Hydration – Give your body the fuel it needs to compete and stay fit and healthy.
- Exercise – Carry out a light training routine for your shoulder and arm muscles to get stronger and more flexible as this will allow your muscles to perform without getting injured.
So, what do coaches and players mean when they talk about pitching mechanics?
Essentially, the mechanics are the individual physical movements that make up the whole of the skill in a kinetic chain. Don’t worry – it’s not as complicated as it sounds, honestly…
Watching a professional pitcher, it’s easy to think that the throw is simply one movement that takes less than two to three seconds if that, but if you were to watch a pitcher in slow motion it becomes much easier to break down the pitch into individual parts.
By dissecting the pitch like this, we can take each part of the technique and look at its finer details and practice that part before putting all of the pieces back together. This methodology has proven time and time again to create a more refined pitch. So let’s break it down…
Stage #1: Starting Position
Before putting the pitch into motion, it’s important to get in the right position. The pitcher should begin by standing with their body square to the catcher. The pivot foot (the foot on the same side as the throwing arm) should be placed slightly in front of the pitching rubber. In the position the pitcher has the opportunity to relax, breathe and get mentally prepared for the throw.
At a more advanced level, it’s worth noting that during this phase, pitchers should conceal the ball in their gloved hand to prevent the batter from seeing your grip which could potentially reveal the flight of the ball.
Stage #2: Wind Up vs Stretch
Stage two of the pitch requires the pitcher to choose between a wind up and a stretch (also known as the ‘set’ position. Some players will opt for either technique every time out of personal preference whilst others will alternate between the two depending on the number of opposition runners are on base at any given time.
This is because the wind-up takes slightly longer giving runners more opportunity to steal bases.
Wind up technique
In theory, the wind-up helps the pitcher generate more velocity. Lets run down the stages of the wind-up for a right-handed pitcher:
- From the starting position, take a step back with the left foot.
- Rotate the body at a right-angle (or as much as is comfortable) to face third.
- Lift the left knee so that your body weight is balanced firmly on the right foot. In this position, the left shoulder should face the catcher.
From this balanced position, the pitcher is prepared for the next phase of the pitch. Now, let’s take a closer look at the stretch.
The stretch is faster and requires the pitcher to adopt a ‘set’ position. This requires bringing the throwing hand and glove hand together to indicate that the pitch is coming. Here are the key steps of the stretch for a right handed pitcher:
- Both feet should be pointing towards third base.
- Bring hands together to come set.
- Raise the left leg to a balanced position.
- Make a strong, powerful stride with the left leg in the direction of the home plate.
Stage #3: The Leg Lift
We’ve touched on the leg lift in the previous sections, but it’s important to look at it in a little bit more detail as it’s a crucial part of pitching mechanics.
The leg lift is all about creating a balance point from which to generate power in the pitch, therefore it must be controlled.
A swinging or kicking action should be avoided because the force of those movements is likely to throw the pitcher off-balance and without balance, the pitcher will struggle to hold a strong position and make an accurate pitch. This is why the leg lift is slow and smooth with the pitcher engaging their core muscles and breathing steadily.
Some pitchers will want to bring their leading knee up high in the direction of their chest while others will bring it up to hip height. This is dependent on their flexibility – don’t force the knee any further than what feels comfortable to avoid injury.
Lifting the leg results in hip rotation. Ideally, your front leg should come around and your hips should rotate to 90 degrees.
In the leg lift phase, we often talk about the ‘balance point’ but this is misleading – one thing the pitcher needs to avoid is hanging about on one foot for too long because it’s pretty difficult to stand on one foot for a prolonged period of time. The whole process of the pitch needs to be fluid so once the leg lift is complete, it’s time to move onto the next phase.
Stage #4: The Stride
This is where things get interesting. The stride is all about generating power calling multiple large muscle groups into action. It’s the point at which pitchers are most likely to obtain an injury so this is where proper pitching mechanics really make a difference.
From the balanced position of the leg lift, the pitcher must release energy through the stride. This movement involves an extended step towards the home plate with the leading foot but there are a few key factors that will determine how effective and how safe the stride is.
Once the pitcher has completed the leg lift, they need to begin the stride maintaining control and holding a firm central line towards the catcher. These are the key factors that will encourage good mechanics and an accurate, powerful stride:
Good posture is important for a number of reasons. If the pitcher adopts proper posture, it will massively reduce the chance of muscle damage to the back, shoulder and arm. As well as this, proper posture increases accuracy and power transfer. But how to achieve good posture?
It begins with the head…
Keeping your eye on the target can have a huge influence on posture. Pitchers should look at the catcher’s glove keeping their chin lined up with their chest. This will actively encourage the spine to enter a natural position and avoid awkward twisting or jolting during the stride.
- Lead with the front hip
The pitcher’s leading knee should already be nice and high from the leg lift rotating the hip in a 90 degree angle. As the stride begins, this hip needs to lead the whole action and stay facing the home plate. Imagine that the front hip is leading the shoulder forward.
Leading with the hip essentially requires keeping the front hip facing the home plate until the stride foot lands. This requires the leading leg to flex at the knee as a fully extended leg will open up the hip. To achieve this, a pitcher needs to get their butt out.
- Stride Direction
The direction of a pitcher’s stride is pivotal to a successful, accurate and powerful pitch. The stride must be directed towards the home plate otherwise hitting the target becomes less easy. If the stride is slightly off, it can cause the pitching arm to rotate in an unnatural position putting unnecessary strain on the shoulder. This off-center rotation has a knock-on effect as the pitcher then has to compensate for the unnatural movement with their hips, groins and knees.
- Stride Length
There’s a little bit of confusion when it comes to stride length and its overall effects on pitch velocity. For a while, coaches and players were under the impression that an extraordinary long stride would help generate more power. This is actually false as stride length is a product of individual physicality.
Players who possess strong glutes and powerful legs will generally be able to pitch effectively with a longer stride than players with less lower-body strength. Slighter, smaller and less muscular players should avoid forcing a long stride as it will actually reduce velocity and increase the chances of injury.
Strangely, the key to finding the optimum stride length actually has less to do with your lower body and more to do with the head and torso. As a pitcher extends for the stride, their head and chest should end up directly above their leading knee as they are about to release the ball. This point will be different for everybody so it’s all about discovering what feels comfortable.
- Back foot placement
So, we’ve looked at the importance of the leg lift and leading with the front hip. These parts are crucial to good pitching mechanics but are both dependent on the placement of the back foot.
The pitcher’s back foot must stay firmly planted on the ground, parallel to the pitching rubber. This actively encourages the body to stay in the correct position, side-on to the home plate and reduces the chance of injury through early hip rotation.
- Leg drive
To generate maximum velocity in their throw, a pitcher must use their back leg effectively. The best way to maximise velocity with the back leg is by driving hard and creating force. As the leading foot lands during the stride, pitchers should fully extend their back leg to ensure power and stability.
- Hand break
This is the point at which the pitching hand and gloved hand separate and the timing can be really tricky.
Breaking hands too early will cause the throwing arm to come up in the cocked position prematurely which can completely ruin the flow of the pitch. If this happens, the ball can be released before the stride is fully finished reducing power and putting extra tension on the shoulder.
A good tip for timing the hand break is to only take your hands apart at the moment, or even slightly after the lead leg begins the forward drive in the stride.
- Arm action
Once the hands break apart, there are a series of movements that need to occur with both the throwing arm and the glove arm.
The action of the throwing arm needs to be on point every time in order to create power and reduce the stress on the shoulder. Firstly, as the hands break, the throwing arm actually goes down before cocking.
Forcing it directly up and backwards is a surefire way to pull a muscle or even worse, so always bring the arm down first. From there, the arm moves backwards and then rises to the cocked position.
The throwing arm is the powerhouse, generating the velocity. On the other side of this is the glove arm which is all about providing encouraging proper flex and rotation which will allow the pitcher to land the ball in the catcher’s mitt with some force without throwing out their shoulder.
The glove arm should lead the action with the elbow pointing home before coming down at speed passing alongside the hip.
- Lead foot contact
The position and angle at which the lead foot lands during the stride will have an impact on the pitcher’s stability and technique.
The stride foot should land flat to increase the surface area in contact with the ground as this will massively reduce the chance of the foot skidding out of position.
The toes should be pointing towards the home plate. Failure to do so can cause the front knee to twist into an awkward position causing an unnatural load which leads to long-term problems.
- Body rotation
A good way to visualise body rotation is by imagining the pitcher as a spring. During the early phases of the pitch (the leg lift and wind up), the spring is condensing, filling up with pressure which must be unleashed or uncoiled. Proper body rotation allows this to happen successfully.
The body rotates in a fluid motion at the shoulders and hips. Jerky, forced movements that don’t flow together are likely to result in injury. Pitchers should practice their technique without releasing the ball at reduced speed to feel the flow of the rotation and get the timing correct.
Stage #5: The Release
One question that pops up all the time when talking about pitching is ‘at what point should you release the ball?’
It’s an important question because a well-timed release can be the difference between a strike or a walk.
When the throwing arm reaches the arc of its action the wrist will snap allowing the pitcher to release the ball. At this point the arm should begin to decelerate and the body should rotate over the front leg in a downwards motion known as the follow-through.
This follow through action of bringing the trunk forwards helps the pitching arm decelerate and allows some of the energy generated by the throwing arm and shoulder to be released safely through the rest of the body reducing strain.
Having the ability to throw different types of pitches is going to improve your game drastically and put fear into the mind of every hitter that faces you.
It’s one thing to know the different pitches and how they work, but to implement them effectively, it’s necessary to try out different grips in order to develop a throw that manipulates the flight and speed of the ball.
Pitching Training Equipment: Tools of the Trade for Pitchers
To really up your pitching game, it’s worth investing in a few practice aids to mix up your training and keep it exciting. You’ll also see faster improvements when implementing the right tools into your pitching training routine. Let’s take a look at some of the very best training aids out there for baseball pitchers.
- Pitching nets
A solid net is a dream for any pitcher. There’s nothing worse than pitching a few balls before having to go and find them and gather them all up before starting again. A net will save you so much time and there are some top quality, professional style nets on the market at super affordable prices these days.
- Pitching targets & strike zones
Developing your pitching accuracy is especially tricky without a target to aim at and while throwing at bottles on a wall or aiming at individual bricks on a wall can be fun and challenging, sometimes something more professional is needed. Look at getting a strike zone with 6 or 9 individual areas to aim for to really test yourself.
- Dummy batter
If you place a dummy batter slightly in front of your pitching target, it will drastically improve your accuracy when it comes to pitching in games. It’s easy to get distracted by the appearance of a batter if you’ve spent hours pitching at an empty net or a target so it’s important to make training as realistic as possible.