By Bob Klapisch
Pitching mechanics have evolved over time, but deception is still an integral part of a hurler's delivery and, often, success.
The crowd of admirers stood two- and three-deep around Sandy Koufax, who presided over the love-in with patience and grace. The great left-hander appeared smaller than he did in the old photographs from the '60s, but he was still larger than life to the fans who had packed the annual baseball writers dinner in Manhattan this past February. Many clamored for Koufax's autograph, as others asked for pictures. Those who'd forgotten a pen or didn't have a smartphone were undeterred; even a handshake was enough, a receipt of the trip to Mount Olympus. One visitor, however, wasn't there just to meet Koufax; he was in town to collect his 2013 AL Cy Young Award and seeking a real-time education. Incredibly, few noticed Max Scherzer, who was texting notes to himself as he and Koufax discussed their craft.
"I couldn't pass up a chance like that," Scherzer, now with the Nationals, would later say. "I asked Sandy about his curveball, his mechanics, his delivery, his whole approach."
How did Koufax throw such a hellacious curve? What was it like to pitch off a 15-inch-high mound? And, Scherzer wanted to know, who taught him that massive wind-up and delivery? Koufax didn't hold back, filling Scherzer's data bank with secrets from a generation past.
Back then, as Koufax can attest, a pitcher's delivery was highly individualized -- so distinct that Little Leaguers would stand in front of the mirror trying to imitate their favorite hurlers. Whether it was Koufax's enormous stride and over-the-top release, Juan Marichal's dramatic leg kick, or Luis Tiant's exaggerated whirl, in which he turned his back to the hitter as he stepped toward the plate, it was obvious that pitchers were half athlete, half artist.
The expressionism was no fluke, as the history of deliveries can be broken down into three periods: the minimalist ways found between 1920-50, followed by the flourishes of Koufax's time, which eventually gave way to today's velocity-centric approach.
"There's no question that what you see from pitchers now is all about power," says Rick Peterson, the Orioles' Minor League pitching coordinator.
It's not unlike the evolution of the American automobile, from primitive and elemental in the first half of the 20th century to intentionally large and fancy -- think tail fins in the '50s and early '60s -- to the new millenium's aerodynamic perfection.
After more than 100 years, experts agree that pitching, too, is at its most developed state. "We finally get it," says ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine. "It's a repeatable science."
Run scoring is at a historic low for a number of reasons, but anyone who'd seen Mariano Rivera deliver one unhittable cut-fastball after another with practically no effort knew then that the evolution was complete. Regardless, there is value in learning from the past. You can't admire Clayton Kershaw without recognizing that his baseball roots trace back to the likes of Carl Hubbell and Walter Johnson. They represent the best of an era when pitching was less sophisticated; many hurlers, for all their natural skill, would simply whip or sling the ball toward home plate.
Hubbell, from the left side, and Johnson, from the right, would stand practically erect at their respective release points. There was no gathering over the rubber, as pitchers do today, and little in the way of pushing off. The result was a stride length that's almost a foot shorter than today's average. Even Bob Feller, known for what was considered a power delivery in the 1930s-50s, strode a mere five-and-a-half feet toward the plate. Like so many other hurlers of that era, he twisted his upper body to generate arm speed.
Those mechanics may look antiquated now, not unlike the NBA's two-handed set-shot from the 1940s, but the craft had already come a long way by the Second World War. In the 1880s-90s, the mound was just 50 feet away and pitchers were allowed to take a running start before delivering the ball. No one considered throwing overhand; the rules stipulated that the elbow had to remain stiff and that snapping the wrist was forbidden. There were obviously no radar guns at the time, but experts believe that the era's best fastballs would've been clocked at a mere 75 mph.
The rules changed in 1893, pushing the mound back to the modern distance of 60 feet, six inches, and requiring pitchers to stand on the rubber. It became necessary to find new ways to get hitters out, and the solution came in the form of actual windups. But that's a generous way to describe, say, Don Larsen's delivery, which was little more than a step and throw. Larsen's mechanics, while clean and simple, would be overhauled by today's coaches because they lacked force.
The final pitch of Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series, historic and tension-filled, was ordinary in its execution. There was no gathering atop the rubber, no loading of the back leg and little emphasis on hip rotation. The big right-hander relied entirely on arm strength, and his minimalist approach allowed him to focus on location. As Yogi Berra would say years later, "Don didn't miss my glove once the whole game."
It wasn't long after, however, that pitchers and pitching coaches, who had become a part of every team's staff, made the connection between leg kicks and velocity. The more dramatic the delivery, the longer the stride, and the closer to home plate a pitcher landed when releasing the ball.
That philosophy spawned a generation of personalized wind-ups. Koufax personified the "rear back and throw" genre; his throwing hand literally scraped the dirt as he surged forward. The same went for Marichal, a Hall of Famer who had the unique ability to raise his leg higher than his head, resulting in possibly the funkiest delivery in the game's history. Joe Garagiola compared the wind-up to "a double-jointed drum majorette stopping to pick up a dime during a parade."
Marichal's mechanics were beautiful, but no doubt painful. This begs the question: Did he really need the flourishes to be successful? The same line of questioning could've applied to Tiant, who morphed into a human corkscrew when pitching, turning his back completely toward home plate before uncoiling. There's no arguing with El Tiante's track record: He won more than 200 games and was the AL ERA leader in 1968 and '72. And with a career 1.199 WHIP, it's obvious that the Cuba-born All-Star made hitters perpetually uncomfortable. As far as Tiant was concerned, that's why his unorthodox motion was so valuable. "I didn't [pitch like that] for show; I did it to get hitters out," he once said. "Players would tell me, 'We can't tell where the ball is coming from.'"
As Frank Howard, a formidable slugger in the '60s who hit 382 career home runs, said of Tiant after the right-hander tossed a two-hitter against the Washington Senators, "He threw everything at me except the ball." And then there was Reggie Jackson, who succinctly dubbed Tiant, "the Fred Astaire of pitching."
Tiant, like Koufax and Marichal, was blessed with great arm speed. But both pitchers' effectiveness was enhanced by the deception in their deliveries. It's anyone's guess as to why the exaggerated wind-ups flourished in the '60s -- it may be credited to changing societal norms, as personal expression was a cause celebre -- but while the monster leg kicks may have been overkill, the dividend was priceless.
"Guys from that era did such a great job hiding the ball," says Orioles Manager Buck Showalter. "Look at Koufax, Marichal, [Bob] Gibson … they were all arms and legs flying at you. They made it hard for hitters to pick up the ball."
Remember this axiom about hitting: Success is generated by timing and comfort, and nothing makes a hitter more uncomfortable than a late-moving pitch or an asymmetrical delivery. If you accept that a pitching machine is the easiest mechanism to time, then you understand why Tiant's back, Marichal's leg and Koufax's shoulder were poison to the guy standing in the batter's box.
Ultimately, technology spurred a change in the philosophy of deception. Thanks to biomechanical analysis, the key to velocity (rotating the hips at 600 degrees per second) was unlocked. Pitchers also learned the ideal arm position at the moment of front-foot contact, with the elbow at shoulder height, and the arc between triceps and rib cage at 90 degrees. In layman's terms, that means pitchers strive to keep their arms up without opening their front shoulders too quickly. This translates to an emphasis on slow, deliberate deliveries, which ensure that everything is in sync until the last second. There's no need for the hand-over-the-head windup and Rockette-like leg kicks. Pitching is now drawn in clean, straight lines.
Of course, there are still exceptions to that rule. Tim Lincecum, for instance, would've been right at home in the '60s, given how his limbs flail, wild and untamed, during starts. Even Lincecum's head is askew, tilted toward first base in the early part of his delivery. Lincecum, who won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and '09, excelled because of his extraordinary stride, which measured nearly seven-and-a-half feet, or 129 percent of his height. To put that in perspective, most pitchers' strides account for 77-87 percent of their height.
Kershaw is another superstar who works outside the mold, raising his hands completely over his head before gathering himself to throw. It's just quirky enough to create deception and power, which remains the gold standard of effectiveness.
"So many Japanese pitchers have success when they come here because they don't have cookie-cutter deliveries," says Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "What you have to remember is anything that looks good to a pitching coach will unfortunately look good to a hitter, too."
"We teach basic, repeatable mechanics to keep young pitchers healthy, but it's just as important to ask, 'What's different about this guy?' when you're scouting a prospect," says Showalter. "Velocity doesn't matter to me; hitters can turn around a bullet. It's deception that counts.
"Randy Johnson was unhittable not because he threw hard, but because his low, three-quarter delivery made hitters uncomfortable. I guarantee that if Randy had been forced to throw over the top and work on a 12-6 curveball, he wouldn't have been the same pitcher."
Although we'll probably never see another Marichal, Warren Spahn or even Orlando Hernandez -- who used to jerk his knee practically to his temple "because I wanted to throw like [Doc] Gooden" -- that doesn't mean guys like Scherzer can't meld past with present to create deliveries all their own.
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Bob Klapisch is a baseball columnist for The Record in Bergen County, N.J. This article appears in the 2015 Official MLB League Championship Series Program.
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