Pitching

Every major league pitcher has a variety of pitches in his arsenal. Years of practice and trial and error go into perfecting these pitches. You may have tried to throw a curveball or a slider, or even a screwball, with an ordinary baseball and found it difficult to do. We've found that it's much easier to throw these pitches and observe the results by throwing a Styrofoam ball.


  
Curveball: "Choke" the ball (wedge it down between your thumb and forefinger), and cock your wrist to the left; the ball snaps down and to the right on release. The resulting pitch should drop and curve to the left. Experiment with different speeds and spins.

The secret to understanding a curveball is the speed of the air moving past the ball's surface. As the ball spins, its top surface moves in the same direction in which the air moves. At the bottom of the ball, the ball's surface and the air move in opposite directions. So the velocity of the air relative to that of the ball's surface is larger on the bottom of the ball.

What difference does that make? The higher velocity difference puts more stress on the air flowing around the bottom of the ball. That stress makes air flowing around the ball "break away" from the ball's surface sooner. Conversely, the air at the top of the spinning ball, subject to less stress due to the lower velocity difference, can "hang onto" the ball's surface longer before breaking away.

As a result, the air flowing over the top of the ball leaves it in a direction pointed a little bit downward rather than straight back. As Newton discovered almost three hundred years ago, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, as the spinning ball throws the air down, the air pushes the ball up in response. A ball thrown with backspin will therefore get a little bit of lift.

A major league curveball can veer as much as 171/2 inches from a straight line by the time it crosses the plate. Over the course of a pitch, the deflection from a straight line increases with distance from the pitcher. So curveballs do most of their curving in the last quarter of their trip. Considering that it takes less time for the ball to travel those last 15 feet (about 1/6 of a second) than it takes for the batter to swing the bat (about 1/5 of a second), hitters must begin their swings before the ball has started to show much curve. No wonder curveballs are so hard to hit.

One important difference between a fastball, a curveball, a slider, and a screwball is the direction in which the ball spins. (Other important factors are the speed of the pitch and rate of spin.) Generally speaking, a ball thrown with a spin will curve in the same direction that the front of the ball (home plate side, when pitched) turns. If the ball is spinning from top to bottom (topspin), it will tend to nosedive into the dirt. If it's spinning from left to right, the pitch will break toward third base. The faster the rate of spin, the more the ball's path curves.

 



Fastball:
Hold the ball near the ends of your fingers and throw with a normal overhand delivery. The ball should roll off your fingers with a backwards spin (it will tend to rise). Outfielders usually throw the ball this way because the rising action allows them to throw it considerably farther.

Sinking fastball: Looking at specific breaking pitches, the 2-seam fastball, also called a moving or sinking fastball, is gripped on top of the ball with the narrow seams exposed. This is in contrast to the 4-seam fastball, which must be gripped on the wide seams to get it to travel in a true trajectory with all seams rotating. Both of these fastball pitches are released with backspin.     When releasing this fastball, you usually apply pressure against the seam with either the index or middle finger. It's a matter of preference. This imparts the sidespin that causes the ball to drop. Lefthand pitchers like to use this pitch against lefthand hitters because the ball tends to break down and away. 




Screwball: Throw the ball like a curveball, but reverse the wrist action and spins. Cock the wrist initially to the right and "turn the ball over" to the left as you throw it. The ball should break down and to the right.The screwball is actually the opposite of the curveball, in terms of snapping the wrist. Whereas I grip and release the ball with my palm turned inward for a curve, I turn my palm out when throwing a screwballalmost like I'm turning a screwdriver.  The ball's trajectory is similar to a curve, but it can't be thrown quite as hard. So the velocity is less than that of the curveball. Also, the ball breaks outward, instead of inward like a curveball. Lefthand pitchers like to throw screwballs to righthand hitters because the ball starts toward the middle of the plate and then breaks away to the outside corner.




Slider: Throw the ball like a football pass, with the wrist cocked at a 90 degree angle. The ball should curve slightly down and to the left. Note: The slider ball is not recommended for players under age 18 -- some coaches and trainers state 21 and over. Damage to forearm connective tissue can be serious if the pitch is thrown too often. 
The hard slider or short curve, as I used to call it, has a certain amount of lateral break and a certain amount of down break. It's a faster pitch than a curve but it's slower than a fastball, and it has a shorter break than a curveball. If you judged the pitch by miles per hour, and a pitcher's fast ball is, say, 90 mph, and his curveball is 80 mph, he would want the slider to be in the 86- to 87-mph range. The harder you throw a slider, the shorter and quicker the break you can get on it. The release technique is between a curve and a fastball.
 Some pitchers release the ball off their middle finger. I throw my slider off my index finger. I try to feel like I'm wiping over the outside of the ball as I snap it, in order to give it some backspin and sidespin.





Change-up:
In my opinion, the changeup is the second most deadly pitch. The proven and tried 95 mph fastball - the heater - is the BEST pitch. Outside of pitchers like Greg Maddux, the greatest pitchers are known for their great fastball (Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, John Smoltz, Big Jack Morris etc.) However, look at Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Pedro Martinez they dominate games with the changeup. Why? Well, they can locate it wherever they want to and can throw it on any pitch count. Full count, hitter is expecting a fastball and he gets a fastball arm speed changeup and swings right through it or dribbles it back to the infield for an easy out - man a thing of beauty. The key to an effective changeup is mixing in a "sneaky" fastball. Nolan Ryan has said that he became a better pitcher when he learned the changeup - it helped keep hitters off balance. Remember the key to hitting is timing -- so the key to pitching is upsetting that timing. So you dont have to be overpowering to be successful at any level, just have the ability to upset the hitters timing.

There are some difficult aspects to throwing the changeup. It can be taught several ways, but the most important thing to realize is that the grip of the changeup is meant for your wrist to be able to break up (like in "high-five") and not flip down as you normally do with your fastball. The reason you release with a high-five action is to put pressure on top of the ball - important for down and away movement.

The concept then of the changeup is to let the ball come off your fingers. Your wrist then should be in the lead (remember high-five with fingers pointing up and not at the batter) when you begin to release the baseball. As your hand comes through behind your wrist, the ball is forced away from your body by your fingers. The key here is to make sure you have a down and away motion with your arm. This causes the ball to have a heavy backspin as well as to break away from a right-handed batter assuming the pitcher is right-handed.

This backspin on the ball creates negative force and slows it down as it cuts through the air. Key: Remember to keep your arm speed the same as your fastball. You DO NOT want to slow your arm speed down to slow the ball down. The grip can be tricky and is important for accuracy and effectiveness. Whether you use a circle change, a three finger change or a palm grip, the ball must lie or rest on the balls of your fingers (meaning where your fingers are attached to your palm). You dont want to have the ball jammed up in your hand because that makes the pitch harder to control. Keeping your pinky finger on the side of the ball helps immensely. Always concentrate on letting and feeling the ball come off the fingers in a down and away motion. Use a two seam grip for more downward movement.

Tip: The arm should be long in the front.

Tip: The hand should finish with waving motion.

Tip: Spin the ball with back-spin out of your hand. .

Tip: Remember to keep your arm speed the same as your fastball.

Tip: Remember the key to hitting is timing -- so the key to pitching is upsetting that timing.

Knuckleball: The most mysterious pitch in baseball is the knuckleball. It's a hard pitch to master, and its behavior is unpredictable. Tom Candiotti, celebrated knuckleball pitcher for the Oakland A's, describes it this way: "It's a strange pitch. You throw the pitch so there's little or no spin at all to it. And I guess when you do that . . . when you throw a ball that has little or no rotation on it . . . the ball . . . I don't know if it's wind or something . . . but it makes it move certain ways -- up, down, around. Sometimes you throw it in circles."

The ideal knuckleball rotates about a quarter of a revolution on its way to the plate. Without the stabilizing gyroscopic effect of spinning, the ball becomes aerodynamically unstable, and the raised seams create an uneven flow of air over the surface of the ball, pushing it one way or another.

"There are only two theories on hitting the knuckleball. Unfortunately, neither of them works." But it is a tough pitch to throw, and because the ball moves so slowly, if it doesn't "knuckle," it's more than likely to end up in the bleachers.



Knucklecurve: A hybrid between the knuckleball and the curve, this pitch is slower than a normal curve and takes a sudden drop at the plate. 
It's hard to control and not used often, but it can have devastating effect on hitters.


Sinker:
A sinker as it is thrown in the higher levels is usually a two-seam fastball (index and middle fingers along and over the narrow seams, thumb underneath on the horseshoe seam). To get good sink, you have to throw it hard and low in the zone with a good downward angle (if you get under the ball at release, it won't sink). Some pitchers move one or both fingers slightly inward from the seams to get more sinking action. One version, which some people call the "Little League sinker," actually has the fingers together in the middle of the smooth cover between the narrow seams. This pitch usually drops sharply but is slow and difficult to control. If you have good arm action, the basic two-seam grip should give you all the sink you need. Just a few of inches of sink on a two-seamer will yield many ground balls. Experiment with variations on the basic two-seam fastball grip and see what works for you.

There are also several versions of the cut fastball. The basic idea is to throw a fastball but get a slight amount of side spin that makes the ball move in or out a few inches. You do this by moving your fastball grip (usually the 4-seam fastball grip) slightly off-center. Some pitchers bring the thumb slightly up the inside of the ball and the index and middle fingers slightly toward the outside. This gives you a pitch somewhere between a fastball and a slider, and, thrown properly, that's how the pitch will move, like a very tight slider. For young pitchers, though, there is a tendency to turn the hand too much toward the slider position, getting a "doorknob" action with the hand that can stress the elbow. I prefer to have the pitcher leave the thumb directly under the ball and move only the fingers slightly left or right, depending on which way you want to cut the ball. As you release it, think "fastball," and spin the ball hard with your middle and index fingers, just as you would the fastball. If you're a righthanded pitcher holding the ball slightly off-center to the outside part of the ball, the pitch should move a few inches away from a righthanded hitter--just enough to get it away from the barrell of the bat. Unless you have a fairly high arm angle (throw "over the top") it will be harder to learn to make the ball move the other way, but try it. Just offset the fingers slightly to the inside, and throw with fastball action.

IMHO, the cut fastball and the sinker have the same goal: to make the hitter hit the ball without getting the meat of the bat on it. Both pitches will be more effective if you first establish the fastball. Then, when you throw the sinker or cutter, the hitter will see what looks like the same fastball arm and hand action, and will not be expecting the ball to move.



Forkball: The forkball, also known as a splitter or split-finger fastball, is an interesting pitch. You jam the ball between your first two fingers as hard as you can and deliver it with the same action as a fastball, with the wrist coming straight over from 12 to 6 o'clock. The ball travels with a lot of velocity, but with a tumbling kind of rotation. The rotation slows down as the ball approaches the plate, and if delivered correctly, the bottom kind of falls out of it.

 

It all revolves around the ball:

When you pick up a baseball, it immediately suggests its purpose: to be thrown fast and with considerable accuracy. The pitcher, with his dance-like windup, prepares to do exactly that by transferring momentum from his body to the ball. To appreciate why this is necessary, try throwing a ball without moving your feet; it's difficult to throw it very far or very hard, but a forward step makes throwing much easier. So during the windup, the pitcher moves his entire body weight back behind the pitching rubber. Then he thrusts it forward to deliver the pitch.

This transfer of momentum from body to ball involves a biomechanical principle called sequential summation of movement. According to this principle, the largest body masses move first, followed by progressively smaller ones, in much the same way a multi-stage booster rocket jettisons a satellite into space: the large booster starts the process, is jettisoned, then is followed by the burning and jettisoning of progressively smaller and faster stages, until finally the small satellite is released at high speed. In baseball, the pitcher drives first with his legs, then his hips, shoulders, arm, wrist and fingers. As each part approaches full extension, the next part in the sequence begins to move, efficiently transferring momentum in a whip-like action. Proper timing is necessary to produce speed and accuracy, and to avoid strain and injury.

A pitcher's body rotates around the foot he keeps planted firmly on the mound. The ball, held overhead in his extended arm, is like a rock whirling on the end of a string. Just as a twirling rock on a long string has more angular momentum than the same rock on a short string (that is, it's more likely to travel farther and faster), the ball in the hands of a tall pitcher can be launched with more speed. (Fastball pitchers are traditionally lanky fellows.) And since the pitcher actually steps downhill, moving off the crest of the mound as he throws the ball, the height of the mound also affects the force of the pitch.

Baseball centers around the (seemingly) eternal struggle between pitcher and batter, and each uses physics, albeit intuitively, to gain a slim advantage over the other in determining the fate of the game's center of interest -- the ball.

 

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Revised: October 14, 2002

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