[h5]Today I’m going to tell you how poor stability with my front foot as a young pitcher just about wrecked my pitching arm.[/h5] When I was in high school I did just enough right in my pitching delivery to throw pretty hard. I had decent timing and rhythm, but I definitely didn’t use my lower half as well as I should have. Mostly my mechanics were a mess. One of my biggest issues was a lack of consistency and stability with my landing foot at front foot plant.

Early in your delivery, everything you do should be designed to create momentum, generate power, and get you out to front foot plant in a good position to throw. Once that front foot hits the ground though, it’s about stabilizing and rotating around a strong landing leg. For more on this, you can read an article I wrote on the importance of good front-knee action.

This is where stability with that front foot comes into play. If you’re not stable with your front foot – let’s say you land hard and spin on your heel, or maybe you allow your knee to pull open causing your weight to get outside of your ankles – you’re going to have a very tough time getting to consistent release point, and your control is going to suffer.

Well this was definitely the case with me in high school. I had a good a good fastball that I could throw by most hitters, but my control was awful. My senior year I averaged two strikeouts an inning, but I also had one walk an inning. You could say I was “effectively wild” but really I was just my own worst enemy.

When you’re wild, you go deep into counts. You throw more pitches than you should. You end up pitching a lot with men on base and having to bear down in pressure situations. All of this inevitably leads to pitching with fatigue, and according to Dr. Andrews that’s the number one risk factor for youth pitching injuries. Here’s an interview he did a few years ago during the Little League World Series:

Dr. James Andrews talks about Little League pitchers

All of those extra pitches, all of those times working myself into and out of jams, eventually caught up with me. In the summer going into my freshman year of college, I hurt my elbow, and badly. The diagnosis? A strained ulnar collateral ligament (if you’re not familiar with it just look up “Tommy John surgery”). So there I was, 18 years old, having just accepted a baseball scholarship to a Division I college, being forced to accept the very real likelihood that I might never be able to pitch again without major surgery.

With hard work and a good rehab program, I was able to get back on the mound later that year without surgery, but I still missed most of my freshman year. My college pitching coach noticed I had a tendency to land hard on my front foot and spin on my heel. A lot of it had to do a general lack of hip and ankle mobility that came from growing so fast as a kid. I just couldn’t even get into the right positions to be strong and stable at pitch release.

Gradually my mobility improved though, thanks in large part the strength and conditioning program we had at Northwestern. I’ll never forget one bullpen session where I was really on, hitting my spots at will, the ball jumping out of my hand in a way that felt effortless. My pitching coach, Tim Stoddard (great guy in addition to being one of only two men with both a World Series ring and an NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship ring), commented how “quiet” I was keeping my feet. That’s exactly how it felt. I was strong and stable, but quiet, under control. By the time I entered my second year of pro ball, instability at front foot plant was no longer an issue. That season I only walked 19 batters in 102 innings. The sad thing was that it took me so long.

[h5]The bottom line is what you do with your feet can have a huge impact on your delivery and the health of your pitching arm.[/h5]

Poor stability at ball release is usually the result of bad stride direction (and consequently poor balance), but limited hip mobility can also be a factor (as it was with me). If this is the case, you need to understand the cause before you can fix the problem. Mobility work and dynamic balance drills can go a long way in helping to develop better front foot stability, but it can take a lot of work, particularly if you have flexibility/mobility issues.

Here is an excellent drill I have found to be highly effective in helping pitchers develop better stability with their front foot:

For more drills like this, including a complete system of throwing drills for building a powerful pitching delivery, join the hundreds of pitchers, parents and coaches who already have inside access to the Ballistic Pitching Blueprint.

In my last article on pitching drills I talked about how most pitching drills are not only a waste of time, but in some cases can actually be counterproductive. In fact, there are a lot of drills out there that will do nothing but ingrain mechanical habits that work against you in your efforts to increase velocity and consistency.

An effective pitching drill should address at least two of the Big Three Components of a good pitching delivery: Balance, Timing and Power

The pitching delivery is a complex chain of movements, with a lot of moving parts. And it’s important that each movement, each segment in this chain, is tightly linked, with one movement leading to the next in a well synchronized and fluid fashion. Good drills can help train these movements, but unfortunately most fall well short of training movement patterns that actually translate well to the pitching delivery. So as follow-up to my last article, I’ve decided to highlight some of my least favorite pitching drills…

Too many drills teach specific “points” in the pitching motion instead of focusing on movements

The 1 Knee Drill: Here the pitcher works on throwing from one knee with his stride leg out in front of him. I think the purpose is to isolate the upper half and work on finishing across the front leg. But in reality it teaches collapsing the front knee, which is exactly what you DON’T want to do when you pitch. See an article I wrote on the importance of bracing up with your front knee.

 

The Balance Drill: This is where the pitcher lifts his leg and pauses at the top before making a pitch. There are many variations, but the most common one has the pitcher hold the leg lift for a count of three before making his pitch. Early momentum is critical for maximizing power in your delivery. If you look at major league pitchers, especially the hardest throwers and guys with long successful track records, they begin moving towards home plate early their leg lift. Pausing at the top kills momentum, disrupts timing, and reduces velocity.

The Even Worse Variation of the Balance Drill: I don’t know what you call this one, but I saw it the other day and my jaw just about hit the floor. Here the pitcher not only holds the leg lift, but he actually is supposed to start with his arm up ready to throw. This is not at all where you want your arm to be at this stage in your delivery! This drill not only kills momentum, but actually seems to purposely get your arms and legs out of sync… baffling. More than any other drill I’ve seen, this one goes completely against developing good arm action and timing in your pitching delivery.

The 2 Step Drill: This is where the pitcher begins motion, strides out towards home plate and then pauses at front foot plant (again the emphasis is on getting the arms up). He then restarts his motion to throw from the power position. This looked like an innocent enough drill when I first saw it. But after watching young pitchers who performed this drill for years, I noticed their deliveries looked completely robotic and mechanical. This drill effectively trains a hitch into your motion that interferes with the efficient transfer of momentum you get from a fluid, explosive pitching delivery.

The Bucket Drill: here the pitcher starts with his lead foot propped up on a bucket in his leg lift (again starting from a position with no momentum). Then the pitcher has to make his pitch and focus on not kicking the bucket over with his back foot. Theoretically this teaches good follow through and not dragging the back leg. Two more big problems with this: 1) the follow through should be more a byproduct of a good delivery, not the focus, and 2) pitchers don’t all need to stride exactly the same way. This one falls into the category of drills that teach cookie cutter mechanics, which brings me to my next point…

[h5]Avoid drills that teach Cookie Cutter Mechanics![/h5]

Take a look at any large sample of big league pitchers and it’s pretty easy to see there a lot of different ways to get it done. You’ll see all sorts of different pitching styles, different deliveries, different arm slots, etc.

So again, only use drills that are designed to address the Big Three Components of good pitching delivery: Balance, Timing and Power. Dump any drills that have you pause in your delivery or focus on getting to specific points in your motion. Remember, the pitching delivery is a complex chain of movements, so only use drills that train those movements!
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a Powerful, Dynamic Pitching Delivery[/h5] BP-Blueprint-Package-2

In my last article we looked at pitch grips, the importance of keeping hitters off-balance, and how many pitches you really need. Today I want to take a closer look at something I touched on there, and that’s the importance of commanding your fastball. Changing speeds is important, but nothing beats a well located fastball.

The other day I was reading a blog post by my friends at GameChanger (great scorekeeping app, by the way) where they talked about a recent analysis in the Community Research section of Fangraphs.com (good resource for your inner baseball geek). In the report, “What is More Important for a Fastball: Velocity, Location, or Movement?” Thomas Karakolis uses MLB’s PITCHf/x data to better understand what separates a fastball that results in a swing and a miss from one that gets knocked out of the ballpark.

Now I should point out, the analysis only looks at fastballs that resulted in a swinging strike or a homerun, and doesn’t take into account a whole slew of other factors that can affect the outcome of a pitch. But while the analysis is far from perfect, it’s a good start and did result in some interesting findings. Here are some key takeaways:

[h5]Velocity matters, but only if you can really bring it[/h5] Interestingly, the analysis found little difference in the effectiveness of below average, average, and above average fastballs. Only when fastball velocity exceeded 95 MPH was there a noticeable impact. Heaters at 96+ were 2-4 times more effective than the average major league fastball.

[h5]Fastballs away are better than fastballs inside[/h5] You might guess that fastballs away were tougher for hitters to reach and make solid contact. In fact, according to these findings, fastballs on the outside corner were 4 times more effective than ones down the middle. Interestingly, fastballs on the inside corner weren’t any better than fastballs right over the plate. Part of this could be due to the nature of the study though. Most inside fastballs are intended to jam a hitter or move him off the plate. So you wouldn’t expect to get a lot of swinging strikes here. I firmly believe a good pitcher has to be able to throw the ball inside. But the data does highlight the importance of hitting your location – miss your location inside and you might strain your neck watching it fly out of the ballpark.

[h5]Pound the bottom of the strike zone[/h5] Here’s where I think this analysis has the most value. It showed that pitches at the bottom of the strike zone are 3 times more effective than the average fastball. This again is great confirmation of what most pitchers and coaches already understand. I like to tell pitchers their goal should generally be to throw 80% of their pitches down in the zone, and only come up with a purpose. Interestingly, fastballs up in the zone proved no more effective than the average fastball. Only when elevated out of the strike zone, did high fastballs show better success. High pitches out of the zone were twice as likely to result in a swinging strike. So if you’re going to try to blow that 0-2 fastball by them, make sure you elevate!

[h5]Movement is less important that you might think for inducing swinging strikes[/h5] You hear people say a pitcher has good “stuff” when he’s got a lot of movement on his pitches. One goal of the analysis was to see how movement really impacts a fastball’s effectiveness. The findings go somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, as neither horizontal nor vertical movement had any meaningful impact. But I wouldn’t read too much into this since, again, we’re only looking at swinging strikes and home runs. In general, a good sinking fastball is designed to induce ground balls rather than swinging strikes. But it is interesting that pitches with good movement, if not located well, were just as likely to be hit for a HR as an average fastball.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Mark Twain

When looking at studies like this I’m always reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote. Sure, it makes sense that looking at the result of a pitch would be a good indicator of the quality of that pitch. But by focusing only on two outcomes (homeruns and swinging strikes) the analysis leaves out a whole range of outcomes along the good-pitch/bad-pitch spectrum. It also fails to take into account other important factors like the previous pitch and the game situation.

All that said, I think there are some lessons here that all pitchers should take to heart. Velocity may be more glamorous, but throwing gas doesn’t do any good if you can’t control it. You can learn a lot by watching some of the better pitchers in the game who’ve been able to dominate despite less than stellar velocity. It’s a shame, but a lot of the young pitchers I work with never got the chance to really watch Greg Maddux in his prime. The man was a master when it came to carving up hitters with well located fastballs. He had a line that carries a great lesson for any aspiring ace:

“When they’re in a jam, a lot of pitchers…try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better.”
– Greg Maddux

So just like I wrote in my article on changing speeds, job number one is always to establish command of your fastball. Velocity, movement, and changing speeds all play a role, but location may trump them all. Pound the bottom of the strike zone and stay away from the heart of the plate and you’ve got a good recipe for success at any level.

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