Get bigger with your stride to throw high…
We all know the importance of commanding your fastball down in the zone, and many (myself included) will recommend throwing roughly 80% of your pitches down there. For more on this, read this article: The Importance of Commanding Your Fastball. But something worth pointing out is that the philosophy behind this line of thinking is based on what works at the big league level… Kyle Boddy actually wrote a nice piece on this topic a while back: Locating Up in the Zone – Better for Amateur/Recreational Pitchers.
As most youth pitchers could tell you, there’s a pretty big difference between the fielding ability of guys at the big league level and the amateur level. And it can get frustrating making good pitches and getting ground balls only to watch them turn into fielding errors and seeing-eye hits.
On a personal note, much of my success at the high school level came from my ability to elevate my fastball. I’d gotten used to playing with “less than stellar” defense behind me, and as a result I developed into more of a strikeout/flyball pitcher.
In college I had to get used to facing batters who could get to that high fastball. And I eventually got comfortable with the idea that I actually had fielders behind me who could make the plays. But even though I learned the importance of commanding the ball down in the zone, I never lost sight of the value of elevating my fastball, and it continued to be a great weapon for me.
So what about when you want throw your fastball UP in the zone?
Every now and then you’ve gotta change the hitters eye level – get them off that low fastball or blow it by ’em to finish them off. And as mentioned above, sometimes commanding your fastball up in the zone can work better for you than keeping it down all the time. But often when pitchers spend all their time working to keep the ball down, when you ask them to throw one high, they struggle. They either miss way too high or don’t get it high enough (the power of muscle memory).
Most pitcher’s have been there at one time or another… You get ahead in the count, 0-2. Nice! Then you to try to throw a fastball up in the zone for effect, only to leave it belt high. The dreaded 0-2 meatball! Never a good thing…
To make that high fastball work, you have to elevate it! But how do you learn to do that?
You’re better off focusing on your lower half than your release point:
When young pitchers throw one high by mistake they’ll often say things like, “Oh, I let go of that one early.” And they’re right… but what’s more important is WHY they let go of it early. Most of the time, it comes back to what they did with their lower half.
The throwing motion (arm acceleration from max external rotation to ball release) is one of the fastest human movements in all of sports. The difference in release point between a high fastball and low fastball is imperceptible to the naked eye.
So if you try to elevate your fastball by thinking “I’ll just let go of the ball early,” what are the odds that you’ll actually get that timing right? Not good… More likely, you’ll end up slowing your arm down or throwing it 10 feet over the catcher’s head.
How your Lower Half affects your Upper Half in your pitching delivery:
Instead of over-thinking it or trying to “aim the ball” with your throwing arm, try getting aggressive with your stride length.
But isn’t an aggressive, powerful stride something you want on every pitch?
Yes, but there’s a balance… the stride is about generating momentum and accelerating down the mound. But then you want to brace up and get over your front leg when you throw. You’ll often hear pitchers and coaches talk about the importance of throwing downhill. They’re basically talking about getting over the front leg.
Take a look at Felix Hernandez getting over his front leg
See, when you get really aggressive with your stride length and effectively over-stride, you don’t get over your front leg as well. The result? You usually miss high… Make sense?
It’s the same way with shortening your stride. Shortening up a little can be a quick fix to help you get on top of the ball and get it down in the zone (see how this worked for Cubs minor league pitcher, Nick Struck: Why a Longer Stride Isn’t Always the Answer).
How to use this trick to help you on the mound:
Try it out in the bullpen first – get the FEEL for elevating your fastball. As you prepare to make your pitch, decide you’re going to really crank it up with your stride length. Then load up and let it go. Often times, that high fastball will just happen without even thinking about it.
Now I generally don’t like relying on mechanical cues in game situations. During competition you’ve got enough going on without having to worry about mechanics. That’s why this is something to work on in your practice and bullpen sessions.
To sum up: Getting aggressive with your stride can be quick and easy way to get that fastball up in the zone. But I am NOT suggesting you actively over-stride every time you want to elevate your fastball! It’s all about getting the feel for throwing high. Once you get that feel and work on it in practice, the key is to remember what that feels like. Then in the game, forget about mechanics so you can focus on what really matters – making good pitches!