Find a League In Your Area
By David Krival
Consultant: Jim Umbarger
Photography by Anthony F. Frascello Copyright 1996
Mastering the mechanics of the fastball is one of the first steps to becoming a successful pitcher. Seemingly minor mechanical corrections and adjustments can increase velocity and control, and reduce the chance of injury.
Most professional pitching instructors subscribe to the Drop Down and Drive theory. The idea, according to former Texas Ranger pitcher Jim Umbarger, is to "get as low to the ground as possible and drive directly toward the target, using the large muscles of the legs, hips, back and shoulders to generate power, leverage and momentum.”
Pitchers achieve movement on the fastball by using variations on the four-seam grip (figures 1 and 2). In both photos, the ball is gripped with fingertips. A changeup, palm ball, or slip-pitch is held further back in the hand, resulting in less leverage and allowing the pitcher to throw a slower pitch without slowing his arm speed. "It's important to keep the middle and index fingers together,” says Jim. They're stronger that way, and provide more velocity, control and movement.”
"Thumb position is an often overlooked aspect of the grip,” Umbarger continues. "If the thumb is extended [figure 1] the ball will tend to sink because of the dragging effect. For more speed and movement, try tucking the thumb [figure 2]. This allows the ball to leave the hand with less drag.
The body should be upright or leaning slightly forward, never backward (figure 3). "Keep the chin over the belt buckle,” says Umbarger. "If I start my wind-up by leaning back, I'm in trouble (figure 4). I'll spend the rest of my wind-up trying to regain my balance, rather than generating maximum power toward the target.”
Umbarger also suggests that a pitcher should not stand in the middle of the rubber. "Generally, a right-hander should pitch from the third base side and left-handers from the first base side. This increases the angles of trajectory, making it more difficult for a hitter to judge where the ball is traveling. It also helps the pitcher step directly toward the target and avoid landing on the sides of holes that other pitchers have excavated.”
The wind-up and delivery can be described as a four-step, rhythmic sequence (figure 5). "Each of the four sequential step should be on the beat and of equal duration,” says Umbarger. "You can learn to execute a rhythmic delivery by counting aloud or mentally: one-and-two-and-three-and-four.”
One: The wind-up begins with a short step back (no more than 12 inches) with the non-pivot foot (left foot for righties, right foot for lefties).
And Two: The pitcher turns his pivot foot completely sideways in front of the rubber. If half the foot or some of the cleats are on top of the rubber, the body will tend to fall forward, rather than stay balanced and generate leg drive. That leads to rushing, which diminishes power and control.
And Three: Turn the body completely sideways to the target and raise the front leg, while bringing the hands together over the knee into a good balance position. "Make a full turn of the hips and shoulders,” says Umbarger. "This is critical!” Full turn, hands together, balance.”
And Four: Drop and drive, making sure the front foot steps directly on a line from the heel of the pivot foot to the target.
Working from the stretch, the pitcher omits the short backward step with the non-pivot foot and the sideways turn of the pivot foot, and begins with his pivot foot parallel to the rubber. From that point forward, the delivery from the stretch is identical to the delivery from the full wind-up.
As the pitcher drops from his balance point and drives forward, he reaches back toward second base with his pitching hand. At this point, his throwing hand should be on top of the ball. "Many pitchers have the habit of having their hand on the side of the ball at the separation point,” says Umbarger. "This causes them to have the hand on the side of the ball at the release point, resulting in a soft slider type of pitch. If the hand is on the top of the ball at separation, the hand will be behind the ball through the delivery and release, which increases the speed and control.”
Until the pitcher releases the ball, the elbow of the throwing arm should be as high or higher than the shoulder (figure 6). It's also important to keep the front shoulder closed as long as possible. With the front shoulder closed and the elbow elevated, the pitcher avoids overtaxing the muscles of the rotator cuff.
The wrist should remain loose and relaxed. Speed is also generated by extending the upper body and arm toward the target. The trunk rotates and bends over simultaneously, creating thrust and torque over two axes (figure 7). The follow-through should be a natural completion of a healthy delivery, with the throwing hand passing below the opposite knee.
"When the pivot foot ends up a few inches closer to the target than the stride foot, the body is low and on balance, and the back is flat (parallel to the ground), then you know you've pushed off properly and your mechanics are correct,” Umbarger says.
"It all works together,” says Jim. "Work on one component at a time: getting your rhythm, making a full turn, balance point, fingers together, elbow higher than the shoulder, getting as low as possible, stepping directly toward the target, extending the upper body. With each improvement, you should be able to make more quality pitches with more power and control, and less discomfort.”
"If someone can improve five components of delivery by one percent, he can go from 75 mph to 79 mph, or 80 to 85,” Umbarger says. "During a 100-pitch game, a pitcher's ratio of strikes to balls could go from 60-40 to 65-35. It really makes a difference.”
Long Toss: After warming up, throw with an arc trajectory from 90, 120, and 150 feet or more, gradually increasing the distance.
Sit-Ups: Stomach strength is a good indicator of general body strength. Being able to pull forward and down with the abdominal muscles is very helpful in the follow-through.
Stretching: Proper stretching prevents injuries and increased flexibility can add speed and endurance.
Balance Point: Practice balancing on the pivot foot for up to five minutes. This strengthens the ankle muscles and balancing mechanism.
Running and Conditioning: Pitchers need stamina. Aerobic exercises like running build stamina. Find out what works best for you.
Pick-ups: From an infielder's crouch, execute a cross-over step to the right, run five or six steps, squat to pick up a ball (without bending over from the waist), execute a cross-over step to the left, run five or six steps, squat to pick up a ball. This is murder. Go easy at first.
Grip Strengthening: Squeeze something. Umbarger likes silly putty type squeeze balls.
About Jim Umbarger: Jim Umbarger was a professional pitcher for nine years, including four major league seasons from 1975 to 1978. His best year was 1976 with Texas, when he started 30 and won 10 games (three shut-outs) with a 3.15 ERA. He is one of 14 major league pitchers to make an unassisted double play. In April 1981, Umbarger pitched the 23rd through 32nd innings of the longest professional ball game ever played (Rochester v. Pawtucket).
Umbarger learned how to pitch from great coaches and managers, including Rene Lachemann, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver. He is a charter member of the Major League Alumni Baseball Clinic Team, participating in many clinics each year, as well providing individual instruction. He is a member of the Phoenix 40s of the Arizona MSBL and has pitched in several MSBL World Series.
About Anthony F. Frascello Tony Frascello is an award-winning photographer and graphic artist and has been a contributor to Hardball Magazine since 1990. Originally from New York, he joined the Long Island MSBL in 1990 and currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Tony served as Commissioner of the Mesa MABL and can be reached by email at: MesaLeague@aol.com