By Coach Jerry Kreber
Explosive mechanics are all about training the pitcher's body to transfer weight and momentum from the back leg to the front leg quickly and efficiently. This involves focusing on "explosive weight shift" while the pitcher is coming off his posting leg. It also involves the use of the tension created in the posting leg to drive explosive hip and pelvis rotation.
The following 8 stages are how I teach explosive baseball pitching mechanics.
1. Leg Lift
2. Pelvic Loading
3. Leg Bend
4. Front-Side Shoulder Tilt
5. Upper Arm Circle
6. Elbow Flexion
7. Wall of Resistance
8. Elbow Extension
The first stage of the pitching motion is the leg lift. The leg lift occurs when the pitcher pivots the throwing foot on the pitching rubber to perpendicular to home plate and raises the glove foot. The leg lift is important for two different reasons. First, it starts the pitcher’s momentum toward the plate. Momentum is important for the pitcher because it helps generate force behind the ball. Secondly, the leg lift allows the pitcher to load the back leg and hips. The pitching leg is loaded when the glove foot leaves the ground. When the pitching leg is loaded, there should be a slight bend at the knee. The pitcher’s eyes and head should be focused directly on the target. On the lift, the pitcher’s glove should line up with the knee and serve as a good indicator for the height of the lift. Many times, our pitcher’s gloves will be at letter height on their uniform. Also, the pitcher’s chin should line up with the knee and glove. Lining up the chin, knee, and glove indicates good posture that promotes a controlled balance.
There are many different styles of leg lifts practiced by major league pitchers. Nolan Ryan practiced a very high leg lift. He attributes some of his throwing velocity to the high lift. When analyzing a high leg lift compared to a conservative one, it seems that pitcher’s that get their legs higher have extremely good flexibility. Also, it seems that their weight thrust back to some extent toward second base. Thrusting back toward second, at least in Ryan’s case, seems to create extreme momentum toward the plate. To further illustrate my point, let me provide an example. Visualize a four-legged table. Now, imagine two legs on the same side being cut. The table would fall until the new leg height contacted with the floor. The higher the table legs are cut, the further the table will fall to the floor. By adding extra distance, the table will come down with more force due to increased momentum from gravity having more time to pull on the table’s falling mass.
But, pitchers should be aware that practicing a leg kick that is too high or out of control can severely hamper their pitch command and keeping all applied force in a straight line. The kick should allow be at a level that the pitcher can continue to maintain their balance throughout the delivery.
Once the leg lift occurs, the pitcher not only loads their rear leg, but hips as well. Loading the hips is a difficult movement because it involves controlling the pelvis to move, but in a way that does not throw the pitcher off line toward the target. As the pitcher reaches the top of the leg lift, to load their hips they must turn the pelvis away from the hitter. When a pitcher turns the pelvis away from the hitter, they show the batter their glove side back pocket. From a side view, the pitcher looks as if they place their glove foot parallel to their pitching foot.
There are two reasons why pelvic loading can help generate force off the mound. First by turning the pelvis away, the pitcher, can apply more force over time with the lower body going into foot plant. By increasing momentum with the lower body, pitchers will take stress off the arm by allowing it to “go along for the ride” so to speak. Secondly, muscles can only work when they are properly loaded. If no load occurs, the muscle cannot properly help perform an action. For instant, a person cannot jump on legs already extended. To achieve maximum muscle use while jumping, a person must have flexion in the legs and explode to extension. If a pitcher wants to use their hips during the pitching motion, they must be loaded back and then extended forward.
One extremely important point to remember is that although the hips have slightly turned, the glove shoulder stays in a straight line with the target.
After the pelvic loading stage has been completed, the pitcher should maintain flexion in their rear leg. Flexion in the rear leg is vital for two reasons. First, the flexion of the rear leg allows pitchers to activate their quadriceps, glutes, and the hamstring of the pitching leg. This flexion allows pitchers to apply directional force toward the plate. Just as a swimmer pushes off the wall to start their competition, rear leg drive allows pitchers the same opportunity to start their delivery toward the plate. Secondly, rear leg bend helps pitchers create front side leverage. Pitchers achieve a leverage position by tilting their shoulders. The next pitching phase deals strictly with front-side shoulder tilt.
Rear leg bend is a topic of much discussion. Some coaches have disputed the fact that to achieve maximum straight-line momentum, pitchers do not push off the pitching rubber. Rather they pull their front hip toward the catcher. Examining the pictures above, it seems relatively clear that the pitcher’s rear leg indicates, due to flexion, that force will be applied toward second base trying to accelerate the body forward. If a pitcher moves toward the plate with an extended rear leg, it would seem they are not using all their available muscles to create force toward the plate.
Analyzing pictures are not the only evidence that indicates pitchers use rear leg bend to push toward home. In 1998, Bruce MacWillams conducted a study that examined ground reaction forces during the pitching motion. The study’s results indicated that leg drive is a significant factor in pitcher’s throwing velocity. With the study’s data and evidence with pictures, substantial facts back up the claim that leg bend is needed for a effective delivery.(MacWilliams, B, Choi, T., Perezous, M, Chao, E, McFarland, E. Characteristic Ground Reaction Forces in Baseball Pitching. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 26(1): 66-71, 1998.)
Stage 4 and 5
The next two stages happen almost in unison. But, if you break the delivery down it can be deduced that one is the direct effect of the other. During the leg bend, pitchers must break their hands correctly to efficiently deliver their pitch to the target. Many experts have weighed in on when the pitcher should break their hands. Some say the earlier the better, while other contest pitchers should wait until later as they head toward.
Not only when the pitcher breaks their hands is a point of contention, but how they do it is also questionable. Some say that a pitcher should lift their arm up, while others say the pitcher should swing their pitching arm back. While looking at video, pictures, and research I have concluded that the arm swing is the best approach for pitchers wanting to reach maximum velocity, stay healthy, and maintain durability.
The arm swing of the pitcher begins after the ball is taken out of the glove. The ball should be taken out of the glove low, giving the arm an adequate distance to gain momentum. After hand break, the pitcher must point their glove hand at the target. Thus, ensuring the glove shoulder points directly at the target at all times. The elbow should initially travel back towards 1st base. When the ball, held in the pitcher’s hand, achieves a straight-line starting with home plate, pitcher’s throwing hip, and second base the pitcher will forcefully turn their hips and shoulders toward the target.
Almost in unison with the Stage Four, effective pitchers will have front side shoulder tilt. The tilt, in the front side, is a direct result of a full upper arm circle by the pitcher. As the pitcher extends their arm out of the glove, their glove side will naturally rise. Their glove side will provide leverage toward the plate. Increased leverage will not only provide directional support, but higher pitch velocities
As the pitcher circles their upper pitching arm, the pitchers glove side elevates higher than the pitching arm. The pitcher’s glove arm should be extended, pointing directly at the target. The pitcher’s glove arm should stay in a straight line with the target. Keeping the line straight, allows the pitcher to apply all available force forward. Furthermore, keeping in a straight line with the target, forces the pitcher not to bring the ball behind their body. Once the ball is behind the pitcher’s body, they must pull their glove side to side to release the pitch for a strike. Using lateral directional force puts a tremendous amount of strain on the elbow.
Higher velocity is another benefit of the front side shoulder tilt. First, pitchers get to couple the force to the plate by using the glove arm. If the glove arm is extended and raised, pitchers are allowed to pull them forcefully toward second base. This action should increase the momentum and speed of the throwing arm. Secondly, when a pitcher’s forearm is not turned over, force is not being applied to the back of the ball. The humerus bone, when external rotated, turns the forearm over. The earlier the humerus bone is externally rotated the more time the pitcher can apply force to the ball.
As pressure is applied toward the hip by the glove arm, after maximum front side tilt, the humerous bone turns over and the forearm begins moving toward the plate. As the ball enters the straight-line path to the plate, the pitcher’s elbow needs to have less than 90-degree flexion. If a pitcher has more than 90 degree flexion, chances are, they are going to experience extreme soreness in their pitching elbow. The elbow, isolated due to decreased flexion, causes this soreness. If prematurely extended, the elbow receives no support from the biceps and forearm. With the violent forward force and weight from the ball, pitchers force their elbow to carry most of workload. Dr. Mike Marshall calls this practice “Reserve Forearm Bounce”. There are many pictures that illustrate this mechanical flaw. A pitcher, who has premature extension or “Reserve Forearm Bounce”, often at foot plant display a large lag in the forearm. The pitcher’s lagging forearm bounces, once the body continues forward to deliver the pitch. Since the elbow is such a small joint, it cannot tolerate the stress of being isolated and starts to distribute force to the delicate surrounding ligaments and tissue. At this step, pitchers are likely to be seriously injured.
By having proper flexion, like the illustration above, pitchers are able to rely on the biceps and forearm to apply force to the ball. Also, the elbow is supported, as the pitcher delivers to the plate. Furthermore, by practicing good elbow flexion, pitchers can release the ball closer to home plate. Releasing closer to home plate creates a competitive advantage for the pitcher, increasing velocity and cutting the hitters reaction time to the pitch. Finally, practicing adequate elbow flexion will help pitchers throw a legitimate vertical breaking ball, instead of a horizontal spinning slider or slurve.
Actually, Dr. Tom House is credited for illustrating this stage with his National Pitching Association (NPA) research. The Wall of Resistance is an imaginary line drawn through the pitcher’s foot upon touch, after the leg kick. This straight line passes through the plant foot and extends to the sky. At foot plant, the pitcher’s head should be behind the line. During release, the pitcher’s head must pass through the line and ahead of the plant foot. If the pitcher is able to execute this action, proper directional force has been applied. Also, forced apply toward second base allows the pitcher to release his pitch closer to home plate. Furthermore, maintaining forward momentum with the lower body greatly reduces upper arm stress and chance of injury. If the pitcher is not able to generate an opposite lower body push, their arm will have to generate much of the force behind the ball. Pitchers that isolate their arm to produce force may experience problems with extreme arm soreness, injury, and fatigue. Above, Jake Westbrook has just reached foot plant. His head is clearly behind his glove leg on foot strike. Like all Major League pitchers, Westbrook will explode through the “Wall of Resistance” during release.
One oral cue that our team uses for pitchers to create lead leg push is “Get some air under your heel.” This has helped our pitcher visualize transferring their weight forward and freeing their rear leg. Also, the oral cue “Finishing on your toe” has helped our pitchers visualize proper weight transfer during their delivery. As a coach, the best way to measure if players are breaking through the Wall of Resistance is that watch the pitcher’s back leg. If their leg achieves full extension through release, the pitcher has activated and used the appropriate force production mechanics. If not, coaches need to incorporate drills that promote lead leg push and opposite directional pushes.
As the pitcher breaks through “The Wall of Resistance”, release is about to occur. In order to throw a strike, the pitcher must extend their elbow and place their forearm in a straight line toward home plate. Often, pitchers may have to slightly tilt their head to the glove side. This small tilt creates space for the pitcher’s arm to stay in a straight line with the target. By allowing the elbow to extend in a straight line, the pitcher applies force to the back of the baseball toward home plate. In fact, if the pitcher has proper elbow flexion in their mechanics, they will be able to apply force longer toward the target. The extended force application time increases a pitcher’s throwing velocity.
In the picture above, the pitcher has just released his pitch toward home plate. His elbow has become completely extended during release and his head is slightly tilted toward the glove side. In the picture, the ball has just been released from the pitcher’s fingers. Notice how far out in front the pitcher is able to release the ball. Just by practicing proper elbow flexion, pitchers can slash the distance to the plate by 10% or greater. This distance reduction not only produces faster pitches, but helps pitchers maintain healthy arms.
Coach Jerry Kreber is a high school baseball coach in Omaha, Neb., and owner of the blog Baseball Ideas, www.baseballideas.blogspot.com.
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