Editor’s Note: This is the third story in a three-part series on pitching in high school baseball.
A pitcher’s hand had to pass through a white box each time.
As Will Strack watched game film of his delivery, University of Illinois baseball coaches would use a telestrator to draw a white box on the screen. The former Sycamore pitcher learned a lot about how solid pitching mechanics come from a repeatable delivery.
“Inconsistency is one of the biggest variables in pitching,” said Strack, who was an Illinois Baseball Coaches Association Class 3A/4A First Team All-State pitcher as a Spartan. “Without a repeatable delivery, a pitcher won’t be consistent. As we watched film your hand had to come through that box every time everything else would follow and you could be very efficient.
“We would put Major League pitchers on the screen and watch them in slow motion. No matter how they got to the white box, their hand would pass through the same spot every time.”
At Sycamore, Strack said he had the ability to simply throw pitches past hitters. As the batters got better at the Division I level however, Strack began to take notice of his delivery.
“My mechanics weren’t perfect,” said Strack who was 6-1 with a 3.84 ERA at Illinois in 2009, was named to the All-Big Ten Freshman team but would battle arm and back injuries the next three seasons. “I was very upright and had a long arm swing. I used my arm a lot and not my legs. Over time, I think that led to shoulder problems for me.”
If a pitcher has good mechanics, Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz is apt to let them go a little deeper into games. Piekarz pitched at Northern Illinois and spent three years in the Oakland A’s minor league system.
He said the instruction he received from coaches early was key in his career.
“The development of good mechanics is a process that starts at a very young age,” Piekarz said. “At 9- or 10-years-old, if a pitcher can get balanced and execute the same finish over and over, it makes it easier for them to get to high school and have all those years of muscle memory to rely on.
“Good mechanics are definitely a form of injury prevention. A pitcher with good mechanics won’t tire as easily as one without them. They are using their whole body and can usually go deeper into games.”
The instruction Piekarz gives to Timberwolves’ pitchers is simple. He wants pitchers to be balanced as they drive their front leg up. If you can pause at that point, you have a good balance point. From there a pitcher can “get all the way over to their front side,” as their dominant arm begins to move toward the catcher’s glove.
“The No. 1 thing is to create a repeatable delivery you can execute over and over,” Piekarz said. “That equals a consistent release point, a compact motion and no wasted movement.”
The hints come during practice.
They are small suggestions meant to gradually sink in as pitchers get their arm into game shape during the preseason. Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh doesn’t inundate his pitchers with mechanical information. Pitchers have freedom in how they get to their balance point.
The arm slot of each Sycamore pitcher is up to them to develop as well, as long as it is consistent. Cavanaugh points to side-arm pitchers or knuckleball pitchers. Because a different arm slot is required for both, a conventional pitcher almost never throws a knuckleball or a side-arm pitch.
Adversity helps Cavanaugh build on mechanical concepts as the season progresses.
“Sometimes, a pitcher has to be unsuccessful before they will listen,” Cavanaugh said. “Sometimes, you have to fail first, and that’s a broad term which is different for each pitcher.”
Gradually, Cavanaugh wants pitchers to have “their front side working properly.” The glove hand has to help pull the dominant arm through during the delivery. A nondominant side that opens too soon shows a pitcher that is “flying open,” which adds stress to a pitching arm already throwing a baseball at high velocities.
“We want a pitcher’s lead arm to work for them,” Cavanaugh said. “We don’t want to see the numbers on the back of their jersey as they go towards the plate, even though there are some guys that will work for. The ability to repeat a delivery is a skill. Like free-throw shooting in basketball or a hitter having their foot come up and down in the same place with their swing, they’ve got to repeat it.”
Inspiration on TV
Ed Mathey developed his mechanics the old-fashioned way.
As a player, the Northern Illinois baseball coach watched Tom Seaver on TV. He’d get to baseball practice and try to repeat the delivery of the 12-time All-Star pitcher with three Cy Young Awards, a no-hitter and the distinction of being a first-ballot inductee to the Baseball Hall of Fame whose name was on the highest percentage of ballots ever.
Before every start as a pitcher at North Central College in Naperville, Mathey would read from Seaver’s book, “The Art of Pitching.” It was a time when each pitcher had a unique delivery. A pitcher could easily be identified by his leg kick, arm action, head position or hip rotation.
Modern pitchers get to more familiar positions in their delivery as the attention to biomechanical consistency is a focus of summer camps and pitching academies.
“Today, kids are more apt to go to lessons at an academy,” said Mathey who earned All-College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin honors as a Division III pitcher. “Growing up, we would watch a guy on TV and try and mimic that delivery.”
While modern pitchers have similar delivery characteristics, there are some who step outside the box. Former NIU pitcher Mark Badgley would twist and turn while seemingly every body part moved away from its intended target.
“It’s OK to not have a cookie-cutter motion,” Piekarz said. “Some pitchers will be successful because of their deception.
“Get balanced, drive your front leg upwards and finish all the way over your front side. If you can get to all three of those positions, you have a very good chance to be successful. But, it’s also OK if different pitchers get there in different ways.”
Even for flexible pitchers like Badgley, who had a successful career at NIU as a starter and reliever, physical conditioning is the key.
“We take a holistic approach for good mechanics,” Mathey said. “We want to get the body in proper shape. Physically, pitchers have to have a strong core. They need a good base, because it takes a lot of stamina to develop a repeatable delivery. It’s a year-round process to try to get to that point.
“Pitchers have to be able to consistently repeat their delivery. Their arm slot and release point are related to their location and command of the strike zone. To pitch at the collegiate level, you have to be able to manage every part of the strike zone, in, out, top and bottom.”