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How pitching velocity works

Sunday was ‘Demo Day’ on the Rays Telecast, and I would like to chime in

Devil Rays Photo Day Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

During Sunday’s finale against the Astros, the Rays broadcast did another iteration of ‘demo day’ — an interesting and engaging segment on Fox Sports Sun where ex-MLB players Orestes Destrade and Doug Waechter provide insight into the things that make big leaguers great.

“Dedicated to the young baseball fans out there” (and to a lesser extent, the parents and coaches who lead them on their baseball journey), demo day can provide value for fans of all types as well as young and aspiring ballplayers.

These instructions can be a great resource, and you can find a collection of these videos from Fox Sports Sun here. Honestly, we don’t shine enough of a light on the work done in these videos, they deserve the spotlight. As a former pitcher myself, this week’s demo especially caught my attention, as I love to research pitching mechanics, as well as the movements of elite athletes in general.

Unfortunately, though, this week the information went a little awry.

In the segment that aired on March 31 (which has not yet been uploaded), Waechter honed in on the previous night’s starter Gerrit Cole’s mechanics, attributing his overall success to an ability to stay balanced during his leg lift — which in theory allows the pitcher to break his hands on time and move down hill.

If you’re a coach, a parent, or a former pitcher yourself, you may have heard of this before as ‘The Balanced Position.’ Maybe you’ve heard a coach teach this to your son. Maybe you have taught this yourself. Maybe it’s what you’ve been taught (like I was). Whatever the case may be, it’s not your fault. You, too, have fallen victim to some dated wisdom.

Although ‘The Balanced Position’ seems logical — and the way Waechter explained it may have made sense — there are two fundamental problems with it that I feel is important to address: First, I’m not sure Cole ever enters ‘The Balanced Position,’ and second, it wouldn’t be productive if he did.

Momentum is the key to pitching

Baseball’s hardest throwers achieve elite velocity by maximizing linear energy. In order to do this, pitchers need to start building momentum toward the target as early as possible. In most instances, this means during their leg lift, not after.

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Diego Padres
Gerrit Cole, striding forward
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

In this photo, we can see Cole has already begun to move forward at maximum leg lift, rather than stay balanced on his back leg.

Think of it this way, when outfielders make a crow hop throw, do they stop, get in a balanced position, step, and throw? In most cases, we see outfielders build momentum toward the target — and the crow hop is how they do it.

Pitchers, essentially, are trying to mimic this motion, but with the built in challenge of starting in a stationary position on the mound.

This video further illustrates that point, referring to the initial movement as ‘The Power Angle.’ You’ll notice that these pitchers are not perfectly balanced at leg lift. Rather, they begin moving forward the second their foot comes off the ground.

Once pitchers can establish their ‘Power Angle,’ they can then quickly move downhill, using the pitching rubber for leverage.

Much like sprinters, pitchers need to use ground force to maximize linear energy. Rather than pushing themselves forward, they are actually trying to push the rubber back, beginning a kinetic chain that transfers their linear energy into rotational energy, the second key aspect of pitching mechanics.

But unlike sprinters, however, pitchers don’t continue moving forward once their foot lands.

Instead, they must now use their front foot to create torque to transfer the force they’ve created from the ground onto the baseball. This is achieved by hip-to-shoulder separation — or the act of rotating your hips before your shoulders, giving the arm a whip-like action.

For the visual learners, here is that concept beautifully explained by renowned pitching coach Brent Pourciau:

Concluding Thoughts

Maximum pitching velocity is achieved by maximizing both linear and rotational energy. These are achieved by moving forward and creating momentum as soon as possible. Teaching balance is fine, but teaching momentum must come next.

While ‘The Balanced Position’ may be a fine teach to get a young pitcher to learn to move in a linear direction at first, that in and of itself is generally not how big league pitchers generate their velocity, and I feel this distinction is important to make.