Pitchers use two methods to deliver a baseball. The first, called the windup, is the full-motion whirlybird delivery that starts with the pitcher’s chest facing home plate; the pitcher’s first movement is a step back behind the rubber. This style of pitching is used with no one on base or with no base runners in position to steal a base. The second way of pitching, called the stretch, starts with the pitcher in a sideways position; the pitcher’s movement begins with a leg lift. Because this stretch motion is much shorter and quicker to the plate, it is used when base runners are in a position where they may steal.
Here’s some good news: In youth baseball, base runners can’t lead off and can’t steal until about the 9- or 10-year-old age group. Trust me, this is a huge responsibility off of a coach’s clipboard. And this also means that a pitcher can use either the windup or stretch motion while learning to pitch. For these early baseball years, although you have the flexibility to allow an athlete to mimic the big leaguer he saw on TV last night, you just shouldn’t do it! The recommended strategy is to start teaching pitchers from the stretch motion first. The stretch is short and simple, and it minimizes the degree of difficulty associated with throwing strikes. Fewer body parts and fewer movements equal more strikes.
The stretch motion is broken down into three simple steps that are easy to teach and easy to follow. Communicate this simple number system and use its similarity to the hitting technique described in chapter 7 to create an easy-to-follow instruction plan.
- Stance. The stretch stance (figure 6.5a) is formed by placing the back foot directly next to the pitcher’s rubber (that white rectangular thing in the middle of the mound). The front foot is positioned about 6 inches (15 cm) away, parallel to the back foot (looks like a pair of skis). The hands are held high in front of the chest, and the eyes are locked in on the catcher.
- Position 1—Leg lift. The first thing the athlete does is lift the front leg. There is no step back, no load or twist, just a simple leg lift. At the peak of the leg lift is the balance point, which is the position where the lift leg forms a right angle. Position 1 (figure 6.5b) requires balance and stability to keep the body posture tall, the foot out, and the toe pointing down.
- Position 2—Power position. From the leg lift position, the glove, throwing hand, and lift leg move together to the power position (figure 6.5c). Perhaps the most important key here is that a majority of the athlete’s weight should remain over the back leg as the limbs move. Once the athlete is at position 2, the glove arm is extended toward home plate, the throwing hand points back toward second base, and the front foot has reached out toward home plate (with the side of the shoe pointing toward home plate). It looks like a big X, and the goal is for the pitcher to be in a comfortable, athletic position. This is called a loaded throwing position because the body’s weight has been held back, and it is very similar to the stride and load position in hitting technique (hitting position 1). If the athletes do this correctly, you are sure to hear some groans about burning leg and shoulder muscles.
- Position 3—Finish. Once an athlete has reached the loaded power position, the next move is an explosion toward home plate and an aggressive delivery (figure 6.5d). A number is not assigned to the release point because we want this to be physical and aggressive—no thinking. To be technical, the body is supposed to finish with
• the front foot pointing directly to home plate;
• the trail leg even with the front foot, with the knee in and the toe pointing down;
• the glove arm folded in front of the chest; and
• the throwing arm down by the opposite knee.
The upper body should follow through so that the back is just about flat, parallel to the ground. Again, the goal is to teach a comfortable and athletic position where the body has supported the throwing arm and has left the athlete in a position to field any ground balls or line drives.
The windup begins with the pitcher directly facing home plate. The feet are once again roughly shoulder-width apart, the hands are high in front of the chest, and the eyes are locked on the target. The only difference between the stretch and the windup motions is two small steps: right and left. For a right-handed pitcher, the first movement is a step back and at an angle with the left leg (see figure 6.6a). Next, the athlete performs a small lift of the right leg before turning it open and placing it down right next to and directly parallel to the pitching rubber (see figure 6.6b). From this position, it’s a simple 1, 2, and 3! The finish position is shown in figure 6.6c.