The anatomy of the pitch: Perfect delivery depends on mechanics
No two pitchers are alike.
No two pitches are alike, even if a guy is throwing only one pitch.
A pitching coach’s instruction varies from player to player, but there’s one constant: proper mechanics are the key to being a good pitcher.
“Mechanics are the key to any pitch,” said Colorado Mesa University pitching coach Jeff Rodgers, who took time after practice one afternoon to break down eight different pitches, their various grips and nuances.
Every pitch is about arm strength, arm speed, arm angle, hand speed, body mechanics and release point. Rodgers teaches pitchers to release the ball above their head.
“You want high to low,” he said. “You release out front, you’re going to spike it and throw a 50-footer.”
Rodgers pitched at Mesa and played in the Montreal Expos organization. He coached at Colorado State for six years before returning to Grand Junction. He’s coached Maverick pitchers for 20 years and has worked with several pitchers who have made it to the big leagues, most recently San Francisco closer Sergio Romo, who played for the Mavericks in 2005.
Most pitches can be thrown on any count, to left-handed or right-handed hitters.
“It’s player by player pretty much,” Rodgers said of the strategy of calling pitches. “What are my top two pitches? In relief situations you go matchups a little bit.
“It’s different for each hitter; hitters’ stances are all different, their weaknesses are all different. How am I going to get this hitter into a defensive swing? If he has a slow bat, I’m probably not going to throw him too many curveballs, probably not going to throw him too many change-ups unless my pitcher has a great change-up. That kid’s probably not going to hit it, either.
“The main thing is the pitcher’s strength and the hitter’s weaknesses, changing speeds in the strike zone and different eye levels. I can throw three fastballs at three different speeds at different eye levels.”
The grip: “What I do first and foremost is you look at their hands. You look at how a guy naturally throws. Some guys never throw a four-seam fastball, so you try to get their hand in the right position, try to match the ball with where their fingers are,” Rodgers said. “Most guys with a four-seam fastball, you want to make sure their fingers are over the crown, top half of the ball. The pads (of the fingers) need to be over the crown of the ball so you get the downhill backspin and carry it through the zone.”
On a four-seam fastball, the thumb is below the ball, behind the fingers.
A college pitcher will throw a fastball anywhere from the mid to upper 80s, into the 90 mph area. Division I pitchers will throw in the upper 90s. Jon Gray, for example, was clocked at 100 mph and a little above during his senior year at Oklahoma.
The four-seam fastball is a heavy ball, one that will drop as it carries through the strike zone.
The masters: Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver
The grip: “The grip is like a four-seam, but the finger pressure makes it rotate into a pronation factor,” Rodgers said. “The thumb is more on the side so when you’re coming through, the finger pressure rolls through that. It goes into a righty or away from a lefty (hitter). It’s a pitch into a lefty that if you have a bad swing, you’ll hit it. If you have a good swing, you have no chance.”
The masters: Greg Maddux, Catfish Hunter
The grip: “You’ve gotta have big hands,” Rodgers said, to throw a good split-finger fastball. “You can grip it like a two-seam but the whole key to a split-finger is you throw with your knuckles out and you use the thumb to pinch through it. You’re pinching through to get the tumble effect. A splitter is about 5 miles an hour less than your fastball; that’s why it’s so hard to hit.
“You have to make sure you’re getting over the top to get the effect on the split-finger. It’ll come in and the bottom will just fall out of it.”
The masters: Jack Morris, Bruce Sutter
The grip: “It’s a little deeper into your middle finger. There are two types. The standard curve, the (index finger) is just for balance or a guide. Some guys when they release, their index finger is completely off the ball. That’ll clear some of the area for the down action.
“The knuckle curve is more high to low, the power curve just (drops). The position of your wrist is the key to the curveball, making sure your wrist is going to your location, inside or outside. It’s just a little turn, and you’re multiplying that by 60 feet, 6 inches, with your maximum arm speed. The position of your wrist will carry it through the zone and still executing your mechanics.”
The masters: Josh Beckett, Tom Gordon, Burt Blyleven
The grip: “It’s basically a slider without the wrist wrench,” Rodgers said. “Mariano Rivera revolutionized it. It’s a slider, but his (cutter) is a 92, 95 (mph) cutter instead of 85. We start with cutting the ball in half (on the grip). It’s not putting a whole lot of pressure on your elbow.”
The masters: Mariano Rivera, Al Leiter
The grip: Much like the cutter, but the wrist action is different. The grip on the two pitches is basically the same, with the ring finger curled slightly more under the ball on the slider than the cutter, with the middle finger running along the seam, just like a cutter. The pitcher’s wrist is cocked slightly to the outside on the slider. Rodgers taught Sergio Romo his slider, one of the nastiest in the majors.
The masters: Sergio Romo, Brad Lidge, Tom Glavine
The grip: “There are different ones,” Rodgers said. “There’s the trident change (three fingers), and I teach young kids this. It’s pretty easy and it takes the velocity off and comes in and settles like a curveball without any torque on your wrist or joints. There’s the vulcan change (two fingers), but you have to have big hands. Dominican guys will throw a vulcan. The circle change, it’s an adjustment for kids with the size of their hands. You throw a two-seam or a four-seam depending on what the kid’s release is like.
“The four-seam, you stiffen your wrist coming through, the two-seam change, you get a fade. They’re 8-10 miles an hour less in velocity. The key to throwing the change is throwing it with your fastball arm speed and mechanics.
“It’s a feel pitch. I teach our guys to have two or three different grips with your change-up. One certain grip may not work for you (in a game) so you’d better find another one. Then you go back to your comfort zone (change) you’re fine.”
The masters: Tom Glavine, Jamie Moyer, Trevor Hoffman. “Little lefties,” Rodgers said, often throw the best change-ups.
The grip: How do you throw a knuckleball? “Good question,” Rodgers said. “Some guys use two fingers. Darrell Akerfelds threw it here. It was called a ‘downer’ then. He used two fingers and pushed with his top two fingers downward to get the tumble out of it and it was nasty. It was almost like a split-finger. You’ve got to have control to push it so when it comes out it’s doing the waffle. Some guys use three fingers on it for a knuckleball and dig the fingertips into it and push out. You’ve got to be able to push and the mechanics have to come through. The knuckleball releases lower.”
The masters: Darrell Akerfelds, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tim Wakefield, Burt Hooton