By Chris Moheno
Great baseball pitching, of course, is needed to counteract great baseball hitting. But there is some difference of perspective among those who are involved in professional baseball training about one of the most fundamental issues regarding baseball pitching mechanics: whether or not one should "stand tall and stay back" when on the mound.
Now, pitching coaches generally contrast standing tall against pitchers whom they describe as "drop-and-dive". Drop-and-dive pitchers are represented in the Hall of Fame by such greats as Tom Seaver, Robin Roberts, and Sandy Koufax. But, the conventional wisdom generally adhered to by baseball pitching coaches is that a few Hall of Fame pitchers who had unusual capabilities do not a rule make.
"What you want to see out of power pitchers is that once that stride leg starts lowering, the lower body really goes fast, and they land on a flexed leg...The drop-and-drive is definitely something you wouldn't want to teach. Nobody pitches that way anymore, because in the drop-and-drive, you don't really use your body. It doesn't allow the core muscles of your body to get up and over a braced front leg," insists Amherst College's head baseball coach Bill Thurston.
And University of Kansas pitching coach Steve Abney adds, "Tom Seaver was a drop-and-drive guy, but he was a power-armed, 5' 11", 215-pound guy who could get his arm through. By staying tall and not dropping-and-driving, you allow the arm to get out of the glove and get your fingers on top of the baseball."
Another Hall of Fame Pitcher, the all-time strikeout and no-hitter king Nolan Ryan, credited with having thrown the officially-clocked fastest pitch ever (101 mph), is often cited as the exemplar of the mechanical advantage given to the pitcher who stands tall and stays back. It's well known that Ryan said that the most important part of his body when it came to pitching was not his arm--it was his legs. And when Ryan finished his delivery to the mound, he would be standing stork-like on his front leg, the rest of his body curled up around and on top of that powerful leg. "One thing [Nolan Ryan] told me about his delivery was that he wanted to do as much work out front as possible...Pitchers who drop-and-drive need to alter their posture to get that momentum going again. Keep all the energy you've worked hard to recruit," insists Bioforce Baseball's Bill Mooney.
However, this attitude about standing tall is by no means universally held by baseball training professionals.
Indeed, Nolan Ryan is used as an exemplar of what not to do by those who are antagonistic toward the methodology as he is use as a paragon of perfection by those who are its proponents. The point out that for all of his no-hitters, Ryan never threw a perfect game; and while he's the strikeout king, he's also the all-time walks king. Ryan, who is widely regarded as the greatest power pitcher there ever was, did have a human flaw after all: he did not always have the greatest control. And for those who don't like standing tall in pitching, this was because Ryan didn't do enough practice time on the baseball mound. Not because the great one wasn't training: but he had a personal trainer who believed in cross-training and working out pitchers on flat ground. Ryan spent a lot of training time throwing footballs from a flat-footed position. And they say that as great as he was, Ryan was harmed, not helped, by this training approach, even if he gained leg strength from it.
They also point out that in actual fact, Ryan did not pitch from a downward angle. And, nor did Koufax. Nor did Steve Carlton. Neither do Josh Beckett, "Dice K." , or the great heat-throwing closer Pedro Martinez. Instead, they insist that these great, powerful pitchers gain their ball velocity from long strides--not from standing tall and staying back except for at the very beginning of their wind-up. Proponents of this "lean forward" baseball pitching philosophy also point out that by leaning forward the pitcher is releasing the ball at a closer range to the plate--and while it's only a slight difference, given how fast the reaction times in baseball need to be, this closer-range release point does throw off hitters.
In fact, Koufax (whose single season strikeout record was broken by one pitch by Ryan in 1972) wrote in his 2002 book 'Sandy Koufax, a Lefty's Legacy', "If you look at pictures of Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, myself, the back leg is on the ground. You have to get your center of gravity low so that when you're throwing the ball, you're throwing it straight out, rather than down. You can't defy gravity."
What all baseball training coaches want their pitchers to do to create great pitching is: improve the mobility and rotational velocity of their hips and thoracic spine; increase their stores of kinetic energy and their ground reaction forces; and improve the coordination they have between their arms, torso, hips, and ball. Does standing tall and staying back facilitate this the best, or no? Maybe it all comes down to the individual; or, maybe many coaches are mistaken.
Chris Moheno has a long time passion for sports in general and for baseball coaching more specifically. His goal is to spread the word about effective non-fluff baseball training techniques for both more experienced and young baseball players, to help them perform better during the game.
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