Fastball mechanics: The hardest and softest throwers

If you search Google for what it takes to become a professional baseball pitcher, you’ll find a lot of forum posts and blog posts espousing that “velocity is king.” You’ll also find a wide variety of rebuttals to that from forum posters and bloggers saying that pitching is an art and velocity isn’t everything—control, command and poise all matter even more than fastball velocity!

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Is Jordan Walden‘s rotation the source of his blistering fastball? (Icon/SMI)

Who’s right? Certainly we’ve had the major league success of relatively soft tossers like Jamie Moyer and Mark Buehrle, but the vast majority of successful pitchers (both starters and relievers) have had a big fastball.

If you don’t believe me, let me show the stats of a former college pitcher. Based on these stats, I want you to think about where you’d draft him. The only other information you have is that he’s 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds with no documented history of arm injuries (the reason he didn’t pitch his second year in college was because he was very bad). I’m not going to give you his fastball velocity until you think about it.

 Year      W-L   ERA    G  GS  CG  SV    IP   H   R  ER   BB   SO  WP  HBP  Avg. 
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 20xx      3-0   3.70  15   7   0   0  41.1  30  21  17   36   32   9    7  .208
 20xx      0-1  27.00   9   1   0   1   6.2   6  20  20   24   11  13    3  .273
 20xx      5-3   7.13  14  13   0   0  53.0  47  52  42   53   72  16   12  .240
 -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 Career    8-4   7.04  38  21   0   1 101.0  83  93  79  113  115  38   22  .229

This guy sucks, right? Sure, his strikeout rate is decent for a college pitcher, but his walks are way too high, and just look at the number of wild pitches he threw!

The person who owns those stats is Jason Neighborgall, a former Georgia Tech pitcher, and he was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Diamondbacks, getting a bonus payout that was more appropriate for a high second-round pick.

How could he get drafted so highly without control, command and poise?

That’s easy. Neighborgall had the only thing that mattered: A 100+ mph fastball with life. He paired it with college’s best curveball, and scouts thought both pitches would eventually develop into No. 1 major league starter weapons (a scouting grade of 80).

I’m using this introduction to show you that scouts care so very much about one single thing, and that thing isn’t control, command or poise. It’s fastball velocity, period.

Let’s say you’re a right-handed college pitcher throwing in the high-80s with solid control, but scouts aren’t interested in you. They tell you that velocity can’t be developed and that they would rather have raw talent with a mid-90s fastball without much of a breaking ball or control. Why? Because it’s common knowledge that you can teach someone a breaking ball, change-up, and decent control – but velocity can’t be taught.

If you’ve read my other posts on The Hardball Times, you know that I don’t believe in that “common wisdom.” I’ve focused on training-related ways to increase fastball velocity in pitchers. Today we’ll look at the pitching mechanics of the hardest throwing pitchers and compare them to the softest tossing pitchers to see if we can draw any conclusions. (Watch out, as there will be many large animated GIFs incoming!)

Furbush vs. Vasquez, or “Jeff Sullivan figured this out already”

These two pitchers aren’t the hardest and softest throwers in the big leagues, but since the animated images were already cut by Jeff, I’m going to use them—because I’m nothing if not lazy. (Hey, cutting up animated GIFs is repetitive and boring work!)

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This is Anthony Vasquez (left) and Charlie Furbush (right). Vasquez has an average fastball velocity of 85.2 mph while Furbush clocks in at 90.9 mph (source: Fangraphs). Frankly, I’m surprised that Vasquez is even hitting 85 mph on the gun regularly with his mechanics!

Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing noticed this very obvious stark contrast between pitching mechanics, and he said:

Furbush is kind of a max-effort guy. You can see that from the way he finishes, falling off to the right. He slings his left arm around as his right arm pulls his upper body. There’s a lot going on in there, and though I’d say his delivery is pretty consistent, I don’t think anyone would say that he’s polished. It’s a rougher motion.

And then you have Vasquez. Vasquez is the main reason for this post, because, just look at him. If Furbush is just about max-effort, Vasquez is just about no-effort. His motion is smooth and polished because it’s hardly a motion at all. He might as well be having a catch with his nephew. Watch that motion and you expect a knuckleball to come out of his hand. Which, given his velocity, isn’t that far off, I guess.

It’s just… okay, obviously, Vasquez has made that motion work. He’s pitching in the major leagues, after all. But is it any wonder that he can’t throw 90 miles per hour? It’s like every pitch is a warm-up pitch before the real pitches get started. He makes it look effortless, but not in the way that we say Ichiro and Albert Pujols make it look effortless. Anthony Vasquez makes it look effortless in that it looks like he isn’t putting forth any effort.

Jeff has touched on what is generally called “the intent to throw hard.” Furbush intends to throw the ball hard, and Vasquez does not. But is it that simple? What is the “intent to throw hard?” Is it enough to tense up and muscle the ball to the plate?

The intent to throw hard—and what it means

I think it’s pretty clear that Vasquez is not intending to throw the ball hard, and Furbush is. Furbush looks “out of control” and Vasquez has a smooth motion. What you’re seeing is an effect of the violent rotational forces that Furbush (and others) use to generate arm speed. Furbush throws over 90 mph because he is finishing sideways to the target; the after-effect of the rotational velocity of his shoulders carrying him to the side.

Coaches often say: “Bring your pitching leg over your glove leg to finish in front!” This might be a decent cue for some pitchers, but the pitching-arm side leg trailing over and rotating is due to rotation in the delivery; its presence is an effect of throwing hard, not a cause. Most cues coaches use (bend your back, finish out front, extend out front, put your chin to the catcher’s mitt) do nothing to generate fastball velocity and will more likely lead to a pitcher throwing softer and often with less control.

Let’s take a look at the hardest throwing relievers for some proof:

The flamethrowers

The three pitchers with the hardest fastball velocity (in order) are Henry Rodriguez, Aroldis Chapman, and Jordan Walden. (source: Fangraphs) And here’s what they look like when they’re throwing fastballs:

image
Henry Rodriguez

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Aroldis Chapman (97 MPH)

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Jordan Walden

(If you right-click and save any of these images, you’ll get the full-size of them, as some were re-sized to save space on the screen)

What do you notice in all of them? Before you answer, let’s look at ….

The soft-tossers

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Barry Zito (average fastball velocity: 84.1 mph in 2011)

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Doug Davis (average fastabll velocity: 84.6 mph in 2011)

And of course, Anthony Vasquez above (averaging 85.2 mph).

The key difference: rotational violence

What you see in Rodriguez, Chapman and Walden are “max effort” mechanics—and you see the opposite in Zito, Davis and Vasquez. Scouts are afraid of “max effort” guys because of control issues or possibility of injury, but no one has correlated these outcomes with those factors. The truth is that elite fastball velocities (92+ mph) require “violent” and “max effort” mechanics from the vast majority of pitchers. Some guys have the ability to throw 92+ without serious trunk rotation due to crazy genetics, but this simply isn’t true for most people—even for your average major league pitche,r who probably has a lot of congenital advantages in his favor.

The American Sports Medicine Institute even concluded that:

A pitcher with increased shoulder external rotation, faster pelvis and upper trunk rotation, and greater front knee stabilization and extension will throw with greater ball velocity.

Faster pelvis and upper trunk (shoulder) rotation is generated by efficient use of the lower half and sequencing the body parts correctly from distal to proximal, but a big part of the ability to throw hard simply comes from the desire to modify one’s pitching mechanics to attain these higher rotational velocities—and that means faster moving parts. Faster moving parts means more effort, which means you have the intent to throw hard.

I hope that makes sense and that the animated GIFs of pitchers provide a nice visual representation of one facet of pitching mechanics that separates the elite hard throwers from the soft tossers. Just think: What would it mean to someone if he picked up a few mph on his fastball?

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Is it any consolation that the soft-tossers seem to end up set up better defensively? They tend to square up to the plate, where the hard-throwers step or fall to the side.

  2. lexomatic said...

    I’ve never seen anyone do the hop that Walden does there. Obviously a weight transfer technique, is it riskier than plant and drive?

  3. blah said...

    Was gonna comment on that, if ever there was n obvious intent to throw as hard as humanly possible. nothing beats losing all contact with the ground each pitch.  Needless to say its no wonder walden has control issues.

    From the chapman gif its also obvious that the reds should never get a good pitching prospect again, they have completely ruined his timing with the higher release point and its no wonder he is having arm issues now.

  4. Mike said...

    Matt Thornton is one of those genetic freaks. He consistently hits 96-97, touching 99, with a very effortless delivery.

  5. George said...

    I don’t know about some of the other guys, but doug davis is not good, i’m not saying i’m any better, just that he couldn’t get it done this year with the cubs.

  6. Kyle Boddy said...

    Another key difference you can see is just by looking at where their trailing leg lands. Zito/Davis/Vasquez have it land to the side because of the lack of rotational momentum; Furbush/Rodriguez/Walden/Chapman have much more “complete” rotation.

  7. blah said...

    Wow, Zito isn’t even trying now.  Even last year you could actually see recoil in his delivery, now its just a lob.

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    Velocity comes from rotational force, that isn’t a particularly tough point to argue.

    However, not everyone is capable of creating the same rotational force. For instance, I have a limited range of rotation in my hip. You should be able to stride forward as a pitcher with your toe pointed mostly forward and you hip still exactly perpendicular with the plate. I lack the range of motion in my hip to do that. If my toe comes open as it should, my hip opens and I lose power and expose my arm to injury. If I don’t open my toe, I throw around my front side AND, you guessed it, expose myself to injury. Not surprisingly, I maxed out at 86 – and that was max effort.

    So many players with similar problems collapse from attrition before they reach a level where they have access to quality trainers who can rehab these issues. As far as I’ve been able to gather, clubs do almost nothing to correct these types of problems, instead preferring to try to teach players to pitch around their physical flaws.

  9. Kyle Boddy said...

    Brad:

    Well said! I don’t get too much into the physiology of it all because the editors prefer to focus the article on specific players, but you’re absolutely right. Close attention must be paid to soft tissue therapy, mobility, flexibility, and stability in the proper joints.

    Some teams (not enough) are getting into “prehabilitating” their athletes, but this needs to start at the high school and college level to be really effective.

  10. Brad Johnson said...

    I went to Dr. Craig Morgan – the east coast Dr. Andrews – and to a specialty baseball physical therapist (I believe his name was Phil Donnelly) and I still wasn’t able to overcome my issues. I had a brief 2 month renaissance following half a year of rehab before my arm issues returned.

    I know I had much better access to resources than your typical D-III athlete and still I couldn’t overcome my problems. I can’t imagine how many athletes fall apart because they don’t even have the access I had.

  11. Kyle Boddy said...

    Brad:

    Sadly, congenital problems curtail many a would-be professional athlete – as you obviously know very well.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  12. PalmettoBBFan said...

    In your opinion, how big a factor is the push they get of the mound?  Chapman and Walden definitely get a lot of drive from the post leg.  Hard to tell about Rodriguez from this angle.

  13. Brad Johnson said...

    I know that’s meant for Kyle, but allow me to present an overlooked angle of your question first.

    Many a well-meaning parent or coach have failed to understand a simple statistical concept as it applies to pitching – correlation does not equal causation.

    Generating power in pitching is a function of rotational forces. “Push” as you call it can help leverage more rotational force with the certain pitchers. However, “push” in and of itself is not the reason velocity occurs. You will find a fair number of pitchers who realize extreme velocity without pushing off. They’re generating the same rotational force as a Walden without the jump-lunge towards home plate. You’ll find that their body still looks extremely explosive.

    Pushing off should not be preached as a strategy in and of itself, but more as a mechanical trick to locate more velocity in an already developed pitcher. In younger bodies that lack strength and muscle control – especially core strength, it opens the user up to all kinds of nasty injuries.

  14. George said...

    In these videos it appears that the front foot of hard throwers hits the ground later in their delivery than it does with soft throwers.  Does anyone else see this? Wouldn’t a later foot plant mean weight transfer occurs later in the hard throwers delivery, when momentum is greater?  Would simply teaching a pitcher to make their front foot plant later in their delivery help increase velocity?

  15. Brad Johnson said...

    Stride length also leverages rotational force. In this case, unlike with pushing off, we’re looking at an extremely high correlation. There is an inflection point where another inch of stride will result in a loss of velocity, but generally, the longer you stride out, the harder you will throw.

    As it was presented to me about 8 years ago, an ideal, velocity maximizing length of stride is roughly 90-110 percent of height. So if I were six feet tall, I’d want to stride about six feet.

    It is of course possible to generate big velocity on a short stride.

  16. Kyle Boddy said...

    It’s been shown that the “push” isn’t really a function of the back leg but rather the front leg lunging forward. Velocity is all about rotation around the upper trunk, and to a lesser extent, trunk lateral/forward flexion and knee extension/stabilization.

    Research shows that the hip opening early and the shoulders opening late produces higher velocities.

  17. Adam McDowell said...

    I think this is a great article!! It makes a lot of fair points about the “intent to throw hard” as well as “violent rotation.” And, I think, even greater point about a scout looking more for raw talent with higher velocity than a polished pitcher with smooth mechanics and breaking stuff. I’ve never thought about it that way; a coach can teach breaking stuff and other characteristics not-so-hard-throwing pitchers have, but you can’t teach velocity. I’ll take this into great consideration and work on more “intent to throw hard.” Hopefully this can get me to college and maybe even further. I’m a sophomore in high school throwing 80 consistently, hitting 82-83 occasionally.

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