It has been referred to as the “5 gears”, the “5 Links of the Chain”, the “Pitchers 5 Step”, and many other terms. Quite simply, it is the windup. It is here where you separate the “Thrower” from the “Pitcher”. It is the mechanics. A pitchers mechanics are broken down into 5 steps. If one of the 5 steps were to break down, it could effect their entire motion.
I heard the term “5 Links of the Chain” in college from former Major League pitcher John Tudor, and I use that model when I work with pitchers. Then I heard former Major League pitcher John Habyan mention it at a Cal Ripken Jr. baseball clinic I attended. A few years back, I had a former Atlanta Braves minor league pitcher come out to a practice, and he mentioned the “5 Links of the Chain”. If 3 different former MLB players use that philosophy to teach pitchers, I feel pretty comfortable that what I am teaching is mechanically sound. Think of it like this, if one of the links breaks, it will effect the entire chain.
I will list the 5 steps in chronological order. It is in this order that you will teach your pitchers the windup, and it is in this order that you will analyze your pitcher. There are variations to each step, and players will adapt to where they feel most comfortable. As a pitching coach, your job is to see to it that your pitchers throw strikes consistently. One pitcher will not look exactly like another, but as long as they are throwing strikes, their motion is smooth, and they can throw with no pain or discomfort, don’t get tied down with trying to make each pitcher look the exact same way. Look at Roy Halladay and Tim Lincecum. They both look different, but they both win. Use this as your standard baseline to begin with, and let the individual player adapt his own style.
Feet – This is where you start, and this is the first thing you look at when analyzing or working with a pitcher. Where on the rubber do you place your feet? Quick answer, it doesn’t matter. Where ever the pitcher feels most comfortable and can throw strikes from should be your answer. Some like to stand on the far left, some on the far right, and some like it somewhere in between. Are there advantages to where you place your feet in relation to the rubber? Sure there are, but that is for when they get older. Right now you are building a foundation, so let them start where ever they feel comfortable.
Start with the heels on the rubber and their toes touching the ground in front of the rubber. I have seen some atrocious mounds with a huge dip in front of the rubber. If they can’t comfortably stand in the middle of the rubber and have balance, have them move to where they can. The pitcher will need to have good balance to prepare himself for the next move, which is the pivot. If the pitcher starts with just his toes on the rubber, when he starts to go back, he will will need to lift his foot, then place it back down in front of the rubber. If there is a ditch in front of the rubber, this will be difficult. I can not stress enough how important his set up is. Heels on the rubber with toes on the dirt in front of the mound.
As far as hand and glove position at this point is up to the pitcher. Some have the glove at their side with ball in their hand, and others have the ball in the glove. I recommend, especially for the young pitchers, to have their hand in the glove with the baseball. Whether they want to hold it at their waist or at the chest is again, personal preference. I want them to find their grip on the baseball before they start their motion as part of their set up.
Now that the pitcher has a good and stable set up, we are now ready to start our motion. The pitcher will take a small step back with his glove side leg, and pivot his foot to parallel with the pitching rubber. That step should be at about a 45 degree angle, or slightly off to the side of the rubber. Do not step straight back as this could cause the pitcher to lose his balance due to the backside slope of the mound. Again, I have seen less than ideal mounds where the back side slope of the mound starts about 6-8 inches behind the rubber. The pitching coach should note his tempo in his back step. Is it quick and violent, or is it smooth? You want a nice and smooth step. You want to have your pitcher keep his head over his pivot foot. A violent, quick motion usually means his head is going back with his step causing his momentum to go in the wrong direction. Telling the pitcher to focus on keeping head over pivot foot will result in a shorter back step.
The reason for a back step is to prepare for the pivot. You want to pivot your foot to where it is parallel with the rubber. Do not get lazy on this move. If they just spin their heel on the rubber, or leave it at a 45 degree angle to the rubber, at their balance point, they will be pointing away from home. That would leave them open, and it is difficult to correct themselves if the first link is broken.
Balance Point – This is where the front side leg comes up. A quick test is to have your pitcher hold this position for a count of 5. If his balance point is correct, he should easily be able to hold it. Again, note the pitchers tempo. Is he controlling that movement, or is he rushing through this point because he can’t hold his balance? At the balance point, his leg position should be slightly closed, or his knee should be pointing slightly back toward second base, not third base (for a right-hander) or first base (for a left-hander). If his leg is not slightly closed, he will open too soon causing him to land awkwardly and his forward motion will take him away from the catcher.
As the pitchers leg comes up, this is where he gathers his hands and leg. The pitcher should be comfortable and should have a slight pause at the highest point of his leg lift. At the height of his leg lift is the balance point. His hands should be gathered just above his knee and away from his body, and he should be leaning slightly forward from the waist. You may have seen pitchers who have a high leg kick and their hands are low, or a low leg kick with hands high. This is the step in their windup where they achieve balance and gather. Whether they feel comfortable with a high or low leg kick is up to the pitcher. If he is doing those 2 things (balance and gather) in this step, he puts himself in a better position to throw strikes.
In my experience, a pitcher loses his balance at this point because he is either straight up or leaning back slightly, or his hands are too close to his body, or a combination of both. If he loses his balance, he will rush to get to his release point and lessens his chance of throwing strikes. To keep and maintain your balance, you will need strong legs.
Power Position – If a pitcher wants to enhance his velocity, create movement, and throw strikes, it is crucial to get them in the correct power position. When the pitcher comes out of the balance point, the power position is formed when he does these 3 things;
- Removes ball from glove.
- Points the front arm and shoulder at target.
- Strides toward home.
Lets start with the first one, removing the ball from the glove. The hand and the ball come out on a slight downward angle, and then move upward creating almost a circular motion. The hands and fingers should be on top of the baseball. At the moment before his hand comes forward, he should be pointing toward center field with hand on top of the baseball. Having your hand on top of the baseball will create arm action. Arm action is created when you go from hand on top of the ball to hand behind the ball. You do not want to have your hand underneath the ball before your arm starts its move forward. If he has his hand underneath the ball, he will not be able to create correct arm action and will not be able to get into the “L” position (more on the “L” position in the next step). This is easy to spot as your pitcher will look like the old ‘Iron Mike’ pitching machine.
Next step is you will want to be able to point your front shoulder and arm at the target. The front arm at this point is very critical as it provides direction toward your target. If you do not use your front arm, you will be inconsistent throwing strikes and you will not be in a position to create torque in your rotation (the next link). Your front arm will be your glove side. When you have the hand with the ball facing centerfield, your glove side arm is bent inwards toward your chest. This is the position that all fielders should be in when they throw a baseball.
In your stride towards home, make sure your weight doesn’t come forward before you are ready. The weight shift comes at the end of rotation and follow-through. The stride home is just that, a stride. When a pitcher gets to far out front with his weight transfer, the term used is he is not “staying back”.
Rotation – The previous step talked about the pitcher keeping his weight back and creating torque. Now is when he starts coming toward the plate. This is the step where the hand goes from being on top of the baseball to behind the baseball. As his arm comes forward, the elbow should be slightly above the shoulder creating an “L”. I have had discussions with parents and coach’s about this, and their question is what if a pitcher throws from a 3/4 delivery? Do they still need to form the “L”? And my answer is yes. Keeping the elbow above the shoulder lessens the risk of injury. And when you are talking about someone that is not coming straight over the top, that is what is called their arm slot. They still need to keep their elbow slightly above their shoulder, it is the arm slot that will differ from player to player.
Now, as the arm is rotating forward, his front arm, or glove side arm, should be retracting. In other words, while his throwing arm is moving forward, he should pull down and back with is glove side arm. This is what creates the torque, and where strong core muscles will create velocity as your torso is doing much of the work in this stage.
The hips should also be rotating in sync with the upper body, and your front foot should be facing your target when it lands. If your front foot does not rotate, it will block off your front hip which will change your direction towards the plate. If this happens, you will be throwing across your body. You want those hips to open, and your belt buckle pointing in the direction you want the pitch to go, almost like a batter. Clear your front side hip out of your way to open the path to the plate.
You want to make sure the pitcher is maintaining good posture all the way through this step. You want the pitcher to stay tall so he can work downhill. You do this by keeping your back foot on the rubber. I mentioned earlier about bringing your weight forward too early, and this is where it usually happens. You can see this happen when a pitcher brings his back foot forward at the same time as his throwing arm. What you want is to release your back foot from the rubber a split second AFTER the ball is released. When a pitcher releases his foot and the ball at the same time, it is called “not staying back”.
Follow-Through – Just like when we discussed follow-through on a hitters swing, the follow-through for a pitcher is the result of the momentum the pitcher has created in the previous 4 steps. If your pitcher is not creating enough momentum, he will not have a strong finish. If he doesn’t have a strong finish, the pitcher is often times told to bend his back. You should ask, why isn’t he bending his back. More often than not, the breakdown occurred at step 3 or 4, not in his follow-through. In pitching, the breakdown is not happening at the point where you see it, it may have happened much earlier.
The follow-through varies from pitcher to pitcher. Some players consistently throw strikes, their form looks good, but their follow-through leaves them in a bad fielding position. Some pitchers can control their follow-through where they end up in perfect fielding position. What do you do? Remember the role of the pitcher. Throw strikes…period. Am I going to tinker with a follow-through of a pitcher that consistently throws strikes to have him finish in the perfect fielding position? Nope. I will let him continue to command the strike zone, and let my infielders cover their positions.
In conclusion, a coach should always look at a pitcher and evaluate what he does. Look at his 4-seam and 2-seam fastball and see if he throws consistent strikes. Then, break down his mechanics step by step. Use these steps to not only build the foundation, but to also analyze problems a pitcher may have. Take it step by step. Teach your pitchers these 5 steps so they will understand what you are talking about when you make a visit to the mound. And the old adage is true, if it is not broke, don’t fix it.
The observation period is critical. Before you can offer advice, you need to know what you are looking at before offering.
On Deck – The Stretch
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