Eva Voortman - Insideout softball science, June 2020
Throwing, smijten or pitching? Pitching from top till toe to the top – Phase 1 en 2: the right start
What do you need to throw hard? Well actually, everything. From the big toe of the push-off foot, to the hand in your glove, and from the toe of your landing foot to the fingertips of your pitching hand. To accelerate the ball in an optimal way, you need the fingers of your pitching hand to go as fast as they can, and this acceleration literally comes from your big toe. The reasoning behind this, and how you can accelerate your body from that toe to your fingers is what I will explain the coming weeks along findings from scientific articles combined with my experience as a pitcher(trainer). This week: phase 1 and 2: the right start.
A good beginning is half of the work (a Dutch saying). In case of the softball pitch, this is quite right, with a good start you lead into an optimal pitching motion. A motion that will run as efficiently as possible. With a less good start it will cost extra energy to get back on track, so you will have to work harder and less energy will be left for the remainder of the motion. By the way, in this case, just like mentioned in the last article, the last phase is still the most important one for ball velocity. A good start provides a position that will initiate an optimal set up position for phase 4.
Phase 1 and 2, from setup to push-off to landing of the push-off foot. This quite often becomes a point of discussion, because not every pitcher jumps after push-off. Let me put it in writing right here: in order to pitch optimally fast your back leg has to be active and therefore has to come ‘off’ the ground. When the push off leg is inactively dragging over the ground, the strength of the leg is not used, and additionally, the leg drags behind the body like an anchor, and decelerates the pitching motion.
Let’s take a step back, to the setup. Looking at pitchers you discover pretty quickly a few different windups are used. From a closed position with both glove and pitching hand in front of the body, a semi-open position with the pitching hand moving from the side of the body and the open position with both glove and pitching hand moving from each side of the body. There is no research yet about what the optimal starting position is. A relatively relaxed arm and glove seem to be a good focus for the starting point.
So, the arm moves upwards relatively relaxed, which means the legs have to do the work. According to the research of Oliver and Plummer (2011), the gluteus muscles from the push off leg are related to ball velocity during the first phases of the pitch. In line with these findings, Nimphius et al. (2016) found two peaks visible when measuring vertical ground reaction forces. There they are again; the ground reaction forces. The height of the second peak was correlated to ball velocity, just like the time between the two peaks. The shorter the time between the peaks, the higher the ball velocity. This research shows the importance of the active use of the push off leg also after the initial push off. Very relevant name actually push-OFF.
So, the legs do the work, but what does the push-off look like. This phase quite often gets a lot of attention, but the answer should come from the pitcher herself. A comparison with the start of a top sprinter can be made easily here, they all twist their heels a little bit inwards to create the optimal push-off. This also happens for pitchers. The focus during a pitch, push-off, should be on a sharp knee. From there an appropriate foot position follows, one that fits comfortably.
By the way, a sharp knee is an important focus for both the push-off and the stride leg. A sharp knee namely leads to active gluteus muscles around the hip, which already appeared to be important for ball velocity.
The pitching arm, the legs, one important thing is missing: the glove arm. Just like the push-off leg that can be an anchor, an inactive glove arm can also weigh quite a bit and influence the pitching motion. Recently Barfield et al. (2019) looked into the role of an active glove arm during the pitch. An active glove arm appeared to be a good indicator for the efficiency of the kinetic chain in phase 4.
Again, the order and timing of the mechanisms appear to be important. One adjustment or movement does not stand alone.
Phase 1, 2 and 4 are discussed. Time to get to phase 3? Actually, 4 phases are already quite a bit much when it comes to the practical part of pitching. In live pitching you can speak of a first phase where you prepare the body for an optimal arm motion, the second phase is where you actually accelerate the ball through the kinetic chain. When you can find both of these, everything in between will fall in place. Phase 3 (and 2) are therefore quite handy when it comes to discussing the softball pitch in research, but practically it makes more sense to not make things more complicated than they already are.
In practice, how do you learn the optimal pitch? The next article will be devoted to that. Do you have a specific question on this? Let me know via
Barfield, J. W., Anz, A. W., Osterman, C. L., Andrews, J. R., & Oliver, G. D. (2019). The Influence of an Active Glove Arm in Softball Pitching: A Biomechanical Evaluation. International journal of sports medicine, 40(03), 200-208.
Nimphius, Sophia, Michael McGuigan, Timothy Suchomel, en Robert U Newton. „Variability of a "force signature" during windmill softball pitching and relationship between discrete force variables and pitch velocity.” Human Movement Science 47 (2016): 151-158.
Oliver, G. D., & Plummer, H. (2011). Ground reaction forces, kinematics, and muscle activations during the windmill softball pitch. Journal of sports science , 29 (10), 1071-1077.