Evolution of deliveries

From the big motions of the early 20th century to today's compact models, pitching windups continue to change.

Originally Published: August 5, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN Insider

Walter Johnson's fastball was, from roughly 1910 through 1935, the fastball against which all others were measured. If you watch film of him pitching, though, you'd never guess it. Not only did Johnson throw sidearm, but he threw with so little apparent effort that when he completed his delivery, his trailing leg didn't even spring forward. It just sort of followed along, as if it weren't even a necessary part of the process.

Warren Spahn
Warren Spahn shows his big leg kick in the '58 World Series.

Johnson might have been one of the last power pitchers who didn't look like a power pitcher, though. Dazzy Vance, a big right-hander who led the National League in strikeouts in each of his first seven full seasons (1922-1928), generated his power with a famously high leg kick that brought his left foot above his head in mid-delivery (a few years later, Bob Feller would pitch the same way, though later in his career he decided the high kick wasn't necessary).

Following Walter Johnson's retirement, Lefty Grove was generally considered the fastest pitcher in the American League (and probably the majors). As his catcher Cy Perkins said, "In my humble opinion he throws the fastest ball in existence." In "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers," Bill James writes, "Lefty Grove came to the majors in 1925, using what is really the first 'modern' delivery. Dead Ball Era pitchers did a lot of stuff with their arms; Grove brought to the majors a power delivery, getting a lot of drive out of his legs. It was copied by everybody, and eventually became the standard delivery of the 1950s and '60s."

I don't have any film of Grove pitching, but I do have Dizzy Dean pitching in the 1934 World Series. And if you ignore the first half of the delivery (more about that in a moment), Dean's pitching motion would look perfectly at home in the 21st century. Dean sometimes threw with a nice, easy sidearm motion, not unlike Johnson's. But typically he threw just like today's pitchers: long stride, glove tucked, and the rear foot popping into the air and swinging around toward the hitter immediately after the ball was released.

By the 1950s, there was just one vestige of the old-style pitching motions still commonly found: the full windup. In Game 1 of the 1958 World Series, the best left-handers of the era faced off: the Braves' Warren Spahn vs. the Yankees' Whitey Ford. And the second half of their deliveries wouldn't raise an eyebrow if you saw them in a game today. But just like Dizzy Dean 25 years early, both Spahn and Ford started their deliveries by swinging both hands behind their back, then bringing them together in front of their body before raising them to a stopping point behind the head. Today, Atlanta's Paul Byrd is the only pitcher who employs that full windup, which has been deemed extraneous by just about everybody else in baseball.

When it came to concluding the delivery, most pitchers of that era stressed the importance of finishing up in good fielding position. In 1958, Bob Lemon wrote, "When I'm ready to pitch, I step toward the plate with my left foot. It's a long step, with knee bend. After releasing the ball, I swing my right leg around to a spot almost parallel with the left. In this way, I'm ready to field a ball hit back at me."

A year later, Spahn said basically the same thing: "The follow through is also part of the pitcher's control pattern. Follow through also adds power to the pitch since it puts the weight of the body into the throw. A good natural follow through not only completes the pitching cycle, it also brings the pitcher into position to field the ball."

Right around this time, though, pitchers began to focus more than ever on throwing hard. It's not at all clear when the term "power pitcher" entered the vernacular, but in the 1960s there were probably more pitchers who fit that description than ever before. And now the primary purpose of the pitching motion was to generate as much power as possible, good fielding position be damned.

Tom Seaver
Tom Seaver showed everyone how important the legs were in a power pitcher's delivery.

The two best pitchers in the 1960s were Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson. Koufax employed a conventional sort of delivery (it was his fastball and curveball that were unconventional). Gibson, however, pitched (as Roger Angell wrote in The New Yorker) with a "sweeping right-handed delivery, which he finished with a sudden lunge toward first base." Jim Bunning, who threw a perfect game in 1964 and is, like Gibson, in the Hall of Fame, finished his delivery with a similar lunge toward first. Of course, this left both pitchers in a terrible position to field ground balls up the middle (though somehow Gibson won nine Gold Gloves anyway).

These days, nobody really throws like Gibson and Bunning. Something else you won't see today: the high leg kick. Back in the 1920s and '30s, future Hall of Famers like Vance and Feller would actually lift their lead foot above their head. By the 1960s, very few pitchers were still doing that, but a number of hurlers -- Gaylord Perry and Denny McLain, for example -- were instead lifting their leg above their waist and pointing the bottom of their foot in the general direction of third base (or first base, if they were left-handers). Today, if pitchers do lift their lead leg much at all, it's generally done as compactly as possible.

Tom Seaver probably wasn't the first to employ the "drop and drive" delivery, but he probably was the first great pitcher to use it. Seaver, whose lower body was immensely strong, dropped so low while delivering the ball that his right knee often scraped the ground. Not many pitchers could pitch like Seaver did, though a few (Danny Jackson, for example) have tried.

Despite the best efforts of pitching coaches and purveyors of instructional books and videos, unorthodox styles are alive and well. While Mark Prior's picture-perfect delivery represents the best that science can design, fortunately everybody doesn't pitch like him. From Dontrelle Willis and Ben Webber to imports like Hideo Nomo and Akinori Otsuka, there are plenty of unique deliveries in the majors today. And let's not forget Chad Bradford and his ilk; to find more submarine pitchers than we've got today, you'd have to get in a time machine and travel back to the 19th century.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. Fireside recently published Rob's latest book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.