Pitchers today are throwing harder than ever. The questions arising are why and how? Many attribute the velocity jump to weight training. Others will say better mechanics. The reality is, that there is truth to both rationals, but it is far from the clear cut answer. If weight training was a crucial part of throwing hard then how would a 5'10, 170 pound pitcher from the Dominican Republic named Pedro Martinez, brush the upper 90's? Other examples such as Tim Lincecum and Yordano Ventura add more evidence to the case against the correlation between velocity, and bigger and better athletes. (Side Note: Proper weight training can be an extremely valuable tool to pitchers. I am in no way saying not to weight train, but to recognize that it isn't the be all and end all of a pitcher's velocity.)
The common thought is that modern day mechanics have improved over the years. I agree with this statement, but then why are we seeing a Tommy John epidemic run through all levels of baseball? Velocity is only a portion of good mechanics, since what good is velocity if you're sidelined constantly due to injury?
Through the process of breaking down hundreds of deliveries, I have found that the answer is obvious. The energy created from the lower half has a tremendous influence on what we see on the radar gun. Pitching has been proven to be proximal to the distal kinematic sequence. Meaning the energy of our delivery starts from our lager muscles and travels out to the extremities. The energy that our legs create, are applied directly into the baseball through the kinetic chain. In this article, I will examine how the use of the drive leg creates velocity.
With the drive leg we must be conscious of what muscle group we are trying to use. The most common flaw I see in drive leg mechanics is prematurely shifting weight onto the toe. When on your toe, the muscles that are engaging are the calf and quadricep muscles. These muscles are important to pitching, but when prematurely activated, only lead to problems mechanically.
The alternative is keeping the weight on the heel. The muscles that are engaged by doing this are the gluteal and hamstring muscles. It is important to note that all muscles will be engaged during the pitching motion, but using them correctly is the key. A well known study on leg drive done by Oliver (2010) concluded that there was a direct relation of the gluteus maximus to the rate of pelvic and torso rotation in a pitching delivery. This has been the most educational study to date that shows the importance of the gluteal muscle early in the leg drive sequence. Using the glute correctly looks something like this (also take a look at Lincecum at the top of the page).
***Proper leg drive for pitchers is similar to a one-leg half squat***
The depth or angle of the back leg is important to note here. A straight back leg approach is most commonly referred to as "tall and fall". Many pitching coaches tell you to stay tall on the mound which is usually misinterpreted, and leads to not engaging the drive leg muscles. Pitchers who use this technique don't come close to maximizing their lower half.
The other side of the coin is the philosophy of "Drop and Drive". This is a better approach but has its flaws. A problem I commonly see with the drop and drive technique is the sinking effect of the back leg. You will see a player try to drop into a low squat on the back leg, creating a feeling of power, that is down but not out. I call this sinking on the back side.
From leg lift, if you draw a line from the top of a pitchers hat, all the way down to foot strike, it should be a gradual slope. With a drop and drive pitcher, you see more of a "L" shape made, due to the initial drop of the back leg.
The correct way to load the glute has a lot to do with creating hip tilt (There is a full article we have posted on hip tilt that explains the concept). You sit back slightly on your drive leg like a half squat, and pinch your hip flexor. Once you lock into this position you must drive it down the mound using the heel. This is the feeling of staying CONNECTED. During the activation of the glute, the back knee is a telling sign of a good or bad leg drive. The knee should point directly to third base or slightly toward the outfield. This is a strong position for the back leg much like the mechanics of a squat. What we don't want to see is the knee prematurely turning in. Imagine squatting with the knees pointed in. This is usually a sign that the legs aren't strong enough to support the weight. This logic holds true in a pitching delivery.
This is only the first half of good leg drive mechanics. Now we can talk about the extension of the back leg into foot strike.
Once a pitcher travels down the mound to a certain point, the back foot will transition from heel dominant, to toe dominant. The knee will begin extent and turn which forces the back foot to start rolling over. This is stage two of leg drive, where the use of the quadricep and calf muscle come into play. The position that should be reached is commonly referred to as triple extension. The three components being the ankle, knee, and hip. The sequence in which they extend are knee, ankle, hip. The reason why the knee while extent first instead of the ankle is due to keeping the back heel down. Once the knee extends, the back foot will roll onto the toe. The hips, that have been closed off to this point, will finally unwind and fire. This position looks like this.
This position is the result of getting the last bit of energy from your back leg. The calf and quadricep muscle groups are activated to keep the momentum driving forward toward the target.
The common thought is that our back leg is the sole contributor to lower half power. Studies have shown that our land leg, or as I call the brake leg, also plays a role in giving pitchers more velocity. Our next pitching article will look into the mechanics of the brake leg.