A Thorough Guide (and Ideas) to Drop Down Pitching.
Preface: This post is very different from others. This offers ideas from many people and some ideas I do not fully agree with. The purpose of this article is to provoke thought.
In December of 2014, I was fortunate enough to attend Butch Thompson’s 2nd Annual Drop Down Pitchers Camp in Starkville, Mississippi. Coach Thompson, arguably the best pitching coach in college baseball, did a masterful job of gathering some of baseball’s best minds to instruct, speak and share knowledge. Needless to say, it was the experience of a lifetime. Out of respect for Coach Thompson, I won’t divulge much of his philosophy and pitch sequencing theories, since he is competing in the SEC, yet I would like to share a lot of the ideas and thoughts that were passed around by other great minds such as Chad Bradford, Scott Sullivan, Chris Berry, Chad Girordo and many others. Through my own experiences, research and questions, I have developed my own philosophy of drop down pitching which is evident throughout the articles entirety. I ask that you read this article with an open mind. Many of the ideas proposed are just that-ideas that are geared to provoke thought. Drop down pitching is such a unique craft, and unique to each individual, that there may not be any mechanical or philosophical absolutes. As a drop down pitcher or not, this article will provide you with an eclectic view of dropping down and provide great information regardless of the arm slot that you throw with.
Before we dive deeper into the complexity of multiple arm slots and pitching theory, how cool is it that some pitchers can make a living playing big league ball with an average fastball velocity below 80 MPH? An article from 2014 discussed the velocity of drop down pitchers. Thought I'd share this excerpt from Jeff Wilson's piece, "Rowen has topped out at 81 mph this season with an average fastball velocity of 78.3 mph and a whopping 72.6 on his slider. Bradford averaged 79.9 mph and 73.2 mph".
Chad Bradford’s Three Key Tips to Remember
STAY BACK (similar to what an old school hitting coach would teach, keep weight on back leg as long as possible). STAY CLOSED AS LONG AS POSSIBLE (it is important to use your glove arm to hide the ball or even sweep through the slot while keeping the shoulders closed. Do not leak front side). THEN EXPLODE TOWARDS THE PLATE!
FLAT GROUND EVERYDAY WITH ALL YOUR PITCHES.
KEEP A STABLE AND SMOOTH HEAD.
As you move down the mound, it is a must to maintain consistent posture for a sidewinder. Posture relates directly to the degree of hip hinge. For example, if the hip hinge angle at ball release is 45 degrees, then the goal is to get into that postural position as early as possible. That doesn’t necessarily need to be when you come set, but once the leg-kick starts you should be moving into position and pre-setting your shoulder. Notice, pre-setting your shoulders is a different action for everyone and requires a certain amount of thoracic mobility. Furthermore, for drop down guys who are lower than sidearm (even knuckledraggers), you can maintain a consistent posture while still getting low enough to throw nearly off the ground. You can get lower throughout the delivery while maintaining posture- the key is to avoid “curling the back”/rounding out the lumbar. One way to get lower is to hip hinge and recruit the glutes and hamstrings as you progress down the hill. Another method to is to get full extension on the lower back side (the post leg). Doing so will require a adequate amount of hip internal rotation, hamstring strength at the end range of motion, and adequate dorsiflexion and plantarflexion in the ankle. While achieving full rear hip extension, it is important to keep the majority of your weight on the backside. All energy can be moving toward the plate but keep weight back as long as possible. McLennan CC pitching coach, Chris Berry, mentioned to think of it like storing energy before moving forward, which was a positive coaching cue that many accepted and responded well to. While hinging at the hips and dropping down, it is important to ensure that the head doesn’t drop too far below the hinge angle. There is a tendency to get your hand under the ball when the head drastically drops. There may be a causation between one and the other, but there is definitely a correlation. Positioning the hand too far below the ball at release, rather than being behind the ball, causes it to flatten out and change trajectory.
Drop Down Pitching Grips and Types
Most of the college coaches asserted that as far as fastballs go, the two-seam and one-seam is most effective for arm slots between the shoulder and the pocket. Once the release point approaches the knee, and/or below the knee, the four seem becomes the primary and more effective fastball. The reasoning suggests the four seam is more effective because of the magnum force of a 12-6 forward rotation (one that is created from a true submarine arm angle). The trajectory of the pitch makes the ball appear to float above the ground after release, then allows the ball to look like its rising, and then gravity kicks in, along with magnus force, and creates the sink. The spin axis is rarely truly horizontal, yet with manipulation of the wrist and arm path it is achievable. The two-seam can be used from a submo slot too. The same principle applies. The movement may be more lateral and may be more of a “fade” than a “sharp run”. The two-seamer should create less RPM than a four-seam. Initially, one may think that is a positive because, generally, less RPM equates to more ground balls, but the two seamer from a true submarine slot (below the knee) looks larger due to the relatively low velocity. It is worth noting that the two-seamer may be more difficult to tunnel because of the ball begins to fade laterally to arm side, rather than staying on plane and nose diving with sharp depth. Having said that, that is a useful tool to keep in your tool-belt when dealing with pitch sequencing and so on.
When throwing the slider, Chad Bradford says there are two keys to throwing it well. First, cock the wrist once the shoulders begin to replace each other (as you slip into external rotation with your pitching arm). Secondly, at release and even after release, the thrower should pull up- the exact opposite of 12-6 curveball from a traditional overhand slot. So, instead of “pulling down” or “closing the window” as an overhand pitcher might, you should “give the batter the middle finger and try to keep giving him the bird until you get your follow through up and across to your lead shoulder”. Mr. Bradford asserted the reason for that is because when he went to world renowned Dr. James Andrews, and they did all the testing, physics suggested that in order to counter act gravity and the natural tendency of getting under the ball that the best and sharpest lateral movement stems from trying to pull up. That applies to true submo guys below the knee. Sidewinders ideally come straight across and try to sweep the middle finger across to the lead hip creating a vertical spin axis.
The ideal two seam grip is across the two seam. This grip prompts tighter spin for guys whose arm is far away from body with an extended pitching arm. A general consensus across the camp was that the “one seam fastball” is a no-go for submo guys.
Why are changeups seldom thrown from drop down guys? Coach Bradford said the key to a changeup is to stay behind the ball and never get under or it will slide out of the hand. The pitcher should try to create a mimetic spin to go along with his fastball. Mimetic spins help tunnel the pitch and give the perception of identical trajectory and ball speed. A three to four finger fastball is a popular changeup option. A modified circle-change works well too. Often the best changeup results come when you keep in mind to have a looser grip and bigger circle.
Do drop down guys throw splitters? To throw a true splitty or forkball you have to get under the ball and pull up from a submo slot. Be weary because if you need to change wrist actions, it probably isn’t the best idea. Sidewinder’s splitters generally tumble and will embrace it’s own sink, but if you don’t pronate well or “pull up” and through the pitch, the ball will tumble laterally and create a sort of cutting action while flattening out. When releasing the fastball, stay behind the ball. Staying behind the ball allows for maximum external rotation and creates the necessary spin to get true 12-6, 11-5 action.
Synergistic Hands and Knees.
When the knee moves up and leg-kick begins, it is important to get the hands going too. Not just for rhythm but also for deception and fluidity. After that, there is no real prescription.
Front and Back side Upper Half Synchronization:
The glove arm should get into position and hold firm exactly where the planned release point is. So, if you release at half way down the shin, the glove cannot firm up and stay at hip height. This was an interesting concept for me to grasp because blocking with the glove arm can disallow or hinder scapular disconnection.
Three types of glove arm action:
Passive: this is the ideal action. This entails a firm front side that is stable and holds position as long as possible so the body can approach the glove. *Note: as you’re reading, we hope you’ll take a critical approach and discuss your thoughts of these different ideas with us.
Dead: This is very common in drop down guys. Often, guys just put their front side arm in front of the body and it serves no purpose- it either just fades off to the side or fades out of the way. Dead glove action creates a window for the batter and reveals ball early.
Active: This is a very aggressive arm action. Often pulls off and out, exposing the pitching shoulder’s anterior labrum and eliminates any chance of hip-shoulder separation. This can often lead to guys having their elbow’s closer to their body through the throw, just like if a conventional over the top pitcher bailed early and out with his front side, it may cause his elbow to drop a bit. The same principle applies to drop down guys, just with an added hip hinge.
Long or Short arm action?
No exact answer. Everyone is different, but it is important to watch for guys who get too long in the backside and cross the acromial line. It is never a great idea to influence the humeral head to shift forward to the anterior capsule area, etc. That is the primary concern with longer arm swings on the backside.
How to Think About Staying Back:
According to Butch Thompson, it is important that the back ear and back knee stay synced up and in line until after landing. If the back ear doesn’t match back knee, there is a “power leak”. Often times, drop down guys throw off the lead leg rather than the whole backside. A good way to check for that is to check if the lead ear is matched up with the lead knee- or at least in front of the belly button. Consequentially, when the head drifts forward( and the chin comes up) and the lead ear/lead knee match, the elbow tends to lead the arm path creating more valgus stress. When the elbow drastically leads, drop down guys have a tendency to make the throw less “whippy” and more hand dominate (think of doing holds and how holds are hand dominate by nature). A problem with that is that hand dominate throws are stressful for the mass of the forearm flexors. As the irritated area continues about the kinematic chain, the flexors insertion (at the mass of the thumb) can become agitated and tight too. When the thumb tightens up and the flexors are not properly conditioned, the wrist can not get in position for an effective slider (worth considering if having slider problems). Furthermore, this chain reaction can lead to forearm fly-out(and can cause the hand to be below the ball when trying to spin a slider). Another worry is the aggravation of the medial epicondyle and triceps insertion from premature elbow extension. Bone spurs and triceps tendinitis may arise from this, but that is in no way conclusive, to my knowledge. All these potential problems can be avoided and monitored by checking for ear/knee relationship in a drop down pitcher.
Work From the Ground Up.
The pitcher’s goal is to move his center of gravity down the mound as efficiently and as balanced as possible. As drop down pitchers, we bend over, hip hinge, and when we bend our head follows too. The body always follows the head so it is easy to drift to the third base side (for righties). When troubleshooting why you might be drifting in a direction other than straight to the plate, don’t look for upper body or hip hinge adjustments at first. Initially, ask yourself if you’re a toe dominant pitcher. If you’re driving down the mound and your gas pedal is your big toe, then you will inevitably be off balance. The goal is get more centered on the foot and even more towards the heel. Being more center of foot/heel will allow you to be more linear as you move down the mound and keep better balance. This also helps with glute recruitment. Of course, for across the body lefty drop-down types and others, the toe might be an effective way to snap off a slider. However, getting more heel dominant not only allows you to be more balanced but being heel dominate triggers the posterior kinetic chain and emphasizes glute recruitment.
Do drop down guys Long Toss?
Heck yes! Stretch it out! According to Scott Sullivan and Chad Bradford, after eclipsing 90 feet, the throwing slot should not be below the hip. Chad Bradford said he was advised by Dr. Andrews that the reason for this is because past 90 feet you have to account for spin trajectory so it is easier and more natural to bail with the front side and create a “dead glove arm”. Every instructor at the camp, especially Coach Thompson, made an emphasis on Jaeger Long Toss Protocols, Jaeger Bands and their importance.
Training Cues and Focal Points for the Drop Down Pitcher:
1. Elbow extension ROM.
2. Gleno-humeral and gleno-scapular ROM.
3. Internal rotation of the hips.
4. Anterior core stability (to maintain posture throughout delivery).
5. Lower half posterior kinematic chain (lateral power production and ground force production).
6. “Freed up bicep” (barbell smash, isometric and eccentric bicep work etc).
7. “Freed up traps”, especially lower traps. Sitting throughout the day can affect that.
8. Learn to allow and control scaps to move about the rib cage properly.
9. Full ANKLE ROM (dorsiflexion, plantar flexion, eversion, inversion).
10. Yoga poses and progressions: Warrior 1,2,3.
11. Release the tissue in the Subclavious: The subclavious is the tissue mass in your upper chest below your clavicle. A LAX ball will work well.
12. Thoracic Mobility and anti-rotation work.
According to Chad Girordo, long term vision of your body is important. Chad recommends flexibility/mobility over strength when at a crossroads. Excess flexibility could expose some stability issues though. Chad Girordo is a self-proclaimed “yogi” and recommends yoga to all drop down pitchers.
The Stigma that You CAN’T PITCH TO OPPOSITE HAND HITTERS!
-But that is simply not the case. As a drop down pitcher, pitch sequencing matters a ton. Take ownership of the plate, attack inside and tunnel some pitches.
Caleb Reed, a former drop down pitcher for Mississippi State said, “As a RHP drop down guy, you can approach a lefty with heavy dose of high inside fastball (stand him up), nibble with backdoor slider, then spin one to his back hip. This is a good way to change eyes. Hard for them to barrel high-inside FB because they judge the ball from the other side of the box, so the trajectory that they perceive is that the ball is straight and flat but in actuality, the ball will run away from them and, hopefully, continue to rise.”
This left me encouraged to embrace Perry Husband’s Effective Velocity even as a drop down pitcher.