Sep 4, 2013; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher David Robertson (30) pitches during the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium. Yankees won 6-5. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

The Pitching Edge: The Art Of The Fastball With “Hop”

I got a message from BSI Senior Staff Writer and resident baseball mad scientist Earl Nash the other day. Earl is a certified baseball junkie of the highest order. His addiction is absolute. As he states at the end of his personal profile, “Baseball is not a matter of life and death…it’s more important than that.” Earl is an astute baseball man so when he explains why one pitcher’s 93 MPH fastball isn’t like the other guy’s I read. He’s also a pitching coach on a high school baseball team in Maine, my home state, so the connection runs deep.

Aroldis Chapman; a killer combination of raw velocity and freakish stretch gives his fastball extra hop. Credit: Rob Leifheit-USA TODAY Sports

After reading his clear, concise, insightful message about the minor adjustments pitchers can make to increase their velocity I was again reminded that as much as one knows about baseball there’s always more to learn. Check out how the mad scientist breaks it down.

First, radar guns are good but are only an absolute measure of how fast a pitch is thrown at any given point during the delivery. It doesn’t account for what scouts and insider baseball people describe as “hop”, effectively the rate at which a pitched ball actually gets on the batter. Let’s go deeper with this.

Let’s take a look at the ultimate symbol of pitching dominance; the fastball. This battle between pitcher and hitter is decided by time, not by speed: How long does a fastball take to reach the plate once it leaves the pitcher’s hand? More importantly, what  changes can a pitcher make to shorten the time between when he releases the ball and it’s on the batter?

Sure, you can use muscles to throw a baseball faster, but you can also increase MPH by shortening the distance between the point you release the ball and the plate.  This is accomplished by maximizing your stretch toward the plate; the range is minimum 80% of your height. A lights out guy like Aroldis Chapman‘s stretch reaches 110-115% of his height. That’s why he has such a killer combination of raw speed and the ability to “hop” the ball on the batter more quickly than most pitchers due to his freakish stretch.

Does this mean every pitcher needs to over-achieve as Chapman does to be successful? Not necessarily. As Nash writes, “You need to find the ‘sweet spot’ where you are stretching out as far as you are comfortable.  When you land, your plant foot should be pointing straight toward the plate; your toe and heel are on the line from second base to the plate.  When you start to be unable to land in that position, it means you are stretching too far. If your current distance from rubber to plant foot seems fine but you want to add MPH, you can try to edge that landing closer to the plate.  Just a few inches would add significant MPH.”

Trackman, the science and physics of tracking baseballs, measures not just the speed of the pitch, but also this key variable: the distance between the pitcher’s release point and the plate. With those measurements, Trackman defines not only the time component of a fastball — “flight time,” if you will — but also defines in irrefutable data why scouts might describe a pitcher as “sneaky fast” or throwing a ball with “hop”.

It’s what makes a guy like the Yankee’s David Robertson so tough to hit. He’s a very average 5’11″, 195 lbs. with a good but not dominant 92-93 MPH fastball. What makes him so difficult to hit? Stretch.

According to Trackman’s measurements taken in one American League park last season, Robertson, with his exceptionally long stride and reach, released his fastball seven feet in front of the pitching rubber — the largest average extension Trackman measured in that park. The average MLB fastball extension was five feet, 10 inches. Imagine if Robertson moves the pitching rubber 14 inches closer to home plate every time he pitches.

The radar gun (and Trackman) clocks Robertson’s fastball at an average of 93 mph. But because Robertson shortens the distance between his release point and home plate, his “effective velocity” is 95 mph. It looks like 93 but gets on a hitter like a 95 MPH fastball – thus the illusion of “hop.”

Today this old dog learned the inside scoop on a trick he thought he already knew everything about. Hope you did too.

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  • Rick M

    The factor of hand size plays into pitching. When I pitched in HS and Legion ball I could throw harder than anyone, but it all balanced out since I have small hands. Had a poor gripe for a change up or curve. Difference in speed was minimal so my “heater” took a hit – literally “took a hit.” Others would throw with less speed but had greater variance between fast ball and change. Since I could not break off a decent 12-6 curve that also hurt. Would hang them. I developed the old time “cut fast ball.” Used a nail embedded in my glove and later industrial staples. Once cut myself and had to have three stitches. My “cutter” really helped since I managed to get a good slider type break to left handed batters.

    I have never had a decent explanation why someone with the same release point, velocity, break and so on of another pitcher manages to throw a “heavy ball” compared to the other guy.

    • Earl Nash

      With my HS pitchers, I find that a thumb tack works best…still the kids are always complaining, always have “a poor gripe for a change up or curve.” Yes, hand size is very important; it can effect all types of pitches; I had kid with long fingers learn the Elroy Face fork ball and he could make it drop two feet as it reached the plate.

      • Rick M

        I worked real hard at slowing down arm action. I’d just change my slot angle a bit and that helped. I’d be a straight 12 O’clock pitcher with my arm angle and then just go a notch to the right. Look like a fastball action but make it a change. Very difficult without the hand size to set the ball just right. At the level I was at no one could pick up the small slot change and guess change. But mechanics and adjustments mean squat if you can’t do it consistently or results are minimal. That was my issue. If a guy could hit a fastball I was breakfast, lunch and dinner.

        I experimented all over the place with positioning in regards to gripe and stitches. I found if the stitches were just raised a bit I got better rotation and thus break. At HS/Legion level back then the balls were not uniformly perfect, so if I found the right one I’d try to milk it as long as possible. But it really varies from pitcher to pitcher.

        I also use to experiment with being all over the pitching rubber. I’d position myself according to where a batter stood and if they were right or left handed. That would actually make a below average breaking ball look average or above. I also really studied hitters whenever I could. Was important to see how they picked up the ball. Sometimes I’d go three quarters based on their tendencies.

        I was in your rotation, Earl, your ball budget would be shot by the first game.

    • stephenepeterson

      To your point, Pedro Martinez, a guy who was very average height and below weight, did what he did so well because he had larger than normal hands and extremely long fingers. All the extra pressure and spin put on the ball just before release is what put the extra gas and movement in Pedro’s magic.

      To Earl’s point, he had a helluva stride to boot. A real freakish combination of talent and odd physical makeup that allowed him to dominate.

  • Earl Nash

    Steve, great thanks for the kind words. I have developed a few “sideways” ideas about pitching with these HS athletes and, if time permits [approaching 70], I may put out an e-book for HS pitchers, say, “Pitching Sideways.” I wish I could have Rick M in the rotation next season…