Evolution of Pitcher’s Windup


The term “windup” in baseball refers to the gyrations a pitcher performs when he throws a pitch and the term likely refers to the winding of an old-fashioned watch; you wound the spring up and then let it gradually release its tension to move the gears; although the pitcher’s windup is a much quicker version.

There was apparently the assumption that, like the winding up of a spring, energy was created when the tension was released and, thus, the belief that it added velocity to the throw.  In the early days of the game, pitchers were also allowed to add momentum to their throw by taking a running start from behind the mound.

Imagine:  In 1862, a pitcher for the Stars of New Brunswick:

“seized the ball and swinging his hand behind him as if in an effort to dislocate his shoulder , put his head between his legs—almost—and, running furiously, discharged the ball some yards away from home base.”

[James M. Declerico and Barry J. Pavelec , The Jersey Game, p. 173.]

Thus began the dialectic between the spastic perm locutions of the pitcher and his ability to control the direction of the ball.

The seemingly endless concoction of contortions by the pitchers led to three new rules in 1863:

  • Pitchers were required to keep both feet on the ground when pitching the ball.
  • An area was designated as the Pitcher’s box, creating a balance with the Batter’s box.
  • Pitches that were not in the hitting zone were now called “Balls.”

Up to that point the man on the mound was more of a server than a pitcher; his task was to aim the ball to hit the exact location indicated by the man with the bat.  Prior to calling a pitch a “ball” and creating a limit to the number of pitches thrown, a batter could sniff at dozens of pitches that were not “to his liking.”

Moreover, the pitcher was required to place each of his feet into a hole; the holes were a standard 2-feet apart and the pitcher was…

“…obliged to deliver the ball to a batsman by a fair, square pitch.  No sidestepping, or gymnastic contortions to intimidate the batsman were permitted.”

[R. M Larner, “Old-Time Baseball in the White Lot,” Washington Post, June 26, 1904.]

In the 1880s the pitcher’s release point was elevated and the pendulum swung back toward elaborate wind-ups and the running start returned with a vengeance:

“Whitney was able to soak [throw] the ball to his catcher with frightful power.  He used up both Mike Hines and Mertie Hackett, his backstops, that year, but he puzzled the best batters in the National league.”

[Washington Post, February 11, 1906

Up to that point, catchers were wearing two un-padded “gardening-style” leather gloves and to allow for a better throwing grip they usually cut off most of the fingers.

Pitcher Dan Bickham was able to generate tremendous momentum and his pitches were so fast, it was nearly impossible to catch them; he lamented:

“[My] pace is useless, as no one could stand the punishment involved in facing such a delivery behind the bat.”

He was so concerned about his catcher that he quit pitching after his first game.

In 1887, to spare the catchers such “punishment,” a new rule was put in place to slow the pitches down; the pitcher was limited to holding the ball in front of him and taking one step forward in throwing the ball, similar to the softball pitcher, but overhand.

Thus, pitchers held the ball high, just in front of their head.  They quickly figured out that there was no limit to the number of times they could pump their arm, up and down, so long as the ball remained in front of their body and that there was some wiggle room with the one-step limit:

“…with the swing of the arms over the head coupled with a sort of hitch and kick movement with the feet, they were able to get almost as much speed as formerly.”

[Ottumwa Courier, Iowa, March 16, 1903]

"Pity the poor catchers."

Some pitchers, concerned about injuring their catchers, began to experiment with deliveries that sacrificed speed for deceptiveness.

"Would you believe a “Lady” developed the prototype for today’s modern wind-up and delivery?"

It was Detroit lefty Lady Baldwin in 1886:

“He pitches steadily without any delay or waiting.  Usually he throws his arm in a circle about his head, the raises one leg, and a moment later comes down hard with both feet on the ground, when the ball leaves his left hand like a flash.”

[Boston Globe, June 30, 1886]

In his first two seasons, 1890-91, Hall of Fame pitcher Cy Young used a complicated windup that:

"“It is difficult to tell whether the ball comes from his hands or his feet.”"

[Reed Browning, Cy Young, p. 151.]

Biographer Browning speculated that Young eschewed the “elaborate windup, when he recognized that Kid Nichols had just as much success with a no windup delivery.

Delivery routines became more homogenized in the Twentieth century and scout’s today disdain extra motion and favor smooth, compact mechanics.  In 1999, David Rawnsley concluded:

“Scouts are often too quick to classify pitchers according to perceived flaws in their mechanics’Slingers,’ for instance, are considered bigger injury risks, because they are opening the front of their shoulder early and exposing both the rotator cuff and the inside of their elbow to more pressure.”

[Baseball America, August 9-22, 1999]

Baseball writer extraordinaire, Roger Kahn wrote in The Head Game:

“Most contemporary pitching coaches preach against the elaborate windups.  They reason that the more motion, the greater the chance for something to go out of whack.”

Kahn quotes Coach Dick Bosman’s tenet:

"“The simpler the mechanics of a delivery, the easier it is for most pitchers to master it.”"

[Roger Kahn, The Head Game, p. 167.]

Most Pitching coaches today seem to follow the K.I.S.S. dictum:

"Keep It Simple, Stupid."


RELATED: “NO Windup, Best Windup,” The Pitching Professor on BSI: