Garvin Alston was a star prep pitcher in the late 1980s, at a high school about 10 miles from the Mets’ Shea Stadium, so his pitching mechanics weren’t really his own.
“I tried to mimic Doc Gooden,” the Twins pitching coach said, smiling. “We all did.”
But there was only one Doc, and once Alston got to college, he ditched Gooden’s signature move, the slight turn away from the plate with his hands above the bill of his cap and right knee to his chest. Alston adopted a simpler rock-back-and-throw windup, and in doing so, became an early adapter to a movement that is slowly making the full, dramatic, over-the-head windup extinct.
Decades ago, most major league starting pitchers routinely whirled their arms and pivoted their torsos and coiled their bodies in a theatrical ballet before striding toward the plate and unleashing the ball.
“You mean, the Whitey Ford?” said Twins righthander Lance Lynn, choosing a classic example. “That’s a long time ago.”
So it seems. Today, only a few bother to do more than shift their weight and cock their arm. Kyle Gibson’s toe tap, a timing mechanism barely noticeable unless you look for it, passes for histrionics these days.
“I’m all for conserving energy and reducing motion,” Gibson said. “If anything, pitching is going the other way. Now you see some relievers out there throwing out of the [windup-free] slidestep on every pitch.”
There was an interim step in this evolution. And a few proponents of that look — the quick hands-behind-the-head checkpoint that Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux, for instance, used to establish a rhythm and momentum — still survive today. Two-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer still executes that move with nobody on base, as does Houston’s Lance McCullers.
McCullers, in fact, is a curveball specialist that Jose Berrios, with a similar repertoire, cites as a model for his own motion. Berrios began going behind his head during his windup, starting in 2017, for a couple of reasons.
“For me, it’s good to make your rhythm — back, forward, up, down,” he said. “But I did it especially because they showed me I was tipping my pitches. It helps me stay the same on every pitch.”
Funny thing is, those are the arguments — easily repeated delivery, less likely to give away what’s coming — that most pitchers mention for dropping something more elaborate.
Lynn actually reached the majors with an over-the-head motion, but abandoned it after two seasons.
“It was harder to repeat my delivery, and there is more danger of tipping pitches” with extra movement, Lynn said. But the biggest factor in the switch?
“I pitched better when I stopped going over my head,” he said. “That made the decision easy.”
Same with Zach Duke, who added more pre-pitch motion to his delivery for two games during his career as a starter.
“I was searching for more rhythm to my delivery. It’s good for getting your body together before you move forward,” Duke said. “I was just trying to get back on track, but it didn’t work for me.”
The Twins have no policy regarding a windup, Alston said, and don’t try to force anyone into a certain style.
“We want them to be comfortable, first and foremost. If [a windup] is what a guy prefers, that’s what we want him to do,” said Alston, in his first season as pitching coach. “It’s all about timing, making sure your hands are in proper position when it’s time to go. To me, it’s extra movement that you probably don’t need, but it does present a lot of movement to the hitter, which adds a little deception.”
Alston said he has coached only a couple of pitchers who prefer the added motion; some believe they achieve better balance by going over their heads, some not so much.
“If the timing is not there, your body can get forward and your hands can be late,” he said. “A quick rock back, it’s enough to get your weight back, and then you balance. That gives you momentum when you go forward. Some guys get that balance with their hands over their heads. I know some say they get more momentum that way.”
Still, the stripped-down windup feels like the more logical approach, given that the advantages of a windup aren’t obvious, Derek Falvey said. But the Twins chief baseball officer said he knows of no documented basis for preferring one windup over another.
“We haven’t studied it,” he said. “Guys copy what they see working. You see [Cleveland ace Corey] Kluber use a simple windup, and you imitate it.”
And success breeds imitators. “As rare as it’s getting, I assume the numbers say there’s no advantage” to the full windup, Gibson said. “If you threw 2 or 3 miles per hour harder out of a windup, I guarantee you everybody would do it.”