Old-school deliveries becoming prevalent again
When baseball lifers of a certain age sit and talk about the state of the game, a popular topic is the dramatic change in pitching mechanics.
You have to dig into the video archives to find the old-time theatrics displayed by the likes of Satchel Paige, Bob Gibson, Luis Tiant and Juan Marichal. Their artistic form and expression have given way in the modern game to a uniformly compact mound style snipping away movements, including those of a uniquely personal nature.
Stylish Johnny Cueto figuratively tips his cap to Tiant in his delivery, but the truth is there is no El Tiante in the game now, no wind-milling Paige.
The Nationals' Ross Ohlendorf created a stir last season when he revived the full windup, swinging his arms behind his back, with some success. But Ohlendorf is on the 60-day disabled list with a lower back strain and hasn't pitched since March 19.
The fundamental motive now is to keep it simple in the name of command -- and it often starts long before a kid is viewed as a prospect.
"I think it's a function of trying to simplify a young pitcher's mechanics -- and I'm talking at 7, 8 years old," said Padres manager Bud Black, a fine lefty in his time who grew up emulating Steve Carlton. "They start young with it. Most Major League deliveries are pretty simple now. I do miss those old deliveries."
David Price is the embodiment of the modern no-frills style. Yu Darvish takes it to the extreme of throwing from the stretch as a norm, an increasingly popular model.
Yet there remains a group of individuals willing to break the mold. Most staffs have one or two, identified primarily by raising their arms above their head in their windup or by a distinct leg kick or an uncommon release point.
This old-school approach is paying dividends for Max Scherzer, Detroit's 2013 American League Cy Young Award winner, and has served Adam Wainwright, Jake Peavy, John Lackey, Bruce Chen, Francisco Liriano and Scott Kazmir well.
During his current 25-inning scoreless streak, Wainwright has been masterful is varying his delivery -- going above the head with one pitch, dropping to the waist on the next -- along with his repertoire. It is all part of the St. Louis ace's grand design of upsetting the timing of hitters.
Colby Lewis, Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Josh Collmenter, Nathan Eovaldi, Collin McHugh, Tim Stauffer, Carlos Carrasco, Hector Rondon and Preston Claiborne are all on the old-school train. Matt Moore, Price's Tampa Bay teammate, presumably will climb back aboard and resume his trip to stardom after recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Young operators on the rise such as Tyler Skaggs, Michael Pineda and Dallas Keuchel are making it work, and a recent convert has emerged in Zack Wheeler. The 23-year-old right-hander is paired with Matt Harvey in the Mets' master plans as a rotation tandem to rival any in the game.
Wheeler, 6-foot-4 and blessed with a big arm, was 7-5 with a 3.42 ERA in 100 innings for the Mets last season. After two disappointing starts to open the season, he experimented with the over-the-head delivery in a bullpen session at Angel Stadium.
A discussion with pitching coach Dan Warthen led to the decision to take it to the mound in game conditions, and the early returns have been promising.
Asked about his thought process, Wheeler said: "Hey, I'm just going to throw my arms over my head, see if that works. I threw like 10 pitches like that, and they were literally all dotting up. I was like, 'Hmm,' so I threw my whole bullpen [session] like that. My offspeed [stuff] was going like crazy, and I was like, 'Good bullpen [session].'
"So me and Dan were like, 'Let's try it next game. Let's try it in the bullpen. If you still feel comfortable with it in the bullpen before the game, take it into the game.' So after the bullpen [session], we were walking back to the dugout and he was like, 'You want to do it?' I was like, 'I guess.' So I went out and did it."
Wheeler has given up just six earned runs in 18 1/3 innings of three starts, shaving his ERA from 5.79 to 3.99 with the new delivery. He beat the D-backs in Arizona and has notched a Scherzer-like 16 strikeouts (against six walks) in 12 innings of no-decisions against the Braves and Marlins at home.
"With me, it helps me stay back, that's the biggest thing," Wheeler said. "Everybody's different. Everybody does it for different reasons. It allows me to get downhill with my pitches. Instead of staying up in the zone, it allows me to get down, because I'm staying back.
"Some guys may do it for comfort. Some guys may do it because that's the way they were taught. Who knows?"
Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland sees economy of movement motivating the move toward more conservative mechanics.
"It's not so much that it's old-fashioned [going over the head], it's that guys are simplifying their deliveries now," Eiland said. "And it's all about getting to your balance point. It doesn't matter how you get there -- whether you go over your head or come to your chest -- it's all about getting to your balance point. It's getting there and getting your hand out on time.
"I don't think it's anything that people are not teaching or trying to get them away from. It's just that guys are trying to simplify it, with less moving parts."
Wheeler, drafted sixth overall by San Francisco in 2009 out of East Paulding High School in the Atlanta area, was dealt to the Mets for Carlos Beltran at the 2011 non-waiver Trade Deadline as the Giants sought an offensive jolt in defense of their 2010 World Series title. Wheeler had just reverted to his high school style, with a higher leg kick, and felt he was getting better command of his pitches.
"If you saw me when I came up, I was all over the place," he said. "My ball took off every pitch. So the Giants really slowed me down to where I couldn't pitch anymore. I was terrible. So like two outings before I got traded, I was like, 'I can't do it anymore. I'm going to do whatever I want, and you're going to have to deal with it, because it's my career.' They compromised with me and I got traded shortly after."
"It's how you're taught when you're growing up," he said. "Everybody's their own person. Everybody just has their own thing that they do. Whatever works for you."
What works for Kazmir, like Wainwright, is variety. The lefty switches from over the head to a more compact delivery as he sees fit. An All-Star and strikeout king for the Rays who flamed out with the Angels, Kazmir is flourishing with the A's in the second phase of his remarkable comeback after a solid 2013 season in Cleveland.
Kazmir worked on improving his flexibility and regaining a leg kick that is critical to his success. No pitcher in the game today has a more unique leg kick than Bronson Arroyo, who has taken his experience, durability and quality work to Arizona.
"We have some modern pitchers doing interesting things -- guys emulating [Tim] Lincecum, Arroyo with his leg kick," Black said. "It's good to see some personality out there."
The Indians' Justin Masterson and the Giants' Madison Bumgarner sling it from the right and left sides, respectively, in unconventional but effective styles.
"There was one time back in high school," Masterson said, "I went to a Reds tryout or something, and they said, 'Oh, it's great, but you're a tall guy, you should try to use your leverage and try to get over the top.' So I did that. The ball straightened out and people started hitting me.
"I said, 'No, we're good here.' Because even before I had a sinker, I had natural movement. Even now, I have natural movement on the four-seamer. That was always the benefit."
Ohlendorf carved a 3.20 ERA in 60 innings last year, striking out 45 with only 14 walks while showing that windup out of the 1950s was no gimmick.
"It gives me rhythm ... helps me stay loose," he said. "And the ball has been coming out well pitching that way."
Paul Byrd, who retired with 109 wins in 2009 after 14 seasons, was the last Major League pitcher to be successful over a long haul swinging both arms behind his back, old-time style, while rocking into his motion.
He was a rare Byrd, indeed.
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.