We Might Be Observing the Decline of the Windup

Felix Hernandez will play a crucial role in determining the fate of the Mariners’ season. Felix isn’t what he used to be, and no one expects him to return to that level, but we at least know that he should still have the stuff. The changeup and curveball are there, if he wants to miss bats. The issues have been more mechanical. Felix hasn’t had the command he needs to succeed at his velocity. There’s much attention, then, being paid to his delivery. A week and a half ago, he threw for the first time in spring training. He said the following about his session.

“I threw everything, curveball, changeup, sinker and one slider,” he said. “It was OK. I was better from the stretch than from the windup.”

Why?

“I was more balanced from the stretch,” he said. “I was moving all over the place from the windup.”

Perfectly standard, unremarkable quote from early spring. Felix had some rust to knock off. He felt better out of one of his deliveries than out of the other. But, well, hold on. Why does he have two deliveries? Why do so many pitchers have two deliveries? You’d think that maintaining one would be complicated enough.

Alex Wood is over it. As the story goes, he was inspired by Stephen Strasburg, and to a lesser extent by Yu Darvish. Wood first got the idea last September, and now, moving forward, Wood is prepared to pitch exclusively from the stretch. In other words, Wood is dumping the windup, in the name of simplification. An excerpt, from the linked article by Pedro Moura:

“What idiot created the wind-up and the stretch?” Wood asked [Brandon] McCarthy. “Sitting here thinking about it, it just doesn’t make any sense. There is no benefit to it. You don’t see a right-handed hitter with two different swings and timing with guys on base or no one on.”

As you know, the windup is the longer, slower delivery generally used with the bases empty. The stretch is the quicker delivery used when a pitcher has to worry about controlling the running game. By default, most pitchers learn to have two throwing motions. That’s just the way it’s been, probably because people stubbornly believe the windup allows you to throw harder. If you think about it, it would make sense for any pitcher to focus on having just one motion, and you can’t pitch exclusively from the windup, unless you want to allow constant stolen bases. The important pitches are already thrown from the stretch, anyway. So why not just…only…pitch from the stretch?

That’s Wood’s idea. He took it from Strasburg, who last season abandoned the windup. Darvish also doesn’t use a windup. Brad Peacock recently started pitching exclusively from the stretch. White Sox prospect Tyler Danish said he’s going to work only from the stretch. Pitching from the stretch is one of the keys Danny Duffy and Carlos Carrasco took out of their stints in the bullpen. They don’t have windups. Noah Syndergaard has only a very simple windup. The same could be said of Rich Hill and David Price. I know I’m just rattling off names, now, but, why stop? Clay Buchholz ditched his windup. Last summer, Astros prospect Forrest Whitley started to work exclusively from the stretch. Jason Hammel made the change last May. Marco Gonzales made the change somewhere during the summer. And just for the sake of having visuals, here’s late-season Tyler Glasnow. Bases empty:

Runner on:

Glasnow wasn’t good in his brief return to the bigs, but when he was in Triple-A, he suddenly started throwing powerful strikes, and part of that was because he ditched the windup. Glasnow already had enough problems trying to throw strikes with one motion. Why not try to make things simpler, to effectively increase his number of repetitions? Glasnow doesn’t work from two different motions anymore. There really wasn’t any point.

Joe Lemire wrote an article for Vocativ in the middle of 2016. It was titled, “Why Does Any Pitcher Use A Windup?” The answer is mostly tradition. Pitchers learn the windup when they’re young, and at that point, that’s just how they’ve always thrown. The windup was probably preferred because of perceived advantages, but they haven’t held up to investigation. As noted in Lemire’s article, scientific study hasn’t identified any extra stress on the arm coming out of the stretch. And there doesn’t seem to be a velocity difference, either. That linked article is eight years old, but it still holds up. Last year, the average starting pitcher threw his average fastball 0.1 miles per hour harder with runners on base, compared to with the bases empty. Working from the stretch doesn’t seem to have a cost.

Now, visually, there is a cost. If you like to think of baseball as art, well, the following is artistic, and you’d never see it with a runner on first.

Certain windups are aesthetically pleasing, while pitching from the stretch is just pitching from the stretch. But there aren’t many pitchers with windups as appealing as Ross Ohlendorf’s. Most windups tend to be pretty standard. And players aren’t incentivized to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. They’re incentivized to be as effective as possible, and so it makes sense that mechanical flourishes might start to disappear. Anecdotally, at least, it feels like hitters are coalescing around common swing mechanics. You don’t see so many bizarre-looking stances. Pitchers wouldn’t be able to avoid the same pressure. Players are forever trying to become more efficient.

Obviously, countless pitchers have been able to work well both out of the windup and out of the stretch. If there isn’t a problem, there needn’t be a solution. Many pitchers continue to prefer the windup, because of familiarity, because of comfort. Some guys just feel more balanced when they can take more time. But, consider Hammel’s explanation for dropping the windup:

“It’s a more repeatable delivery for me,” Hammel said.
[…]
“The fix that I saw was this,” Hammel said, standing in the clubhouse on Tuesday. “I’m a long, tall guy. It’s usually pretty hard to get everything on time for us bigger guys. So anything to simplify the delivery to make it easier.”

A pitcher who can locate isn’t a pitcher who needs to make a change. But, many pitchers wish they had better location, and if you’re a conventional pitcher trying to improve, you’re working through two different motions. If you throw with one motion instead, then in theory it doesn’t take as long to iron out a wrinkle. It’s also easier, in theory, to spot when something is going awry. Overall, there are just fewer considerations. You don’t want to force a pitcher to be uncomfortable, but if a pitcher wants to drop the windup, there’s not a real good reason to tell him no.

Mike Sielski wrote about this a little last March. Another excerpt:

Phillies general manager Matt Kletnak said that the organization has looked at whether, as a general matter, simplifying pitchers’ windups or having them throw out of the stretch exclusively can benefit them. But he emphasized that it was important to deal with each pitcher’s problems on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m a big believer that we can work with pitchers,” Klentak said. “But sometimes the way that they throw is what makes them successful, and trying to clean up somebody’s delivery may make it look prettier, but it might also eliminate the deception that’s made them so successful. It’s a balancing act.”

This here is something that can’t be dismissed. Not the part about going on a case-by-case basis — that’s how all teams should approach all problems. But the part about deception. Deception is one of the last remaining unknowns, the variable that probably fills in the blank where stuff + focus + health + [blank] = results. We don’t exactly know why a given pitcher is or isn’t deceptive, and you certainly wouldn’t want to coach deceptiveness out. That being said, I’m not sure how much of a concern this should be. A windup, if anything, is usually easier to time. A lanky pitcher in the windup is still a lanky pitcher in the stretch, and, in the stretch, a pitcher still has the option to slide-step, or to quick-pitch, or to pause. Marcus Stroman recently introduced some hitches into his modified stretch. He doesn’t have a long, slow windup, but he’s still making an effort to mess with hitters’ timing.

This is a post about a possible trend. It’s a trend I can’t actually confirm, because there’s no such thing as a windup/stretch database. It could be there’s nothing here. Maybe I’m just trying to connect a few scattered dots. But I would not be surprised if the windup were very gradually starting to go away. It’s nothing that would happen overnight, not with young pitchers pitching at so many different levels. This is something that would have to trickle from the top on down. At the major-league level, though, it’s just hard to know the purpose the windup serves. All it is is a complication. Some guys certainly love the complication, but others have moved away, searching for that one missing tweak. If it’s happening more in the majors, it’ll happen more everywhere else. There’s pretty much always been a windup. It’s an accepted component of the pitching routine. Is it a necessary component? That one’s up for debate. Or, really, it’s probably not.

We hoped you liked reading We Might Be Observing the Decline of the Windup by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Skin Blues
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Skin Blues

Excellent piece. I’ll also add that Andrew Miller credited pitching exclusively from the stretch for his improved control a few years ago when he went from being Mitch Williams to Mariano Rivera.

Just like terrible free-throw-shooters in the NBA that refuse to try the Rick Barry method due to aesthetics, I’ll never understand why pitchers with great stuff refuse to try ditching the windup.