One of the most common pitching topics I have heard people discuss over the years is how a pitcher can get movement on his pitches. You have undoubtedly heard such conversations as well—whether it is at a pitching lesson/camp, while at a game, or even tuned in to an MLB game as the announcers discuss the pitcher on the screen. Anytime Greg Maddux was on the mound the conversation inevitably headed in the direction of movement. Most of you can visualize that incredible fastball Maddux would throw to left handers that started inside off the plate and would work its way back to the plate just in time to catch the inside corner. I was always amazed at that pitch.

But as frequently as people discuss pitch movement, so many of them don’t understand the cause of that movement. Many people will tell you that the reason a certain pitcher, such as Maddux, can get such great movement on the ball is due to applying finger pressure in different ways. You will hear people say, “When I want to get more movement on my fastball I simply apply more pressure to the ball with my index finger.” People hear this and think, “That makes sense because if you apply more pressure to the index finger then the ball with come off with more side spin and cause the ball to move.” As logical as it might sound at first, unfortunately, it is simply not correct.

To prove this theory incorrect, I want you to hold your hand out in front of you and take a look at it. Which finger is the longest? The middle finger is, or at least should be, longer than any other finger on your hand. So what does this have to do with applying pressure to get movement? When a baseball is thrown the longest finger—your middle finger—is the last body part that touches the ball before it is released. Therefore, it doesn’t matter what kind of pressure you apply with the index finger because that pressure will be off the ball before it is released into its trajectory.

Instead, the way a pitcher puts movement on a pitch has to do with his hand angle/placement at the time of release. During a normal throw, the hand is directly behind the ball. If the pitcher were to go through the movement with his hand open the palm would be directly facing the catcher. This causes the ball, as most of us know, to rotate backward once it is released.

Hand position for fastball

However, if that hand was not square with the catcher, but instead pronated slighted (by rotating the hand inward), this position will create a backward side spin to it, and once the seams begin to catch friction with the air it will push the ball down and inside (for a right handed pitcher to a right handed batter). In the sameHand position for sinker respect, if the hand is moved so that it is slightly supinated, the spin created will cause the ball to move down and away (for a right handed pitcher to a right handed batter). This variation of the pitcher’s hand position as the ball is released is the reason that pitchers are able to get the ball to move in different ways.

While it is fairly easy to tell and show a pitcher what he needs to do with his hand in order to create movement, it is not nearly that easy for a pitcher to do. If it were, we would all have Maddux-like movement on our fastballs. Instead, like most good things, it takes a lot of practice in order to get the feel required to throw a fastball at full speed, with command, and have movement. But there is a suggestion that Brent Strom, former Major League pitcher and pitching coach, and current Minor League Pitching Coordinator for the St. Louis Cardinals, has discussed with players that I think is incredibly helpful in gaining movement on a ball.

His suggestion to players trying to learn movement is to scuff one side of the baseball that the player will use during practice. As many of us know, scuffing a baseball is one of the oldest tricks in the book for a pitcher to try and get movement. The simple (and non-technical) explanation of why a scuff creates movement is due to the friction created by the scuff while traveling through the air. Because the surface of the baseball is smooth on all of the other sides of the ball, the air moves evenly around the ball with relatively little friction. The side with the scuff is a different story though. The scuff doesn’t allow the air to travel smoothly around it and therefore creates friction. As the baseball travels through the air, the scuff creates friction on that side of the ball, which causes it to push the ball in the opposite direction. Therefore, if you want the ball to move to the left the scuff should be on the right side, and conversely, if you want the ball to move to the right the scuff should be on the left side.

You might be thinking, “But you can’t scuff a baseball in a game because it is illegal so what’s the point of doing it in practice.” Well the reason to do it in practice is so that your eyes can see the movement created with the scuff. If you watch your pitches continuously move in a direction pitch after pitch eventually your brain will begin to expect that type of movement. So when you switch to a non-scuffed baseball, your brain will want the same type of movement you had before and will begin to seek ways to create that same movement. The brain will begin telling your body to create the movement and will soon begin to implement changes, such as changing the hand position at release, in order to achieve that goal. This is a prime example of the Bernstein principle: The body will organize itself based upon the ultimate goal of the activity. If your goal is to create movement then the body will, over time, find a way to make that happen.

Additionally, you can then begin to implement what is called blending. Alternate between the ball with the scuff and a regular baseball and try to achieve the same movement with the non-scuffed baseball as you have with the scuffed ball. Over time you will develop movement and will no longer need to use the scuffed baseball.

By using the scuffed baseball you are essentially tricking your mind into believing that the movement it sees with the scuff is natural so that it will find a way to create the same movement when you have a regular baseball.

Until next time,

Brian Oates