The epiphany came on a Tuesday afternoon last week, as Royals starter Jason Hammel worked through a bullpen side session at Kauffman Stadium.
He delivered another pitch in front of pitching coach Dave Eiland. Moments later, Hammel made up his mind. He had pondered the question before, the same one asked by major-league starting pitchers such as Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish and Danny Duffy. But as Hammel worked through his mechanics, and listened to his body, he felt like he knew the answer. Why did he need to pitch out of the windup if it felt so much simpler going from the stretch?
“It’s a more repeatable delivery for me,” Hammel said.
Three days later, in a start against the Cleveland Indians, the 6-foot-6 Hammel worked solely from the stretch position. In a 3-1 victory, he posted his best performance of the season, allowing one run and three hits in six innings. When he takes the mound against the Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday night at Tropicana Field, he will again eschew the windup.
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“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.”
For Hammel, the decision came after he posted a 6.65 ERA in his first five starts, issuing 11 walks across 15 2/3 innings. But in saying no to the windup — the traditional pitching position of standing on the rubber, stepping backward and turning your body toward home plate — Hammel is joining a vanguard of pitchers who are choosing a different way; in this case, to work solely from the stretch position.
“There’s no law or rule saying you have to go out of the windup,” said Eiland, the Royals’ long-time pitching coach. “That’s like saying a hitter can’t hit unless he has a stride.”
In recent years, a growing list of starting pitchers have began working exclusively from the stretch — the quicker, simpler position typically associated with holding base runners and controlling the running game. Among the list: Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco, whose career took off shortly thereafter; Washington ace Strasburg, who says he prefers the simplicity; Texas right-hander Darvish; and Royals left-hander Duffy, who used the method to harness his command after a bullpen stint last season.
“For me, it’s just less moving parts,” said Duffy, echoing a common refrain among pitchers. “It sounds semi-boring, but it’s simple — it’s easier.”
For Duffy, pitching from the stretch with no runners on base also allows him to employ his slide step at any time. The slide step, a maneuver commonly used to prevent stolen bases, can work as a “quick pitch” with nobody on base, throwing off the timing of hitters.
“It’s been a useful weapon for me,” Duffy said. “I wanted to continue to pitch like I was out of the bullpen, and it just clicked.”
The turn away from the windup could potentially invert decades of baseball tradition. Pause for a moment and imagine grainy footage from the 1950s or 1960s, a pitcher offering a herky-jerky twist on the windup before rocking back, kicking his leg to the sky and firing a baseball toward home plate. And yet, the case for pitching from the stretch is about as simple as the delivery: There is no science to show that pitchers throw harder or with better command from the windup. In fact, as pitching coaches have pointed out for years, the most crucial pitches are already thrown from the set position of the stretch.
“They’ve got guys on base,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You would think: With nobody on base, just continue to pitch out of the stretch. What difference does it make?”
Eiland, one of those pitching coaches, sees other advantages. The stretch has fewer moving parts than the windup. Yet pitching from one position also offers less maintenance and more reps during a bullpen session. A pitcher doesn’t have to spend time working on both. And since he cannot pitch solely from the windup, in that sense, Eiland said, it makes sense.
“It’s just a matter of simplifying things,” Eiland said. “You have one delivery to concern yourself with. It’s just simplifying it. It’s all about feeling comfortable and confident when you release a baseball.”
Still, Eiland is not convinced that the trend will take over baseball. At the least, he is not advocating that. There are pitchers who feel most comfortable out of the windup, Eiland said. Among them: Royals pitchers Chris Young and Ian Kennedy.
“If I could go out of the windup every time, I would,” Kennedy said.
A decade ago, while pitching in Class A ball, Kennedy began bringing his glove over his head while pitching from the windup. In college at Southern California, he had a more generic delivery, bringing his glove to his chest. But there was something about going over the head that brought an element of timing and tempo.
“I understand the benefit (of going from the stretch),” Kennedy said. “But I love going from the windup. When I go over my head, I just feel more of a rhythm and my arm is moving a little faster.”
In the end, Eiland views the art of delivering a baseball as a simple combination of “balance and timing over the rubber.” It matters little how a pitcher gets to that balance point. It does matter that he can repeat it over and over.
For now, Hammel believes he’s better able to repeat his delivery from the stretch. So that’s how he will pitch.
Are we reaching a watershed moment for pitching mechanics? Eiland isn’t so sure. But then again, he never thought he’d see the rise of defensive shifting and on-field celebrations after singles.
“There a lot of stuff going on in this game I never thought I would see,” Eiland said. “So I’m never going to say never. That’s the way this game has evolved. If you don’t evolve with it, you’re going to be left behind.”