The Case Against The Windup

Do I hate the windup? No. There’s nothing really to be said against the full knees, arses, elbows and nostrils delivery favored by pitchers for decades. It’s what happens to windup pitchers once someone gets on base that often becomes a problem.

Game 1 of the 2022 World Series. Justin Verlander of the Houston Astros has a no-hitter going into the top of the fifth inning. Five-run leads are usually insurmountable for the team on the wrong end of the situation: according to FOX, the record for teams with a five-run lead in the postseason all time is 589-18. And then…Philadelphia Phillie Rhys Hoskins reaches out and knocks a single to left center.

No big deal. Verlander is dealing. This will be fine. Except, it isn’t.

He isn’t.

Verlander now has to go into the stretch. If you’re not familiar with either the stretch or the windup, picture this: the windup is kind of like a skateboarder standing on his board on the pitcher’s mound with both ends pointed at first and third base. Quickly, he turns his feet so the board is now pointed at home plate and second base. He then lifts one leg and strides toward the plate. His back foot pushes off and he drives forward. That’s the windup. Often there is a swinging of arms up til the hands meet above the head as a way to start.

In the stretch. there is none of that extra movement. The pitcher simply lifts the knee closest to home plate, leans forward, pushes off with his back foot and throws. It should be simpler, but all of the extra movement in the windup serves as a timing mechanism. Starting halfway through is kind of like putting all of the ingredients of a cake mix in the oven without mixing them first.

Still, the stretch is simpler: fewer moving parts. Fewer things that could go wrong. It would seem that the stretch would be used all of the time by pitchers, but it’s not. Just like a golfer who is hitting great iron shots to the green, but can’t a driver, the switch from one to the other is not always seamless.

Once Verlander is forced out of the windup, he is incapable of getting comfortable with Hoskins at first. Even though he continues to throw fastballs between 94 and 97 and curveballs from 12 to 6, his ability to spot put the ball where he wants it is now off. Four base hits, including a two-run double by Alec Bohm, and a walk later, Verlander finally gets a pop out to end the inning. He is still leading 5-3, but Philadelphia is now full of confidence. Next inning, same story. Brandon Marsh doubles. Verlander is back in the stretch and walks Kyle Schwarber. JT Realmuto nearly hits one out of the park. His double scores both base-runners and just like that, he has gone from no-hitter to being tied 5-5. The final out of the inning comes when there is only a runner at third base and Verlander again goes into a windup.

It’s hardly unusual for a pitcher to get out of sorts when switching from the windup to the stretch, which begs the question, why do it? When a pitcher goes off the rails it can turn things around in a hurry for the opposition. And when you have a manager like Dusty Baker who sticks with his starter two long, you have a real problem. (You also have to feel for Baker. October 26, 2002: his San Francisco Giants are leading the Los Angeles Angels by five. It would be the last time a team lost a game after leading by five in the World Series. Baker now has the unfortunate distinction of being the manager of both losing teams).

Some day, Major League Baseball will probably outlaw the stretch to go with new rules limiting tosses to first base, bigger bases and other lunacies. Until then, pitching coaches might be wise to start limiting windups, lest what happened to Verlander happens again.

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