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In baseball, a pitch is the act of throwing the ball toward home plate, where the batter stands waiting to hit, to begin play. Historically, pitches have been thrown overhand, or where the arm and hand start high before snapping hard in a downward motion, and the ball is released (mostly) from a point above the hip level.
Still, if you wanted to, could you pitch underhand in baseball?
It is not against the rules in baseball to pitch underhand. However, very, very few choose to do so because it is much easier to throw baseballs at faster velocities, and with more movement and other trickery, than when tossing a ball underhanded.
Several reasons make today’s baseball pitchers throw almost exclusively overhand. Pitchers can take better advantage of height and gravity coming off an elevated pitcher’s mound; use torque from their body in the process of throwing to increase energy; and propel the momentum of body weight toward home plate when throwing from over the shoulder.
In Major League Baseball, overhand pitching has dominated for much longer than underhand hurling. In fact, pitching the baseball overhand was prohibited until 1884. Real early MLB pitchers threw underhanded.
Baseball leaders tweaked the rules quite often in the latter half of the 19th century. Much like today, they were constantly trying to find that balance between offense and defense.
So when underhand pitchers began dominating batters, the pitcher’s plate (mostly called the rubber today) was moved back several times, in increments, in an effort to help batters hit better.
Then, of course, hitters’ success rates continued to rise, to a point where the batters held the advantage over their pitching counterparts for a spell.
Eventually, baseball leaders tried setting the rubber at 60 feet, 6 inches, and allowing pitchers to toss overhand ~ and an equilibrium was established between offense and defense in baseball that continues to this day. Nobody knows why those parameters work. But they do.
Throwing underhand in baseball
Tossing a ball underhand, that is beginning by holding the ball around mid-height, and rocking the hand from behind the body forward, to the front of the pitcher in a pendulum-like motion, is legal all over baseball.
Any player can throw underhanded, and in fact they quite often do, including pitchers. It’s just pitches are rarely thrown underhanded.
Pitchers when fielding ground balls quite often will underhand the ball to a base to put out a runner (like Keith Foulke’s epic long underhand toss to 1st base to end the 2004 World Series).
Players all over the field on defense will throw underhanded to make plays, mostly in the infield, especially between the 2nd baseman and shortstop in the act of turning a ground-ball double play. Even outfielders now and then might throw underhanded, like when no plays are to be made but they need to softly toss the ball back to the infield.
Is it illegal to throw underhand in baseball?
No, it is not illegal to pitch baseballs using the underhanded style. Regarding the style of pitching, or the location of the ball upon release, the only type of pitching that’s been banned is overhand pitching, from the start of the MLB in 1876, through 1884.
There are other types of illegal pitches in baseball, but they involve things like not starting with a foot on the rubber, or hesitating during windup or delivery, and not necessarily whether the ball is thrown from a high or low angle.
Throwing underhand is allowed under baseball rules. However, as stated already, you will rarely see pitchers choosing to throw underhanded. The only time they might is for a single pitch, to trick or fool a batter who might not be ready.
Pitchers can just throw the ball harder and faster, and make the ball curve and bend and drop better, by throwing overhand. It’s just a matter of physics, and using more of the body to create energy to add oomph to pitches.
Back when MLB pitchers hurled underhand, there was no raised mound to throw off. They pitched from flat ground, and a lot closer to home plate than today.
As stated above, eventually pitchers learned to throw too hard and use too many trick pitches to give batters a fighting chance.
Hence the big pile of dirt under the pitching rubber. The higher vantage point provides pitchers with advantages:
- It is much harder to hit a pitched ball that is traveling at a downward trajectory, than it is to hit a ball flying dead straight like it was on a rope. We don’t quite have time to explain why, except that batters struggle if they have to look way up high for the ball, and to hit the thing at an angle. It’s a reason why Randy Johnson, at 6-feet, 10-inches tall, was hard to hit.
- Pitchers have a lot more options regarding arm angle while throwing overhand. Pitching underhanded means the ball always comes from the same point off a pitcher’s body: off the hip on the throwing-arm side, close to the body. However, pitching a baseball overhand means a pitcher can snap the pitching arm straight downward, throw the ball off to the side as in from a 45-degree angle, or from way straight away in a sidearm motion. A big part of pitching success depends not on how fast you can throw the ball, but whether you can deceive hitters. (Randy Johnson also threw quite side-armed).
- The raised mound allows pitchers to step back, then rock forward ~ the pitcher’s windup and stride ~ and fall downward toward home plate, developing momentum which allows for harder throwing. It’s all about building and releasing energy.
- The raised mound even lets pitchers release the ball from beneath the level of the hips ~ though there is a great difference between what they call a “submarine” pitch in baseball, and a fastpitch softball pitcher’s tosses which are snapped hard at the wrist with the hand close to the body. Still, bending low to pitch a baseball can upset batters, because of the weird point at which the ball releases from the hand.
The mechanics of underhanded pitching are completely different from pitching in an overhand manner. It is not impossible to succeed in baseball with an underhand pitch motion; however, it has proved to be way more difficult. In fact, no MLB pitcher today has mastered getting professional hitters out consistently by pitching underhand like fastpitch softball hurlers.
Successful underhand pitchers
Christ Hayes, a minor baseball league player, pitched the ball underhand. He couldn’t throw a baseball faster than 70 mph using the conventional overhand method.
So he figured out how to pitch underhand, being more strategic with hiding the ball before release so batters could not see pitches well; and pinpointing targets and changing speeds. His tactics almost took him all the way to the major leagues.
Even after 1884, a few pitchers kept hurling underhanded, and a very few had some success. However, none achieved the career advancement of Hayes with his underhand pitch.
According to witnesses and statistics, Hayes had unbeatable control of the ball ~ registering only 21 unintentional walks in 150 innings over the course of a couple of seasons. This is back during a period where batters were quite patient and took a lot of walks to get men on base.
Plus, Hayes only conceded 7 home runs during that same 2-season period. His pitches were just difficult to “square up” and hit well.
Some good major league pitchers through the years have arguably thrown underhand. Still, it’s not in the old pre-1884 style, nor like the fastpitch softball hurlers of today.
In reality, they used sidearm, or submarine, pitches. That is, by bending their back low during delivery, and releasing the ball below the hip (and even sometimes below the knees!).
Hall of Fame pitcher Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants was known to pitch overhand, sidearm, and “underhand” and had over 20 wins in a season 6 times. Marichal ended with a career earned run average (ERA) of just 2.89. He mixed up the release point of pitches so batters did not get good looks at the ball.
The next decade, the 1970s, saw relief pitchers like Kent Tekulve having great success with their low-throw, sidewinding submarine pitches that curved and bent a lot differently than those thrown overhand.
After Tekulve came Dan Quisenberry, whose sidearm pitching movement resulted in a fine career finishing with an ERA of 2.55, and a world championship with the Kansas City Royals in 1985.
From that point on over the years there have been several very successful side-armers, as they are called. Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley did not throw submariners, but much of his success came from throwing quite sidearmed. (Plus he was deadly accurate).
Chad Bradford found great success with the Oakland A’s around the turn of the 21st century with a throwing style where he sometimes dragged his knuckles on the dirt of the pitcher’s mound when throwing! (His release point was said to be around his ankles).
Famous side-armers in the modern MLB include Pat Neshek, Steve Cishek, Darren O’Day, and Brad Ziegler.
Benefits of pitching underhand
Even though pitchers cannot throw underhand pitches as fast as overhand offerings, sometimes going down below helps a pitcher control the ball better. That is, underhand hurling can help improve accuracy, which is a huge part of pitching success.
Underhand throws are just easier to command, or control, especially when the target (e.g. home plate) is closer. Enter, fastpitch softball.
Underhand pitching in softball
Top softball pitchers throw the ball underhand ~ because that’s the rules. Whether it’s older folks playing the slowpitch version (where the ball must arc above or at the batter’s head before dropping to cross or even land on home plate), or fastpitch version, pitchers in those sports cannot release the ball from above the hip.
A strange phenomenon with underhanded pitching is, the motion causes less stress on the hurler’s body compared with overhand throwing. You’ll hear announcers say it on television sometimes: “Throwing a ball overhand is not a natural motion for the human body.”
Therefore all the rotator cuff, elbow, and ligament injuries suffered by top baseball pitchers. It’s also a reason that the more an MLB pitcher throws in a game, the more time he needs off between games. Baseball starting pitchers wait 5 days between games to throw again, to rest the arm and let it heal from all the “damage” of throwing so many pitches consecutively overhand.
In fastpitch softball? The best pitchers can pitch entire games, and back to back games, often for weeks on end. (One reason some say they might have a “rubber arm”). Ever watch Olympic softball (when softball was an official Olympic sport)? Jenny Finch, and later Cat Osterman, pitched pretty much every inning of every game for Team U.S.A.
Even though softballs weigh about 30% more than baseballs, the pitching distance is shorter (43 to 46 feet from rubber to home plate at the top levels of fastpitch softball), and the pitching motion is easier on the body, so they can pitch effectively more often.
Sometimes softball people do the math and estimate how fast a softball pitcher would be coming at a batter, compared with the 60 feet, 6 inch distance of baseball pitching. That is, how fast does the softball appear to be coming to a softball batter?
Most top fastpitch softball throws hit around 60 or 70 mph in reality. But when the math is crunched, considering how fast batters must react with the shorter distance, it has been estimated that their pitches are the equivalent of fastballs traveling over 100 mph!
So, batters in both baseball and fastpitch softball face about the same split-second amount of time to decide whether or not to swing the bat.
Softball was originally designed to be played indoors during the winter, and was slower-paced than baseball. Thus, the game grew and progressed differently. The pitchers are closer, the bases closer together (at 60 feet compared with the MLB’s 90 feet), and the balls don’t travel as far as baseballs when hit.
There also is no pitcher’s mound in softball, removing the height-release point-gravity advantage. The movement of a good underhand throw in softball is significantly different from a good baseball throw; even the wrist action on breaking pitches in either sport is quite different. Softball pitchers can even make the ball appear to rise as it approaches the batter.
What types of pitches are prohibited in baseball?
Answer: According to the rules of baseball, a prohibited pitch is defined as a pitch that is delivered toward the batsman when the thrower’s pivot foot was not touching the pitcher’s plate (rubber). So pitchers are prohibited from starting their pitching motion from anywhere else on the field. They must start with at least a part of their body touching the rubber. There are other prohibited pitches and pitching actions, as outlined above, like severe hesitations during the windup and/or release.
What is the rarest pitch in baseball?
A.: The rarest pitch in baseball is most likely the screwball. This pitch is designed to move in the opposite way of almost every other type of breaking pitch, or pitches that curve or otherwise do not fly on a dead straight line. It is rare because it is very difficult to throw effectively, and it also takes a tremendous toll on the pitcher’s arm due to the awkward twisting of the elbow and wrist upon release.