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When first learning how to pitch, young pitchers must learn the proper steps in the pitching motion to get used to the mechanics of throwing a baseball. This is taught in different ways by different coaches, but most of the basics are universal.
Some of the basics of the pitching motion are the step back, the leg lift, the drive, and the release (terms may vary among coaches). In this article, we are going to focus on just one of those basic steps: the leg lift.
Baseball pitchers lift their leg as part of the delivery process to create balance and initiate their first movement toward home plate.
Please keep in mind that there is not a “one size fits all” method for pitching mechanics. The leg lift is no different. What works for one pitcher may not work for another.
With that being said, every pitcher has some sort of leg lift that helps them create balance and momentum before delivering the pitch.
What is the Purpose of the Leg Lift?
The leg lift is an important part of the pitching motion and serves a distinct purpose.
The purpose of the leg lift is to create balance before initiating momentum toward home plate.
As we will discuss in the next section, the leg lift looks different for each pitcher, but it is important that each pitcher develop a leg lift that both creates balance before moving toward home plate.
If a pitcher is not balanced before initiating movement toward home plate, then he will not be very efficient in creating velocity on the pitch causing both velocity and command issues.
How High Should a Pitcher Lift His Leg?
This is the question that is most often asked by young pitchers who are first learning how to pitch. For those of you looking for concrete answers to this question, I hate to tell you that there is not one.
There is no requirement by rule for how high a pitcher should lift his leg during his pitching motion. A good rule of thumb for young pitchers is to lift your leg to the point where there is a straight line between your knee and your hip.
This is what some pitching coaches refer to as the balance point or max leg lift.
At the end of the day, the pitcher should do what is most comfortable for him and what allows him to pitch with the most command at the highest velocity possible.
Whether that means barely lifting his leg off the ground or almost kicking his hat off his head, every pitcher is different, and the leg lift often reflects that.
Using the knee in line with the hip rule is great for young pitchers, but once they master the act of creating balance before moving toward home plate, they should be encouraged to play around with what works best for them.
Is the Leg Lift Different in the Windup and the Stretch?
The windup is the pitching motion most often used by pitchers when there are no runners on base. It is a longer motion that begins with a step back with the foot on the pitchers’ glove side before going into the leg lift.
The stretch is the pitching motion most often used by pitchers when there are runners on base. It is a shorter motion that eliminates the step back and goes right into the leg lift.
A pitcher’s leg lift out of the stretch position is often either shorter or quicker than his leg lift out of the windup.
The purpose of pitching out of the stretch with runners on base is that it allows less time for the runners to attempt to steal. Shortening the leg lift is one way that pitchers can cut time off of their delivery to home plate. Some pitchers call this a slide step.
As stated earlier, the height of the leg lift does not matter. The only things that matter are comfort, balance, and the momentum that is initiated after. Some pitchers believe they can maintain all three of these by shortening the height of their leg lift.
Other pitchers do not change the height of their leg lift out of the stretch. They just do it at a much faster pace than their windup. This is not as common because many pitchers feel as if this faster leg lift gives them less control.
Most pitching coaches teach their pitchers to shorten their leg lift out of the stretch because it helps them maintain control. The bottom line is that controlling the running game is an important aspect of pitching.
One way to practice this is to have a coach record your time to home plate using a stopwatch. He should start the time when you lift your leg and stop it when the ball reaches home plate.
Different coaches have different goals for their pitchers’ times to home plate, but anything in the 1.3 second range is sufficient.
Does a Higher Leg Lift Increase a Pitcher’s Velocity?
Every young pitcher has played around with different things in their pitching motion in an attempt to throw harder. Assuming a higher leg lift will help increase their velocity is natural for young kids; however, they are incorrect in this assumption.
Increasing the height of a pitcher’s leg lift does not directly increase that pitcher’s velocity.
With that being said, if lifting his leg higher helps a pitching maintain more balance and allows him to gain more momentum toward home plate, then yes, it will increase his velocity. But the difference is not in the height of the leg lift; it is in the balance and momentum.
Again, I cannot say this enough: every pitcher is different. What works for Johnny does not always work for Joe, and the leg lift is no exception.
What Major League Pitchers Have High Leg Lifts?
Most pitchers in the MLB have rather unexciting pitching mechanics. That is why when a pitcher has a high leg lift, fans tend to take notice.
Pitchers such as Bronson Arroyo, Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, and Dontrelle Willis are known for their uniquely high leg lifts more so than their talents on the mound.
Bronson Arroyo pitched 15 seasons in the MLB. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, and Arizona Diamondbacks. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and made an All-Star team with the Reds in 2006.
As dependable as he was on the mound, most fans remember him for his high leg lift in which he kicked his foot out toward the third base line before delivering the pitch.
Orlando Hernandez (known as El Duque) began his career with the New York Yankees and had short stints with the Chicago White Sox, Arizona Diamondbacks, and New York Mets. He did not make his Major League debut until age 32 after playing professionally in Cuba.
El Duque was known for lifting his knee all the way up to his face on his leg lift while closing off his body to the hitter.
Dontrelle Willis burst onto the scene at age 21 on the 2003 Florida Marlins World Series championship team. He was the Rookie of the Year that year and was an All-Star in 2003 and 2005. His best years were his early years.
After short stints with the Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Cincinnati Reds, followed by some years in the minor leagues, Willis was out of baseball by age 29.
Willis was not only known for his high leg kick but also for wearing his hat a little crooked and his confident swagger on the mound, which rubbed a lot of old school baseball fans the wrong way.
The high leg lift was more popular in the early days of baseball. Nowadays, most pitching coaches try to simplify the pitching motion; therefore, the leg lift is typically taught to be much shorter.
What is a slide step in baseball?
A slide step is a move toward home plate where a pitcher does not lift his leg to start his pitching motion. Instead, he just lifts his foot and steps toward home plate. Pitchers sometimes do this with runners on base to quicken their motion and keep runners from stealing bases.
How far should a pitcher stride when throwing a baseball?
A good rule of thumb is that a pitcher’s stride should be the same length as his height. For example, if a pitcher is 6 foot 3 inches, his stride should be around the same length.