The art of pitching

In order to understand baseball or softball, you need to have at least a little knowledge about pitching. This much I knew when I set out to discover the hidden secrets behind the craft of baseball and softball pitching. I didn’t expect to discover a new dictionary of words that I would be forced to quickly learn.

I learned phrases like “rise ball,” “drop pitch,” “peel drop,” “12 to 6,” “tailing” and “spike.” But believe me, I didn’t become fluent in baseball-ese and softball-ese within five minutes. My toil can be your gain, though.

If you’re reading this to spruce up on that once-forgotten baseball or softball pitching expertise from your childhood, or you just want to finally understand the words your baseball friend throws around, then you’re in the right place. Consider this article your Rosetta Stone for baseball-speak or softball-speak.

If pitching is an art form, then a baseball is the brush of choice the pitcher uses to create beautiful masterpieces onto the empty canvas of a catcher’s mitt. But what are the differences between a baseball pitch and a softball pitch?

As one of Wheaton’s best softball pitchers in recent memory, senior Katie Thornton, explained, “The main difference is the fact that we do more of an underhand or ‘windmill’ style. Because it’s underhand, we can get backspin on the ball, which allows us to throw a rise-ball or a screw ball. That’s something that baseball pitchers can’t do.”

Look for them, and you can clearly see that the difference in the forms of baseball and softball pitchers. Going deeper though, softball pitchers are able get more “rise” out of the ball than a baseball pitchers because their release point is so low — below their waist, in fact.

This low release point allows Thornton to throw her best and most effective pitch, called a drop pitch. The pitch looks like it is rising as it comes out of Thornton’s hand, but at the last second, it drops down as it reaches the batter. How does she get that dropping to occur?

“You just shorten your stride,” Thornton explained. “It’s called a peel drop. You just peel in order to get more topspin on the ball.”

See what I mean? Peeling? Peel drop? Who even knows what that means? Not an average fan like me. After consulting my dictionary of softball terminology, I discovered that peeling is when the pitcher pulls her hand back to her body quickly at the end of the pitch. This makes the ball travel slower. But due to the topspin of the ball, which drops the ball into the strike zone, it appears to be just as fast to the batter.

One of the aces for the Thunder baseball team, senior Josh Arevalo, explained his best pitch, the split-changeup, in similar terms. He also wants his pitches to “drop” as it appears in front of the batter.

“The split-changeup is a fairly rare pitch compared to a normal changeup since it is somewhat unpredictable,” said Arevalo. “You basically just hold it between your first two fingers (pointer and middle finger). Because of this, it’s hard to control and took me around four years to not hit a batter with it.”

Arevalo’s split-changeup and Thornton’s drop pitch both utilize what is generally called the “12 to 6” motion, referring to the top and bottom of a clock. Because Arevalo uses a traditional “over the top” pitching form, his arm comes over the top of his shoulder and he releases the ball a short distance from his ear. The opposite is true for Thornton — she releases the ball near her waist before snapping her wrist back to her body to generate even more speed.

Another type of pitching style, oftentimes utilized by left-handed baseball pitchers, is commonly referred to as a “submarine” pitch. This is when the pitcher leans to his left or right, depending on his throwing arm, as he releases the pitch. For junior southpaw pitcher John Schmitz, this description fits him exactly. He throws with his left hand and pitches at a side angle, which “hides” the ball for a longer period of time than an “over the top” pitcher, like Arevalo. Because the batter cannot see the ball until the last second with this type of pitch, the element of surprise is in play.

“I come at my pitches with more of a side arm form, so I’m able to hide the ball. I have more of a sweeping motion with my slider,” Schmitz said. “It then comes in looking more like a fastball before it breaks away from any lefty batter at the plate, so it’s harder to hit.”

English, please? What I believe Schmitz is referencing is the fact that a slider is when the pitcher throws a pitch with side-to-side motion, or “9 to 3” if the clock analogy helps. When Schmitz throws a slider, this horizontal movement directs the ball toward the batter if he is a righty or away if he is a lefty. When the ball goes away from the batter, such as in Schmitz’s slider, it is called “tailing.” And thus, the baseball word bank grows larger.

Another common baseball pitch is the curveball, which also has an up-and-down motion, somewhat similar to a change up. In order to construct the curve of the ball, a pitcher will hold the ball with a “spike” — when the pointer finger isn’t extended. Finally, the fastball is one of the most basic pitches, which every pitcher is able to throw. Just like you’d think, a fastball is essentially just a pitch thrown with as much velocity as possible and very little movement.

Not to be left out, Thornton explained that softball has many of these same pitches. They are given names like fastball, curveball, change-up, drop pitch, drop-curve, rise, screw and off-speed curve. Most of these pitches fall under one of two categories. A rise ball has backspin to make it start low and then finish high once it reaches the batter, but a screw ball comes in towards righty hitters and away from lefty hitters.

Thornton also believed that the positioning of a softball player is much different than baseball.

“Softball requires a lot more of your body,” she explained. “You have to open and close your hips since that’s where we get a ton of our power. A lot of times the speed doesn’t come from the arm circle, it’s more from the whip and the acceleration that comes with it.”

Like a wet noodle that is spun around in a circle, a softball pitcher’s arm increases in momentum and velocity as it travels up to the sky and then back down to the pitcher’s waist. As long as the arm is straight and the pitcher snaps her wrist at the end of the then the throw, the ball will have an incredible amount of force behind it.

After my foreign language lesson ended, I walked away from the conversation with more knowledge about pitching than I ever imagined. I was reminded of a quote by Brazilian lyricist Paulo Coelho, “The simple things are also the most extraordinary things.”

Each of these pitchers form brilliant pieces of art with softballs and baseballs with every pitch they throw. People watch with wonder as the ball dances and dives in the wind before finding a final resting place in the catcher’s mitt. It’s not on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, but if that’s not an artform, then I really don’t know what is.

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