When organized baseball first came about, pitchers were only allowed to throw underhand. Fans wanted action- balls in play were what made the game fun to watch. This meant pitchers were more of a means to an end, lobbing the ball to induce contact. In 1884 this rule was abolished. This led to pitchers slowly but surely gravitating towards a more natural overhand throwing motion. It was easier to control the ball and manipulate it to move in different ways with this method. Thus, it became the standard. However, underhand and its more modern cousin, the sidearm delivery, never fully died out. In fact, this type of motion is making a resurgence and it’s creating some of the most interesting and entertaining pitchers in baseball today.
Why Are They So Rare?
The most obvious answer is that when a kid first picks up a baseball their first instinct isn’t to throw it from the side. The vast majority of young baseball players don’t naturally find themselves throwing sidearm. It’s usually learned by choice and is often developed after failed attempts to pitch with a more conventional arm slot. There’s a widespread opinion that throwing sidearm leads to more injuries. As many times as it’s been said, it’s never actually been proven. As is true with pitching three-quarters or overhand, it’s all in learning to do it properly.
What Defines A Sidearmer?
At its core, sidearm pitching is releasing the ball with your throwing arm parallel to the ground or lower. Finding every sidearm/submarine pitcher in MLB today proved to be a more difficult endeavor than I had originally envisioned. There’s no measurement out there that I could find that depicts how a pitcher’s arm is angled at release. After several configurations of Baseball Savant searches, I finally found a way around it.
I started with every pitcher that released at least one pitch five feet off the ground or lower in 2021. From there, I decided to make a cutoff point to eliminate pitchers who only drop down to that arm slot occasionally, a la Rich Hill or Nestor Cortes Jr.. The minimum requirement which I decided to set for a pitcher to qualify was that 80% of all pitches be thrown at or below five feet, but my job still wasn’t done. That left me with 32 pitchers. However, it included Craig Kimbrel who is decidedly not a sidearmer. So I went through all 32 analyzing their deliveries the best I could, going frame by frame to check their arm slot. This left me with 26. I did the same for 2016 and found just 16 total.
Is this method perfect? No, probably not. There are likely a few sidearmers who slipped through the cracks. This also relies on my opinion of whether or not a pitcher is throwing sidearm. Yours may differ from mine on some of the closer cases. Nevertheless, I think my (mostly) comprehensive list is a good enough pool to evaluate the modern low-slot pitcher.
Are They Actually Effective?
In a word, sometimes. Because every one of my 26 sidearmers is a relief pitcher, most of them suffer the same volatility commonly seen with many bullpen arms. Only half of them pitched more than 20 innings last season. Of that half, only three had an ERA above 4.00. On the whole, they pitched to numbers that were either near equal to or better than the league average.
While it’s certainly a smaller sample size compared to the rest of the league, the 784 combined innings that the sidearmers threw show promise as to their effectiveness as a group. They are certainly benefitted by the monstrous season Aaron Loup had, but that’s evened out by a few pitchers who totaled about 5% of the 784 innings but accounted for 15% of the earned runs. There are good ones and bad ones here, just like with the rest of the league.
My Favorites In The Game Today
Ryan Thompson is the prototype for a sidearm pitcher. He possesses a heavy sinker that induces ground balls at will. A frisbee of a slider with elite spin efficiency that causes it to bend violently to the glove side. He also has a 4-seam fastball that he loves to turn to in 2-strike counts. It tunnels well with his slider, and the movement difference and velocity gap create whiffs despite below league average speed and rise. The funk and suddenness of his delivery help his pitches play up quite a bit as well. He also has solid control over his pitches with a career 7% walk rate.
Tyler Rogers is the oddball in a room of guys that already stand out. You’ve probably seen him all over PitchingNinja’s page in the last two and a half years or so. What makes him special, is this:
He releases his pitches just 1.2 feet off of the ground on average. There have only been three pitchers in the last 15 years to average a release point within a foot of how low he goes. Adam Cimber is firmly on the far end of that one-foot range and the other two aren’t in the majors anymore. Rogers’ 4-seam fastball comes in the low-80s, but his upside-down delivery imparts topspin on it giving it extra vertical drop. This turns it into a ground-ball machine. His slider, shown in the gif above, may be the most unique pitch in baseball. It’s an active spin-heavy pitch that fights gravity as it flies. I think more than anything, it confuses hitters because there’s nothing else quite like it. That’s probably why hitters slug just .235 against it.
(image courtesy of BaseballSavant)
Justin Lawrence may not have had a ton of success in the majors yet, but he’s too unique to not talk about. This is a sidearm pitcher that can touch triple digits.
His walk rate to this point has been a bit unsightly, but he seems to have dialed it back a bit this season via a mechanical change. He’s not extending as far which has led to a decrease in velocity but he’s landing significantly more pitches in the zone. He’s up from 42.3% to a just-about-average 48.4%. For a pitcher who has walked one out of every five batters he’s faced to this point, simply throwing more strikes is a step in the right direction. Plus, he’s still working mid-90s with a devastating slider. It’s not like he’s lacking for stuff as a result of the change.
Nick Sandlin represents what I believe the modern sidearm pitcher looks like. He’s got the usual sinker-slider repertoire plus a good 4-seam fastball that gets whiffs. In this regard, he’s similar to Thompson. The difference lies in his velocity and overall approach. Sandlin sits in the low-90s and can run it up to 96. He also likes to stutter his delivery and throw off a hitter’s timing.
While his command may not be as sharp as some of the other great sidearm pitchers, it’s certainly nothing out of the ordinary for a high-octane, strikeout-oriented relief pitcher. This is what I think we’ll see more of out of sidearmers going forward. As the game sees more and more velocity growth from pitchers, the sidearmers seem destined to follow suit. Granted, they won’t all be slinging heat like Lawrence, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see more guys like Sandlin who can reach back for mid-90s gas when they want to.
Sidearm pitching will almost certainly always be a bit of a rarity. Something we immediately notice when watching a pitcher for the first time and marvel over, or at the very least enjoy. It’s also important to remember that it’s not a sideshow and never has been. It’s an art form, just like any other type of pitching. From flamethrowers to knuckleballers, the sidearmer fits in just like any other and it will always have a place in baseball.
Photography by Joe Robbins & Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)