One of the most beautiful features of baseball is that there are so many different ways to find success. Of course, certain pitching and hitting mechanics have been generally agreed upon to most often lead to positive outcomes and are reflected in the swings and windups of players everywhere. But for every fundamentalist, there exists a wildflower like Hunter Pence, someone who finds success seemingly in spite of their unorthodox approach. You see, a player’s swing or delivery is like a fingerprint (swingerprint?): no two are exactly alike. It’s what gives the game flavor and character, inspiring kids all over the world to sprint to their nearest sandlot to emulate their heroes.
We’ve all done it. Maybe you used to flail your bat around like Gary Sheffield or pinch it above your head like The Youk. I personally tried to emulate a right-handed Clayton Kershaw when I was growing up (feel old yet?) and fiddled with my batting gloves until the umpire yelled at me to get in the box like Nomah.
With some of these eccentric and iconic motions in mind, let’s hop in our time machines and embark on a Bill & Ted-esque journey to collect five of the wackiest windups of all time and assemble them into a single, beautiful pitching rotation.
1. Tim Lincecum
If you’re setting out to build a rotation of some of the all-time outlandish pitching motions, look no further than The Freaky Franchise for your ace. Listed at a generous 5’11” and 170 pounds soaking wet, Tim Lincecum used every ounce of his strength in a violent and twisting delivery to whip the ball to the plate and was somehow able to squeeze high 90s velocity out of his slight frame. The results were remarkable, if not short-lived. After bursting onto the scene in 2007 striking out over nine batters per nine, he rattled off back-to-back Cy Young seasons in 2008 and 2009 and quickly cemented himself as the premier pitcher in the National League. Lincecum’s thrashing delivery and over seven-foot lunge to the plate terrorized opposing batters, and he led the league in strikeouts from 2008-2010, punching out over 100(!!) more hitters than his runner-up, Justin Verlander (757 to 651). He was a major part of the Giants’ first championship season since 1954, punctuated by his masterful 14-K shutout against the Braves in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. Alas, Lincecum’s greatness was fleeting, and while he remained a member of the Giants’ title runs in 2012 and 2014, he was mostly a non-factor beyond 2011. But man, what a run it was.
2. Dontrelle Willis
Speaking of stars that burned too bright, few were as electrifying as the D-Train, Dontrelle Willis. Known for his signature high arcing leg kick, Willis’ repertoire featured a low 90s fastball and a sinker which helped him to induce weak contact and prevent home runs. In his debut season, Willis captivated audiences with an 11-2 record and 2.08 ERA in his first 13 starts, earning his first All-Star nod. He struggled with control issues in the second half, however, but remained effective down the stretch for the Marlins’ 2003 championship run. Willis was less effective in the playoffs and was hit around in two rough starts before coming out of the bullpen to throw three shutout innings in the World Series to help Florida secure their second championship. Following the playoffs Willis was named the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year, capping off one of the more successful rookie seasons of all time, at least from a hardware perspective. His finest season would come two years later in 2005, when he led the league in wins (22), complete games (7), and shutouts (5) while maintaining a 2.63 ERA and finishing second in Cy Young voting to Chris Carpenter. The following year proved to be Willis’ last effective season, and he was out of the majors by 2011, at age 29. While the D-Train’s prime may have been brief, there are few players that captured lightning in a bottle like Dontrelle. Oh, and did we mention he hit absolute tanks?
3. Orlando Hernandez
At this point, you may be asking, “Is this staff only going to feature pitchers from the early 2000s?” Maybe. Enter “El Duque” Hernandez, owner of one of the more outrageous leg kicks to ever grace the pitchers’ mound. El Duque demanded the attention of fans everywhere with his jerky delivery, with the apex of his leg kick appearing as if his knee was set to collide with his face. The older half-brother of Marlins hurler Livan Hernandez, Orlando defected from Cuba on Christmas Day in 1997 before agreeing to a four-year deal with the Yankees the following spring. Hernandez made his debut at age 32 and instantly became one of the key pieces of the Yankees’ three-peat championship run from 1998 to 2000. He quickly made a name for himself by throwing the entire kitchen sink at hitters and utilizing an arsenal of pitches mixed with different arm slots to get outs. Hernandez’s deceptive deliveries made him an effective front-end starter during the regular season, but he shifted into a higher gear in October, pitching to a 2.55 ERA and averaging 9.1 strikeouts per nine over 106 postseason innings in his career. El Duque may have had a late start, but with four World Series rings and seven postseason appearances in nine years, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone with a more efficient career.
4. Hideo Nomo
Hideo Nomo may be best remembered for being the first Japanese player to permanently relocate to the MLB, opening the doors for a flood of stars to make the jump from Japan. But before Ichiro, before Matsui, and before Ohtani, he was simply The Tornado: a talented right-hander with a puzzling windup where he would turn his back completely away from the hitter as he delivered to the plate. His corkscrew motion bewildered coaches and opponents alike and propelled Nomo to a stunning rookie season where he led the senior circuit with a whopping 236 strikeouts (11.1 K/9) in 191.1 innings, on his way to the 1995 Rookie of the Year over future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones. He followed up his impressive debut with another strong year in 1996, capped off by one of the greatest pitching performances of all time when he became the only pitcher to throw a no-hitter at the high-flying Coors Field. After 1996, The Tornado began to decline and became a roughly league-average pitcher, but Nomo would go on to throw another no-no for the Boston Red Sox in 2001 against the Orioles. Nomo officially retired after attempting a comeback in 2008 with the Royals, having inspired a generation of pitchers in both Japan and the United States.
5. Johnny Cueto
From 2011 to 2017, only one pitcher in the majors had a lower ERA than Johnny Cueto (min. 750 IP): Clayton Kershaw. Throughout his career, Cueto has merged the archetypes of the hard-throwing ace and crafty veteran with his signature hesitation and shimmy before firing the ball to the plate. By varying his leg kicks, arm slots, and by mixing in quick pitches, Cueto was able to keep hitters off balance and looking lost when they stepped in the box to face him. However, for all of his flare and swagger, sometimes it’s forgotten how utterly dominant Cueto was in the 2010s. In his eight-year career with the Reds, Cueto maintained a 3.21 ERA and 126 ERA+ over 1,339 innings pitched, including a forceful four-year stretch from 2011 to 2014 where he was among the best in baseball with a 2.48 ERA. His best season came in 2014, when he led the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, and hits per nine, and finished second in Cy Young voting. In 2015, Cueto was traded to the Royals midseason and became the first AL pitcher to throw a complete game in the World Series since Jack Morris in 1991 when he shut down the Mets in a 7-1 rout in Game 2. His unique and ever-changing delivery is truly a treat to watch and has inspired other pitchers like Marcus Stroman to find new and inventive ways to irritate opposing hitters.
Bonus: Kazuhisa Makita
You simply can’t have a list of the weirdest pitching styles without a submariner, and Kazuhisa Makita may have the wackiest delivery of them all. With a release point just inches above the ground, Makita seems to almost scrape the skin off of his knuckles with every pitch he throws. Makita’s bizarre and motion helped him to excel in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league, where he compiled an impressive resume primarily as a reliever. In his eight seasons with the Seibu Lions, Makita posted a 2.82 ERA over 925.1 innings, was named the 2011 Pacific League Rookie of the Year, and made four NPB All-Star appearances. In 2018, Makita was posted and signed a two-year deal with the San Diego Padres. He struggled in his only season with the team and finished 2018 with a 5.40 ERA over 35 innings. He was designated for assignment following the conclusion of the season. He’s now back in the NPB pitching for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, but his eye-popping delivery won’t soon be forgotten.
Photo adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)