Baseball pitchers tend to be lunkers. Big guys with pterodactyl wingspans and country-boy musculature tailor-made for bringing small, inanimate spheroids to blistering life. The reason is simple physics. Long levers cut broad, sweeping swaths through space, which means more time to impart force before sending the ball homeward, adding deadeye aim, trickier English, and as they say in the business, lots of gas. This concept shouldn't be lost on anybody who, as a child, ever flicked macaroni and cheese across the table at a sibling: A serving spoon launches better than a teaspoon. Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise that four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, arguably the world's best living thrower of any ilk, stands but six feet even and weighs just 180 — the Major League equivalent of your smallest utensil.
Indeed, Maddux's motion is so compact and controlled that it's sometimes hard to tell if he's giving it all he's got. His windup, kick, stride, and follow-through — the key elements of throwing — are so smooth they seem effortless, and when Maddux's 88-mile-an-hour fastball arrives at home, the catcher's mitt issues not the familiar M-80 crack, but a muffled, puffy sound. Shhhrrrifffpppk. Unimposing, to be sure, yet Maddux routinely transforms marquee batsmen like Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn into twisted heaps of double-knit wreckage.
"Dude!" answers Maddux, standing in the Braves locker room a few hours before a recent game, when asked how an average Joe can duplicate such hurling success. The 31-year-old Las Vegas native generously peppers all his conversations with this junior-high catchall. More often than not, the word signals the arrival of one of Maddux's nifty truisms about throwing or, occasionally, life in general. The theme is usually the same: Simplify. "Pitching," he says, "is not difficult." But delving deeper, it's clear that throwing requires a complex, seemingly illogical sequence of lever-flips and spring-uncoilings, beginning in the left toe and ending in the fingertips of the right hand (vice versa for southpaws), that few people ever truly master. There's always more efficiency to be wrought out of the human body.
Whether you're trying to blow one by a .300 hitter or trying to scare off a too-friendly moose with a well aimed rock, the four basic elements of throwing are the same; baseball pitches simply exaggerate each step. The windup gets things started by providing a subtle rhythm: Maddux swings his arms overhead and rocks backward, laying down the backbeat, if you will, by which the muscles of the legs, back, arms, and hand will do their work. Maddux's left foot — or striding foot — then pushes off from the ground behind him and swings forward and across his body. This is the kick, and Maddux's, as you might expect, is moderate, relaxed, practically boring. Other pitchers kick so high they can practically spot home plate under their knee. One notable extremist, 1970s Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, went so far as to wrap his striding leg clear around his tubby waist like a stripe circling a barber's pole.
Whatever style you choose, or whatever you choose to throw, the kick is crucial, because that's when the body is recoiling to store up power that will be unleashed as you swing forward. "All the twisting of the legs and rearing back of the arms is actually being absorbed by that cowhide," explains one expert. "The pitcher is doing work on the ball, so that when it leaves his hands, the object behaves exactly as he wants it to." For Maddux this means that, depending on which subtle arm motion he chooses to impart as he releases the ball, his "cutter" will dart inward and upward, jamming the batter's hands; his "slider" will snake down and away just inches before reaching home plate; and one of his wiliest pitches, the "circle change," will leave his hands looking like a straight-and-narrow fastball even though it's actually traveling at the speed of a Little Leaguer's best offering, causing the perplexed batter to swing and miss before the ball reaches the plate.
Next, with his leg cocked in the air, Maddux's center of gravity starts cheating forward so that the muscles of the legs, back, and rear don't have to start from scratch when they push off from the rubber. The right arm, with ball nestled gently between the fingers, makes a sweeping arc back behind him, readying itself for action by cocking into position and gently stretching its muscles. Thus begins the stride. Maddux aggressively shoves off the rubber with his pivot foot, hurtling his body toward home plate. It's like tossing a baseball off the front of a speeding train: If you throw the ball 60 miles per hour and the train is already doing 25, somebody up ahead is going to have an 85-mile-per-hour fastball on his hands.
As the body lunges toward home, the arm is left slightly behind, poised to sling forward. At the last possible moment, the muscles of the shoulder, back, and chest go to work and begin trying to catch up, speeding the elbow forward, then the forearm, then the wrist, then the fingers. Finally, the last springs of the throwing contraption trip and the fingers let loose with the pitch. The ball sails forward. The batter whiffs. The Cy Youngs collect dust on the shelf.
"Dude," says Maddux, grabbing his glove and heading for the tunnel that empties out onto the freshly mowed field, where his teammates are beginning to loosen up. "It's just not that hard."
Obviously, despite his protestations, Greg Maddux doesn't really stay Cy Young sharp by merely playing golf and poker in his spare time. He works out — and here's a fairly typical pitcher's workout recipe to add zip to your fastball or some heat to that backyard softball game.
Work the little muscles. Dozens of major-league careers have been dashed by weak rotator cuffs, the primary muscles that stabilize the shoulder. Anchor one end of an Xertube, or any exercise device that uses surgical tubing to provide resistance, on a doorknob. Hold the other end in your pitching hand with your elbow against your side as though it's attached at your hip. Pull the tubing across the front of your body, similar to the motion of a tennis forehand. Next, face the opposite direction. Keeping your elbow at your side, pull across the front of the body, as if you're hitting a backhand. Do three sets of 20 to 25 repetitions of each exercise every day.
Work the big muscles. Because throwing employs almost every major muscle group, many trainers recommend a comprehensive tour of the weight room three times a week. Don't skimp on lat pull-downs and bench presses, which strengthen the pectorals, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi muscles, which rotate the shoulder. The rowing machine will strengthen the rhomboids. Weak rhomboids, which attach the scapula to the rotator cuff, increase the chances of rotator cuff injury. Finally, it's important to do what trainers call eccentric contractions, so that the muscles of the arm can effectively decelerate the arm after the pitch is released. During the bench press or military press, slowly — rather than quickly — bring the weight back to rest position.
Work while you throw. As you stride forward while making a pitch, step slightly to the left if you're right-handed, or to the right if you're a leftie. Doing this will open your hips and trunk toward home plate, which in turn adds more torque to the shoulder, which is trying to play catch-up with the rest of the body. Your shoulder muscles will learn to accelerate the arm more quickly, and that fastball will blow right past the firm's executive V.P.
A) Muscles in shoulders and forearm elongate as throwing arm arcs behind the head in wind-up. Striding foot pushes off from the ground and swings in front, moving center of gravity closer to the target. Muscles in hips and shoulders are contracted just prior to rotating toward target.
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