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Hands up

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a game between the Mets and the Diamondbacks. Randall Delgado was pitching for Arizona and the always informative Mets announcers (there really is no finer crew of team broadcasters than Gary Cohen/Ron Darling/Keith Hernandez) mentioned that Delgado is a throwback to the old days with his pitching delivery. Delgado starts his pitching motion with his hands above his head.

I'm not terribly observant about things like this, and it occurred to me when Cohen was saying this that "hey yeah, pitchers don't do that anymore, do they?"

If you look at video of the best pitchers from the time I first started watching baseball, the majority seemed to begin their pitching motion with throwing hand and glove meeting above their head. Go look at the tape. Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Don Sutton, Catfish Hunter. They all do this.

By spending just 20 minutes or so on youtube, I guessed that this practice began to die out in the 1980s (Roger Clemens started out with his hands over his head, but didn't do it later). And by the 1990s, only gimmick-type relievers and foreign imports were starting their wind-up with hands up. The vast majority pitched as they do now. They start their motion at their chest. Some will raise their hand and glove to the front or side of their face, some won't even do that. There is no giant arc to start their delivery.

But since I hadn't paid attention to this bit of trivia, oh, these last 30 years, I wondered if starting a pitching motion above the head was as common 30 years ago as I was seeing on videos. Just for example, in the video of the special playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees in 1978, Red Sox starter Mike Torrez, starts his motion at his chest. The Yankees' Ron Guidry goes over his head.

If I was statistically and mathematically inclined -- and paid to do research -- I'd invest a lot of time into archival footage and charts and graphs and numbers you don't understand. But I'm not and I'm not.

I'm just a dude with a little baseball card blog, who studies his cards and sees what he can find.

And guess, what? I found pictures of pitchers with their hands over their head.

It's a pretty common pitching pose. Cliched even. Aside from the "pretending to throw" pose and the "glove at the chest/looking in for the sign" pose, "hands over head" might be the next most-common pose. And then there are the action shots. Got to be some pitchers who were snapped in the act with hands up, right?

But how common?

I was operating on limited time. So I decided to start with the earliest Topps set that I had completed, see how many pitchers had their hands over their head, and then go in five-year increments all the way to the present.

It's not scientific. It doesn't prove anything. But I thought it was interesting. And you know where that ranks among priorities on this blog, don't you? Yup. No. 1.

So, I started with the 1971 Topps set. It's the oldest set that I have completed.

In a 752-card set (of course not all of them are photos of individual players), there are 33 cards in which a pitcher is featured with his hand and glove over his head.

This was the largest number of any set that I looked at, and I think it's because not only did more pitchers start wind-ups like this back then, but they were perceived as starting wind-ups like this by the photographers who took the pictures. The idea of a pitcher winding up like this dates back much earlier than 1971 as this kind of wind-up was a hell of a lot more common pre-70s. Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson all started wind-ups with hands up.

Five years later, the 1976 Topps set features 26 pitchers with their hands over their head, including rookie Eck here.

It's interesting because when Eckersley became the best reliever in the game, he didn't wind-up like this at all (not a good idea for a reliever anyway). He had that wild, gun-slinging motion that started near his chest, which is actually how he threw when he was a starter with the Red Sox and Cubs, too.

So was this just a stereotypical photographer's pose or did pitchers still pitch like this?

It's difficult to tell from the cards. If I look at the set immediately prior to '76, the 1975 Topps set, there are only 10 pitchers with their hands over their head. And the 1974 Topps set has only FOUR pitchers with their hands over their head. Move ahead to 1977 and there are 13 pitchers with overhead delivery depiction and 1978 has just eight.

I was starting to think it was merely up to the individual photographer. If he thought that's what represented a pitcher, maybe he asked the pitcher to pose hands over head. But maybe another photographer didn't. Maybe the photographers who shot the '76 set though the hands-above-head picture was groovy. As you can see, going by the cards isn't telling me much.

The 1981 set displays just six pitchers with their hands over their head, including rookie Bill Gullickson. I think rookies were asked to pose this way a lot just because people didn't know who they were back then. If they saw the hands-over-head pose, they knew: "HEY! THAT'S A PITCHER!"

Action photos were starting to dominate Topps sets at this time, which I hoped would demonstrate a little better how many pitchers possessed those deliveries.

For example, in the 1980 set, out of nine pitchers with their hands over their head, two are action shots of the world championship Pirates.

Maybe it's the influence of those 100-year anniversary caps.

By 1986, the number of pitchers with their hands over their head had trickled down to a mere three. Pitchers were so out of touch with this old-style form of delivery that Alejandro Pena thought he could perform it without the use of a ball.

I kept waiting for the set in which no pitchers had their hands over their head. But 1988 has five pitchers with hands over head (including Ken Schrom who is doing such an act in a game). And 1989 has two.

The 1991 set has five pitchers with overhead delivery, including the most famous such delivery of the '80s and '90s in Fernando Valenzeula, who complemented his traditional motion with an eye roll toward the sky.

The next set I was supposed to review was 1996 Topps, but I have so few cards from this set, less than 60. It was no surprise that I didn't find a pitcher with an overhead delivery.

I looked to 1995 because aside from the early '90s, that's the one set in the decade in which I own more than 200 cards.

Out of the 300-or-so cards I own, I could find only one player with the overhead delivery and he's just clowning.

The overhead delivery had become so archaic that it was used only for comedic value.

When Hideo Nomo arrived in the major leagues in 1995, his traditional delivery was viewed as charming and quaint. A novelty.

I skipped reviewing the sets from the late '90s and early 2000s, since I wasn't collecting at the time and the few cards I have wouldn't tell me anything.

But I couldn't wait to look at 2006 Topps. I have the complete set (except Alex Gordon, of course) and the complete Updates & Highlights set. I figured this would be the set that featured not a soul with their hands up. What a spectacular statement on the bygone days of the overhead pitching motion. Out of 900-plus cards in that set, not one pitcher in that pose.

Except ...

Joel Zumaya?

OK, who's the old geezer that posed 100 mph-plus flame-throwing closer Zumaya in a stance from the 1920s?

I saw Zumaya pitch many times and not once did he start his motion from over his head.

I don't own the entire 2011 set, but I have probably two-thirds of it. It has the most non-overhead delivery photos out of any set that I reviewed. There isn't a single card of a current player in that pose. Tim Collins here is the closest I could come.

I'm assuming that the lack of that delivery on cards -- whether because the motion has been phased out on the field or that it's so ancient that not even photographers or fans think of pitchers doing that anymore -- is illustration that it's no longer useful to pitchers.

My pitching days ended when I was about 12 years old. So I don't know what starting a motion over the head did for a pitcher or what it does for Randall Delgado. Most clinics on pitching talk about balance and posture. Where you start your delivery doesn't seem all that important.

But maybe someone could pose Delgado with his hands over his head (with ball in glove, of course!), just for old times sake.

(P.S.: Relief pitcher Ross Ohlendorf of the Nationals also uses this pitching motion).


hiflew said…
I'd really to see someone looking for a Masters or PhD in Sports Medicine do a study on this. I have often wondered why Tommy John surgery seems to be so common on pitchers today. Is it the overuse of pitches with movement, relative lack of strength, or something oddball like the change in pitching motion? There is a doctorate in this topic, but unfortunately it's not my field.
petethan said…
I miss the old pitching motions. Gotta assume the abbreviated thing they do now is somehow more efficient with all of the friggin' science they put into things. But it's nowhere near as pretty as watching Marichal or Koufax. Remember Paul Byrd? We need more old-schoolers like that. (End of old man rant.)
Fuji said…
It's funny how I never noticed that pitchers don't really do this anymore. But now that I do... I'm bummed. This post brought back great memories though... I really, really miss Nomo's and Fernando's wind-ups.
GOGOSOX60 said…
Dave Giusti of the Pirates had a great full wind up pitch!
Ana Lu said…
I was watching a D-Backs game from last month and the pitcher was Skaggs.
And I noticed, thanks to your post, that he too uses the vintage way of preparing the throw and goes with both hands up his head before throwing the ball.
Don't know if he has a card showing it.
Matthew Glidden said…
1951 Bowman's the first major set to use rectangular dimensions suited to full-body poses. In its 300+ cards, only one pitcher is shown with hands above head preparing to throw, but he's a good one.

1951 Bowman Preacher Roe