In baseball, sidearm describes balls thrown along a low, approximately horizontal axis rather than a high, mostly vertical axis (overhand).
Sidearm is a common way of throwing the ball in the infield, because many throws must be made hurriedly from the glove after fielding ground balls. An infielder’s quickest throw to the bases is often from just above ground level, necessitating a horizontal release of the ball.
Sidearm pitchers, also known as sidewinders, are uncommon at all levels of baseball (except in Japan, where sidearm pitchers are widely popular). Few find sidearm a natural delivery, and those who do are often discouraged by coaches who know little about sidearm mechanics, and who believe that overhand pitching affords greater velocity. This is generally true, since a high release point uses gravity to accelerate the ball, even as air resistance works to slow it. With a low sidearm release the ball is slowed threefold: by gravity (as it ascends), increased distance (because of its higher arc), and air resistance. But what the sidearm pitcher loses in velocity, he gains in ball movement and unusual release point.
Historical progression of pitching
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the game of baseball began to evolve from a sport played by amateurs for recreation into a more serious game played by professionals. One of the most dramatic changes was the transition of the pitcher's delivery from an underhand motion to an overhanded throw. Before the American Civil War, the pitcher's role was to initiate the action by offering an underhanded throw to the batter, in much the same way that a basketball referee offers up a jump ball to begin play. As the game progressed towards professionalism and became more serious, pitchers began to attempt to prevent the batter from hitting the ball by throwing faster pitches. The rules governing the delivery of pitches proved to be hard to enforce, and pitchers continued to stretch the boundaries of the rules until by the 1870s, the release point of pitches had reached the pitcher's waist level. As the game continued to evolve into the 20th century, pitchers' release points continued to rise to present day levels, although some adherents continued to use the sidearm delivery.
The various spins pitchers commonly employ—fastballs, curveballs, sliders, cutters—cause the ball to diverge from a “normal” trajectory. This is caused by the Magnus effect, which makes the ball move in the direction of its rotation. Batters learn these spins and their likely trajectories, but predominantly from high-axis pitchers whose pitches rotate around a mostly horizontal axis. Sidearm pitches rotate similarly, but around an approximately vertical axis. This causes common pitches to behave very uncommonly. For example, the four-seam fastball, when thrown by overhand power pitchers, seems to “hop”, or rise on its way to the plate. This is because the ball is rotating backwards, lowering the air pressure above the ball. The same pitch thrown by the sidearm pitcher causes a horizontal rotation, and consequent sideways movement. Sidearm pitchers whose deliveries are below the horizontal throw a fastball that rotates nearly forward, so the ball will sink rather than rise.
Sidewinders’ unusual release points make it difficult for the batter to “see” the ball, because hitters are so accustomed to seeing the release from near the pitcher’s head. Further, because the ball is released from alongside the rubber (and some sidearm pitchers step a little toward their pitching arm side when they deliver the ball) it can appear to a same-side batter that the ball has been thrown at him.
These characteristics have typecast today’s sidearm pitchers as relievers, entering the game in the late innings as a “different look” from overhand pitchers. Though this is an effective strategy, some of the greatest starting pitchers in baseball history, notably Walter Johnson, Satchel Paige, Don Drysdale, Carl Mays, and Dizzy Dean, threw the ball sidearm.
Other prominent major leaguer sidewinders include, or have included, Madison Bumgarner, Scott Feldman, Pat Neshek, Scott Sauerbeck, Dennis Eckersley, Mark Eichhorn, Javier López, Jake Peavy, Vinnie Pestano, Ted Abernathy, Dave Baldwin, and Bob Locker. Still others such as Jered Weaver, David Cone, and Tom Henke would sometimes "drop down" to a sidearm delivery to fool a batter for a strikeout.
It is most common to hear that sidearm pitching places less stress on the elbow and shoulder, thus reducing a pitcher's risk of injury. It is also not uncommon to hear the opposite. Analyses of pitchers' deliveries shows that arms slots are a function of shoulder tilt, not elbow angle, and this suggests that no one arm slot poses a greater threat to the elbow than another. It is likely, however, that pitchers who throw overhand are more susceptible to hyperabduction and concomitant rotator cuff problems, because they more easily throw the ball with the elbow higher than the level of the shoulders.
- Morris, Peter (2010). Catcher: How the Man Behind the Plate Became an American Folk Hero. Government Institutes. p. 41. ISBN 1-5666-3870-4. Retrieved 11 July 2012.
- Adair, Robert K., The Physics of Baseball, HarperCollins Perennial: New York, NY, 2002, pp. 55–62, ISBN 0-06-008436-7 Contains a discussion about whether it is possible for a fastball to overcome gravity sufficiently to actually rise.
- Arm Slot – Perception. Chrisoleary.com. Retrieved on 2010-11-16.
- Hyperabduction. Chrisoleary.com. Retrieved on 2010-11-16.