Why Do Baseball Pitchers Lift Their Leg?

Throwing a baseball is one of the most complex and unnatural motions in all of sports. The rotational forces involved in pitching place tremendous stresses on the shoulder and elbow. At the professional level, pitchers are highly-trained athletes executing precise biomechanical motions to throw a ball over 90 mph.

Yet, strangely enough, pitchers start their pitching delivery with a move that seems unnecessary – lifting up the leg. This unique aspect of pitching has become an integral part of the pitching motion, from little league to the major leagues. The ritual of the leg kick builds momentum, activates key muscle groups, keeps the pitcher balanced, and helps align proper throwing mechanics. While the basic pitching motion may appear simple, an intricate sequence of coordinated movements is needed to achieve peak performance and prevent injury.

History of the Leg Kick

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The leg kick has been a part of baseball pitching for over a century, though it did not become widespread until the early 1900s. According to the Society for American Baseball Research, pitchers in the late 1800s would pitch from a stationary upright stance and were more focused on accuracy rather than velocity.

The evolution of pitching brought about a full wind-up and bigger leg kick in order to generate more power. Pitchers like Cy Young began incorporating a large leg kick and driving motion towards home plate as a way to increase velocity. Juan Marichal, who played from 1960 to 1975, was known for his famously exaggerated leg kick that kicked nearly above his head before delivery.

While the traditional leg kick became popularized in the early 20th century, it did not become a widespread technique until pitchers like Marichal demonstrated its potential to add power and intimidation on the mound.

Purposes of the Leg Kick

The main purposes of the leg kick or lift are to generate momentum, engage core muscles, and create rhythm in the pitching delivery.

When pitchers lift their leg, they shift their weight back, allowing them to build up momentum as they drive forward with their stride toward home plate. This momentum from the leg kick transfers force and energy into the pitch. The higher the leg lift, the more momentum a pitcher can generate.

Lifting the leg also engages the core muscles, including the abdominals, obliques, and lower back. Keeping the core engaged creates stability and alignment in the motion. As pitchers lift their leg, they must maintain balance while shifting their center of gravity. This requires strength in the core to prevent collapsing.

Finally, the leg kick establishes a pitching rhythm. Each pitcher has their own timing and tempo, which provides consistency in their mechanics when repeated. The leg lift serves as the starting point for this coordinated sequence of movements that maximize efficiency and power. Mastering their personalized rhythm is crucial for pitchers to execute pitches efficiently.

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Phases of the Pitching Motion

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A pitcher’s motion can be broken down into several phases that work together to generate power and accuracy.

The key phases are:

  • Windup: The windup begins when the pitcher lifts the leg and starts the motion. The windup allows the pitcher to gain momentum and rhythm before stepping towards the plate. Research shows the windup corresponds to about the first 40% of the pitching motion.

  • Stride: The stride phase starts when the pitcher pushes off the rubber with the back leg and steps towards home plate. This generates momentum towards the batter. Stride foot contact occurs around 80% through the pitching motion.

  • Release: The release is the point when the pitcher lets go of the ball towards home plate, completing the throwing motion. This corresponds to 100% of the pitch. Proper timing of the release is critical for control and speed.

The transitions between windup, stride, and release are seamless – each phase flows smoothly into the next. Mastering the phases allows pitchers to maximize velocity and accuracy.

Momentum and Power

The leg kick is an essential part of building momentum and generating power in a pitcher’s delivery. As the pitcher lifts their leg, they shift their body weight back which creates a “loading” effect. This allows them to build up potential energy as they coil their body. When they stride forward, this potential energy is released, creating forward momentum toward the plate. The higher the leg kick, generally the more momentum a pitcher can gather.

The leg kick also engages the large muscles in the legs and core, creating a kinetic chain that transfers force up through the body. As the pitcher strides, the energy flows from the legs all the way through the arm, multiplying the velocity of the pitch. The coordinated timing of the leg kick and stride allows pitchers like Aroldis Chapman to throw over 100 mph fastballs. Without the momentum from the leg kick, it would be nearly impossible to throw at such high speeds.

Balance and Timing

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The leg kick helps a pitcher maintain balance and proper timing during their pitching delivery. As the pitcher lifts their front leg, they shift their body weight to their back leg. This allows them to balance on their back leg during the windup and stride phases. The leg kick also acts as a timing mechanism, allowing pitchers to coordinate the movements of their arms and legs.

The height and timing of the leg kick sets the pace of the pitching delivery. As the pitcher lifts their leg, they bend their back knee and coil their body. This loading of the back leg stores power that can be transferred forward during the stride. The leg kick reaches its maximum height as the pitcher rotates their hips and shoulders. As the hips and shoulders uncoil, the pitcher lowers their leg and strides forward. This synchronizes the uncoiling of the upper body with the striding of the lower body. Proper timing ensures all the body parts work together to maximize force and control.

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Some experts, like Tom House, believe finding the “balance point” during the leg kick is key. This is the moment when the pitcher’s center of mass is balanced over their back leg, allowing optimal use of their legs to generate power. Overall, the leg kick coordinates the movements of the entire pitching delivery for enhanced balance, rhythm and force transfer.

Individual Styles

Pitchers utilize different leg kick styles based on their biomechanics and preferences. Some pitchers have a high leg kick, lifting their leg above their waist, while others use a lower leg lift. The timing of the leg kick can also vary – some pitchers pause at the top while others kick and throw in one continuous motion.

Legendary pitcher Juan Marichal was known for his “leg kick that went higher than his head”. In contrast, many pitchers today such as Clayton Kershaw utilize a more abbreviated leg lift. The lower leg kick helps maintain balance and control throughout the pitching motion.

Ultimately pitchers adopt a style that allows them to maximize power and consistency in their own delivery. The leg kick technique that works best depends on the individual pitcher’s strength, flexibility and coordination. While the fundamentals are similar, each pitcher puts their own signature on the leg kick.

Some Pitch Without It

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Some pitchers are able to generate elite velocity and command without using a leg kick. A notable recent example is Nathan Eovaldi of the Boston Red Sox. In 2018, Eovaldi threw a 100 mph fastball against the Yankees with essentially no leg lift. He starts with a narrow stance, lifts his foot just a few inches, and then drives directly toward the plate with elite arm speed.

Another famous no-leg-kick pitcher was Satchel Paige. The legendary Negro Leagues and MLB pitcher did not lift his leg at all. Nonetheless, Paige was known for his blazing fastball and pinpoint control throughout his long career. His mechanics allowed him to pitch until age 59.More modern pitchers like Bronson Arroyo and Jenrry Mejía also pitched without a leg kick. They prove it’s possible to succeed at the highest level without this traditional technique.

However, the leg kick remains the overwhelming norm among professional pitchers. It provides power and rhythm that is difficult to match without it. But examples like Eovaldi and Paige demonstrate that, with enough arm strength and coordination, an effective pitch can still be delivered without lifting the leg.

When to Lift the Leg

The timing of when a pitcher lifts their leg during the pitching motion is an important consideration. Generally, there are two options for when to lift the leg: at the beginning of the windup, or at the apex (top) of the windup.

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Lifting the leg early in the windup can help pitchers gain momentum and rhythm in their motion. As pitching coach Tom House explains, “Lifting the leg starts the separation phase, allowing the lower body to create momentum toward the plate while the upper body coils against that momentum”. The earlier leg lift shifts the body’s center of gravity and builds potential energy.

On the other hand, some pitchers advocate lifting the leg later, at the apex of the windup when the hands are at their highest point. Delaying the leg lift allows pitchers to maintain balance before shifting their weight. According to coach Ron Wolforth, this technique “allows pitchers to achieve ideal posture, balance, and alignment” before beginning the explosive drive toward home plate.

The ideal timing is largely based on individual pitching styles and preferences. Lower body strength and control enables earlier leg lifts, while pitchers still developing balance may wait until the apex. Varying when to lift the leg during practice helps pitchers find their optimal timing for power and efficiency.

Conclusion

The leg kick has become an integral part of a pitcher’s windup and is used by the vast majority of pitchers in baseball today. Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century, but it rose to prominence when pitchers like Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal used it to great effect in the 1960s.

The leg kick serves several important purposes for pitchers. Firstly, it allows them to build up momentum and power that gets transferred to their throwing arm, increasing pitch velocity. Secondly, it helps with timing and coordination – the moment the leg kicks up serves as a trigger to start the kinetic chain that propels the ball forward. Finally, it helps pitchers maintain balance and control during their delivery.

While the leg kick is almost universally adopted today, it is still ultimately a matter of individual style and comfort. Some pitchers can achieve success without lifting their leg at all. But for most, the leg kick is an indispensable tool that allows them to optimize their pitching mechanics. It helps pitchers harness the lower body strength needed to excel at baseball’s highest level.

In conclusion, the ubiquitous leg kick is far from a random flourish. It serves concrete biomechanical purposes for pitchers. Perfecting the leg lift is a fundamental part of developing excellence in pitching. While personal styles may vary, the principles behind the leg kick remain integral to achieving repeatable, efficient, and powerful pitching deliveries.

Adrian Cook
Adrian Cook

Hello, I'm Adrian Cook, and I am the author of BaseballMatchDay.com. I have a deep-rooted connection to baseball as I was once an avid player of the sport. Baseball has always held a special place in my heart, and my personal experiences as a player have shaped my understanding and love for the game. Having been on the field, I intimately understand the intricacies, challenges, and joys that come with playing baseball. It is this firsthand experience that allows me to bring a unique perspective to the content I create.

Baseball Basics, Rules, Strategies, and Legends
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