I was mostly a ¾’s to over the top pitcher, but I did throw some low ¾’s and sidearm at the end of my career. So I thought I would start a treatise on the role of the low ¾ -side arm pitcher.
The side-armer (and low ¾’s pitcher & submariner too) is generally used as a mid to late innings specialist to come in and get ground ball outs. This is because of the great sinking action on his fastball, and because of the optical illusion that is created by pitching to same side batters. This is the strength of this arm slot. Every batter is well acquainted with the hardness of a baseball. Getting “plunked” flat out hurts! This causes all but the best same side hitters to bail or “step in the bucket.” This robs a batter of most of his power and makes him a great candidate for a low-outside strike out pitch. Much like the closer, the sidearm specialist operates in a very pressurized part of the game. The sidearm specialist may only pitch to one or two batters, but when he is in the game his success is VITALLY needed!!!
The key to this arm slot and job in the bull pen is KEEP THE BALL DOWN!!!
The Arm slot and Suite of Pitches
The main reason for throwing sidearm is the sinking fastball. Yes, the pitcher can make life unbearable for same side batters with the curve and change, but the key pitch is the fastball, specifically the sinking fastball. This is the pitch that produces ground ball double plays, a staple of the sidearm reliever.
Like every fastball the sidearm fastball can be thrown with 2 or 4 seams, but it is important now to discuss variations in arm slot.
The low ¾’s arm slot two seam fastball shares a lot with the higher arm slots, ¾’s, high ¾’s, and overhand, in that is must be driven downward to be effective. To get a little extra sink on this pitch some guys turn it over sort of like a mini screw ball. When I did this, I did not get much more sink, but rather got a lot more inside run which was sometimes not wanted and resulted in hit batters. This run was helpful against opposite side hitters however and combined with a full screwball (that broke from 11-5) made an allegedly easier time at bat turn into something very frustrating for the opposite side batter.
The low ¾’’s two seamer can also be used to back door a fastball thrown low and outside coming back over to catch the outside corner of the plate. From my experience, this is better left to true side-armers or submariners. Why? At low ¾’s your fastball will be spinning roughly at 8 to 2. Your fastball still has some backspin and will fight gravity-although not nearly as much as the top arm slots. The Submariner and some True Side-armers actually get the advantage of the Bernoulli principal and the Magnus effect. This makes for a more “snappy” pitch which is what you want. From my experience, I did not get many 3rd strikes that veered in over the outside corner from low ¾’s. Much more often the batter swung over the top of the ball because I was more interested in driving the ball downward.
From low ¾’s I used the 4 seamer as a waste pitch up and in and it was normally set up by a curveball. It was in effect a reverse change-up. I changed speeds by throwing harder. Because I was only medium fast, I did not make a habit of using this pitch very often. It violates the prime rule of keep the ball down.
True Sidearm and Submarine fastballs actually carry over-spin-from True Sidearm a little and from True Submarine a lot. This is a premier ground ball pitch! It is thrown with velocity and has downward spin creating a sinker that drops because of spin as well as gravity; the best of both worlds. From this arm slot, the four seam fastball actually seems to have more “yank” to it. This pitch can be thrown both down and in or down and out. The down and in fastball is the top ground ball pitch around. It can be used to set up a curve or circle change.
The two seam fastball seems to have more glide than yank and travels slower and has more lateral movement. Again it might be used as a waste pitch low and away.
The second most important pitch from these arm slots is the change up. The change up will have good to tremendous downward action and can be used to either side hitters with good effect. Also the change up tends to produce ground balls, the very essence of the specialist. Much of what has been written about the fastball maybe said about the change up. According to Mario Soto, the great Reds change up artist, he wanted his change up to spin exactly like his fastball! So from low ¾’s the pitcher would probably want to hold this with 2 seams and drive the ball downward, from side arm or submarine with 4 seams to get the benefit from the spin as well as gravity. The bane of sidearm, submarine, and low ¾’s pitchers is a high change up. The ball tends to just sit there in the batters happy zone until the bat meets the ball-good thing the umpire has a good supply of them since that one wont probably come back.
Remember as a ground ball specialist you endeavor with every pitch to get out of the inning with one pitch. Both your fast ball and change are pitches that can accomplish this goal.
The breaking pitches
Every pitcher needs a breaking ball. For the ground ball specialist this provides unique opportunities and challenges. First the bad news, and it is significant. Your curveball is not going to drop! I have heard of guys that got their sliders to drop from sidearm, but I never could, and from submarine the breaking pitches actually rise!
The low ¾’s breaking ball probably spins at about 2:30 to 8:30 and so will have marginal downward break. This means that this pitch must be thrown low to begin with. Because of the optical illusion with this arm slot it looks like the pitcher is throwing from behind the batter a very disconcerting feeling. The pitcher can use this pitch to front door a curveball but with the warning that leaving this pitch high is a home run ball to pull hitters. This pitch is also effective started over the heart of the plate sweeping outside for a swinging strikeout as long as the ball is kept down.
The low ¾’s Slider was not a pitch I was effective with, but many pitchers are. Some guys throw it more like a slurve and others use it as a true slider. It is best used low and away for a swinging strike out. In general, I am not a big fan off “front dooring” sliders. This is because it feeds into the wheel house of a pull hitter for a cheap home run, or it can be driven opposite field by a very powerful batter. Yes, I have seen Randy Johnson use his slurving slider with great accuracy and effect to front door same side batters, but not many pitchers are 6’10 and throw 97 mph. The percentage play with the slider is low and away for a swinging strike or ground ball to the right side.
For a low ¾’s pitcher that finds himself often facing opposite side batters a screwball is a very good addition. Thrown at low ¾’s, mine spun at 11 to 5 giving it a very pronounced and sharp drop. This is a pitch that is very difficult to master and should probably be added only as a pitchers final pitch.
For true side armers the curve ball is going to spin at 3 to 9, the famous Frisbee curve or round house. It will not drop do to the Magnus effect although gravity can help some. It must be thrown low in the strike zone producing a pitch that will make many batters bail out or step in the bucket. This is a tremendous strike out pitch that can produce the all important ground ball. However opposite side hitters get a very good look at the pitch that stays on the same vertical plane making it a very seldom used pitch to opposite side batters, and hence why the breaking pitch should probably take a back seat to the changeup because of the lack of utility to opposite side batters.
The breaking pitches thrown from side arm- submarine will tend to actually rise, but I have yet to see a major leaguer who was effective with this pitch since the great Jim Bunning.
Once again major goal is to get out of the inning with each and every pitch via the ground ball or ground ball double play out. Yes, with the same side batter you can get swinging strikeouts. If the “K” is there by all means take it, but don’t be deterred from your goal: each pitch is a ground ball out. If you are pitching for some reason to an opposite side batter, even more reason to end the at bat with a one pitch ground ball.
Please, fellow relievers add your experience and expertise to the treatise, Ian.