CLEARWATER, Fla. - For his first four starts after the Phillies called him up from triple A last year, Jake Thompson was all arms and legs and anxiety. He had generated a fair bit of excitement, ahead of his debut with them on Aug. 5, by pitching so well at Lehigh Valley, going 11-5 with a 2.50 earned-run average and a fine 1.095 walks-and-hits-per-innings. But in Thompson's next-to-last start for the Iron Pigs, the Syracuse Chiefs had hammered him for seven hits and five runs over five innings, and his delivery didn't feel smooth or in sync.
Then he was a major- leaguer, 22 years old and admittedly nervous, and those first four starts were disastrous: a 1-3 record, a 9.78 ERA, and a startling 13 walks in 19 1/3 innings - startling because his fastball command had been his greatest strength in the minors. The windup he had used throughout his career - in which he raised his hands over his head and brought them down to his chest, pausing there for a millisecond as he lifted his left leg, then rearing back and unfurling his right arm and all those body parts - no longer was a successful mechanism for allowing him to throw the ball exactly where he wanted. On the mound, he was a 6-foot-4, 235-pound Rube Goldberg machine that no longer functioned.
"I'd thrown well for an extended period of time, and I wasn't crashing, but I was coming back down to earth," Thompson said. "I had a couple of starts where it was a little shaky and out of rhythm, and then being called up and the nerves and the excitement about it, trying to press to do stuff, and I wasn't physically in the right position to do it."
So at the suggestion of pitching coach Bob McClure, Thompson streamlined his windup, keeping his hands at his chest, minimizing the movements he made before releasing the baseball. In doing so, Thompson pitched better - over his subsequent 34 1/3 innings, he walked just 15 and had a 3.41 ERA - and he thrust himself into a debate that has been bubbling throughout baseball for a while: whether the traditional windup is superfluous and passe.
"I like motion in a delivery, but if you can't throw quality strikes doing it, where do you go?" McClure said Friday after the Phillies' 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Twins at Spectrum Field. "I don't care if you shoot the ball out of your ass. If you throw quality strikes, I don't care how you do it."
Whereas a windup was often regarded as what former manager Bobby Valentine, in an article on Vocativ.com, called a "personalized signature" - think of Rick Sutcliffe's cupping the ball behind his rear end or Fernando Valenzuela's looking to the sky - several pitchers today don't bother with such flourishes. The Mets' Noah Syndergaard, the hardest thrower in the majors, takes a small step to the side, lifts his leg slightly, and fires a fastball that averages 97.3 mph, according to Fangraphs. The Phillies' Clay Buchholz doesn't wind up at all, and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg, according to the Washington Post, said Friday that he's prepared to pitch solely from the stretch this season, as long as it works.
Theoretically, such a change shouldn't affect Strasburg's ability to keep his fastball in the mid-90s. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine and co-authored by renowned orthopedist James Andrews "showed no statistical differences in joint kinetics, kinematics, or timing, and clinically insignificant differences in ball velocity." The study also suggested that throwing a fastball from the stretch was no more potentially damaging to the arm than throwing one from a windup.
Phillies general manager Matt Kletnak said that the organization has looked at whether, as a general matter, simplifying pitchers' windups or having them throw out of the stretch exclusively can benefit them. But he emphasized that it was important to deal with each pitcher's problems on a case-by-case basis.
"I'm a big believer that we can work with pitchers," Klentak said. "But sometimes the way that they throw is what makes them successful, and trying to clean up somebody's delivery may make it look prettier, but it might also eliminate the deception that's made them so successful. It's a balancing act."
Thompson was open to McClure's suggestion for all the obvious reasons. He was spraying the ball inside and outside the strike zone, and when he did throw strikes, major-league hitters were crushing them. "It was definitely different," he said of the modified windup. "I'd always been a guy who had a lot of movement. It was how I timed myself up. I was a little awkward because I hadn't done it before, but it wasn't too, too tough to make the transition. It allowed me to get into one spot repeatedly and to try to get here every time.
"Obviously, my first few starts up here weren't the way I would have pictured them to go," he said. "But I think it's a big, big growing point. Sometimes before you learn how to succeed, you've got to learn how to fail, especially in baseball, which I haven't done much in my career. I really hadn't taken it on the chin. It was different for sure, but in the long run, it's going to make me a lot better, having to sit down and start from ground zero to overcome it."
He hasn't pitched yet this spring for the Phillies, and he anticipates starting the season at Lehigh Valley again. That's OK, he said. He would like to duplicate the success that he's had there already, this time a little wiser, a little more experienced, and with everything simpler, beginning with the first move he makes before every pitch he throws.