While strength, power, and the intent to throw hard are all extremely important for throwing velocity, they are all relatively useless without efficient throwing mechanics. Although hip/shoulder separation and lead leg blocking are frequently talked about and well known, the role of back foot contact is less well understood.
What is the Purpose?
The back leg contributes to the direction and the momentum created in the beginning of the delivery. While efficiency here does not guarantee efficiency elsewhere in the delivery, it provides the athlete with a solid starting point to efficiently transfer energy through the kinetic chain.
Potential Issues from Early Lift Off
Stride leg direction will be slightly different from athlete to athlete. Some will land a bit more or less across their body, but landing too far to the arm side makes back hip internal rotation, upper torso rotation, and internal rotation around the lead leg more difficult and can lead to a more linear deceleration pattern. When the back heel loses contact with the ground too early, the weight is shifted to the anterior part of the foot and back leg, leading to a bias in that direction (towards third base for a right handed pitcher). Unless an athlete possesses elite mobility through the ranges of motion (ROM) listed above, it’s likely that energy leaks will occur due to the following reasons.
If the pelvis is too closed at front foot strike, hip/shoulder separation is likely to be poor. Hip/shoulder separation is set up by the pelvis being open at foot strike (hips facing home plate). If it is not open enough, upper torso rotation and pelvis rotation will have less separation, leading to reduced stored elastic energy. One study found that the timing difference between peak pelvis rotational velocity and upper torso rotational velocity was on average 23% in the high velocity group, compared to 17% in the low velocity group (Fortenbaugh et al., 2009). Stodden et al. also found that the orientation of the pelvis during layback and ball release correlated with ball velocity (Stodden et al., 2001).
Additionally, an efficient lead leg block requires the ability and ROM to internally rotate around a firm front leg. If the pelvis is more closed, while the same amount of rotation will occur, the end point will be vastly different, likely reducing the amount of force applied in the direction of the throw, and therefore ball velocity.
Loss of Counter Rotation
When the whole foot maintains contact with the ground, it makes the combination of knee flexion and a hip hinge more likely. It is much easier to counter rotate the upper body during a hip hinge than during knee flexion alone.
This counter rotation aids in setting up more powerful upper torso rotation due to greater elastic energy storage. More powerful torso rotation is an important factor as average upper torso rotational velocity during arm acceleration is a differentiator between high and low velocity throwers (Stodden et al., 2001). Additionally, the counter rotation helps create a delay between peak pelvis and shoulder rotation, or what you know as hip/shoulder separation. As stated above, high velocity throwers were shown to have a greater time separation between peak pelvis and shoulder rotation compared to low velocity throwers (Fortenbaugh et al., 2009).
Shorter Stride Length and Forward Torso Position
The lead leg block is a well-known differentiator between high and low velocity throwers. High velocity throwers tend to have higher velocity knee extension, greater knee extension between layback and ball release, and higher ground reaction forces, especially in the anterior to posterior direction (Matsuo et al., 2001) (van Trigt et al., 2018) (Guido et al., 2012).
A good lead leg block doesn’t happen without the requisite physical qualities, movement sequencing, and body positions. In order for the lead leg to act efficiently to stop forward momentum, stride length must be adequate and torso position must not be too far forward. These two factors work together. If stride length is too short or the torso gets too far forward, the stumble reflex will be activated. This reflex occurs when the body is leaning forward and results in the front foot being put down too early, the knee flexing, and the body’s momentum not being stopped.
Physical Qualities to Assess and Train
As with all other positional key performance indicators that contribute to high velocity mechanics, maintaining back heel contact requires adequate mobility and stability. Without adequate range of motion (ROM) and strength through ankle dorsiflexion, no amount of drill work is likely to help.
Try this self test if you’re curious about whether or not you have adequate mobility:
If you can’t touch your knee to the wall while maintaining heel contact and resisting arch collapse, then soft tissue and mobility drills are in your future. A few ideas to help improve your ankle mobility:
Warm Up Barefoot
With so many joints in the feet and the fact that we use them for feedback about our environment every day, it’s a wonder they are still often overlooked. Warming up barefoot can help strengthen the feet and may help athletes access a bit more ROM in their ankles.
Single Leg Balance Drills
If you can get your knee to the wall without any compensations, but you’re still having problems with maintaining heel contact, try these drills.
Walking Box Squats
This drill can help work on direction, center of mass shift, and back heel contact. Set up in a half or quarter squat, and hinge your hips a bit more than you normally would. Make sure you’re actively pushing the floor away from you with your back foot on each rep and using your whole foot to do so.
Step Backs with a Leg Kick
Be aggressive with your step back. This drill can help athletes feel a weight shift and results in a bit larger impulse at the back foot, helping delay heel lift off.
Heel lift off may seem relatively small, however, due to how early it occurs during the delivery, it can lead to larger problems up the kinetic chain. While this may not be the only fix you need to make, it may help set up better movement later in the delivery.
Interested in working with me remotely or in person? Contact me and let’s talk about what you need.
Stodden, David & Fleisig, Glenn & Mclean, Scott & Lyman, Stephen & Andrews, J.R.. (2001). Relation of pelvis and upper torso kinematics to pitched baseball velocity. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 17. 164-172.
Matsuo, Tomoyuki & Escamilla, Raf & Fleisig, Glenn & Barrentine, Steven & Andrews, James. (2001). Comparison of Kinematic and Temporal Parameters between Different Pitch Velocity Groups. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 17. 1-13. 10.1123/jab.17.1.1.
Fortenbaugh, Dave & Fleisig, Glenn & Andrews, James. (2009). Baseball Pitching Biomechanics in Relation to Injury Risk and Performance. Sports health. 1. 314-20. 10.1177/1941738109338546.
van Trigt B, Schallig W, van der Graaff E, Hoozemans M, Veeger D (2018) Knee Angle and Stride Length in Association with Ball Speed in Youth Baseball Pitchers. Sports-Open Access Journal.
Guido JA, Werner SL (2012) Lower extremity ground reaction forces in collegiate baseball pitchers. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.