When Rubber Meets The Road: Two Feet Is Plenty Of Room For Debate

Looking back, we can now consider 2012 the lost year of Julio Teheran’s career.

The Braves righthander was one of the best pitching prospects in baseball coming out of an outstanding 2011 season. He ranked No. 5 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, one spot behind Yu Darvish.

Teheran featured a 93-95 mph fastball, an excellent changeup and a pair of breaking balls. After going 15-3, 2.55 at Triple-A Gwinnett, he seemed poised to join the Braves rotation.

The Braves just wanted to make one small tweak to try to make him even more effective, moving Teheran from slightly on the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the extreme first-base side (known in the game as the glove side). The idea was that it would allow him to command his fastball to both sides of the plate better, and it would make it harder for hitters to pick up the difference between his fastball and his secondary pitches.

But that small tweak contributed at least in part to big problems. From his new starting point, Teheran’s breaking ball went from usable to ineffective. He struggled to maintain the same arm angle, which affected his fastball as well. As he describes it, he just never felt comfortable. Instead of being ready for a big league promotion, Teheran bombed in a return to Gwinnett in 2012, going 7-9, 5.08.

So last year, Teheran moved back to the middle of the rubber, again slightly to the arm side, which felt like a return home for the righthander. He went 14-8, 3.20 for Atlanta in 2013 and was off to a 2-1, 1.80 start in 2014.

Now it’s true that for every Teheran, there are other pitchers who have found that moving from the arm side to the glove side has led to eye-opening improvement. Phillies righthander Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, found he could finally pitch to both sides of the plate after he moved. Righthander Andrew Cashner went from a useful reliever to the Padres’ ace.

The rubber is only 24 inches long, but as many a pitcher has found out, a little move can make a big difference.

Little Noticed, Hotly Debated

To most baseball fans, the pitching rubber is just part of the background of the game.

It’s 24 inches by 6 inches. From many angles in the ballpark, it’s hard to see, and even if you can see it, you aren’t likely to notice it.

But for many in the game, those 24 inches are hotly contested. The next time you watch a game, take a notice of where the pitcher sets up on the rubber. For a righthander, is he toward third base, on his arm side? Is he set up more in the middle? Or has he set up closer to first base, toward his glove side? (Obviously, arm side and glove side designations are opposite for lefthanders.)

Where a pitcher sets up on the rubber can say a lot about what kind of pitcher he is and what he’s trying to do with hitters. And to many scouts and coaches, it’s a cause of much discussion and some consternation.

Numerous scouts and pitching coaches say that pitchers get moved to the glove side of the mound all too often now. As one pitching coach describes it, “You accommodate the problem instead of fixing the problem.” Some scouts even wonder if some of the recent rise of elbow injuries is tied to the increased number of pitchers throwing from the glove side of the mound.

Right And Wrong?

The scouts and coaches who believe in having pitchers predominantly pitch from the arm side of the rubber can be called the traditionalists. In fact, some veteran scouts describe pitchers as setting up on the “right side” or “wrong side” of the rubber.

Data on where pitchers used to set up is nearly impossible to gather in anything more than anecdotal fashion, but glove-side and arm-side proponents all agree that most pitchers used to line up on the arm side or middle of the rubber.

“In years past, I’d say it was 90 percent,” said Dyar Miller, a big league reliever from 1975-1981 who now serves as the Astros’ minor league pitching coordinator.

Data is available on everything now, and Baseball America research shows that those numbers have flipped. We observed and recorded 153 major league starting pitchers over the first three weeks of the 2014 season and found that 42 percent of them worked from the glove side, 40 percent from the middle third of the rubber, and just 18 percent from the arm side. On the amateur side, the numbers are even more dramatic. Of the top 30 pitching prospects for the 2014 draft, our research shows that 60 percent throw from the glove side.

The arm-side proponents are a little mystified by those numbers. As they see it, creating angle and deception in the delivery are keys to pitching.

“I talked to hitters and asked them, who would rather face, first-base (glove) side or third-base (arm) side,” Miller said. “Without a doubt, they said they’d rather face guys throwing from the first-base side.”

Hal Morris, a lifetime .304 hitter over 13 major league seasons who now serves as the Angels’ pro scouting director, agrees.

“As a lefthanded hitter, the guys who are really tough on you are the lefthanders coming from a wider (arm-side) slot where they can sweep it at your hip and at the plate,” Morris said. “A lefty coming from a wide slot, that ball is coming from behind (a lefthanded hitter). You don’t track the ball from there. I’d much rather have them release the ball from the middle of the rubber.

“It wasn’t something I thought about much, but if I look at film of the guys I didn’t want to hit on, they were arm-side of the rubber, running fastballs in on my hands. It has angle. It creates run. They could get in on you.”

Room To Move

The very nature of the rubber is designed to give pitchers options. The pitching rubber is 24 inches wide, while home plate is 17 inches wide. A pitcher has to have his foot only in contact with the rubber–Cardinals righthander Seth Maness sets up with his foot barely touching the corner–so he has nearly three feet to play with.

It’s a lot of room to move around. Set up on your arm side, and you’re going to be releasing the ball from well outside the edge of home plate, creating angle on your pitches. Start on the glove side and you’ll release a pitch from roughly the midpoint of the rubber, which should make it easier to throw strikes both inside and outside. Pitch from the middle and you get some of the benefits of both.

Most pitchers begin their careers pitching from their arm side. The decision about whether to move often starts with a simple question: Can he locate his fastball to the opposite side of the plate? In other words, if a righthander stands on the third-base side of the rubber (his arm side) and can pitch to the outer half against a righthanded hitter, he probably won’t be messed with.

“I think it all comes down to how the pitcher can command that pitch,” Cardinals pitching coordinator Tim Leveque said. “His ability to command that pitch or not command it tells you a lot about his delivery in general.”

But if a pitcher consistently misses his target on pitches to the extension side, there’s work to do. Often, a pitcher is just pointed in the wrong direction.

To find out if a pitcher is throwing directly to home plate, pitching coaches will look at the dirt. Much like a golfer’s divot can tell you a lot about his swing, the drag line of a pitcher’s rear foot will show where his lower body is aimed. If it’s not pointed toward home plate, the upper body will compensate to allow a pitcher to get the pitch to the plate, but that costs velocity and control.

Put five pitching coaches in a room with a pitcher with an alignment problem and you’ll get multiple solutions and plenty of heated discussion. If a pitcher throws across his body (also known as a crossfire delivery), it’s considered an injury risk factor. But trying to significantly change a pitcher’s delivery that he has repeated pitch after pitch for years also puts him at risk for getting hurt.

So do you try to make a major fix to mitigate the risk? Most pitching coaches these days will say no. Instead most go for minor tweaks.

Some arm-side proponents will ask the pitcher to shift his back foot from being flush with the rubber to being canted with his toes off the rubber and his heel touching it.

Believers in the glove side will take a different approach. Often if a pitcher can’t locate to the outside half of the plate, he’ll be throwing from a closed delivery. By moving over to the glove side of the rubber, that same pitcher may find his lower body and hips working in a more direct path to the strike zone.

Astros pitching coach Brent Strom has also found that working from the glove side generally makes it harder for hitters to pick up the difference between a pitcher’s pitches.

“What you are looking for is, where can a guy throw from that will make pitches look similar? If a guy’s delivery allows him to throw from the third-base side, that’s fine, but why force it?” Strom said. “From the far first-base side of the rubber (for a righthander), I throw a four-seam fastball that rides in on a righthanded hitter and now I throw my slider on same path. For the first half of that flight, they will look the same, but one will break out and one will break in. Both will look like a strike coming out of the hand.”

One Side Does Not Fit All

But almost everyone on all sides of the discussion makes a point of emphasizing that one solution doesn’t work for every pitcher.

Move over to the glove side and pitching to both sides of the plate becomes easier. That’s good–it can improve a pitcher’s command–but it can have negative effects as well.

Braves righthander Kris Medlen moved to the glove side of the rubber three starts into his big league career. He thinks it helped him succeed over the course of 152 big league games, but he also wonders if he allowed himself to get into bad habits.

“It made my career, that move to the left side of the rubber,” Medlen said.

The Braves looked to move Medlen to further improve his sinker and to give his stuff better deception. But Medlen also found he stopped having to work as hard with his lower half.

“Early on because I still had the muscles that I was using being on the right side of the rubber,” he said. “Trying to go down and away to a righty when I’m that far away, I’ve got to get my ass, my back, everything out driving that way, so I think early on I still had those muscles firing.

“But just me staying on this side, I think I slowed and stopped using those muscles and started using only this,” he said, pointing to his arm, “and now I’m running into this,” he said, pointing to the brace that is stabilizing his elbow after a second Tommy John surgery.

Since his second surgery Medlen has considered moving back to the arm side or the middle of the rubber.

It’s difficult to completely diagnose what caused elbow injuries even in hindsight. There are so many factors involved that pointing to any one factor is impossible. But it’s easy to find observers who believe that pitching from the glove side could raise a pitcher’s risk of injury.

“I believe I can predict it if I know where they throw from,” one longtime scout said.

Of pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery since the start of the 2013 season, glove side pitchers have been injured at a slightly higher rate (see chart at right).

However, pitchers who throw across their body with a closed delivery are more likely to be helped by moving to the glove side. If cross-body throwers pitching from the glove side get hurt eventually, did moving them to the glove side help lead to the injury, or was it simply a consequence of the pitcher’s pre-existing delivery issues?

Those 24 inches of rubber don’t seem quite so innocuous anymore.

Carroll Rogers contributed to this story.

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