Pitchers come in all different shapes and sizes, but sidearm pitchers tend to raise the most eyebrows. Whether throwing from a true sidearm slot or coming from underneath this deceptive delivery is always interesting to watch because of the unique breaks the arm angle can produce. Mike Richmond had a chance to pick the mind of former independent league pitcher Geoff Freeborn who threw sidearm and currently teaches others the delivery.
Geoff Freeborn is a southpaw who played in several independent baseball leagues from 2006 to 2011, and helped Great Britain take the silver medal at the 2007 European Championships. After retiring from professional baseball, Geoff founded sidearmnation.com and runs camps to help young players learn the art of pitching.
The bio on your webpage states that your velocity reached a high in your sophomore year of college, then dropped slightly through your senior year. What was your regular pitching workload during that time?
I was a starter in junior college and university. I ended up closing a couple games during summer ball my sophomore year, though, and liked airing it out for an inning. Fastest I ever got up to was 91 mph. As a 16-year-old, I threw pretty hard for my age (85-86 mph), and was getting a lot of attention from scouts. Obviously scouts were expecting me to throw 90+ in grade 12.
During the winter of my grade 11 year, I had a freak accident, tearing the tendon in my left hand’s middle finger. I worked hard in rehab to pitch again, but was only touching 82 after the surgery. I was still pitching well enough to get invited to the Canadian Junior National Team, but definitely not throwing as hard as scouts wanted me to. I got back up to 85 mph in grade 12.
I think I worried too much about impressing scouts. I was probably a better pitcher when I wasn’t throwing hard, but then was told by scouts “We need to see more on the radar gun to draft you.” So then in college all I cared about was velocity, and seemed to lose my off-speed stuff; then I was told by scouts “We like your velo, but need to see better off-speed stuff.” I couldn’t win!
Then I ended up hurting my arm during my junior year in college, probably because all I cared about was velocity. I guess overall, after the surgery, it was never effortless anymore: I had to grip the ball a little tighter and then started to develop shoulder problems.
What sort of exercises and stretches were you doing while in college?
Honestly, I didn’t start lifting till grade 12. The big thing we did in college was a lot of squats and deadlifts, which I think helped me get my velo up.
In your first year of indy ball, your coach asked you to try throwing sidearm. Were there any other players on the team, or in the league, who were effective from a lower arm angle?
Yeah, on that Calgary Vipers team we had guys in the pen who threw from a lower arm slot. Jon Huizinga, our closer, was a sidewinder, and he showed me some stuff to work on during that first season of pitching sidearm.
As you started to throw sidearm, did you modify your stretching or warm-up routines in any way? Did you notice any changes in the stress on particular parts of your body after pitching?
Overall, my warmup routine was the same. I was a relief pitcher, so I still liked to do a lot of sprints during batting practice, etc. I guess the first season I dropped down, I would still throw over the top, then gradually drop my arm down as I was warming up to come in the game. I had been battling shoulder issues for a while before dropping down, and initially it just felt more natural and comfortable for my shoulder. I did find my back would get sore after pitching from there. I started to implement back extensions a lot more in the weight room, and those seemed to help with that.
Most siderarm pitchers use an arm angle which is slightly above horizontal, but a few (such as Kent Tekulve or Dan Quisenberry) throw with “submarine” motion, well below the horizontal. How would you describe your arm angle?
I would say I was at that 45-degree angle in between sidearm and submarine. I would fool around going lower to submarine, which wouldn’t have as good a slider, but seemed to get more movement. Then from a higher sidearm slot, I would have more velo, which would flatten out but had a better sweeping slider. So that’s where I was effective: having my arm angle in between the two seemed to have best of both worlds.
Did you pick your angle consciously, or did it simply come naturally?
Honestly, when I was asked to drop down, I just started fooling around with it and did what came naturally for me.
Did you ever try to modify the angle during an at-bat in order to confuse the batter, or put some extra motion on one pitch? If so, how did it work out?
I think versus lefties, I would fool around more with different angles. Most lefties never really felt comfortable against me, so I enjoyed constantly messing them up. Against righties, I was probably a little higher sidearm to help get in on them a little easier.
When you switched to a sidearm motion, did you change your grip on the ball? If so, can you tell us about those changes (on a pitch-by-pitch basis, if you’d like to be so specific)?
I had a decent change up from over the top, a circle change. Never really found good one from down under. I used kind of a modified splitter grip, which seemed to work a little bit. Really, I just needed a changeup to keep righties honest. Against lefties, I was just fastball/slider. I had used a curveball from over the top, but really just used that same grip to throw my slider from down under and picked it up really quick.
When you switched to a sidearm motion, how did your footwork change? In particular, what happened to your lead (right) leg’s raise-and-kick?
After I dropped down, I found myself as far over on the left-hand side of the rubber as I could go, especially versus left-handed hitters. I would fool around with mixing up my leg lifts, height wise, etc. I really tried to land as closed as possible, especially to lefties, to make it feel like I was throwing behind them.
After you adopted a sidearm motion, did you ever find yourself throwing sidearm to first base after fielding a batted ball? If so, was there any problem with the first baseman handling such sidearm throws?
After dropping down, I would try to do everything sidearm. It just felt way better on my shoulder. I don’t think there was any problem with the first basemen handling the throws. I just had to make sure to finish the throw, otherwise it would sail away.
Did your change in pitching motion lead to any difference in your pickoff motion? Did you become more or less effective in picking off runners?
Yeah, I was probably less effective in picking off runners at first; I had a decent move from over the top. That being said, though, from the side I was more effective getting ground balls, so I was definitely getting more double plays than from over the top.
What about your time to home plate? After the switch, did your catchers have an easier time or harder time throwing runners out at second?
I think it was probably about the same. I might have been quicker with a slide step from sidearm to the plate. But I was throwing harder from over the top, so the times might have evened out.
It seems as if some of the relief pitchers with the most extreme sidearm angles have the biggest splits in effectiveness between right- and left-handed batters. Did you find that you became more unbalanced — better against lefties and worse against righties?
I was definitely more effective versus lefties. I’m going to say in 2007, lefties batted around .150 against me, while righties were .300. On the other hand, both home runs I gave up were against lefties and none versus righties. I think a lot of my hits to righties were ground balls that found a hole. Being a lefty specialist or LOOGY would be a blast in the MLB, but in Indy ball it can get little frustrating: there were times I was pulled for a RHP to face the righties, and the RHP would then give up a couple of hard hits. It would have been nice to just stay in the game and have more of a chance against them.
How did changing arm angle affect your repertoire of pitches? What was your typical mix before and after the switch?
Over the top, I threw fastball (more four-seam), changeup, and curveball. Sidearm, I used two-seam, slider, and split-change. At the time that I changed motions, it really didn’t affect my velocity very much: I was still the same, 83-86 mph.
Which one pitch do you think benefited the most from this change? Why?
The slider: it was a fun pitch to throw and I picked up on it quickly. Against lefties, if I threw it properly, they would have no chance.
[A slider thrown by a left-handed sidearm pitcher breaks strongly away from left-handed batters; for that reason, left-handed relievers are often brought in to face left-handed batters in crucial situations.]
Against righties, I was still successful with the slider, too. I think for me, after battling arm/velocity problems, it was fun to just drop down and have the confidence to throw my fastball again, because of the movement, and attack hitters like I used to.
How did your discussions with your catchers change after you made the switch? In other words, was there any change in the way you would talk with them before the game about the approach you’d take to particular batters?
I think initially, I would get into trouble when I was trying to be too fine, trying to hit the catcher’s mitt when the movement I was getting made that impossible. So, some of the catchers would set up more down the middle, and then let the movement do its thing.
You run pitching camps for young ballplayers. Do you see any characteristics which correlate with success (or failure) using sidearm motion? Can you pick out the players who are most (or least) likely to benefit from switching from an over-the-top delivery?
I think if you are a pitcher who has been asked to drop down or have decided to drop down, it’s not going to work unless you fully commit to it. If you are questioning in your mind “Why am I doing this?” or still think you can have success from over the top, then it just isn’t going to work. I think the guys that pick up on it quicker are usually the multi-sport athletes or multi-position players on the team. I guess it does take some athleticism to make the transition happen more easily.
Some junior-high and high-school athletes are discouraged from throwing certain pitches to avoid excessive strain on their joints. Are these “dangerous” pitches any safer when thrown from a lower angle? If so, can you provide any explanation or justification?
I think throwing sidearm gets a bad rap that it is bad for your arm, but really it’s no worse for your arm than throwing over the top as long as you still use your lower half from a lower arm slot, not just literally dropping your arm angle to create it. That’s where it can cause a lot of stress on your arm/elbow if you are just dropping your arm. But it’s the same as pitching from over the top while not using your lower half: it’s going to create arm issues. Obviously, sidearm throwing really only should be used from the mound. Perhaps the odd time by an infielder, but you aren’t going to be an effective outfielder using a sidearm slot.
Did your switch to a sidearm pitching motion lead to any changes in your batting swing, or its success?
I don’t think it was my sidearm that helped my baseball swing, but after I retired from baseball, I got into long-drive golf. I think my sidearm motion helped my golf swing. And then my long-drive swing helped my baseball swing. I ended up qualifying for the Remax World Longdrive Championships from 2012 to 2015.
In 2007, you helped Great Britain’s team win the silver medal in the European Championships. Can you compare the level of play in that tournament to the level of play in the Independent Northern League, or some level of the minor league system?
That’s a very good question. Baseball in Europe is getting better. Holland and Italy have pretty solid baseball. I would say the Euros and Northern League were pretty similar. We lost 5-2 to Holland in the finals in 2007 to qualify for the Olympics. My first year with Great Britain, in 2001, we lost 27-0 to Holland, so it was quite the improvement.
Mike Richmond wrote our Pitches and Stuff series, a look at .300 hitters, about a trip to a Japanese baseball game, and how hitters perform when their vision is limited.
Follow us on Twitter at @SOSHBaseball.
The interview above was conducted via E-mail. Sections of [italic text within square brackets] are material added after the interview, to clarify or illustrate the issues discussed by Geoff.