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Why Do Some Pitchers Throw Submarine Style? Why Don't More?

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If you're even a casual baseball fan, that second question—why don't more pitchers throw submarine style?—might seem preposterous. Submarine pitchers, whose release point is so low their knuckles practically scrape the ground, are a rare breed in Major League Baseball. And why shouldn't they be? An overhand windup is not only iconic and powerful, it's also the natural movement when playing catch with a ball.

But there was a time when all the pitchers threw underhand. It was any year before 1872 and it wasn't because our ball-playing forefathers had yet to master the more masculine-seeming motion, but rather because it was written into the rules.

"The rule was that your arm had to be perpendicular. Straight underhand until 1872," MLB's Official Historian John Thorn says. If you think that sounds unfair to the pitchers, who were forced into a relatively unnatural throwing motion, you'd be correct. In fact, that was sort of the point.

"The pitching motion was different because the role of the pitcher in relation to the batter was different," Thorn says. "He was not regarded as someone who was in mortal combat with the batter. His purpose was the serve up pitches that the batter would then put in play, because what the audience liked to see was fine fielding plays and lots of base running."

Of course, it didn't take long for pitchers to realize that by inching up their release points past the legal limit they could give their team a competitive advantage. In 1872, the rules caved to accommodate the trend and began permitting a side arm release. But given a few inches, the pitchers took, well, a few more inches and continued to raise their release points in opposition to the written rules. Another concession by the League presidents allowed for straight pitches from the shoulder until 1883 and 1884 when all restrictions on pitching style were abolished in the two leagues.

Not everyone switched their style right away. Most submariners stayed submariners. But as the space between the mound and home plate increased from 45 feet before 1880 to the current 60 feet 6 inches, new pitchers found that the overhand style made it easier to control the ball over a greater distance.

What's more, throwing overhand allows for more sophisticated breaking pitches. "Your curveball with the underhand or sidearm delivery tends to be the schoolboy curve, which any Little Leaguer can throw. It breaks laterally, not down," Thorn explains. "At the collegiate and Minor League and Major League level, curveballs break in two directions—both laterally and down."

If early pitchers knew a higher delivery granted them a competitive edge and that in practice it adds an extra dimension to your curveball, then we have arrived at our first question: why does anyone bother to still pitch submarine style?

A quick word on submarine pitching, although I have been using it interchangeably with "underhand": there is actually a slight difference in the modern version. Submarine pitchers lean their whole upper body down towards the ground but keep their hand typically on top of the ball. This is in opposition to softball underhand in which the ball is lobbed while remaining upright.

Back to the question at hand. For the most part, this has to do with the fact that, these days, almost all submarine pitchers are relievers. "As a relief pitcher, you have the tremendous advantage of five or six innings of having been thrown to conventionally by someone else so your new-fangled delivery is quite a change and it’s very hard to adjust to," Thorn explains. So what used to be the only style of pitching has now become valuable in its rarity. Try to throw that way to the same lineup more than once a game and big league batters will quickly learn to take advantage of the one-dimensional break.

But Thorn makes another claim, that "underhand is much less strain." A bold statement in a era when pitch counts drive starters from the game ever earlier and Tommy John surgery sidelines pitchers for full seasons. So let's unpack that.

I reached out to Glenn S. Fleisig, Ph.D., the Research Director at the American Sports Medicine Institute. He explains that when throwing at the same speed, say 80 miles per hour, underhand and overhand throwing put roughly the same amount of force on the shoulder and elbow joints. But submarine pitchers and traditional pitchers don't typically throw the same speed at the Major League level.

"I would say the average fastball pitcher has more force on his arm than the average sidearm pitcher in Major League Baseball, because the average overhand pitcher is throwing with more velocity," Dr. Fleisig says. But there is an important distinction between causation and correlation to be made here. "[Submariners are] throwing less hard not because sidearm is a less hard thing but because they were guys who threw less hard from over the top."

Back to Thorn to elaborate: "In many cases, these are pitchers who hurt their arms, or don’t have great fastballs so they needed something to draw the attention of scouts." And otherwise, "If a pitcher has real ability as an 11- or 12-year-old his coaches will dissuade him from throwing sidearm."

And now we're ready to tackle those Big Questions succinctly:

Why do some pitchers throw submarine style?
Because it allows struggling or injured pitchers to reinvent themselves as a valuable commodity out of the bullpen by allowing an unusual delivery to disrupt the batter's timing of the ball.

Why don't more pitchers try it?
It renders one of your pitches far too hittable for you to be a starter and, culturally, talented kids are pushed in the direction of conventional throwing to best capitalize on their athleticism.

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History
The First High Five Recorded in the History of Sports
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We don’t quite know who invented the high five—but we can pinpoint the moment it became inextricably linked with sports, which the short documentary The High Five explores below.

On October 2, 1977, Los Angeles Dodgers leftfielder Dusty Baker scored his 30th home run, making the team the first in history to have four players—Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Reggie Smith—with at least 30 homers under each of their belts. Fellow outfielder Glenn Burke was so overwhelmed with joy and pride, he raised his arm and slapped his flat palm against the victorious athlete’s own palm. The moment transformed Baker and Burke into legends.

Sadly, the latter player faced hard times ahead: Burke was gay, and it’s believed that his sexuality prompted team officials to trade him to the Oakland A's the following year. In Oakland, Burke clashed with team manager Billy Martin, then retired early from baseball. Today, Burke is remembered for his charisma and talent—and for transforming a simple gesture into a universal symbol. “To think his energy and personality was the origin of that, that’s a pretty good legacy,” sportswriter Lyle Spencer says in the film.

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11 Outrageous Ballpark Foods
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Major League ballpark food has gone way beyond peanuts, Cracker Jacks, and the all-American hot dog. Now you can enjoy full meals, international cuisine, and eye-popping, gut-busting specialty dishes concocted for maximum publicity. Let's sample some of the outrageous dishes available at baseball games this year.

1. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES // TRIPLE TRIPLE BURGER

Wayback Burger has the ultimate meat-lover's burger at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Watch the Phillies while eating a Triple Triple Burger with nine beef patties and nine slices of cheese. And some veggies, if you can find them.

2. NEW YORK METS // BACON S'MORES ON A STICK

First seen in 2015, Pig Guy still offers S‘mores Bacon on a Stick at Citi Field. That's a slice of thick bacon dipped in marshmallow, chocolate, and graham cracker crumbs …on a stick. If you so choose, there are other toppings available for your bacon on a stick, like Sriracha maple glaze or salted caramel.

3. SEATTLE MARINERS // OAXACAN CHAPULINES

Served by Edgar's Cantina, the authentic Oaxacan chapulines debuting this year at Safeco Field in Seattle are "toasted grasshoppers with chile-lime salt seasoning." [PDF] They sold out on opening day, and the ballpark moved more grasshoppers in three games than Edgar's home restaurant Poquitos serves in a year!

4. SEATTLE MARINERS // MADE-TO-ORDER ICE CREAM SANDWICHES

Not in the mood for toasted grasshoppers? There are plenty of sweet treats available at Safeco Field in Seattle, including the made-to-order deluxe frozen custard cookie sandwiches from Frozen Rope Sandwich Company. As you can see, they come with extras.

5. COLORADO ROCKIES // ROCKY MOUNTAIN OYSTERS

In case you don't know what Rocky Mountain oysters are, they're bull testicles that are sliced and deep-fried. Not only are they a huge hit throughout Colorado, they've been a staple at Rockies games for 20 years.

6. TEXAS RANGERS // TEXAS SNOWBALL

New for 2017, you'll be able to try the Texas Snowballs at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas. It's made of chopped brisket and barbecue sauce rolled into a ball and covered with funnel cake batter. It is then deep-fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Is it an entree or a dessert? That's your decision.

7. TEXAS RANGERS // CHOOMONGOUS

Choomongous is both a sandwich and a description. This staple at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, is a 24-inch Korean beef sandwich that was crafted in 2014 in honor of Texas Ranger outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. The sandwich is stuffed with Korean-spiced beef, spicy slaw, and Sriracha-infused mayo. Your best advice is to split it with a friend or two.

8. HOUSTON ASTROS // CHICKEN AND WAFFLE CONE

Watch baseball at Minute Maid Park and use only one hand to eat a full dinner. The Chicken and Waffle Cone puts fried chicken fingers and mashed potatoes inside a large waffle cone with honey-mustard sauce on top. The fan favorite is in its third year of satisfying hungry Astros fans.

9. MILWAUKEE BREWERS // INSIDE THE PARK NACHOS

Miller Park in Milwaukee is the home of Inside the Park Nachos, which is basically taco meat on a stick that is rolled in crushed Doritos, fried, and served with cheese sauce, sour cream, and salsa.

10. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS // CHURRO DOG 2.0

Chase Field in Phoenix first served the Churro Dog in 2015. This is not the ballpark hot dog you're used to, but an 1100-calorie dessert. The "dog" is a cinnamon churro, the "bun" is a split Long John donut, and the toppings are frozen yogurt, chocolate sauce, caramel sauce, and whipped cream. For 2017, the Churro Dog 2.0 comes dressed up in Oreos! The churro is rolled in crushed Oreo cookies, strawberry topping replaces the caramel, and then a generous helping of more Oreo crumbs is sprinkled on top.

11. MINNESOTA TWINS // TRIPLE SAUSAGE BLOODY MARY

Target Field is offering a new Bloody Mary during Twins games. Hrbek's Pub supplies the new Triple Sausage Bloody Mary, a Bloody Mary with deluxe garnishes including three varieties of sausage (brat, Polish, and andouille), in addition to cheese cubes, peppers, and various fruits and vegetables. You can get a variation with a hamburger garnish if you like!

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