THE BIRTH OF MODERN PITCHING MECHANICS: TOM HOUSE AND NOLAN RYAN

Written By: Justin Orenduff
Tom House and Nolan Ryan in Bullpen

Tom House working with Nolan Ryan

If you’re a pitcher born after the year 1980, you have grown up in the era of Modern Pitching Mechanics.  

The birth of the modern delivery dates back to the late 80’s/ early 90’s and can be attributed to the relationship between Tom House and Nolan Ryan.  Therefore, a young pitcher born in the early 80’s would have been exposed to the modern delivery as he climbed the ranks of Little League Baseball and beyond.  Here’s the story of how the most common pitching delivery seen in baseball today, and how it manifested into its current form.

ALL ABOARD!!

In 1968 a train called “The Ryan Express”  pulled out of the station  filled with 100mph fastballs, high leg kicks, no hitters, and a seemingly never ending supply of strikeouts.  The Ryan Express was driven by conductor and Hall of Fame Pitcher Nolan Ryan, who set a standard for speed, power, and endurance.  For years The Ryan Express made it’s way through the National League and American League overpowering hitters and logging thousands of miles on its long journey.  But, as The Ryan Express grew closer to its inevitable return to the station, it’s cargo had a few new additions.  The additions were manufactured and built by Texas Ranger pitching coach Tom House, who began working with Ryan in 1989.

According to Tom’s website tomhouse.com, he is considered by many “The Father of Modern Pitching Mechanics”.  Prior to House working with Ryan, he already began to study the pitching delivery using motion video analysis.  In 1986, he started his own company Bio Kinetics Inc. and was one of the first to blend scientific based pitching study into training methodologies for pitchers.   At the time, many of Tom’s methods were seen as radical, but when the working relationship between House and Ryan began in 1989, the methods gradually molded into mainstream absolutes, and shortly thereafter, a shift occurred from a traditional pitching methodology into House’s scientific based methodology.

With Ryan being regarded as one of the best of all time, Tom’s information reached the masses with their joint publication “Nolan Ryan’s Pitchers’s Bible”;  A must read at the time for any aspiring pitcher.  If you want to throw hard, just lift your leg like Nolan Ryan right?  I know my little league was filled with young kids imitating Ryan’s leg kick and an effort to throw harder.  But, the mechanical information produced by Tom House and backed by Nolan Ryan, solidified the embodiment of their information to new heights.  Coaches, players, and parents latched hold of the information and the “Bible” made its way through the game of baseball everywhere.  The “Nolan Ryan’s Pitcher’s Bible” was released in 1991, three years after House and Ryan met and started working together.  Tom would continue to release publications on pitching  but the commencement of  Modern Pitching Mechanics had been established, and provided a platform for the next decade to shape how pitchers throw a baseball.

As mentioned earlier, the “new additions” House brought on board can be seen clearer with a better understanding of where Ryan’s mechanics first started with the New York Mets.  In order to paint a picture of how pitching mechanics changed form over the years, I will use Nolan Ryan as a case study.  Ryan’s 27 year career provides glimpses of changes in information and how the information transformed his mechanical pattern.  See the video below to gain a perspective on the changes Ryan made throughout his tenure with the Mets, Angels, Astros, and eventually the union of the Texas Rangers and Tom House.

NOLAN THROUGH THE YEARS

The video provides a visual glimpse of Nolan Ryan’s mechanics throughout his career but I will dive deeper into the technical aspect of Ryan’s mechanics in order from first organization to last.  In the video, I purposely highlighted two specific frames within Nolan Ryan’s delivery to provide a basis of comparison.  First, I stopped the video where Ryan separated his hands and his lead leg became fully extended.  Second, I showed where Ryan’s right forearm became vertical behind his head.  The two still frames will be topics of discussion as you continue to read through the article.

New York Mets ( 1966-1971)

If there ever could be a right handed Sandy Koufax, it began to surface with Nolan Ryan in a Mets uniform.  During the early part of his career, Ryan’s delivery resembled the fluidity and looseness of the era.  Many young baseball enthusiasts never realize where Nolan’s delivery truly started.  In my professional opinion, Nolan’s mechanics during his career with the Mets, far exceeded his mechanical pattern throughout any other point in his career.

Characteristics

Nolan Ryan Mets

Ryan in 1969

  • Ryan’s body remains in constant motion with his hips continually moving toward the target.
  • Ryan brings his lift leg to chest height.
  • The lift leg kicks outwards from the body.  This movement allows time for the arm to travel in move vertically into position as Ryan prepares to rotate.
  • Hips lead lower half movement.
  • Ryan’s arm’s after separation are long and loose as his body moves towards homeplate.
  •  As Ryan is prepared to make foot strike, he moves into thoracic extension (change in posture angle) early as his body prepares to rotate directionally towards the target.  Notice the early vertical position of the forearm behind the head.
  • The stride alignment appears to be heel to heel, indicating ideal lower body direction towards the plate.
  • The spinal angle is tilted, showcasing a higher arm slot.
  • Head position through release is pulling towards 1b (offset angle), indicating a tendency to pull off a baseball and have inconsistent command (Important factor as Ryan transitioned to Angels).

Los Angeles Angels ( 1972 – 1979)

The biggest change between Ryan’s mechanics came when Angels pitching coach Tom Morgan worked with Ryan to keep his upper body compact earlier and longer.

I had a tendency to fly open like a swinging door (open up my front side too early).  Tom Morgan identified the problem and had an unusual method of solving it.  He would stand at the exact spot where my landing leg hit at the end of my delivery.  I couldn’t open up without hitting him, he basically functioned as a block or barricade, a very effective way to force me to stay closed. – Nolan Ryan

Nolan may have felt he was flying open but really his body was opening up into thoracic extension early, which is a good thing!  The video footage indicates perfect alignment between his lower half and upper body as the arm prepares to accelerate forward.   Morgan wanted Ryan to stay compact and maintain direction  but his methods directly led to Ryan keeping his posture forward longer and moving away from the ideal rotation of his upper body.  The adjustment Ryan needed to make was to keep the same rotation but let his trunk and head continue forwards towards the target into the release of the baseball.

Characteristics

Ryan in 1979

Ryan in 1979

  • Ryan’s body remains in constant motion with his hips continually moving towards the target.
  • Ryan brings his lift leg to shoulder height.  Slightly higher in comparison to his original lift.
  • The lift leg kicks outward from the body but now marginally lower.
  • Hips lead lower half movement.
  • His forward momentum towards his target his noticeably quicker and more explosive as he prepares to rotate.
  • Ryan’s arm’s after separation start to become more compact indicating a shorter arm  path into rotation.
  • As Ryan is prepared to make foot strike, his  posture stays over his belly button longer.  Not as much early thoracic extension is achieved prior to foot strike.  Arm still stays vertical at foot strike.
  • Stride alignment appears to be in close proximity to heel to heel.
  • Spinal angle is more upright, indicating a slightly lower arm slot.
  • Head position stays on target longer through his delivery.

 Houston Astros ( 1980 – 1988)

Characteristics

Nolan Ryan Mechanics

Ryan in 1981

  • Hips continue to move forward through delivery but display a decrease in momentum.
  • Lift remains at shoulder height but leg no longer kicks outward from body but relaxes downward toward mound.
  • Upper body mechanics stay consistent into rotation ( similar to Angels).  However, in the clips from 1981, Ryan seems to move into thoracic extension earlier (increase in vertical position of arm) and higher arm slot.  Could be the year, game, or simply a coincidence.  
  • Stride alignment now appears in closer proximity to heel to toe.  The change can be attributed to a decrease in lower half momentum.
  • Spinal angle and head position remain consistent.
Before I describe Nolan’s mechanics with the Texas Rangers I will now switch gears and talk about Tom House’s new additions he brought to The Ryan Express.   All information described below can be found in Nolan Ryan’s Pitcher’s Bible.

 

The ADDITIONS (Four Absolutes)

Tom House is another advocate of sound mechanics .  When I first joined the Rangers he mentioned his four absolutes of pitching:  balance, direction, deception/launch, and weight transfer.  Well, to be honest this terminology was something I had to evaluate for a while.  We were speaking two completely different languages. – Nolan Ryan

Any pitching coach preaching new methodology to an established veteran deems a potentially impossible task.  You have to commend House for his persistence in working through an inevitable trial period of confusion, frustration, and questioning Ryan would have endured.

Once I finally figured out what Tom was talking about, I realized we were in 100 percent agreement.  The four absolutes do go hand in hand with throwing a baseball properly.  I’ve stayed in line with the four absolutes throughout my career, though I never put a name on them. – Nolan Ryan

Balance

Don’t start any forward momentum toward home plate until your leg reaches its apex. – Tom House

In my delivery for instance, I have to bring the knee of my lift leg up to shoulder level before I start any movement toward home plate.  This is my most important checkpoint.  Any movement in the direction of the plate before I finished lifting my leg will destroy my sense of balance, the first absolute.

Tom’s company, Bio-Kinetics videotaped my delivery while I was pitching for Houston in 1988, and then again with the Rangers in 1989.  In 1988, for instance, the analysis indicated I was drifting forward before getting my lift leg up to full height.  And this drift was forcing me to open up my  hips too soon.  – Nolan Ryan

Maybe Nolan didn’t realize for the past 22 seasons prior to 1989, his lower body routinely moved forward throughout the entire phase of the delivery;  an absolute to generating momentum.  But now his mind consciously came to the top of his iconic shoulder height lift and generated a slight pause.  A pause that would eventually be evident in many young pitchers.  The concept of achieving balance through a slight pause was now created.

Nolan Ryan Angels
Nolan Ryan NOT obeying the first absolute in 1979, which is evident by his lower body moving forward as he brings his leg to full height

 

Direction

Once you achieve optimal balance, begin a controlled fall toward home plate, your front foot leading the way.  Turn your thumbs under to force your elbows up into launching position.  Your entire front side, glove, elbow, shoulder, hip, knee and foot should be perfectly directional and online with home plate.  

Maintain the same upper body posture you achieve in the balance phase of the delivery.

Think of the body as a gate that moves together as a single unit, no part of the gate should fly open as you advance toward home plate.  If a pitcher opens up, hips rotating outward first or third base, he’ll place undue stress on the throwing arm while limiting the efficiency and power of the delivery. – Tom House

 The delivery described by House thus far is very familiar to the UP, DOWN, & OUT which I have covered extensively prior to this article.  The lift leg goes up; the front foot comes down, and the body moves out toward home plate as one compact piece.    If you are unfamiliar with the UP, DOWN, & OUT, I encourage you to click the link above and read how getting the front foot out early impacts rotation and the rest of the delivery.

Deception/Launch

Nolan Ryan with Rangers

Deception/Launch Absolute

Your throwing and front-side elbows will both attain shoulder height at the launch phase.  Let your forearms and hands form a 90-degree angle to maximize arm strength and leverage.  The forearm, wrist, and glove on your front side, if they’re properly aligned, will impede the hitter’s view of your pitching arm in its launch position – this is the deceptive element of the equation. – Tom House

In this deception/launch stage of the pitching motion, you want to stay closed as long as possible.  A closed delivery allows the hitter less time to see the ball.   The second checkpoint in my delivery is that you cannot throw the ball until your landing foot hits the ground.  – Nolan Ryan

Weight Transfer

Nolan Ryan Weight Transfer

Weight Transfer Absolute

Hips must stay directional (toward home plate) until the landing leg hits; all hip rotation takes place after this point. Land with your front side directional but your landing foot “closed off”.  A right handers left big toe should point slightly toward the third base side of home plate, blocking off your forward movement.  This transfers your forward momentum up through the body and into the arm at your release point, and ultimately ensures a less stressful deceleration of the arm.

Once your throwing elbow leads the throwing arm forward, your strong side replaces the directional side as weight is transferred the landing leg.  Your shoulders pass each other in opposite directions.  Your head stays directly over the bent knee of your landing leg.

Here is what happens at the release point:  Your throwing arm and wrist snaps straight to full extension, then the palm rotates the thumb down and out, away from the body, as the ball leaves the fingertips.  At this precise moment all acceleration ends and deceleration begins.  Weight transfer is completed as our head and upper body are pulled past the knee of your landing leg. This final coup de grace allows the forces of deceleration to be transferred from the arm, through the upper torso, into the lower back and finally to the legs, rather than compelling the shoulder to bear the brunt of the resistance. – Tom  House

Compare my mechanics in ’88 to ’89 and you’ll see a few interesting changes.  My higher release point improved the efficiency of my weight transfer, my head stayed more in line with my front knee in the launch position.  This refinement reduced the stress placed on my shoulder as my arm decelerated. – Nolan Ryan

Texas Rangers and Tom House ( 1989 – 1993)

Characteristics

Ryan in 1991

  • Momentum is lost with emphasis on the balance absolute.
  • Leg lift is to shoulder height.
  • Lead leg moves downward toward mound and leads the body forward toward the target (direction absolute).
  • Head stays on back hip and posture remains consistent into foot strike.
  • Upper body mechanics are similar to that of Astros and Angels (launch/deception absolute).
  • Stride alignment now consistently heel to toe if not further closed off at foot strike due to lack of momentum.
  • Spinal angle and head position remain consistent (weight transfer absolute).

 

 

I found a short clip of Tom  House and Nolan Ryan working together in a bullpen setting.  I’m not sure the time this video took place, but it looks like Ryan has already retired.  Watch below to see if you can pick up on the Four Absolutes in Ryan’s throwing mechanics.

THE BIRTH OF CHANGE

To be clear, when I state MODERN PITCHING MECHANICS, I’m referring to the origin of where the delivery started as the Four Absolutes earned its way into accepted pitching instruction in baseball circles everywhere.  The Four Absolutes or what I refer commonly to as “The Up, Down, & Out, continue to exist predominately at the youth pitching instruction.  I would venture to say it takes roughly 10 years for a change in hitting or pitching methodology to surface at all competitive levels of baseball.  From personal experience, I grew up learning the ideals of the Four Absolutes in the late 90′.  And as of today, most young pitchers who walk into our facility, showcase a predominately Modern Delivery instilled into their mechanical pattern by a little league, travel, or high school coach.

Not at all pitchers resemble this methodology, in fact, many amateurs and professionals exhibit a totally different pattern but again, we are talking about an overwhelming advantage on the side of the Modern Delivery.  I see two fundamental differences in the way Nolan Ryan threw a baseball with the New York Mets compared to that of the Texas Rangers.  The first and most important difference is the way the body must rotate when the body is abiding by the Four Absolutes.

I found a clip from Tom House where he’s talking about arm slot and getting on top of the baseball which directly deals with how the torso must rotate to deliver the baseball.  I’m not sure of the exact date of the clip, but since he talks about Mark Prior, we can deduce the clip is after 2003.

Tom is essentially talking about maintaining head position and posture through the acceleration phase of the delivery and let your arm naturally come into release.  I fundamentally believe to maximize total potential output and support the arm through rotation, a pitcher must achieve a high arm slot.  Achieving the higher arm slot is linked to how the trunk and spine move into rotation prior to release.  If a pitcher’s posture and head stay forward, the shoulders are forced to rotate horizontally, leading to a lower arm slot and increase stress on the throwing shoulder and elbow.  In the video below, I show the two different ways to rotate the upper body to deliver the baseball.  We encourage you to rotate similar to Ryan in 1969.  For more information on how negative forces impact the health of a pitcher’s shoulder read my article on Roy Halladay.

The second fundamental difference I see is how Ryan moves into and out of his leg lift.  If you revert back to the video of Nolan throughout his career, notice where I stopped each clip.  I provided a still frame of Ryan after he fully separated his hands and extended his lead leg outward from the body.  With New York, Ryan seemingly kicks his foot away from his body.  This unique movement, seen in many traditional pitchers, allows the body to move down the mound longer and aids to increase a pitchers momentum.  The hips become engaged during the movement, and substantial increases in mass and leverage are obtained.  The movement also directly influences proper stride alignment (heel to heel) to let the lower half completely open up in an ideal path towards home plate.

As Ryan’s lower half movement (hips and leg extending outwards) decreased with the Rangers, his stride alignment became closed off.  With the information derived from the Direction Absolute, we know Ryan delayed hip rotation until his front foot landed slightly closed towards third base. Will Fox, our Performance Specialist, talks about how this closed landing effects joint mechanics.

Not only is landing closed-off potentially going to limit full trunk rotation within the throw thus limiting a huge source power, but it produces exponentially more stress at the hip joint based based on the mechanics. Think about if you tried to internally rotate your leg farther than what your body allowed..probably wouldn’t feel too great. This is actually what is occurring when you land closed-off. The only difference is that your body is now rotating over your leg (because your foot is locked to the ground) instead of the other way around. The problem is that momentum and the mass amount of rotational force created will likely force you beyond what you have dictated at your hip by landing closed. It is either that or you aren’t going to max-out your turn. Damage your hip or damage your velocity, either way a lose-lose. Combine this with the fact that the majority of pitchers already have limited internal rotation in their front leg and you really aren’t doing yourself a favor. – Will Fox, MATCS, CSCS, PEX

On a final note, I’m not advocating Tom House still teaches off his initial Four Absolutes.  I’m sure he continues to research his information and apply the updated information into his teaching and training.  We all have different methodologies, and many of my pitching “absolutes” differ from Tom’s.  But by writing this article, I wanted to educate all readers how Tom House’s relationship with Nolan Ryan started the birth of a specific style and how that style  has dominated the pitching landscape for the last twenty years.

Happy New Year!

– Justin Orenduff, Leader of the Pitching Rebellion