Dropping down: sidearm pitchers making an impact across all levels of baseball

Joe Smith (AP photo)

Joe Smith (AP photo)

It won’t take long for most any youth baseball player to experiment with throwing sidearm. Considered to be a worthwhile skill for infielders to have, developing the ability to throw accurately from multiple arm angles has proven to be quite the commodity for a growing number of pitchers in the major leagues.

Angels pitcher Joe Smith made the conversion as a sophomore at Wright State, where he found that he could actually throw harder by dropping down. Orioles reliever Darren O’Day picked it up in, for lack of a better term, the ‘beer leagues’ after being cut at the University of Florida. Diamondbacks sidewinder Brad Ziegler has been (statistically speaking) one of the most effective and durable relievers in the big leagues for the past few years.

Sidearm pitchers are unquestionably unique, however the chance to learn from one is oftentimes a challenge for youngsters looking to experiment with a new arm angle. Geoff Freeborn wants to change that. With the emergence of websites like his (SidearmNation.com), the number of resources available for ‘submarine’ pitchers is growing.

A former sidearm pitcher himself, Freeborn spent some time with Inside Pitch discussing just how his success has dovetailed into finding his niche in the game, both as a player and a coach:

IP: What is your background in baseball?

Geoff Freeborn: “I’m a former professional pitcher from Calgary, Canada that was fortunate to play pro ball for five years all over the world: France, Germany, Australia, Colombia, the United States and Canada. That was always my goal growing up- to play pro ball. I’ve also had the chance to represent my country on the 1999 Canadian Junior National Team and my father’s country (Great Britain) several times at the European championships. Nowadays I coach full-time in Calgary with the Calgary Coyotes youth baseball program, the National Sports Academy and in the Calgary Babe Ruth league.”

IP: How about your background as a sidearm pitcher?

GF: “I had been battling shoulder injuries for over three years when I was about halfway through my first year of Independent ball with the Calgary Vipers. Our manager called me into his office; I wasn’t pitching very well at the time and was expecting to get released. Instead, he suggested I try dropping my arm angle down.

“I went to the outfield to throw a flat ground. It felt pretty natural and my shoulder felt a lot better. I hopped on the mound for a bullpen and [my manager] liked what he saw. He threw me right into the fire of a tie game in the eighth inning. I had a three up, three down inning and ended up getting my first professional win!

“I had some ups and downs in the second half of the season but overall it was definitely better than the first half. I went to Australia that winter to play and work on my new arm angle. The following year, I made the All-Star game in the Northern League and got some looks from MLB teams.”

IP: What were some of the easier parts of your transition? What were the biggest challenges?

GF: “The part that can be easy as a sidearm pitcher is facing a same-sided hitter. For me, being a left-handed pitcher facing a lefty hitter was a blast! Most of them didn’t feel comfortable in the box, and you can definitely get away with a lot more against them than an opposite-side hitter. Also for me personally, it was a lot easier on my shoulder. I could pitch three or four days in a row, whereas from over the top that definitely wouldn’t have happened.

“I think one of the harder parts about pitching from a lower arm angle can just be an ego thing for some pitchers that have been asked to do it. There is a reason why you have been asked to drop your arm angle; if you are really struggling from over the top then for some guys why not try it? You have nothing to lose. You have to really mentally commit to dropping down- realize this is your new arm angle and embrace it, otherwise it isn’t going to work. Pitching sidearm/submarine you really have to forget about the radar gun too, it’s about movement and deception. Every now and then you’ll have the odd sidewinder who drops down and can still throw it pretty firm but overall, once you start to worry about velocity your stuff will flatten out and you will be less effective.”

Photo Sep 21, 10 49 56 PMIP: How did you start up Sidearm Nation?

GF: “When I had first dropped down I went online to find out what I could about sidearm/submarine pitching and there really wasn’t much out there on the subject. When I retired from pro ball in 2011 it came back to me when I had first looked the subject up. I started to think about Sidearm Nation. First I came up with the idea that it would be kind of like an e-book with a whole bunch of interviews of current/former MLB/AAA/International pitchers that pitched from there.

“It took some time, but I was able to track down a whole bunch of players and now there are more than 120 interviews and we’re still growing. We’ve also added a forum for people to chat about the subject and this past year we’ve hosted two camps, one in Arizona and the other in Texas. We got great feedback on both. It’s just been fun connecting with fellow ‘sidewinders’ all over the world.”

IP: What is your ultimate goal for Sidearm Nation?

GF: “I just want it to be a useful tool for pitchers who are from the lower slot. Also want it to be a useful tool for coaches who aren’t quite sure what to do with their sidewinder they are coaching. I want the camps to grow and do a couple each year all over the country. It’s been a fun project, it’s something I am very proud of. A lot of times people get ideas in their heads and get scared to follow through with them. I did too a bit but glad I gave sidearm nation a chance, definitely learned a lot through this process. Definitely times were I’ve gotten frustrated and second guessed myself starting the site and time I’ve put into it but when get stories from people thanking me for site and how it has helped their baseball careers, it makes it all worthwhile!”

IP: What are some common misconceptions about sidearm pitching?

GF: “Sometimes you hear opinions that throwing sidearm is bad for you, bad for your arm. Some kids are just built to throw from there. Some it just comes way more natural, probably because your shoulder is actually designed to throw underhand. Obviously it’s going to be tough to play a position in the field but from a pitching perspective it can definitely be something that can help you stick out and get you to the next level.

“Another one is that sidearm pitchers can get pigeon-holed into just being a relief guy or a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy) when in fact, most can go more than one inning and get opposite-side hitters out.”

“There are millions of pitchers in the world throwing the exact same way, why not be different?!”

For more information or to check out Geoff’s interviews, visit sidearmnation.com

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