COLUMBIA — Early last season, nothing was going Phil McCormick’s way on the mound.
McCormick, a relief pitcher on the Missouri baseball team, had suffered from swelling in his elbow earlier in the fall and was struggling to find a role with the team. His stuff had little movement and was way too hittable. The team kept him around because he was left-handed, but even that wasn’t going to be enough much longer.
Then, the Missouri coaching staff suggested he try throwing submarine, that is, underhanded. This style of pitching is rare to see, especially from a left-hander.
McCormick was a little hesitant, but what did he have to lose? He gave it a shot, and became a completely different pitcher.
Almost immediately after McCormick changed his motion, he found his way into the Tigers’ plans. He went from not being on the travel roster to being depended on to get big outs, becoming one of Missouri’s most reliable relievers.
McCormick said the change wasn’t that difficult.
“It’s just a different angle,” McCormick said. “What I really wanted to do was just get on the mound anyway I could.”
Missouri coach Tim Jamieson wasn’t surprised the style was effective. He was just surprised that McCormick became successful so quickly.
“A lot of times, and in his case too, it’s kind of a last alternative,” Jamieson said. “He’d almost been cut several times. He’d probably be the first one to tell you, he was struggling to get anybody out. He needed to come to the conclusion that that was the best alternative.”
Why is it so effective?
Missouri starting pitcher Nick Tepesch throws in the mid 90s with solid movement. His stuff can overpower opposing hitters and leave the glove of his catcher burning.
McCormick’s fastball tops out in the low 80s but is usually in the 70s. For McCormick, or any submarine thrower, speed is not the focus. It’s all about movement.
To go along with his fastball, McCormick throws a slider and a change-up. The movement that goes along with these pitches keeps hitters off balance. When a pitcher throws underhanded, the ball sinks, which is great for inducing double plays. McCormick has specialized at getting them for the Tigers this season.
McCormick said he doesn’t worry about how his pitches show up on the radar.
“I haven’t had velocity for a while now, so I’m content with it,” McCormick said. “As long as it moves, I’m happy.”
Left-handed hitters often have trouble facing an underhanded left-handed pitcher. Considering the last pitcher the hitter likely saw was a hard-throwing right-hander like Tepesch, the chances of them timing a McCormick pitch is unlikely.
“Phil kind of has a double whammy,” Jamieson said. “Don’t see many lefthanders who do that.”
McCormick is most effective out of the bullpen. If he sees hitters more than once, they can usually time his pitches because of the low velocity. McCormick is also available almost every day because his appearances are so short.
Catching a submarine thrower
A relief pitcher gets eight warmup pitches before their outing begins. Normally, this is more than enough for a catcher to see what kind of stuff their pitcher has on the day. Catcher Brett Nicholas said with McCormick, it wouldn’t hurt to have a few more.
“It’s pretty difficult,” Nicholas said. “Not so much because he drops down, but because he has so much movement on every pitch that he throws. I don’t think he could throw a straight pitch even if he tried to.”
McCormick said he often doesn’t know where the pitch is going when he throws it.
“There’s not very many people that throw strikes from down there,” McCormick said. “You can’t really locate it that well. I basically throw it down the middle and hope that it moves away from the middle. I guess the simpler approach is the better one.”
McCormick fits the label of being effectively wild, but he has good control for a submarine pitcher. He has issued just four walks in his 15 2/3 innings pitched.
Nicholas said it is important to not underestimate the confidence issue.
“For him, his biggest thing is just when he comes in and stands on the mound, and he just has this presence about him,” Nicholas said. “He knows that he’s going to come in and get the job done.”
Nicholas said the hitters notice McCormick's pitching quickly.
“I actually talk to some of the hitters as they’re coming up there and are going to face him,” Nicholas said. “And I think every single one of them is like, ‘This guy is weird.’”
The awkward motion looks like it would take a toll on a pitcher's shoulder and elbow, but Matt Long, the Missouri baseball team's trainer, said the shoulder is less stressed.
“It’s really not that much different that a normal guy that’s throwing upright,” Long said. “I don’t think it puts any more strain on his shoulder to be down there.”
Jamieson added that a pitcher is not fighting with gravity as much when you keep your shoulder low.
The elbow might start hurting if the pitcher overthrows the ball, but because McCormick doesn’t throw all that hard, Long is not worried about him tearing anything. Tendinitis and arm fatigue are the only real concerns.
McCormick said the motion has not had a big effect on how his arm feels.
“I throw just as much,” McCormick said. “… My arm feels great just about every day. If anything, it puts less stress on it."
When should a pitcher try this?
Pitching submarine works for McCormick, but for most pitchers it’s probably a good idea to stick with throwing overhanded.
Becoming an effective starter throwing underhanded is almost out of the question because of the lack of velocity and control.
Also, colleges rarely like underhanded pitchers. Jamieson said it is a last resort kind of thing, and usually not successful unless the pitcher is 100 percent dedicated.
But if you’re about to get cut from the team and have nothing else to lose, go for it. At the very least, you know you’ve tried everything.