A Nice Little Underhand Toss: The History of Submarine Pitchers in Major League Baseball

man pitching a baseball

In the last article, I talked about the anomaly that is Matt Wisler. This article will focus on a different kind of anomaly. The one that hides underwater. Take a look:

via MLB

Seems like someone missed the memo that you are supposed to throw the ball overhand. I can make plenty of jokes about submarine pitchers, they are funky and not in the musical way, but they are also the source of existential dread for many hitters.

Note: This article focuses on the most successful submarine pitchers. Click here for a complete list of all submarine pitchers in MLB history.

The First Submarine Pitchers

The first pitcher to experiment with a submarine style was the one and only Cy Young. Young often mixed it in with an overhand delivery and a sidearm throw that fell somewhere in between. Using different arm angles likely made it more difficult for hitters and may have allowed Young to throw more innings without injury (He was pretty good at throwing a lot of innings).

Young’s occasional use of a submarine pitching style was a common theme for the submarine pitchers that followed. In 1899, as Young was racking up accolades, Joe McGinnity became the next pitcher to feature the submarine style. McGinnity felt the style was low-stress and helped him pitch more. Mixing it in with his overhand delivery allowed him to lead the league in wins 5 times, games pitched 6 times, and saves 3 times. This all came within a 10-year career. In addition to his 246 major league wins, McGinnity has the most minor league wins of any Hall of Famer with 224. McGinnity is 79th in major league innings pitched and he threw even more innings in the minors.

Mordecai Brown (often referred to as Three Finger Brown) and Charles Bender (Chief Bender) joined the list of Hall of Famers occasionally using the submarine pitching style.

The True Submariner

Jack Warhop began his career in 1908. He is the first true submarine pitcher we see in MLB history. Unlike other pitchers like Young and McGinnity, Warhop used the submarine style as his sole method of getting outs. Warhop had some struggles with controlling his pitches early in his career. He led the majors in hit-by-pitches in his first 2 full seasons. Warhop pitched at a time when run scoring was incredibly low, making his 3.12 ERA just below the average pitcher from 1908 to 1915 (ERA+ 97). Yet, he ended his career at a very poor 68-92. This is largely due to a continuous battle with unearned runs. Warhop averaged 27 unearned runs per season. This accounts for nearly a quarter of the runs scored against him.

Elden Le Roy Auker emerged in 1933 after a football injury had led him to the submarine arm action. Auker played for the Detroit Tigers, Boston Red Sox, and St. Louis Browns (later became the Baltimore Orioles) over the course of 10 seasons. Auker threw over 200 innings in 6 of those seasons and came 5 innings short of a seventh season. He did not strike a lot of guys out, but he kept his ERA right around league average during that time. His ERA+ for his career (101) was 1% better than league average for 1933-1942.

Ted Abernathy pitched for the Washington Senators from 1955 to 1957. The results were not so good. In 1959, he underwent shoulder surgery. He was determined to not let this injury derail his career. The solution was to begin pitching submarine. He made 2 appearances in 1960 and gave up 4 runs in 3 innings. Abernathy, spent the rest of 1960 and all of 1961 and 1962 in the minor leagues. In 1963, he got another chance with the Cleveland Indians. He made the most of it by posting a 2.88 ERA in 59.1 innings. Abernathy pitched another 9 years for 6 different teams. He got better as he went. He had a phenomenal year in 1967 and finished fourth in pitcher WAR. He was a great reliever for the rest of his career and retired on a high note in 1972.

The next well-known submarine pitcher to arise was Kent Tekulve. Tekulve reached the major leagues in 1974 with the Pirates. As a 6’4″ submarine pitcher, he provided an unusual look for batters. Tekulve was an extremely durable reliever throughout his career. He appeared in at least 90 games in 1978 and 1979 for the Pirates and did it one more time in 1987 at the age of 40 for the Phillies. Tekulve took fifth in the Cy Young voting in 1978 and 1979 before receiving his only All-Star Game selection in 1980. You could say this was Tekulve’s peak, but his consistency year after year was a defining part of his career. His run prevention was above average in all but his first season and his 2 final seasons. The 13 years in between were amazing. By the end of his 16 year MLB career, Kent Tekulve had appeared in 1,050 games, earned 184 saves, and had an ERA of 2.85. He also locked up a World Series Championship in his stellar 1979 season.

As Tekulve was on his way to winning the World Series, Dan Quisenberry emerged. Quisenberry soon became a dominant closer in Major League Baseball. He had 5 saves in 1979. In 1980, he led the league with 33 and earned himself a fifth place in the Cy Young race. He led the league in saves again in 1982, 1983, 1984, and 1985. In those years, his Cy Young placements went as follows: 3rd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd. Like Tekulve, Quisenberry pitched in a lot of games and lead the league in games pitched multiple times. He also got a World Series of his own in 1985.

We have now reached the 21st century!

Submarine Pitchers in the 21st Century

Chad Bradford was a name I first heard through the movie Moneyball. He began his career in 1998 with the Chicago White Sox. He posted a solid 3.23 ERA in 29 appearances. The following year, he only got a little over three innings and those innings did not go well. He returned to good form in 2000. The next nine years would be quite successful. Bradford succeeded by not making mistakes. He did not give batters free bases and rarely allowed home runs. Instead, he let them hit the ball. He leveraged the fact that scoring a run often requires three singles in an inning. Bradford’s postseason performances were even better than his performances in the regular season. He allowed 1 earned run in 23.1 postseason innings for a 0.39 ERA.

As Bradford was moving toward the end of his career, Brad Ziegler emerged as the next possibly elite submarine pitcher. Ziegler’s first season was a masterpiece. He allowed 7 earned runs in 59.2 innings for a 1.06 ERA. The success would continue for the rest of his career. He only finished below average in run prevention in 1 of his 11 MLB seasons. Like Bradford, Ziegler knew how to stay away from the home run ball which benefitted him greatly.

Today’s Submarine Pitchers

There are currently two well-known submarine pitchers in Major League Baseball.

Adam Cimber made his debut in 2018. He ended the season with a 3.42 ERA. His next two years were okay but not great. Last season was his best in the majors. He finished with a 2.26 ERA after pitching for the Marlins and the Blue Jays.

Tyler Rodgers appeared in 2019. In 17.2 innings he only allowed 2 earned runs. It was a small sample size but showed a lot or promise. He has led the league in games pitched the last two seasons. His 4.5 ERA in 2020 was a step back from the great promise he showed in 2019, but he found that greatness again last year. Over 80 appearances, he had a 2.22 ERA.

Why Throw Underhand?

One question I often have when I seen a submarine pitcher is: why did they decide to pitch that way? There are plenty of advantages to being a submarine pitcher but one of the most common reasons for becoming a submarine pitcher might be a sense of desperation. Many of the pitchers above had some form of overhand delivery for many years. They switched to submarine pitching after a shoulder injury or years of being in the minor league with little hope of making the majors. The submarine delivery seemed to offer them a better chance of making an MLB roster. Of course, there are still plenty of pitchers that deliberately went the submarine route early on.

The most obvious reasons for pitching submarine have to do with pitch recognition and movement of the baseball. When a pitcher throws it overhand, they usually release the ball above their shoulder or in line with it. Hitters get comfortable seeing these release points because they see them a lot. Submarine pitchers have a much lower release point which can allow the ball to travel a little farther before the hitter recognizes its trajectory and spin. These release points also determine the vertical movement required to throw a strike. Most MLB pitchers release the ball about 5.5 feet above the ground. To put the ball in the strike zone, most pitches begin on an even or downward trajectory. Submarine pitchers often release the ball between 1 and 3.5 feet above the ground. When you factor in the natural drop created by spin and gravity, they must release nearly all their pitches with an upward trajectory. This greatly affects how a hitter sees a pitch.

If you look at Tyler Rogers’ numbers, you will find he gets a lot of ground balls with his pitches.

Via Baseball Savant

The low home run rates of pitchers like Ziegler and Bradford suggest that they likely had high ground ball rates as well. This is interesting because I would expect the upward movement (being very unusual in baseball) would lead hitters to swing under the ball and hit pop ups and flyouts. Maybe, most of these swings under the ball do not end up making contact. We can say with certainty that when hitters put the ball in play, they are on top of it. This could be the result of the natural drop of the pitch which gives it less upward movement than it appears it will have out of the pitcher’s hand.

Combining this upward movement with horizontal movement can be a nasty combination for a pitcher. Rogers’ best pitch the last two years has been his slider. The upward movement and glove side break combine to leave Willson Contreras swinging at air.

Rogers strikes out Willson Contreras on a slider via Baseball Savant

Here, the slider gets a terrible swing from Joey Votto:

Tyler Rogers strikes out Joey Votto on a slider via Baseball Savant

The last swing by Joey Votto really encapsulates why some pitchers switch to a submarine style of pitching. The unique arm angle along with some control and a few solid pitches can really throw off hitters.

You also do not need a lot of velocity to succeed as a submarine pitcher. Sure, over 80 mph from that arm angle is not doable for the average person but in terms of MLB pitcher velocities, submarine pitchers are often at the bottom of the league. They remind us that a funky 85mph fastball can be just as effective as a 95mph fastball.

Finally, one of the most notable differences between successful submarine pitchers and those that give up more runs is the level of control. Submarine pitchers seem to lead the league in hit-by-pitches a lot for being such a small group in Major League Baseball. Any pitcher will tell you this is a recipe for failure.

Conclusion

The submarine pitching style emerged over 100 years ago. Initially, it was mainly used by overhand pitchers that wanted to occasionally confuse the batter. Since then, some pitchers have solely used the lower release point and many have had great success with it. The delivery is here to stay and one day it might win an award named after the man that first started experimenting with it.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: