Collin Strall spent his early years in baseball hearing coaches attempt to correct that funky throw of his. From his post at shortstop, Strall’s tosses across the diamond were released closer to the hip than the shoulder.
Get your arm up, coaches used to tell him.
You’re gonna hurt yourself, they said.
Stop throwing from down there, some yelled.
Through it all, Strall never changed his delivery. He’s a natural sidearm slinger, and, now, he’s slinging side arm on the pitcher’s mound.
LSU will open the 2015 season with a sidearm pitcher on its roster for the first time in a decade. Strall’s side-winding, right-handed release will have those at Alex Box Stadium craning their necks.
They haven’t seen a purple-and-gold sidewinder since Jordan Faircloth in 2003-05, when Smoke Laval coached a Tigers’ team that played in a different stadium.
It’s been a while.
“I just wanted someone that did something a little different,” coach Paul Mainieri said.
And Strall? He’s honored to be the first of his kind under Mainieri.
“It’s kind of special,” he said.
Two weeks through a three-week preseason practice, LSU hitters might feel different.
They’re adjusting to a guy who releases a tailing fastball and nasty slider from hip-high level. They’re slowly warming to a pitcher who hangs off the right side of the rubber as he crouches during his sideways delivery, a short hurler who throws from what hitters call “down under.”
This is a rarity, after all. Centerfielder Andrew Stevenson says he doesn’t remember facing a sidearmer with such a low delivery as Strall during the entirety of the 2014 season.
In the 14-team Southeastern Conference, Strall is just one of about five sidewinders in the league this year. Vanderbilt and Florida have one each, and Mississippi State has two, according to responses from SEC baseball staffs.
“I see these guys having success even though there are few of them,” said Mississippi State pitching coach Butch Thompson, who’s held sidearm pitching camps over the last two years.
Mississippi State has likely had the most sidearm pitchers of anyone in the league over the last few years. Advantages to having sidearm pitchers go beyond the different look they give hitters, Thompson said. Sidearmers don’t throw with the velocity overhand pitchers do, and they don’t exert such force on the shoulder. That means they bounce back quicker.
“They can be available for two of a three-day weekend series,” Thompson said.
The problem: They struggle in facing hitters who bat to the opposite side. Righty sidewinders struggle against lefties, and lefties against right-handed hitters.
Deciding what pitchers to transition from overhand to sidearm isn’t easy, and some refuse to do it. The prime candidate is a normal, vanilla righty.
“Some people refer to them as ‘just another righty,’” Thompson said. “When you have a middle-of the-road right-handed pitcher and he’s got a .350 opponent’s average from a vanilla slot and then you drop him down and two weeks later you give him 50 at-bats and he’s got a .200 opponents batting average ... it’s really not rocket science.”
These sidearming types stick together. One of Mississippi State’s two sidearm pitchers, Logan Elliot, and Strall roomed together last year at Tuscaloosa Community College.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Strall is about three to four inches shorter than his old college roomie. Height hurt the shortstop-turned-pitcher in making his dream come true – playing baseball at a Division I school.
A Suwanee, Georgia, native, Strall’s college offers out of South Forsyth High included a handful of Division I-AA programs.
“No matter what I told a coach, he was too small,” said William Jackel, a past mentor and coach to Strall who helped complete his transition to sidearm pitching.
Strall is only in his second full year as a sidearm pitcher. Jackel, a former minor league player, helped drop down Strall’s arm slot after seeing him as a sidearm-throwing shortstop, said John Burrus, Strall’s summerball coach.
Strall began at Tallahassee Community College last season with little to no experience pitching sidearm in a significant game. His final stats from 2014 – 7-2 record, 2.54 ERA, 63 strikeouts in 60.1 innings – drew the eyes of major college coaches.
For the first time in his career, they were looking at the short kid from Georgia.
“At first, it was something new,” Burrus said, “but then you get down there (as a sidearmer) and then you get some big looks from some big schools.”
It was a process to this point.
Jackel oversaw the transition of an unheralded shortstop, too small to play major college baseball, into a successful sidewinder.
Strall got his forearm stronger. He developed a better mental approach to pitching. His pitch command strengthened and his slider became “devastating,” Jackel said.
Transitioning from overhand to sidearm isn’t an easy decision for pitchers, Thompson said. Some of them just say no.
“I still think the biggest problem for making this adjustment is pride,” he said. “‘I can’t go in the top 10 rounds (of the draft) anymore.’ … ‘I can’t do this because I have this future beyond LSU, beyond Florida, beyond Mississippi State.’ It’s pride.”
Strall made the leap. During the transition, Strall threw from different arm angles. He switched arm slots not only in the middle of a game but in the middle of an at-bat, Jackel said.
Strall might begin the at-bat with a sidearm fastball, follow with a sidearm breaking pitching and finish with an over-the-top heater.
“Guys wouldn’t know what hit them,” Jackel said.
Don’t expect to see him do such at LSU. Mainieri’s plan for Strall is for him to enter to face a streak of right-handed pitchers, throwing sidearm the whole way.
“If you’re a right-handed hitter, he throws off the right side of the rubber, so it comes from behind you, so when his pitches start over the inner third, they’re going to end up off the plate,” shortstop Alex Bregman said. “He’s going to get a lot of groundballs.”
Bregman says he’s figured out how to hit Strall over the course of the fall and preseason practice. How?
“I’m not telling you,” he said smiling.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.