ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Even back then, when Corbin Burnes was just finding his footing in Major League Baseball, his hyperfocus on everything from making his bed to visualizing his impending outing led him to a question he couldn’t answer.

With no runners on base, he and so many others pitched out of the windup. With runners on base, they ditched those mechanics and pitched out of the stretch — a quicker delivery to home plate.

“I don’t need the extra movement. I can still keep my rhythm going. I can still keep my timing.”

Orioles pitcher Corbin Burnes

There are no rules that require a pitcher to use two distinct variations. And in 2019, as a young Burnes grappled with the reality of the major leagues, he came to a realization about the windup.

“Why have extra movement when you don’t need to?” Burnes said. “I didn’t have a reason for it. I don’t know why I do it. Why do it?”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

So he stopped doing it.

The decision to pitch exclusively out of the stretch in 2019 vaulted Burnes to another level. His command improved, he won a Cy Young Award and, by dominating year after year, he helped to inspire another member of this Orioles staff to remove an unnecessary windup from his repertoire.

Across baseball, the windup has become less commonplace among starting pitchers. As some moved between relief and starting roles, they became used to the simpler mechanics of the stretch and stuck with it fully. Others, such as Burnes and right-hander Kyle Bradish, found an advantage in less pre-pitch movement.

The two Orioles aces — both are pitching like it — are examples of stretch-only starters. And, as they dominate the league, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the trend extend.

“It’s getting more popular, and I think the main reason is repeating mechanics,” catcher James McCann said. “I think the main reason guys are doing that is the ability to repeat the mechanics on a consistent basis, and they have an easier time doing that out of the stretch.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Not so long ago, when McCann began his career, the elaborate windups of yesteryears were still common enough. Think Warren Spahn — arms swinging, hands over the head, feet stepping here and there before finally pitching. Spahn, the Hall of Famer born a century ago, is an extreme example. But some pitchers, such as Max Scherzer, still lift their hands above their head in a traditional windup.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Kyle Bradish (39) stares down Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager (5) at first base during game one of the American League Divisional Series at Camden Yards on Saturday, October 7, 2023.
Kyle Bradish of the Orioles sticks to the stretch position, an idea he got from watching Corbin Burnes use it while pitching for the Milwaukee Brewers. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

McCann figures new technology that offers advanced data and slow-motion video, as well as the concept of tunneling pitches — ensuring all the offerings come out of the same arm slot — has dissuaded pitchers from mimicking the likes of Spahn, Nolan Ryan and Hideo Nomo.

Halfway through Bradish’s rookie season in 2022, the right-hander felt out of sync with his windup. His walk numbers were rising, and he began to spray pitches with no runners on base.

Then one night he watched Burnes pitch. They have similar pitch arsenals, and Bradish took notice of how Burnes stood on the first-base side of the rubber and pitched exclusively out of the stretch.

“I talked to the pitching guys, and they said, ‘Hey, let’s try it out,’” Bradish recalled.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

He didn’t lose velocity pitching solely out of the stretch. Bradish also said he avoids the “big back arches” he used to do in the windup, and with his back foot set, “I feel more locked into the mound, not having to move the back foot.”

The improvements have been profound. Last season, his first full campaign pitching out of the stretch, Bradish earned Cy Young consideration. He now holds a 2.62 ERA.

“Cutting down on movement,” Bradish said. “I already have enough moving parts in my throwing motion, so just being able to have that consistent feel with runners on or without, just one motion. And then, obviously, my leg time is quick to the plate, and when I was in the windup I had that higher leg kick and it threw everything out of whack.”

Burnes can relate. In high school, when he began pitching in a serious manner, Burnes employed a windup that might’ve been used in the 1960s — “the step back, over the head kind of thing,” he said.

By college and then pro ball, Burnes had pared his windup to more of a sidestep.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“The reason I always thought windup was because I always saw it on TV,” Burnes said. He mimicked the best in the game. Now, Bradish and others are willing to mimic Burnes because he’s showing the stretch can be as effective — if not more so — than the windup.

“I think, for me, I always felt more comfortable starting in stretch position,” Burnes said. “And, when I did it, it made sense. I don’t need the extra movement. I can still keep my rhythm going. I can still keep my timing.”

Even if pitchers maintain a sort of windup, they exhibit less movement. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez uses two distinct motions, but his windup includes the smallest of sidesteps. Left-hander Cole Irvin does the same. Dismissing that movement isn’t required for everyone.

But to Burnes there’s another major reason beyond simplicity to pitch exclusively from the stretch.

“You make your biggest pitches of the game out of the stretch,” Burnes said. “For me, if I can start from the first inning and get comfortable out of the stretch, all of a sudden a guy gets on base, it’s not like I haven’t done this.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

It might be the sixth inning of a tight game. When that first baserunner reaches against Burnes, he doesn’t need to change his mechanics 85 pitches into his start. He’s been doing it all along.

“If you can eliminate extra movement to allow you to focus on what you’re trying to focus on,” McCann said, “it’s just going to make the result better.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

More From The Banner