Let's talk pitching strategy...
I think without question the hardest single thing to do in sport is to hit a baseball.
I think most of us baseball fans would agree with that statement.
Williams was the last major league player to hit .400 for an entire season...
...and that was back in 1941.
Last season, the average Major League Baseball player produced a hit less than 3 times for every 10 at-bats (.256 avg.) and failed to even put the ball in play 2 times in 10 tries.
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So, why is hitting a baseball so difficult?
Check out these slow-motion hitting clips of Miguel Cabrera, Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina from the 2012 World Series and you can begin to understand why:
As these clips show, to sync up the swing of the bat with the exact time and location of the ball’s arrival from the pitcher is the challenge that each hitter faces.
If the intersection is off by even tenths of a second, the ball will be missed.
Hitting becomes exceedingly difficult in the context of a game when facing a pitcher who can not only throw hard, but also change speeds and location vertically and horizontally.
Consider the fact that a fastball thrown at 90 mph reaches home plate in about 0.4 seconds.
That's four-tenths of one second.
Then add to that a pitcher who knows how to pitch—who has a well-defined pitching strategy, tactics and plan of attack to get hitters out...
...and you can't help but feel a little sorry for hitters just thinking about it.
How to retire the hitter
"It's not how hard you throw it, but where you locate it that matters."
I really love that pitching philosophy. But it requires a strategy.
A lot has been written about the mechanical, mental and physical training of the pitcher.
But the most important element is often left out:
How to retire the hitter.
Every pitcher should have a good understanding of how to set-up hitters in all situations:
...how to make hitters uncomfortable,
...how to keep them guessing,
...and how to keep them off the base paths.
That's what the art of pitching is all about.
Locating fastballs down and away early in the count is one way of seeing how hitters are reacting to the pitcher’s fastball.
Moving the ball in when ahead in the count, and changing the hitter’s eye level by going up and down with fastballs and changing speeds are simple tactics any pitcher can learn.
Having a strategy and game plan will help.
Establishing a game plan
Every pitcher needs to go into a game with an idea of how he will pitch based on the strengths of his arsenal and what he knows about the other team.
Pitchers must constantly ask themselves:
- What are my strengths?
What pitches in your arsenal will give you the greatest opportunity to succeed? Remember, in almost every situation the pitcher has an advantage over the hitter.
- What is the game situation?
What's the score of the game, inning, who's up, who's on deck, have you faced the hitter before?
- What are the hitter's weaknesses?
Does he have a slow bat, an upper cut swing, a closed stance, a tough time with the curve?
If you can read swings or you already know something about the opposing players—you can generalize and put hitters into a few basic categories.
This will help you or your pitchers develop a basic approach to different hitters.
Different types of hitters and swing styles
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|Type of Hitter||What to Throw?|
|Pull hitter||Throw fastballs and off-speed pitches away. When ahead in the count, show the fastball in and off the plate to set up the pitch away as an out pitch.|
|Upper cut swing||Typically a left-handed hitter using his dominant hand to create a slight loop in his swing. Throw hard up and in and throw off-speed low and away. Off-speed pitches from right-handers against a lefty should be low and inside, below the strike zone.|
|Slow bat||Throw hard stuff in on hands and away (work fastballs in and out). Throw all off-speed pitches below the strike zone — throw in the dirt with two strikes. Any off-speed pitch up and out over the plate has a chance to be driven.|
|Inside-out hitter||This hitter has a knack for hitting the ball to the opposite field. His hands will lead in his swing, and the barrel will stay on the ball slightly longer than it does with other hitters. The inside-out batter likes an outside pitch. The pitcher's approach should be to throw fastballs inside below the hands. When ahead in the count, show off-speed pitches away off the plate and get him out with fastballs in.|
|All around hitter||This is usually the hardest type of hitter to get out. Mix a variety of pitches down in the zone. He is normally the best hitter in the lineup and one of the best in the league. Keep the guys who hit in front of him off base. In crucial situations, pitch around him by mixing pitches six to eight inches off the plate and below the zone.|
Now these youth pitching strategies aren't foolproof, but they will give you a basis from which to work.
Of course, as the game progresses the pitcher will need to constantly evaluate the situation and make adjustments.
Building a foundation for success
There are generally three pitching strategies to live by as a pitcher:
- Get one of the first two pitches over for a strike.
First pitch strikes are great, and winning the first two pitches is even better—but mentally we don't want to get down on ourselves, so let's make our objective to get one of the first two pitches over for a strike.
- Get the leadoff hitter and first hitter of each inning out.
MLB statistics show leadoff hitters steal the most bases once they get on base, and they also score the most runs. So we have to focus hard on this first hitter. Since we want to throw a lot of strikes, our thinking must be about getting the hitter to hit our pitch.
If we think about keeping the hitter from hitting the ball – that can produce a lot of walks.
Remember this scene from the movie Bull Durham? Do you remember Crash Davis' advice?
Don't try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they're fascist. Throw some ground balls – it's more democratic.
As pitchers, we can’t do it all ourselves. Remember, we have seven fielders behind us and our catcher in front. They’re there to help, so let them.
If the hitter gets a hit when you throw that pitch—then they hit your pitch. That's baseball. When that happens just re-focus and get back to business.
- Get ahead (and stay ahead) in the count.
Repeat after me:
I will pitch ahead in the count.
Certainly, the more pressure a pitcher can put on the hitter, the better.
But to me, getting ahead in the count really means get two strikes as fast as possible.
What do I mean by get two strikes as fast as possible?
Here's a chart of the batting averages of Major League hitters in different pitch counts from last season:
The percentages heavily favor the pitcher once two strikes are reached.
I wouldn't say these statistics are really that surprising, though:
When a hitter has his back against the wall, he has to expand his zone and swing at pitches he might not normally swing at to save himself from striking out. This takes him out of his comfort zone and game plan for his time at bat.
Am I recommending that every pitcher should simply throw two fastballs right down the plate and expect to be successful?
Of course not. The game is played by humans, not calculators.
The statistics do show, however, that getting to the two strike count means tip-toeing through a minefield of .300+ batting averages.
To get through it, pitchers need to change speeds, understand hitters' weaknesses and use all the other strategies pitchers have on how to get hitters out.
This information should be used along with other traditional game planning strategies; this balance of statistics and strategies is a great way to set a pitcher up for success.
How to pitch to any hitter (the 'batter-pitcher confrontation')
To begin with, we have to be able to ask ourselves one simple question every time we make a pitch.
And, as a pitcher the question we must continuously ask ourselves is:
What did the hitter just teach me to throw next?
Here’s what I mean:
If we throw a hitter a fastball on the inside part of the plate and he doesn't swing, what did the hitter just teach us to do on the very next pitch?
He taught us that he may not have enough bat speed to get the head of the bat out in front—so throw it again.
If we throw a fastball and the hitter pulls the ball, what did the hitter just teach us to do on the very next pitch?
He taught us he has speeded up his bat, so it doesn't make a lot of sense to go right back inside to him. So what you want to do is make him slow his bat down by throwing either a change-up or a curve ball.
If we throw a fastball up in the zone and the hitter chases it, what did the hitter just teach us to do on the next pitch?
He taught us that he is undisciplined and we can throw another fastball up even higher or throw a curve ball down in the zone.
Can you see what we are doing here?
We are making the hitter make a lot of adjustments.
We throw fastballs to increase his bat speed—we throw change-ups to slow it down.
We throw curve balls down to slow up his bat and get his eyes going down, and then go up with a fastball to speed up his bat and make his eyes go up.
Slow it down—speed it up. Make his eyes go up and then down, or down and then up.
Pitching smart is all about constantly making the hitter change his bat speed and eye level...
...and moving his feet.
But always remember:
What we want to know most is how the hitter is reacting to our fastball.
If he can't catch up to it, or he can't hit it when it is thrown in a particular location—then we can go back with it in that location.
But we don't want to do that more than twice in a row.
Because if we give him that same pitch forcing him to speed up his bat, and then we throw it more than twice in a row, we are giving him an edge.
Changing location: In and out, up and down
Now besides going up and down, we also want to go in and out.
When we attack hitters inside, we are moving them off the plate to do what?
Open up the outer half of the plate.
So we go fastball in and now we open up a lot of options. We can go with a change-up or a curve ball. Or we can go with a fastball outside. Then we can go with another curve ball to slow down his bat and get him leaning to get the outside pitch. Then we go back inside.
Again we resist being predictable.
Does Clayton Kershaw do this?
You bet he does.
And that's why hitters hate hitting against him because his command is unbelievable, his movement is outstanding, he pitches in and he changes speeds.
Check out these pitching sequences from the Dodgers ace:
Watching Clayton Kershaw pitch is a thing of beauty for sure.
Remember, the key to becoming a smart pitcher is to constantly ask yourself that original question:
What did the hitter just teach me to throw next?
How to attack hitters: A step-by-step approach
Now let's go through some reminders and some pitching strategy that you can tuck away for game days. The name of the game is to have a plan and keep it simple.
- Attack aggressively inside in the first inning and first time through the lineup—to find out if the hitter can handle your fastball.
- Show your off-speed stuff early in the game.
- Throw a change up or curve ball on any count.
- With runners in scoring position, don't let hitters sit on your fastball.
- Constantly change the eye level of the hitter—curve ball down then fastball up.
- Throw a 2 seamer for movement on fastball counts, first pitch, or 1-0, 2-0, 2-2 or 3-2 counts.
- Keep fastballs down in the zone until ahead in the count, and then go letter high to change eye level.
- Take a little off of curve balls to get ahead in the count. And when ahead in the count, make them swing at something out of the zone.
- If you get ahead with a first pitch strike, immediately attack aggressively inside.
- If you get to 0-2, 1-2 or 2-2 counts with fastballs, double-up (throw two in a row) on curve balls.
- With runners in scoring position, use the 2-seamer or curve ball to get a ground ball.
- Don't be predictable.
- Stick with your game plan and let the hitters tell you if you need to make changes.
- Trust your stuff.
- Move hitters' feet.
- Get the hitter to hit your first pitch every at bat.
- Throw good pitches, but don't worry about making perfect pitches.
- Watch how hitters react to your fastball and then adjust.
- If hitters are pulling your fastball, change speeds.
- If hitters are behind on your fastball, stay with it and go inside.
- When the count is 1-1, throw your best pitch for a strike.
- When behind in the count, get your change up over.
- Only throw high percentage pitches when behind in the count—a pitch you can get over in a good location like a change up or a fastball in a good spot.
- Use your curve ball only when ahead in the count. Curve balls are low percentage pitches, so use them sparingly when behind in the count.
- Have a plan for 0-2 and 1-2 counts for putting the hitter away.
- When ahead in the count, use a sequence or go for the strikeout with an out pitch.
- With 0-2 counts, go in with your fastball, then away with a curve ball or change-up or fastball down and away. Or throw your fastball in, or up and in, or use your curve ball away or in the dirt.
- Don't waste any pitches. I am not a believer in ever wasting any pitches; I am a believer in making the hitter swing at bad pitches because the pitcher is ahead in the count and can then start to expand the strike zone.
- When behind in the count, throw a good strike down in the zone between the knees and the waist.
- Trust your stuff and know how to double-up (throw two in a row) if you miss with a pitch to a specific location. Come right back with the same pitch to the same location again.
- If you miss with a curve ball at 0-2 or 1-2, double up by throwing another one. Also double up on the change-up or fastball if you miss the first time. With the count 0-2, if you go in with a fastball and miss, double-up and go right back in again instead of always going low and away because you don't want to be predicable.
- Pitch to both sides of the plate, but also pitch up and down.
- To find out if a hitter can handle your best fastball, throw him one inside on the hands. If he gets the head of the bat on it, go away with him.
- Good hitters are defensive when behind in the count. They will shorten their stroke and sometimes choke up just so they can get their bat on the ball. Don't them any favors by throwing a perfect strike out over the plate when ahead in the count—make them chase a bad pitch.
- Focus on throwing your best stuff to the best hitters. Most teams have two to four hitters who can do some damage. Work extra hard getting them out. Don't walk your worst hitters, or throw low percentage pitches to them. Most times, these hitters won't hurt you if you don't walk them.
- If you give up back-to-back hits, step off, meet with your catcher, and regroup. Maybe it's just a location problem.
- Re-focus with 2 outs and close out the inning.
- Attack after your team scores in the previous inning—"throw up a zero" on the scoreboard.
- Bare down extra hard the second time through the heart of the order.
Remember, even the best laid plans can go awry in a game. Keep looking for what the hitter is teaching about what to throw next. Keep making adjustments.
And no matter what happens—don't get down on yourself...
Keep battling back!
What to do with runners on base
Too many young pitchers don't make adjustments when men get in scoring position.
This is when it's important to have a little meeting with yourself and make sure you fully understand the situation...
...and if you need to meet with your catcher to go over or change signs, do it right now.
You must know how many outs, who is coming up and what they did last time up.
Again if you can't remember, call your catcher out.
Remember, if it's a close game, it's important that you make good pitches.
If there is less than two outs then you want a ground ball.
How do you get a ground ball? By keeping your fastball down.
If you throw a two-seam fastball, this is a great place to throw it down in the zone.
If you throw a breaking ball, this is a great time to use it because if it's down and if they hit it you have a ground ball.
And don't be afraid to use your change up especially with a man on second base.
With two outs, use that change up to get a pop up or a fly ball.
How to win when your best stuff isn’t working
In fact, even the best pitchers feel that only 25% of the time will they have what they would call their best or dominating stuff. And when they have it, nobody is going to beat them.
And 50% of the time they will have good stuff which allows them to stay ahead and have a good chance to win.
And then there will be the other 25% of the time when not much is working for them. But even then, your best pitchers will still stay in the game, battle back and still give their team a chance to win.
So remember as pitchers there will be times when you go out there and nobody will beat you, when you have your dominating stuff, but it's the mental toughness the other 75% of the time that makes successful pitchers so successful.
It's during those times when their mental edge, their mental toughness is what will carry them.
And that's where the power of visualization comes in.
It simply means the more we can visualize ourselves succeeding as pitchers, the more success we will have.
Put these 39 goals on your mirror and make sure you memorize them. Review these goals before each game.
OK, now that gives you a little foundation of how to pitch but the problem is most coaches don't teach the basics because they don't know how.
They think it's too complicated for a young pitcher to grasp when it's quite simple.
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What do you think?
Now it's time to hear from you:
Are there any pitching strategy tips that I missed?
Or maybe you have an idea of how I can make this list even better.
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