Wisdom From The Coach: The Art Of Starting Pitching

This piece is going to focus on starting pitchers, or pitchers who are expected to throw several innings and use several pitches.

Closers, in particular, don’t generally fall into that category. Often closers have a specialty pitch, and that’s what they feature when they come into the game. Due to the fact that they often see only three or four hitters, they don’t have to reach into the bag of tricks a starter does. Mariano Rivera primarily throws the cutter. Bruce Sutter would throw his splitter. Mike Marshall would throw his screwball, and Lee Smith and Goose Gossage often relied on pure, unadulterated gas. So I’m going to be looking at this from the eyes of a guy who has to take the ball and attempt to give his team seven good innings worth of work.

Here are three quotes from Hall of Fame southpaw Sandy Koufax that go a long way toward explaining the art of pitching:

“Pitching is the art of instilling fear.”

  • Fear can manifest itself in different ways. The first sort of fear for a hitter is obviously the fear of being hit by a pitch. People often don’t realize the danger involved in standing in the batter’s box and facing someone throwing somewhere between 90 and 100 mph.
  • Another type of fear is not being able to hit the fastball, especially the fastball inside. This makes a hitter “cheat,” or start his swing early, which opens up the outside of the plate for the pitcher. This fear can be based on machismo or the understanding of how tough it is to get to the inside fastball. Either way,  it works to the pitcher’s advantage.
  • A third fear is in knowing the pitcher has an arsenal, and not knowing what’s coming next. Plus, any hitter knows that NO ONE can hit a great curveball except for a  good bit of luck, and this fear can lead to guessing … and guessing doesn’t work. LOOKING for a pitch can work, but GUESSING doesn’t.

“I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.”

  • Young pitchers often believe they need to strike people out to be successful. With experience, they realize how tough hitting is, and change their approach on the mound. Less strikeouts means fewer pitches, mean more innings pitched, and so on.

“A guy who throws what he intends to throw, that’s the definition of a good pitcher.”

  • Throwing strikes, or even balls, to the desired location, is should be the goal of any pitcher. As a result of putting the ball where you want to, the hitter falls to a great disadvantage. As I have often heard, “Pitching is an accelerated game of catch.” You aren’t supposed to see the hitter, just the mitt. And if you can hit the mitt, you won’t be nearly as concerned about who’s in the batter’s box.

You get hitters out by keeping them off-balance, making them guess, and making them defensive. Here are a few keys to sending the hitter back to the bench:

  • Get ahead in the count – now he’s on the defensive
  • Be able to throw more than one pitch effectively (movement/velocity) – now he’s guessing
  • Change speeds (velocity) – now he has to time the pitch – you can get him out from, or you can jam him
  • Movement on the pitch (change of direction/velocity) – sinking fastball, breaking ball, splitter, etc.
  • Move the ball around (location) – every hitter has a “happy zone.” If you move the ball around, there’s a good chance he won’t get a pitch in his zone very often
  • Hit the mitt – hitters can sit on a pitch until they have two strikes. It’s tough for them to sit on a pitch and a location at the same time.

The geometry and timing of pitching comes down to location, velocity and movement. Pitching is three-dimensional: in and out, up and down, back and forth. Mix it up, and you mix them up. A fastball/changeup combo moves the hitter’s eyes back and forth. A fastball/breaking ball combo can move the hitter’s eyes back and forth, plus down and in/away. Even a sinking fastball makes a hitter’s eye work in more than one dimension.

So here’s how a pitcher might choose his pitches and location against a specific type of hitter. Personally, I think a pitcher has to be aggressive within his personal arsenal, and he will probably pitch more to his strengths than to the hitter’s weakness. Hitting is a tough business, even when a hitter gets a pitch he loves to hit.  The key is to make him

  • Pull hitter – try to get him to go for something outside.   1. Fastball low and away.  2.  Breaking ball away.  3.  Fastball in, off the plate up and in to get him to move his feet and his eyes.  4.  Now, off-speed or breaking ball away.
  • Spray/singles hitter – usually pitch him more inside.  1.  Fastball in.  2.  Changeup away.  3.  Fastball in again.  4.  Fastball in, and run it back over the plate – a “Greg Maddux Special.”
  • Middle of the lineup hitter – toughest hitter in the lineup.  1.  Breaking ball away.  2.  Breaking ball farther away.  3.  Fastball in.  4.  What’s he looking for?  If you think he’s guessing away, pump another fastball inside.  If you think he’s trying to cover inside, go with a breaking ball or changeup away.

Those are just some general ideas of pitch selection. There are numerous ways to get a hitter out. The old adage of “hard stuff inside and off-speed pitches outside” is cliché, but works more often than not. You will also hear “up and in, low and away.”

There are physical reasons why these two old pitching rules work. First, the barrel of the bat has to travel farthest to get to a pitch up and in. At the same time, the eyes are farthest away from the contact zone on a pitch low and away. When a hitter is concerned about either extreme, he can easily fall victim to the opposite extreme.

Changing eye level – up and down — and changing barrel coverage – in and out – will keep just about any hitter off-balance. Add in the breaking ball, and pitching can be much easier. After all, no one can truly hit a good breaking ball with any consistency.

So, if pitching is so easy, why are there so many good hitters? More often than not, when a ball is hit hard, you will see the catcher’s mitt move in a direction toward the center of the plate, and roughly thigh-high. Look at a re-play on a home run. Usually, you will see the pitcher missed his location. Well-located pitches are hard to hit, and catchers rarely set up in the hitter’s sweet spot.

In the long run, a pitcher will do well if he remembers the weapons he has – velocity and the change of velocity, break or movement, and location. Young pitchers often try to strike every hitter out, from the first pitch. As a pitcher gains experience, he realizes that for all but one or two times a game he simply needs to keep the hitter off-balance, and the ball off the sweet spot on the barrel.

So, what pitch does the pitcher throw, and when? He mixes it up between fastball/breaking ball/change. More important than the pitch he throws, however, is where he throws it. Once the pitcher shows he can locate more than one pitch effectively, it will be a long day’s work for the hitter.

Pitching, the act of trying to get hitters out and keeping the opposition from scoring is a combination of art and science. While looking for some quotes regarding pitching, I came upon Sandy Koufax’s words of wisdom in three different places. I had no intent of looking for quotes from Koufax in particular, and certainly didn’t plan to use three quotes from him. But Koufax is the classic example of a thrower becoming a pitcher. He also studied pitching and understands the art/science very well.

Wayne Tyson was a high school and community college baseball coach for 26 years including six years at Florida Air Academy. His FAA team won the Florida Class 3A State Championship in 1998 and was runner-up in 1999, when the team included freshman Prince Fielder. Wayne currently writes for Cowbell Clankers, the Aerys Sports home of the Tampa Bay Rays. Follow him on Twitter @WayneTyson11.

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