Talking more and more about strategies for each of my young pitchers, we are coming to the discussion of how to call pitches according to strengths and weaknesses. Thinking one’s way through a sequence of logical pitches is what good pitchers do; however, we need to make sure we call pitches that are consistent with a few factors:
- The Game Situation
- The Hitter’s Tendencies
- You, the Pitcher’s, Typical Tendencies
- You, the Pitcher’s, Tendencies on That Specific Day
- Weaknesses You Are Trying To Address and Improve Upon
1. Game Situation
You’re not going to throw a 3-1 curveball with the bases loaded. You’re also not going to throw a 3-1 fastball with the winning run on third and a base open at first. Understanding how the score, runners on base, the lineup ahead, and game implications affect pitch calling is crucial. In general, runner on base situations are the ones that will most often influence your pitch selection, with game implications coming in second. One of the most common situations is pitching in a game with a moderate or big lead or deficit.
With a 6-0 lead, one is going to be throwing more fastballs in fastball counts and trying to force hitters to swing earlier. Yet, even with big leads or big deficits, the pitcher isn’t going to change his overall gameplan drastically. A pitcher with an 60/40 mix of fastball/breaking ball isn’t going to suddenly throw 90% fastballs with a big lead. But, it would be reasonable to throw more fastballs, say a 70/30 or 75/25 mix. Walks are a big factor in destroying big leads, so choosing pitches that give a higher percentage for strikes is important. A team that is down by a bunch of runs is unlikely to get the 10+ hits needed to bat in 6 or more runs. But, 4 walks and 6 hits would do the trick easily.
2. Hitters’ Tendencies
“This hitter can’t pull the ball.” OK. Well, how does that change our approach in pitching to him? We may want to throw him more hard fastballs in, right? As long as the approach of the pitcher isn’t drastically affected, we can go about exploiting a weakness. However, we want to make sure any hitters’ weaknesses are concurrent with the pitchers’ strengths, as we will discuss next. It’s more important to know and stick with one’s strengths as a pitcher strengths than obsess over a hitter’s weakness.
3. The Pitchers’ Typical Tendencies
I’ll use myself as an example: I struggle to throw my fastball inside to lefties. I am excellent, however, at throwing fastballs inside to righties. When I go out to the mound each time, I know that I’m better at throwing on my armside of the plate. When I decide what my pitch sequence to a given hitter will be, I plan the pitches out according to what I’m typically best at – throwing to armside. So, if a lefty was up, I would not pick a sequence like: fastball in, fastball in, change-up away, fastball in. I would be choosing risky pitches for myself. Some days are better than others, but on MOST days I stay away from inside to lefties. Here’s an example:
Two years ago I was pitching in Fargo, and the 5 hitter in the lineup was a big lefty. I got ahead with a fastball down the middle, threw a nice changeup on the outer third that he swung through. I came back with another changeup down and away that he took. The count was 1-2. He had seen soft away twice in a row, so my catcher decided to bust him hard in under his hands. Makes sense, right? Soft away, hard in. However, I struggle to make that pitch consistently, and I knew it. I shook YES anyway. I aimed inside, missed out over the plate, and the guy hit a bomb. After circling the bases, my catcher, who was a very smart guy, came out and apologized.
“Hey. I knew you haven’t been getting that fastball in, but I got wrapped up in the idea of going in there. That was the wrong pitch to call for you. We should have just stayed away. Sorry man.”
I agreed, but it was also my fault for agreeing to throw it. We both knew what I was and was not capable of, but this time ignored it and got burned.
4. The Pitcher’s Tendencies On That Day
Even though you may be good or bad at specific things most days, it doesn’t mean that they apply every day. Some days you may simply be great at doing something that you usually struggle. For me, here and there I have good days with my fastball to the armside of the plate. I practice it religiously, so we want to expect improvement in weaknesses.
So, every time you take the mound you have to assess: What are my Strengths and Weaknesses today? They will be slightly different every single outing. Some days your curve will filthy, and some days just OK. It’s crucial to continuously evaluate on the fly to make sure your pitch calling is still consistent with your gameplan. If it isn’t then adjust.
I was talking with my friend Zach Clark, who is on the 40-Man Roster with the Baltimore Orioles. Zach has been successful at every level in the minors and finished 2012 in AAA with an ERA of 1.75. He gave me a short story about a sequence that he wanted back:
I can’t remember the sequence, but I do remember I was pitching to a low ball hitter that liked breaking balls. My breaking ball at the time was just OK and I didn’t have much confidence in it that night. It was an even count and i decided to try and locate a fastball away to try and get him to roll over, but got too much plate. The ball was down (below the zone down), but got too much plate; he hit it out. I gave up that solo homer on a good pitch, but it still wasn’t the right pitch to that hitter in that situation. In hindsight I probably should have gone hard in or even just inner 3rd, to open up that outer part of the plate. Then if I had come back with the same fastball over the plate, the guy doesn’t barrel it up.
So, his breaking ball wasn’t as good as it typically was, which forced him to change his gameplan for that hitter. This also plays into point #2, knowing the hitters’ tendencies. The hitter liked the ball down, which factored into the pitch calling above and Zach’s approach to the at-bat. There’s a fine balance between exploiting a hitter’s weakness and pitching to your strength. Knowing that Zach’s best pitch is a sinking fastball that is tough to lift, he likely had a difficult decision knowing that both his strength and the hitter’s strength was balls down in the zone.
5. Addressing Weaknesses
There is a time to go away from your strengths. When? When you’re trying to get better.
If your curve is great but your changeup needs work, you have to throw it in games to see improvement. But, finding a balance in getting work in while not getting killed throwing a pitch-in-progress can be tough.
My recommendation is to throw one’s weaker pitches in three situations:
- Contact counts: When even or slightly ahead
- When your team has a big lead
- When your team has a big deficit
Points 2 and 3 are self explanatory: get your work in while the game is safely out of hand.
For contact counts, I’m listing these as good ones: 0-1, 1-0, 1-1, 2-1, 2-2. These are a good time to throw one’s weaker pitches to practice them because of the following:
- Hitters are expecting a fastball. Even a mediocre offspeed pitch will be relatively effective.
- You’re not going to fall too far behind. Don’t throw your bad changeup 2-0. You’ll be 3-0.
- You’re not going to waste a good count. Don’t throw your cement mixer 0-2. You’ll give up a double in a count where you should be striking hitters out and making them chase.
- Hitters are swinging. You want them to swing and get themselves out of the box. This will keep efficiency up.