In my last article we looked at pitch grips, the importance of keeping hitters off-balance, and how many pitches you really need. Today I want to take a closer look at something I touched on there, and that’s the importance of commanding your fastball. Changing speeds is important, but nothing beats a well located fastball.

The other day I was reading a blog post by my friends at GameChanger (great scorekeeping app, by the way) where they talked about a recent analysis in the Community Research section of Fangraphs.com (good resource for your inner baseball geek). In the report, “What is More Important for a Fastball: Velocity, Location, or Movement?” Thomas Karakolis uses MLB’s PITCHf/x data to better understand what separates a fastball that results in a swing and a miss from one that gets knocked out of the ballpark.

Now I should point out, the analysis only looks at fastballs that resulted in a swinging strike or a homerun, and doesn’t take into account a whole slew of other factors that can affect the outcome of a pitch. But while the analysis is far from perfect, it’s a good start and did result in some interesting findings. Here are some key takeaways:

[h5]Velocity matters, but only if you can really bring it[/h5] Interestingly, the analysis found little difference in the effectiveness of below average, average, and above average fastballs. Only when fastball velocity exceeded 95 MPH was there a noticeable impact. Heaters at 96+ were 2-4 times more effective than the average major league fastball.

[h5]Fastballs away are better than fastballs inside[/h5] You might guess that fastballs away were tougher for hitters to reach and make solid contact. In fact, according to these findings, fastballs on the outside corner were 4 times more effective than ones down the middle. Interestingly, fastballs on the inside corner weren’t any better than fastballs right over the plate. Part of this could be due to the nature of the study though. Most inside fastballs are intended to jam a hitter or move him off the plate. So you wouldn’t expect to get a lot of swinging strikes here. I firmly believe a good pitcher has to be able to throw the ball inside. But the data does highlight the importance of hitting your location – miss your location inside and you might strain your neck watching it fly out of the ballpark.

[h5]Pound the bottom of the strike zone[/h5] Here’s where I think this analysis has the most value. It showed that pitches at the bottom of the strike zone are 3 times more effective than the average fastball. This again is great confirmation of what most pitchers and coaches already understand. I like to tell pitchers their goal should generally be to throw 80% of their pitches down in the zone, and only come up with a purpose. Interestingly, fastballs up in the zone proved no more effective than the average fastball. Only when elevated out of the strike zone, did high fastballs show better success. High pitches out of the zone were twice as likely to result in a swinging strike. So if you’re going to try to blow that 0-2 fastball by them, make sure you elevate!

[h5]Movement is less important that you might think for inducing swinging strikes[/h5] You hear people say a pitcher has good “stuff” when he’s got a lot of movement on his pitches. One goal of the analysis was to see how movement really impacts a fastball’s effectiveness. The findings go somewhat contrary to conventional wisdom, as neither horizontal nor vertical movement had any meaningful impact. But I wouldn’t read too much into this since, again, we’re only looking at swinging strikes and home runs. In general, a good sinking fastball is designed to induce ground balls rather than swinging strikes. But it is interesting that pitches with good movement, if not located well, were just as likely to be hit for a HR as an average fastball.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
– Mark Twain

When looking at studies like this I’m always reminded of that famous Mark Twain quote. Sure, it makes sense that looking at the result of a pitch would be a good indicator of the quality of that pitch. But by focusing only on two outcomes (homeruns and swinging strikes) the analysis leaves out a whole range of outcomes along the good-pitch/bad-pitch spectrum. It also fails to take into account other important factors like the previous pitch and the game situation.

All that said, I think there are some lessons here that all pitchers should take to heart. Velocity may be more glamorous, but throwing gas doesn’t do any good if you can’t control it. You can learn a lot by watching some of the better pitchers in the game who’ve been able to dominate despite less than stellar velocity. It’s a shame, but a lot of the young pitchers I work with never got the chance to really watch Greg Maddux in his prime. The man was a master when it came to carving up hitters with well located fastballs. He had a line that carries a great lesson for any aspiring ace:

“When they’re in a jam, a lot of pitchers…try to throw harder. Me, I try to locate better.”
– Greg Maddux

So just like I wrote in my article on changing speeds, job number one is always to establish command of your fastball. Velocity, movement, and changing speeds all play a role, but location may trump them all. Pound the bottom of the strike zone and stay away from the heart of the plate and you’ve got a good recipe for success at any level.

It seems like every kid I work with wants me to teach them how to throw a curveball. And once we establish fundamentals, develop sound mechanics, command of the fastball, etc. I’ll usually work with them on adding a good curveball to their arsenal. But then there are other pitchers that come to me saying they already throw five or six different pitches. When this happens, I usually ask them a simple question: “Ok, so how many of those pitches can you throw for a strike at will?” The answer, usually one or two.

See, you may think you have 5 pitches, but you really only have that pitch if you have the confidence to throw it when it counts. If you can’t throw that “knuckle-split” or “reverse curve” (or whatever other crazy pitch) with confidence when you’re behind in the count, you really don’t have that pitch. If a hitter knows that every time you get into a jam you’re going to be coming with the fastball, he can sit on it. Effectively your arsenal has gone from five pitches down to one pitch. And unless you have a blazing fastball or sick movement, that’s a recipe for disaster. So this brings up another question: How many pitches do you really need?

“A pitcher needs two pitches. One they’re looking for and one to cross them up.”
– Warren Spahn (Hall of Fame pitcher)

Always start with good old # 1: The best pitch in baseball is a good fastball, and if you’re blessed with the ability to blow the ball by every hitter you face, that’s really all you need. That’s especially true for kids at the Little League level. If hitters can’t touch your fastball, the best thing you can do for your development as a pitcher is learning to command that fastball and move it around the zone. Eventually though, hitters adapt, and once a hitter can catch up to your fastball you better have something else in your bag of tricks to keep him off-balance.

[h5]The “Jack of All Trades, Master of Nothing” Syndrome[/h5]

While throwing five or six different pitches might be fun, it’s not in the best interest of your development as a pitcher. I have no problem with kids experimenting with different pitches when they’re playing catch with their friends, I used to do that all the time when I was a kid. Play like that keeps the game fun, lets you develop your own style, and you might just stumble on a particular grip that works really well for you. But developing command and consistency with any pitch takes time and focused training. So when it comes to setting yourself up for success on the mound, you’ll be a lot better off having two or three quality pitches than you would be with five or six mediocre ones.

“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
– Warren Spahn (I know I’m quoting him again, but he’s full of these great lines)

[h5]Three Pitches for Keeping Hitters Off-Balance[/h5]

There’s no hard and fast rule for the number of different pitches you need, but here are three pitches every pitcher should have for keeping hitters off-balance: Something Hard, Something Soft, and Something That Moves. Simple, right? When you think about it in those terms, it simplifies the process. If you can command a good fastball, throw something slow to disrupt timing, and work in a breaking ball that changes planes, you’ve got every pitch that you need to be a successful pitcher.

Something Hard: This is going to be your fastball (the cutter falls into this category too, but your fastball should generally be your bread and butter). You can throw a four-seamer (straighter) or a two-seamer (sinks and/or tails) or both, but rule number one is always establishing the fastball. It gets on the hitter the quickest (less reaction time) and all of your other pitchers will work off of that. Also, if you develop good command and can locate your fastball, moving it around the zone, it has a sort of multiplying effect. If you can throw a four-seam fastball to all 4 quadrants of the strike zone, you’ve really got four different pitches. And if you can mix in a good two-seamer that you can move around at will, you’ve just gone and multiplied your pitches again!

Something Soft: This is usually going to be your change-up, and it’s the best pitch you can learn for upsetting a hitter’s timing. There are many ways to throw this pitch and many different grips including the circle change, the straight change, the three-finger change just to name a few. Some pitchers have also found success with what’s called a “Vulcan change” where they basically wedge the ball between their middle finger and ring finger. For young pitchers I always recommend starting simple with either the three finger or straight change. However you choose to throw it, the main thing is picking one grip that works for you and sticking with it. That way you can develop consistency and a good feel for the pitch.

Important point about the change-up: You want the hitter to swing at it! This is a deception pitch designed to get the hitter out front, taking the sting out of his bat. If you locate it well and keep it down in the zone you’ll usually get guys swinging through it or hitting it weakly somewhere. It can be tough for young pitchers to throw it with confidence this way since purposely throwing the ball slower is counter-intuitive. But as hitters adjust and start to catch up to your fastball, having a quality change-up can make a world of difference.

Other pitches that fall into the “something soft” category would be a splitter, a forkball and a knuckleball. Some pitchers have had great success with these pitches, but they’re difficult to master and many young pitchers may not have big enough hands to throw them effectively. Also, a lot of times the action on a splitter or forkball is very similar to a change-up (sinking and fading). Throwing two pitches that move the same at similar speeds serves little purpose, and again, the more pitches you throw the tougher it is to master any of them.

Something That Moves: This is your breaking ball. Again, there are many varieties, from the old school “yellow hammer” or 12-6 curveball that drops off the table, to the slider (tighter/sharper break) to the sweeping curve and slurve (more sideways movement than the traditional curveball). The benefit of the breaking ball is it changes planes making it tough for the hitter to square it up and make solid contact. It’s okay to throw both a curve and slider, but only if they don’t interfere with each other. Because the grips and action are similar, it’s common for the pitches to sort of morph together over time if you’re not careful. If that happens, you’re better off picking your better breaking pitch and sticking with that. Generally the curve is going to be your slower breaking ball, so having that in your arsenal gives you a more varied speed differential to keep hitters off balance.

Note about breaking balls: It’s important to learn the correct way to throw a breaking ball. When throwing a curve or slider you don’t want to snap or twist your wrist. Don’t start messing around with breaking balls until you have someone who can show you the proper way to throw them. Otherwise you’re likely to develop bad habits. It’s really more about hand position and finger pressure than anything else.

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Now again with these three categories, there aren’t hard and fast rules. There can even be some overlap. For instance, you might have a really nasty sinker, in which case you’ve got something hard and something that moves all in one pitch. Or you might have a great knuckle ball that’s serves as something soft and something that moves. Or you might be like Mariano Rivera and have devastating cutter that’s hard and moves (but note, even the great Mariano eventually added a tailing two-seamer to give hitters a different look).

[circle_list] [h5]To sum up, here are some simple rules for developing a good arsenal of pitches:[/h5] [list_item]Establish the fastball. There’s simply no substitute. Higher velocity = less reaction time for the hitter.[/list_item] [list_item]You’re better off commanding and locating your fastball than throwing five different pitches with zero command.[/list_item] [list_item]Once you can command your fastball, work on developing a change-up and a breaking ball.[/list_item] [list_item] You Only Need Three Pitches: something hard, something soft and something that moves.[/list_item] [/circle_list]
So if you’re in a hurry to learn five or six different pitches, I hope this article made you stop and think. Sometimes keeping things simple is the best approach. Don’t fall into the “jack of all trades, master of nothing” camp. Develop three quality pitches and you’ll put yourself in good position for success on the mound.


“Our idea is simple: command your fastball and change speeds.”
– Leo Mazzone

I just did a search for “baseball pitching drills” and Google came back with 1,080,000 results. I share this to illustrate a point: there’s a lot of garbage out there on the internet. You can waste a lot of time trying to weed through it all. Even worse, if you go with some of the more popular drills, you’ll probably waste even more time performing them! Because the sad reality is that most pitching drills are, at best, great time-wasters and, at worst, totally counterproductive.

The problem with most pitching drills is they’re designed to make coaching easier instead of actually helping pitchers develop movement patterns that translate to an efficient pitching delivery. For instance, a lot of drills (particularly at the youth level) focus on developing “good arm action.” In most cases they do just the opposite.

You’ll see drills out there that have kids bring the ball up by getting their throwing arm into a good “L” position and their glove arm pointing at the target. This is where the coach can stop the pitcher to make sure his arms are in the right position and make adjustments if needed. There are so many flaws with this method of teaching I don’t even know where to begin…
[circle_list] [h5]Here are the big problems with most drills that teach “good arm action”[/h5] [list_item]Teaching the “L” – this works completely against developing fluid, efficient arm action. The “L” is a point in time. All pitchers should get to this position just before arm acceleration (or what I like to refer to as catapult & extend). But it’s just that – a point – and you pass right through it.[/list_item] [list_item]Starting from the “Power Position” or the “Power-T” (or whatever they’re calling it these days) does not teach good arm action. The act of throwing involves creating momentum and transferring that momentum out into the ball. When you start from a pre-set position, with your arm essentially where it would be mid-throw, you kill momentum and disrupt timing.[/list_item] [list_item]They teach “Thumbs to Your Thigh, Fingers to the Sky” … Catchy, but an awful teach. This is just not what good big league pitchers do, and is not the way to develop a fluid, efficient arm path. The problem is it teaches getting the arm up as the main objective, when really the focus should be on whipping the arm through and getting to a good fully extended release point.[/list_item] [/circle_list] [h5]So Say No to All Drills??[/h5]

No, I’m not suggesting that either. I said “most” drills are a waste of time… Drills can definitely be effective for developing pitching specific skills and training movement patterns. You can’t beat a good drill for helping pitchers make mechanical adjustments and develop good habits.

Recommendations: Drills to address “good arm action” should focus on getting both arms working together in concert. What the glove arm does directly affects the throwing arm and there should be a sort of seesaw effect. Establish the positions, but practice moving right through those positions in a fluid, efficient manner. And always remember, every pitcher is different, so let young pitchers find their own natural arm slot – avoid teaching cookie cutter pitching mechanics.

There’s a great saying, “Everything with a purpose.” And here’s where we get into the Big 3 Components of a powerful, efficient pitching delivery:

[h5]Balance, Timing and Power… simple as that.[/h5]

Every drill we do should focus on developing these 3 components. Here are two simple rules for effective pitching drills:
[circle_list] [list_item]The drill should address and benefit at least two of these components (Balance and Timing, Timing and Power, Balance and Power, or all three).[/list_item] [list_item]The drill must not negatively impact any one of these components (for example, if a drill teaches balance, but hurts timing and power by having the pitcher pause and lose momentum, then it is counterproductive).[/list_item] [/circle_list]

Here are two drills for promoting good arm action while developing balance and timing in your pitching delivery:


[hr] [h5]For a Complete System of Drills for developing a Powerful, Dynamic Pitching Delivery I invite you to try the Ballistic Pitching Blueprint[/h5]

 

 

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