One of the things I love about playoff baseball is getting to see great pitching and guys rising to the occasion on the biggest stage possible. If you didn’t get a chance to see Barry Zito pitch Friday night in game of the NLCS you missed a gem. With his team facing elimination with their backs against the wall, Zito stepped up with one of the biggest performances of his career.
What stood out from Zito’s performance was just how he was able to be so dominant, making big league hitters look silly without possessing what most would consider dominant “stuff.” Too many young pitchers think it’s all about velocity and being able to throw the ball by the hitter. But performances like the one Zito had in game 5 prove there’s much more to pitching than just throwing hard. So here is a short list of things every pitcher can learn Zito’s game 5 performance.
[h4]1. Locating and changing speeds is more important than a 90+ fastball[/h4]
Watching the way Zito moved the ball around the plate and kept hitters guessing was truly a sight to see. Very rarely do you see a guy with mid 80’s velocity blow a fastball by a big league hitter up in the zone, but Zito was able to do it regularly. Here’s what Art Wellersdick wrote in his article on BleacherReport.com:
“Last night was a clinic in changing speeds and location. He had several swinging strikeouts on high fastballs, something a pitcher with an 84mph fastball only gets away with if he’s dominating the bottom half of the zone with every pitch and every speed he can feature.”
[h4]2. The art of pitching is upsetting hitter’s timing[/h4]
Despite an 85 MPH fastball, Zito kept hitters off-balance all night. Velocity is impressive, but too many pitchers think it’s the only thing that matters. I remember one pitcher in the minors who, after having a rough year, said, “Well if they were hitting my 93 MPH fastball I guess I gotta come back next year throwing 97.” Yeah, maybe that would help… but I wanted to shake him, “you throw 93! That’s enough, what you need to do is work on pitching – that means locating and changing speeds!”
Here’s what Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny had to say about Zito’s game 5 performance:
“That’s what pitching is,” said. “You don’t have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off-balance.” – source: Barry Svrluga – Washington Post
[h4]3. Force contact – Make them hit your pitch[/h4]
A big part of the art of pitching is keeping the ball off the fat part of the bat. This doesn’t mean nibbling and being afraid to throw the ball over the plate. Instead it means pounding the strike zone, being aggressive and getting ahead in the count. When you work ahead and move the ball around the plate, you’ll get hitters to hit the pitch you want – Zito forced the Cardinals into 10 ground outs and 12 fly balls Friday night.
Work ahead, keep hitters off balance, force contact.
[h4]4. Never quit on yourself[/h4]
Barry Zito has a caught a lot of flack over the last few years. After his years as a rising star with the A’,s the Giants signed him to a huge $126 million contract in 2007, with the years to follow being what can only be characterized as a colossal disappointment. In 2010, things got so bad the Giants even left their high paid starter off the playoff roster.
It would have been easy to cave under the weight of all the criticism, hang his head, give up and stop giving it everything he had. Instead, he rededicated himself.
Here’s what his catcher Buster Posey had to say about him after game 5:
“I see how hard he works, no matter if he’s struggling or doing well. He puts in the time off the field. His preparation is second to none,” – source: Larry Fine, Reuters
Keep working hard, be prepared, and when your time comes, good things will happen.
[h4]5. Commit to getting better in the off-season[/h4]
Take a look in the mirror, assess your weaknesses, and work to eliminate them in the offseason. Speaking about getting left off the playoff roster in 2010, Zito said, “Well, you know, it was certainly a huge blow just personally to be left off that roster. …But you’ve got to be professional, you can’t pout… I worked on a lot of things that off-season, came back stronger for it, I think.” – source: mlb.com
If you’re looking to get the most out of your off-season training, start by thinking about what you can do to become a more complete pitcher. Velocity is important, but so is changing speeds and locating your pitches. Examine yourself, set clear goals, and come up with a plan. One of the first things you should do this off-season is assess your weaknesses.
If you live in the CT/NY area, strength coach Josh Heenan and I will be conducting full Pitching Mechanics, Strength & Flexibility Assessments this off-season.
title photo source: nbc.com