Crucial to the art of shutting down hitters is the ability to locate pitches in the zone. At the advanced level of baseball, control is more than just throwing strikes. Control means being able to pitch to a scouting report and locate pitches.
Location is more important than stuff. No matter how a pitcher feels any certain day, location will win for him. Most of the time, a pitcher will not be able to improve velocity or “life” during a game, but he can always fix the location on his pitches with a good mental approach and sound mechanics.
God blessed each pitcher with a certain amount of ability to throw a ball. After a pitcher reaches a certain age, he will most likely not improve his velocity, but he can improve location, movement, and pitch selection. Not all pitchers were blessed with Roger Clemens’ ability, but everyone has 24 hours in each day and seven days in each week to improve and strive to perfect his game. Greg Maddux, with his 86-mile-per-hour fastball, will have the same amount of space in the Hall of Fame as Roger Clemens and his 96-mile-per-hour fastball.
Locating the Fastball
Ninety percent of all pitchers use the fastball as their basic pitch or setup pitch. In professional baseball, pitchers throw more fastballs because of the wood bat and their ability to throw in the low to mid 90s. Even with the use of the aluminum bat at the high school and college level, a good fastball located properly in or near the strike zone can be a pitcher’s bread and butter. A misconception many young pitchers have is that most hitters like to hit fastballs. Fastballs are straight and easier to hit, the pitchers believe, and therefore they are afraid to use their fastballs. Obviously, if a fastball is straight (no movement), then it becomes an inviting pitch for a hitter with good bat speed. But every hitter has a hole or a weakness in the strike zone that makes him vulnerable to a well-located fastball. The advantages of throwing a fastball are that it has more velocity than other pitches and is usually easier to control. In addition, despite what most hitters say, their biggest fear as hitters is getting a ball thrown by them or getting jammed and having their “manhood” taken away from them. The key is locating the fastball in the hitter’s hole. If a pitcher can do this, his job becomes much easier because the located fastball sets up all other pitches. Location, not velocity, is the most important facet of throwing a fastball. Next is movement, and last in importance is velocity.
Pitchers can obtain movement by experimenting with grips and arm angles. The four-seam fastball (gripping the ball across the horseshoe, or wide seams) will give optimum control and velocity. The two-seam fastball (gripping the ball between the narrow seams) will in most cases give a sinking or boring movement with slightly less velocity. Actually, the four-seamer and the two-seamer can be like two completely separate pitches.
To establish the inside fastball, the four-seamer is best because it is less likely to tail in to the hitter and give him a free base. If a good hitter becomes too comfortable in the box, the four-seamer can be used to keep the hitter from diving in and owning the plate. The pitcher should always feel as though he owns the plate. The four-seamer will help the pitcher establish the fear factor and repossess the plate. With no fear, the .330 hitter becomes a .400 hitter. By establishing the fear factor, that .330 hitter becomes a .250 hitter. A good aggressive hitter, if he is allowed to own the plate, will dive in and be able to cover not only the outside portion of the plate but also be able to hit a good pitcher’s pitch two to four inches off the outside of the plate. By coming in occasionally on the hands of the good hitter, the pitcher will keep the batter honest and prevent him from being able to hit the pitcher’s pitch on the outside corner. A coach should never advocate head hunting or throwing at hitters, but he should teach his pitchers to establish the inside fastball and occasionally pitch under a hitter’s hands. In that way, a pitcher can equalize the aluminum bat. Otherwise, the hitter could become the headhunter by hitting rockets up the middle.
Pitching inside and throwing the ball beneath a hitter’s hands is an art that has been given a bad name by those that choose to head hunt and play the game in an unsportsmanlike fashion. Hitters in the new millennium have more protection (helmets with ear flaps, elbow guards, and so on) than hitters did in the past, and pitchers brush hitters off the plate less often than they did in the past. These developments are part of why offense has become more prominent in college and professional baseball.
The two-seam fastball is a great pitch to use to get the ground ball with a man on first for the double play. With a man on first the pitcher must think ground ball as opposed to strikeout. Isn’t it more fun to get two outs with one pitch? The two-seamer on the knees or below the hands will most likely get that double-play ball for the pitcher.
Locating the Breaking Ball
One of the most effective pitches in any pitcher’s repertoire is the curve or slider low and away. In most cases the pitcher wants the breaking ball in one location. For a right-hander, he should try to throw the breaker down and away from the right-handed hitter and down and in to the left-handed hitter. The pitcher should practice this one location repeatedly in his bullpen workouts. Some pitchers have the ability to throw the backdoor breaking ball (a right-handed pitcher throwing the ball to the outside corner to a left-handed hitter and a left-handed pitcher throwing the ball to the outside corner to a right-handed hitter). Few pitchers can master this pitch, but those that do have a great pitch to use against a pull-oriented hitter.
A pitcher should strive to achieve command of two different breaking balls—one to throw for a strike in any count (the control breaking ball) and one to use as a kill pitch that he can throw on or below the knees with a sharp downward break. The kill pitch is useful with two strikes against the aggressive hitter.
Locating the Change-Up
With the fastball, a pitcher can pitch in the L (up and in, low and inside, or low and away) with success. The curve or slider can be thrown low and away or backdoor to a hitter. The pitcher should always throw the change-up at knee level or below. Ideally, the change should be thrown low and away to coax the hitter into pulling off or thrown below the zone to get a groundball. The low inside change, although not an ideal location, can be effective because the batter will most likely pull the pitch foul for a strike.
While throwing the change, the pitcher must trust the grip and allow the grip to slow the pitch. He must try to maintain his fastball arm speed, delivery, and follow-through. Quality arm speed and a good follow-through increase deception. Again, location is crucial. An average change-up on or below the knees is much better than a great change-up that is up and out over the plate. A change-up that creates deception, changes planes, and is thrown to the proper location is a wonderful pitch for a hurler at any level. A good change-up is usually 10 to 12 miles per hour slower than the pitcher’s fastball. The change-up is a great pitch in itself, but it also enhances the fastball, making it appear quicker than it really is.
This is an excerpt from Baseball Strategies.