The game between the hitter and the pitcher is like a game of cat and mouse, with each player trying to gain the edge over the other. Given this framework, you need to arm your pitching staff with enough information to approach a game productively. You should take into account many things-the individual make-up of the pitcher, the strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, the number of runners on base and their locations, etc.-when forming a strategy. You will need to provide your pitchers with a blueprint of flexibility that leads to success.
The following circumstances may distract your pitchers:
• The batter starts with an open stance and steps into the plate.
• The batter crowds the plate but then strides away when swinging.
• The batter has learned to conceal a weakness with his stance. For example, a batter may crowd the plate to make the pitcher think that he is weak on pitches to the outside part of the plate in the hopes that the pitcher will throw inside to his strength.
To determine the best pitch to use in various situations, you and your athletes should understand the following:
You and your athletes need to know several main rules when you are trying to determine the best pitch to use in various situations:
• Rules that define the strike zone, as well as the actual strike zone of the umpire on a given day
• Rules about quick pitches and the amount of time allowed between pitches
• Rules about throwing at a hitter
• Rules about defacing the ball
The physical playing conditions will significantly affect the game. Thus, you and your players must pay attention to the following physical conditions when trying to determine which pitches are best to use:
• The slope of the mound. For example, a mound with a slope that is steeper or gentler than what the pitcher is used to will affect his pitches.
• The strength and direction of the wind. For example, if the wind is blowing from center field straight to home plate, the curve will not break as much. Your team may want to consider using the changeup instead.
• The condition of the ball.
You and your players must account for your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses to know what pitches are best to use in various situations. Teach your players to consider the following:
• Do the batters have good short-to-long swings? If so, getting inside pitches past them may be difficult.
• Do the batters tend to keep their hands back? If so, fooling them with breaking balls may be difficult.
• Where does the batter stand in the box? If he stands toward the front, throwing him fastballs will give your pitcher the best advantage. On the other hand, if he stands in the back of the box, throwing breaking pitches will be best.
• Is the batter overanxious? If so, an off-speed pitch could work well.
• Does the batter have good knowledge of the strike zone?
• Does the batter stand far back from the plate, or does he step in the bucket (for a right-handed hitter that would be stepping toward third with his stride foot)? If so, your pitcher may be effective on the outside part of the plate.
• Does the batter drop his back shoulder or have an uppercut swing? If so, a high pitch may be most effective.
• How is the batter’s stride? If the batter has a big stride, pitch high to him. On the other hand, if the stride is narrow, pitch low to him.
• Does the batter take a lot of extra time moving through his preswing routine between every pitch? If he does, be ready to throw a pitch as soon as he is in the batter’s box. Make him rush the hit.
• Does the batter appear anxious to hit? If so, make him wait. Take the maximum amount of time between pitches allowable. Step off the rubber often.
• Does the batter lunge at pitches? If so, throw him slow-breaking pitches.
• Does the batter crowd the plate or have an extremely closed stance? If he does, throw fastballs to the inside portion of the strike zone.
In addition to being aware of your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, you and your players need to have knowledge about your own team’s ability. When trying to determine the best pitches to use in various situations, teach your players to be aware of the following:
• How good is your pitcher at delivering pitches in the strike zone?
• How good is your team at sensing when hitters adapt to certain pitches or situations? Is your team able to change the pitching plan on the fly?
• How good is the communication between the catcher, coach and pitcher?
• How good is the team at identifying the need to change pitching rhythm to throw hitters off? An earlier note stated that pitchers need to destroy timing. Pitchers can accomplish this simply by not always throwing within the same time frame: They may throw a pitch, wait 20 seconds, throw another, wait 10 seconds, throw a third pitch, wait 15 seconds, throw another pitch and so on. Varying the time between pitches can prevent batters from getting comfortable.
• How good is the team at remembering the pitches that have been pitched in various situations and adjusting accordingly? Knowing that a pitch once retired a good hitter, the pitcher can be certain that the hitter will remember the pitch and be looking for it the next time. Pitchers should never return to the scene of the crime! More often than not, against a good hitter, that sort of thinking can ruin a good pitching performance and destroy a game plan.
When determining the best pitches to use in various situations, you and your players should be sure to consider the previous information. Also consider the following guidelines:
• Have pitchers pitch every pitch with a purpose, even the five warm-up pitches between innings. If a pitcher throws strikes during his warm-ups, the umpire senses that the pitcher has command over his pitches and is more likely to give him the borderline strike.
• Have pitchers establish the fastball early in the game to let batters know that they can control it and throw it for strikes. With that in mind, the batter will be looking for the fastball in counts that he thinks are in his favor. Then, if the pitcher can throw a curveball in such a situation, he will have an advantage.
• Have pitchers work the "L." This could best be described as the inside 6 inches of the strike zone, from top to bottom, closest to the batter and the 6 inches at the bottom of the strike zone from one edge of the plate to the other, as shown in figure 4.35 on page 95. If pitchers can locate most of their pitches in reasonable proximity to that L area, they will have success
• Consider asking pitchers to get two of the first three pitches in for strikes, instead of asking that every first pitch be a strike. This approach may alleviate the pressure that a pitcher puts on himself.
• Work toward having an average number of pitches per inning. For example, you may try to have only 15 pitches per inning. With that construct, some pitchers may challenge themselves further by working hard to have two or three 10-pitch innings or a certain number of ground-ball outs each contest.
• Caution pitchers and catchers to avoid getting into a pattern with their pitch selection such as two fastballs followed by a curve and then two more fastballs and another curve. Even if a pitcher has problems throwing a certain pitch for a strike on a given day, he must still use it to at least let the batter know that he has the option to use it. For example, if a pitcher’s breaking pitch is not working, don’t abandon it entirely. The pitcher should still throw it, but focus on throwing it to a spot where it can’t be hit. Eventually the pitch may come around and then the pitcher will be even more commanding.
• Consider having pitchers work on their least effective pitches when the team is either way ahead or way behind in a game. Nothing can substitute for game situations to make a pitcher more confident in a pitch. If you have decided to leave a pitcher in the game in a blowout, there is no better time to work on a bad curveball or a lousy changeup.
• The strikeout should rarely be considered part of team strategy for a pitcher. Try to convince pitchers that the perfect inning is three pitches. To strike out the side, he has to throw at least nine pitches, or six more than perfect. Persuade pitchers to make hitters hit the ball to a fielder.
• If the count is favorable for the batter-3-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2-the pitcher is vulnerable and needs to be careful because he has to throw a strike, but not too good a strike, to avoid dire consequences. On the other hand, if the count is 0-1, 1-1, 0-2 or 1-2, the pitcher holds the upper hand and can afford to be delicate in his pitch location without fear of walking the hitter or serving up a room-service fastball.
• If the opposing team has runners in scoring position, pitchers should take more time and focus more than usual. In a squeeze bunt situation, for example, pitchers need to be deliberate and try to pick up any clue that may tip the other team’s hand.
• If a runner is on third with less than two outs, the pitcher should try to get a ground-ball out or a strikeout.
• If a hitter rips a fastball hard but foul, the pitcher’s next pitch should be a changeup. The hitter will be so eager after getting good wood on the previous pitch that he will be way out in front and will usually hit the ball weakly.
• If the batters keep their hands back, fooling them with breaking balls may be difficult.
This is an excerpt from Coaching Baseball Technical and Tactical Skills