By Darren Fenster
No position on the diamond has more of an impact on a game’s outcome than the pitcher. It could be the very reason why they are listed as #1 in the scorebook. While every pitcher is going to have different strengths and weaknesses to play with, essentially every pitcher will use what they have to do the same three things to help their teams win: work quickly, throw strikes, and get outs.
Working quickly simply refers to the tempo of the game, which the pitcher sets by how much time he takes in between pitches. Now by no means should a pitcher rush from one pitch to the next to the next, but he should have a relatively quick pace from pitch to pitch, and in doing so, he will help the defense that is playing behind him stay mentally engaged in the game, ready to make plays. Throwing strikes sounds so simple. It is that simple. But yet coaches and players both make the act of throwing the ball over the plate far more complicated than it should be, with pitchers trying to be too perfect with their location, or out-thinking a pitch sequence to a particular hitter. By throwing strikes, a pitcher forces the hitter to swing. And when that hitter swings, the law of averages falls far more in favor of the pitcher. The eight players a pitcher has defending the field behind him are worthless if that guy on the mound isn’t throwing strikes. Defenses cannot defend the walk. Getting outs are a byproduct of throwing strikes. A pitcher who consistently throws quality strikes that are down in the zone and on the corners of the plate will consistently get outs because those pitch locations are the toughest to hit. Notice we didn’t say getting strikeouts as a requirement for a pitcher, but those strikeouts will come, as they too are a result of filling up the zone with strikes. Now when it comes to actually getting those hitters out, here are three important skills worth developing on the mound:
CONTROL AND COMMAND
First and foremost, a pitcher has to learn how to consistently throw the ball over the plate to force a hitter to swing. The ability to throw strikes is known as control. The ability to throw the ball wherever a pitcher wants to, to specific spots within the strike zone as well of outside of it, is called command. Both can be developed every single day when pitchers go out to play catch because all pitching is, is playing catch off the mound. The body can create an imaginary strike zone for every throw from the belt to the shoulders. Do that enough, and control becomes second nature. Once that is mastered, specific points on the body can become new targets, like the catcher’s left knee or his right shoulder, and over time, a pitcher will have that command which is so valuable when the game comes around.
The harder a pitcher throws, the sooner a hitter has to react. Naturally, higher velocity makes hitting that much tougher. But velocity is worthless if it can’t be thrown for a strike, so it is far more important to focus on improving control and command before looking to throw harder. Now when that time is appropriate, there is no better way to develop arm strength (which will improve velocity) than with a long toss throwing programs. Long toss is simply a term used to play catch at extended distances beyond a normal warm up. As a general rule of thumb, every other day is a good time to extend the distance by a foot or two each time out. But the key to a productive long toss program is that the throws are made with sound fundamental mechanics, and throws are kept on a low arc, rather than a high fly ball thrown violently. Over time, by staying consistent with a long toss program, the arm will undoubtedly get stronger, and that will translate on the mound without the pitcher having to put additional effort into a harder throw. However, pitchers should research long-toss programs before implementing them and remember to listen to how the arm feels - if the arm doesn’t feel right, take a break and refrain from pushing the arm over the limit.
If all hitting is, is being on time with the pitcher, then all pitching is, is getting a hitter off balance. So, if fastballs are thrown to make the hitter late, then a pitcher must compliment his velocity with an arsenal of off-speed pitches that will make the hitter early. With that said, there is no better off-speed pitch to master better than the change up for the simple reason of it being incredibly hard for hitters to practice hitting because the pitch itself is just a fastball thrown at a slower velocity. And in order for it to be effective, there has to be that harder fastball initially to get the hitter to be out front when the slower one comes in the zone. While this is a great pitch to learn at every level of the game, for younger players especially, the change up can be their go-to off-speed pitch without the physical risks on the elbow or shoulder that a breaking ball present. Developing a quality change up can never start too early.
The key to having an effective change up is when it comes out of the pitcher’s hand looking like a fastball through the eyes of the hitter, who is fooled by its actual speed, and swings at the ball early, thinking it’s a fastball, before it reaches home plate. It is thrown with the ball gripped deeper in the palm, as opposed to the fingers like just about every other pitch imaginable that isn’t called a knuckleball. By simply holding the ball deeper in the palm instead of in the fingers, the velocity of the pitch will naturally be slower, even when thrown with the same effort as a pitcher’s hardest fastball, which is the top necessity to having a good change up.
Since the key to an effective change up is making it look like a fastball, the way to do that is with great arm speed on the throw. The grip is what will make a good change up come out slower as opposed to actually slowing the arm down in order to have the same effect. The best way to develop that arm speed (and control) is to simply play catch with the change-up grip. In most youth leagues, the pitcher’s mound is 45 feet away from home plate. On a 90-foot field, it stands 60 feet and 6 inches away. By throwing at distances further than those when actually pitching, guys will have to use more arm speed just to get the ball to their partner. The end goal from this drill is to be able to pitch the ball from the mound with the same arm action used to play catch at 70, 80, 90, or 100 feet, while allowing the modified change up grip to take the speed off the ball.
As players get older, they will become physically strong enough to begin throwing breaking balls. People ask the question all the time as to when it’s appropriate for a kid to start throwing breaking balls. Generally speaking, when a kid is old enough to shave, he is ready to develop a curveball or a slider, but until then, it’s the change up that will sit the opposing hitters down! Pitchers can also vary speeds using their fastball.
When it comes to pitching, there is no “one-size fits all” formula that is going to work for every pitcher. That’s the beauty of the position. The player gets to learn what he does well and gets the opportunity to use his specific skill set to get hitters out.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.