Pitch Smarter, Not Harder

This article appeared in the January/February edition of Junior Baseball:

by: Ryan Smith

It’s the bottom of the seventh, bases loaded, and the home team is down by a run. The count is full and the clean-up hitter is at the plate. He has been all over your fastball today. Most pitchers would be shaking in their spikes. But here’s some tips on an approach to this situation that will let you walk back to the dugout with your lead intact.

Most pitchers have been told to throw their best pitch when faced with the above scenario. How could you live with yourself if you didn’t challenge the hitter? What if you didn’t rear back and throw your best fastball? The hitter knows and expects this. Have you ever thought of spotting your fastball and throwing it at about 85%? For example, an average high school pitcher throws 75 mph. If, instead of throwing 75, he threw a fastball 65-70 mph, what would you expect to happen? The results may surprise you. Most of the time you will affect the hitter’s timing just enough to get him to hit a fly ball or a grounder instead of him driving the fastball he was expecting.

Think about when you go to a batting cage or when you face a pitching machine. Even if it is set at a high speed, eventually you learn to time it and can hit speeds that you didn’t think you could normally hit. Imagine being in an 85 mph batting cage. You’re feeling good, ripping line drives all over the netted ball yard. Then all of a sudden, pitch 12 goes 75 mph. Most likely you would either miss or make weak contact. This is why you can get guys out by simply throwing slower in certain situations.

Typically, high school hitters are taught to sit on fastballs in 3-2, 2-0, 3-1 counts. These are counts in which the pitcher needs a strike and fastballs are often their go-to pitch. To counter this, pitchers need to find some way to emerge unscathed. If you have superior command of your curveball, changeup or some other pitch, then you have alternatives to throwing your fastball in the ‘hitter’s count.’ But if you are like the majority of pitchers, who can’t guarantee a strike with an alternative pitch, then you will need to learn how to spot and vary the speed of your fastball.

Former Braves pitcher Greg Maddux once said in Sports Illustrated, to “think slower not harder when you get in trouble.” He also said that location will always be more important than velocity. Maddux was not blessed with an overpowering fastball, but he had amusement park movement on his pitches and masterful control. With a fastball in the mid-80s, he was still able to baffle hitters and win tons of games each year in a league with some pitchers registering 100 mph on the radar gun.

By varying your fastball in all counts, it may mean that one time you should gas it by a hitter in the hitter’s count. It all depends on how you’ve pitched to him during the at-bat and in previous at-bats.

So how do you become better at taking speed off your fastball? If you are skilled enough to pitch in college or the professional leagues, you will soon find out that all starting pitchers follow a basic five-day schedule. In those five days, each pitcher throws off a mound 1-2 times between starts. Usually the bullpen is thrown on the third and fourth day. During this bullpen session, as it is called, the pitcher works on his off-speed pitches and mechanics. When he throws his fastball, he is not throwing it at 100%; he works at about 70-85% of his max. Thus, he learns how to better spot his pitch and learns how to take something off his fastball. Now all he has to do is throw a ‘bullpen’ fastball the next time he needs to throw slower in a pressure situation. Try this approach this season and you’ll start to see results come game time.

Thinking softer, not harder, is not the most ‘manly’ way to approach the high-pressure situation, but it can often be the
smartest. If you are interested in becoming a pitcher instead of a thrower, work on varying the speeds.

For more great tips like this, grab a subscription to Junior Baseball today!