On the Art of Pitching in Baseball
It is amazing that anyone can hit a baseball. It is small and is thrown into a prescribed target area. Everyone can see it being thrown and even know when it is being thrown. Yet, it can be so difficult for the batter to hit it. The stick, or bat, swung by the batter is rather large by comparison to the size of the baseball. Moreover, the batter knows exactly where the pitcher has to stand, and where to expect the pitch, and the batter sees the pitcher who is throwing the ball.
So why is it so difficult for the batter to hit the ball? It is difficult. Each time the batter comes to the plate, the odds of hitting safely, i.e., reaching first base is only about one in four or one in three or so. That is in the major leagues. In the little leagues, the odds are different but the game is a lot different too. In that contrast and comparison, there is probably a clue to good pitching practice that young players should observe.
If you have seen a little league game recently, you have probably noted the large number of walks given up, presumably because of the lack of ability of the youth pitchers to deliver the ball accurately into the strike zone over the plate. The ball sometimes bounces in front of the plate, or is occasionally thrown over everyone’s head. I have even seen that in professional games. That is not unusual with youth players especially when the pitcher loses control while trying to throw very hard as his coach has told him to do.
Even weak batters, who close their eyes as the pitch reaches them, stand a decent chance to reach first base, but not by hitting the ball. They collect umpire called “balls” until they have sufficient number to take a “walk” to first base. Then they probably “steal” second because the catcher cannot throw accurately that far, but that is another story for another day. Let it be said that both beginning and seasoned pitchers stand to gain if they can control accurately the number of pitches that fall within the strike zone. Outside the strike zone means walks, stealing second, and everything that goes with that. Therefore, the pitcher should throw strikes.
In my sixty years of watching pitchers pitch some terrific games, I have never ceased to be amazed at the lack of interest in the fundamentals of what makes for a good pitching duel. Allow me to make these observations. To begin, the purpose of the pitcher is to throw the ball past the batter into the catcher’s glove. He really has to do nothing else. Everyone else on the team is supposed to field the ball if it comes near him, and throw the batter out before reaching base, if the pitcher fails in the attempt to do the pitching job.
To the beginner in baseball, as a fan, it must seem strange with all the standing around. Then suddenly about once or twice a minute the pitcher throws the ball to the catcher or at least tries to do so. The job of the pitcher on both teams is to do the same. No mystery to it at all.
However, if we look closely at the activity of pitching we see there is the simple repetitive activity. The pitcher receives the ball from someone, perhaps the umpire, the catcher, or one of the other field players. The pitcher stands on the mound, with foot on rubber marker, and then after finished communicating intention to the catcher on what sort of pitch to expect, he or she prepares to deliver, and then takes a hand position on the ball, raises the hand away from the shielding glove, and raises the pitching arm back and to the side, and then delivers the pitch overhand, sidearm, or even underhanded in the direction of the home plate, a target about 60.5 feet away, where the batter is standing in a marked batter’s box. The catcher is directly behind the home plate, and the umpire stands crouched behind the catcher, and perhaps slightly to one side. This may seem a pedantic description of what happens but it is necessary to define exactly the operations involved in the diagnosis before we issue a prognosis for the cure.
There is the opportunity of the batter to hit the ball before it reaches the catcher. That is what he or she is supposed to do. If the ball is hit out in front of the home plate and between the lines that demark the field of play, then it is in play. If it goes far enough on a fly it may be over the fence and a home run. If it falls short and is caught on a fly, it is an out, whether within the field of play or not. If it is in the stands out of the field of play where the fans sit, and is not caught by a player, it is just a foul ball and counts as a strike. If it hits the ground before a player can catch it, it is up to the opposing team, the one on the pitcher’s side, to make a play at the first base and see if it will reach there before the batter can get there running as fast as possible. These races are among the most exciting in the game. That is why the most desirable seats are at ground level near first base. If the batter beats the ball, he or she is safe. If the ball is there before the batter, out. It is really a simple, deliberate game, and many of us find it enjoyable it watch. Some complain of boredom, but they are not real fans.
Each time a new player comes to the plate and faces the pitcher, it is a duel. It is a pitcher against a batter. Moreover, they have a limited number of encounters. If within a turn at the plate, the pitcher can get three pitches past the batter and in the strike zone, an imaginary box roughly prescribed to be between the batter’s armpits and knees, while within the dimensions of the home plate, then the batter is called “out” whether he or she swings or not. If four pitches are delivered outside the strike zone and the batter does not attempt to hit at them, then the umpire will call them “balls” and after the fourth, the batter may leave the batter’s box, walk down, and possess first base. While not counting as a “hit” it does count for the batter’s on-base average, which is an important measure of effectiveness that many statisticians watch. There are weak hitters that have a higher on-base average than sluggers. They walk a lot and occasionally are hit by a pitch. The point is they are on first base, thus are in a position to make a contribution to the team.
It is not easy to hit a ball thrown very fast. Even a very good hitter has difficulty hitting successfully one of every three or four times he or she comes to the plate. So, if the batter thinks the thrown ball is outside the strike zone, it is to the batter’s advantage not to swing. Why go to the effort to hit a ball that is already thrown very fast and is outside the target area?
The essence of the duel between the pitcher and the catch is a decision made each throw of the ball. On each attempt to throw the ball to the catcher, the pitcher should try to get it in the strike zone. Knowing this, the batter gauges very early approximately where and when it will arrive and adjusts swing calculus accordingly.
Obviously then, the pitcher should not be predictable on the speed of the pitch or the spin given it although constrained on approximately where it must be delivered. If I were to give advice to a young pitcher, I would suggest to aim directly at the imaginary center of the strike zone every time the ball is thrown. That much should be predictable. It forces the batter to swing at every pitch or it will be called a strike anyway. I would suggest the unpredictability be in the speed. Moreover, perhaps on how the ball is held. Let us examine these issues more carefully.
On the matter of holding the ball, there are four fundamental ways to hold the ball in your hand as you prepare to pitch it. Look at a baseball. It has strings. These strings weight a little differently on the ball’s configuration and change its flight characteristics ever so slightly, but enough that with scientific instruments you can detect slightly different flight characteristics as the ball travels from the pitcher’s hand and travels the sixty and one-half feet to home plate. The pitcher can hold the ball with the first and second fingers right on top along the strings at the narrowest point where the decoration draws the strings closest together. The pitcher could also hold the ball along those strings but with the second and third fingers. Because the pitcher’s fingers are not all of the same length, there will be a slight variation in the way the ball spins on the way to the catcher based on release order as the ball leaves the hand. The pitcher could also turn the ball ninety degrees so the first and second fingers cross the strings, and alternatively so the second and third fingers hold across the strings. So, there are four basic ways to hold the ball. These positions are easily adjusted secretly by the way the glove covers the pitching hand before the throw. We have a first way for the pitcher to introduce intentional unpredictable variability at least as far as the batter is concerned.
There are alternatives ways to throw the ball including overhand, overhand with a wrist spin, sidearm or even underhanded. All of these variations seem unnecessary and confuse the pitcher as much as anyone else and make the pitcher erratic. I would recommend that the pitcher throw one basic way, and that be overhand.
There is the matter of target center to address. I mentioned earlier that the pitcher should aim at the hypothetical center of the batter’s strike zone. Since most pitchers are not very accurate, it is unlikely that even one in one hundred throws will hit it exactly anyway, so there is a natural unpredictability just based on the inconsistent accuracy of the thrower.
We have a second way for the pitcher to introduce unpredictable variability at least as far as the batter is concerned. Here the variability is not intentional, the pitcher would prefer to be dead accurate right in the center of the strike zone so it will be called a strike if the batter does not swing. The pitcher should be willing to accept this measure of variability, even though it is due to systematic control inaccuracy, as another way to challenge and confuse the batter.
I will add a third intentional variation that the pitcher can put in performance to confuse the batter. This one is probably the most important variation, that is to control the variability of the pitcher’s speed of delivery. You might wonder why I suggest it is the most important variable. Let us look at the effect of speed.
These numbers are approximate so you can detect quickly the affect of pitch speed variability. A ball thrown at 50 miles per hour (mph) travels at approximately 75 feet per second (fps). At a faster speed such as a ball thrown at 100 mph travels at approximately 150 fps. The distance to the plate is only sixty and one-half feet. The math says it gets there in about .8 of a second at 50 mph and about .4 at 100 mph. If the pitcher then throws at 70 mph the ball travels at 105 fps and thus reaches the 60.5 foot distance at .57 of a second.
If you vary the pitch speed over the full range of your ability, say you feel comfortable at pitching typically between 70 (105 fps) and 90 mph (135 fsps), the ball will take from .57 to .44 of a second. If the batter has gauged the first pitch at 70 mph and adjusts his swing according, but the next pitch is 10 mph faster or slower even thrown in exactly the same place, in one case the batter will have finished the swing before the ball even gets there, in the other it will be in the catcher’s glove before the batter swings. In either case, the batter loses the duel. As long as the pitcher never holds the ball the same way twice in a row, and never throws the ball at the same speed twice in a row, say he or she varies it by at least 10 mph or 15 fps, then even if the pitcher hits the imaginary exact dead center of the strike zone with every pitch, which is unlikely, it is going to be very hard to hit that ball. If the batter does not hit the ball, and every pitch is a strike, then the batter will be unlikely to make it to first base safely because there will be fewer walks and a lot of strikeouts.
As I said , I love the game, and I love to see the pitching duels. Even if each pitcher follows my advice, the game will be enjoyable as ever, but I must say more challenging for the hitters, and a much different game in the little leagues. Let the games begin.
About the Author
Allen J. Schuh, Ph. D., is retired. He had taught courses at the university level. His dissertation was on training. He published several dozen scholarly papers and a textbook. His academic degrees are A. B. 1963 San Diego State University, M. A. 1965 University of California, Ph.D. 1971 Ohio State University. During the 1960s, he served in the US Navy. He maintains membership in scholarly and professional associations such as the American Psychological Association, The Institute of Operations Research and Management Sciences (INFORMS), Association for Psychological Science, and American College of Forensic Examiners.