While watching and listening to postseason baseball, I came upon a conversation going on during a radio broadcast of the Texas Rangers/Detroit Tigers series. The announcer and newly appointed Marlins hitting coach Eduardo Perez were discussing how difficult it is for a pitcher to throw a ball instead of a strike. One of the pitchers in the series had given up a game-changing home run when attempting to throw a pitch out of the zone.
Perez opined it was actually a very difficult art for the pitcher to master: throwing a ball instead of a strike.
Nationals prospect Ryan Tatusko has been pitching in Venezuela this fall and has written about his experiences on his blog.
Tatusko's blog was an excellent source of information during the kidnapping and eventual rescue of Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos in Venezuela last week.
Last week, Tatusko asked his followers on Twitter (@RyanTatusko) to think of a topic for his blog and I responded with this question: When a pitcher is taught his whole career to throw strikes, how difficult is it to throw a pitch out the zone sometimes when you have been programmed to always throw strikes?
He loved the idea and sent us this exclusive blog to MASNsports.com:
"I know this topic probably had one or two readers doing a double take as to the title, but I think this might be one of the most important aspects of pitching that is continually overlooked. How many times have you sat in front of the TV or watched a game live only to yell "How can you swing at that? Seriously!? Come on!" You slump back into your seat disgusted that your team's best hitter just chased a 1-2 breaking ball in the dirt to kill the rally. That pitcher... knew the art of throwing a ball.
"As young baseball players across the country and the world trot off to their respective baseball fields and start practice, the first thing the coach always reiterates to their pitchers is throw strikes. It's the thing that gets pitching coaches pulling their hair out, what scouts grade big league talent on and what separates the good players from the immortally great. But why, when the count goes 0-2 or 1-2, do coaches shift paradigms and want curveballs bounced in the dirt, fastballs suddenly are asked for chest high or sometimes three inches off the plate?
"If you sit and watch any baseball game on TV or live, I invite you to watch and notice how many times marginal pitches are called strikes or balls and start looking into why. You think of names like Greg Maddux, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia as some exceptional talents in the game and fans and writers alike comment, "Oh, he's a veteran he's going to get those marginal pitches." But why do they get those pitches? Is it because they have just been in the league a long time, or because they are well respected in the baseball community? It's because for their entire career, they have been around the strike zone, they are known as strike throwers and aren't known for walks. The examples I have given are just a few of the names of people who throw a tremendous amount of strikes and when it comes to throw that marginal pitch, they will most likely get the call they are looking for in crucial situations because of their previous reputations.
"There is not a pitcher alive who can sit in the strike zone with every pitch and not get hit. If you want the exceptional fastballs of Henry Rodriguez, Ardolis Chapman and Joel Zumaya, even though these guys are throwing 100-plus mph; they are not immune to hits and occasional big innings. As this topic states, there is an art in throwing a ball - you cannot just fling it up toward the plate and accomplish something. There must be a purpose as to why you are throwing the pitch. If you throw it over the batter's head, that does nothing for you or for him; all you did was put him one step closer to first base. That fastball chest-high that changes his eye level, the back-foot slider or the curveball that bounces right behind the plate are examples of pitches that setup a purpose. The art of throwing a ball is a delicate one - you cannot just give the pitch away and although they may not swing at the ball, you could have done something a lot more mentally to the batter.
"These 'purpose pitches' are also known as set-up pitches in some circles because they set up your next pitch, which might be that strikeout or groundball double play you have been looking for to squash a rally. If, as a pitcher, you become good at throwing quality balls, eventually the batter will open his strike zone up and start swinging at those pitches and that is what we are looking for. Any time you can make the hitter uncomfortable in the batter's box, you have gained an advantage as a pitcher. Umpires are human beings, as well, and they tend to miss a few pitches, and no one here has ever experienced a game where there has never been a marginal pitch thrown. Sometimes you sit and watch umpires or hear players talking about umpires opening up their zones in the later innings and, although it could be something else, it could also be credited to the pitcher being around the strike zone all game.
"They say the art of hitting is timing, and the art of pitching is disrupting that timing and throwing quality balls can surely help you with that cause. When you are pitching, you should have a reason and purpose behind every pitch, but that thought is especially true once you get ahead in the count. You have a reason why you want to bounce the 0-2 curve or elevate the fastball and knowing what you want to do with the next pitch if he doesn't chase is just as important in this game as keeping the ball in the strike zone. Pitchers who can master the art of throwing quality balls when they have to will certainly have more success pitching and will pitch longer in games than players who can't master this delicate art.
"I hope this gives you some food for thought and the next time you find yourself watching a game or coaching. I hope you take this part of the game a little more seriously or pay attention to it a little more. Until next time."