Baseball's Boring? Think Like a Pitcher

Defending Back to Back NL Cy Young Award Winner Tim Lincecum
Defending Back to Back NL Cy Young Award Winner Tim Lincecum

Each AB is a War, Each Pitch a Battle

The number one criticism you hear about baseball is that it’s “too boring.” I contend that anyone who feels this way just doesn’t understand what they are watching. There are few things more interesting than the battle between pitcher and batter. Gaining an appreciation for this give and take will surely go a long way towards increasing your enjoyment of watching a baseball game. To me, the local watering hole should offer a version of QB1 for baseball where instead of calling “run/pass plays” you would predict pitch type and placement. Learning how to think like a pitcher is the first step in getting more out of your baseball viewing experience. Luckily, it’s not that difficult of a skill to learn.


The most basic principals are as follows: change speeds, change height, and change width. Up, down; in, out; fast, slow. This is the prescription for keeping hitters off balance. There’s no set formula for how to go about this, though. Several factors will play into pitch selection. What type of stance does a batter have? Are there base runners on? Does the batter have any holes in his swing? What pitches have already been thrown to this hitter and how did he react?

Courtesy of J. ERIC BICKEL& DEAN STOTZ
Courtesy of J. ERIC BICKEL& DEAN STOTZ

Let’s take a look at a generic at bat. Right handed hitter vs. Right handed batter. There is no one on base and the batter has a very balanced stance with no known holes in his swing. It’s important to note that a majority of batters will take the first pitch. This gives the pitcher a chance to get ahead early in the count. In fact, less then 9% of first pitch strikes end up being hits. Research shows that the advantage greatly shifts in the pitchers favor if he can get to two strikes.(the hitters batting average is more than a .100 less on average than without two strikes). So let’s get started by throwing a strike, a knee-high fastball on the outside corner of the plate. This will get the batter thinking that we are planning on working him away, leading to him shifting his weight up on his toes to cover the outside part of the plate.

Even Barry Bonds could be fooled...once in a while
Even Barry Bonds could be fooled...once in a while

From here, we can do just about anything. We have the option to throw another fastball, inside this time high or low. A change-up, low on the outside corner of the plate is another great option (the change in speed at the same location should result in a miss, or a weakly hit ball).. We could throw a breaking ball for a ball on the outside half of the plate (hoping to get him to chase) or one for a strike on the inside (with his weight shifted over the plate, the ball coming at his head should buckle his knees as it breaks back across the plate), but it would probably be better to hold that for an out or waste pitch later. I would opt for that high fastball on the inside corner. If we locate it well, we should find ourselves up 0-2. We gain the element of surprise by changing both height and width. The high and tight fastball is incredibly difficult to hit. The downside here is that a mistake will either put us at 1-1 or end up in the bleachers for a home run.

So we are now sitting at 0-2, having thrown two fastballs (one low and away, another high and tight). At this point we can/should waste a pitch. Our goal is to throw something outside of the strike zone, but still tempting enough to possibly draw a swing. It’s important to make sure the ball will not be able to be hit hard if the batter does offer. An eye-level fastball middle of the plate to in would be a great call here. It’s going to be tempting to someone protecting the plate with two strikes, but will more than likely be popped up if hit. We have also shown him nothing but fastballs at this point, leaving all of our options open for the 1-2 pitch. Our batter is a disciplined fellow and takes the high ball.

Even a Smurf can do it...
Even a Smurf can do it...

At 1-2, we want to go for the kill while not giving the hitter anything particularly good to pound.  Having thrown two hard pitches inside, it is time to switch all three variables.  The time is right to work the outside half of the plate, low, and with something off-speed.  I prefer the change-up to the curveball here, thrown slightly off the plate.  If he doesn’t offer at this pitch, he is not thinking defensively.  This would set him up nicely for a 2-2 inside curveball that should get him looking.  If he is working to protect the plate, it almost guarantees that he will at worst foul the pitch off.

If he lays off the change-up (or even fouls it off), we will come right back with that inside curve.  If we see a foul ball or miss our location here, our count could be anywhere from remaining at 1-2 to full.  If the count is less than full, we throw another curve breaking from the middle to off of the plate.  If the count is full (before or after the outside curve), it just comes down to best on best.  You have to throw your best pitch, period (and the batter knows it).  Good luck to you.

There are several other factors that can weigh into pitch selection.  A wider stance is going to make it harder for a batter to protect the outside half of the plate.  A closed stance (feet closer together) will make it more difficult to react to inside fastballs.  Does the batter have a great deal of movement with their hands during their swing?  If so, throw hard.  Does the batter step to a closed (towards the plate) or open (steps out of the batters box) stance.  Closed stances call for hard stuff inside.  Open stances deserve soft (breaking) pitches on the outside half of the plate.  Does the batter have a “hole” in his swing (a place where he is less likely to hit the ball with authority or a pitch that he constantly misses)?  Conversely, does he have a “hot zone” (a pitch or location  that he routinely crushes)?  All of this information becomes that much more pertinent as you get closer to that pay-off pitch (3-2).

Base runners will also have a great effect on pitch selection.  Is the runner on first a threat to steal?  Better make sure you are getting the ball to your catcher quickly.  You typically won’t throw too many change-ups or sweeping curves for fear that it will guarantee success on a stolen base attempt.  With less than two outs and base runners on, you have to work for a ground ball.  That means you are basically done working the upper-half of the batter’s strike zone.  You may even “pitch to contact” (stay inside the strike zone at all times) in an effort to draw a double-play.  Certain pitches may be taken out of the pitchers repertoire with a runner on third.  Nasty breaking pitches and split-finger fastballs may be considered too dangerous to unleash for fear of a run scoring on a past ball.

Next time you watch a baseball game on TV, try to guess what pitch will come next and where it will be thrown.  Think like a pitcher, and I guarantee you’ll have a much more “exciting” time.

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