The Art of Pitching
Pitching a baseball is not the same as throwing one. Pitching is an art and a science. Baseball is played—and understood by fans—primarily between the ears. It is largely a mental game that appears to be mainly a physical contest. By using different grips on the baseball, pitchers alter the speed and motion on each pitch, thrown to the hitter in the batters box from 60' 6' away. There is a vast assortment of motions, deliveries, and arm angles used by pitchers. The most extreme are the sidearm or submarine delivery. The basic idea is to move the location of where the ball arrives to the batters hitting space, the strike zone, to keep the batters eyes, and his bat, moving to different physical spaces. And more importantly, to change the speeds and movements of the ball, to keep the hitter's timing off balance in the hopes of producing weak contact with the swing of his bat. Sometimes there are "purpose pitches", where a pitcher throws far inside to knock the batter off the plate. This strategy might make the hitter back up slightly before the next pitch, or at least not lean in over home plate, reducing his plate coverage. It is often followed with a pitch outside, just out of reach to hit or to make solid contact with. Occasionally pitches are thrown at his feet, to throw him off balance. The altitude of the stadium, atmospheric pressure, and humidity effect the movement of the ball.
The first pitch in the arsenal of a baseball pitcher is the fastball, so named because it is thrown fairly straight and is therefore the pitch with the most velocity. It appears to the eye of batters and spectators to rise slightly, because our eye and brain expects any thrown object to sink more than a hard thrown fastball does. A Major League pitcher's fastball may be between 88 and 104 miles an hour, reaching the batter in half a second. This pitch is also called a "four-seamer." It is gripped lightly to reduce friction, with two fingers across the seams.
SINKERS & CUTTERS
There are also two types of "two-seam" fastballs, gripped by the pitcher where the seams come together (with the seams), that will be a few miles per hour slower but have some movement. These are harder for a pitcher to learn to pitch effectively. With a straight arm motion the ball will have a slight sideways movement in the batters box. This pitch is called a cutter. Utilizing the same finger position but gripping the ball more tightly, with the thumb under the ball, and thrown with more of a downward motion, the ball will drop maybe 7 or 8 inches as it nears the plate. This is called a sinker and produces a lot of ground balls, which are easy for the defending infielders to handle and throw the batter out.
The curveball is produced by a particular grip and hand movement—a snapping of the wrist at the release point with a slightly shorter follow through of the pitcher's motion—that produces a diagonal spin on the baseball, changing its aerodynamics. This pitch will drop, move sideways, and arrive at home plate much slower than a fastball, typically at 71 to 85 miles per hour. This pitch is difficult to hit unless the batter is expecting it. But if the pitcher makes a mistake and the curveball hangs up in the strike zone—those balls are usually hit hard by major league hitters.
A slider is halfway between a fastball and a curveball; faster than the latter, with more break than the former. It requires pulling your fingers down on the ball as it is released, with slight pressure from the thumb side of your index finger.
The changeup is thrown using the same arm speed as a fastball , but a special grip, using three fingers instead of two and held closer to the palm to increase friction with the hand. This causes the ball to greatly lose velocity as it nears the plate in order to fool the batter and induce him to swing too soon. Similar pitches include the screwball and the palm ball, though they are rarely seen.
SPLIT FINGER & FORKBALL
The split-finger fastball is thrown with the fingers split apart and not touching any seams. The forkball is held more tightly, and with a more exaggerated split between the fingers than the split-finger fastball. Both pitches cause a sudden, dramatic drop in speed (and therefore altitude) just as it approaches the batter. The forkball is a bit slower and produces more movement. It requires a pitcher with big hands.
A knuckleball is the strangest pitch of all. It is produced by holding the ball with one's knuckles, or digging your fingertips into the ball. This is pitch does not have the normal spin of the ball. It is hard to master—only a few have—and hard to control. It is also hard to hit. And hard to catch. Nobody knows where it is going—not even the pitcher—due to vortices affected the seams of the ball, making it appear to be blowing in the wind. Generally, a knuckleball pitcher will only use that one pitch. He can have a longer career than most pitchers because the pitch is not thrown hard, so the arm is less strained.
STARTERS & RELIEVERS
An average of 145 pitches are made by each team in a regulation length game. Therefore, each baseball team will have starting pitchers and relief pitchers. Teams carry five starters and usually six or seven relievers. The starters pitch in a rotation, so they only start every 5th game, resting in between. Relievers sometimes pitch as often as every other game the team plays. On average, the starter pitches 6 innings and throws 96 pitches. The relievers can pitch more often because they average only one inning per appearance. They are also more specialized, brought in by the manager to face particular hitters who are due to bat next in the batting order. Batters and pitchers have various success against each other based on their individual characteristics and styles. The relievers in aggregate are known as the bullpen. A fan will observe that the most trusted relievers come into the game when their team is ahead in a close game, or the score is tied. When way ahead, or way behind, the lesser lights trot out to the mound. Because of all this, a reliever need only have excellent command of two different types of pitches. They will only face each batter once. A starter may face each hitter several times in the game and therefore must have three of four quality pitches he can throw.
SUMMARY OF THE ART OF PITCHING
The most important aspects of pitching are these two: do not throw the ball down the middle and throw strike one. The last graph here shows what happens when a pitcher inadvertently throws the ball right down the middle to a major league hitter.
A batter has a "count." This is how many balls—pitches not swung at out of the strike zone—and strikes—pitches swung at and missed, or hit foul; and pitches not swung at but called in the strike zone by the umpire. The battle between the pitcher and the batter is a battle within a battle to get ahead in the count.
For a pitcher this means to have more strikes than balls in the count, enabling him to nibble around the edges of the strike zone (shown in the penultimate graphic) and throw trick pitches, knowing the hitter is on the defensive.
For a hitter, it means to have more balls in the count putting the pressure on the pitcher to lay one in there as to not walk the batter by throwing ball four—the last thing the manager wants because it is a free pass to first base.
The importance of the count is demonstrated by the batting averages of major league hitters in various counts:
2 (balls)-1(strikes) .330; 2-0 .326; 3-1 .318; 1-0 .314; 1-1 .310; 3-0 .307; 0-0 (first pitch) .305; 0-1 .302; 3-2 .223; 2-2 .193; 1-2 .176; 0-2 .168.