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On pitching

April 9, 2011

Nolan Ryan as I remember him, in an Astro's uniform

I was on my last ball.  I knew it, my son knew it, and everyone watching knew it too.  The pressure was on.  My last pitch I overthrew, trying to “muscle” 1 more mph out of my fastball – the result was less than gratifying, a bouncer in the dirt.  The pressure was on and I felt it.  Taking a deep breath, I wound-up and let her fly.  Awesome location, lower inside corner, with a resounding smack as the ball met the backstop.

I would have said catcher’s mitt, but I was trying to prove my manhood at the Flying Squirrel’s AA baseball game last night by throwing pitches at a radar gun they had set-up among the concessions stands at the stadium.  For a one-spot, I was given three pitches to show to the spectators that I wasn’t some wussy 35-year-old who lives vicariously through the players on the field.  Needless to say, I don’t think many left my performance with a different opinion.  My “best” fastball clocked in at a whopping 59 mph.  It was my fastball for two reasons, I was throwing as hard as I could, and I don’t know how to throw anything else.  Ohh, and I pulled a muscle in my forearm to boot.

So following that exhibition, I felt compelled to write about pitching in general.  If there is anything you take out of this post, it should be this, “Pitching is damn hard!”  I am not talking about my weak and feeble attempt at grandeur at the radar gun, but I am referring to actual controlled, professional pitching by men paid to do so.  Let’s talk about the actual act of pitching to get a sense of the difficulty involved.

“The heater”

First off, for comparison purposes, let’s compare my “fastball” to a professional pitcher’s.  A good pro fastball has two things going for it, speed and movement.  The speed is obvious, measured in miles per hour.  I threw 59 mph, a “soft-tosser” like Livan Hernandez of the Washington Nationals tops out at somewhere in the mid-80’s.  A burner like Aroldis Chapman for the Cincinnati Reds has topped out at 104 mph.  So you can understand the unimpressed self-image I currently possess.  The hardest I could throw was 25 mph less than a pitcher with a slow fastball.  But that is just fastballs, when you look at a change-up, which is a pitch that looks like a fastball but is about 10 mph slower, you can see that a pro pitcher’s slowest pitch is faster than my fastest.  Amazing.

But speed is only one part of the equation of a great fastball, the next requirement is movement.  All pitches barring a knuckleball, have some sort of spin on them.  This spin makes the ball do interesting things, like curve downward, or left and right.  With a fastball, the balls velocity overcomes the spin for the most part, until it reaches the plate, then the threads on the ball “bite” into the air, making a good fastball “explode” at the plate.  This couple of inches of movement at the last second is what elevates an average pitch into a stellar fastball.

Look at it from a batter’s perspective.  The ball is coming at you usually in the 90 mph range, that leaves little time to decide to swing or lay-off.  Now, you are swinging at where you think the ball is going to end-up, because the decision to swing is made while the ball is half-way to the plate.  The problem with movement on a fastball is, the ball does not end up where you think it is going to, so you either miss it or, you just graze it with the bat, usually resulting in a pop-up, foul ball or a weak grounder.

Now, understand, you can’t be a good pitcher (unless you are a knuckleballer) without a good fastball, that should be your number one pitch.  It is the pitch you base all your other pitches off of.  The fastball sets the table for all your other pitches.  So let’s think about what actually happens when a pitcher rears back and throws a “heater”.

Bob Feller - considered by many to be the hardest thrower in baseball history

First, you don’t throw as hard as you can, unlike my 59 mph burner.  If you throw with all your power, you lack control, plus it can be dangerous to your physical well-being – the human body is not designed to throw a ball like a pitcher, it is a decidedly unnatural motion that puts a tremendous amount of torque on the arm and shoulder – as an aside, men have been known to actually break the bones in their arms in the process of throwing a fastball.  So, Nolan Ryan, hall-of-fame pitcher with the career record for strike-outs, rarely ever threw the ball as hard as he could, because it would be impossible for him to consistently control where the ball ended up (note, he might have thrown it 100% more than the average pitcher, because he also holds the career record for walks).  That consistency is the hardest part about pitching.

Imagine if you will, throwing a baseball really hard, but not too hard, and trying to make sure it hits a box 60 feet away as determined by your catcher’s mitt.  A couple of inches high, and the ball might be leaving the park, a couple of inches low or left, and its a ball.  A foot or so right, and you just hit the batter.  A foot or so low or left, and the ball might get past the catcher and you will be charged with a wild-pitch.  I challenge you to go out sometime with a baseball and see how accurate you can be with your “fastball”, and make sure to make at least 100 pitches, and also tell me how your arm feels.

“Hitting is timing, pitching is disrupting timing”

This is an old adage about pitching.  What it means is, the most important aspect of hitting is making sure you “time” you swing to coincide with the arrival of the pitch over the plate.  Too early, and you miss the ball completely or pull it foul, too late, and you miss it completely or push it foul.  The majority of “swing and misses” you see during a ballgame are because of timing, not because the hitter just swung over or under the ball.  The first thing a hitter tries to do is “time” a pitcher’s fastball, because that pitch leaves him the least amount of time to make decisions.  A good pitcher does whatever he can to screw this timing up.

The main pitch for doing this is called a change-up.  It emulates the motion and delivery of a fastball, but because of the way the pitcher holds the ball, it ends up flying roughly 10 mph slower to the plate.  The hitter is geared up for hitting a “heater” and he swings too early because the pitcher “pulled the  string” on him.  The best change-ups are called “circle changes”, dubbed because you make an “okay” sign with your hand, and place the ball in the “circle” that your thumb and index finger make, this flavor of pitch not only flies slower, but also has a couple of inches drop when it reaches the plate.  Understand, the pitcher does not “take anything off” a change-up, he throws it just as hard as he throws his fastball, but because of the way he holds the ball, he can not develop the same velocity.

Uncle Charlie

Another way to disrupt timing is with “old uncle charlie”, or the “hammer”, or what most people call a curve-ball.  The curve-ball is the traditional strikeout pitch for “power pitchers”, or pitchers who throw really hard and try to get the batter out by striking them out.  The curve is a damn hard pitch to throw.  You start by placing your index and middle finger on top of the ball, with your thumb underneath, like a backwards “C” if you are right-handed.  Then you wind-up like normal, but right before you release the ball, you “snap” your wrist downward, imparting downward spin on the ball.  Do that right now – pretend you have a ball and make a reverse C in your hand and try to snap your wrist down as you “throw” a pitch, pretty tough huh?  Considering most “hooks” are in the high 70’s to low 80’s in speed, it is incredible a human can even throw them (remember, my fastball was 59, lol).

So what does a curveball do?  Depending on how “over the top” a pitcher is, it either drops straight down from 1-2 feet, or it does the same with a little bit of side-tilt.  The straight drop flavor of curve-ball is called a “12-6” curve, like the hours on a clock.  If you have more tilt than drop, the curve is usually called a “slider”, though sliders are usually thrown with a bit more velocity, in the mid to high 80’s.  If you aren’t sure what to call a pitcher’s curving pitch, you can do what most commentators do and just call it the ambiguous “breaking pitch”.

The movement plus the off-speed nature of a curve ball is what makes a “great curve” so devastating, and why it is the “out pitch” for many pitchers.  But sometimes your curve just isn’t working, you don’t have the feel of the pitch and can’t get it to break.  When that happens it spins but doesn’t actually bend, what is typically called a “hanging curve”, or…a homerun, most pro hitters do not miss when the pitcher makes a mistake over the plate.  The hanging curve is definitely a mistake because it ends up being an 80 mph pitch with absolutely no movement, sometimes labeled a “BP fastball”, BP for “batting practice”.

Sandy Koufax letting one rip

Sometimes, you just can’t get your curveball over the plate, such is what happened to the great Sandy Koufax during game 7 of the 1965 World Series, pitting his Dodgers versus the Twins.  Sandy just couldn’t locate his curveball, giving up on it in the second inning.  He pitched the rest of the game primarily with his fastball, and ended up throwing a 3-hit shutout, to win the series.  The old adage about “pitching disrupting timing” was proven wrong that day, the batters knew the fastball was coming, they just couldn’t hit it – Koufax proved if you have velocity, movement and pin-point location, you can be unhittable with just a fastball, but most pitchers can not accomplish all three.

The Knuckler

What the hell is a knuckleball?  Well, for starters, it ain’t thrown with your knuckles, usually a knuckleball pitcher grips the ball with his fingernails on the thread, his pinky and sometimes his ring finger holding the ball on the side.  As the pitcher delivers the ball to the plate, he extends his fingers and “pushes” the ball forward, ideally with no spin whatsoever imparted.  This results in a ball that “knuckles” or moves all over the place because without spin, the ball moves whichever way the wind resistance decides to push it.  This is a really hard pitch to “hit square

Phil Niekro - see how he's holding the ball?

ly”, because you never know what it will do.  The catcher doesn’t either, hence when he has to catch a knuckballer, they usually equip a clown sized glove, giving him some lee-way if he misjudges the flight of the ball.

The beauty of a knuckleball is it is very easy on the arm; a knuckleball pitcher can pitch forever, not only in an individual game, but over his career.  As evidence, we can look to the greatest knuckleball pitcher of all time, Phil Niekro.  “Knucksie” pitched in the Majors until the age of 48, setting a modern era record for innings pitched at 5,404.  He also threw 245 complete games (as in he finished the game without being relieved), the current active complete game leader in the majors is the Phillies’ Roy Halladay, with 58 complete games, so while it was a different era, Niekro had some longevity in the game, again because a knuckleball is not a tiring pitch.

“Pitchers ain’t ball players”

This quote is true, if you are talking about the American League, where the pitchers get to pretend hitting is not a part of being a baseball player.  In the National League, or as I like to call it, “Real Baseball”, the pitcher is part of the lineup and required to go up and swing the bat.  So not only does a pitcher have to throw a good game, something I hope by now you understand is damn hard, but he has to go up and…usually embarass himself.  It is unfortunate, but most pitchers are not good hitters – there are not enough hours in the day for a pitcher to effectively make himself a good pitcher and a good batter.  Though, like everything in baseball, there are exceptions to the rule.

The Babe hurling one in

The greatest hitting pitcher of all time was someone I am sure you all have heard of, Babe Ruth.  Yep, many people don’t know “the Bambino” started his career as a pitcher, pitching in a total of 163 games, with a career ERA of only 2.28, which makes him an incredible pitcher.  While he was shutting people down on the mound, he was swinging the bat like no pitcher can nowadays, hitting .315 and 4 home runs in his first full season with the Red Sox in 1915.  Needless to say, it was realized that the Babe’s bat was too good to not use everyday, and his pitching abilities were soon forsaken.  Considering Babe Ruth’s pitching and hitting prowess, I don’t see how anyone can suggest someone else is the greatest “ballplayer” of all time, to me its a no-brainer.

The current best hitting pitcher is Micah Owings of the Arizona Diamondbacks.  He has a career batting average of .293, and a slugging percentage of .538 (a number that shows he is not just hitting bloop singles), pretty heady numbers for a pitcher nowadays.

Closing it out

My experience at the radar gun was humbling to say the least.  Not only did I learn I just don’t have the arm to throw even a mediocre fastball, but also that I could never do it for a whole game.  Pitcher’s have a tough job, one that we definitely do not give them enough credit for doing well.  I guess we have been jaded over the last century to expect perfection from a task that is amazingly difficult to do poorly, let alone successfully.

So next time you are at a game and feel like booing your “thrower” for having a bad start, put yourself in his shoes for a minute, and maybe give him a good round of applause for attempting to do something most of us could not even “fake” successfully.  If he was a bad pitcher, he wouldn’t be on the mound in the first place.  He just had a bad outing, it happens to the best pitchers in the game.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2011 9:59 am

    Good article Fleece. Yep, I embarrassed myself at the old Fulton County Stadium on one of those radar gun stands, although being a pitcher in High School and later for my base baseball team overseas, I’ve had some experience in pitching. I did two things wrong…tried to overthrow the pitch to impress my gal friend and I forgot to take off my watch. The ball did reach eighty mph, but unfortunately, my watch made it to ninety, lol. Pitching is more than just arm strength, though. You pretty much have to use your whole body to make a good pitch, predominately your legs. If you’ve ever watched film of Nolan Ryan pitching, watch how he used his legs to push off the mound and give extra impetus to all his pitches, but especially his famous fastball.


    • April 12, 2011 10:32 am

      Haha, your watch hit 90. lol

      Yeah, I definitely don’t have the mechanics to throw a ball hard (though I have a strong arm in the field, go figure), I posses no “drop and drive”, my fastball is pretty much all arm. To me, the best example of someone who “uses their whole body” is skater boy Tim Lincecum. He whips the ball so hard, and gets every inch of his diminutive frame behind the pitch, it always amazes me he can throw in the mid-90’s. Compare to the Big Train Walter Johnson, who looked like he was tossing the ball to a 10 year old, yet somehow it came out of his hand like a rocket.

  2. JustFacts permalink
    April 13, 2011 9:22 am

    Used to go to the Astrodome and watch Nolan Ryan pitch when he was with the Astros. What a pitcher. Loved it when he bought a ranch in Alvin, TX, not too far from our home in Pearland. He used to drive his pick-up truck around the Alvin area and stop in at local places, just like an everyday guy. Was real big in the community, too. An all-around good guy. They don’t make ballplayers like him anymore.

    • April 13, 2011 9:49 am

      Nolan Ryan was definitely my favorite pitcher. His story is amazing as well. He was not always the phenom that we consider him to be – sure, he always had the arm, but like most young fireballers, his control was almost non-existent.

      One of the stories goes, when he was playing in High school, a scout for the Mets was asking his coach about the young “fireballer” you got on your team, apparently it took 3 tries before the coach figured out he was talking about Ryan.

      His life was like that, he wanted to quite baseball numerous times, because he just couldn’t get his stuff together, he always had the ability, just couldn’t get all the pieces of his delivery together.

      It seems like a common story for practically every hall-of-fame athlete in any sport, their abilities did not come easy to them, they needed the desire to be something above average, they had to want to be as “great” as they eventually became.

  3. April 13, 2011 11:45 pm

    Missed this one the other day, Fleece. Stan Musial also started out as a pitcher (minors), but came up with a dead arm. Branch Rickey, though, had seen him hit a few balls 450 feet during spring training, so he moved him to the outfield & the rest is history. I saw quite a few great duels at old Vets Stadium between Steve Carlton & Tom Seaver, & at least one Opener with Carlton vs Ryan, which Mike Schmidt won with (as I recall) an 8th inning HR. When I was a kid, it was Robin Roberts vs Warren Spahn at Connie Mack Stadium where I usually ended up sitting behind a post.

    • April 14, 2011 12:16 am

      Oh man, you saw some awesome baseball, I am totally jealous. Didn’t live in Houston for long, moved when I was 8, so of the one Astros game I went to, I am unsure of who played (I do know Jose Cruz played, he is the only one I remember) or started; I like to imagine it was Ryan, because he was at Houston at the time, lol. In Richmond, we had the AAA Braves team for my whole childhood, they left about 5 years back. Of the Braves I remember seeing, my favorite was Jeff Blauser, who made it to the show as a short-stop, played a couple years in the majors. Now we have the Flying Squirrels, AA affiliate to the Giants. Only problem is, being on the East Coast, pretty much no chance we will see any big leaguers down here for rehab assignments, but, baseball is baseball, so I ain’t complaining. =)

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