Baseball Pitching: The pitcher controls the game
For all the different approaches that exist to the game of baseball, the game is in essense really simple, and it all revolves around pitching whether you like it or not. Hitters can only hit as well as a pitcher will allow them to hit. The pitcher controls the game.
The key to becoming a better pitcher is to always remember that, because you do control the game, you must not give that control away by making mental mistakes. In reality, the only mistakes that ever get made in baseball are mental, because if you didn’t have the physical ability to pitch, you wouldn’t be on the mound.
Pitching has one primary goal and that is to keep the hitters guessing. The first step to keeping the hitters guessing is with your pre-pitch routine. A smart hitter will watch the pitcher very closely to see if they are tipping their pitches. Maybe the picher always holds his hands or his glove a certain way before every fastball. Maybe the pitcher digs his foot in differently when getting ready to throw a curveball. Your job as a pitcher is to make sure you use the exact same pre-pitch routine every single time, so you never tip your pitches.
Once you have your pre-pitch routine down pat, it is time to work on pitch selection and preparation for the lineup you are going to face. These two items go hand in hand and are the bread and butter of every pitcher on every level. Obviously, major leaguers are privy to detailed scouting reports on each hitter they face, but even little leaguers can at least pay attention to the hitters they face and get a rough idea of what kind of pitches they can throw to particular hitters.
The first rule to remember from a strategic standpoint is that a batter hitting your pitch is not a bad thing; a batter hitting your pitch hard is a bad thing, but you want the batters to swing and you want them to hit the ball into an out. A perfect inning would be three pitches and three outs. If a batter strikes out on your pitches, it is a bonus. The strikeout is glamorous, but not always practical, so don’t fall in love with the idea.
So, with that rule in mind, it is safe to say that the first pitch thrown to a batter is the most important pitch. The first pitch sets the tone for the entire at-bat. Let’s run through a typical at-bat: if a batter steps up to the plate, they have no idea what pitch you are going to throw unless they face you all the time and you only have one pitch you can throw. If you have at least two different pitches you can throw for a strike, then the batter has no idea which one you will choose for the first pitch.
Say you have only two pitches, a fastball and a change-up. For the batter that first pitch is like flipping a coin. He has to pick one and see if he is right. Considering how hard it is to hit a baseball solid, this puts a huge advantage in the pitcher’s pocket. Then, if you proceed to throw a fastball and it is a strike, you have an even bigger advantage on the next pitch. Now, you have four options instead of two. You can throw a fastball for a strike, a change-up for a strike or either of those pitches for a ball hoping the batter will swing and hit it badly or miss it turning it into strike two. If you throw a ball on that second pitch and he doesn’t swing, the pitch count evens up and the process starts all over with no advantage swinging to the hitter. So, the pitcher has nothing to lose as long as the first pitch was a strike.
Say you threw a ball to start off with, then you have given the batter some help. Now, he knows one of two things: either you are afraid of throwing him a strike or you are physically unable to throw him a strike with that pitch, so he either has a mental edge on you or he is able to eliminate a pitch from the ones he needs to look for. This is why it is so important to throw a first pitch strike and avoid falling behind in the pitch count. As long as you stay ahead in the pitch count, the hitter will have to guess and that is what every pitcher wants.
The other big core fundamental, as mentioned earlier, is to know the lineup you are facing. If a lineup has one really great hitter that can kill you, don’t pitch to him. This doesn’t mean you intentionally walk him every time, but just make sure you never give him a good strike to hit. Don’t let your pride get in the way and think you have to prove something by getting him to strike out. Keep control of the game and pitch on your terms at all times. If you aren’t confident you can get a hitter out, then you probably can’t. There is no shame in letting him walk to first base, and he might even swing at some of your bad pitches and get himself out somehow.
Finally, the best tip for becoming a better pitcher is simply to practice and practice and practice. In the end, pitching is all about location. If you can fine tune your senses and throw that ball right where the catcher tells you to every time, you will be very tough to beat, regardless of your velocity.