They say major league hitters can time a bullet; show them a 100-mph fastball three times in a row and they’ll hit the third one a mile. They don’t swing harder or faster — at least the smart hitters don’t — they just start their swings earlier. So how does a pitcher prevent that?
He throws his secondary pitches.
Saturday night Yordano Ventura pitched against the Boston Red Sox and was throwing his secondary pitches — cutter, curve and changeup — right away. In the first inning he threw two cutters, two curves and two changeups. Yordano only threw two of them for strikes, but it let Red Sox hitters know Ventura was not going to feed them a steady diet of fastballs; a tactic that’ has put him in trouble in the past.
Throwing secondary pitches for strikes
So Yordano was throwing off-speed stuff right away, but was he throwing it for strikes? Establishing off-speed stuff not only means throwing secondary pitches, but throwing those pitches for strikes often enough to make hitters worry about them. If a pitcher can’t get his curve over the plate, hitters will spit on the curve any time they see one coming. That allows the hitter to eliminate that pitch knowing any time the guy on the mound needs to throw a strike, he’s probably throwing a fastball.
By my count — which could be off, it’s pretty early on a Sunday morning and one guy can only drink so much coffee — Yordano Ventura threw 108 pitches and 42 of them were off-speed. If I got it right, Yordano threw 10 cutters, five for strikes; 25 curves, 16 for strikes; and seven changeups, but only one strike with that pitch. (I’m also using MLB.com which misidentifies pitches on a regular basis, so take that into account.)
So about 39 percent of the time Ventura was throwing something off-speed, and those off-speed pitches were strikes about 52 percent of the time. Be aware that pitchers don’t always want to throw strikes; they throw “chase” pitches on purpose, hoping hitters will chase them out of the strike zone.
Ventura threw six innings and gave up one earned run, so it would appear he was throwing enough off-speed pitches and throwing enough off-speed pitches for strikes to keep the Red Sox from sitting on his fastball.
Ventura’s curve: when did he throw it?
OK, I’m pretty far into this piece so I don’t want to throw it out the window, but it’s starting to sound boring to me and I’m the guy writing it.
But this is how the game is played. Good hitters want to know what a pitcher throws, how often he throws it and even better, when he throws it. Good hitters pay attention to detail, and if they don’t, good hitting coaches do.
If you ever see a hitter glance toward the dugout in the middle of an at-bat, he might be getting a sign from the hitting coach. In case the hitter didn’t pay attention to the scouting reports, the hitting coach will let the hitter know what the "percentage pitch" is in each count. If the pitcher is likely to throw a 2-1 fastball or a 1-2 slider, the hitting coach will signal that to the hitter.
I get people who tell me they love baseball and want to talk about it, but when you get into the details of how the game is played, their eyes glaze over. They love baseball, but they don’t love it that much.
Pretty much every time I see Rusty Kuntz loitering around the field I go over and talk to him. When we were in St. Louis, I asked Rusty if I was bugging him with my constant questions. He said no; he loves to talk baseball and then said I was one of the few guys who wanted to talk it with him. We then went on to have a scintillating conversation about the correct way to set up a double cut — so maybe we’re both boring.
Anyway, where was I?
Oh, yeah, Ventura and his curveball. OK, so it’s good that Yordano was throwing off-speed stuff 39 percent of the time, but it’s not like the chances of him throwing an off-speed pitch were 39 percent every time he delivered a ball to home plate.
Ventura was much more likely to throw a curve when he was ahead in the count. If I counted right, he threw 14 of his 25 curves when a hitter already had two strikes on him. He threw eight curves in even counts, and unless I missed something, Yordano only threw one curve when he was behind in the count. By the fifth and sixth innings, he had enough confidence in his curve to throw it in full counts. (Although he was throwing it to some pretty good hitters, so maybe he didn’t care if he walked them.)
If hitters — or hitting coaches — can pick up a pattern to when Ventura throws his curve, the pitch becomes less effective. The really good pitchers throw any pitch in any count. Generally speaking there is no discernible pattern, so hitters have a much tougher job; they don’t know what’s coming next.
Assuming you stuck with this piece all the way through, next time Yordano Ventura pitches you can pay attention to when he throws his off-speed stuff, if he throws it for strikes and what counts he throws it in.
Or you can do what any sane person would: crack open a cold one, relax and enjoy the show.