by Darren Fenster
In Game One of last October’s World Series, the Kansas City Royals pedaled reliever after reliever into a 14-inning instant classic against the New York Mets, all throwing in the mid-to-upper 90’s. That was, until Chris Young entered the game in the top of the 12th, showing the baseball world and aspiring Big League pitchers everywhere that you don’t, in fact, need to have eye-popping velocity to successfully compete at the highest level of the sport.
Pitching out of the bullpen for three scoreless frames, striking out five while earning the win, Young hit 90 MPH on the radar gun in that game. That’s significant because it was the first time he did so since 2009. And he only touched 90. Once. For the past 12-plus years, Chris Young- who stands at 6’10” tall- generally has made his living as a Major League pitcher by throwing his four-seam fastball in the mid-to-upper 80s, one that averaged 86 MPH for the 2015 season.
In the age of velocity that baseball seems to be living in right now, that aforementioned fact begs the simple question of, “how?” How does Chris Young do it?
Velocity is a gift. Granted, a gift that can be developed and improved through hard work and dedication, but not one that most baseball pitchers at most levels of the game are blessed with. Velocity is magnified on television every night and at ballparks every day so much so, that many up and coming pitchers may get discouraged when the realization comes that they don’t have it and haven’t been blessed with the ability to throw a ball as hard as the next guy. Scouts love velocity. College recruiters love velocity. Professional coaches love velocity. But plain and simple, not every player who toes the rubber will be able to throw 90 miles per hour.
But the ability to throw the ball hard is just one piece of the puzzle to get a hitter out.
Allard Baird, currently a special assistant in the Red Sox front office, and former GM of the Royals, once said “tools are great. Everybody loves tools. But if you cannot translate those tools into usable baseball skills that can help you perform and your team succeed, then those tools are worthless.” Velocity without the ability to throw the ball over the plate may win you a stuffed animal on the boardwalk, but it won’t get hitters out.
Aside from being able to blow a ball by a hitter, there are four additional, usable pitching skills that every pitcher can learn, completely independent of whether or not they have been blessed with a rocket for an arm.
When discussing pitchers, many talk about guys who have good control. Well control is the ability to throw the ball over the plate- obviously a very important skill to have as a pitcher, and in our view, the first every pitcher should focus on mastering. But the next step beyond control is command: the ability to throw the ball wherever you want, whenever you want. It’s the ability to throw a pitch within a certain spot of the strike zone, in addition to areas OFF the plate, specifically for balls. Some hitters can absolutely murder pitches inside. That same hitter’s kryptonite may be the outside pitch. Both are strikes, yes, but one may result in a slow trot around the bases, and the other a slow walk back to the dugout. Learn how to throw into that big box first, then work on pinpointing smaller boxes within (and out of) the box to truly take off on the mound.
To truly understand pitching, it’s a good idea to at least try to understand hitting. In it’s most basic ideal, hitting is timing. That’s it. A hitter has to figure out a way to time out their swing, knowing when to get their legs, hips, and hands to be synced up with a pitch. Well if a hitter is doing everything in his power to be on time, then a pitcher should be conscious about doing whatever it takes to disrupt that timing. That gift of velocity? Well that makes hitters late. But the skill of throwing pitches at various speeds? That makes hitters both early AND late. Not only does a good change up get hitters out in front, it also makes an average fastball seem that much harder, making a hitter late often in the same way a 98 MPH heater does.
What can movement do for you? Consider this: Mariano Rivera threw one pitch, and one pitch only: a cut fastball. The best hitters in the world stepped into the box, knowing that Rivera only threw that one pitch, and they STILL couldn’t hit it. While Mariano’s cutter- his gift, mind you- is the extreme example of the effect movement can have, it does tell a very true story about it’s potential effectiveness against hitters. So whether than movement comes in the form of a curveball that falls off the table, a slider that moves like a Frisbee, or a fastball that tails the final ten feet before reaching the plate, there is definite value to being able to making the ball dance.
The pitching mound stands ten inches above the rest of a baseball diamond. It’s an artificial angle created by baseball’s founding fathers that gives the pitchers a distinct advantage over the hitter- that is, when they use it. Take this hypothetical to understand the advantage we are talking about: a batter is standing in the box, but the pitch is coming straight down, dropped from the top of a 30-story tall building. Easy to hit that ball falling from the sky? Damn-near impossible. Another hypothetical: a straight clothes-line running from centerfield right through the middle of home plate, thigh high the whole way. Easy to hit that ball coming in from 300-some feet away? Damn-near impossible to miss it. Those are the two extremes to show what a downhill plane can do for pitchers when they take advantage of it, as well as what might happen when they don’t use the mound’s angle.
Which brings us back to Chris Young. What Young showed us is that you can still be a very good pitcher even if you don’t throw hard. There are very few hitters in the entire world who can cover all 17 inches of home plate, from the belt to the knees. Commanding the baseball enables a pitcher to exploit those weak spots. Changing speeds gets hitters off-balance, disrupting the essential part of hitting entirely. Being able to put movement on a pitch can will help keep the ball off the hitter’s barrel and making a hitter change his sights left and right, while using the plane of the mound to throw downhill forces a hitter to adjust his sights, up and down.
Chris Young and his Princeton degree found different ways outside of velocity to sit hitters down. You don’t need an Ivy league degree to do so yourself. Not every pitcher will be able to blow the ball by the hitter, but every pitcher is able to find many other ways to get the hitter out.