Arguably one of the most nerve-racking experiences in all of sports, sitting alone on an island of clay in the middle of a grassy gulf. Teammates surround you, crouched and ready, waiting with anticipation. You toe the rubber, take a deep breath, you stare down your target. The eyes of an entire stadium fixated on you, the catcher squats deep into his stance and pounds his mitt. The hitter’s bat taps the plate, then points directly at you as he enters his stance. An index finger from the catcher signals for the fastball, outside corner. You agree with a nod of the head, and proceed with your windup. Upon release, the laces of the ball rotate as it flies in towards the plate. A cloud of dust, a crack of the mitt, and a call from the umpire…
“Ball 1.” The scene resets as everyone prepares for the next pitch. Anything could happen once it’s been thrown: a big hit, a great defensive play, a swing and miss. All options are on the table. The catcher signals again for the fastball, outside corner. The anticipation is once again stifled by the umpires call… “Ball 2.” Now the coaches have found a need to assert themselves. “Let’s go! Throw strikes!” This scene, a pre-cursor to an all familiar nightmare that haunts the dreams of aspiring pitchers. One walk can create a problem. Multiple walks, or an inability to maintain control of the strike zone, can single handedly lose the game for your team. Guess you better learn to “Throw Strikes!”
Most intelligent players would ask an honest question of their coaches, “How?” Most coaches would suggest putting more focus into your bullpens, or quit pitching selfish, or scared. My suggestion is familiar and simple. The pitcher must make an active effort to “Pitch to contact”. I have used those words more than any cliché in baseball. When you have been around the game as long as I have, you’ve heard almost all of them. The only way to turn balls into strikes is to activate the swings of the hitters. The great Sandy Koufax was quoted as saying, “I became a good pitcher when I stopped trying to make them miss the ball and started trying to make them hit it.” Pitching to contact can be done by throwing contact pitches early in counts. A contact pitch is thrown to initiate contact between bat and ball. Typically, these pitches are fastballs thrown towards the center of the zone with moderate aggression. This approach provides more chances for the hitter to end the at bat early by putting the ball in play. It also helps to prevent walks, activate the defense, and minimize pitch counts, while actively alleviating the gridlock of slow gameplay.
In contrast, a more passive approach to pitching relies on contact pitches only in reaction to hitters’ counts. This is typically a last-ditch effort to avoid walking the hitter. By timidly targeting the perimeter of the plate, a.k.a. The Black, early in the count, the pitcher hopes for more swings and misses or called strikes. A problem arises when pitchers are unable to execute those special locations on a consistent basis. The unintended consequences of this passive approach are: falling behind in the count, pitching to contact only in reaction to hitters counts, and of course, more walks. In most cases, a trend of missing the strike zone hinders the mental development of the pitcher. Greg Maddux spoke of a pitcher needing a “Bullet proof confidence.” That confidence must be built up over time and experience in order to thrive at the higher levels. Pitching to the corners or The Black consistently results in more balls being thrown outside of the strike zone. The game becomes much longer and the task more grueling once the umpire’s discretion is in play. Many times, even the executed pitches are not called on the corners due to the preference of the umpire.
Aggressively pitching to contact is an approach driven by the success rate of the hitters, or lack thereof. With a .300 average representing a benchmark for the common hitter, the remaining 70% represents the standard success rate of the pitcher. These numbers display an inherent advantage which warrants consideration in any field. Considering the fact that good pitching statistically supersedes good hitting, pitchers should give less consideration to most hitters. A deeper dive into the numbers reveals a drastic increase or decrease in batting averages relating to the corresponding count. Documented statistics have displayed that a pitcher’s count (0-2 & 1-2) drops batting averages to below .200, meanwhile a hitter’s count (2-0, 2-1, 3-1,) will elevate those averages nearly .200 points. We, as pitchers, all throw contact pitches. The key is to be pro-active by throwing them early and often. Passive or reactive pitching leads to numerous problems. Control the hitters’ averages by controlling the count. Utilize your defense by activating their swings. Pitch to contact if you want to “Throw Strikes.”