Baseball can be boring unless you understand what pitch is being thrown, and why.
People who don’t watch baseball all the time think it’s a boring game. They don’t think much happens; every minute or so, the pitcher throws a ball and the batter swings, and that’s it. Over time, fans realize that a lot is going on; there is a lot of strategy involved in pitching to each batter. This hack helps you follow this battle—the subtlest and most elegant part of the game.
In addition to making the game a lot more interesting, understanding and following pitching strategies raises a number of interesting questions to ponder as you watch. Is the pitcher throwing the ball where he should, or is he throwing it at the wrong spot? Is he having trouble with a certain pitch? Does it seem like the other team always knows a certain pitch is coming? Finally, watching the pitcher and catcher can also tell you about who is making the decisions. Usually, the catcher selects the pitches, but there are exceptions. You can learn a lot by watching.
The pitcher’s primary goal is to try to fool the hitter into swinging in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are a lot of ways to do this. Sometimes the pitcher wants to throw strikes that look like balls (so the batter doesn’t swing at a called strike) or balls that look like strikes (so the batter swings at the ball and misses). Other times, the pitcher wants to throw the ball where the batter can’t hit it well (often, this means a high, inside fastball). At still other times, the pitcher throws the ball at different speeds to fool the hitter into swinging too early or too late. Pitching strategy can be subtle and complicated. Pitchers often throw one pitch (say, a slider on the outside corner) to set up another pitch (say, a slider outside).
Good pitchers (usually catchers, actually) remember what they threw to a batter in previous innings, games, or even seasons! Professional ball players and coaches spend hours studying videos before each game to try to forecast what a pitcher will throw to them, and when. Catchers spend hours reading notes and watching videos to figure out what pitches hitters expect pitchers to throw, and at what times, so they can adjust their strategies. And then ball players adjust their hitting strategies to what they think are the pitcher’s new strategies…. You get the idea.
It’s really tough to predict what each side will do unless you have a lot of time and a big video collection. (As a fan, this is practically impossible.) But if you watch a lot of baseball, you can start to pick up on a few patterns in pitching strategy.
A pitcher (with good location) will throw a couple of strikes on the outside corner. Many batters will assume they look like balls (maybe they’re sliders or curveballs that move into the strike zone at the last second). After two called strikes in that spot, the batter is conditioned to think that balls in that spot are strikes. The pitcher will then follow with an unhittable ball just outside the strike zone to try to strike out the batter.
Many pitchers will throw a few consecutive breaking balls to get the batter used to seeing slow pitches. Then the pitcher will throw a fastball, trying to get the batter to swing at the ball after it crosses the plate.
This is the opposite of the previous strategy! A power pitcher (usually a guy like Eric Gagne, who can throw a 95 mph fastball) follows a few fastballs with a really slow pitch. Often, you’ll see the hitter swing at the pitch long before it crosses the plate.
This isn’t really much of a strategy. The only pitcher who has done this successfully is Mariano Rivera (the Yankees ace reliever), who throws a cut fastball. His pitch is a high inside fastball that moves in on the hands of lefthanded batters and away from righthanders. He throws the ball in a way that makes it move at the last minute. Sometimes he gets strikeouts, but often a hitter will hit the ball weakly off the inside of the bat, grounding out. His pitches cause more bats to break than almost any other pitcher in baseball. Incidentally, the only team that seems to be able to hit this pitch is the Red Sox, probably because the Yankees and Red Sox play each other 19 times during the regular season.
Many batters like to stand over the plate, to hit balls on the outside with the sweet spot of the bat. (If you hit the ball in the right spot, it travels a lot farther.) A common strategy for a pitcher is to throw an inside fastball at a batter to scare him and get him to move off the plate.
It’s not easy to tell pitches apart. It all happens so fast, and there are so many distractions: the pitcher’s big windup, the umpire’s hand waving, and the bat swinging. As described earlier, a large part of a pitcher’s job is to make it hard to tell pitches apart until the last instant; a good pitcher throws several different pitches with almost identical arm angles to confuse hitters. If a professional baseball player (a guy who is paid millions of dollars a year to hit balls because he is one of the best people in the world at hitting balls) can’t always tell pitches apart in person (from 60 feet away), how can you do it on TV? Well, it turns out that there are a few tricks for doing this.
Here are five simple tips for deciphering pitches, arranged from easiest (and most useful) to hardest (and least useful). Train yourself to do these one at a time, in order.
If you’re watching the game, the scoreboard will usually tell you if the last pitch was a ball or a strike. But if you want more detail, watch the umpire. At the simplest, an umpire will stick his arm up in the air to indicate a strike. An umpire will keep his arms down to indicate a ball. Most umpires will follow a ball by looking to their left or right to indicate whether the ball was to their left or right. An umpire will indicate a foul tip (meaning that the ball grazed the bat) by imitating a foul tip with his hands (holding one hand out, and, with the other hand, tracing the path of a ball bouncing off the bat).
To figure out where the ball is supposed to go, watch the catcher. Look at where the catcher sets up, or holds his glove, while the pitcher is throwing the ball. A catcher will usually hold his glove where he wants the ball to go. He does this for two reasons: to have the glove in the right place to catch the ball, and to give the pitcher a target for the ball. Looking at the catcher can let you distinguish high balls from low balls, and inside from outside. You can usually tell if the pitcher is intentionally throwing balls outside the strike zone.
This method isn’t completely reliable. Sometimes hitters sneak a peak at the catcher, fans, or the base coach’s signal to find out where the catcher set up. To combat this, a catcher might intentionally move his glove at the last moment. More often, the pitcher misses, and the catcher has to move his glove to catch a ball that slipped away. So, by just looking at where the catcher holds his glove before and after the pitch, you can usually figure out where the pitcher wanted to throw the ball, and where it ended up.
But catchers tell you something else: whether the pitcher missed. If the catcher moves his glove at the last second, it’s a pretty good sign that the pitcher didn’t throw the ball where he wanted it. And if the catcher loses the ball, it’s clear that the pitcher didn’t throw the ball where he intended to.
It’s difficult to distinguish pitches on TV. A changeup is just a little slower than a fastball, for example. A curveball looks a little slower and follows a curved path, but it can look a lot like a slider. Good pitchers alternate between pitches by changing grips, and they use the same arm motion on each one. Most major league pitchers throw at least three different pitches. (It’s hard to confuse batters if you don’t throw a lot of different pitches.)
So, here’s the third tip: if radar guns are reading for pitch speeds, they can tell you what type of pitch was thrown. Not all pitchers throw pitches at three different speeds, but the ones who do help you out a lot. Here are a few rules of thumb:
This is usually a fastball.
This is usually a slider or a changeup.
This is usually a curveball (knuckleballs are also in this category, but they are less common).
You’ll notice that this is the first time I told you to watch the ball. Don’t watch the ball as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. Just look at it at the end. This can help you distinguish subtle differences between pitch types (say, two-seam versus four-seam fastballs). And don’t start looking at how the ball moves until you’ve trained yourself to watch the catcher set up.
Also, you should watch how the ball moves as it reaches the plate. A pitch that ends up in the dirt at the end is probably a splitter or a slider. A pitch that dives in a graceful arc is a curveball. A pitch that moves in toward the hitter, or away from the hitter, is probably a cut fastball or a two-seam fastball. Oh yeah, and a pitch that moves around and makes the hitter look dumb is probably a knuckleball. (There really are only a couple of active knuckleball pitchers, and the announcers will talk on and on about them.)
Normally, the catcher decides what pitch to throw to whom. A catcher probably has the hardest position in the game. First, the catcher needs to squat throughout the whole game to catch the ball. Second, the catcher needs to know every batter and select the right pitches to get him out. Finally, the catcher needs to block the plate from a runner, often resulting in an ugly collision.
You can tell a little about the relationship between the pitcher and catcher by watching the pitcher’s reactions. TV cameras love this stuff. They focus on the pitcher’s head, as he slightly nods yes or shakes no. Sometimes this is done just so the catcher knows that the pitcher got the signal. Other times, the pitcher is shaking off the catcher’s signs, saying, “I don’t agree with that pitch, I want to throw something else.” And, of course, sometimes all of this is a decoy designed to throw off the other team.
There are a lot of reasons why a pitcher might shake off a batter. Sometimes the pitcher remembers something about the batter that the catcher doesn’t remember, and he thinks he can get an out with a different pitch from what the catcher requested. Other times, the pitcher might know something the catcher doesn’t know—for instance, that he can’t throw his sliders in the strike zone that day. Whatever the reasons, you can learn a lot about what the players are thinking by watching the pitcher’s reactions to the signals.
If no men are on base, most catchers will resort to a few simple signs:
Changeup or other breaking ball
From Little League games to World Series games, catchers usually use the same basic signs. You can catch these signs on TV if the camera is behind the pitcher, showing both the batter and catcher. It’s tough to catch these signs at the game. (With a pair of binoculars and a seat in the bleachers, you might be able to catch the signals. Sometimes, on a sunny day, you might be able to pick up the signs by the shadows on home plate.) If men are on base, catchers usually switch to more complex systems because base runners can also read the catcher’s signals and communicate them to the batter.