Contact is your friend.
College and high school may have been about showcasing your power arm, but the name of the game in pro ball is getting outs in an efficient, consistent manner. If you’re going to do that, you have to end your romance with the strikeout, and embrace the long, enduring love of pitching to contact.
You know that ever-evolving mass of statistical data that tracks your ability as a player? The one that represents how good or bad you are at baseball according to every nerdy blog site you’ve ever visited?
Well, at the top of that mass is your pitch efficiency: one of the means though which the brass decides if you are a real pitcher or just a guy with a plus arm throwing as hard as he can.
Pitch efficiency, not strikeouts, is what separates the men from the boys because this is the stat that reflects your ability to repeat success. Even your ability to repeat strikeout success.
Sounds like I just contradicted myself, right? What I’m talking about is not collecting numbers to pad a stat. What I’m talking about is pitching with intent to keep control of the game by showing hitters you know what you’re doing out there.
This puts pressure on them to react to you, to defend themselves against you, to do something quickly because if they let you get settled in, they’re screwed.
Most clubs want pitchers to get outs on three pitches or less. When I played with the San Diego Padres and Grady Fuson, a former Billy Beane Padawan, came over, this concept was preached as the 11th Commandment.
To reach this goal, you have to be ahead of the hitter and in the zone so he can strike the ball—just not too much so he can’t crush it. That means quality strike throwing.
One surefire way to prove you can’t repeat success is to pitch with the intent to strike guys out from Pitch 1. You know what I’m talking about; those moments when you’re on the mound thinking, “Swing and miss,” instead of, “Get an out.”
Though both mantras are three words long, the meaning behind the content is drastically different. If you think swing and miss from the get-go, you are going to do some really stupid stuff.
Relying on a hitter’s inability to make contact with what you throw usually makes you throw pitches that can’t be hit, not because they’re nasty, but because they’re not strikes. And guess what: If you aren’t throwing strikes, it’s really hard to strike guys out, no matter how nasty you think you are.
Another good way to blow your efficiency is to go crazy at the scent of blood.
You know what your manager really hates? Watching you go 0-2 to 3-2 on a batter. He hates this almost as much as he hates the big club for sticking him in A-ball to babysit you.
Go 0-2 to 3-2 on a hitter enough times and he’ll start to hate you as well. You’ll represent torture to him. Physical torture. Your presence will make him nauseous and he’ll take you out of the game just to stop the pain of watching you.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever seen a hunter shoot a deer and then, while it’s lying on the ground panting its last breath, instead of respectfully putting the poor creature out of its misery with a precision strike, he pulls out a bazooka and wildly fires shells at it until the entire countryside is blown to kingdom come?
No. You haven't. Why? Because hunters don’t use bazookas, for one. And for two, because a hunter knows that when the prey is crippled and ready for the killing stroke, precision trumps reckless brute force.
And so it is with pitch efficiency and K's. When you’ve got a hitter on the ropes, turn off that little voice screaming, “KILL, KILL, KILL!” If you don’t, you’ll surely rear back, hump up and overthrow. When you return from your psychopathic pitching blackout, the count will be 3-2 and it will be your manager’s turn to go crazy.
When you’re ahead of a hitter, all you need to do is execute and collect your out. So what if the hitter grounds to the shortstop instead of a swing and miss? You still did your job.
A hitter wants to hit and you want outs. The two actually work quite well together. Contact is not the enemy when you pitch. Contact is your friend. Contact on a quality strike often results in an out.
If you’re hitting your spots, moving the ball around freely and changing speeds, you’re pitching. If you’re firing wildly and relying on luck and power, you’re throwing.
One is unreliable, the other makes the manager write good things about you because while there is no sure way to predict the future of your career, one is a lot easier to swallow than the other if your job entails telling the big league skipper who is ready and who isn’t.
Sure, blog sites and media venues won't ballyhoo over your ground ball outs like they will over K's, but who cares what they say? They’re the same bastards who will eat you alive for walking too many one day, then dub you king for punching out the side the next. Strikeouts are a bonus—outs is the name of the game.
Remember: If you think you HAVE to strike a hitter out, you’re putting the pressure back on yourself. When you’re ahead, the pressure is on the hitter, not you.
If you‘re continuously ahead, then you’re continuously putting pressure on the hitter. Hitters' batting averages are lower in pressure situations across the board, which makes your chances of success higher.
Believe me, the brass will love you just as much for going nine innings with three strikeouts and no walks as they will for going five innings with nine K's and five walks.
Your bullpen will love you too.
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