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Come up with a solid pitching plan by examining pressure zones

This is an excerpt from Complete Guide to Pitching, The by Derek Johnson.

The Pitching Plan

Every pitcher should go into a game with a solid plan for how he will pitch based on the strengths of his arsenal coupled with information about the other team. Too often at the lower levels of the game, college included, the pitcher tries to beat the opponent by relying solely on exposing the hitter's weakness, even if that goes against the strength of his arsenal. This plan may have short-term value for the first time through the batting order or perhaps the second, but in the long term, this strategy does not usually yield consistent results. A pitcher who stays true to what makes him effective in the first place—whether it be throwing a fastball to a certain side of the plate or using off-speed pitches that he owns rather than rents—will have more success. A pitcher must also remember that at the beginning of the game, hitters are rarely truly ready to hit, so this is another good reason why a pitcher should use his strengths the first time through the batting order.

Quick Pitch

Pitchers should use a three-pronged approach in understanding how to attack a hitter:

  1. Pitcher's strengths—Matching the pitcher's strengths against the hitter's strengths.
  2. Game situation—Paying attention to the score of the game, the inning, who is up, who is on deck, the history of how the hitter has fared against the pitcher in the past, and so on.
  3. Hitter's weaknesses—Attacking the hitter's weakness (if it fits into the pitching scheme) based on the situation and with the intent to win the game. This should be done after first targeting pitching to a hitter's strengths. The pitcher needs to realize that in almost every situation he has an advantage over the hitter.

As the game progresses and more information is obtained by both parties (hitter and pitcher), the pitcher may realize that he needs to use alternatives and switch gears in order to be successful the second time through the batting order. A good general rule is to pitch “backward,” or pitch differently than what the hitter saw his first time at bat, unless an obvious hole was exposed. The hitter who primarily saw fastballs in his first at-bat may see more breaking balls or changeups the second time around, or he may see pitches on a different side of the plate than before. The pitcher must be careful not to overthink the situation and attack the hitter if there is an obvious hole. For example, if the pitcher primarily throws fastballs to a hitter in his first at-bat, and the hitter struggles to catch up with the pitch, it would be foolish to show him anything different that is hittable until he proves that he can hit the fastball. If the pitcher wants to throw him something different—whether for the purpose of changing the pace or simply giving the hitter a different look—the pitch should be thrown outside of the strike zone and into the pressure zones (see the sidebar Pressure Zones for more information). By throwing softer pitches (changeup or breaking ball) into the pressure zones rather than through the strike zone, the pitcher can disrupt the hitter's timing yet still maintain adherence to the original plan of beating the hitter with the fastball.

Pressure Zones

Pressure zones refer to the areas just outside the strike zone, as shown in figure 7.1. The pressure zones are areas that the pitcher wants to visit often, but not live in. By throwing the ball to these zones, especially when the pitcher is ahead in the count (e.g., 0-1, 1-2, 0-2), the pitcher forces the hitter to make a decision on whether to swing or not. Approached correctly, pressure zones give the pitcher a huge advantage because hitters rarely make consistent, hard contact in these areas; swings and misses and weak contact are much more prevalent. An incorrect way to deal with pressure zones would be to throw to them too frequently or too early in the count. When a good hitter sees these pitches being thrown early in the count or too often, he will find a way to discipline himself to stop swinging at them, thus forcing the hand of the pitcher to throw a strike more to the hitter's liking. In this case, a coach will often tell the pitcher, “You are picking at the zone” or “You are being too fine.” Both statements are correct, and the pitcher must strive to first challenge the hitter with strikes located inside the strike zone. Once he can do this, the pitcher earns the right to throw his pitches into the pressure zones.

Figure 7.1 Pressure zones.

The third time through the batting order can prove to be tricky for various reasons. By this time, the pitcher has most likely lost a bit of velocity or “stuff,” and the hitters have had ample time to observe the pitcher's repertoire and idiosyncrasies. How a pitcher operates in this stage of a game is what separates the craftsman pitcher from the common or ordinary pitcher. Adding a third pitch into the mix here gives the pitcher an added edge, provided he used this pitch conservatively or did not need to throw it earlier in the game. Obviously, the pitcher should only throw the third pitch if conviction and trust are involved; throwing a third pitch that is rented by the pitcher is fruitless. Another possibility for the pitcher would be to show a completely different pattern of pitches or revert back to an earlier pattern that the hitter may have forgotten. Both could be promising alternatives to use the third or fourth time through the lineup, and these strategies can still be executed within the framework of pitches in a pitcher's comfort zone. See table 7.2 for a basic pitching plan based on batting order.

This plan can be quite useful if the pitcher makes sound decisions based on his strengths and weaknesses. The pitcher must also have the ability to switch gears, because every game will present different circumstances and challenges. As an old coach of mine used to say, “If baseball were easy, everyone would play it.” In other words, the pitcher's livelihood depends on his ability to adapt and overcome.

Pen Session Game Planning for the Reliever

Relievers need to use a different approach than starting pitchers. When relievers enter the game, the final outcome is usually still in question, and they must have the ability to establish their pitches very quickly. Relievers need to come out of the gates with “guns blazing,” so to speak, and they must pitch to their strengths. At this point in the game, the hitter will have to make adjustments from the last pitcher to the new one, and the reliever's job will be to get comfortable as quickly as possible. Because of this, it makes sense for relievers to throw the pitches they are most adept at throwing. Remember that percentages in the game of baseball favor the pitcher, so throwing good strikes with the highest level of conviction and trust will help keep these percentages on the reliever's side. When in doubt, the pitcher should always throw his best pitch in his best location, even if that means throwing “into the teeth” of the hitter.

More Excerpts From Complete Guide to Pitching