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Three key concepts to keep in mind while pitching

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

Considerations in Developing an Arsenal

Before we get into the details about the specific types of pitches that pitchers should have in their arsenal, let's review a few key concepts that every pitcher should be aware of: determining the type of pitch to throw, finding the correct arm slot, owning versus renting the pitch, and using the strike zone.

Determining the Type of Pitch to Throw

Every pitcher is constantly wanting to learn another pitch to supplement his arsenal. When I was a kid, I wanted to throw a Nolan Ryan fastball, a Bert Blyleven curveball, a Fernando Valenzuela screwball, a Steve Carlton slider, and a Tommy John changeup. Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately—our catcher didn't have enough fingers to put down to call all of my pitches. In addition, most of the pitches I borrowed from those superstars weren't as good as the ones their owners threw, so I saved them for the backyard games I played by myself throwing against a concrete stoop. As time and many trials and errors passed, I ultimately learned what worked for me and eliminated the pitches that I couldn't command or the pitches that simply didn't work.

This process of elimination is the starting point for every pitcher in developing the arsenal. Once a young pitcher starts to throw pitches other than the fastball, he should definitely experiment with different grips and pitches to find out what might work for him. Accordingly, the pitching coach should encourage him to discover such grips and pitch types. One major consideration for the pitcher to think about would be whether his physical size lends itself to throwing a particular pitch. An example of a bad fit would be a pitcher with very small hands trying to throw a split-finger fastball. Throwing the split-finger might not be impossible for the smaller pitcher, but because of his hand size, he may end up altering his arm action or delivery in order to execute the pitch. If this is the case, the pitcher increases his chance for injury, and the hitter will likely receive early clues regarding what pitch is coming. Neither scenario benefits the pitcher.

Finding the Correct Arm Slot

Another consideration to take into account before a pitcher develops his arsenal is the pitcher's arm slot. I watch a good number of high school pitchers each spring and summer as part of my recruiting duties, and many of these pitchers throw pitches that their arm slots simply do not complement or support. An example of this might be a pitcher with a low to mid three-quarter arm slot attempting to throw an overhand curveball, also known as a 12-6 curveball because of the rotation of the pitch spinning straight over the top from 12 o'clock to 6 o'clock. A pitcher with a low arm slot must obviously change something in his delivery to create the correct spin, and the only reasonable strategy would be to elevate his arm slot to promote the desired rotation.

At a younger level, this arm slot change may work quite well, and the pitcher may have success. However, as the pitcher advances to higher levels, the hitters will find it easier to recognize that something other than a fastball is coming. In addition, the hitters will be able to recognize this earlier in the pitch, giving them time to readjust or redirect their swing. What were relatively easy outs for the pitcher in Pony League or high school will become “easy pickings” for the more seasoned hitter in college or professional baseball. Therefore, after tinkering with different grips and pitches, the pitcher needs to make prudent decisions on the pitches that he will throw based on his arm slot and whether or not the pitch provides early visual clues for the hitter. If these two elements are satisfactory, then it is time to move on to the next step.

Table 5.1 lists the various pitch types and gives suggestions that the younger pitcher might follow when choosing an arsenal. As with most things in baseball, there may be exceptions to these rules, but nonetheless, this chart presents guidelines for distinguishing which types of pitches might be appropriate for the pitcher.

Owning Versus Renting the Pitch

Pitchers need to understand the concept of “owning versus renting” the various pitches in their arsenal. As mentioned before, it is common for young pitchers to adopt the various types of pitches that their favorite big leaguers throw, and they sometimes end up throwing four or five different pitches.

Table 5.1 Arm Slot and Pitch Type Integration

Unfortunately, the young pitcher can rarely master and command his full repertoire. Though he is capable of throwing a certain pitch, he may not be able to throw it for a strike very often, and the pitch presents no real threat to the accomplished hitter. This condition is called renting the pitch. The pitcher has the ability to throw the pitch, but his inconsistency and lack of command with it make it a low-percentage strike pitch. In other words, the pitcher can't rely on the pitch in a crucial situation; it is not a sure thing, and he is therefore renting the pitch. Owning the pitch means that the pitcher is sure-minded when throwing it. He is able to throw it in any count or situation, and he places full trust in its action and his command. An owned pitch is one that is thrown in the strike zone more often than not (high strike percentage) and one that will force the hitter to make a decision to swing or not. This is an important distinction for the pitcher to make as he is preparing the tools for his arsenal.

Quick Pitch

Before any pitch can be owned and then used in any situation or count, the pitcher must first place trust in his ability to execute the pitch consistently. Trust in a pitch comes through purposeful and focused practice—or intention. When practicing a new pitch or a pitch that the pitcher currently rents, the pitcher should remember that consistent, powerful, and focused intention must be present in order to develop trust in the pitch. The core concept

“Training vs. Trusting” can be applied here too; the more the pitcher trains with a certain pitch, the more he will trust it.

More Excerpts From Complete Guide to Pitching