It seems so simple: a pitcher throws a pitch, and a batter either looks at it or swings.
But, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that. It’s this game of cat-and-mouse game between a pitcher, catcher and hitter that determines success, wins and so much more.
So you wanna be a pitcher?
The pitcher has the most control in an at-bat — after all, the ball is in his hand. He dictates the pitch, and he relies on a variety of different things to determine what he should throw.
“The biggest thing is committing to whatever pitch you throw and make sure you execute it,” said relief pitcher Jared Hughes. “Once the pitch has been delivered and a batter has shown their reaction, you can kind of get a read on it. That will sometimes let you know what you need to do on the next pitch. The scouting reports and what the catcher has seen earlier in the game plays into it a ton, as well.”
It’s rare that a pitcher deviates from what keeps him comfortable, and that’s what can swing the pendulum in their favor.
“Knowing what a guy has done in the past can dictate what you do in some situations,” said catcher Chris Stewart. “There’s maybe five or six pitches a game where it might be different from one guy to the next, but it usually stays the same.”
Pitchers pride themselves on using the stuff that got them into the Major Leagues, and this is especially the case for a reliever such as Hughes, where anything beyond a primary pitch is considered a bonus.
Hughes has learned to listen to his catcher and has incorporated a slider as his secondary pitch. Still, when there’s any doubt about what pitch needs to be thrown, he almost always calls that primary pitch.
“My sinker got me here,” Hughes said. “If you’re going down, then go down with your best pitch. My slider is a good pitch, but it’s not my best pitch … I don’t know if it’s pride more than it’s just sticking with what you’re good at.”
Still, that secondary pitch needs to be thrown with trust and confidence.
“With the relievers, it is all about attacking,” said catcher Francisco Cervelli. “They won’t see the hitters twice. They know. The starters are all about sequence.”
Even when everything according to the gameplan, there are hiccups. They happen all the time and often aren’t caught by casual eyes.
“It’s 30 percent of the time that they get a hit on a pitch that you thought was good,” Hughes said. “Whenever that happens, you’ve just got to keep your head up and go after the next guy. Any sort of negative energy or body language is just going to feed into the next hitter. It’s still extremely difficult. … All you can do is shake it off and go get the next guy.”
So you wanna be a catcher?
Catchers have a unique vantage point because they’re helping pitchers determine which pitch is best for which batter, while consistently reading swings.
It’s a line that certainly presents its fair share of challenges.
“My gut is what I resort to most often,” Stewart said. “My intuition is one of the best assets I have. Usually, it ends up working out. Sometimes I convince myself of something I didn’t see, but, for the most part, I go with my gut.”
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Catchers are always a part of the pregame meeting, where a gameplan is formed, between the game’s starting pitcher and pitching coach Ray Searage.
As the game continues, the catcher is consistently reading swings, which can change the plan of attack. All of a sudden, that pregame strategy session has to be tweaked.
“My philosophy is to watch the hitters,” Cervelli said. “I know what I am told, but they have plans, too.”
While pitchers maintain control of the ball, the catchers have a lot of say over pitch selection goes. Sure, pitchers have the right to shake off their catchers, but, with Cervelli, it doesn’t happen much.
Things can get even more complicated because each pitcher has a different mood, style and velocity.
“You have to know everyone’s personality and how they manage the game,” Cervelli said. “As a catcher, you are the one who runs everything, and you can slow things down or speed them up. You have to pay attention to everything.”
I learn every day. The time you say you know everything is when you have problems.”
So you wanna be a hitter?
One of the hardest things to do in sports is hit a fastball that’s 90 miles-per hour and then adjust to a pitch that’s significantly slower. Reading a pitch is done in the blink of an eye.
When it comes to pitch adjustments, it can be argued the hitter always is at the biggest disadvantage.
“It can be fun at times,” said first baseman Jason Rogers. “Once you get up and put a good swing on a ball that they made a good pitch on, it’s exciting to know that you did well. It can be tough, too, when they make a good pitch you weren’t expecting or got by you.”
It seems like athlete speak when you hear hitters talk about simplified approaches, especially when a hitter has just a couple of seconds to determine whether a pitch is a ball or strike.
“You try to keep it basic and not do too much,” Rogers said. “I try to keep it simple and get ahead in the count. It’s a cat and mouse game, and I have to trust myself and my hands and do the best I can.”
This small time window is difficult; first baseman John Jaso admitted as much.
“The only adjustments that are made can be based on the on-field situations,” Jaso said. “If there is a runner on second base with no outs and I am trying to get the runner over, I am swinging at different pitches, and that’s just changing location. I’m just changing the location of what I am looking for.”
With such little time to make adjustments at the plate, some batters will simply stick to their guns with the belief that what they’ve got is good enough to best whoever is on the mound in that particular at-bat.
“I don’t try to try to change too much from pitcher to pitcher just because I’ve caught for so many years, and I know that pitchers make mistakes,” Jaso said. “Even if they’re trying to do this one thing, they can’t repetitively do it over and over; it’s impossible. … My philosophy is, if my timing is on and the ball is in a hittable area where you can hit it with authority, then go ahead and swing. Those two elements need to be there. If the ball is in that zone but your timing isn’t there, you’re not going to hit it, and the other way around, too.”
That doesn’t mean Jaso won’t try to find an advantage.
“If there is a pitcher that does have habits, whether it’s finishing guys with a front door two-seamer or something like that, I might cheat a little bit,” he said. “But, honestly, that’s just weakness in my mind, the idea of giving up on it. Pitchers are holding the baseball in their hands, they have all the control in the world. They are able to make those adjustments, and you want to make those adjustments, too.”
Something else that stacks the deck against hitters is pitcher deception. Pitchers can hide the ball, switch their delivery, get a timeout granted or differ in release times — all in an effort to throw a hitter off.
Hitters don’t have that same menu of options at their disposal.
“The only thing I’ll do sometimes is open up my stance a little more if I’m facing a lefty, just because the release point is on a different side of his body,” Jaso said. “As far as hitting, there is no real deceptions. Every once in awhile you’ll see a slap hitter throw a fake bunt out there to maybe a surprise a pitcher, but that is really the only thing I can think of.”
If it seems easy to say the hitter is at a disadvantage at all times, that’s because it’s true. Scoring is down, and it’s currently a pitcher’s era — but that’s why good hitters get paid.
The “expert” mindset is a lie?
The media doesn’t know anything. While on the surface it sounds cynical, it drives Jaso crazy to hear people on TV and radio who feel they know everything, especially when it comes to shifts. Jaso said it’s not easy to just change everything and try to find the newly vacant part of the infield.
“You get mad and laugh at commentators when they say there is a hole open and that you should learn to hit the ball the other way,” Jaso said. “I’m 32 now, it’s not that I am stubborn. I am going to try to stay inside the ball, but to do it is a lot harder than moving the entire infield over to the other side of the field.
It’s a laughable thing when people say it is so easy to hit the ball the other way when it’s not. You’re dealing with .2 of a second.”
Image credit: AP