Editor's Note: This is the second story in a three-part series on pitching in high school and college baseball.
Pitchers constantly are in search of an advantage. Their biggest edge comes the moment the ball is released for the first time in every at-bat. The pitcher, catcher and, in most cases, coach in the dugout are the only people certain of what pitch will be thrown.
Everyone else is guessing whether it will be a fastball or an off-speed pitch.
The batter and opposing coaches look for hints as to what pitch is coming. It’s a constantly evolving battle to gain an edge in an at-bat; the choice of what pitch is thrown and when. Because pitch selection could determine the outcome of a game, it commands plenty of attention.
“In reality, it’s about how to recognize an advantage and seize the opportunity,” Northern Illinois baseball coach Ed Mathey said. “It’s a game of constant cat and mouse. You can’t just use your players’ strengths all the time, sometimes you’ve got to attack the other teams’ weaknesses.”
PITCH SELECTION AND ADVANCE SCOUTING
Monday mornings during the NCAA season, the massive exchange of information begins to take place. Coaches call and email each other to ask for scouting reports from the weekend games.
They want answers about how a pitcher holds on runners, their time to the plate, their pick-off moves, what pitches they throw in a given situation. All are valuable pieces of information that Mathey doesn’t always easily give up.
In a game, coaches check advanced scouting, focus on a hitters’ swing, a hitters’ spray charts and plot where their defense is lined up. They want a called pitch to correspond to all the information and need the pitcher and catcher to work in tandem so the three-part act can be executed successfully.
“The ability to make the pitch you want is huge in this game,” said Mathey, who is in his 11th season as the Huskies’ skipper and played professionally as a pitcher/player/coach for the Newport Rams Baseball Club in Melbourne, Australia. “Strike one is a huge advantage at any level, but especially at the college level. The players are stronger and they’ve got a metal bat.”
Mathey has an overabundance of information available regarding hitters’ tendencies at the Division I level. Every NIU statistic can be found online and teams have several members on their paid coaching staff.
It’s easier for an NIU pitcher to be certain he is throwing the correct pitch to the correct location because there are statistics available to back up that thesis. It also is why the ability to shake off a pitch is something Mathey makes his pitchers and catchers earn.
But that information is tougher to come by at the prep level, where athletic department budgets are slimmer. Without an influx of statistical data, Sycamore coach Jason Cavanaugh takes a slightly different approach than Mathey. Cavanaugh was a catcher at Eastern Illinois and now calls pitches from the dugout – with an exception.
“I want pitchers to have 100 percent belief that they are throwing the right pitch,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s better to throw the wrong pitch with 100 percent of your heart than to throw the right one with 50 percent conviction. The pitch I call is a suggestion. I don’t get shook off a lot by pitchers, but if I did that would be OK.
“There’s a lot of feel that goes into pitch selection. I’m a big believer that you shouldn’t throw the same pitch two times in a row, especially in the middle of the lineup. You want a good hitter to have a new look each pitch. But it’s all about surprise, so there are times when you double a guy up. When you out-guess a hitter, it’s like a personal source of pride.”
Like Mathey, his coach at NIU, Indian Creek coach Joe Piekarz calls pitches. He uses the knowledge he gained as an NIU pitcher and the 3 1/2 years he spent in the Oakland A’s minor league system.
Because he was a “crafty lefty” who needed to outsmart batters, Piekarz said he spends time with pitchers in the preseason and before each game discussing how to attack each at-bat.
“We teach pitchers how to attack and set up hitters,” Piekarz said. “Each pitcher knows they also have the freedom to throw what they feel. They are the one right there on the field that can see if a guy has moved up or back in the box between pitches. If they shake off a pitch, it’s not something I get upset about and go out and scream at them about it.”
TAKING CONTROL OF THE COUNT
While keeping a batter off-balance is key, pitchers have to be in control of the count to be creative and utilize all their pitches. Mathey, Cavanaugh, Piekarz and Hiawatha coach Sean Donnelly all said pitchers have to work ahead in the count to be effective.
According to baseball-reference.com, MLB batter in 2012 batted only .204 when behind in the count compared to an overall batting average of .255. When pitchers fall behind a batter, the league batting average balloons to .300.
“I think it all starts with a fastball,” Cavanaugh said. “We probably throw more than anyone. A well-located fastball is the best pitch there is. If a pitcher can get ahead in the count, we can go right after a batter, and every pitch is available and effective. So we attack the strike zone early with fastballs.”
Hiawatha pitchers work with coaches and catchers on pitch selection. The abnormally rainy spring gave the Hawks extra time this spring for the battery to familiarize itself with Donnelly’s pitching theory.
As a prep catcher at Leyden, Donnelly called games for pitchers. He was entrusted with the tall task and now has passed it on to his team. With the exception of assistant coach Kevin Giebel, who calls pitches for Tyler Burger, Hawks’ pitchers and catchers call their own games.
“The key is to mix up location and speeds and keep the hitter guessing,” Donnelly said. “Ultimately, the catcher is like a quarterback or middle linebacker on the baseball field. They have a huge impact on the game. As a player, I had coaches who trusted me to make the right decisions.”