Three things Keith Hernandez taught me about pitchingby John Walsh
June 30, 2008
If you are interested in pitching—really interested, I mean—you simply have to read Pure Baseball by Keith Hernandez (with help from Mike Bryan on grammar and spelling and stuff). And when I say interested in pitching, I don't mean you know who won the last five Cy Young Awards or even who had the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the American League last year. Rather, I mean you want to know not only what that last pitch was and how it moved, you want to understand why it was thrown, why it worked or why it didn't.
The subtitle of Hernandez's book is "A pitch-by-pitch guide for the advanced fan," and that is a good description. Hernandez goes through two games from the 1993 season, almost (but not quite) at the pitch level. That's not to say that the book is only about pitching—Hernandez holds forth on many questions of baseball tactics here, including base stealing, bunting, hit-and-running, productive outs, defensive alignments and many others.
But what really fascinates about this book is getting an insider's perspective on pitching and the batter-pitcher confrontation. Hernandez was clearly a "cerebral" ballplayer, a guy who was always thinking, thinking trying to get an edge. There was nothing "see ball, hit ball" about Keith Hernandez.
So, what did Keith Hernandez teach me about pitching? Well, as some of you may know, I've been working with the PITCHf/x data, which has allowed us to study pitching at a level of detail that was almost unimaginable not very long ago. So, what I'm most interested in is pitches—what are the different pitch types, what distinguishes one from the other, and how are they used differently?
The tailing fastball
One of the first things I learned from studying the PITCHf/x data is that fastballs typically move quite a bit to the side. Nobody much talks about this. Actually, that's not true, the other day I happened to catch Brandon Webb's start against the Mets and one of the broadcasters mentioned Webb's sinker that "moves in on a right-handed hitter."
That's true, Webb's sinker (which is a kind of fastball) moves sideways, towards a right-handed hitter, about nine inches. And Dan Haren's fastball moves in the same direction by six inches. John Maine? Eight inches in on a right-handed batter. Just about all right-handed fastballs move in an a right-handed hitter (and likewise, lefty fastballs move the other way—away from a right-handed batter).
Hernandez, in his book, tells us something important about the typical tailing action of a fastball: It makes it difficult to come inside to the opposite-hand hitter. Actually, Hernandez is discussing Phillies left-hander Danny Jackson, who had quite a bit of tail on his fastball. When Jackson throws to a right-handed batter, the fastball tends to tail away from the hitter.
That's great for pitching outside, but it makes it hard to pitch on the inside corner, as the ball tends to drift out over the heart of the plate. Here's Keith:
After thirteen pitches tonight in Philadelphia, Danny Jackson hasn't come inside one time. One reason is that his fastball tends to run away from these right-handed Braves hitters. If that pitch does not start out three or four inches inside, if instead it starts out over the inside corner, it will run toward the middle of the plate and right onto the barrel of the bat.Why doesn't Jackson just compensate the tailing action by throwing the ball way inside and letting it tail back over the inside corner, you ask? That's a good question (I asked it myself), but Keith says it's very difficult to do that, for psychological reasons. More on that below, when I discuss the backup slider.
Hernandez goes on to discuss the "straight" fastball that doesn't tail. You'd think less movement means less effectiveness, but Keith sees it differently:
... it's dangerous for Jackson to throw his "tailing" fastball inside to right-handed batters, and he hasn't developed the fastball that stays straight. That's no disgrace, however, because Nolan Ryan never developed one either, to use against left-handed batters in conjunction with his own tailing fastball.Hernandez goes on to describe part of Greg Maddux's repertoire:
[Maddux] throws a sinking fastball but also another variety straight over the top, a hard, straight bullet, and he knows that if he throws it inside to left-handed batters, the ball will stay inside.
Danny Jackson's solution to this problem was the development of a cut fastball. The main goal of the cutter is to throw a fastball without the regular tailing action. Most cutters tail (only now we say "cut" instead of "tail") a little in the other direction, i.e. in on a right-handed batter (if thrown by a lefty like Jackson). The trick is to keep the velocity of the cutter up near that of the regular fasty.
Back-up or back-door?
You probably have heard the term "backdoor slider." Or maybe it was "backup slider"? And maybe it wasn't clear just exactly what these terms meant? Well, Professor Hernandez makes it clear. The backdoor slider (or curveball, the term applies to both pitch types) is a pitch that starts out off the plate, outside, then breaks in over the outside corner (or tries to). From the description, you should be able to tell that this term only applies when a righty pitcher faces a lefty batter and vice versa.
A backup slider (or, again, curve) is similar, except that here the pitch is off the plate, inside, and breaks over the inside corner. Of course, this can only occur for a righty-righty or lefty-lefty matchup. This would seem like a very effective pitch, since the batter would perceive the ball might hit him, causing him to turn away or bail out, while the pitch breaks over the plate. Here's the thing about the backup slider, though: Nobody throws this pitch on purpose, at least according to Mex.
Here are Keith's very words on the backup slider:
The right-handed pitcher facing the right-handed batter wants to throw the breaking ball on the outside corner. Why? If any breaking ball misses the target, it's usually to the left, outside, as the right-handed pitcher sees the plate. Locating the breaking ball inside in this righty-righty matchup is even tougher psychologically because the pitcher has to aim almost behind the batter. So the tendency is even more to miss to the left. And if you aim at the inside corner but miss to the left, where does that leave the pitch? Over the inner half—the heart of the plate.Hernandez goes on to recount how Bob Gibson said that the inadvertent backup slider was his best pitch, but he couldn't throw it there intentionally.
If as great a pitcher as Bob Gibson couldn't throw the backup breaking pitch with any consistency, who can? Nobody. That's why it's never thrown intentionally. When you see it, mark it down as a mistake, even if it froze the batter for a strike. You heard it here first.You do see this pitch occasionally, where the batter flinches and the ball drops in for a strike. I happened to see Carlos Marmol throw one the other day and broadcaster Len Kasper praised it as a great pitch. To his credit, Bob Brenly (an ex-player himself, of course) vaguely alluded to the difficulty of locating that pitch consistently. Nobody called it a mistake pitch, though.
Changeups not allowed inside
One thing I've learned analyzing pitch data is that changeups are used almost exclusively against opposite-hand batters—lefty pitcher to righty batter and vice versa. There's not really any secret about that, even a casual observer of the game could figure that out if he were paying attention. But something that I did not know, and learned reading this textbook on pitching, was that changeups are invariably thrown towards the outside part of the plate. As usual, Keith does not mince words:
The change-up is never thrown purposefully inside. Never.Now, I would have thought just the opposite. Here's my reasoning: the batter will tend to be "out in front" of the changeup. If the pitch is inside, he can only pull the ball foul. But if the pitch is on the outside of the plate, the early swing and the outside location of the pitch will tend to compensate and the result will be a ball hit fair. Not so, says Keith:
If the change does what it's designed to do and gets the hitter off stride, about all he can do with the pitch over the outside part of the plate is to hit it weakly toward the end of the bat. But even if he is off stride he can still get the head of the bat on the inside change-up and pull it with power, sometimes with one arm. The pitcher who throws an inside change-up runs a major risk that he will soon be, in the immortal words of George Hendrick, "rubbing up a new one".Hernandez sounds pretty confident in his proclamations, but it should be noted that not everyone necessarily agrees with this changeup-only-outside policy. Ex-major league pitcher and current Oakland A's pitching coach Curt Young, in an interview with Baseball Prospectus, was asked what he'd do different if he were pitching today. The left-hander replied:
... Also, using changeups in different locations. Guys have been possessed, including myself, to throw changeups away to righties, but change-ups in to righties can be effective, too.
Amaze your friends!
Armed with this knowledge about changeups, accidental backup breaking balls and tailing fastballs, you are now in a position to amaze your friends with your baseball knowledge. Keith spells it out:
Given this [information], you are now in a position to amaze your friends by calling the pitch selection in this one situation, based only on the catcher's setup behind the plate. Here's the rule: When the catcher sets up over the inside corner in a righty-righty or lefty-lefty matchup, gasoline is on its way—cheese, cheddar, the fastball—because the catcher is not going to request either the change-up or the breaking pitch on the inside corner. You can bet the mortgage on that.Try this out on your friends (or better yet, your enemies). You can probably win a few beers using Keith's rule of the inside target.
A skeptical comment
You know, it seems to me that some pitchers really do try to locate their slider inside to some same-hand batters. Daisuke Matzusaka comes to mind as an example. But maybe Keith is right, maybe those inside sliders are mistake pitches. But, every single one? And perhaps somebody out there is working changeups inside occasionally, who knows, maybe one of the Oakland pitchers working under Curt Young? I think the PITCHf/x data might be able to verify (or refute) some of these claims by Keith Hernandez. I haven't looked at the data yet, so I don't know what I'll find, but I'm guessing that Keith is, for the most part, on target. Stay tuned for more.
John Walsh dabbles in baseball analysis in his spare time. He welcomes questions and comments via e-mail.
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