Three things Keith Hernandez taught me about pitching

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?

I’ve written quite a bit about pitch types already, so I thought I
knew quite a bit, but ol’ Keith showed me a thing or two (which is so
unsurprising, it’s not even funny).

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 href="http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=6884"
target="new">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.

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