Basic pitching theory

By John Coleman, statistical expert

March 13, 2000

Primary skills

A pitcher spends his whole career losing his fastball. The fastball is ourprimary physical gauge of pitching talent. That's why "fuel"analogies are so common. If a pitcher demonstrates a rare level of this singleattribute, he needs do nothing more to draw a check. Throw hard and you getpaid. You're money in the bank.

The "science" of pitching is something I know very little about.Pitching in patterns. Changing speeds. Knowing when to pitch inside. It'sdescribed in mysterious phrases when it is described at all. It's psychology,philosophy, logic, math and E.S.P. It's the stuff of genius.

I believe that a pitcher (with a few exceptions) spends his whole careergetting smarter. The trick is getting smart enough before your velocitydeclines too much. It's a simple graph. You want the smart line to intersectthe speed line in the positive domain. Each line is headed in an oppositedirection, though.

"Control" is the name for the intensely fine coordination, whichallows the pitcher to precisely repeat each act of propulsion. You either haveit or you try to work around it. It is rarely acquired in mid career, butshortcomings can briefly be masked.

Secondary skills

Breaking pitches measure dexterity. I don't mean to diminish theirimportance, because it's the area where the most amount of coaching effort isplaced. That's because it's changeable. You can learn these new tricks anddiscover hidden skills. It can often alter a career by several degrees. Somepitchers excel using only the fastball. Rare pitchers can compete only withtheir dexterity and control.

Nobody succeeds without knowing the science. That's why I mistrust youngpitchers. Young guys are dumb. Their talent is measured by a single standard,which is constantly declining. Picking the smart and coachable ones... That'sthe trick.

Measures of success

Unfortunately, any significant statistical measure of pitching skill ispolluted heavily by context and sheer luck - saves, wins, Losses, earned runs,hits allowed, homeruns, strikeouts and walks. All of these results are theproduct of the pitcher's skill, managerial tendencies, team offense, teamdefense, skill of the opposing pitchers, skill of the opposing defense andoffense, visibility, park effects, weather effects and umpiring. It's just toomany variables. Chaos theory sets in. And I didn't mention health.

The randomizing effect of chance can take a very long time to average out. Solong, in fact, those basic skills can significantly change before they arerecognized at all. I guess that leaves voodoo and tea leaves as our mainanalysis tools.


Well, you might wonder what my point is. Pitcher predictability is thesingle greatest challenge facing stat guys like myself. That's why I get soexcited with guys that not only throw hard with control, but also areconstantly characterized as a brilliant individual.

I am pleased to read any new information or viewpoint on this issue. Your inputis most welcome.  



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