Monday, March 2, 2009

36 Questions: Pitch Location

I’ve touched on this question before, when discussing the value of a catcher like Jason Varitek to a team. But, I really haven’t quite figured out just how a pitcher knows where to throw the baseball.

I was never a pitcher or catcher, even in Little League. But I remember coaches always telling the catcher to get his glove up there, and give the pitcher a good target. Now, in Little League, that’s fairly straightforward. The catcher sticks the glove up there. The pitcher throws a fastball as close as he can to the glove. At that level, there’s not a lot more that can be done. But, what happens when you get to the Major League level? At this point, pitchers should hit the glove every time. In fact, they should be able to place their fastball right along the outside edge of the plate if it’s called for. If it’s a curveball, they should be able to place it so that it bears in on the hitter, and swoops over the inside corner. The splitter should start at the knees and dive into the dirt. When does all that information get transferred from pitcher to catcher?

We’ve all seen it. A catcher will get into a crouch, and stick his hand between his legs. He’ll hold down a finger or two. He may wiggle his fingers. He may even slap his thigh. Now, the common theory is that one finger means a fastball. Two fingers may be a curve. Three may be a changeup, or whatever. The catcher usually flashes a bunch of signs, and the pitcher has to know which one the catcher means for the pitch. So, the actual pitch selection is pretty straightforward. But, then what?
The catcher sets up, and sticks his mitt out, say at the outside corner. The pitcher then goes into his wind-up, and throws the ball at the mitt on the outside corner. But, sometimes to fool a hitter, or runner at second base, the catcher bounces around behind the plate changing the location. So, the pitcher needs to change the location of the pitch mid wind-up? Or did he already know that the catcher would change the location? What about a “move him back” fastball? Pedro would plunk a hitter or two in his day. I never saw a catcher place his mitt behind a hitter. Sometimes a pitcher will “waste” one and throw it outside hoping the batter flails at it. The catcher’s mitt is never halfway into the outside batter’s box. What about a wicked Randy Johnson slider that practically hits the right handed batter in the foot. Again, the catcher never sets the target on the ground. It’s always somewhere over the plate. Couldn’t that mean Johnson’s supposed to start the slider off the plate, but break it into the mitt? Clearly the target set by the catcher isn’t the whole story.

Somewhere, additional information is passed from catcher to pitcher. Is it something agreed upon before the game? Is it understood that no matter where Tek sets up behind the plate, Papelbon better be bouncing Mr. Splitty? Is the target where the pitcher aims the pitch, not where it ends up? I just don’t know.

Anyone know the rest of the story?

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