If you are a coach who calls the pitches for your pitchers or you feel you don’t play an opponent enough times to warrant encouraging your pitchers to keep a notebook on the hitters, then this article is for you.
Major League teams spend thousands of dollars a year for computer services that track every pitch thrown to every hitter and colorfully map out hot and cold zones in the strike zone where a hitter has his highest and lowest success rate. Pitchers and hitters can study every pitch thrown by watching video. College coaches keep extensive charts on hitters and pitchers tracking every pitch and where it is hit. They get advance reports on hitters and how to pitch them. Yet, is that enough?
Curt Schilling doesn’t think so. In an interview I did with him a couple of years ago, he said, “Companies like Inside Edge provide spray charts but you are looking at a sheet with 500 pitches on it outlining where balls were hit off of fastballs anywhere from 86 mph to 97 mph. I need to know what they do off of me. I know if I throw this fastball in this location, this guy is going to hit the ball in this spot because he has done it 15 times in the past.”
I asked him if he used the advance reports that every ball club has on the team they are going to play. He pointedly said, “Lazy pitchers rely on advance reports. Guys that rely solely on advance reports are young kids who don’t know any better and haven’t learned yet, or veteran pitchers who are average pitchers at best who are lazy or they don’t know better.”
He went on, “Every scouting report in baseball is the same way. Start the guy out hard away and finish him off in, or soft away or whatever. But it’s not true for every guy. If I go out there and start off with a fastball away to a guy who, early in the count off of me, likes to drive the ball the other way, then that’s my fault.”
You, as a college or high school coach, may be saying, “That’s great if you are pitching in the big leagues and face a team many times a year, but we only face a team one series a year and there isn’t enough information to warrant personal charting.” I submit to you that any pitcher that takes the time to think the game and chart hitters’ tendencies off him matures at a faster rate than the pitcher that doesn’t.
Boys used to go out and play pick up games by the hour and have to learn how to get hitters out for survival. They used to play wiffle-ball for hours and learn what hitters could and couldn’t hit. There weren’t parents or private instructors around. They had to use all their senses and learn for themselves or they didn’t get asked to play anymore. Today everything is organized and kids have many more distractions that occupy their time. They may spend as much or more time practicing the mechanics of the game but they are spending less time learning the mental toughness that goes into winning.
Even with limited data on a particular hitter, by keeping a record of tendencies a pitcher starts understanding batters’ different approaches toward him, when teams are apt to bunt or steal or hit and run and hit behind the runner. He learns that certain approaches by hitters are susceptible to certain pitches in his repertoire which allows him to develop a sure plan that gives him more confidence. As a side, there were certainly hitters in college that hit with the same tendencies for four years. I’m sure it is the same in high school. Even if hitters change, by keeping a record you can quickly make an adjustment to your plan.
Coaches calling pitches may be detrimental in the long run.
I believe the increasing practice of a coach calling all the pitches is producing brain dead catchers and pitchers and actually makes them less effective in the long run. While you, as a coach, may be very good at calling pitches, I believe that practice can hinder the development of pitchers and catchers to where they are not confident without having the crutch of you calling their pitches. As coaches, we all believe the catchers and pitchers should work well together, but if the coach is going to call all the pitches, why is that necessary? In addition, why should a pitcher strategize his success engine and have a feel for the game if the coach is going to determine what he throws anyway?
Bob Boone, who was one of the best catchers in the big leagues at knowing his pitchers and getting the most out of them, would tell young catchers to catch their pitchers in bullpens as much as possible and, with every pitch, be figuring out how to get that pitcher to win. It was a pleasure to throw to him because, you as a pitcher, rarely had to shake him off. Bill Freehan, another great catcher, told me that he always volunteered to catch bullpens because he got to know what his pitchers could and could not do and what pitches they liked to throw. Because of that all the pitchers wanted to throw to him. I will always contend that a catcher who knows his pitcher and studies the game is in a much better position behind the plate to know what to throw than a coach in the dugout.
There are occasions when it is appropriate for a coach to call pitches, but for the most part, pitchers and catchers develop quicker and more effectively by calling their own pitches and learning to work together. While coaching at Michigan and Pepperdine University, I would definitely go over the hitters with the pitchers but for the most part I would encourage them to call their own game. There were times when a pitcher was having difficulty getting in sync with a catcher, or if I had a freshman catcher and pitcher in the game, that I would call pitches, but those times were rare. Even when I called the pitches I would allow the pitcher to shake off the sign if he knew in his own mind that he could get the hitter out with a different pitch. There are times in a game that you as the coach want a definite pitch and you call it, but even in those situations, most of the time, my catchers would come back to the bench at the end of the inning and let me know that was the same pitch they were going to call.
As a pitcher I developed a feel for the game and a feel during a sequence of a hitter’s at bat as to what pitch to throw next. When the catcher or coach called a different pitch than what I was thinking it sometimes caused me to doubt my own choice. When I changed my mind and threw the pitch called instead of what I felt was the best pitch, I didn’t have the same determination and many, many times it got hit hard. Bob Boone was so in tune with me that he knew that one time a game I might want to throw a back door cutter and he called it without me having to shake him off.
What should a chart look like?
Each chart should be a personal matter for each pitcher. Just thinking about it I came up with over forty tendencies a pitcher should look for in a hitter or an opposing manager or coach. Some of those tendencies are:
• Does he get started on time?
• Can he get to my power pitch?
• Can he wait on off-speed?
• How have I gotten him out in the past?
• Does he take a strike?
• Can I intimidate him?
• In which zone in the strike zone does he hit best?
• Can he hit the ball out of the ballpark?
• Will he bunt for a base hit?
• Can he go the other way?
• To get in on him how far do I have to go?
• Does he change his approach with runners in scoring position?
• Will he make adjustments from one at bat to the next?
• Does the opposing coach like to hit and run with him?
• Does the opposing coach like to bunt him?
This document is meant to be a guideline of what a chart might look like for each hitter for each at bat. Each pitcher should develop a system that is best for him.
Gene Mauch was the most prepared manager for whom I played. He had a reason behind every move he made based on a plan that he had devised from hours of preparation. He was always three innings ahead in his thought process. He always stressed to his players to have a plan whether it was pitching, hitting, or in the field. He would discuss my strategy with me, but as long as he knew I had a plan and was trying to execute it, he never second guessed me.
When I think back on my playing career, one of the most satisfying aspects of it was the challenge of having a plan or strategy, seeing opponents adjust to that strategy, and then readjusting to stay one step ahead of them. That was a vital ingredient to persevering and having a long career.
The greatest thing a coach can do is help a player along the road to develop a strategy for success. It’s cornerstone is reinforcing and encouraging a focus on the ‘Will to Win’. The foundation is built on the process of developing a “Hedgehog Concept”. This Hedgehog Concept is a simple basic principle made up from understanding the interaction of these three concepts:
 Understanding what you believe you are the best in the world at.
 Understanding what drives your success engine or what is essential to your success.
 Understanding what you are deeply passionate about.
Developing complimentary pitches, pitching back to front, and keeping a personal notebook are all part of building that success engine.
My hope is that these principles of strategy detailed in these five articles will help to make more successful pitchers, but more importantly, to give them principles to apply to their lives to help make them more successful people with a purpose in life.
By Geoff Zahn Former Head Baseball Coach University of Michigan and 12 Year Major League Veteran Pitcher

October 14, 2014 | Strategy | 0

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