Pitching Matters, Even More Than You May Think

By Coach Ron Wolforth –

 

Many of us enjoyed the College World Series once again this year.  A vast majority of baseball and softball people intuitively know and often repeat how critically important pitching is to their team’s ultimate success or failure. I’m going to suggest to you that however important you may assert that pitching is…I maintain it is almost impossible to overstate its value. Let me tell you a story as to why I think that is.

 

Most of you probably didn’t even know that in 1987 and in 1988 I was the head coach of a team that played in the NCAA DI Softball College World Series.

 

In 1990, after missing the World Series in 1989 and 1990, I vividly recall a meeting with my staff.

 

There was a considerable debate among my staff on what it was going to take to get us back to the World Series. I listened intently to their concerns, opinions and conclusions. I went home, prayed and slept on my response, intuitively knowing that my leadership was going to be crucial in creating specific direction and guidance during the weeks and months ahead.

 

I honestly felt uneasy and a little inadequate. I struggled for answers.

 

That night I had a very rough night’s sleep…but as I mulled the issues over again and again…the answer became clear to me. I realized that I had ALWAYS known the answer but it seemed circumstances, scenarios and distractions kept me from looking at it bluntly and articulating that vision…

 

It occurred to me that possibly the best way to get complete buy in from my staff was not to dictate from my soap box but to engage them with 4 seemingly unrelated questions… Bringing all the questions together and connecting all the dots would hopefully prove to be a much more powerful lesson.

 

I hope you enjoy and can gain some insight to my staff meeting and my 4 questions in June of 1990…pitching matters, even more than you may think!

 

I asked my staff at The University of Nebraska to contemplate and comment on 4 basic questions.

 

Q #1: “How good of range and arm does the left fielder at UCLA, have? I don’t want your guess.” I added. “Don’t assume! Do you know with 100% certainty what her defensive range is and her arm strength?”

A: They all admitted they didn’t know for certain.

 

Q #2 :“How well would Katie Wolda” (our catcher at Nebraska who was an exceptional receiver) “have to be able to hit to stay in the lineup if she were a poor defensive catcher?”

A: They ALL agreed Katie would have to hit extremely well…well over .400…to even         begin to make up the damage and cost of her being a poor defensive catcher.

 

Q #3: “How big is the difference to a team’s success between a pitcher who walks 2 per 7 innings and a pitcher who walks 5-6 per 7? After all…technically that’s only the difference between .28 walks per inning and .85 walks per inning- so about 1/2 a walk per inning more?”

A: Their response was immediate, visceral and emotional…The difference they believed   was absolutely HUGE.

 

Q. #4: “We all hear about ‘pitching to contact’. What is the impact of our pitcher’s ability to record a strike out…let’s say…a strike out per inning or 7 outs of the 21 via strike out vs. a strike out every other inning or 3.5 outs out of the 21 via strike out?”

A:  Their responses were quite varied. The pitcher on staff thought strike outs were extremely valuable and important but my position player thought strikeouts were over rated.

 

I then asked them what they thought the 4 questions had in common. At first, they struggled for a connection.

 

I insisted that the 4 questions were absolutely related. After several tries they began to touch on the connection of these four questions…I was now ready to explain my point and have them understand how that perspective would impact the priority and subsequent emphasis of our training and recruiting at Nebraska going forward.

 

Question #1. In 1990, UCLA was the NCAA DI National Champion and Lisa Longaker, Heather Compton, Lisa Fernandez and Dee Dee Weiman were absolutely dominate on the mound. In fact, from regionals to the end of the CWS they gave up one…yes ONE run. In truth, I don’t even remember who played left field.  I do remember however that their left fielder’s skills as a defensive player did not factor into any game I watched them play in 1990.  In truth, I can count on one hand the times I saw the ball hit exceptionally hard off any of the staff.  They went 62-7 on the season and from March 31 to May 3, the Bruins outscored their opponents 68-3 and did not allow a run for 122 straight innings over 13 games at one point.

 

Question #2. One simply almost can’t hit well enough to be a substandard defensive catcher and even more specifically… a poor receiver.  The cost is simply too high and too frequent.  Strikes are absolutely too precious of a commodity to lose even 5-10 over the course of a ball game.

 

Case in point. The count is 1-1 to Mike Trout with the bases loaded, 2 outs, and your team is clinging to a one run lead.  Your catcher receives a borderline pitch poorly and the umpire calls it a ball and you are now 2-1.  Replay the scenario and this time on the same exact pitch your catcher keeps it a strike and the umpire calls it a strike and you are now 1-2. This one moment…this one swing from 2-1 to 1-2… can and often does change the entire ballgame around.

 

Having a poor receiving catcher is like constantly playing Russian Roulette.  It may not ALWAYS hurt you but if the bullet is in the chamber often enough when the hammer comes down, the results can be devastating.

 

Brad Ausmus caught 18 years in the Major Leagues, only hit more than 6 homeruns in a year once (9) and hit .251…so we all know Ausmus didn’t play in 1971 games because of his offense. David Ross, the catcher for the World Champion Cubs had a career average of .229 over his 15-year career.

 

While having the total package like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra and Buster Posey as your catcher is a phenomenal advantage, their hitting still remained secondary to their defensive ability in their influence in winning championships. (BTW Bench’s career batting average was simply a solid .267…hardly an offensive juggernaut)

 

Your first, and by far the most important, job you have as a catcher is to help your pitchers and to keep a strike a strike.  Blocking would be a distant second and throwing ability even less important than the other two.  Strikes matter.  A lot.

 

Question #3. Free passes are deadly. PERIOD!  Walking 5-7 hitters per game is…with a few rare exceptions…unsustainable.  One simply cannot pitch around 5-7+ free passes every outing. When runners are constantly on base, the room for error is small and small mistakes can mushroom.  Strikes matter.  A Lot.

 

Who are the best in MLB history (modern era) at giving up the fewest number of walks per 9 innings?  How about these names with all less than 2.3 walks per 9 innings:

 

Greg Maddux

Cliff Lee

Curt Schilling

Roy Hallady

Mike Mussina

Fergie Jenkins

Mariano Rivera

Dennis Eckersley

Madison Bumgarner

Chris Sale

Zack Greinke

David Price

 

Question #4. Even control pitchers, Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Barry Zito and Cliff Lee all averaged just under a strikeout per inning.

 

Who are the best in MLB history at getting the hitter to swing and miss, and recording the highest percentage of outs for their teams via a strike out?  How about these names:

 

Randy Johnson

Stephen Strasburg

Kerry Wood

Chris Sale

Max Scherzer

Pedro Martinez

Clayton Kershaw

Nolan Ryan

Sandy Koufax

Madison Bumgarner

 

That’s a pretty good list.  Getting 35% of your team’s outs without needing your fielders to catch and throw a ball is INCREDIBLY valuable.   Every time a ball is put into play it can indeed become a problem. When you have a runner on 3rd with less than 2 outs and the game on the line…one’s ability to get a strike out is a gigantic thing.

 

Ability to get a strike out matters.  A lot.

 

 

Conclusion.

 

In every sport, there is a primary line of demarcation. A vast majority of the time, if we are at all familiar with the sport, we ALL intuitively know what that line is.

 

In football for example, that line of demarcation is the ‘line of scrimmage’. In essence if your defense dominates the line of scrimmage and your offense dominates the line of scrimmage, the remainder of the competitive interactions and position skills simply matter less. In truth, WAY less.

 

In other words, only when your defense and their offense and your offense and their defense are comparable, and the line of scrimmage has some degree of parity, do the multitude of other skills really affect the outcome of the game.

 

In short, the first essential in being a competitive football team is to at the very least create a competitive balance at the line of scrimmage. If you fail there, the cost is simply too much to overcome.

 

For baseball and softball that first line of demarcation is your pitchers vs. their hitters and vice versa.

 

Let’s use an extreme example to make my point.  Let’s say we had two teams. One is a top caliber, nationally ranked 18U team with their pitchers throwing in the 90’s and their hitters with exits speeds also in the 90’s.  The other is an average 14U team with their pitchers throwing in the upper 60’s and low 70’s and their hitters with exit speeds also in the 60’s & 70’s.

 

If they were to scrimmage, what are the chances that the 18U’s team needed to have an exceptional defensive player in left field or at SS in order to win the game?  The answer is almost assuredly zero.  In fact, the left fielder might even be able to lay down and take a nap in the grass. The 18U pitching would probably be so dominate that the defensive prowess of the regular players would have little effect on the game’s outcome.

 

Winning or dominating the line of demarcation is what is of paramount importance.

 

Yet so often we behave as if everything we do is of equal importance.  I assure you it is NOT.  Far, far from it.

 

Bottom line: If you want to win in the post season…developing pitching is paramount. PERIOD.

 

I know the old yarn is that pitching and defense wins championships.  It’s a solid point.  To win in the post season you are going to have to occasionally win a 3-2 game.

 

A team almost certainly cannot EVER hit well enough on a regular basis to make up for substandard pitching.  Especially when their hitters are facing exceptional pitching themselves.

 

Furthermore, a team almost certainly cannot play defense well enough on a regular basis to make up for consistently poor pitching performance.  You can only dodge bullets for so long before the wave breaks over your head.

 

I will go further.  A catcher’s primary job is to help his pitcher win the line of demarcation.  If he or she is an awful receiver, he/she almost certainly cannot hit well enough to make up to the damage caused to their pitcher.

 

For us at the Texas Baseball Ranch®, successful pitching has two primary pillars.

 

First. Pillar I…Strike throwing. If your pitcher is less than 50% strikes, your team has absolutely zero chance to win on a regular basis. It is simply unsustainable. Therefore, we challenge our pitchers on command 2 of the 4 days a week in the summer program.

 

Let’s run the numbers. If he/she is 50-55% strikes, he/she moves from a ‘disaster’ to just a ‘nightmare’.  The counts are routinely full and indeed we will typically walk 5-8 per 7/9 innings and we are routinely in difficulty throughout the game.

 

If he/she is 55-60% strikes, now at least the pitcher is competitive and your defensive team skills begin to come into significant influence.  Also, we are typically walking 3-5 per7/9.

 

If he/she is 60-65% strikes, now the pitcher is pressing the hitter to decide early in the count or pay the consequences of being constantly behind.  We are now looking only at 2-3 base on balls in 7/9 innings.

 

If the pitcher is 70%+ strikes, we then are the masters of the strike zone, walking hitters ONLY in rare cases or when it is strategically wise to walk a hitter.

 

But throwing strikes is only half way there.  Pillar II is creating the swing and miss.

 

If your defensive team needs to record ALL 27 outs, the chances are simply great that some balls will find holes and can do great damage.  You will need to be able to get at least 30% of your outs via the strike out.  No Hall of Fame pitcher has averaged less than 5K’s per 9 innings in baseball.  In some dire situations, your pitcher will absolutely need to be able to get hitters to swing and miss or your chances of success are very limited.

 

Those two pillars create quite a conflict.

 

First you MUST be able to throw strikes.  Second you must make the hitter occasionally swing and miss inside of the strike zone.

 

Here is also a fact unfortunately lost on many.  The difference between 48% strikes and being released and 70 % strikes and being an exceptional pitcher is almost always just 1 pitch per hitter or less.  That’s right.  The difference between great and awful often comes down to execution of one pitch per hitter.

 

That’s why catchers are so absolutely critical.  The difference between a great receiver and a very poor one can be one lost strike per hitter.

 

Bottom line ladies and gentlemen…pitching is what matters most.  The quality, skills and abilities of the guy toeing the rubber tonight is by far and away the single most influential factor in determining the games outcome. 2nd place doesn’t even come close.

 

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At the Texas Baseball Ranch®, we take the development of pitchers very seriously.  If you’re serious about your own development the summer is a great time to join us.   For more information on the remaining Elite Pitchers Boot Camps or Extended Stay Summer Program, visit  www.TexasBaseballRanch.com and click on the Events tab. 

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