Control Systems (nerd warning!)
For an engineer, feedback is the critical component to keep systems stable and operating at optimal performance. Whether it’s sensing temperature for your HVAC, water temperature for your engine or the amount of light for your camera, feedback information is the key to proper functionality. The controlled element is constantly sensed, fed back and subsequently controlled.
A very similar type of control system should be at play for a pitcher. If a pitcher toes the rubber, winds and throws the ball at a target, only to wait for the catcher to return it to him for the next pitch, he is doing about one third of what’s required as a pitcher. The pitcher needs to focus on the target from the start of the motion, release the ball at a specific target and follow the ball all the way to the mitt or the bat. Focusing on the target and following the flight of the baseball provides the pitcher with the “feedback” to make his control system operate at optimal performance.
Each flight of the baseball should tell the pitcher several things. It should tell him if the ball had the desired movement that was intended. Equally important if not more important, the “feedback” should tell him exactly where the ball crossed the plate. The expected movement of the pitch and the “feedback” should tell the pitcher whether the aiming point and the resultant movement matched what was intended. Without the feedback information, how can a pitcher know how to make an adjustment? There are three critical aspects to the concept of “feedback”:
1. what pitch was thrown?
2. where was the pitch aimed? and
3. where did the pitch end up at the plate?
Without all three elements you have no control system and in baseball terms, probably not very consistent location of the baseball. This is part of a concept we try to get across to all pitchers. “The most important tool a pitcher has is his mind.”
Let’s say you are a RHP and you aim a 2-seamer at a small spot on the catcher’s chest protector wanting the pitch to end up on the catcher’s left knee cap. You know where you aimed the ball, you know where the ball ended and you watched the flight of the ball to know if it had the desired movement. With this “feedback” your control system has most of the information that’s needed to make an adjustment if necessary the next time the 2-seamer is thrown. If the ball started at the intended location on the chest protector and ended up below and outside the catcher’s knee you know you need to allow for more movement on the 2-seamer. If the ball started to the right and below the intended target and had the desired movement but ended up outside the catcher’s knee, you know you will need to change your release point on the next pitch.
This type of adjustment is simply utilizing the pitcher’s mind as the controller in the feedback system. The pitcher should use the “feedback” to make an intelligent decision that will achieve the desired result on the next pitch, independent of the amount of error. For the pitcher there will always be some errors in the system, but there needs to be a control mechanism based on feedback of information. Warm ups between innings and during bullpen work prior to entering a game are critical for establishing this feedback.
We need to discuss the pitcher’s target in a little more detail. In the game of bowling, the lanes have spots (arrows) imprinted in the wood several feet out from the foul line. When most good bowlers are warming up they adjust the starting position for the feet, the ball speed and possibly even the characteristics of the ball they are throwing. The bowler throws the ball across one of the different spots on the lane in order to adjust for the break on the ball so the ball ends up in the 1-3 pocket (right hander). A professional bowler might throw a ball that curves half way across the lane because that ball rotation carries additional power to the pins. The lane conditions can vary and it’s critical that the bowler find the optimal combination of angles and speed to get the best action on the ball and the best carry when it hits the ideal location at the pins. To accomplish this, most bowlers attempt to roll the ball over one of the spots marked 1/3 of the way down the lane.
A very similar concept needs to be executed by the pitcher. The pitcher needs to have a small spot that he throws to with every different pitch he makes. This spot should take into account the conditions of the day (wind direction, quality of the grip on the ball and the umpire’s zone) and the corresponding amount of break that each pitch is developing. Throwing the pitch without a finite target and expecting it to be located at a desired spot is not a successful approach to pitching. Gaining control of all these elements is one of the reasons it takes a while for a young pitcher to really become proficient and consistent.
The Rifle Analogy
So what happens if you are throwing at a spot and missing the spot? Pitching is about making adjustments and in general these adjustments should not be core mechanical adjustments. Adjustments should be made only in the release point unless there’s just something obvious mechanically (flying open early, for example) that’s causing all pitches to end up in one general, undesirable location. Adjusting a pitcher’s release point is very much like adjusting the sights on a rifle.
With a rifle you shoot at a target, look through the spotting scope, adjust the sights to compensate for the miss, shoot again, look through the spotting scope, repeat. Within a few shots the rifle is sighted in.
For a pitcher, you throw, you follow the flight of the ball and you make an adjustment in the release point. Ideally, within a few throws, the pitcher should be sighted in (temporarily). The pitcher’s sights must be continually adjusted to compensate for changing conditions as well as the pitcher’s physical condition (energy level, hand moisture, adrenaline, etc.)
Over the years, we’ve used the analogy of a rifle many times to demonstrate to pitchers how much adjustment is required to move the ball around the strike zone. Standing 60 feet from a target, take a baseball bat (simulating a rifle) with the knob end of the bat pointed toward the center of the strike zone. Notice the location of the knob. Now, simply aim the knob end of the bat to one of the corners of the strike zone and then another corner of the zone. At each point, make a mental note of how far the knob of the bat moved. You will probably be amazed at how little the knob moved.
The rifle muzzle analogy is important to understand so that you realize the required release point adjustments for a pitcher are really quite minimal to move the pitches around the zone. This rifle analogy assumes your mechanics are consistently delivering your arm and hand to the same basic position every pitch. If your mechanics are repeatable you can think about your fingers being the muzzle of the rifle. If you can repeat the arm and hand position, the release point adjustment can be small. If your arm position and body position are varying all over the place, any adjustments are just a guess.
No successful hunter goes into the woods with a rifle that hasn’t been sighted in. A pitcher shouldn’t expect to enter the game without sighting “his rifle” in during his bullpen work. Because the bullpen mound and the game mound may be significantly different (even pointing in different directions with respect to the wind), refining the sighting process with pitches prior to each inning is critical. A top flight pitcher continues to make fine adjustments throughout the game and the warmup pitches at the start of each inning are his chance to “close the loop” on his control system.
Understanding Wind’s Impact
The impact of the wind has been mentioned a couple times now. It’s very important that you realize what happens for different wind conditions. My guess is that you would consider wind in the pitcher’s face to be a detriment. As far as the flight of the ball off the bat, that would be a correct assumption, but as far as a pitcher’s “stuff” is concerned, it’s just the opposite. When the wind is coming at the pitcher it will have more impact on the seams of the thrown baseball. That means your 2-seamer will move more, your curve will move more and your change will move more. You need to recognize that the wind is in your face and take advantage of it. Knuckle ball pitchers love having some amount of wind coming at them but too much wind can make control very difficult.
When the wind is at the pitcher’s back just the opposite effects will take place. The 2-seamer will move less, the curve will move less and of course, a ball hit in the air will be held up more. Your recognition of these wind conditions will be an asset for you in making adjustments. Side winds will affect different pitches differently. For example, a side wind coming at your throwing shoulder will cause your 2-seamer to have good movement because the rotation is into the wind.
Game of 21
One of the best techniques for pitchers to improve concentration and accuracy is by playing “21.” To play this game, partners face each other about 50-70 feet apart. Two points are scored if a player throws a ball that would hit the partner in the head (if he didn’t catch it). One point is scored if a player throws a ball that would hit the partner above the belt and within the outline of the chest and stomach. The receiving player awards points and the game ends when one person gets to 21. Paul and I played this game during the off season and Paul played it with other pitchers during the season. For the game of 21, at least 75% velocity should be required so the pitchers don’t begin to “play darts” and forget the mechanics of throwing hard.