Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Identifying Pitches

Just A Nats Fan asks about something that I've had a few emails on recently. How do you identify pitches? It's something that takes a little bit of time and some patience, but it can really enhance your enjoyment of the game. I like to try and guess what the pitcher's going to throw, and when you know what pitches he throws, you can see them try and set the batter up.

(I'll describe pitch movement from the CF camera perspective since that's what you see on TV. I'll also describe it as if thrown by a RHP. Reverse the directions for a LHP)

FASTBALL
The fastball is the basic pitch that every pitcher throws. It's the pitcher's fastest pitch and typically the straightest. Although it says 'fast', that's a relative term. Livan's fastball is only about 85 MPH. Gary Majewski's is 95 MPH. Tim Wakefield, the Red Sox' knuckleball pitcher throws one that barely breaks into the 70s. Watch the arc of the ball, and if it doesn't move too much and it's the hardest one he throws, it's his fastball.

There are two main types of fastballs, but identifying them can be a bit more difficult.

A four-seam fastball (named for the way the hand grips the ball) is the fastest, typically moving hard and straight. John Patterson has the best four-seamer on the team. If you watch his fastball, it sails in straight at the target before wiggling half an inch or so -- just enough to disrupt the swing.

A two-seam fastball doesn't move as fast, but it has more movement. Livan Hernandez throws a lot of these. (Livan's also the hardest pitcher to track pitches with because all his move so much and irregularly) If you watch his fastball, it will sail slightly from left to right (from the CF perspective) Sometimes there's a slight downward movement on the pitch. Typically, it's 2-4MPH slower than the four-seam, so it too will be the fastest pitches he throws.

There are several other specific types of fastballs that are speciality pitches. Not every pitcher throws them. Ryan Drese throws a sinking fastball, which dives downward, so that the batter hits the top of the ball, driving it into the ground. There's a cut fastball (does any Nat throw one?), which has a subtle late break from right to left -- Mariano Rivera throws the most famous one. Hector Carrasco throws a split-fingered fastball which looks like a fastball rolling off a table, with a sharp break that typically ends with the pitch in the dirt. There's a forkball, too, but it's basically the same thing as the splitter, and if you can tell the difference from TV, you're better than me -- very few throw this one, although many Japanese pitchers do.

BREAKING BALLS
Breaking balls are simply pitches that move through the zone because of the spin the pitcher puts on the ball. Announcers use it to mean a variety of pitches, and frequently use it when they're not quite sure what a pitch is. (Unless you're in the really good seats, it's frequently easier to tell pitches apart from your couch)

A Curve Ball is a ball that, well, curves. Typically, it breaks from 12-6 on the clock face. Barry Zito of the A's probably has the best big curveball, and Livan throws a huge one. John Patterson's curve doesn't have the big up/down motion of Livan's, but it moves much more sharply, freezing the batters. Some pitchers throw a curve that has a little sideways movement, moving from 10-4 on the clockface. If a pitcher has a good curve, you'll see lots of swings that miss and lots of popups as the batter drops his hands to catch up to the movement of the pitch, getting the bat under the ball.

For most pitchers, the curve is in the 80 MPH range, about 10-15 MPH below their fastball. You can recognize it from its slow speed and the up and down movement on the pitch.

A slider is another type of breaking ball, but one that moves from right to left. A slider has a frisbee-like action to it, snapping off a sharp break as it runs further and further away from the batter. A good slider will run from 3-9 on the clockface, although there's typically a very slight downward movement (think 2:30-8:30). Tony Armas throws an excellent slider as does Chad Cordero.

The slider is thrown harder than the curveball, but doesn't reach the speed of the fastball. Look for a pitch that moves right to left that's typically in the mid or high 80s.

One of my favorite types of breaking ball is a screwball, but there are only two or three players who throw it. A screwball has the up and down movement of a curve, but it also moves laterally from left to right. It's a really freakish pitch that helps pitchers out against batters of opposite handedness. (ie for a RHP, it breaks away from a left-handed batter) Jim Mecir, who pitched with the Marlins, threw a nasty one. John Franco had a pretty good one too. It's a tough pitch to command, and it can really screw up your arm, which explains why so people throw it. To get a feel for what I mean, hold you hand out like you're gripping a door knob. When you throw a curve, it's a similar hand/wrist motion as opening the door. When you threw a screwball, quickly turn the handle the opposite direction. Feel that on the inside of your elbow? Now imagine throwing as hard as they do! Ouch!

CHANGE-UP
A change-up, or change of pace, is a pitch that aims to fool the batter. Ideally it's thrown just like a fastball, but because the grip is slightly different and because the ball is held further back in the hand, it comes out with much less velocity. The batter sees the arm movement, thinks fastball, and swings early, missing the pitch. When the batter swings and misses while looking especially goofy, chances are it's a changeup. Most changeups are going to be in the low 80s.

Randy St. Claire has been teaching pitchers the changeup, and had great success with Hector Carrasco. He worked this spring with Chad Cordero, but I haven't seen Chad throw one in a game yet.

Some pitchers will throw a variant called the circle change. If you make an OK sign with your hand and cradle the ball, you'll see how it got its name. This change, which Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux have perfected, looks very similar to the screwball I described above, with a break down and to the right, away from left-handed batters.

OTHER PITCHES
There are a few knuckleball pitchers still kicking around. Tim Wakefield's the most famous. A knuckler is thrown, not with the knuckles, but with the fingertips. It's pushed or flicked out of the hand so as to eliminate any spin on the ball. Without spin, the seams of the ball interact with the wind and air pressure to make the ball move all over the place upredictably. The pitcher and catcher don't know where it's going, but neither does the batter. Knuckleballs are realllly slow.


  • All pitchers have a fastball and some sort of breaking ball. Starters typically have three, usually four pitches that they'll toss. Relievers need at least two to be successful even if, like Mariano Rivera, they only throw one with any sort of regularity.

    Follow the pitch with your eyes, track its movement, and make note of the radar gun readings. Those two will combine to give away the pitch, and with a few games worth of practice, you'll be able to tell even without the radar.

    Once you figure that out, start guessing along. Try and figure out what he's going to throw, and where he's going to throw it. Watch how John Patterson uses the fastball up and in to set up the curve ball low and away. Look for how a changeup allows a pitcher to blow a fastball right past the helpless batter. See how a pitcher tries to get Soriano to swing on sliders away off the plate with two strikes.
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