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April 4, 2013
Raising Aces: Da Pitching Code
Before he wrote for Baseball Prospectus, Doug Thorburn climbed through BP's minor league system with Baseball Daily Digest, where he started the Raising Aces column dedicated to the mound. A few of those articles for BDD have withstood the test of time, continuing to resurface in various corners of the internet. Due to recent interest, we have chosen to revive one of these archived pieces.
“Raising Aces: Da Pitching Code” was originally published at BDD on June 8, 2011.
Scout speak is a fascinating language. Definitions are loosely defined and are sensitive to the vagaries of subjective interpretation, and many terms are lumped into artificial categories of “good” or “bad.” Scout speak serves as a comprehension barrier for those who were not raised in an environment of 20-80 scales, bullpen sessions, and performance showcases that slightly resemble a dog n' pony show for ballplayers; but there is an increasing number of baseball outsiders that are clamoring to learn more about the culture of scouting, and the dissemination of information is spreading too quickly for the old guard to maintain their secrets for much longer.
My first real introduction to the language of baseball insiders was working with the Sacramento River Cats of the Pacific Coast League, where I was the assistant to the Assistant General Manager (Dwight Schrute, eat your heart out). I had absorbed a dictionary full of terms during my lifelong obsession with the sport, but the River Cats job expanded my baseball vocabulary, and I quickly learned the limitations of my own language.
A defining moment came after an early-season night game, in which Sacramento starting pitcher Ron Flores had struggled to find the strike zone. I was sitting in AGM Mike Gazda's office, when Gaz asked me what I thought was wrong with Flores that night. I knew zilch about pitching mechanics at the time, but I also didn't want to appear ignorant in front of my boss, so I reached for a scout-speak cliché to answer the question: “It looked like Flores was overthrowing tonight.”
I was summarily laughed out of the room.
I learned two things from that particular encounter: 1) I had a lot to learn about pitching, and 2) novices carry a heavy accent when impersonating scout-speak.
Fast forward to the present, and I have not only become fluent in scout speak, but have also learned enough about pitching to fill a book. That said, speaking to other talent evaluators can still be a challenge, as there are many dialects of the language; two scouts can agree that a player has a “violent” delivery, yet disagree on the characteristics that make it violent. Case in point, what follows are a dozen of the more common terms in the pitching section of the scout dictionary.
“Control” - n. Typically refers to the ability for a pitcher to avoid walks, or to “control the strike zone.” Many will use the term interchangeably with command, while some have very specific definitions for each, and control more often describes the short-term ability to locate a pitch. A pitcher might have “command” of his changeup on a regular basis, but still have occasional days where he loses “control” of el cambio.
“Command” - n. Similar to control, but more often applied to a specific pitch type. A pitcher might have exceptional command of a fastball, but is unable to harness a breaking pitch. Pitch command can be specifically applied to hitting the catcher's target and “commanding” the different quadrants of the strike zone, and will more often describe a pitcher's long-term ability to repeat pitches.
“Deceptive” - adj. This term is paired with several interpretations. A) A pitcher can “hide the ball” from the batter's view, by obscuring the throwing hand behind moving arms, legs, and torso; B) Pitchers that have deep release points are often said to have deception, as the fastball is “sneaky fast” due to the increase in perceived velocity; C) A talented pitcher with an unorthodox delivery is often tagged as deceptive, which arises more from a lack of any conventional explanation for his success. Example: see Weaver, Jered.
“Downhill Plane” - n. Conventional wisdom states that tall pitchers have an advantage on the mound, and stats from the late 1960's help to substantiate the theory that release point height is a significant advantage, which has created a scouting obsession with “downhill” or “downward plane.” The idea ignores the benefits of release point extension for tall pitchers, and focuses primarily on creating a steep trajectory to increase the probability of a groundball. It is generally accepted that increased downhill plane is an advantage, but some doubt is cast by the mechanical sacrifices that pitchers often make in the name of finding a taller release (more on this later), and the reality that pitch break has a much more significant impact on groundball rates than release point height.
“Violent” - adj. A violent delivery is the opposite of one that is clean, smooth, or effortless. The “violence” stems from a combination of factors, including but not limited to extreme momentum, funky arm action, flailing limbs, sharp hip turns, immense torque, and extreme rotational velocities in particular. Many of the pitchers that earn this tag appear to be unstable, with little ability to harness the delivery, but this is not always the case. Some scouts have taken to putting the “violent” label on any pitcher whose delivery appears to require considerable effort, which puts it in the same category as “overthrowing.”
“Throwing Across The Body” - v. A scout-speak favorite that is widely misdiagnosed as a symptom of poor “arm action,” the confusion surrounding this term is greater than any other on this list. The arm will literally cross in front of the body just after release point on every pitch, but this is not a concern for the scout. Rather, “throwing across the body” often refers to a player that does not appear to complete the rotational phases of the delivery, resulting in an early release point. The functional description is a pitcher that does not get his shoulders square to the target in time for release point; in reality, though, most pitchers who earn the “across the body” label are those that have a closed stride, with a front foot that lands to the arm-side of the centerline. Many of these pitchers will indeed struggle to get their shoulders squared up with the target, while others will have no problem completing rotation despite having a closed stride, so the term has become a blanket statement that is often misapplied.
“Get on top” - v. The emphasis on “downward plane” has encouraged many scouts to look for pitchers that “get on top of the ball” with a high arm slot, and though downward plane is generally considered a positive, there is a very real trade-off that exists between height and distance at release point. In order to achieve a taller release point, a pitcher will sacrifice posture by tilting his head and spine to the glove side, and every one inch of inappropriate head movement will cost the hurler two inches of release point distance. This creates a functional give-and-take between downhill plane and perceived velocity, and while many coaches and scouts advocate “get on top” with a religious fervor, I am personally against any adjustment that has a negative impact on a pitcher's posture, which I consider to be one of the most critical variables in the pitching mechanics equation.
“Changing arm angles” - v. This one falls under the “deception” label, though it is often a misnomer, as a changing arm slot is not something that a pitcher typically strives to accomplish; rather, it is usually the result of poor balance and/or inconsistent posture at release point. Many pitchers will attempt to get “on top of the ball” when throwing breaking pitches, but not when throwing a fastball, and they will effectively tip their pitches based on the variance in arm slot. A pitcher with exceptionally poor timing might produce “changing arm angles,” despite his intentions to repeat every aspect of the delivery. It's similar to pitchers that “change speeds,” in that some might have the ability to add or subtract velocity at will, while others just plain struggle to find any sort of consistency.