Sometimes, a hitter adjusts so quickly that it’s hard to tell exactly what he’s doing, as he’s doing it. Perhaps it’s a new front-foot tap that’s helped him get his timing down on that tough fastball, and he debuts it on a Sunday and sees success with it right away. Perhaps it’s a sudden recognition of a particular pitch, out of a particular arm slot, that allows him to start crushing before anybody really notices how it’s happening. Perhaps. It doesn’t often happen that fast.
Most of the time, when a hitter starts to make adjustments, he does it slowly enough that the eagle eyes of some opposing team’s advance scouts can pick up on it in advance of a series and relay the information on to their starting pitchers. Think, for example, of the changes Javy Baez is making in Chicago, or Jose Altuve in Houston, or Jackie Bradley in Boston. They’re all relatively profound, relatively interesting, and relatively public. That got me interested: When pitchers know that a hitter’s profile is changing, and changing fast, what do they do with that information? I didn’t know, so I asked some pitchers. Here’s what they said.
I spoke to David Price first. “I’m gonna take my game out there either way,” he told me, “and make the hitters make me adjust from what I’m trying to do. If they do then I’ll adjust accordingly. I’m always going to pitch to my strengths, and if that doesn’t work out at first, then I can adjust from there.” Which makes sense, when you’re David Price. Not everyone has the ability to hit their spots on both sides of the plate like he does, or have as many pitches that they can go to if the one they start with isn’t working. So I chalked his answer up to an ace’s deserved bravado: the kind of in-your-face machismo that, along with sublime talent, gets an ace to the top in the first place.
A good pitcher, but not a pitcher as good as Price, I thought, might be more willing to go with a newly delivered scouting report on a fast-changing hitter, even if he‘s had success against that hitter using a different technique in the past. Perhaps, I mused, Price was an anomaly even among big-league hurlers, and a different man might be more willing to ditch what’s worked in the past for what might work in the future. The benefit, I supposed, would be in skipping past that one pitch—the pitch on which the hitter proves he’s worked it out, and does damage that could have been avoided. So I moved two lockers down, and asked Rick Porcello if he’d ever go, or had ever gone, with a new scouting report over what he’d successfully used against a guy in the past.
The answer, which brought me suddenly and painfully back to high school, was resounding no. “I’m always establishing what I’ve done to him in the past,” he said, after some thought, “and if he proves that he can hit that, then I have to make an adjustment from there. I mean, that’s my gameplan with anybody, really, until they prove that they can hit my fastball, then I’m not going to throw them anything else and do them a favor.” No dice there, and some repressed memories brought to the surface to boot. So I moved over to the visiting clubhouse at Fenway and sought out some Toronto Blue Jays. Perhaps they do things differently north of the border.
I found Roberto Osuna sitting by his locker, tucked away in the corner of the clubhouse, and told him what Price and Porcello had said. I was surprised, I mentioned, that they felt that way. I figured, if you had a scouting report saying a guy was clobbering the inside fastball, you don’t go to that pitch when you face him next, even if you’ve done well with it in the past. Osuna was quick to put me in my place.
“Yeah, the thing is, everybody has different fastballs. People have fastballs 94-95, which you can adjust to really quick. But when you have one that’s 97-plus, you’re gonna throw the pitch, see how he reacts, and if he makes a good cut, then you go with something else. But if not, you’re still throwing it all night long.”
Which brought me to my first conclusion: The way we view the game as analysts is very different than the way players view the game in the moment. That’s an obvious one, so let me specify it for you. As analysts—or, if you’d prefer a less pretentious word—as careful viewers of the game, we have the luxury of viewing the game in the aggregate, from the comfort of our couches and with the benefit of a thousand plate appearances of hindsight in our back pocket. So, if we see that a hitter is starting to clobber first pitch inside fastballs in general, we are quick to draw the general conclusion that it’s probably better to not throw that pitch to him in that count going forward.
But pitchers don’t have to face batters in general. They have to face them in specifics: the specifics of that batter’s breakfast that day, the specifics of the dirt on the mound and the heat of the sun and the roar of the crowd that’s just starting to get under the hitter’s skin. And, most importantly, they have to face them with the specifics of their particular arsenal, and the particular ways in which it interacts with that hitters’ strengths and weaknesses. You might have been hitting fastballs, they say, but you haven’t been hitting my fastball. And hey, you son of a bitch, I’m here to get you out.
“I’m always going to go with my strengths,” Price said, at length. “And I’m going to make him do it against me. My fastball is coming out [of the hand] differently than other guys’.” Which is his way of saying what most big-leaguers have already internalized, by the time they get to that level: I have something you don’t have, something special, and if I move away from it I know I’m not going to do well. Porcello was fairly explicit on the subject: “I made a conscious effort coming into this season,” he said, “in understanding how I’m going to attack guys, and keeping myself to a simple gameplan, so that I’m not out there going crazy trying to do a whole bunch of different stuff, and getting myself into trouble.” When you’re trying to simplify, why add a days-old scouting report into the mix that’s in your head?
The hitters know that pitchers don’t want to complicate things, too. “I think each pitcher is kind of sticking to their strengths,” Jackie Bradley told me, “and I’m trying to stick with my strengths as well, and trying to compete out there as much as possible.” Sometimes that means realizing that before you can take the next step, you have to prove that you can handle the previous one: here’s my best, hit it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I learned something this week. I had imagined, going into these conversations, that pitchers would want as much data as they could get their hands on about a hitters’ most recent strengths and weaknesses, as they stand in against them. At least among those pitchers I spoke to, that’s emphatically untrue. “I’m not big into all that information,” Price said. “I just want to go out and make my pitch.”
Thinking about it more, I suppose it makes sense. Pitching is a complicated business, and complicating it further, in the center of the biggest arena on the planet and with the game on the line, seems like a foolish endeavor. Anyway, even if you picked the perfect pitch to throw given all that you could possibly know, you might not be able to make it happen in the way you want. “I think that execution is number one,” said Jose Bautista, who knows a thing or two about the subject. “You can select the best pitch for a particular situation, but if you don’t locate it where you need to, you’re probably not going to be successful.” Just because it might have sounded easy otherwise.
Once again, I’m reminded just how much things are different for those who play versus those who don’t. Those who play are forced to choose, from among a thousand different options, the pitch they want to deliver, in the spot they want to deliver it to, and at the speed they want to deliver it at, and then they have to do it with near-total perfection, all while a very talented adversary is trying their very best to stop them. And then they have to do it all again,100 times in a ballgame. No wonder they want to simplify things. No wonder they don’t want to read the latest scouting report.
Thank you for reading
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