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Use Your Defense!

Posted on 25-04-2017

Padres SS Erik Aybar pitched the 9th inning last week as his team was losing 11-1 and Manager Andy Green didn’t want to use his bullpen anymore.
Throwing an awkward semi-submarine sort-of-sidearm knuckleball pitch, Aybar got Diamondbacks Catcher Chris Hermann to weakly ground out on a ball thrown…wait for it…59 MPH.  59!!!!
Chuckles from both big league dugouts aside about the absurdity of the whole situation, there is a legitimate lesson to be learned here about pitching, especially for players ages 11 and older, but there are things younger players can learn from the 59 MPH pitch as well.
Here are 3 reasons why this is important.
1) Hitting a baseball squarely is really, really, difficult; Pitchers need to challenge the hitters.
Have you ever watched big leaguers take batting practice before the game?  If you kept track, you would be shocked how many balls are fouled off into the cage or hit weakly…and that’s during batting practice where a 50 year old coach is lobbing balls at big league hitters.  So, when we’re pitching against amateur hitters, we must challenge them; way more often than not, they won’t make solid contact – no matter how fast we throw it – simply because hitting is really difficult.   (This point, however, shouldn’t discourage hitters.  In fact, the opposite; it should encourage them to take as many swings as possible precisely because hitting is so difficult!)
2) When you’re pitching you have 8 players behind you who also want to get the batter out so let them help!  When the batter does put the ball in play, you have 9 guys (including yourself) trying to get him out.  We all know that Little League defenses aren’t as good as Big League defenses, but that doesn’t mean we want Little Leaguers to develop an “I have to do this all by myself” mentality on the mound.
And, as defenders improve individually and as a team over the next few years, it will be easier and easier for pitchers to get outs…if they throw strikes.
A quick story:
My first season as a Pitcher was my Junior year at Brown but I didn’t really learn to use my defense until I got to Pro Ball.  Luckily, I learned this valuable lesson in literally my first inning on the mound as a professional.
I had just signed my contract with The Tigers and after a few days of practices with all the players who had just been drafted, we played an inter-squad game in the Lakeland Tigers Stadium.  The stands were 100% empty, except for the Tigers’ Minor League Development Front Office Guys sitting directly behind home plate with radar guns and note pads.  The ink was dry on my contract so I wasn’t worried about becoming the first pro in history to be released the same week he was drafted, but it was still a nerve-wracking introduction to professional baseball.   I was slated to throw 1 inning against the best hitters I had ever faced in my life, in front the handful men who had complete control over my career now.  Yikes.
My inning didn’t start off very well.
Thinking that because I was facing pro hitters I had to throw harder than I had in college, I quickly fell behind 2-0 by over-throwing 2 fastballs that might have lit up the radar gun (for me, at least), but weren’t close to the strike zone.  Now behind in the count, I was forced to throw a 3rd fastball in a row, and to my delight I hit my spot; low and away to the left-handed hitter I was facing.
3 weeks earlier while still at Brown, the chances of that pitch getting hit hard by an Ivy League batter was close to zero.  But I wasn’t facing the 8 hole hitter from Cornell, I was facing a pro hitter.  He effortlessly stayed on the pitch and drove it deep in the gap in left center field.
I gave up plenty of doubles at Brown and knew as soon as the ball hit the bat that it was going for extra bases.  
But then something amazing happened.  My professional center fielder, just as effortlessly, tracked down the drive in the gap and caught it without exerting much effort.  1 out!
I remember immediately settling down.  Not because I got the lead-off guy out, but because I realized that even though I was now facing professional hitters, I had professional fielders behind me and that it was probably a good idea to allow them to help me get guys out.
It’s not like from that moment on I decided that intentionally throwing belt high fastballs was the best way to get to the Big Leagues, but I did start to pitch more to contact, didn’t try to strike everybody out, concentrated more on the location of my pitch than the velocity, and used my defense as much as possible.
3) It’s impossible to get a batter out if you walk him.  Baseball is really a game about which team can get 27 outs the quickest (or 18 outs, in Little League).  When the pitcher throws a strike, the team (we) are closer to getting that batter out and therefore are one step closer to winning the game.
When we throw the ball IN the strike zone, 3 things can happen:
a) The batter can swing and miss (that’s good for us!)
b) The batter doesn’t swing and the umpire says “Strike!” (that’s good for us!)
c) The batter swings and hits it (that’s good for us because now we can field it and get him out!)
When we throw balls OUT of the strike zone, 3 things can happen:
a) The batter won’t swing (that’s bad for us!)
b) The umpire won’t say “Strike!” (that’s bad for us!)
c) The batter can’t hit it (that’s bad for us because now we can’t field it and get him out!)
IN the strike zone, there are 3 results that get us closer to an out.  OUT of the strike zone there are 3 results that get us further away from an out.
In a perfect world, every at-bat will end with the batter either putting the ball in play or striking out.  Despite this fact, young pitchers too often feel like they have “failed” when the batter hits the ball, whether or not their defense makes the play, and then put pressure on themselves to throw harder and harder in order to strike every single guy on the other team out.  
We now know that if the batter hits the ball that the pitcher actually succeeded, and we as coaches and parents need to encourage them to continue attacking the strike zone and challenging the hitters!

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