Game Calling, Pitch Sequencing, and Reading Hitter’s Timing

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Jon Lester throws against the Colorado Rockies in the first inning during an interleague game at Coors Field on June 222, 2010 in Denver.          UPI/Gary C. Caskey Photo via Newscom

Without a doubt, one of the best perks of working for a baseball team is the access to players, coaches, scouts, and countless others with intimate knowledge of the game.

I can’t say enough kind works about the Sky Sox staff who have, over the last six months, imparted a great deal of their knowledge to me about how the game is played.

Recently, I sat down with Sky Sox catchers Paul Phillips and Michael McKenry – as well as a number of scouts and coaches – to pen an article on game calling and pitching sequencing; discussing both the basic and the finer aspects of calling a game from behind the plate.

The basics can be summed up in two quotes.

This first was from McKenry, who remarked, “As my coach once told me, the most important of hitting is comfort and timing – and a catcher’s job is to upset that timing.”

Simple enough, right? Don’t let the batter get comfortable or he’ll hurt you. Throw off his timing and you’ll have success.

The second came from a very intelligent, long-time scout, who said, “Hitter’s hit what they see, not what you throw.” Quite simply, hitters will swing based on their recognition of the pitch and if you are good at disguising your pitches, they’ll get fooled.

While the principles themselves are quite simple, the application is very complex – with many different styles and approaches.

For now, we’ll (mostly) stick to the basics: how these principles are used in interpreting a hitter’s sense of timing and how to disguise pitch types to confuse batters.

Reading a Hitter’s Timing

One of the most important parts of calling a game is reading a hitter’s timing based on how he swings. When you get an idea of what the hitter’s swing is ready for, you can choose a pitch accordingly.

The most common way of reading a hitter’s timing is by watching the direction and trajectory of their batted balls.

For instance, if a batter rips an inside fastball to the pull side, they have a “quick bat,” and are far ahead of the pitch.

As a contrast, if a different batter fouls off an away fastball to the opposite field or sends a foul to the backstop, they have a “slow bat,” and are behind the pitch.

As a rule of thumb, pitches that are either inside, up, or both require a fast bat to make good contact, while pitches away and/or down require a slower bat.

To drive a pitch that is inside, a hitter will have to make contact with the ball out in front of home plate – usually to pull it. To drive a pitch that is away, the batter has to let the ball get “deep in the zone,” or almost in the catcher’s mitt, so that their swing can hit it to the opposite field.

Once you know what a hitter’s swing is timed at, you can attempt to exploit this knowledge by throwing a pitch they are ill-suited to hit.

The most common way of reading a swing is by diagnosing foul balls. While fouls are often ignored by most viewers of the game, they give away crucial information about how a hitter is timing certain pitches.

Assume the first batter – the one with a quick bat – pulls an inside fastball foul. Since they are ahead of the fastest pitch you have, a common offering that would follow would be a changeup away. Since a batter would have to slow down their bat speed considerably in order hit a changeup in this location, they will have more difficulty putting a good swing on this pitch.

Since their timing will likely be too fast for the pitch, they will either “roll over” the changeup (hit a weak grounder to the pull side) or swing-and-miss.

For the second batter, who has a “slow bat,” a catcher will likely call pitches that would require a quick bat in order to make good contact. If the batter is having trouble catching up with pitches away, a logical option would be a pitch up and in for a swing-and-miss strike three.

In addition, pitchers and catchers will plan ahead – setting up a pitch far later in the at-bat.

For instance, if a hitter fouls a pitch to the opposite field – hence, a slow bat – they may continue to feed the batter changeups and fastballs away, in an effort to continually slow down their bat. Then, when there are two strikes on the hitter, the catcher will call for a fastball up and in. Then, if they have set up the pitch well enough, it will catch the batter slow and off-guard, resulting in a whiff for strike three or a pop-up.

While these are not absolute rules, they are general tendencies, and are very useful in breaking down a hitter’s swing and timing.

But there are plenty of other examples where these basic principles of bat speed and timing can be applied. In fact, it is often beneficial to go against conventional wisdom in order to avoid being too predictable.

One of these cases has to do with the use of the changeup. While many pitchers rarely throw a changeup inside (the logic being that if a hitter were to be late on a fastball, the slow pitch inside will allow their slow bat to catch up and drive the changeup), it can prove to be a good choice against certain hitters.

In the early 1990s, Blue Jays’ slugger Joe Carter was known for his tremendous bat speed and tendency to pull fastballs foul. Since he had such a fast bat and was known to be aggressive on the first pitch, pitchers often liked to throw him off-speed or breaking pitches inside, knowing that he would be very early – resulting in a free first strike via either swing-and-miss or a foul ball.

Still, there is no fool-proof way to read a hitter’s timing – especially in the Major Leagues. While it certainly helps to mix speeds and locations based on a hitter’s previous swings, Major League hitters are experts at making in-at bat adjustments. With their level of talent, they can often take three straight fastballs, while still slowing down and adjusting to a changeup.

Deception

If you’ve watched baseball on NESN or ESPN for any length of time, you’ve probably heard at least one broadcaster use the phrase “everything works off the fastball.”

For most North American hurlers (as there is some debate whether Japanese pitchers approach pitching this way), the pitcher will use the fastball as their primary pitch – using it to set up other pitches.

When applied in a game, a pitcher will try to make the trajectories of their pitches as similar as possible to the fastball so they can deceive a batter into thinking the wrong pitch is coming.

This is where the phrase, “Hitters hit what they see, not what you throw” comes in: if a hitter reads a fastball out of the pitcher’s hand, they’ll swing as if it were a fastball. Therefore, if you can trick the hitter into swinging this way on a curveball, you’ll have lots of success.

Three cases come to mind that are useful in illustrating this principle.

One has to do with how a “knee-buckling curve” actually works.

The knee-buckler tends to be a bit of a mystery to most. It’s a beautiful pitch to watch, as the batter gives up on the high offering, only to watch it drop into the zone for a called strike three. However, these high curveball are really not very different than the hundreds of other high curveballs that are drilled into the bleachers every season.

The difference tends to be how they are set-up by preceding pitches.

Most pitchers can’t throw breaking balls high in the zone with indiscretion and expect to remain in the Majors. These pitches often get tattooed for doubles and home runs.

However, if a pitcher and catcher set up the high curveball correctly, they can turn it into a very successful pitch.

The way this is done is by getting the hitter to confuse the pitch for a fastball.

Oftentimes, the catcher will begin setting this pitch up early in the at-bat. When they get one or two strikes on the hitter, they may “waste” a fastball or two upstairs to get a hitter used to thinking that any high pitches are fastballs out of the zone.

Then, when they’ve done it enough, the hitter will think that the curveball’s high trajectory is yet another high fastball – giving up on the pitch since they’ve seen it as a ball so many times.

Then, at the last moment, the pitch abruptly breaks downward – too late for the hitter to adjust, leading to a called strike three.

The second has to do with one of the more frequent ways of inducing swings on sliders out of the zone.

If a pitcher can locate their fastball away on the outside corner and get a few called strikes, the hitter will try to adjust and not get beat on fastballs on the black.

Therefore, the hitter may begin to look for a pitch away, anticipating a fastball.

When a pitcher expects this is going on, they throw a slider away on a similar trajectory as their fastball. Since the hitter will read fastball, and is already looking away, they will likely swing. Then, when the slider breaks off the plate at the last moment, the hitter will be unable to adjust – leading to a swinging third strike.

This can work vice-versa as well.

If a pitcher catches a hitter chasing a slider away and off the plate, the hurler can throw a fastball on the outside black. If they have similar trajectories, the hitter may lay off the pitch in anticipation of another slider, leading to a called strike three.

The third key example that comes to mind relates to Jon Lester’s impeccable use of his cutter.

In the last couple years, Lester’s cut fastball has become one of his go-to pitches against righties. It’s really an incredible pitch to watch, as time and again he coaxes whiffs on pitches over a foot inside – at the ankles, no less. That Major League hitters can’t lay off the pitch is truly incredible and goes a long way in showing how polished a pitcher Lester has become, how good his stuff is, and how well developed the chemistry has become between he and his catchers.

In the case of Lester’s cutter, he uses it in a fashion that is very similar to the aforementioned use of a slider.

On the one hand, Lester sets up his cutter with the use of the inside fastball. When he is painting the inside corner for strikes, the batters get defensive and begin to anticipate inside fastballs. Since the cutter has a very similar trajectory to the straight fastball – and thus looks like a fastball – these batters will swing at the inside pitch to avoid another called strike.

However, Lester’s cutter moves inside at the last second – too late for batters to recognize the break, resulting in a helpless whiff for strike three.

In a similar vein, the cutter can also be used to set up the fastball. When Lester’s cutter is inducing whiffs, batters will begin to anticipate it and will lay off the pitch.

This is when Lester can make an adjustment – painting the inside corner with a fastball for strike three.

Since batter’s are expecting a cutter off the plate, Lester can disguise the pitch with a straight fastball which batters will give up on, thinking it’s a cutter that will break inside.

It’s a unfair, deadly pitch. But, man, is it fun to watch!

That’s all we’ll get into now, but you can expect more on game calling and pitch sequencing later when we have more time – and more space!

Happy All-Star Break to all Sox fans out there. Now if we could just get Beckett and Jacoby back!

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