Pitching: Lifeblood, more than fastballs, and baseball’s focal point

The baseball just lies on the grass. A young player stoops and picks it up. He has seen a few games on television. His whole family likes the game, and it appears that throwing a baseball could be fun.

Without any instruction or help, the youngster tosses the baseball in the general direction of his older brother. The ball slips out of his small hand and doesn’t reach its intended target.

Natural ability will take a pitcher of any age only so far. His “education” will determine how successful he is as the competition gets stiffer and stiffer.

The little tow-headed four-year-old has been introduced to a baseball truism at the proper age. He just found out for himself that throwing a baseball is not as easy as it looks.

No, throwing a baseball — which in time translates to pitching — is not a mere formality. It can’t be done well without the proper physical and mental preparation.

And since pitching is the lifeblood of baseball, learning the fundamentals — all of them — is paramount to any real success.

Youngsters can easily see the importance of pitching. Why, everybody watches the pitcher — his teammates, the opposition, and those fans lining the field in their lawn chairs, sun visors, and conversations.

It is said that nothing happens in baseball until the pitcher wants it to. He waits to throw a pitch. And the whole game waits with him. Of course, there are exceptions to the idea that nothing happens until he releases his pitch. He can commit a balk while just standing poised on the mound. And the baserunner(s) move up a base without him throwing a pitch.

But even a balk isn’t a fly in the ointment. The pitcher is important. And what youngster doesn’t want to be important? Young athletes might as well write, “I am important” on a swatch of adhesive tape and plaster it to their foreheads because that is where it begins.

How does one become a pitcher?

By learning the basics . . . and then adding more and more knowledge about the craft as his experiences grow in number.

Invariably, the youngsters with the strongest arms are called on to pitch in the youth leagues. However, having a strong arm does not a pitcher make.

From the beginning, a would-be pitcher needs to be comfortable with the adequate grips used by actual pitchers. Many times an eight-year-old (or even younger) are asked to pitch and their hands are not big enough to properly grip the ball with only two fingers. To have any accuracy at all, they need to grip the ball with three fingers. And since none of them is Hall of Famer Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, they will eventually have to learn to throw with a two-finger grip.

When a youngster’s hand is big enough for a comfortable two-finger grip, he just might be ready to be shown many of the other proper fundamentals.

Simply climbing to the top of the mound isn’t enough to make a pitcher. He has to have useful and non-taxing pre-pitch position. And then comes the windup. The windup is not just a formality. Too many “pitchers” hobble their chances of any success with a useless, uncoordinated windup that hinders their velocity, control, and chances of getting batters out.

The proper windup generates power and momentum that can be used to increase a pitcher’s velocity . . . and control. Far too many youngsters and their coaches are impressed by velocity when they should be impressed by control. It is control that retires batters more often than mere velocity.

How does a pitcher acquire control? The ways are many. But all of them require basic fundamentals that are not learned by simply picking up the ball and trying to throw it accurately.

Control requires the proper arm action and what is called a “release point”. The “release point” is where the pitcher lets fly. It should be at the same angle (or nearly the same) every time.

The pitcher’s body should be bent — beginning with his legs — at an angle that allows it to get the most out of the strength in his legs and lower back. So-called “natural ability” is an essential. That means a strong, limber arm and an athleticism that can generate velocity.

But “natural ability” can be surpassed by things that are learned. And control is learned; it is not a given.

At the higher levels of professional baseball, pitchers with control are far more successful than the ones with the 98-mph fastballs who walk an average of a batter every two innings.

Once a player releases his pitch, his follow-through and landing are the next important features of the whole process. More arm injuries occur because of improper landings and follow-throughs than should because they could be avoided with the proper fundamentals.

The proper pre-pitch stance, coordinated and momentum-building windup, “release point”, follow-through, and landing are all necessary to be a useful pitcher who can stay away from injuries.

Control is the most important factor of all.

Jamie Moyer is 49-years-old. After missing the 2011 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, he is back trying to make the roster of the Colorado Rockies. Moyer relies exclusively on his control . . . and ability to change speeds on his every throw.

Some of baseball’s Hall of Fame pitchers — whose wins numbered from 267 to 373 — were old by baseball standards when their careers ended. All of them relied on control and changing speeds to win. Their wits and their minds had replaced the fastball as the reasons they could still baffle major league hitters.

Grover Cleveland Alexander (373 wins), Warren Spahn (363 wins), Greg Maddux (355 wins), Steve Carlton (329 wins), Don Sutton (324 wins), Phil Niekro (318 wins), Gaylord Perry (314 wins), Tom Seaver (311 wins), “Hoss” Radbourn (309 wins), Tom Glavine (305 wins), Early Wynn (300 wins), Tommy John (286 wins), Jim Kaat (283 wins), and Moyer (267 wins) were reliant on their wits and minds as much as anything when they were past 40 and still playing.

The only big winners whose age exceeded 40 years whose fastball was still their “out pitch” were Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.

The baseball just lies there on the grass. It can be thrown by anybody. But can that thrower be accurate enough and filled with enough guile to fool enough batters?

Pitching is not for the non-thinkers. It is a craft. And craftsmen have so much more than natural ability and a piece of adhesive tape that reads “I am important” across their foreheads.

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