It's All About The Heater
Even In College, Fastball Command Is Key
By John Manuel
Editor-In-Chief, Baseball America
SAN DIEGO -- The convention hall was packed, more than usual, for one clinic in particular at January's American Baseball Coaches Association Convention. It was a Sunday morning on the third day of the convention, and Jerry Weinstein walked up to the stage to polite applause wearing a Colorado Rockies home uniform.
Weinstein may work in pro ball now, but his roots are in the college game, as a long-time head coach at Sacramento City College and later as an assistant coach earlier this decade at Cal Poly. He's now a manager in the Rockies system, but he has more cachet with the college and high school coaching crowd than the average clinic speaker.
So the title of his clinic—Pitching to Win With Your Fastball—instantly got me interested. The coaches and I got to hear Weinstein break it down. Using data provided by the scouting service Inside Edge, Weinstein demonstrated that against the best hitters in the world, the best weapon a pitcher has is a well-thrown, well-placed fastball. While 68 percent of fairly hit balls are turned into outs in the major leagues, 71.5 percent of fastballs hit fairly are turned into outs.
Cliff Lee, the American League's Cy Young Award winner, threw fastballs with 72.5 percent of his pitches in 2008, and because he threw so many fastballs, he had command of the pitch, throwing 71 percent for strikes. Both marks led the majors for starting pitchers. So throwing more fastballs (and throwing them for strikes, with average velocity) leads to success, as Lee's 22-3, 2.54 season indicates.
Unfortunately, that kind of thinking—fastballs first and foremost—goes against the grain for most college baseball coaches.
Sixty Percent Rule
We hear it at BA every summer, when we do top prospects lists for summer college leagues. Coaches and scouts talk about pitchers learning to use their fastball against hitters with wood bats, learning new pitch patterns.
The metal bat is an unavoidable factor in college baseball. For many, it's the biggest problem with college baseball. Of course, the College Preview issue is for those who have no problem with the ping. The actual problem isn't the ping, but what the metal bats cause—a lack of faith in the fastball for college coaches and the pitchers who throw them.
In the Year 2000, when Stanford had dual aces Justin Wayne and Jason Young, their associate head coach, Dean Stotz, was charting all their pitches on his whiz-bang Palm Pilot. Both threw right around 60 percent fastballs in their repertoire, he said, so, "If you're not throwing 60 percent fastballs, you're going to have a hard time having the success those two have had for us."
As Wayne and Young helped start Stanford's string of five straight trips to Omaha from 1999-2003, I thought he had a good point. Since then, I've been more and more interested in the use of the fastball at the college level, and years of anecdotal evidence (and a few actual questions at the ABCA convention) have me convinced the vast majority of college pitchers don't throw 60 percent fastballs.
Velocity Be Damned
Baylor coach Steve Smith spelled it out for me, in so many words: "You have to miss bats in the college game, because you don't see the broken bats; you see guys get jammed but still get hits. And defense is not as good, not as efficient, at our level as it is in the pro game. Those are the two biggest differences."
That's coming from a coach with actual power arms in his staff; not every program has power arms like Kendal Volz, Shawn Tolleson and Craig Fritsch.
But Matt Hobbs sees it differently. He pitched in the Big 12, at Missouri, and now is assistant coach at emerging Division II power UC San Diego. The Tritons don't have any arms like Baylor's, but Hobbs still espouses the fastball-first philosophy.
"You have to command the fastball, even at this level, even when the fastball is in the mid-80s, like most of our guys," Hobbs said. "It's imperative to work off the fastball, to command it, to build arm strength—it's the foundation of everything a pitcher does."
Maybe it's easier for Hobbs to say that at the D-II level, where the pressure to win is not as heated as in the Southeastern Conference, where Pat McMahon can take Florida to Omaha in 2005 and lose his job in 2007. But if it works in the big leagues, it's hard to see how it won't work against amateurs. The metal bat is an equalizer in some ways, but it doesn't turn, say, Ryan Graepel into Albert Pujols.
And as Weinstein showed in his clinic, anybody—even Pujols—can be pitched to with the fastball, if executed properly. Smith would have loved to see the example Weinstein used of a pitch sequence to retire Pujols. The pitcher that retired him—career 4.67 ERA and all—was Baylor alum Kip Wells.