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Pitch Calling 101: An Eyeball Scout’s Primer

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MLB: Oakland Athletics at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Pitch calling is generally an art as much as it is a science. There isn’t always a right pitch or a wrong pitch to call for — though as we have seen this week, when a 3-run homer will break your back, a 3-1 fastball down the middle is generally the wrong call. Who knew?

But here are some “primers” the A’s would be wise to follow in their quest to get the most out of what their pitchers have to offer…

Location

Although 17 inches might not seem like a lot (save your TWSS jokes for another time, please), it is more then most hitters can cover against a big league pitcher. Hitters usually try to eliminate one side of the plate by focusing more on the other side, which is sometimes a cat-and-mouse guessing game.

That’s why it is so important to recognize when a batter gives away where he is hunting for pitches. If you see a batter leaning out over the plate, maybe not chasing a slider away or consistently tracking pitches away, he probably cannot cover the inside corner.

Such was the case yesterday when Chas McCormick was spoiling off sliders, leaning, covering, tracking, and giving up the inside part of the plate in the process. Frankie Montas and Sean Murphy stayed with slider away after slider away until finally McCormick pulled a double inside 3B on Montas’ last pitch of an otherwise brilliant outing. A fastball in ties McCormick up.

Another way to determine “location selection” is to take note of whether a batter is looking to pull the ball or hit the other way. If you see a hitter dead set on pulling the ball, pitch him away and let him get himself out (but enough about Sean Murphy). Batters looking to go opposite field are more vulnerable to pitches that are running in on the hands.

Pitch Selection

The other challenge hitters have is that against the quality of stuff big league pitchers possess, it is difficult to be ready for fastballs, breaking pitches, and changeups all at once. Most batters default to looking fastball and adjusting to off-speed pitches, but another strategy hitters use is to guess or hunt. This can happen pitch-by-pitch, or throughout an at bat.

Hitters have been known to sit on a certain pitch, or location, for an entire at bat, laying in the weeds until they get it (or don’t), and sometimes they give away their strategy if you are paying close attention.

If you see a batter spit on a perfectly thrown changeup you would expect a hitter to chase, it might be an indication that he is looking for that pitch and will be late on the fastball. Similarly, when you see a batter being late on fastballs he will likely try to start earlier and commit earlier, which means he is more vulnerable to chasing offspeed pitches — but one thing we know about big-league hitters is that no matter what your velocity is they will time your fastball if they see it enough.

Generally

Remember: against big league pitchers, batters can’t cover the entire strike zone and your entire repertoire. If you pitch to the spots they are not focused on, or throw the pitch they are not poised to cover, you have the strong upper hand. Look for the clues as to what pitch and what location a batter is prepared to cover, and by process of elimination you have found pitches and locations that are holes in their swings.

The complexity, of course, is that it can change from pitch to pitch within an at-bat. And this is the cat and mouse game that makes baseball so fascinating and intellectual. But spreadsheets and spray charts will only get you so far. Pay close attention to what the batter did on the pitch you just threw and you may have the best data of all on where to go next.

The Pitch Starts With You

Finally, pitch to your strength as much as you worry about each hitter’s weakness. If you have a great fastball that day, that is probably more important data than anything your pre-game homework revealed about the hitter in the box. Montas had a great splitter going yesterday, and that made it a great pitch to throw in most any situation regardless of what the batter was thinking. The spot you can hit, the pitch you can command, is the best pitch in baseball. Or at least tied with “strike 1,” as count leverage is a thing.

Now, there is more to pitch calling than I have squeezed into this post as it is one of the most nuanced aspects of a complex game. But it’s a start, and in many cases it is enough just to follow these principles. Pitch to your strength, look for clues, get ahead in the count, and success follows. Except when it doesn’t, because that’s baseball.