This could be considered pitching advice as much as part of the mental game. I have read several threads where people are asking how to pitch from ahead or behind in the count, how to pitch to good hitters, how to handle the first inning, how to handle the bottom of the order.
Each of these situations vary depending upon the pitcher and the batter order being faced, so it’s difficult to answer. The biggest suggestion I can give is to be observant.
In order to do this, you must understand what you are observing. That takes time to learn on your own, but it’s easier if you have a mentor like a coach or parent, or if you spend time on the bench playing “What if…?” with the other pitchers on your staff.
Collect as much data as possible before the first pitch is thrown. This can be old score books, game video, going to a game and scouting the other team, watching them take batting practice and making note of which locations they hit the hardest and which they struggle with. If they can’t hit it in BP, they won’t learn to hit it by game time!
How is their line up constructed? What is each player’s role in the batting order? If you can work counter to the batter’s plan, it will make their at bat more difficult.
Throw a majority of first pitch strikes. Work from a position of advantage. Strike one sets up your other pitches the best. I’m not saying lay one down the middle on a platter. Do what you must to get the first one by him, make him think it’s something that it’s not for a swing and a miss, foul ball, weak grounder or pop-up, or you could try to hit a location that he will not swing at.
The next thing you want to accomplish is to make the hitter uncomfortable in the box, and you will have an easier time. This can be done a number of ways. Unexpectedly varying pitch selection, pitch location, and pitch speed to keep the batter from timing your pitches is highly effective and also don’t allow him to square up on the ball. Be unpredictable. There are certain pitches that hitters are conditioned to look for in certain counts. Stay away from those patterns. The most known are 0-2 curveballs, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0, and 3-1 fastballs. Mix in other pitches in these counts so hitters don’t sit on pitches.
Force the batter to move his feet. Don’t let him plant his tent stakes and set up camp. Get him ducking, diving, fidgeting. As I mentioned before, avoid attempting this with the first pitch, unless the batter crowds the plate. You can get this type of batter to move his feet and you can get a strike. A good old four-seamer at the umpire’s chin is a great way to start this hitter. I would not throw a front door curve or slider to this hitter. You don’t want him to pull a Shane Victorino and drop his padded front elbow into the pitch.
Now that you are ahead in the count and the batter is on edge, you are in control. Maintain control once you have seized it. Continue to be aggressive. This is no time to turn into a nibbler or finesse pitcher! Keep the pressure on. Work quickly. Don’t give the hitter time between pitches to gather his thoughts.
Work away from the batter’s strengths. If you have done your homework, what you intend to throw next should be apparent. Only if you are coming into the situation blind, this can be difficult. I said difficult, but not impossible–as long as you were and continue to be observant. Does the batter have a closed or open stance? Does he have a hole in his swing? Does he lunge at the ball? Does he lean back in his stance? Where does he hit the ball the hardest? Does he spray the ball or does he exclusively pull or go opposite field? Does he lean in or stand too erect? I can go on, but you get the idea. There will be some cue for you to latch onto and attempt to exploit.
Understand the game situation and prevent the offense from accomplishing its goals for each at bat. If they need a fly ball, keep the ball down. If they need to move the runner keep the ball away from that side.
Seize the neutral territory. That area that is off the plate, but between the batter’s boxes is contested ground. A good catcher can claim this area for you if you stay ahead in the count! When needed, you can throw a pitch that is not a strike yet still get the call, or have the batter chase it to protect the plate. Yes, I said it, you don’t always have to throw strikes to get people out.
Pitch to contact. Keeping the defense involved in the game is often a key to success. If you are striking out or walking hitters, the defense will have a tougher time staying focused and making plays behind you–especially at youth levels. Try to end the at bat on every pitch beginning with the 3rd pitch. I’m certainly not advocating giving in to the hitter to avoid a high pitch count. What I’m saying is that, if you are doing the things mentioned above, the hitter is in a position of defensive swinging. Put the ball where the hitter can’t hurt you.
The moral of this story is that if you do the work on the front side, pay attention to the situation, and execute your plan, the game has a better chance to go the way you want it to go.