We all know that being predictable on the mound is not a good thing. It’s a bad feeling when that 0-2 off-speed pitch you love so much gets read and clobbered.
But even with this knowledge, that we don’t want to become predictable, why do so many pitchers fall into patterns and habits with pitch selection and location?
In my view, it is pretty simple classical conditioning. We learn that a certain pattern tends to be rewarding, so that sequence is reinforced every time we get a batter out or get praised for a particular pitch in a particular count. Heck, even hearing the umpire call a strike could be reinforcement for a particular pitch, and of course we want to throw that pitch that just made a guy look silly again, why wouldn’t we think that way?
We also learn not to throw particular pitches in particular counts and get punished by hard hit balls or ball calls from the umpire for certain pitches, which is when we tend to shy away from using a particular pitch or location in a given situation. After all, why would you want to throw that changeup that just got blasted to the gap, again?
It’s like Pavlov’s dogs. Sure the experiment may be a little outdated, but this is a good way of looking at it from a behavioral perspective.
The important thing here, is that the batters are human too and are subject to the same types of conditioning when they are trying to adjust to your pitching. Not only that, but they often learn vicariously through each other, they watch each other hit and they tell each other what your pitching is like and any patterns that they notice. You can use this to your advantage. As human beings we are always looking for patterns in things, including pitch sequences. Say, as an example you get through the first inning going fastball-fastball-curve. The other team picks up on it and tries to adjust. So coming out with curve-fastball-fastball on the first batter next inning may throw an entire team off, if not, at least you’ll fool that batter. Now say leadoff man comes up again and last time you made him look silly on a curveball in the dirt, he’s going to use that information and tell himself not to take the bait, this time a heater near his knees might just freeze him.
In my pitching days, my ace in the whole was a measly 75mph fastball, it wasn’t fast compared to other fastballs, but it was fast compared to the 50 or 60mph knuckleball I threw 80% of the time. I’d condition them to wait back on the knuckleball and then on a 2-2 count, sneak a fastball right past them. Timing can be conditioned too (that’s why we advise youngsters to learn a changeup).
So what about a guy like Bartolo Colon, who throws almost nothing but fastballs, and not very hard at that? How does he go about staying unpredictable? Simple, locations can be used the same way as speed and break. The guy just crushed an inside fastball last time, so he’s more than likely eager to jump on another one. Give him a similar look, but just a little bit further inside and tie him up. Guy just watched a strike on the outside corner? He knows to swing at that now in a 2 count strike, now you can go out a little more and watch him chase.
There will be batters wise to these tactics, but don’t be discouraged by that, you’ll be able to tell who they are by their reactions to them and adjust accordingly.
If you find a particular batter has wised up to your mind games, you can mix it up between trying again to test him or throwing the opposite of what you just threw.
You should ask yourself constantly, if I were a batter, what would I expect next? Then throw something either similar to that to trick the batter into thinking he got what he was anticipating or throw something that you wouldn’t expect in a million years as the hitter.
How do you keep the mentality of the batter when you’re pitching though?
This is where something I like to call mindfulness comes in and here are some ways to practice it.
In your spare time, find some time to practice meditation, even if only for a few minutes. Focus only on your breath at first, then as you move on, start focusing on objects or sounds around you, a good example is a ticking clock. Focus on the things that aren’t immediately obvious, in the case of a ticking clock, you can focus on the silence in between the ticking. If you’re focusing on a particular object, say a door, focus on the door itself, the pattern of the grain in the wood, the origin of the door, etc. This helps shift your thinking to things that aren’t immediately apparent to yourself and may help you pick up on thinking patterns of hitters and begin to feel empathy for the hitters, which you can use against them when they are up to bat. This may also help you remember all the available options you have, it’s not just about fastball, curve, change, it’s also about high, tight, away and low, etc.
A few other things to help with this are to take batting practice or a few simulated game at bats if you aren’t already a position player too to help understand the mentality of the batters. In my experience, my knowledge of hitting is what made me decent at pitching.
It is also important to practice hard enough that you feel confident selecting any option you have in your arsenal at any given time. Got a knuck? Would you dare throw it 3-2 with the bases loaded? If not, then you’d better practice it. Confidence in all of your options is also key in staying unpredictable and using your opponent’s conditioning.
Make batter’s expect one thing and give them another. Put yourself in their shoes when you’re thinking about your next pitch.
There’s a lot more to say on this topic, and I encourage you all to discuss it in this thread.
Also, please give me feedback, do you find my posts useful? If not let me know and give me some help with these, if you do let me know so I know to keep up with my weekly posts in the mental game section.