The Junkman-guys who live below bat speed and succeed!
Welcome my friends to those who were not blessed with a blazing fastball and who will never have mid 90’s gas. Also, while we are momentarily bemoaning our fate, let me just say that it is helpful, very, very helpful to be left handed. If you are not, have an extra fist shake at the baseball gods on me, I’ll wait, and now to business. If you have neither mid 90’s gas or are left handed, but still have the love of pitching and baseball, read on.
How I became a junkman
I was in early high school and my father long admired Reds fire-baller Paul Derringer who threw very hard and over the top. He encouraged me to do the same, but after 3 games of being absolutely shelled, I admitted to myself that old “Oomph Paul’s” style of pitching was going to get me relegated to the outfield or get me killed. My fastball was average speed for a high school pitcher meaning that the 3,4,5 and maybe 6 hole hitters were having their way with my over the top fastball that did not move much. Yeah, I might be able to blow it by the number 8 and 9 hitters, but that only set me up to fail when the top of the order came around. I made the conscious decision to live below bat speed. It probably saved my pitching career, it frankly made me a winner (or in my case mostly a saver).
First order of business
I began to study pitchers and pitching. I dropped my arm slot to standard ¾’s and went with a 2 seam fastball. What I found was, hey I get a lot of ground ball outs! Cool! Yep, although my velocity was ordinary, I have very good movement (most of it sink). My curveball was easier to locate for strikes and was always my best pitch. My slider became effective, when thrown low and away, and my change up very nasty. I even developed a good screwgie for lefties. For some reason I was able to locate my pitches better from ¾’s, and that is life for the junkman, location and variety.
Location, Location, Location
This is key for those of us in the junk businesses that tend to live below bat speed. I will tell you who helped me with this, none other than the great Ted Williams through his book My Turn at Bat-the Story of my Life. Williams said in his book that any pitch going over the middle of the plate, belt high was a pitch that he would hit 50% of the time, in other words, he batted 500. I resolved to never ever throw a ball in his 500 zone again. It was a promise that I can honestly say that I kept.
Yeah, I think I missed a few times, all pitchers do, but I rarely ever missed in the 500 zone. As a junkman, you must hit the 4 corners of the plate: up and in, up and away (careful here, my fellow junk men), down and in (the home for right handers), and down and away. Why is down and in the home for righties? Its where we most often produce our greatest ally, the ground ball and its fantastic cousin the ground ball double play. As a junkman throwing ¾’s you should have some pretty good sink on your fastball. This, even for the junkman, is your best pitch. Yes, even for us, who live below bat speed, the fastball is king! It is the only pitch that we can throw to all 4 corners of the plate. The two seam fastball can be thrown down and in to sink and run in on the hands of a right handed batter. This will produce the ground ball, and it will set up the circle change in the same exact spot for either a strike out or another ground ball out. So too, the curveball (NOT THE SLIDER OR CUTTER) is effective for front dooring a same side right handed batter. At standard ¾’s your curveball should still break about 1 to 7 and that is enough depth (or tilt) to make it miss the bat or at least produce a ground ball. These three pitches are you suite of pitches for down and in.
Down and away is where the junkman can go for strikeouts, and any of your 4 standard pitches are effective here. The low fastball either 2 or 4 seam varieties are very effective here as is the change up. The curve low and away is the classic strike out pitch, and it is the absolute best place in the world for throwing the slider. Sliders thrown low and way will also produce ground ball outs to the right side, and as junkmen we are all about ground ball outs. You must be able to locate all your pitches where you want them. I am not a big fan of the front door slider, and I did throw one and it did work. How ever, thinking hitters, especially dead pull hitters lay in wait for a hanging front door slider. Most of these guys are short and stocky, and a good fair share of these guys seem to be catchers. They are waiting for an inside pitch to rip over the short left field fence. The front door slider happily fulfills many of their wishes. This is why I caution the prospective junkman to lay off the front door slider (which also seems to back up much more than the slider thrown low and away). If the guys is 6’6 and the catcher is calling for a front door slider, by all means take his advice, but as a general rule I would front door curveballs.
Up and in is a staple of the junkman. You must change the batters eye level. There is also the classic strategy of “climbing the ladder” which is still effective. This is why even the junkman continues to refine and improve his 4 seam high fastball. Some batters love to swing at this pitch, let them, but if you throw a high inside strike for the first pitch the next should probably be a ball (high). You must remember who you are, junkmen do not live here, and we only come for a visit when it benefits us.
What can be said for up and in goes double for up and away! Letting batters get a good look at the pitch, fully extend their arms, what here is good for the junkman, not much! This pitch should probably be thrown for a ball. If you are a junkman who loves to use a cutter (and have a good cutter) this is the place, but throw it for a ball. We are not second coming of Mariano Rivera. He and our fire balling brethren can throw high cutters for strikes; we can not afford it, any other pitch than high four seam fastball or cutter, totally out of the question for us. As that WWE Superstar “the Rock” once so eloquently stated “know your role.” This is not the place for us!
Variety the source of Junking
In my journey to become a complete junkman, I had the pleasure to watch the great Luis Tiant. I liked what he did so much; I had to try it for myself. What was it? Changing arm slots! Yes, yes, many conventional pitching coaches are gnashing their teeth right about now, but then again, they probably over on the mechanics board telling guys who already throw 90, how to through 95, LOL!
I began to change arm slots because I had an excellent overhand curve that I left behind when I dropped to ¾’s. It truly was like loosing an old friend. Every once in a while I would throw one to get a much needed strike out. And because I had excellent rotation on it, it was very hard to distinguish form my fastball. Then I heard about the Blyleven effect, named after the great curve baller Burt “the Dutch Treat” Blyleven. It seemed that rotation on his pitches was so great that the ball came in as a big red blur. The batter could not tell what kind of rotation was on the ball back spin or topspin. Thrown shoulder high this pitch would either be a high inside strike (fastball) or a low inside strike (his Hammer curve). Batters had to guess; they rarely guessed right. I immediately, pirated Blyleven’s fine work. I also watched Blyleven drop down and throw his curve side arm and watched batters bailout only to see the ball majestically sweep over the plate. When I saw Tiant do the same and get great ground ball outs with his fastball and change up, I had 5 or 6 new pitches to perfect. I changed arm angles with fastball, curve, change up, and screwball after watching Mike Marshall throw his drop screwgie. I had to modify this because my best screwgie was from low ¾’s and it dropped from 11:30 to 5:30. This became very frustrating for left handed batters. Supposedly, they had the advantage. In other words, I had them right where I wanted them.
Just like having a mid nineties fastball or being a lefty being able to change arm slots is a gift from the baseball gods. It is a gift that must be accompanied by a lot of hard work in order to be successful. If you don’t have the knack the one pitch to develop from low 3/4’s or side arm is the curveball.
Stealing Strike Outs
There are times when every pitcher needs to get a strikeout. This is most easily done with a great fastball. Since we are junkmen, we probably don’t have that luxury. We still have the same responsibility though. There are times when we must strike out a particular batter. This is a problem without the world class heater or devastating curveball.
Here are some ways that I found effective: (in the order I used them)
- Change-up low and in.
- Slider Low and away
- Side Arm curveball
- High and inside four seamer thrown about chin high (over the top).
I lived on the down and in corner. I had one batter complain that the next game he faced me, he was bringing a pitching wedge instead of a bat. He exclaimed the blank ball is going in the dirt anyway, may I can hit that way. So I set the change up, up with fastballs low and in for strike one and two, then threw the change for the third strike. It looked just like the fastball, surprise! Much the same could be said about the slider. Batters learned to lay off my curve and take their chances with the umpire. They weren’t going to hit it, it was very quality pitch. This happens with a number of pitchers. The slider is much harder to recognize until its too late especially when thrown low and away. The ball dips and veers away from the batter and there is little he can do. The sidearm curve ball is a great way to freeze a batter for strike three (or watch him helplessly fail at the ball while bailing out). I used to front door this pitch all the time using the cross firing action. Finally I used my high four seamer from my old overhand days up and in (usually off the plate) and if they fouled it off, I was set up for an overhand hammer curve next, but more often than not, they flat out missed it. Either way, they were set up for the Blyleven effect curveball.
Your results will vary everyone is different. Hopefully this treatise is a beginning for the reader to join the few the proud the junkmen. Welcome to the distinguished brotherhood, long may opposing batters and coaches complain about you.
Please add your wisdom and experience to our treatise, Ian.