Welcome to the life of high pressure and games won or lost in one or two batters. If you are not of this ilk, the starter thread is a click away. We wish you luck in your starting career so take your 4 or 5 pitch arsenal and the best of luck.
Now for the rest of us who are willing to accept the pressure and the position that come with it, listen up. Relief pitching is about one thing and one thing only, Quality Strikes! Not any strike will do they must, must, must be quality strikes!
These quality strikes must also appease the home plate umpire who might tend to squeeze the plate when he gets nervous.
A closer must not give up stolen bases by having an exaggerated windup or being slow to home, a decent pick off move is vital.
The Arm Slot & Suite of Pitches
Every arm sot has it strengths and challenges. For the complete relief pitcher I would argue that the best arm slot is medium three quarters. The closer must be able to accomplish two things as the situation demands: a strike out and a ground ball double play. One fastball that can do both is the ¾’s two seam fastball, and if a pitcher desires a little extra speed he can mix in a four seamer with good effect.
The two seam fastball underneath the hands with good sinking action is a premier double play pitch. It produces from a right hander a ground ball to the right side starting the 6-4-3 or 5-4-3 double play. It is an excellent set up pitch thrown low and in for a subsequent high 4 seam to climb the ladder up and in, for a strike out from subsequent a slider low and away, or a change up thrown exactly in the same place. The sinking fastball is very difficult to lift and deep fly balls are the bane of the closer since he normally enters the game with base runners sometimes in scoring position.
A four seam fastball is also an effective pitch. It will not “rise” like the over the top fastball, but will have a good deal of run. This pitch must be used judiciously by a reliever. It must be thrown high in the strike zone and set up properly. Closers don’t not often get a chance to use a waste pitch, but this would be effective for a high strike out or to induce a pop up. The problem with this pitch is that a bloop single can be just as devastating as a double off the wall, so use it with caution!
The down breaking slider is a great pitch for a closer. It is a breaking pitch that can be thrown at speed, is not as hard to catch as a down breaking curveball, and is easier to get called for a strike by the umpire. A fact of life for all pitchers is umpires miss calls. One of the hardest pitches to judge is a sharp down breaking curveball. This is a pitch that batters tend to lay off on or hold their swing, knowing that they might have been fooled. The slider breaks so late that this is not possible. It is easy for the catcher to frame effectively. It probably should only move 4 inches away and 4 inches down and that my fellow closers is more than enough. Even if a runner steals on this pitch, it still moves with good velocity and should give the catcher a chance to throw out the stealing base runner. Thrown low and away this is an excellent strike out pitch which can also produce ground ball outs to the right side. I am personally not a big fan of trying to “front door” sliders to same side hitters. This is better left for starters with good curveballs or side-armers. Left over the plate this pitch can be driven deep into the outfield by just about any competent batter.
The circle change thrown from a medium ¾’s arm slot should have excellent sink and run. This will produce swinging strike outs or ground ball double plays. This pitch must be used with care by a closer since he must consider the base runners and the catcher. From my experience I liked throwing my change up low and in as batters tend to take low and away that they have been fooled on. The low and away change can also produce the “nubber” to the right side that has crazy spin on it that can be mis-played. This is not for me, thanks. I am a huge fan of routine ground balls. Low and in “nubbers” tend to go foul in my experience while the low and away ones tend go spinning in the field of play.
That’s it; three pitches are more than enough. You can probably get by with 2, the fastball and slider, but I always liked to have a trick or two up my sleeve so I kept a change up. I love the curveball as a pitch but not for a closer who inherits base runners on a routine basis. All pitches must be kept down except when you must have a strike out.
When must you have a strike out? Here’s a situation: You are brought into the game bases are loaded, no outs, game is tied. At this point the ground ball double play is not an effective ploy unless it comes right back to you. You want to avoid a tag pay as well. You best choice, a strikeout. If you are in the bottom of 9 or (7 in high school ball), you must have a strike out, you must not have a wild pitch or passed ball. You really should not go to 3 and 2 as the runners are started. The infield and outfield are drawn in so any contact is dangerous. This is why I keep the changeup. The batter is all geeked up to swing, so left him drive the ball deep into the foul seats or miss completely. Now on the second pitch you can run your two seamer in and down or your four seamer up and in. You changed his eye level. Now you can throw the slider low and away or come back with the change-up. In any way or combination the closer is going for the strike out. After you strike out the batter, now you can go for a ground ball double play and get out of the mess! Remember the ground ball double play is the pitchers best friend!
Please add your wisdom and experience to my treatise, Ian.