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Keep the Pitch Low



IF THERE IS ANYTHING I AM certain about in pitching, it is that the farther up in the game you go, the more successful you can be by keeping your pitches low.  There will be exceptions, of course. The classic example will be the power pitchers (like Nolan Ryan) who can retain their velocity and continue pitching upstairs as they age.  Most pitchers will achieve greater success by keeping the ball in the lower part or even just out of the strike zone.  Several of the reasons for this are:

  1. Lower is faster. Most low fastballs are 1-2 mph faster than the pitcher's high fastball cousins. A radar gun will quickly prove this.
  1. The hitter can see only the top half of the ball. On a high pitch, the batter will see the whole ball.
  1. The low ball is more likely to be hit on the ground and less likely to be hit for distance.
  1. The action on the ball (veer and sink) is heightened when the pitch is low.
  1. Gravity adds to both the velocity and movement of the pitch.
  1. Double plays (the essence of defensive efficiency) are the precious gifts of the low-ball pitcher.

Keeping the batters from hitting the long ball is a form of survival pitching.  For whatever the reason (tighter wound balls, shorter fences, fewer developed four-seam fastballs, tighter strike zones, and souped-up bats), one has to pitch low in order to be effective.

Delivering a four-seam fastball high and without a lot of action can be dangerous. Since umpires have reduced the high strike to a nonentity, "everything low" becomes an extremely viable style of pitching. The lower strike zone has truly stimulated the development of this pitch.

Power Sinker

The power sinker is a great low-pitching option for anyone who can master it. The artistry lies in making use of gravity, getting a good rotation, and mastering stride length.

The hard or power sinker is a marvelous pitch. It seriously fragments the frequency of home runs. Unfortunately, few pitchers can throw it effectively. Kevin Brown of the Dodgers is the prototype power-sinker pitcher. It is a low pitch, but because it is thrown extremely hard (90's mph), it can be both a ground-ball and strikeout pitch.

Qualities and requirements of the power sinker would include:

  1. Arm angle. Three-quarter or three-quarter minus is the preferred arm slot, though some pitchers can throw it with a higher (three-quarter plus) arm slot.
  1. Spin is mainly in the 8 to 2 direction approaching 9 to 3.
  1. A tight hard spin provides the bite (sharpness of break) to the ball.
  1. Good hand speed, with an acceleration at the release point.
  1. Pronation of hand with the index finger coming down on the inside of the ball, turning the ball over. Thumb turns to the right (RHP).
  1. A long stride to ensure a low pitch.

Keeping the ball low increases its velocity by as much as 3 mph.  Add the dimension of a sharp lateral break accompanied by a downward bite and you have a devil of a pitch.  By keeping this pitch at the knees and lower, you can make it almost impossible to hit for distance.

One of its great characteristics is that it often appears headed for the low strike zone, but because of its sharp action, it often breaks out of the strike zone, not only tormenting the hitter, but inducing the umpire to call a borderline strike.  Mixed with a late breaking slider and/or a circle change-up, which may also break down (and incidentally also break out of the strike zone), it gives you a devastating style of pitching.  When you mix it with a soft or slower sinker, you wind up with a menu for ground balls. Since few grounders ever wind up as extra-base hits, you will reduce the run output and consequently enhance your opportunity to win.

Not every pitcher will be able to throw power sinkers, but many will be able to develop some quality with the pitch. The jury is still out on the anatomical stress produced by the power sinker, but, as with all pitches, good mechanics can reduce the risk.

Anatomy of the Circle Change

The circle or OK change has become the preferred change-up of the day.  It has several real positive qualities.  It's the grip that causes the ball to go slower.  In a conventional fastball, the fingertips are the prime activators of fast spin (tight) and ultimately provide the velocity and quality to the pitch. In a change-up, the fingertips do not play a role.  Some experimentation with the circle or OK change will be needed to obtain a comfortable feeling.

Mechanics of the OK change (also called the circle change):

  1. Form an OK with the thumb and forefinger forming a circle and the three remaining fingers standing up in the conventional OK gesture.
  1. Place the middle two fingers in the center of the ball.   
  1. Place the little finger to the outside of the ball.
  1. Place the thumb and forefinger (in a circular position) on the inside of the ball.

Another way of gripping the circle or OK change is to:

  1. Grasp the ball as a palm grip. 
  1. Bring little finger down.
  1. Form a circle on the inside of the ball with the forefinger and the thumb.

Once the grip is established, the idea is to throw the pitch low.  The middle fingers should guarantee the lowness of the pitch, as well as prevent the pitch from being thrown hard.  At the outset, I believe you should try to throw the pitch hard and then gradually work into a comfortable release.  The pitcher should always provide an illusion to this pitch -- make his armspeed look like fastball armspeed.

Getting Change-Ups to Sink

Many OK change-ups will sink (a la Maddux and Martinez), which will add to their effectiveness. This movement can be purely accidental or by coincidence. It is the result of natural pronation. But a certain degree of doctoring can occur. Try the following (to make ball break in and down):

  1. Make the thumb turn outward (to right for RHP).
  1. Push forefinger down and in (RHP).

  This will cause the ball to sink.  Some circle changes even act like a screwball, due to the reduced speed and rotation.  These pitches will often be out of the strike zone, but will still cause the batter to lunge for them. Rarely will such pitches be hit for distance.

  To make the ball break away (for RHP):

  1. Middle fingers can exert pressure (inward, to the left).
  1. Thumb turns inward -- to the left.

This will cause the change-up to break like a cutter or a slider.  Since the pitch is unlikely to break downward, it cannot be recommended.  A change-up must go down in order to be effective.  The anatomy of the pitcher's hand may very well determine which way to make this pitch act.

Throwing the OK change perfectly straight still has great advantages, as the spin rotation in the four-seam fastball and four-seam change-up is very deceptive to the batter, particularly to those who like to read the pitch.  As I have said, the pitch must be kept low.  High changes are dangerous, as the batter can adjust to them much easier. His vision is more focused (on high change-ups) and his swing more adjustable.

As pitching coaches, we have to imbed this tendency (keeping the ball low) early in the pitcher's career.  Pitching low is where it's at! It is a style of pitching all in itself.

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