The Three Pillars of Pitching

Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Opalewski.  Coach Opalewski is the pitching coach at Central Michigan University and has contributed to The Full Windup before.  To check out his other articles, visit Coach Opalewski’s bio page here.

Looking in for the Sign

CC photo courtesy of Joel Dinda on flickr

What comes first, success or confidence? That question has been debated in dugouts for years, and depending on whom you talk to, you can find some pretty passionate feelings in favor of either answer. I believe that confidence leads to success, but long before you get to that point there is a thorough amount of preparation needed to build that confidence.

Mike Villano introduced the concept of “gameplanning” to me when I was a senior at Central Michigan University in the fall of 2003, and his concept of preparing a gameplan in 3 Pillars is a format that we still use nearly identically here at CMU nearly 10 years later. Each fall every pitcher on our staff is required to turn in a written gameplan before they are allowed to pitch in any scrimmages.  We ask them to define their plan in a format by using the following 3 pillars of pitching:

  1. Know Your Stuff
  2. Trust Your Stuff
  3. Protect Your Stuff

Know Your Stuff

When it comes to “Knowing your stuff,” perhaps it would be more appropriate for us to ask our pitchers to learn and understand their stuff. Merely knowing you throw a 4 and 2 seam fastball, change up and curve ball is not what we are getting at here. The real question is how do you get hitters out? When you throw your fastball, which locations can you command it to, and what type of movement or life does it have to those locations? What do you throw in specific counts? How do you attack right-handed hitters differently from left-handed hitters? How do hitters react to your stuff?

The intent of this plan is to identify how you would attack a lineup if you were facing them today. There is room to identify weaknesses and a desire for improvement, however, if you cannot execute a specific pitch to a specific location then it cannot be a part of your present gameplan. The most important part of knowing your stuff is recognizing your foundation, the thing that everything you do revolves around. Realistically, if you cannot execute a pitch to a location 8 out of 10 times then it should not be your foundation.

As we try to build a pitcher’s foundation, we try to do it one pitch in one location at a time. Mastery is very important to a pitcher, as there are times in a game that require execution, and you need to be able to turn to your foundation to succeed in those situations. When pitchers get better and can execute the same pitch in multiple locations, then multiple pitches in multiple locations, the foundation becomes broader and more stable, allowing them to have consistent success in more scenarios.

There needs to be a real sense of honesty and accountability when a pitcher sits down and considers this Pillar. While confidence is vital to achieving success, false bravado is lethal. If you do not execute a pitch consistently enough, then it can only be used sparingly, in situations that minimize the risk that comes along with the results of not executing it in that situation.

In college baseball we rarely enter a game without some sort of a scouting report on the lineup we are facing. The scouting report should be used to match up hitters’ weaknesses with your pitcher’s strengths. We will never make an adjustment to attack a hitter outside of our pitcher’s foundation until we are forced to by a hitter proving he can hurt us on our strengths. Just because a hitter struggles with a breaking ball doesn’t mean he won’t be able to handle the breaking ball if it’s a pitcher’s third best pitch and he only executes it in his intended location half of the time. Along the same lines, a hitter that is aggressive to a first pitch fastball does not mean he will square up the well-located pitch that is the foundation for your gameplan. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson,

“Every hitter likes fastballs just like everybody likes ice cream. But you don’t like it when someone’s stuffing it into you by the gallon. That’s how you feel when Nolan Ryan’s throwing balls by you.”

Trust Your Stuff

Henry Ford said, “whether you believe you can or you can’t, you are probably right.” Provided we have done our job developing the first Pillar in an honest, accountable manner, then the only thing that can hold us back from consistent success is ourselves. It is up to a coaching staff to put a pitcher in positions to be successful based on what that pitcher is capable of doing and what is asked of them. This is out of the pitcher’s control, and you cannot worry about anything you cannot control as a pitcher.

The thing you can control is the way you think. Since you have already put in the work to develop and update your gameplan, you should have confidence that the plan will work, that your stuff is good enough to get hitters out. You must have complete conviction in every pitch you throw. Most of the time the person who is most aggressive in the pitcher vs. hitter battle will win. Since we start with the ball, the only way we will not be the aggressor and force the hitter to be reactionary based on what we do is if we allow that to happen. Winning in this sense is not determined by results, but rather the process. You will consistently put yourself in positive counts and force weak contact and swings and misses if you pitch within your plan and trust your plan.

It is human nature to want to do more. There is nothing wrong with this. When we as pitchers allow this want to become an attempt to do more is where we will consistently lose. If your breaking ball is identified as your out pitch in your gameplan, then it is good enough to get hitters out. When you want a swing and miss on your breaking ball, throw YOUR breaking ball to a location below the zone or off the plate that cannot be hit. You cannot try to throw a better breaking ball that moves more or breaks sharper to induce the swing and miss. You must trust at all times that your plan and stuff are good enough to get outs if executed.

Pitching coaches talk about “pitching to contact” all the time. In truth, every pitcher pitches to contact most of the time. Very rarely in college baseball will a pitcher strike out more than 12 hitters per 9 innings, or less than 45 percent of the outs recorded. The majority of almost every pitcher’s outs come on balls put in play. There is a natural desire for pitchers to avoid contact, a feeling of dominance that they feel is attainable because at lower levels in their career they were so far physically superior to their competition they were able to induce consistent swings and misses. For most pitchers, the most difficult thing to trust is the idea that hitters are going to put the ball in play off of them, and pretty regularly. Once they can accept this and combine with the knowledge they have of what their stuff is and how hitters react to it, we can truly trust that hitters will put the ball in play on our terms – softly – if we aggressively execute our gameplan.

Protect Your Stuff

Once you know who you are as a pitcher and have developed a sound gameplan that you trust completely, at all times, then you need to consider other ways that an opponent could beat you even if you execute your plan. Basically, this comes down to protecting your gameplan and protecting against adjustments with the pitches you throw, fielding your position, and controlling the running game. (The physical components of protecting your stuff through your throwing program, delivery development and maintenance along with strength, conditioning and flexibility training are excluded from this pillar, as they are viewed differently by us).

Even if you want to get a hitter out with a certain pitch, you won’t be able to go to that pitch right away and repeat it over and over without the hitter making some sort of an adjustment to cheat to that pitch. You will need to prevent that by throwing other pitches in other locations, often times out of the strike zone, to change timing, eye level, or body posture of the hitter.

Fielding your position is something you prepare to do by the way you practice and the way you train. Repetition and athleticism are the two most important aspects to being a quality defender – no different than for infielders. You can improve your feet and coordination by training yourself appropriately. Despite pitcher fielding practice (PFP) being one of the least exciting things a pitcher will experience in his daily routine, you need to be disciplined enough to challenge yourself and compete to become the best defender you can be. It is a much better alternative than losing a game because a hitter beat you to first base on a push bunt or making an inaccurate throw preventing a double play from being turned.

Controlling the running game is very individualized skill. A basic understating of how each opponent runs, how likely he will be to run, and which counts they like to run in. Pickoff moves, varying the amount of time you hold the baseball before either delivering a pitch or stepping off the rubber, the amount of time it takes you to deliver the ball to your catcher, and pitchouts are the major factors we identify when it comes to controlling the running game. Again, while this is not always the favorite part of your routine, it can go a long way towards determining the outcome of close ballgames.

Preparation = Confidence = Success

The 3 Pillars of Pitching is something that most of our pitchers will update and resubmit between 2 and 5 times per year. Every time they submit a new plan, there are significant increases in the detail they use describing who they are and what they do to win. The constantly increasing awareness of what they need to do in order to have consistent success is very rewarding to me as a coach, and tangible evidence of the progress they are making. As they put in the time and effort to develop this plan they also continue to gain confidence in who they are and what they are going to do to get hitters out. Preparation leads to confidence, which leads to success.

What’s your gameplan?  Use the comments section below to start developing your 3 Pillars.

Looking for a Baseball Strength Training Program?
Receive a FREE training program and template for one month of off-season training. Just enter your name & email & click "Get It Now!"