In a prior post, I wrote about how the Spiders coaches don’t call pitches from the dugout. We allow our catchers to call the game. Today we’ll discuss the strategies behind calling a good game.
Let’s be clear that calling a good game is an inexact science in youth baseball, for many reasons. The “right” pitch in a situation is often many different pitches, not one. What was called may not be what you’d call, but it may still work.
Also, they’re kids. They’re going to miss spots, sometimes by a lot. It creates a certain amount of chaos that can’t be controlled, no matter how much you try.
The goal is to get the hitter out. Sometimes that means simply throwing a strike and asking the batter to hit it. Sometimes it means to keep the batter off balance to get a swing and miss or a weakly hit ball.
Before we get to the factors that determine how we adjust our strategy, let’s look at a general approach.
1. Get Ahead. The entire at bat changes after getting a first-pitch strike. It puts the pitcher in control and the hitter on the defensive.
Getting ahead typically means a fastball over the plate (though it won’t always be, depending on the aggressiveness of the hitter), but how juicy that pitch is will depend upon the batter.
2. Move Outward When Ahead. After the first-pitch strike, move to the corners. When 0-2 and 1-2, move off the plate (high, low, in or out). Make them hit a difficult pitch because they need to protect the plate.
3. Keep the Batter Off Balance. This is a matter of changing timing and eye level. Timing can be impacted with different pitch types (fastball or offspeed) as well as different pitch deliveries (quick pitch or hold for a long time, for example). Eye level is about moving the ball around to different locations so that the batter can’t focus on one spot.
4. No Free Passes (USUALLY). If we fall behind, we need to throw strikes to avoid a walk. This could mean fastballs down the middle. It could also be offspeed if the pitcher controls it well and is comfortable with it. But while we typically hate walks, there are times when they’re okay. If one hitter is at a much higher level than everyone else and is a constant threat for extra bases, we don’t want him to beat us.
Now let’s look at the factors that impact what pitch is called. These are the things you should be covering with your pitchers and catchers.
1. Strength of Opposition
Going into a game, you aren’t necessarily playing a team you’ve played before. You can look through box scores, but knowing generally how strong the other team is can help you create a game plan heading in.
If you know that the opposing team doesn’t have a particularly strong lineup, you can be more aggressive with fastballs and pitches in the zone. We want them to prove that they can hit the ball. We need to avoid putting batters on base with walks before they can prove they’re able to hit.
If we know heading in that we’ll be facing a strong lineup, we can prepare a more creative plan. That’s when we’ll stress the importance of mixing up pitches — throwing a mixture of fastballs and offspeed pitches as well as different locations (high, low, in and out). We may even come in with offspeed pitches at unusual times, like the first pitch, to keep the opposition guessing and off balance.
The strength of the opposing lineup will also help us understand if there are weaknesses to exposes. For example…
- Highest Level: No noticeable dropoff, everyone can hit
- Average Level: Some good and great hitters, then a dropoff in the bottom half
- Lowest Level: Maybe one or two good hitters, but no one can hurt you
At the highest level, you can’t necessarily look forward to the bottom half of the lineup. They can hit, too.
But for everyone else, you can take a more aggressive approach with strikes and fastballs on certain hitters while being more careful with the best hitters.
2. Strengths and Weaknesses of Pitcher
You can’t use a one size fits all strategy for all pitchers just as you shouldn’t do this for any hitter or opposing lineup.
If your pitcher has a good enough fastball, he may be able to use it exclusively, or nearly exclusively, against most teams. Or if a pitcher doesn’t have much velocity on his fastball, you may want to avoid throwing those pitches up.
Maybe your pitcher is still developing an offspeed pitch or he’s still struggling to control it. Or it’s possible the pitcher is simply more comfortable throwing one pitch over another.
These are all things that will contribute to what pitch is called in a given situation.
3. Spot in Lineup or Ability of Hitter
While every coach has his own reasons for how he creates his lineup, you can make some guesses about ability level based on where you are in the lineup. Your best hitters will typically be in the top half while the weaker hitters will typically be near the bottom. Best power hitters are traditionally around the three, four, and five slots (but tradition is often thrown out the window).
This is at least a starting place when evaluating what to throw to a particular batter. Know that sometimes coaches use a random order or flip it upside down. But this typically won’t happen in important games (at least if they respect you).
Before the pitcher and catcher head on to the field, they should know where they are in the order. If possible, they should have an idea of the ability of the hitters coming to the plate.
Keeping the overall ability level of the opposition in mind as discussed in #1, we may be more likely to throw fastballs or pitch down the middle to a batter near the bottom of the order. In some cases, we should challenge a batter to prove that he can hit the ball.
If it’s a batter who can hurt us, we should typically be more careful with him, mixing up speeds and locations.
4. Proven Strengths/Weaknesses/Tendencies
If a batter has proven to mash high fastballs, we should stop throwing them.
If he lays off every offspeed pitch we throw, we should only look to throw that if it’s for a called strike.
If he pulls everything and jumps on fastballs generally, we should mix in a lot of offspeed pitches.
5. Next Batter in Lineup
Sometimes how we approach a batter has just as much to do with who is up next as it does with who is up. We may be facing a good batter with a runner on base, but maybe the batter on deck can hurt us much more. We do NOT want to put this batter on base, so we may want to be a bit more aggressive.
If you know that the next batter is someone you can get out and you have two outs, you can be less aggressive with the current batter, making him hit your pitch.
The most important spot in the lineup is often the bottom. If you put those batters on base, the chance for damage when the top of the order comes up is high. You must be more aggressive with these hitters. Make them hit the ball. DO NOT WALK THEM.
6. Aggressiveness of Hitter
Oftentimes the best hitters in youth baseball are also the most aggressive ones (though the best approach is a selectively aggressive one). They can get away with swinging at bad pitches because they are simply bigger, stronger, and better than everyone else.
Sometimes bad hitters are aggressive, too. But usually, aggressive hitters are confident while passive hitters lack belief in themselves.
Why does this matter? It means that you can take advantage of aggressive hitters. You know there’s a good chance they’re going to swing at what you throw. Don’t give him something nice to hit. Mix up speeds and take advantage of his aggressiveness.
Hitters who lack aggressiveness often hope for a walk. Don’t let them get that. Pump strikes, usually fastballs, and make them hit it.
As discussed at the top in the general approach, we want to get ahead in the count. Our approach changes as the count progresses.
We may typically be more likely to throw a fastball in the zone for the first pitch to get ahead. Once ahead, we may be more likely to work corners or intentionally throw outside of the zone as the hitter will (or should) be more aggressive to protect the plate.
If you fall behind, you’ll typically (depending on other factors) focus on throwing strikes and making the batter hit the ball.
8. Number of Outs
How you approach a single batter can change significantly based on the number of outs.
If the best hitter is up with no outs, we may be more aggressive with him than if there are two outs. Putting him on base with no outs could create new problems. But with two outs, we may be happy to work around him to face the next batter or force this best hitter to hit our pitch.
If your team is way ahead, there’s no reason to get particularly cute with pitch selection. Throw strikes, maybe primarily fastballs. Regardless, you don’t want walks. You can still use this time to work on things, but as a general approach, throwing strikes — regardless of the batter — should be the focus with a big lead.
If it’s a close game, every baserunner and every base taken matters. Walks and extra-base hits can decide the game. So we need to be aggressive with the weaker hitters and keep those who can hurt us off balance with pitch location and type.
10. What Hitter is Doing in an At Bat
One major advantage of having catchers call a game is that they see things that a coach can’t see from the dugout. Calling pitches can and should be influenced by what a batter is doing during an at bat.
If a batter is standing far away from the plate or stepping out, we should focus on the outer half of the plate.
If a batter is pulling everything foul, it’s a good time to mix in some offspeed. On the flip side, if he can’t catch up to the fastball and is missing it entirely or fouling it off the other way, keep coming with fastballs. Don’t speed up his bat with offspeed.
If a batter swings at a high pitch out of the zone, throw it again — but higher! You can use this same approach for pitches that are low, inside, or outside.
If it’s clear that a batter can’t diagnose an offspeed pitch and is way out front, keep throwing it.
If a batter crowds the plate in an attempt to reach pitches on the outer half, it’s an opportunity to pitch inside. Sometimes a batter does this because they can handle inside pitches. But oftentimes, he’ll take the pitch on the inside part — or get jammed trying to hit it.
11. What the Umpire is Calling
This is huge and can’t be ignored.
If the umpire has a wide zone, use it to your advantage! If he calls strikes off the outside part of the plate, keep pushing pitches further out there to see what he’ll call.
If the umpire calls high or low, use that information to influence what pitches you call. While what the batter will swing at matters, what an umpire will call a strike is important — particularly when you need a strike call.
If an umpire has a tight zone, we can’t get frustrated with it. We have to be more careful about what we call, particularly if the batters are less aggressive.
11. How the Inning is Going
Is everyone teeing off on your pitcher? Did you think attacking with fastballs down the middle would work with this team, but it’s not?
Well, it’s time to adjust. Throw something else. The team has a strategy that is working, and you need to force them to change that strategy.
On the flip side, don’t change what’s working. Maybe you’re throwing more fastballs than normal. Or more offspeed than normal. But whatever it is, the other team is off balance or missing or getting out. Don’t mess with success.
12. What the Pitcher is Doing
Normally your pitcher is pumping strikes, but he’s not today. He just walked two straight batters on eight pitches. Now what?
You may need a new approach. Maybe the offspeed isn’t working today. Maybe he just needs to find some confidence. If everything is outside, move inside. If everything is high, give him a low target.
Talk to him about what he wants to throw that will get him back into the groove.
13. Runners on Base
With a basestealing threat on first base (assuming you have a legitimate shot at throwing him out), an offspeed pitch in the dirt is probably a bad pitch early in the count. If the other team likes to run on the first pitch, you may even throw a high or outside fastball on that pitch.
If there’s an important runner on third base, you should also be careful about that offspeed pitch in the dirt. Generally, you may want to stay closer to the zone to avoid giving the other team a free run.
14. Catcher’s Blocking Ability
A catcher needs to have self awareness and know his strengths and weaknesses. If you struggle to block pitches in the dirt, you aren’t alone. And you need to use this knowledge when calling pitches.
If there aren’t runners on base and it’s early in the count, there’s nothing wrong with a ball getting by you. No damage done.
But if there are two outs with a runner on third, an offspeed pitch is probably a bad idea. It increases the chances of the other team scoring.
Likewise, an offspeed pitch in the dirt with two strikes and no one on first (or with two strikes and two outs) is a bad idea because it gives the other team an opportunity to reach base, even if they strike out.
Work on this skill. But in the meantime, call pitches that you can handle in these crucial situations.
It’s Complicated — And Not
When listed out like this, it seems complicated. It is, but it’s not.
These are all factors that contribute to pitches that are called. But there’s rarely a clear “right” and “wrong” call on any given pitch.
The main thing is that catchers are thinking about as many of these things as possible, rather than making calls in a vacuum without giving them thought. If they’re thinking about what to call and why, that’s the main thing.
A catcher who is aware of the situation and how it impacts pitch selection is a mature one. Help him develop by highlighting the things that could impact what he calls.
I found myself adding more and more factors that contribute to a catcher’s pitch selection, and I’m sure there are more. What did I miss?
Let me know in the comments below!