Baseball BeatMay 08, 2006
The Art of Pitching
By Rich Lederer

"You only need two pitches. The one the hitter's looking for, and the one he's not."

--Warren Edward Spahn, the winningest pitcher in baseball since 1930 (with a 363-245 W-L record)

Don't look now but Tom Glavine is leading the National League with a 1.94 ERA. No, it's not 1991 or 1998, the two years when the southpaw took home Cy Young award honors. Glavine won 20 games both seasons and sported ERAs around 2.50.

Two innings short of 4,000 for his career, Glavine has been credited with 279 victories while fashioning a 3.43 ERA in a league environment consistently over 4.00. He has a couple of Cy Youngs in his trophy case and was the The Sporting News NL Pitcher of the Year in a third season (2000). How is it possible that a finesse pitcher could have such a successful career?

Despite the love affair with power pitchers, Glavine and others have demonstrated that success at the highest level can be achieved by spotting the ball, changing speeds, and throwing strikes. In other words, the best pitchers aren't necessarily those who can throw a ball through a car wash without getting it wet.

Greg Maddux has forged a pretty good career doing many of the same things as his former Atlanta Braves teammate. The 40-year-old right-hander, winner of four consecutive Cy Young Awards (1992-95), is a half-dozen victories shy of ranking sixth in wins since 1900 (behind Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Warren Spahn, and Roger Clemens). His lifetime ERA of 3.01 is more than one run better than the league average.

Like Glavine, Maddux is pitching like it was the early-1990s. He is tied for the league-lead in wins (5) and is fifth in ERA (2.35). Glavine and Maddux are veterans who know a thing or two about pitching. In contrast to many younger pitchers, they are not afraid to pitch inside. Aluminum bats at the amateur level allow good hitters to turn on inside pitches in a way that very few professionals can with wood bats. As such, young pitchers "learn" to keep the ball away, working the outer half of the plate much more often and confidently than the inside corner.

Glavine and Maddux also have a penchant for keeping the ball down, inducing more than their share of groundballs. Over the years, this pair has allowed about a third fewer home runs than the league average. Together, they have given up just four homers in 13 starts covering 84 2/3 innings in 2006.

Brandon Webb is another pitcher who profiles more like Maddux than not. His 2.05 ERA ranks second in the NL. No longer dependent on a heavy sinker in the mold of a Kevin Brown, Webb is getting batters out by changing speeds and locations while throwing significantly more strikes than at any point in his career (1.01 BB/9 vs. a single-season best of 2.32).

What's going on here? "Hitters today are better trained to hit a fastball than any time in baseball history," Rangers manager Buck Showalter recently told Peter Gammons. "They grow up hitting tennis balls shot out at them at 100 miles an hour. They hit off pitchers from 45 feet. . .Today, most of the hitters can hit any fastball."

Glavine and Maddux work in the mid-80s, while Webb's fastball sits at about 89-91. Look, all else being equal, I'll take the pitcher who can throw the hardest. I get as excited as the next guy when I see a pitcher register triple-digits on the radar gun. But pitching is about a lot more than just speed. In fact, hurlers who change speeds and keep batters guessing can be as successful as those who grade at or near the top of scouts' 20-80 ratings.

Part and parcel to this discussion is that aces and so-called #1s can come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Labeling a pitcher a #3 or #4 because he doesn't hit 95 on the speed gun is a lazy man's way of evaluating talent. Good pitching is good pitching, no matter how it is accomplished.



Any thoughts on the adjustment Glavine made midseason last year, and the remarkable numbers he's posted since?

I think you might also look at Pedro Martinez for further validation of your point. He has not been a power pitcher for a few years now, also working in the mid 80s. Only occasionally does he hit even 90 on the gun, but with impeccable control and a dazzling variety of stuff and speeds, he is both effective and entertaining.

Re Glavine...

Here is what I wrote in Opening Day Notes more than a month ago:

Tom Glavine (6-6-1-1-3-5, 1-0) began 2006 in the same manner he finished 2005. Few people realize that the two-time Cy Young Award winner had the third-lowest ERA in the majors in the second half last year. He is pitching inside and throwing his curve more than ever.

Since 6/25/05, Glavine is 13-8 with a 2.35 ERA.

   IP    H   R  ER  HR  BB   SO 
172.1  149  49  45   7  41  104 

Including his final start in 2005, Glavine has struck out 8.5 batters per nine innings (52 Ks in 55 1/3 IP).

Earlier this year a healthy Rich Harden demonstrated what power and changing speeds can do. Facing the Yankees in the 1st with runners on second and third with no one out, he struck out, in succession, Derek (sp?) Jeter--92 mph splitter; Gary Sheffield --87 mph change; and Jason Giambi, 99 mph riding fastball down the middle. Anyone who throws an 87 mph changeup and can paint the corners, as Harden can, promises to be a great pitcher for years--if he can stay healthy.

With respect to Pedro, yes, I think it is fair to include him in this discussion. He has made a gradual transition over the years from power to finesse pitcher. Like Glavine, Maddux, and Webb, Martinez throws strikes while changes speeds and locations. The foursome ranks 1st, 5th, 2nd, and 9th, respectively, in NL ERA, and they all have excellent K/BB ratios.

Glavine, Maddux, and Webb are also doing a great job at keeping the ball on the ground and in the ballpark. Martinez, on the other hand, has a 0.62 G/F ratio (the lowest among qualifiers in the NL) and has allowed six HR in the early going.

Any thoughts on the next Maddux or Glavine? My pick for the next Maddux is Kevin Slowey, who's pitching exceptionally well for the FSL Fort Myers Miracle.

I think praising Glavine for pitching inside is a little weird. He started doing it a bit last year and has continued this year, along with throwing more curves than he used to throw. But the guy lived on the that 1990's 24 inch wide plate outside corner strike. I still remember a game back in 1993, I think, between the Giants and Braves. Glavine pitched for the Braves. Every single Giant righty stood on top of the plate and closed his stance. They were all pinging liners to right center. It was beautiful to watch. And it worked because Glavine simply hated to go inside. He wanted to throw that Eric Gregg quality outside strike.
Just one fan's opinion.

i dont have much to add but good stuff as always.

Any thoughts on the next Maddux or Glavine?

There may never be another Maddux. However, the closest thing to him among major leaguers is probably Webb. If you're looking for someone else who profiles like Maddux, how 'bout Dave Bush? A poor man's Maddux, to be sure, but I have been impressed with his ability to throw strikes while keeping batters off balance by changing speeds and locations.

You did a helluva job jinxing Maddux tonight!

I think it should also be pointed out there's a difference between pitchers like Maddux/Webb/Pedro and guys like Josh Towers and Carlos Silva. Yes, the latter throw tons of strikes and don't feature anything overly powerful, but they also don't miss many bats and lack an out pitch. Hence the reason why both are getting shelled this year.

I don't think Rich Harden is a good example of what "changing speeds" can do for a pitcher. He can just more or less blow people away. Ben Sheets can hit 97 and then with nearly the same arm action throw a 73 mph curveball. That's not "a crafty guy changing speeds" that "some stud making people look bad because he has beacoup stuff."