The Art of Pitching
"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.