Great Pitchers Do More Than Throw Pitches

Great Pitchers Do More Than Throw Pitches

Did you know a pitcher could win the Cy Young Award, Most Valuable Player Award, and Gold Glove Award all in one season? That’s because even pitchers are evaluated for defense and are therefore eligible to take home that gold-covered, tanned-leather trophy given to players who exhibit superior fielding skills.

The King of the Gold Gloves -- not just among pitchers, but among all players -- is Greg Maddux. He has 18 of them, which is the most ever; he won one every year from 1990 to 2008, with the exclusion of 2003 when Mike Hampton took home the prize.

Maddux was spry and athletic, he played hard, and he was smart. He led all pitchers in “range factor” fourteen times and in assists eleven times, led the NL in putouts three times (and is the all-time leader in that category), and turned in three seasons in which he did not commit a single error. It’s no wonder he’s considered by some to be one of the Top 20 Defensive Players of All Time.

Becoming an elite-fielding pitcher
We mentioned Greg Maddux’s athleticism, hustle, and intelligence on the field, but lots of players who possess these attributes don’t become elite fielders. So what set Mad Dog apart?

It would be difficult to point to one single thing that made him the G.O.A.T. Instead, let’s just say pitchers who work hard at doing all the little things well, like Greg Maddux, will end up being strong fielders.

Throughout his career he made scooping ground balls and bunts, covering first base, picking off runners, and backing up his teammates look like second nature. And in a way, that’s what good defensive pitchers do -- they handle these four basic responsibilities as comfortably as they throw fastballs.

Four key functions
They may not sound like much, but those four things are what any young pitcher must learn to do well if they want to become a competent fielder. And we should point out that becoming a competent fielding pitcher isn’t about winning awards, it’s about keeping the other team off the scoreboard.

How so? Just imagine all the things that can go wrong and lead to undeserving baserunners if you’re not fundamentally sound:

-Fielding dribblers and slow rollers - Retiring batters at first base on bang-bang plays requires pitchers to pick up balls quickly and throw to first cleanly; not like this, though.

-Sprinting over to cover first - This should happen reflexively on balls hit to the right side of the infield, but doing it poorly can result in missed opportunities for easy outs.

-Making accurate throws over - Whether it’s to first, second, or third base, you can keep runners honest with good throws, or even steal a quick out; just don’t do this.
Cutting off or backing up relay throws - In this bit of choreographed teamwork, pitchers play a big role in potential putouts on almost every hit to the outfield.
A pitcher’s actions after the ball has been put in play are meaningful in nearly every at bat, especially when you consider that the difference in runs per game between the league average team and the league leading team was less than one in 2016.

Drills for each duty
There are things pitchers can do to improve in each of the four primary areas of fielding, starting with picking up balls in the infield.

Drills like the Come-Backer Drill and Bunt Fielding Drill teach young pitchers the correct techniques for fielding balls in front of them and throwing quickly, in all different game situations. The latter is important because they will need to throw to different places depending on how many men are on and out.

Even when they aren’t fielding balls hit in the infield, pitchers may still need to be involved, such as when their first baseman makes the play. The Cover First Base Drill involves fungoes of varying velocities to different spots for the 1st and 2nd baseman to scoop, while a base runner tries to distract the covering pitcher.

Then there’s throwing -- of the non-pitch variety -- which includes throwing over to an occupied base accurately, cutting off and making relay throws crisply, and getting in position to back up teammates’ relays properly. To turn these tasks into habits, training should include Pick-Off Play Drills, Cutoff Drills, and Backing Up Bases Drills.

At Rick Strickland Baseball, we fully understand that pitching goes well beyond having good stuff and hitting your spots. What you do once you’ve come off the mound is every bit as important as what you do while you’re on it.

And as we always say, “The first step is college, the next step is pros,” which for pitchers is much more likely when they can field their position like a mini-Maddux.

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