Pitchability

David Cameron

Quite honestly, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series was the best baseball game I had seen since October 8th, 1995, when Edgar Martinez doubled down the line to score Ken Griffey Jr. Watching Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, and Mariano Rivera go head-to-head was classic, and not just because ESPN has a channel that would then show the game every week.

I was genuinely happy for people like Randy Johnson, Mark Grace, Mike Morgan (who was old when I was 6), and most of all, Byung Hun Kim. I was thrilled to watch Curt Schilling win a World Series after the heartbreak Mitch Williams put him through in 1993. It was baseball at its best, and that’s why there isn’t a sport in the world close to it.

Bud Selig then threw a Texas-sized bucket of water on the parade by announcing the worst negotiating ploy in modern labor history (that would be “contraction”), two days after the culmination of one of the sport’s finest moments and the day before the World Championship parade. (You, sir, are an idiot.) Fortunately for the great people of Minnesota and the thousands of diehard Twins fans, Commissioner Evil was thwarted on his way to ruining baseball for people who actually care about the game.

But of course, none of this has anything to do with baseball prospects, does it? And that’s what I’m here to write about. Well, sort of.

The last seven games of the 2001 baseball season caused me to realize something that I had always known but never really believed in, or at least understood. Forget fastballs, curveballs, or sliders. Put away the radar guns, because velocity does not get outs. Movement is nice, but doesn’t make you a major league pitcher. There is one thing that all successful pitchers have in common, and it’s called pitchability.

What is pitchability?

You’ll get a lot of differing opinions, depending on who you talk to. Some will tell you it’s the understanding of how to exploit a hitter’s weaknesses. Some will tell you that it’s the knowledge of your own limitations and the ability to stay within your constraints as a pitcher and maximize what you have. Some will tell you it’s the ability to ignore pressure and throw the best game of your life when it really matters. I’ll tell you it’s all of the above and a whole lot more. It is what makes a pitcher successful, and everything else is secondary.

Greg Maddux was the best pitcher in the major leagues in the 1990’s. His fastball tops out at around 92, his curveball is slightly above average, and his change-up is his only pitch that could be considered a “plus pitch.” His control is great, but so was Bob Tewksbury’s.

Why was Greg Maddux the best pitcher of the last ten years, and probably one of the ten best of all time? He knew what he was doing. He approaches every pitch with a plan. He plays chess on the mound. He got the reputation of being the smartest man in baseball, and not just because he wears glasses and has the charisma of a piece of balsa wood.

Greg Maddux understands hitting like no one else I’ve ever seen. He knows what the hitters are thinking and he does exactly the opposite. His ability to convince the hitter that his 81 MPH changeup is really a 92 MPH fastball is what got him in the top five in strikeouts through most of his run in the 90’s, despite stuff that could legitimately be classified as average.

Living in Seattle, I’ve had the privilege of watching Jamie Moyer pitch since 1996. When people tell you his fastball tops out at 85 miles per hour, they’re exaggerating. He rarely breaks 82. He jokes that he has three pitches: slow, slower, and slowest. His curveball doesn’t drop much, his change-up stays pretty flat, and he has next to no movement on his “fastball.”

Yet Moyer just won 20 games at the age of 38, and will finish in the top five in Cy Young award voting. In the AL Division Series, he made the Cleveland Indians, the best offense in baseball, look like my little league teammates. He followed that up by completely dominating the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. How does a soft-tossing lefty who isn’t hard on lefties dominate a lineup of all-stars?

It’s the same way Bud Smith threw a no-hitter as a rookie, or Hideo Nomo threw a no-hitter in Coors Field. It’s the way Curt Schilling pitched the best month of his life in the most important month of his baseball life, and saved two of his best starts for the only two times he’d ever started on three days’ rest. It’s the same way Randy Johnson threw 104 pitches in Game 6 on Saturday, and than retired all four batters he faced in Game 7-on Sunday-when none of his pitches topped 92.

This “Intangible” is Real

Call it heart, brains, or courage, it doesn’t matter. Baseball people will simply call it pitchability and those who have it will succeed. Those who don’t will join the list of hard-throwing left-handers with great curveballs in your local beer league telling about how they got invited to spring training once.

Where does it come from? I have no idea. Can it be learned? Maybe, and Jamie Moyer makes a great case for the affirmative. Can you succeed without it? Not a chance.

For people like me who like to pretend we can tell you who is going to be make it to the major leagues, the revelation of pitchability is a humbling one. You can watch Matt Anderson and Jamie Moyer stand next to each other and throw and you’ll swear Matt Anderson will be the Cy Young candidate and Jamie Moyer the middle reliever who can’t hold a job. And you’ll be dead-wrong, because pitching is all about intelligence, heart, and the ability to get hitters out.

It has nothing to do with radar guns, breaking balls, or pinpoint control. It’s mental, and the people who decide whether they will succeed or not are the pitchers themselves. So stop writing off John Stephens, Brandon Duckworth, Craig Anderson, and Bud Smith. They just may make it and it has nothing to do with how hard they throw. Enjoy watching them pitch and stop waiting for them to fail.

Remember that when you get right down to it, they are just like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens. They know how to pitch. And they’re going to do it for a long time.

about the author

David Cameron himself may not have pitchability, but he’s got (walk) personality, (talk) personality, (smile) personality, (style) personality. Anyone under the age of 50 can ask just what the hell that means by using our Contact Us page.

Published February 28, 2006

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