These are some treacherous times for major league pitchers. Baseballs are flying out of ball parks in record numbers. Pitchers are dealing with a juicy ball with slightly lower seams, and perhaps a slicker cover as well. While the best continue to thrive, a lot of major league pitchers have gone from average to unusable with no notable loss of stuff or command in recent years. Another issue is the eye of technology all around them. Cameras and analysts compile their every motion, and teams have incredibly detailed data on their every tendency. Hitters have never been more prepared to predict what’s coming next.
PItchers are under the microscope in real time as well. Televisions in the clubhouse show the game in progress, while off-duty players and front office staff scour a pitcher’s every move. Any flinch, a change in the tightness of a pitcher’s forearm, or the angle of their wrist in the glove, even the shape of a glove in the set position can tip a pair of veteran eyes to what’s coming. The data revolution works both ways, but pitchers have a lot more to worry about.
Take sign stealing, for example. Just last year, the Boston Red Sox were fined for stealing signs and transmitting them via a coach’s Apple watch. Even a pitcher as successful as Justin Verlander can sound downright paranoid talking about sign stealing, and the complex systems pitchers and catchers are using to defeat it. Postseason series have element of a duel between rival intelligence agencies going on behind the scenes, as scouts and analysts work long hours sifting every possible bit of information looking for an edge.
New Tigers pitching coach Chris Bosio has some thoughts about all this. While a lot of articles on him this winter focused on specific tactics, such as mechanical adjustments with his pitchers, changes of grips, or how to sight a given pitch to a spot, it’s his over-arching strategy that may be most interesting. The greatest point of emphasis he’s made to his pitchers, is that he wants them to control tempo and timing, and weaponize those elements to make themselves as unpredictable as possible.
As Katie Strang reported for the Athletic.
Bosio runs his drills with the efficiency of a drill sergeant and the encouragement of your favorite schoolteacher. He’ll have his pitchers throw six pitches in 60 seconds, all with command. He’ll then have them throw a set with a one-second hitch at the top, before their delivery. He’ll challenge them to play with their tempo, which eventually, if all goes to plan, will screw with the hitter.
Varying delivery and delivery times is all the rage at the moment. Not everyone attempts a full reportoire of Luis Tiant moves, like Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman does, for example. But plenty of pitchers are experimenting with the idea.
Marcus Stroman, Filthy 3 Pitch K Sequence/Messing with Timing (Sinker & 2 Sliders...and a near moonwalk off the mound ) pic.twitter.com/TIjmV1CnRa— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) March 27, 2018
Even top prep prospects, such as Ethan Hankins and Matthew Liberatore, already mix variations on delivery times into their bag of tricks. It’s returning to prominence as part of a pitcher’s toolkit. Tigers pitchers from Joe Jimenez to Jordan Zimmermann and Michael Fulmer have shown a willingness to mix a quick pitch or a subtle hitch into their deliveries this spring, and it will be interesting to see how it works for them this season.
The other element of Bosio’s focus is pace. All winter, since his first phone calls to his new stable of pitchers, Bosio has emphasized the value of setting a rapid pace on the mound. He promotes an aggressive mindset that seeks to clear his pitchers’ minds, and fill hitters’ heads with junk instead.
One of the early recipients of this advice was Jordan Zimmermann. During two lost seasons plagued by injury and ineffectiveness, Zimmermann had completely changed his tempo. He was overthinking his deliver while trying to deal with an upper back and neck that didn’t want to cooperate. In his first conversation with the former Nationals right-hander, Bosio make one observation from which the rest of Zimmermann’s spring work has developed. His time to the plate had increased by a full second as compared to his time in Washington. Above any other adjustment, this was the element Bosio felt had to change.
He made his philosophy clear as quoted by Chris McCosky of the Detroit News.
“We’re going to play an up-tempo game. We’re going to try to control the tempo of the game, try to get three quick outs and turn it over to the offense. But we need to control tempo.”
“We’re not going to need the pitch clock,” he said. “We’re going to be on the mound waiting for that hitter to get in the box and we’re going to be ready to go. I promise, you are going to see that.”
When a pitcher works quickly, he has the ball back and is standing on the rubber, ready to pitch before the hitter is settled into the box. There’s a slight psychological advantage to making clear you’re just waiting for the hitter, who isn’t ready yet. More importantly, the hitter doesn’t get to settle into the box and wait for the pitcher to get set. The moment he settles into the batter’s box, a pitch is on the way. Now he’s the one who has to be prepared to do something. He has less time to study a pitcher’s body language. Less time to perhaps catch a sign from a coach or a teammate. Less time to bat waggle and get comfortable in his stance. If the pitcher is able to vary his delivery times without sacrificing command, all the better.
The other advantage? The pitcher himself may be less vulnerable to paralysis by analysis. If Bosio is able to get at least some of his staff to buy into the concept fully, they won’t be standing up there furiously trying to process delivery keys to ensure their motion is dialed in. The Zen of Bosiology is to get the pitcher’s mind out of his own way, and into the head of the hitter instead. Challenge them and don’t issue free passes. Old school mentality with a modern twist.
The concept makes sense. The trick is that it just may not work for everyone. Pitchers always want to work quickly, or say they do, but many just can’t help but slow things down when a game isn’t going their way. Others just naturally pitch their best in a very relaxed rhythm. Most pitchers work more quickly when they’re at their best, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone works their best when they’re focused on tempo. Bosio will have to know his staff well to understand how the idea plays, or doesn’t play, with each individual player’s style and mindset on the mound, but the aggressive attitude seems to have taken root so far.