Imagine: The hardest throwing pitcher in your local youth recreation league dominates by striking out most batters, even though he does walk about 1 batter per inning. All he has to do is throw hard strikes. Clearly a shoo-in for the all-star team.
Then comes the first game against a tough team in summer play. Everyone is surprised when the other team scores 7 runs in 2 innings through a combination of walks, hits, and errors. How could that happen against the team ace?
What’s even more surprising is when the guy who relieves him does better, despite having only average velocity. This pitcher varies the location of his pitches, throws some changeups, and throws a “little league curveball” that wasn’t permitted during regular rec season. The other team’s hitters are baffled, managing only 2 hits, 1 walk, and 1 run in 3 innings. What’s going on here?
What’s going on is that there’s much more to pitching than throwing hard strikes. This may not be apparent at the local rec league level where high velocity strikes overwhelm most batters, but in more competitive all-star and travel ball games, it matters a lot. The more competitive the opposition, the more tools are required by pitchers.
The Four Tools of Pitching
The four areas of pitching mastery at all levels of baseball are:
In this article I call them tools. The way these tools are brought to bear at the youth level depends on the quality of the hitter, pitcher capabilities, and whether the pitcher is trying to learn or trying to win.
In this article I describe these four tools and discuss which are appropriate for youth pitchers in different situations, both from the standpoint of development and winning games.
Locating Pitches (Command)
Command, or locating pitches, is where it all starts. If you can’t throw a pitch for a strike, nothing else matters.
For 9- and 10-year olds pitching for the first time, I’ve found statistically in our PONY league that any pitcher throwing above 60% strikes under game pressure will be one of the top pitchers on their team and one of the better pitchers in the league. Above 55% is good, above 50% is okay, 45% is barely acceptable, and below 45% it is generally not a good idea to have the player pitch very much.
Those who throw fewer than 45% strikes will issue many walks, give up many runs, and bore players and spectators as a procession of hitters walk to first base and steal their way around to home on wild pitches (WHIP is typically well above 3.00). Such players will need to practice more and develop better pitching mechanics before they get much action in games.
Pitchers who throw 45% to 50% strikes may also struggle, especially with average velocity. Pitchers with much higher than average velocity may be able to achieve adequate results, as they are hard to get hits off of thanks to both the high velocity and wildness. Pitchers with far below average velocity may be able to achieve adequate results because some hitters who normally hope for walks will be tempted into swinging by the slow speed, hitting weak grounders or popups for an easy out instead of earning a walk. Rather than hope for hitters to help out, it’s better for pitchers to improve mechanics and accuracy in order to achieve a higher strike percentage, hopefully reaching 60% eventually.
Walks lose games. During my son’s first 2 years of kid pitch in rec league, in only 4 of 39 games did the winning team issue the most walks. Walks impact winning or losing more than any other aspect of the game, at the 9- and 10-year-old level when kids are just learning to pitch.
However, throwing strikes and avoiding walks is just the beginning of location as a tool. Once a pitcher is able to consistently throw strikes (not easy for most 9-year-olds!), it is time to work on the other aspects of location.
Aiming for the low/outside corner is the next step. In many youth leagues, umpires expand the strike zone by an inch or two on the outer part of the plate, while most players have short arms and short bats and some hitters stand too far away from the plate. Consistently pitching to the low and outside corner will result in many strikeouts and weak grounders that are easy to field for outs.
Reliably being able to pitch to the four corners of the strike zone is the ultimate goal but is difficult for 9- and 10-year-olds. Pitching inside is particularly challenging as beginning pitchers are afraid to hit batters. The three locations I like to see kids master at these young ages is straight down the middle, low and outside, and high (shoulder level). As kids get older, they should be striving to hit all four corners at will.
There are many advantages to starting with one strike on the batter. At the rec level, it’s usually best to throw a fastball right down the middle on the first pitch to maximize the chances of a strike. Many hitters automatically take the first pitch but even if they swing and put the ball into play on the first pitch, that is a great pitching result—it keeps the pitch count low and may result in a poorly hit ball because the hitter hasn’t seen enough pitches to get the timing down. Another time to throw pitches down the middle is when the count is unfavorable to the pitcher (more balls than strikes). A walk is a 100% chance of the batter getting to first base safely, whereas a ball hit into play may result in an out.
When the count is even or favorable to the pitcher, throwing low/outside and high pitches will make it difficult for most rec league batters to get a quality hit. Low and outside pitches result in weak grounders if the batter is able to hit them at all. High pitches are difficult for many batters to resist swinging at, even ones which are above the strike zone. If the ball is pitched there, it usually results in whiffs or weak popups that can be caught for an out. By high, I mean just above the shoulders, which will be called for a ball. Many players will swing at such a pitch, especially if it follows a changeup.
After mastering the above 3 locations, the next step is to master high and inside, which is more difficult for hitters than any other fastball location.
There is much more that can be said on the subject of location, but given that many youth pitchers struggle just to get the pitch over the plate for a strike, there’s not much point in going into further detail.
Note: Two years after writing this post, I went to my first 12u travel ball tournament. Command was by far the most important of the four tools at that tournament. Hitters struggled against the few pitchers who could hit the corners of the strike zone at will. Batter standing far from the plate? Then throw low/outside. Batter then scoots in? Throw inside. Few pitchers have such good command by age 12. Those with great command typically also have pretty good development among the other areas of pitching, which makes them even more effective.
Throwing Hard (Velocity)
Velocity is another tool of pitching. It is an important tool, but I have often seen this tool overemphasized at the youngest levels. Some coaches only allow the hardest throwing players to pitch, and too many players tie up their egos with how hard they throw. As discussed in my post on youth baseball stats, at the 9- and 10-year-old level I have statistically observed a strong correlation with strike percentage and pitching success (as measured by WHIP), but only a weak correlation with high velocity and pitching success. This is because many high velocity pitchers struggle to throw accurately, issuing many walks and wild pitches.
Players with substantially above average velocity who throw over 50% strikes will do well. Many such players rely completely on high velocity to overwhelm batters. That works at the rec league level and can work against weaker all-star and travel teams. However, when first facing a team with good hitting, the velocity-only pitcher doesn’t know what to do when the other team gets many hits. They are unable to compete at the higher levels because they have not developed any of the other tools of pitching.
Nevertheless, velocity is an important tool, and it becomes more important as kids get older. Among players with identical strike percentages who can throw at average velocity or higher, it is clear that the harder throwing the pitcher, the larger the percentage of hitters who struggle to make quality contact. Furthermore, other pitching tools become more effective as velocity increases. For example, a changeup is often more effective when paired with a high velocity fastball, because hitters must commit their swing earlier, leaving less time to adjust to a changeup. Throwing that changeup occasionally also makes the fastball more effective as batters are kept off balance.
To a large extent, velocity will be related to physical development. The bigger and more coordinated the player, the harder they will be capable of throwing. Velocity goes up with size, for the most part, and this is most dramatically seen at the 12-year-old level with players ranging from 4 to 6 feet tall. It is therefore tempting to not actively do anything to increase velocity while waiting to grow.
However, players can work on several things to develop more velocity that do not depend on waiting to grow:
- Good throwing mechanics
- Physical conditioning
- Long toss
- Weighted balls
- Pitching hard
Developing good throwing mechanics is important not just for velocity, but also for accuracy, endurance, and injury prevention. I’m not going to discuss pitching mechanics in this article, as I believe mechanics are best learned from video, or better yet live instruction from someone who knows how to teach it.
Physical conditioning is important at every level, though in the U.S. it’s generally not emphasized until high school. For those players who play a lot of baseball each year, it will not only help them become better athletes and ball players, it will also reduce chances for injury. Velocity will increase from additional strength in legs and in the core. In my post on pitcher arm care, I discuss physical conditioning in more detail and link to some good exercise plans.
Long toss is a more controversial way to help strengthen the arm. Some people believe it does not add velocity. However, long toss does help players better understand release points (so that throws do not go too high or too low). Long toss also strengthens the arm in a way that reduces the chances for injury. The following video is one that I like to show kids to inspire them to do long toss the right way:
Throwing weighted balls is another way to get stronger and therefore increase velocity. However, it is generally not recommended for kids below high school age.
The most important way to increase velocity is to pitch. When pitching, most coaches, including me, will tell you not to throw 100% because that will lead to inaccurate throws and getting tired too quickly. But it’s also important not to throw too softly. You’ll only get better at throwing hard if you try to throw hard. I tend to tell pitchers to throw at 80% to 90%. You can tell when they try to overthrow at 100% when their mechanics get distorted. The distorted mechanics may not result in the ball going faster despite the greater effort.
So how much velocity should be expected for each age level? It will obviously depend somewhat on the size of the player. A reasonable rule of thumb for velocity is Age X 4.3 MPH for experienced recreation league baseball players of average size, average mechanics, and average velocity. In chart form:
The averages above are for pitchers who have received little formal training at the early ages, but some training by high school age. With pitching lessons that improve mechanics, velocity can increase.
In our local PONY league, the velocity of pitchers in our 9- to 10-year-old Mustang division range about 35 MPH to 55 MPH, but only 2 to 4 pitchers each year throw over 50 MPH out of 100 players. The players throwing that hard are usually above average in size. However, at the all-star or travel ball level, velocity is 50 MPH – 55 MPH for many 10u pitchers and all throw above 45 MPH. 10u means “10 and under” age.
Do not bring out radar guns and get kids comparing to each other. That is not going to help kids throw faster and may lead to injury as kids attempt to throw harder than they’re able to. If you want to help a kid increase velocity, have someone who knows what they’re doing work on improving mechanics.
Making the Ball Move (Movement)
Movement is when a pitch veers to the side or down. It can be achieved through tailing action or breaking pitches. Why bother with movement at all? Because many players who can hit fastballs have great difficulty hitting pitches that move on them. This is especially true at the youngest ages when hitters don’t yet have the experience to detect a breaking ball coming out of a pitcher’s hand.
The following graphic illustrates how 12 common pitches move. Only a few of them are appropriate to learn before high school age:
Curveballs and sliders are the two most well-known types of breaking pitches that move a lot, but require caution at early ages, especially sliders. There is unanimous agreement that sliders are dangerous and should not be thrown by any kids below high school age. There are studies that demonstrate that curveballs are not a significant risk factor for injury when thrown correctly. However, young arms are more susceptible to injury than adults from poorly thrown curveballs. So most doctors and coaches recommend that kids stay away from sliders before the age of 16, and curveballs before the ages of 12-14. Opinions vary between 12 and 14 as the age cutoff for the curveball. Another reason to stay away from curveballs is that they won’t help a young pitcher develop velocity. Throwing 100% fastballs will naturally cause pitching velocity to increase.
There is a form of curveball that is believed by some to be both safer and easier to learn for a beginner. It is variously called a safety curve, a little league curve, a beginner’s curve, or a football curve. The basic idea is to throw it like a football. It is important not to turn the wrist or snap it down hard while throwing this pitch, as that may lead to injury. There is an on-line explanation for this pitch but I prefer the explanation in The Act of Pitching.
For safety considerations, it’s a good idea to avoid throwing breaking balls or any pitch that requires wrist turning. However, more subtle forms of movement known as tailing action can be achieved with various forms of fastballs or changeups. Mostly this is achieved through differential finger pressure, and is more effective with two seam grips than four seam grips. The movement is not as dramatic as that achieved with breaking pitches, but is often enough to turn what would have been a well-hit ball into a weak hit that is easily fieldable for an out. If you want to learn more about such pitches, search youtube for videos on two seam fastballs, tailing action on fastballs, and the changeup pitch with movement. Or, you can buy a book on pitching.
The pitching book I own is The Act of Pitching. It covers all the common pitches, including the beginner’s curveball.
Changing Speed (Deception)
A popular slogan in baseball sums up the battle between pitcher and hitter:
Hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing.
The most straightforward way to disrupt a hitter’s timing is with the changeup. Many kids don’t get very excited about changeups because they’re in love with velocity or breaking balls. However, those who do develop a good changeup are difficult to hit. Analysis of pitching at the major league level often shows that the most difficult pitch to hit is the changeup. The changeup is the most important pitch for several top pitchers in the MLB, including Cole Hamels, Max Scherzer, and Felix Hernandez.
With breaking pitches such as curveballs or sliders, experienced hitters always know they are coming because they are thrown differently and have obviously different spin on the ball. A well thrown changeup is indistinguishable from the fastball. The batter does not know the changeup is coming until it is too late to stop the swing. Cole Hamels’ changeup is so good that even experts can’t tell the difference between his fastball and changeup on slow motion video.
So—changeups are all about deception. The batter doesn’t know it’s coming, so is deceived into swinging at a pitch that is coming slower and lower than the fastball they expected. A common result is to see the batter lunge forward and try to force the bat down to make contact.
Most pitchers when first learning to throw a changeup will automatically move their arm much slower. Experienced batters will notice this, so there will be no deception. To throw the changeup effectively, it’s necessary to keep all pitching mechanics as close as possible to fastball mechanics. The only thing that changes is the grip on the ball.
There are many different changeup grips which move or slow down the ball in different ways. You can read about them in any pitching book or see videos on youtube. The two most common changeup grips in recent years are the circle change and the straight change.
The changeup is only effective when paired with a fastball. A nice sequence for pitchers just learning to throw the changeup is to throw the first pitch right down the middle for a strike, the second a changeup over the outside half of the plate that drops below the strike zone (which the batter swings at, hopefully), and then with an 0-2 count, throw a high fast ball at the shoulders. I’ve seen this sequence used very effectively against very good 9- and 10-year old batters.
If you use this sequence or any sequence too much, it gets predictable, and therefore less effective. For better deception, keep mixing it up. That may mean occasionally doing the unexpected such as throwing 3 changeups in a row, a first pitch changeup, a fastball with an 0-2 count, etc.
There are a few other ways to disrupt timing besides throwing changeups:
- Vary time between pitches
- Different windup styles that take different amounts of time
- A hitch in a windup
- Drag back foot (slows up the fastball)
One pitcher on my son’s all-star team is particularly effective at disrupting batter timing and rhythm. He varies time between pitches and uses several different windups. Sometimes his windup looks normal. Sometimes he goes really slow and balances a long time on one foot, followed by a very hard fastball swiftly delivered. Other times he rushes his delivery but then throws a changeup and/or slows up his arm. He also happens to have good velocity so the combination of all these things tends to baffle most batters.
An incidental side benefit of varying time between pitches is that it also makes stealing a little more difficult.
Pitching for Development
Every pitcher will have their own unique development path, depending on which tools are easier or more difficult to learn. Obviously, someone who throws hard will naturally gravitate to throwing hard as a main tool, while someone with uncommonly good accuracy will enjoy early success by hitting the corners of the strike zone. However, no matter what path a pitcher takes, it’s a good idea to work towards some degree of mastery of all four tools.
I should point out that not everyone agrees with this. There is a school of thought that a player should work on nothing but throwing hard strikes (and perhaps locating those strikes) until they enter high school. The idea is that throwing nothing but hard fastballs strengthens the arm more than mixing in other pitches. Some people think that the other tools of pitching can be picked up at any time, whereas if you can’t throw hard by high school, chances are you’ll never be able to throw hard. I don’t agree with this line of thought.
A balanced development progression for a pitcher may go as follows:
- Learn to throw strikes
- Increase velocity (see velocity section above for how to do this)
- Vary location, focusing first on 3 spots: middle, low and away, and high
- Develop changeup
- Combine the above into pitch sequences and combinations appropriate for young players (i.e. fastball down the middle, followed by low/away changeup, followed by high fastball)
- Develop two-seam fastball for some movement
- Experiment with a beginner’s curveball, if it can be done safely
- Become adept at hitting all four corners of the strike zone
The above progression is plenty to work with for 9-14 year olds and touches on all four pitching tools. The order in which they’re learned will differ from player to player depending on their aptitudes and interest. Though I disagree with the velocity-only approach to pitching, it is important to keep the four-seam fastball as the main pitch, to keep velocity increasing. Throwing an off-speed pitch just once every 10 pitches is usually plenty to keep batters off balance. In rec league, such pitches can be reserved for the better batters.
Pitching to Win
How to pitch to win will be different depending on the quality of hitting at a team level and individual level. It is also not going to be the same as the optimal progression for development.
At the recreation league level, when pitching is first introduced, throwing strikes is all that matters. The first season my son experienced with kid pitch went through a progression that started with most pitchers struggling to throw strikes, progressing to fewer walks and more hits, then increasing velocity, and finally the first changeups coming into play (see Pitcher vs Hitter).
Throughout this progression and beyond, there are certain principles that always apply. It’s important to recognize who the better hitters are so you can tailor your pitching to the hitter. Opposing coaches usually make this very easy by slotting the best performing 4-6 hitters in the top part of the lineup, while slotting those who struggle in the remaining part of the lineup. That makes the pitching plan very simple:
Throw nothing but fastballs down the middle to the weaker part of the lineup. If you have other tools at your disposal, use them only against the better hitters at the top of the lineup.
Over and over you see kids get excited about a new pitch they’re mastering and throw it to everyone. That does not help win games. Take the changeup, for example. It’s a great pitch, but there’s no point to throwing it to the bottom half of the order if they have less than a 10% chance of reaching first against fastballs thrown for strikes. You’re more likely to issue a walk, and they have a better chance of hitting the slower pitch than your fastball.
The time to throw that new changeup you’re working on is to the best couple hitters. They’re likely to put the ball in play anyway, and they are good hitters partly because they can time a fastball. Mess with timing and these great hitters may end up hitting a weak grounder or even striking out. You may end up walking the good hitter with your new pitch, which of course is not good. But with the good hitter, a walk may mean you converted their 60% chance of getting to first base safely to 100%, which isn’t so terrible (as opposed to walking a weak hitter who may have had less than a 10% chance of getting to first if you just throw strikes down the middle).
If the coach or the pitcher is good enough to spot tendencies in certain players or entire teams, that can be taken advantage of. A very common issue is players swinging at high pitches that are just above the shoulders. If more than one player is swinging at high pitches, then throwing lots of pitches high will likely result in many strikeouts and weak popups.
It’s also worth trying to spot tendencies in umpires. In our league, the umpires are kids above the age of 12. Some of them are very good, and some of them aren’t, but most are reasonably consistent where they’re calling balls and strikes. If an umpire calls pitches that are 3 inches outside and 2 inches too low as strikes, then all the pitcher has to do is aim for the low, outside corner of the strike zone, and if he misses outside or low by a couple inches it will still be called a strike. One pitcher on my son’s team this year often shut down opposing teams by always going for the low, outside corner, usually receiving help from the umpires. Umpires in our league were instructed to have a liberal outside corner call, to help keep the game moving along.
Keeping the above principles in mind, pitching at the travel ball and all-star level is different. Not every travel ball or all-star team has great hitting. It’s very helpful to scout out other teams at tournaments to see how well the team hits against straight fastball pitchers. It will range anywhere from just 1 or 2 hitters all the way up to entire teams.
Pitching is finite when you play 3-6 games in a single weekend. Astute team managers will take advantage of scouting information to match up pitchers appropriately. Against very weak teams that don’t have much good hitting, that is the time to put in the guys who just throw strikes at slightly higher than average velocity. Against pretty good teams with maybe half the order being good fastball hitters, putting in a hard thrower (who doesn’t have much else) is usually going to work. The bottom half of the order won’t get hits and the top half will just score 0-2 runs each time around, which is usually acceptable.
Against the very toughest teams is where I see managers make mistakes. They put in the hardest throwing pitcher on the team, regardless of whether this pitcher has mastered any of the other tools of pitching. The best matchup is to put in the guy who has the best balance of all four tools. A curveball thrower is ideal, but if that is not available, then a pitcher who has a very good changeup, can locate pitches, and who can get a little bit of movement off either the changeup or a two-seam fastball.
Sometimes you will notice a travel or all-star team with great fastball hitting that struggles with curveballs. That’s when you want to put your best curveball pitcher against them to throw 30% or more curveballs. While this will increase the chance of winning, it’s not good for pitcher development to throw so many curveballs.
The biggest mistake I’ve seen, over and over, is when the manager puts the guy who has been top pitcher in rec league against a really tough travel ball team. That guy is often the hardest thrower in the league, or among the top 3 at least. It often doesn’t work. What works in rec league doesn’t work against really good teams, where every hitter in the lineup has no problem hitting a speedy fastball down the middle.
One reason this happens is because teams which track stats will often see that the hardest throwing guys have great WHIPs, ERAs, etc. But many of these great performances were against weak hitting teams.
A simple way to figure out who your best pitchers are is to separate pitching performance between “strong” teams and “weak” teams. It’s usually pretty obvious which teams are the strong teams. They’re the ones who win most of their games. The weak teams often get behind by so many runs that they lose to the mercy rule.
My son played on a strong all-star team this year. The season ended with a 10-13 record against the strong (AAA) teams, and 21-0 versus weaker (AA) teams. All of our pitchers did well against weak teams. But against strong teams, the picture was quite different. The top performing pitchers were different than the guys you might expect from what happened in the recreation league or against the weaker teams. The top performers all did more than just throw hard strikes. In fact, 2 out of 3 of them were not among the 5 hardest throwing guys in our league.
I don’t know how many people will read this or if it will have much of an impact. My expectation is that there will be no change in what I see: most coaches focus on velocity and turn to their hardest throwing guys in the big games. That may work if the guy throws much harder than usual for his age level or if the opposing team has some weak hitters. But more often than not, it doesn’t work against teams with good hitting.
As you get to the higher levels, all four pitching tools are needed in youth baseball. From what I’ve read, it’s the same story in the minor leagues. Anyone with a 90MPH fastball makes it to the minor leagues. But for those who are unable to develop anything beyond that fastball, they will never make it to the major leagues. Fast as 90 MPH is, the best hitters can time it and hit it.
At the youth level, developing ever increasing velocity as you get older is important. But exposing pitchers to the other tools of pitching is important too, both for developing into a complete pitcher, and for winning against the tougher teams.