July 8, 2013
Painting the Black
The Outside Man
Perhaps no piece of conventional pitching wisdom is as logical as the need to pitch inside. The act of pitching inside should, in theory, yield a number of benefits, ranging from less predictability to increased effectiveness on outside pitches. Pitching inside is also one of those things where each preceding generation did it better (anecdotally, at least) and more often than the current generation does. Still, nearly every revered pitcher will lecture about the importance of pitching inside. Consider Sandy Koufax, who, according to the aptly named book Koufax, once said, "Show me a guy who can't pitch inside and I'll show you a loser."
True as that may be in most cases, there is a pitcher in Detroit named Max Scherzer who might improve his record to 14-0 tonight, and in the process show that inside pitching is less important than it seems.
The average right-handed starter pitches inside more than a quarter of the time, according to ESPN Stats and Info's data. Scherzer, on the other hand, sees about 19 percent of his pitches register as the inside variety, the third-lowest rate in the majors, behind Jason Marquis and Bartolo Colon. It's easy to understand why with Marquis and Colon—two veterans without great raw stuff who stay away out of necessity. Understanding why Scherzer ignores the inside part of the plate is tougher to comprehend.
Our own Mark Anderson has a long history with Scherzer, dating back to the right-hander's collegiate days. "Even going back to his days at Missouri, I've never seen him challenge inside much," Anderson said. "His command isn't razor sharp to begin with so my hunch is he can't locate as well as he would like in there. So rather than risking it, he stays away more often than not."
A video review of Scherzer's two most recent starts—one against the Rays and the other versus the Jays—confirms Anderson's command comment. When Scherzer faced Tampa Bay he threw around 30 pitches that wound up inside. However, only a handful came on pitches where the target was set inside. Scherzer didn't allow many baserunners throughout this start, so it's not that his backstop set up false targets to trick sign-stealing runners. He just didn't have his finest command. Against the Jays Scherzer showed more inside intent, though perhaps not as much as expected from a top-flight starter.
Interestingly enough, Scherzer worked toward giving himself an inside weapon before. Last spring he talked about picking up a two-seam fastball, in part so he could bust righties inside and generate more groundballs. (This is as good a spot as any to note that Scherzer is into sabermetrics.) For whatever reason those aspirations failed to develop into anything substantial.
So how has Scherzer overcome an inability to own the inside corner? Part of it has to do with an expanded arsenal. In the past Scherzer threw two pitches to each hand. He'd use his impressive fastball against anyone, then substitute in his slider or changeup depending on the hitter. This combination worked against right-handers, but led to scuffles versus left-handers. Scherzer added a curveball to his repertoire this season, and the results are promising. The new breaker gives him a vertical dimension against opposite-handed batters, and a pitch he feels comfortable using to start and finish at-bats.
But the curveball is only part of the story. A lot of credit for Scherzer's success goes to his fastball, and his ability to miss barrels up in the zone as well as down. "When I'm scouting a pitcher and they can't or don't go inside with the fastball, they have to have something else that allows them to compensate for that," Anderson explained. "With Scherzer, the natural life on his fastball is so exceptional that he can get away with staying on the outer third and moving the ball up and down the strike zone instead of in and out."
Scherzer's combination of his fastball location and movement, along with his offspeed pitches, won't allow batters to lean out over the plate as they otherwise might. He's still changing sight lines with his fastball; the key is how he disrupts timing. If batters are too far out in front they run the risk of seeing his slider glide off the plate, or his curveball come in underneath their bats. Likewise, waiting back that extra instant robs hitters of the chance to strike his fastball in a violent manner. It's not the textbook example of how to pitch but it works for him.
"What Scherzer does with the fastball, pitching away and moving up and down the ladder, with almost nothing on the inner third is certainly unique," Anderson said. "If I were scouting him at the lower levels, it would be something I would note not out of concern, but out of intrigue as something to watch moving forward."
Despite Scherzer's obsession with the outside corner, he might not be so different from those old-timers after all. In the book Sixty Feet, Six Inches Bob Gibson goes in-depth on how pitching inside differs from his time to the present era. He cites umpires protecting batters, and pitchers throwing inside—to most batter's power sources—too often. Gibson summarizes his strategy by saying, "My general plan was to stay on the outside corner and break up the pattern now and then by coming inside to drive the batter away from the plate. That's the way the old-timers did it. That's part of the reason why Nolan Ryan became so popular when he was in his forties—because he pitched the hard-nosed, old-fashioned way. You don't see that style anymore. The game itself has discouraged it."
"The outside corner was my bread and butter," Gibson went on to say. One day Scherzer will say the same.
Special thanks to Mark Anderson for Scherzer-related insight.