Science behind pitching to contact

  • Article by: DENNIS BRACKIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2012 - 10:17 AM

Batters connect with pitches about 80 percent of the time, so make sure those occasions end in outs.

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Pitching to contact

Even pitchers who embrace the philosophy of pitching to contact admit it is, at best, counterintuitive.

"I'm not trying to strike people out," Twins starter Nick Blackburn said when asked his personal definition. "I'm trying to get a guy to hit a ground ball ... It doesn't make sense [to fans]. But at the same time, it's not like we're going up there and just laying it in there."

Tell that to Twins fans, many of whom now consider pitching to contact to be one of the blights affecting the team since the start of the 2011 season. Hitting -- or lack thereof -- is the current hot topic for the Twins, but it's been pitching that has doomed the team, now 6-18, to the worst record in the majors.

Manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have frequently espoused favorable views of the strategy, and gone so far as to suggest their starter with the best strikeout arsenal, Francisco Liriano, learn to embrace the "pitch to contact" philosophy. That has made Gardenhire and Anderson targets for criticism on message boards and talk radio, a bit confusing in itself since almost every major league team now embraces pitch to contact, and the Twins have utilized it for decades.

The Twins' most obvious shortcoming is that too many of their pitchers have to rely on pitch to contact due to an absence of power arms, which statistics readily verify. The Twins this season have given up the fewest walks in the American League, but they are last in strikeouts and ERA.

The pitch-to-contact philosophy itself remains very much in vogue in the majors.

The World Series entrants of last fall, St. Louis and Texas, have been leading proponents of pitching to contact for years. Former St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan, who retired after the Cardinals' World Series championship along with manager Tony La Russa, is so widely respected in baseball that some have suggested he should be a Hall of Fame candidate despite never managing or being a star player.

The basic tenet of Duncan's philosophy: sinkerballers throwing strikes, with the intention of letting their fielders make the outs.

"I'm not out there gunning for strikeouts," Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter told a St. Louis reporter, echoing Blackburn. "I'm out there attacking. I have the confidence in my stuff and in what I'm trying to do that I want them to swing. I'm trying to make them swing.''

Plain and simple

For those desiring a precise definition of pitch to contact, start with this: a pitcher who is trying to get hitters to put the ball in play, preferably on the ground, within three pitches. That inherently means the pitcher isn't thinking strikeout, but rather making his best pitch in a hittable zone.

"A good pitcher's pitch the majority of time is going to get a hitter out," Twins starter Scott Baker said a couple days before undergoing season- ending Tommy John surgery. "You just want the contact to be in your favor."

Power pitchers are a different breed, and no one is saying that if they get ahead in the count to forgo strikeouts. Anderson notes that Johan Santana struck a few people out during his time with the Twins, and when the lefty was on the staff, the team ranked near the top of the AL in strikeouts.

The current problem is that Liriano nibbles at the corners in his attempt to throw strikes, and too often falls behind the hitter. So the message to Liriano is to throw strikes, and the strikeouts will take care of themselves.

The emphasis on pitching to contact is inherently linked to the emphasis on pitch counts in the past two decades. The idea of getting a hitter to put the ball in play within three pitches is intended to give a starting pitcher the chance to pitch deep into a game.

"It's definitely a philosophy for success,'' Texas righthander Colby Lewis said during the Rangers' visit to Target Field last month. "You keep the ball down and make them hit ground balls ... All you want to do is get outs, and it doesn't matter how you do it."

Hall of Fame pitcher Bert Blyleven, who broke in with the Twins in 1975, said there's nothing new about pitching to contact, other than the frequent references to it.

"It's nothing more than trying to pitch in the strike zone, and then when the guy does make contact, hope it doesn't go too far," Blyleven said. "Everyone is basically saying the same thing: don't try to be too fine, pitch to contact, trust your stuff, stay in the zone."

Not for everyone

Anderson points out that the Twins starting staff, with the exception of Liriano, must pitch to contact out of necessity. Statistics show that major league hitters connect on about 80 percent of their swings.

So only a few pitchers have the sort of power stuff to rely on strikeouts. And for pitchers such as Blackburn, Carl Pavano and Jason Marquis -- all of whom have, at best, average fastballs --the ground-ball out, coupled with a low walk total, is the best thing they have in their favor.

"I don't tell my guys to 'pitch to contact,' " Anderson said. "We say, 'Blackie, attack the strike zone in the lower half. And we tell our guys to get outs on two or three pitches, instead of trying to throw five, six, seven pitches. We've always been good at throwing the ball over the plate.''

Each season from 2008 through 2010, when the Twins averaged 90 victories, the club issued the fewest walks in the American League, while placing 10th in strikeouts.

A year ago, almost everything malfunctioned. To effectively pitch to contact requires an excellent defense. The Twins of 2011 committed more errors than all but one team in the AL, a dramatic turn from the organization's usual solid defense. Twins pitchers also fell from their No. 1 ranking in walks to the middle of the pack.

"All of a sudden, the average fan says that's a bad philosophy," Anderson said. "They want strikeouts. Well, guys like Blackburn and Pavano, that's not who they are."

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said he has never used the phrase "pitch to contact" in discussing pitchers. "I believe in getting outs, and I don't care how they do it," he said.

Ryan admits he would like to add a couple power pitchers to the organization, maybe in this June's amateur draft, where the Twins have the No. 2 overall pick. He quickly adds a disclaimer.

"We're looking for the best player, or pitcher, in the draft," he said. "That doesn't mean a guy has to throw 98 miles an hour to be the best pitcher. I'm just looking for guys who can get outs.''

Anderson, like other major league pitching coaches, doesn't want an entire staff of pitch-to-contact hurlers. Short relievers and closers don't worry as much about pitch counts. And a reliever like lefthander Glen Perkins, who can hit the mid-to-upper 90s with his fastball, admits he is thinking strikeout when he enters a game -- with the blessing of his pitching coach.

"My goal when I come into a game for one inning is 15 pitches," Perkins said. "Five pitches is enough to strike a guy out."

It is not much different than the philosophy Perkins had as a starting pitcher at the University of Minnesota. When Perkins was with the Gophers, high school and college hitters used aluminum bats, and out of necessity, pitchers tried to make hitters swing and miss. Pitching to contact, after all, could result in a pitcher being decapitated.

So a generation of pitchers has been introduced to the pitch-to-contact concept early in their professional careers. And their first reaction is generally not favorable.

"When I was drafted, I felt like I still wanted to be a power guy, and strike everyone out," said the Rangers' Lewis. "I wanted to show everybody that I had dominant stuff. But at the end of the day, you just want to have success. I'd rather have less strikeouts and go deeper into the game, than 10 strikeouts in five innings and be out of the game."

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