How to Enjoy Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 4: Exceptions and Strategy for the Defense

Last time I talked about offensive (batting and baserunning) strategy. This time, I have a shorter piece on defensive strategy, mainly pitching.

Substitutions

As I pointed out before, once a player has been removed from the game and replaced with a substitute, he cannot return to the game. The player most commonly substituted for is the pitcher, which typically happens because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • The pitcher’s performance has degraded from what is needed and expected from him.
  • The pitcher has thrown a large number of pitches (100+) and further pitching is likely to degrade his performance, in addition to causing fatigue and long-term damage that affects his performance in future games.
  • Especially in high-leverage situations (ones where the outcome of the game can hinge on a small number of events), another pitcher provides a better chance of striking the batter out.

Starters

A starting pitcher is the one who starts the game and typically throws the majority of pitches. A starter tends to have more endurance and a wider variety of effective pitches, because he has to throw longer and change his tactics to keep batters guessing the third or fourth time the bat against the starter.

Relief pitchers

In general, relief pitchers have less endurance and fewer pitch types to throw, and thus will struggle to get the same batter out multiple times. Conversely, since relief pitchers know they don’t have to face that many batters, they often throw pitches at maximum effort and have higher pitch velocity.

Middle and long relievers

Middle and long relievers come in the game if the starting pitcher is having a bad day, struggling to get batters out and prevent runs. A good middle reliever is often similar to a starter, but he is usually not as good.

By the way, the group of relief pitchers is called the bullpen for reasons mostly lost to history.

Lefty specialists

Left-handed hitters are rarer in baseball than right-handed hitters, as are left-handed pitchers. Left-handed batters typically hit better against right-handed pitchers, so a left-handed reliever will come in during key situations against left-handed batters to negate this advantage. These specialists will often face only one or two batters before being substituted again.

Setup Man

The setup man comes in near the end of the game to keep the other team at bay and protect a tie or a lead. The setup man is often in line to become …

Closers

A closer is a special pitcher who is brought into the game usually in the last inning when his team has a narrow lead because he has the capability to record three quick outs. Closers tend to not have a wide variety of pitches but often throw harder than any other pitcher (98+ mph).

Aroldis Chapman, one of the best closers in baseball with his 100+ mph fastball.

Pitching Strategy

Pitchers have three basic tactics they can try to get the batter out:

  • Throw the ball in the strike zone but convince the batter to not swing (“take”).
  • Throw the ball so the batter swings the bat and misses.
  • Throw the ball so the batter makes contact with the ball in a way that is easy to field.

Types of pitches

There are many variations of pitches, but they boil down to some combination of the following:

  • Fastball: the pitcher throws the ball so fast that the batter can’t react in time. The natural backspin on ball causes the ball to sink less gravity alone would dictate.
  • Changeup: the pitcher throws the ball with the same motion as a fastball but at a slower speed to disrupt the batter’s swing timing.
  • Curveball: the pitcher throws the ball with forward spin to get it to sink unusually fast.
  • Slider/Screwball: the pitcher throws the ball with sideways spin so that it curves toward or away from the batter.
  • Knuckleball: the pitcher throws the ball with virtually no spin, which due to alternating vortices on the back of the ball cause it to move erratically.

Pitchers study film and statistics of opposing batters to try to pitch toward their weaknesses; some batters hit high balls better than low ones, some batters can’t hit balls that pass close to their body.

Pitchouts and pickoffs

In a situtation where a runner is on base, pitchers can attempt the throw the ball to the first baseman to tag out the runner while he is leading off the base. This is called a pickoff move, but the pitcher has complicated rules he has to follow to ensure he doesn’t fake a pitch. Faking a pitch is called a balk and results in the batter being walked. Pickoff moves rarely work, but they keep the baserunner from getting too large of a lead, and gives the pitcher a chance to rest as well as throw off the batter’s timing.

Occassionally, the pitcher will throw a ball outside the strike zone intentionally to bait the runner into stealing second base, after which the catcher throws the ball to second base to tag the base stealer out; this is called a pitchout.

Fielding

Fielding strategy is a little less interesting; with one exception, most strategy involves relatively small adjustments of the fielders’ positions based on the situation and the batter’s tendencies. The one exception, which has only become popular in the last roughly 5 years, called The Shift. The Shift is a major adjustment of the shortstop and the second baseman toward the first base side, while leaving the third baseman to cover the entire baseline between second and third base. This has been employed against left handed batters who have a major tendency to hit the ball to the right side of the field.

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