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During a lesson with one of my younger pitchers, we started having a conversation about different counts and the importance of quality pitches. When I asked her what her goal was in a 0-0 count, she answered: "To throw three strikes?". Although everyone would love to throw three strikes during an at-bat, no one is capable of completing this feat with just one pitch. I then went on to explain that in a 0-0 count we are simply trying to throw a quality pitch.
Are we trying to get ahead of the batter? Absolutely! Can we always control getting ahead in the count? Not quite. We can't control whether the umpire calls the pitch a ball or a strike. Similarly, we can't control whether the hitter swings or not, but we can control the quality of the pitch thrown. So, especially with my younger lessons, I emphasize the importance of throwing quality pitches.
A quality pitch could be defined in a few different ways depending on who you ask. The idea of a quality pitch might also change depending upon a few different factors. When defining a quality pitch, I like to think about these six aspects:
2. Location - Is the pitch thrown to the correct zone? High and inside, low and inside etc.
3. Speed: Was the pitch thrown at an adequate speed? This doesn't always mean was the pitch fast enough. We also want to make sure change-ups and off-speed pitches slow down enough to change the hitter's timing.
4. Count: A quality pitch in a 0-0 count and a quality pitch in an 0-2 count might look very different.
5. Hitter: A quality pitch to one hitter may not be the same as a quality pitch to a different hitter.
6. Situation: With runners in scoring position, you might pitch more situationally to generate an intended outcome. For example, with a runner on third with less than two outs, you might consider throwing low and inside to induce a ground ball to the left side to hold the runner at third.
Let's consider the first three factors: speed, movement, and location. These are factors that pitchers can control within their pitch. Although every pitch isn't going to come out of your hand exactly how you want it to, you can control your probability of throwing quality pitches with diligent and focused practice. Generally, I define a quality pitch as having two out of those three factors. So, if the pitch generates a lot of movement and is also well located, it's considered a quality pitch. The same goes for speed and location and so on. If the pitch has one of those factors, you may still get an out, but we always want to aim for at least 2/3 factors.
These three factors are not directly controlled by the pitcher, but they are important aspects to think about when considering pitch execution. Below are three different game-like situations to consider:
From the statistics, we can generally determine that this is a solid hitter who gets on base regularly and has some power. In this situation, it's important that the pitcher gets ahead. Although we may not have specific statistics on the percentage of first pitches this hitter swings at, the amount of walks on the season gives us an idea that she's a patient hitter. For this reason, this is a hitter that the pitcher should "go right at" in a 0-0 count. Therefore, a pitch within the strike zone is likely a quality pitch, even if it's not perfectly located. Although we can't completely control balls and strikes, the pitcher can control and understand her intention with every pitch.
In this situation, the pitch location might have been considered quality if thrown to another hitter or in another count. Sometimes hitters hit great pitches, but in this instance, it may have been the wrong pitch to throw. This hitter had already demonstrated that they could hit the inside pitch. Although this doesn't always mean you can no longer throw to that side of the plate, you do have to be smart about what zone you're throwing to. Big hitters often want to be the hero, make them get themselves out by chasing pitches out of the zone.
At times pitchers can over-analyze or overthink and 0-2 count. Oftentimes people even call an 0-2 pitch a waste pitch, which I disagree with. If I already have someone in an 0-2 count, I want to get them out as quickly as possible without wasting any extra pitches to do so. After watching a hitter take two ugly swings through the same pitch, there is no need to go much further, if any further off the plate. In this instance, an 0-2 pitch way off the plate is not considered a quality pitch, as it did not affect the batter's thought process, but instead allowed them to time up one extra pitch.
As you progress as a pitcher, the mental game becomes more and more important. Fixing your mindset on throwing quality pitches is a great way to simplify your thought process while also fully committing to each pitch. Great pitchers have a purpose for each pitch they throw. Start considering different situations, counts, and hitters when thinking through pitch sequencing in practice and it will become second nature in games.