Pitching is a chess game — except you’re throwing a chess piece at 96 mph. It’s a mental challenge as well as a physical one. Lately, in my career, I’m more and more interested in reminding myself to be a student of the game.
But when I was younger, all I wanted to do was light up the radar gun.
The first memory I have of pitching was the sound of the pop of the glove. It was the reward for sneaking the ball past the batter. It’s an addicting sound that will always remind me of why I started playing baseball as a kid. I was gangly, skinny and tall, but I was always able to throw at the upper level of each age group I played in. Like a lot of kids, I became obsessed with throwing the ball as fast as I could. The harder the fastball, the bigger the pop of the glove.
When you’re younger — 13, 14, 15 years old — you think speed is king. You watch guys in the big leagues on TV and the goal that you look to reach is throwing 90 mph. It’s like trying to dunk a basketball. You dream of it and try it over and over, and then one day you lift off and throw it down. I still remember the day in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school when the radar gun said 91. That was like my first dunk. Even though I don’t even know what I did differently on that pitch, from then on it felt like I had passed a milestone or joined an elite club — the 90 mph club.
Maybe when I was younger I got too obsessed with the speed of a pitch. Throwing a faster fastball became a personal challenge with myself. And there was always a better number — 96, 97, 98 mph. I was always trying to push the number higher.
But I think I got fastball-happy, and there’s a limit to how effective that is. In high school and even in college, I could get away with throwing a fastball every time. By the time I hit the Majors, speed definitely still mattered, but I had to learn to put a little something extra on it. I had to learn to command the fastball, not just throw it as hard as I could. I learned that I needed speed plus something — speed plus command, speed plus variation, speed plus strategy.
One guy who does that is my teammate Bartolo Colon. Bartolo throws a heavy fastball. But he always knows exactly where it’s going.
Watching Bartolo early in his career, I’d see him consistently throwing 97-100 mph. He was always a smart pitcher but his speed was at the top of the league at that time. Just burning guys. Now, at 40-plus years old, his fastball is closer to 90 mph, which is still fast, but I’d argue he’s an even better pitcher now. His pitches have a ton of movement — the ball runs quite a bit. He can go inside and he can go outside, to both righties and lefties. And he can go up and down. When he needs to go up in the zone, he’s got a little extra in the tank and he can burn you upstairs with a fastball.
Last week against Atlanta, Bartolo threw 77 pitches — and 71 of them were fastballs (60 were strikes). That’s the thing — every pitcher has a fastball that looks and feels slightly different. There’s a big difference between some guy’s 95 mph fastball and Bartolo’s heavy ball that sinks and tails and moves at the last minute. Bartolo’s fastball might clock in at 90, but his ability to throw a well-located pitch makes him without a doubt one of the best pitchers in the game right now. Some people say my fastball feels heavy, but Bartolo’s is a bowling ball.
In college, I had a fastball crisis. It was my sophomore year at North Carolina, and my arm swing got really bad. One pitch I’d throw a 94 mph fastball, then the next one would be 86. I didn’t know right away what was going on. Some people thought I had an injury. But it was really that I lost my mechanics. For a pitcher, speed and accuracy all start with mechanics. I was just trying to throw as hard as possible but I was being lazy with the fundamentals.
I had to ask myself, What actually makes a fastball fast? I had to go back to the basics. I had to break everything down and go back to the mechanics my dad had taught me as a kid: a free and easy wind-up motion; stay tall; keep the arm long and loose; get a better extension on your front leg, driving down toward the plate.
It felt like I enrolled in my own pitching mechanics school. It ended up being big turning point for me as a pitcher.
Easier said than done. I don’t know what makes one fastball “heavier” than another but I know that focusing on mechanics gives me an advantage as a pitcher. It’s all about closing down the batter’s reaction time. As a pitcher you can release the ball from middle of your stride at 96 mph, or you can get better extension on your front leg and release it closer to the plate at that same 96 mph. In the eyes of the hitter, it’s going to feel like a faster pitch when it arrives at the plate. This is where my height kicks in. If I’m staying tall and I’m fully extended, I can gain an “effective” 2-3 mph on my fastball without throwing it any harder. It’s the physics of pitching, and it all happens in the split-second the ball leaves my hand and travels the 60 feet, 6 inches to the plate.
Once I got to the big leagues, I really wanted to be a pitcher — not just be a fastball thrower. I wanted to have the ability to move all of my pitches around for strikes. Walks are damaging, not only to me but to my teammates. In the back of my mind, I think about what it’ll take to have a long career as a pitcher. You don’t want to limit yourself to throwing maximum heat on every pitch. You need to have a repertoire of pitches and a strategy about when to bring out the fastball. If you learn how to hit whatever spot you want with a series of different pitches, no one can take that away from you.
When I came back from my Tommy John surgery last year, after 10 months of rest and rehab, I was happy to be back to throwing mid-to-upper 90s. Right back where I wanted to be. It was a huge relief to know that my primary pitch hadn’t lost any velocity.
Being a student of the game doesn’t mean I’m not still obsessed with hearing the pop of the glove. I’ll always like fanning a batter with my fastest stuff. That’s part of who I am as a pitcher. That’s why the fastball is so useful. It’s part of the whole toolkit. An early change-up makes your next fastball look even heavier and faster, but only if you sell your change-up — a throwaway change-up in the dirt won’t set up the next pitch very well.
The fastball may have got me to where I am today, but learning to command its movement will, I hope, carry me to a long career on the mound. I still feel like the kid who likes to sneak it by somebody with some upstairs heat. But I would like to think I’ve matured from the high schooler who checks the radar gun after every pitch.
Now I’m more interested in checking the ump’s signal when he calls a strike.
Fastball, a documentary film exploring the history of baseball’s foundational pitch, opens in theaters and on Video On Demand platforms on March 25, 2016. Directed by Jonathan Hock and narrated by Kevin Costner, Fastball features interviews with Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson, Goose Gossage, Derek Jeter and Justin Verlander.