In the Zone: Focus and Control on the Mound
For many players, pitching seems to be all about how fast they can throw or how hard their curveball can break. Time and time again has shown, however, that the best pitchers in the game have all had the same thing in common: control. It wasn’t how deadly their 2-strike pitches were that made them unhittable (although there is plenty to be said about Kershaw’s curve or Syndergaard’s sinker), but their ability to paint the corners of the strike zone seemingly on demand. Much of that comes from practice, but a lot of it also comes from a player’s ability to zoom their focus to tunnel vision. Building that level of focus also takes time and technique. Here’s what makes these things so important.
The Flow of the Game
When pitching, timing and rhythm are half the battle. The speed of the game and how quickly plays go from one to the next is almost entirely dependent on the pitcher and their rhythm. Often times, when pitchers sync themselves to their own beat, the routine triggers the part of the brain responsible for secondary impulses, or muscle memory. This can make it much, much easier to consistently throw the same kinds of pitches the same way in tandem. Suddenly, the outcome of an inning or even the entire game becomes much more dependent on the pitcher’s ability to maintain this focus and flow than anything else.
Often times, hitters will pick up on this flow state and try their best to disrupt it. This comes primarily, of course, in their attempts to get base hits or more in order to prolong the amount of time between pitches as dramatically as possible. Other times, if a pitcher seems to hesitate in their own rhythm, a hitter will try to call timeout in order to extend that hiccup. This not only achieves the goal of disrupting the pitcher’s timing, but also forces them to go through signs again with the catcher and rethink their pitch choice, further whittling away at their focus. Unfortunately, a hitter’s ability to call time is left largely to the discretion of the umpire, so a pitcher will have to adhere to their right. Ideally, a pitcher can figure out just how long of a break it takes for hitters to start calling time and simply adjust their own rhythm slightly in order to avoid it.
Pitching with Control
Besides settling into flow state, a pitcher’s control can (and should) still be worked on as its own skill. “Good control” doesn’t have to mean painting the edges of the plate every pitch. Sometimes, good control just boils down to a pitcher’s consistency and how well they can rely on certain pitches for strikes. Any good pitcher should be comfortable enough with their fastball to be able to throw it for a strike whenever the time is right -- that’s step one. Next is to be able to spot that fastball on different sides of the plate given the situation, then corners, then shrinking the zone, the edges, and so on. Pitchers should repeat this process with every one of their pitches, especially when they’re trying to learn them and truly get comfortable with throwing the baseball that way. From there, baseball becomes a mind game instead of a physical one, and the pitcher’s intuition and ability to read any situation become paramount when trying to throw the right pitch.
Control itself boils down to mechanics, technique, and their consistency. Things like straightening your arm-extension toward the plate or having a proper follow-through when throwing the ball should become the most important and minute details involved with your pitching. A pitcher with solid mechanics will be most of the way toward good pitching, and the rest is focus and consistency. If a pitcher learns the right way for them to throw a fastball on the outside corner to a right-handed hitter, they’ll be able to replicate it over and over until it feels like just another function of their body, and that’s when they’ll become their most deadly.
Pitching with Self-Control
On top of everything else, a pitcher’s head is their strongest weapon and their biggest weakness. A pitcher who gets lost in their own thoughts or self-critiques can lose their focus much more easily, so it’s important to figure out what’s productive thinking and what is simply detracting from the pitcher’s objective. Furthermore, a pitcher without control of their temper is without control of the game. As soon as a pitcher begins to allow their mind or mood to be altered by the course of the game, they begin to lose their ability to focus altogether, much less dive into a flow state and perform consistently. Once again, baseball becomes a mind game for the pitcher, as their own battle with their emotions and keeping themselves level is another crucial part of what will make them successful.
So while being able to throw complete zingers for 9 innings is certainly impressive in and of itself, it won’t go much of a way toward winning games. If your speedy fastball is all over the place, you don’t have control of the game as a pitcher. And control of the game, control of your pitches, and control of yourself are what make great pitchers.