Tommy Rancel has been writing a lot recently about “pitching backwards” or “pitching 2.0.” Yesterday, he wrote a great piece for ESPN 1040 breaking down James Shields’ Sunday afternoon gem.
The concept is fascinating in its simplicity.
Basically, Rancel has observed that Shields (and now Hellickson too) are taking advantage of basic hitting psychology by starting with a breaking ball working “backwards” to the fastball. This simple adjustment capitalizes on the most basic psychology of hitting.
Like most disciplines, hitting has accepted “rules” that were developed a long time ago [kind of like the rule that 9th graders must read books about farming yams in Africa -- do they even farm yams in Africa? -- instead of reading American classics like On the Road] that no one dares question. It was the way our fathers learned to hit and the way our fathers’ fathers learned to hit. So, it is the way we learned to hit. Start looking for a fastball or mistake in your nitro zone, then expand your zone with 1 strike, then protect the plate with 2 strikes.
Pitching backwards capitalizes on this institutional inertia. Shields/Hellickson start with a breaking ball (which automatically makes most hitters relax unless it is hung) that is a strike but not a strike in a hitter’s favorite spot.
That curveball isn’t a put away pitch. It is just a get-me-over pitch. Neither Shields or Hellickson are going to get a lot of strikeouts throwing that pitch late in counts (because they have nastier pitches for that). If Shields throws his curveball for a strike late in a count, when a hitter has expanded his zone, it is going to look like a mistake (or, to someone seated in the outfield, it is going to look like a souvenir). But, the pitch is remarkably effective early in the count because the spin makes a hitter not want to swing.
And, as they say, the best pitch in baseball is now and always has been strike one.