Carleton: The power of changing speeds

From Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus on February 3, 2015:

“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.” – Warren Spahn.

It’s all about changing speeds. Baseball is a game of fractions of a second. A batter has less than half a second to make a decision of whether he will swing at a pitch, and when he does, he has to generate a motion that will meet the ball within a very small window of time. If he’s off, his bat will likely miss or he’ll make weak, glancing contact. Pitchers, of course, love swings and misses and weak, glancing contact and will try every trick in the rulebook in order to get it to happen.

Previously, I’ve been on a quest to learn more about pitch sequencing, starting from the assumption that what a pitcher is really doing is looking for a neuropsychological weakness in the batter. He may not know that he’s an amateur neuropsychologist, but he is. Previously, I’ve looked at the effects of velocity on hitters and found (no surprise) that faster fastballs are harder to hit. The more interesting finding is that, statistically, the size of the effect is highly variable from batter to batter. Some guys can be beaten with speed. Some don’t really notice. I’d suggest that the difference is that some people have better reaction times than others.

But there’s another way that a pitcher can use speed to his advantage. It’s one thing for a batter to be able to time a 95 mph fastball headed his way. It’s another to be able to not get stuck in the mindset expecting a 95 mph fastball and being fooled by an 80-something change. The power of the changeup is that, if done right, it looks like a fastball coming out of the hand, but travels a good bit slower. More slowly enough that if a hitter is looking for a fastball, he’ll be out in front.

In neuropsychological terms, the pitcher is trying to play on what’s called functional fixedness in the batter. It’s the idea that once a batter sees a pitch at 92 mph, he will calibrate himself to the next pitch being a 92 mph as well, and gets so fixed on that idea that he forgets that it’s perfectly legal to throw a ball more slowly and can’t adjust quickly enough. Or perhaps he’s just really bad at judging speeds out of the hand. Are there players who can’t be fooled by raw velocity, but can be fooled by changing speeds?

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Originally published: February 4, 2015. Last Updated: February 4, 2015.