Pitches and Pitching
A pitcher doesn't simply stand on the mound, and throw the ball and hope. At least, not if he wants to play for any length of time. He'll normally throw a variety of different pitches, and try and "work the batter" to get him out.
A pitcher's strategy will depend upon what pitches he can "command". It's critical that he can throw the pitches exactly where he wants them. If he's trying to "paint the corners" of the strike zone, then missing even by a few inches can be disastrous.
At the Major League level a pitcher needs to be able to throw at least two types of pitches effectively, ideally three, and if he has four, he'll be a superstar. If a pitcher doesn't have much variation in his armoury, a hitter will "sit on" a particular pitch (wait for it to come along, and accept strikes if something else is thrown).
A pitcher who relies on sinking balls and so forth will usually be more reliant on his defensive team-mates, as many ground balls will be hit into the infield. A "power pitcher" relies on blowing fastballs past the hitter, and will tend to accumulate more strike-outs. On the downside, if a hitter does cleanly hit it, the ball is more likely to leave the park for a home run. Many pitchers rely on "late movement" or "movement off the plate" on a pitch, a pitch that suddenly deviates as it reaches the hitter.
Good pitching is not just about striking out hitters, it's about getting them out. If a pitcher makes a hitter swing at a ball he cannot hit cleanly, he should get him out via a ground ball or a fly out, and those count just as much as a strikeout.
Strategy also varies for different pitchers. Late innings relievers generally only have to face each hitter once in a game, so they don't need to have as much variation (often a closer simply throws fast-balls, and hopes to blow away the hitter before he's adjusted to his fast ball), whereas a starter may well have to face each hitter three or four times in a game, so has to vary his pitching more.
A baseball is round, just over 5 ounces (about 145g) and is made of yarn and cork, covered by a two piece leather hide. The leather is stitched together into a seam which runs across the ball in the same pattern as on a tennis ball.
In the hands of an expert pitcher, spin can be imparted on the ball both from finger and wrist action, which combined with the positions of the seams will make the ball move in a variety of directions. Pitching is an art, and different pitchers will be able to make different pitches with differing variations in control. Remember that whatever motion a pitcher puts on the ball, he still has to be able to locate it in the strike zone (or at least, get the hitter to swing at it believing it's heading for the strike zone).
A pitcher is not allowed to mark the ball, doctor the ball, spit on the ball, apply any substance from his cap onto the ball or do anything else to the ball which will help him to make it move (and if he does, and gets caught, he can be ejected from the game). If an umpire feels a ball has become marked (usually scuffed through being hit, or landing in the dirt) he'll replace the ball. Literally dozens of new balls are used during every single game of Major League Baseball.
The Wind-up and the Stretch
Pitchers will generally have two pitching motions, which are the only legal methods of throwing the ball. Ideally, they will pitch from the "Wind-up", where the coils his body, raising his front foot, and then unwinds and transfers his balance onto the front foot as he pitches the ball. This is by far the most effective motion, helping him throw the ball quicker and with more movement.
The wind-up has a disadvantage - it's slow and laborious. Once a pitcher has started his pitching motion he cannot stop, so if there is a runner on first or second base, the start of the wind-up is a "green light" for a steal attempt, and almost guarantees he'll be successful such is the head start he'll get. Therefore, once a runner is aboard, the pitcher will throw from "the stretch" - not as effective for pitching, but much quicker and gives a base stealer less time.
Once again, the importance for the hitting side of getting a runner "aboard" is shown.
Note that if a pitcher does start his pitching motion, and then stops (because of a runner) or throws to try and pick the runner off, the umpire may call a "balk" which allows all runners to advance a base.
The most basic pitch of all is the fastball, which is exactly what it says. The pitch isn't thrown to move around in the air, and the pitcher simply aims to blow it past the hitter as quickly as possible. The very quickest fastballs can reach 100 mph (referred to as "high heat"). It's also the easiest pitch for the pitcher to control.
The two most common fastballs are thrown with the index and middle fingers on the top of the ball, and the thumb underneath.
There are a variety of fastballs:-
The "four seam" fastball is the basic fastball, and is thrown by holding the fore and middle fingers across the seams, imparting back-spin on the ball, which as it approaches the hitter makes it drop slower than other pitches (so it almost appears to rise in flight). Its name is given because the hitter sees four parallel seams spin towards him.
The "two seam" fastball (sometimes known as "sinker") is held with the fore and middle fingers along the seams - and the pitch sinks in flight slightly as it reaches the hitter, sometimes also breaking slightly to one side, making it more likely the ball will be hit along the ground, placing a premium on good fielding.
The "cut" fastball (or "cutter") is thrown by putting side spin on the ball with pressure from the middle finger. A right handed cutter breaks away from a right handed hitter or into a left handed hitter.
Off Speed Pitches
The "split fingered fastball" is thrown by spreading the fore and middle fingers further apart on the ball, so that ball comes out of the hand more slowly than the arm motion would suggest. If the hitter doesn't read the slower ball, he'll swing before the pitch arrives. The pitch isn't generally thrown to hit the strike zone, it's thrown to lure the hitter into a false, early, swing.
The "forkball" is similar to the split fingered fastball, but is thrown with no wrist motion and the ball even further back in the hand, with the fore and middle fingers even more spread. Again it isn't designed to be in the strike zone, and may well hit the ground ("in the dirt") when it reaches the catcher. A forkball can make a hitter (and a catcher) look rather silly!
The most common off speed pitch is the "changeup" (derived from "change of pace"), thrown with the same arm action as the fastball, but with a different grip. The most common version is the "circle change", in which the thumb and fore finger touch to create a circle on the side of the ball, and the remaining fingers spread around the ball. This grip means the ball is released much more slowly, hopefully fooling the hitter into swinging too early.
Breaking balls are also pitches thrown "off speed" (typically 10-15 mph slower than a fastball) but are also intended to have some sort of sideways or downward movement as they reach the batter. Breaking balls have a good chance of bouncing in the dirt so the catcher has to be good enough to still stop them - it's no use throwing a strike if the ball gets past the catcher and allows runners to advance.
There are a variety of breaking balls:-
The "curveball" is thrown with the wrist cocked, the fore and middle fingers close together and the thumb on top of the ball to induce extra forward spin (i.e. top to bottom) on the ball causing it to "break" and drop sharply as it reaches the plate. A curveball that fails to break soon enough is called a "hanging curve" and is easy to hit.
The "slider" is a pitch halfway between a curveball and a fastball, thrown harder than the curveball but with less spin imparted. The ball doesn't tend to drop as much as the curveball, but has more sideways movement, so a right handed slider tends to "slide" away from a right handed hitter.
The "screwball" is rare, and moves in the opposite direction to a curveball by being thrown with the ball rolling over the middle finger with a twist of the wrist (rather like a screwing motion) so that the palm of the hand ends up pointing towards third base (for right handed pitchers). The spin makes a right handed screwball swerve into a right handed a hitter.
A "knuckleball" is rarely thrown by a regular pitcher, but is normally the staple pitch of a rare breed - the "knuckleballer". A knuckleball is held with the ball in the fingertips, and not so much thrown at the hitter as pushed at him at release. The key is to ensure that there is no spin on the ball whatsoever, so that the ball dances and wobbles around in flight as the air moves over the seams (hence it's held from the fingertips only, if the fingers are wrapped around it as they release it they'll drag on it and impart spin).
A knuckleball is thrown anywhere from 50 mph to 70 mph and the pitcher may mix in the odd "fastball" (though usually only in the 80 mph range, so it relies on the surprise factor).
Knuckleballers rely on the rarity of their pitches. Not even the pitcher knows which way the ball is going to move, and hitters so rarely see a knuckleballer they don't have the chance to adjust their timing.
A good knuckleballer offers one huge bonus to his team. Pitching at 50-70 mph is nowhere near as tiring as regular pitching, so potentially the knuckleballer can pitch more regularly and for longer periods than his counterparts.
The intentional walk is also part of a pitching armoury. If he doesn't like his odds facing the next hitter and first base is "open" then he may well intentionally walk him (the catcher stands up, steps to the side, and takes four balls) to get to the next hitter (who he prefers to pitch to). He may also issue an intentional walk if he finds himself in a "hitters count" (e.g. three balls and no strikes).
If there is a runner on second base and first base is open, then the intentional walk can also be used to put a man on first base, and increase the chances of a double play.
Of course, the downside is the pitcher is putting an extra runner on base. Woe-betide the pitcher who "issues an intentional walk" and then sees the next hitter smash a home run!
An intentional walk is recorded as a separate statistic, as generally it's a manager who makes the decision, not the pitcher.
It's much easier to pull a ball for power (i.e. hit it back across your body) than to drive it, so a hitter will often try and "crowd the plate", leaning over it. A pitcher will therefore sometimes "pitch inside", hopefully causing the hitter to back off the plate.
If he pitches too far inside, or the hitter doesn't react, he may hit him, which will usually cause the umpire to issue a warning to both teams (Baseball tradition is that if one of your pitchers "plunks" one of the opposition, then a little later in the game one of their pitchers will retaliate and plunk one of yours). Of course, hitting a batter gives him a free walk to first base, but it's still considered more important to "protect your team-mates".
If a pitcher does retaliate after a warning and hit an opponent, then he'll usually be ejected from the game (so he has to be substituted). In the meantime, there may well be a confrontation between the pitcher and the plunked batter, and perhaps even a "bench clearing brawl" (hitter questions pitcher's parentage, pitcher tells him where to go, hitter "charges the mound", catcher chases him to support the pitcher, hitter's team-mates clear their bench to support the lone batter, so do the pitcher's bench, and you have a bench clearing brawl). Once it all settles down, the pitcher gets ejected (along with anyone else spotted doing something serious, often the hitter as well) and the game continues.
Bench clearing brawls are not uncommon, and though not very edifying can even unite a team. It's rare (but not unknown) for a player to be trying to seriously hurt an opponent during a brawl, and not unknown for players to seek out a like-minded opponent with whom they can grapple and give the impression of "mixing it" whilst actually waiting for the aggravation to die down.
If a pitcher, intentionally or accidentally, throws the ball at an opponents head ("beaning him") then the niceties can usually be ignored, and a mass brawl and ejection will follow immediately. Throwing at an opponent's body is considered to be an acceptable part of the game (by players anyway), but the head is off-limits!