Today, I want to discuss a mentality that seems to be a growing fad among coaches and even some parents. It is the philosophy that some coaches – specifically some high profile and well respected coaches – have adopted as the motto for their staff. It is the thought that within 3 pitches, a pitcher should either have gotten the batter out or the batter should be on base. It is known as the “3 pitches on or out” philosophy.

I have heard coaches tout this line of thinking and make seemingly convincing arguments why it is a great approach to take with pitchers. I, however, have never bought what these coaches are trying to sell. To me, it is the case of trying to over-simplify a rather complicated thing – pitching. The argument, as I have heard it, goes something like this:

We want to attack the zone. We want to induce contact as early in the count as possible because the percentages say that even the best hitters will get themselves out more than 6 out of 10 times. By having a hitter on or out within 3 pitches speeds up the game. Speeding up the game helps to keep the fielders on their toes by forcing them to concentrate more on the game and ready to make plays. It also helps to keep pitch counts down and avoid walking batters. Walking batters is the worst thing possible for a team because you can’t defend walks.

While I might have left out a point or two, that covers, in my opinion, the most compelling arguments for the “3 pitches on or off” philosophy. I must admit, it does make for a persuasive argument. All of those points seem valid at first glance, but when you dig deeper, many holes are found. Let me address each of the points I listed above.

It is true that pitchers should attack the strike zone, but that is not a novel point. The converse of that would be to not attack the zone, a.k.a. throwing timidly and being afraid to throw your pitches for strikes. While this would quite obviously be a bad thing, let’s face the truth – a pitcher who is timid or won’t throw his pitches in the zone on purpose will likely get very few (if any) innings. And because the far majority of pitchers don’t purposely avoid the strike zone, it wouldn’t make sense to adopt a pitching strategy that is targeted at the few and far between. Most pitchers don’t attack the zone, not because they don’t want to, but because they have command issues that are caused by an inability to repeat movements or because they are not linked up. Therefore, for those pitchers trying to throw strikes and hit spots, this strategy wouldn’t be very helpful.

As for trying to induce contact early on in an at bat because the odds are that a hitter won’t get a base hit even if he makes contact, this is faulty reasoning. A batting average is just that, an average. It does not represent statistics based on a single game or even a series of games. If a pitcher decides that he is going to “attack the zone,” and that he wants to put the ball right down the middle of the strike zone every pitch, do you really think the team will only hit .300 on the day? Hopefully your answer is a resolute NO. That team is likely to rack up 10 or 15 hits (barring the fact that the pitcher is throwing 95+ or has a major league sinker).

Throwing strikes is not the end game to get hitters out. There is a difference between command and control. The ability to simply throw strikes on a consistent basis means you have control. Having command means you can actually dictate where in the strike zone you want your pitch to end up (e.g., up and down, in and out). Having command is what forces bad contact and gets hitters out on a consistent (8/9 out of 10 times) basis, not simply throwing strikes (control). Therefore, even if you wholeheartedly adopt this 3 pitch philosophy, it doesn’t mean you are any closer to dominating an opposing team’s hitters. I know as a pitcher I didn’t want to face the odds of 6 out of 10 times the batter will likely get out. I wanted to force those odds even lower by throwing my best pitches in the best location at the best time to make the odds more along the lines of 9 out of 10 times he will get out.

As for the speeding up the game and keeping hitters on their toes argument, this is ridiculous in my opinion. You can help speed up the game by simply teaching your pitcher to speed up the time he takes between pitches. Games usually screech to a halt when a pitcher takes 30 seconds between pitches. We have all seen a pitcher who gets the ball back from the catcher and then proceeds to walk all the way around the mound, walks up to the rubber from the back side, then smooths over the spot on the mound where his foot lands and then fill/kick at the rubber, perhaps even adjusting his belt, shoes, or other part of his jersey before he is finally ready to look in for the next pitch. Yes, this is unecessary and slows the game down. But is the answer really to adopt a 3 pitch on or out philosophy? How about just get the player to hop right back on the rubber after he gets the ball.

I’m not going to go into detail about keeping the position guys focused or on their toes because if you have a group of players who need the game to be played fast to hold their attention you might want to recruit/play different athletes who can maintain their focus.

Of all the reasons I have heard and that I listed above, the goal to keep pitch counts down and walks to a minimum is probably the most persuasive. But accomplishing these things through a 3 pitch on or out philosophy is not the right way. For one, pitch counts become just as high when your pitches are getting ripped all over the park due to the fact that you are throwing too many strikes or that at least every 3rd pitch is somewhere over the heart of the plate. As for the walks, if you encourage your pitchers to “just throw strikes” and “attack the zone” then you are probably not giving them the opportunity to truly improve their stuff. This relates back to my post from last week. The best way to help a pitcher become more consistent and throw more strikes is to allow him to find the right balance between being too geared up and perhaps “overthrowing” and being too relaxed and not having enough energy in his delivery. A philosophy that is completely command/control focused will do nothing for the velocity and power side of things.

My last comment about this philosophy or mentality is that it just doesn’t make that much sense. Besides all of the points I have already made, there are so many situations that come to mind where having such an approach would be utterly detrimental. For example, what if you just threw two fastballs for a strike and you want to throw a breaking ball out of the zone to try and get the hitter to chase. Your goal in throwing such a pitch is generally to either have the hitter swing and miss or for it to be a ball. But this approach might be contrary to this philosophy because if the hitter doesn’t swing then you will have to throw a 4th pitch. Or what about when a hitter is diving over the plate and you have thrown several pitches that he has fouled off and the best pitch would be to bust a fastball in off the plate to keep him honest. Are you not going to throw that because you would go over your 3 pitch goal? Will you really sacrifice throwing the best pitch possible in a situation simply to stick to some concocted pitching theory? And if in these situations you dismiss the 3 pitch philosophy in order to throw the best pitch possible, I would say you aren’truly following it in the first place.

To all you pitchers out there just remember one thing: only one person is responsible for what happens on the field – YOU. So if you decide to follow such a theory and truly try to have all hitters on or out within 3 pitches instead of focusing on the situation and throwing the best pitch because your coach wants you too, you will have to face the consequences if you give up 10 hits in 3 innings. Your coach won’t be responsible for that outing. And to all you coaches who use or have heard of this 3 pitches on or out philosophy, you will be better off simply trying to help teach your pitchers what pitches are best to throw in certain situations and to try and improve each kid in the areas they need the most help. A one size fits all pitching approach will not do anybody much good in the long run.

Until next time,

Brian Oates