The Strikeout: Important or Overrated?
For pitchers, the strikeout can be a type of double edged sword. If a pitcher focuses too much on striking out a hitter, it can lead to increased walks, higher pitch counts, and consequently higher ERAs. Additionally, it tends to slow down the game by keeping the ball from being put into play as frequently and can cause much irritation with the rest of the team and especially coaches. But at the same time it is an important measure of the type of “stuff” a pitcher possesses. And let’s face it; scouts are always looking for indications on how good a pitcher’s pitches are.
Throughout the years, I have heard many speeches from coaches ranging from little league to college to professional baseball that disparaged the strikeout. Many coaches believe that aiming for strikeouts is selfish and not in the team’s best interests. This blog, however, is going to push back on that line of thinking and tell you why the strikeout is important for a pitcher and how a pitcher can strike out more batters.
I know from the start that the topic of this blog will stir some emotions. Most coaches are likely to be adamantly opposed to what I have to say. As a disclaimer to you coaches, this blog is probably meant more for pitchers and their parents. First, let me say that as a baseball society, we do a very poor job of encouraging pitchers, especially youth pitchers, to develop an explosive and dynamic repertoire of pitches. How many times have you heard parents or coaches yell at a little league game, “Come on Johnny, just throw strikes!” This is actually the completely WRONG thing to encourage a 10, 12, or 14 year old pitcher to do. JUST throwing strikes may move the game along, it may keep a kid from getting a high pitch count in a short amount of time, and it may even allow the team to win the game, but what it does not do is allow a pitcher to learn how to throw hard. It doesn’t help a pitcher learn to throw a great breaking ball or change up.
Is winning a single game, or throwing more strikes than balls really that important at 12 years old? My answer is no it is not. Especially not when it is at the expense of teaching that young man how to sync up his body to throw hard and bring his pitches into the strike zone. What good does throwing at an average (or below average speed) do for a pitcher at any age? It doesn’t make him stand out even if he throws 90% strikes.
You may wonder what this has to do with striking out batters. It is related because developing a pitcher with the ability to strike a lot of batters out begins at a young age. It is extremely important to develop the neuromuscular pathways to be a dynamic and explosive athlete/pitcher as soon as possible. I know from experience the learning pains that accompany trying to change your body’s natural movements at age 17-20 and it is much more difficult than a 8-12 year old learning how to be explosive.
As an athlete, your goal should always be to make it to the next level: a little leaguer wants to make the all-star team, a 14 year old wants to make his high school team, a 16 year old wants to make varsity, a varsity player wants to get recruited to play college ball, a college athlete wants to play professionally, in the minor leagues you want to advance to the next level, and major leaguers want to become all stars. There is always the next level. And whether coaches or other “baseball people” like it or not, strikeouts are an important aspect of making it to the next level. When a scout first looks at a pitcher’s stats there are three things he will inevitably look at first: (1) Win/Loss record, (2) ERA; and (3) Strikeouts. These three categories are a gauge of how dominant a pitcher is and more specifically, how good that pitcher’s stuff is. It is much more common for a scout to say, “Wow, this kid struck out 100 batters in 60 innings” than for a scout to say, “Wow, this kid only walked 5 batters in 60 innings.” Just because you can throw strikes doesn’t mean you can pitch at the next level. But if you can strikeout a whole lot of hitters at your current level then you can more than likely be effective at the next level.
I hear so many coaches point to control guys like Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine when describing what they want their pitchers to be like. Essentially telling those kids to not worry about velocity and focus entirely on throwing strikes. This is a disservice to those kids. Let’s be honest, if a scout saw a 17 year old with 40 year old Tom Glavine “stuff” he probably would have no chance of getting drafted. Both Maddux and Glavine had fastballs in the low 90s when they made their MLB debuts. Other coaches may point to other MLB guys who have reduced the velocity on their fastballs in order to have better command, but that is also an unfair comparison. A pitcher who can throw in the upper 90s and then decides to instead pitch at 93-94 is in an entirely different position than a player who can throw 88-90 and decides to pitch at 83-84. Throwing 83-84 does not usually open the door to the next level.
A better model to emulate is Nolan Ryan or Randy Johnson. Both of those guys were known to have serious control issues earlier in their careers but they refused to give in and “slow things down.” Instead, they continued to push the envelope and throw hard and over time they were able to find ways to throw 100 mph WITH control. It is not an either/or situation when it comes to velocity/command. It is possible to have both. But as soon as you begin to sacrifice energy/explosiveness/momentum in order to try and find the zone you are not helping yourself – no matter the age athlete.
My recommendation to pitchers, especially youth and high school pitchers, is to try and strikeout hitters. Try to throw the ball harder than you ever have. Try to throw a later breaking offspeed than you have ever thrown. These things will pay off for you far more in your baseball career than simply throwing strikes and getting guys out. Now I will make this disclaimer, there are times for pushing the envelop more than others. When you are in season, your goal should be to command the fastball you have now. So if you throw 87 mph you should be working to throwing 87 mph to your spot. The off-season is when that 87 mph guy should be trying to reach 90 mph. But too many coaches try to make that 87 mph guy an 84 mph guy as soon as he has control issues. That is not a solution – it is regression, not progression. It may get the pitcher through today’s game, but won’t help in the long run.
Throwing a complete game shutout with 2 or 3 strikeouts is a great feat and will attract attention, but throwing a complete game shutout and striking out 14 will have scouts wanting to attend your next game. And the only way to strike out more batters is to improve your pitch repertoire. So don’t lose focus of what is best for you as a pitcher. Coaches are great, and want to help you, but they also have a different focus than you. They want to win today’s game, get this out, win this tournament, they are not thinking about 2 or 3 or 4 years down the road. Only you are responsible for thinking about your future.
So for all you pitchers, go out there and be the most explosive, dynamic pitcher you possibly can. Aspire to strike out 15 batters in a game. When you do, I promise you your coach won’t complain.
Until next time,