This space today is a kind of a follow up to last week when I commented on the stellar pitching of Greg Maddux and Jason Schmidt. The recurring theme in both of their performances that night was that they “attacked the zone.” Both veteran pitchers stand in contrast to what Chad Billingsley is going through right now. The thing to remember however, is that what Chad is experiencing is the rule, not the exception.
Chad has outstanding stuff. He has a 97 MPH fastball, a sharp breaking curve, a slider and a change up. When he throws strikes, he has shown that he can get Major League hitters out. What has happened is that he has run up high pitch counts and has struggled getting past the sixth inning. This is common for young pitchers. What was fouled off or swung through in Triple-A and Double-A is now sometimes taken or hit hard. What was a 1-2 count in Triple-A often becomes 2-1 in the big leagues. The adjustment to the increased discipline of Major League hitters can be difficult. The instinct is to try to do more. Sometimes young pitchers judge their outings by how many times they miss the bat or strike hitters out. Chad has stated himself that he needs to trust his stuff and be in the zone better. It is only through experience that a young pitcher learns these things.
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received came from my Triple-A manager Doc Edwards. I had spent the year in Triple-A in 1983 and walked about 4.5 men per nine innings. During Spring Training the following year, Doc suggested that I start pretending that two balls are three balls. In other words, make something happen at the two-ball count rather than pick and risk walking the hitter. I started to use that strategy and cut my walks in half, leading to a June call up. What Doc’s words made me become was more aggressive and less apt to beat myself. I found that if I located my fast ball well, that good things would happen. He also told me not to be concerned with style points — that a line drive out was still an out and was much better than a walk. He also added that I wasn’t good enough to concern myself with style. He was right on all counts.
I think we have seen the gradual maturation process of Jonathon Broxton this year as an example. Late last year and early this year, he had to find out what he could and could not get away with. Gradually, we have seen a more efficient pitcher emerge.
Often you will hear a pitching coach tell a young pitcher to stop trying to miss the bat. What he is saying is don’t try to make the perfect pitch all the time. One of the best ways of looking at this I have ever heard came from the great left-hander Steve Carlton, who was also my teammate for a short time with the Twins. Lefty spoke of pitching as an accelerated game of catch between himself and the catcher. As he delivered his pitch, Steve eliminated the bat from his conscious. He focused on hitting the glove and executing his pitch. If he did that, he reasoned, good things would happen more often than not.
Chad Billingsley showed last week against the Marlins and in very impressive flashes most other starts, what he can do when he is consistently in the zone. He just needs time to test the waters. I had a guy when I was with the Pirates who was very much like Chad is as a young pitcher. His name was Jason Schmidt.