If you listen to or read about baseball much, you will inevitably hear about “pitching to contact”. It is one of those phrases that everyone hears and nods their head thinking they know what it means (including yours truly), but when trying to pin down the specifics of pitching to contact, things start getting a little cloudy. It turns out that everyone nods their head when hearing “pitching to contact because it seems everyone has their own definition of the concept. As always, whenever we try on a baseball concept to see if it fits Softball, we need to proceed with caution – doubly so in this case where concepts seem a little fuzzy.
The classic baseball example of a baseball pitcher who pitches to contact is/was Hall-of-Famer Greg Maddux. Greg Maddux was a pitcher whose fastball, particularly later in his career, never topped 84 or 85 mph, but had so much movement on his pitches that it was darn near impossible for batters to hit them squarely. Instead of hitting the ball hard, batters typically would hit weak grounders and fly balls and Greg Maddux would record victories and collect the big bucks. Can a Softball pitcher have the same success (minus the big bucks, of course) by pitching to contact?
I’ll admit, I too had a vague idea of what “pitching to contact” meant but not much beyond that. It just wasn’t a term that I heard growing up, and a quick Google search seems to indicate that the term has only been in vogue for maybe 5 or 10 years. If the term is a relatively new baseball philosophy, it seems to be almost unheard of in Softball circles. There are a handful of articles about specific Softball pitchers or teams having to pitch to contact, but not how to do so or why they have to (other than they don’t tend to strikeout a lot of batters). Therefore, in addition to our first question above, let’s tack on “What exactly does ‘Pitching to Contact’ mean?”, and we might as well add “Are there any advantages for a Softball pitcher to pitch to contact over being a strikeout-dominating pitcher?” and “How does a Softball pitcher effectively pitch to contact?” to the mix as well.
What exactly does Pitching to Contact mean?
Believe it or not, I could not find a definition for Pitching to Contact (we’ll call it PtC) even after a pretty extensive Google search. The closest I came was a Wikipedia definition (I know, not the best source, but what can you do?): “A pitcher who doesn't try to strikeout batters but instead tries to get them to hit the ball weakly, especially on the ground, is said to pitch to contact."
Uh…OK. Easier said than done, I think. After looking at dozens of baseball sites and articles, there are a few rules upon which everyone seemed to agree and which we’ll use for this subject:
1) Throw strikes early in the count
2) Walks are verboten!
3) Don’t waste pitches when ahead in the count – go after the batter
4) Attack a batter’s weaknesses
5) Trust the defense behind you to make plays
Interestingly, pitching to contact is pretty much what I teach my pitchers to do even though I didn’t know it!
I *hate* walks! A pitcher who does not throw strikes lulls the defense to sleep, and when the batter does hit the ball, more errors tend to occur both because there are runners on base putting pressure on the defense, and because the defense tends to be on their heels not expecting a hit. With 3 balls on the batter, I tell my pitcher to just let the batter hit the ball. When I have a new pitcher, I tell her, “If they hit 10 home runs, I’ll tell you, ‘Good job – you threw strikes.’ “ Our goal is zero walks in a game, unless we intentionally walk a batter.
While I’d like to have dominant pitching on my team (who wouldn’t?), it never seems to work out that way. At the Rec level, the best pitchers are usually coaches’ daughters and they end up being my opponents (since my daughters don't pitch). The pitchers who are available are inevitably younger pitchers who pitch slower than the “good” pitchers. My philosophy then is to ignore pitch speed and pick pitchers who can locate their pitches and throw strikes. Twice in the past two years, this approach has resulted in me picking the “worst” pitcher available, at least in other coaches’ eyes, yet my teams finished in 2nd place both years – with the added bonus of having winning records against the 1st place team both times. At least anecdotally, it appears that success can be had in Softball by PtC.
So we’ve established a working definition of PtC, and at least in my experience on the Softball fields, it can lead to success. Next, we will look at why some in baseball have adopted a PtC philosophy, and see if those advantages apply to Fast Pitch Softball.