There are moments during the game, and also during the post-game that I question this whole “Pitching-to-Contact” system and its basic premise to induce ground balls outs and secure pitch counts for starters. The system seems almost laughable at times when the pitcher’s only seem to last until the middle of the 6th innings at best, and the pitch count as gotten the better of Tampa Bay Rays pitching staffs. But then I see some of the Rays rookies use the system, having been taught it in the minor leagues, and it does show that it has some merit if the right pitchers are used in the system.
And that might be the hidden key that everyone else has missed for the Scott Kazmir trade. Power pitching doesn’t belong in this system. The basic ideal of the system is to confuse and induce ground balls and hittable balls for strikeouts and foul ball put outs to minimalize the scoring chances of your opponent. And Kazmir was brought up as a power pitcher, and we have seen him try to conform to the system, but the system ended up eating him up like a chew toy and spit him out all over the mound.
How much more acceptable would the idea of this recent trade have been if Andrew Friedman has just said that Kazmir was not a good fit for the Rays pitching system, and that after both sides tried to make it work, a change was needed by both sides to succeed from this point forward. I could have accepted that reasoning in a heartbeat, and known that Kazmir was hurt the last two years trying to conform to a system that was foreign to his own pitching style. But why is it a young power pitcher like Kazmir could not develop into the system, but some one like Jeff Neimann is a natural for it?
There is the ruse. There is the hidden answer to it all, the system doesn’t pick the pitchers to be employed into it, the team does that. And a pitcher like Kazmir and even James Shields were not in the current Rays system under Rays Manager Joe Maddon and Pitching Coach Jim Hickey where they could learn the system at the lower levels, then come up with a total understanding of it all. And that might be the reasoning for the reduced strikeouts and some of the anemic outings by Shields also this season. He is adapting to the system, but it has not clicked with him yet.
And there are success stories even within our division of pitchers who have adapted the system and gone on to major success in the league. Toronto’s Roy Halladay converted to this method of pitching in 2006, and his abilities and his stamina have grown every season. Now this concept of pitching to contact is not based on just throwing the ball down the middle and hoping for the best. It is actually playing to the individual pitcher’s strengths and adjusting speeds and quadrant location to maximize their abilities during every at bat in a game.
But changing a pitcher’s mindset gets hard the more time he is in the majors. We are taught at a young age to “throw it by” an opponent or even using our breaking ball to set up our “out” pitch. This system throws all of that into a basket and relies more on the ability to induce throwing low into the zone and hopefully getting more ground balls that you defense can easily convert into outs. And this system is better perfected in the minors than at this level of the game. That might be the basic reasons that Rays rookies David Price and Jeff Neimann are having the success they are having this season. They have been taught the system in the minor leagues.
One of the basic rules of the pitching to contact system is getting ahead in the counts to hitters. As we have seen in the past, this has been a true problem for the Rays pitching staff. But this system employs a system of pitching low and to outer quadrants and letting the ball be hit, if it is in the zone more on the ground than in the air. That the past notion of “painting the corner” or trying to just itch the outside of the corners is a thing of the past, and is not a part of this system. The past belief in “painting” or nibbling at the corners actually is a negative if you want to preserve your pitch count and stay in the game later. The pitching to contact system can increase your outings if you follow its rules.
The Rays Coaching staff believes that by keeping pitches down, it will lead to more ground ball that their defense can handle for easy outs. And just because this might lead to more hitters getting their bats on the ball doesn’t go hand in hand with more runs crossing the plate.
The point of this is to show that getting hitters to put more wood on the ball will not automatically mean more runs crossing the plate. This is especially true in Tampa Bay in 2008, where the abilities of a talented infield meant more outs for pitchers unafraid to have the ball put on the ground. For this system to work, a pitcher has to believe in it 100 percent.
You can see where this system could be a pitcher’s best friend after awhile helping him become more pitch efficient and maybe transforming that into going deeper into ballgames, but you can maybe effectively gauge some of that on the kind of pitcher, and what he basically throws to be a great indicator of his success or failure in this system. Here are a few examples brought to light by the U.S.S. Mariners blog back in Feb 2007 on this system:“Great pitching+great command: You shouldn’t care about pitching advice.
Great pitching + horrible command: chuck it down the middle, let them swing and miss.
Hittable pitches+great command: You want to live on speed changes and hitting the corners.
Horrible pitches+horrible command: You’re not going to be around long anyways. “ This system right now has its good and bad moments posted all over the Rays 2009 season. I can not say that I truly think that every pitcher on the Rays staff right now is fashioned to use this type of pitching system, or could develop it into his own arsenal to become more effective on the mound. But because the recent influx of the Rays rookie pitchers, and their ability to adjust and transform their pitching styles into this system might be a good indicator of future success. But for this system to truly work to perfection, the Rays defense again has to step up a bit and take it back to and above their 2008 levels.
Gail Burton / AP
I guess you can say that the jury is still out on if I believe this system can be employed by all five of our starters with effectiveness. But right now the advent of the system is beginning to show both signs of good and bad in our rotation. Some need to further adjust their styles to adapt the system totally into their pitching, but some also have come miles in the last few months to use this system to its extremes. All in all, if this system is taught at the lower levels of the farm system and employed all the way up the ladder, the next influx of Rays pitchers will also be able to use and adapt their abilities perfectly to conform to the system.
But right now, the Rays starters are beginning to show some signs of really getting this system ingrained into their every day pitching, and that could be a major thing going into 2010 ans beyond for the team. Who knows if this system will be here in two seasons, or might even be trashed the moment the team doesn’t retain their current Pitching Coach. But the reality of it all is that if the Rays infield defense and the pitching staff can both get on the same wave length, we could see another run like 2008 in the near future.