By Scotty Walker
The Situation: A right-handed relief pitcher is brought into the game in the bottom of the 8th inning. His team is winning 3-2, but the bases are loaded with 2 outs. He is facing the second hitter in the line-up; a scrappy righty who uses the whole field. It is a cold night, and the pitcher did not get a lot of time to warm up. But he is ready to go, leaving the bullpen with all 3 of his pitches working well (fastball, changeup and slider).
The Play: The pitcher does a great job with his first pitch, getting the count to 0-1 with a fastball away. His catcher then calls for a slider. The pitcher hears a little voice in his head say, “I don’t quite trust my slider right now. I don’t know if I can make this pitch.” However, the pitcher takes a short breath and nods his head anyway.
The Outcome: The pitcher lifts his leg with a little hesitation in his delivery, and tosses a hanging cement-mixer slider that gets hammered into the gap for a double. His team is now down 4-3.
What Went Wrong?
Obviously, our pitcher did a few things well in this situation. He came into the game with all 3 of his pitches on point. The general rule of thumb for a relief pitcher is to ensure he has at least his fastball and one off-speed pitch working for strikes. He exceeded this goal with all 3 of his pitches working. Also, our pitcher got ahead in the count, establishing his fastball early. When coming in with the bases loaded in a tight spot, it is absolutely imperative to get ahead of the hitter.
Now, let’s move on to what this pitcher did wrong. This situation clearly involves the mental game of baseball. Everything was in the favor of the pitcher before he threw the slider: he was ahead in the count, all 3 pitches were working, and he had established his fastball. However, the pitch (the slider) was thrown without confidence. Even the smallest sense of doubt in the mind of any player can lead to a poor outcome.
No matter how favored you are in a situation, a pitch thrown without confidence is destined to fail. Obviously, you can get away with a little bit of doubt but you need to take it as a signal to slow things down. If you feel doubt about a pitch, you should immediately step off the rubber, refocus, and trust your pitch! If you still have issues with having confidence in that particular pitch, then you need to shake off your catcher and throw something else. You must understand that in order to be a successful pitcher, confidence and trust must be established in all of your pitches. Know when to refocus, know when to communicate with your catcher. Think the game!