Experimenting with timing may be the newest pitching fad…and the Pirates should jump on it

The next big thing in pitching is already starting to take form, but it’s not too late for the Pittsburgh Pirates to hop on board.

In the not-too-distant past, the Pittsburgh Pirates were at the forefront of new pitching technique. Pitching-to-contact, getting outs in three pitches or less and more are great examples of  the club’s analytical department’s success in finding an edge.

However, as things stand today that edge in analytics has dwindled. Every club more or less deploys some form of deep analytical thinking. Now more than ever, the Pirates’ brass must be diligent in finding new ways to compete, be it at the plate, in the field or on the mound.

And it is there, on the mound, that one can find the most innovation. Perhaps it’s because the inherent nature of pitching lends itself to the most tinkering that the art of pitching is in constant flux. As if they did not have enough of an advantage, modern day hurlers are now implementing a tiny change — seemingly infinitesimally small yet carrying a magnitude of positive effect — that has the potential to become the next big thing.

The Pittsburgh Pirates should take serious note: pitchers are messing with timing, and it’s messing with hitters.

Don’t take it from me, though.

I have to confess something.

The idea from this article did not come from me. Rather, it was sparked by seeing the amazing work of Rob Friedman, known to Twitter users as @pitchingninja.

To say Rob, an Atlanta, GA pitching coach, is a must-follow for baseball fans does not do him justice. Rob tirelessly collects pitching GIFs on his twitter feed that rate as essential viewing for any baseball mind. On any given day, his feed is full of GIFs of the game’s best — Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Kluber, etc etc — to those that might have a peculiar motion or particular trait on the mound worth highlighting.

As if that wasn’t enough, Rob has collected all of his GIFs, as well as quotes from pitchers on the “mental game” of pitching, in a publicly available repository. Here is the link to that treasure trove, but I must warn you — do not click that link if you do not have an ample amount of time to spend there.

Back to talking about timing…

So it was during the playoffs that i notice this GIF from Rob with Shohei Ohtani (maybe you’ve heard of him?):

My search for more GIFs of pitchers messing with timing — a concept so simple yet so “un-mainstream” — did not come up empty-handed. Here’s more examples:

Marcus Stroman and Roberto Osuna came up quite often:

Even the Pittsburgh Pirates got in on the act, though it took some help from Francisco Cervelli:

The common denominator here is that these changes serve as a simple thing — almost too simple — that pitchers can do to mess with a hitter’s timing. Keep in mind that hitters are slaves to repeat-ability just as pitchers are (were?). It’s why Josh Harrison has his long drawn out pantomime in between pitches, and why hitters relentlessly call for time if their routine is disrupted.

I had to talk to Rob to find out if this is indeed the next big pitching trend, and if the Pittsburgh Pirates have the horses capable to jump on it. Rob was kind enough to go back and forth with me on a few emails as we batted this around. Here now are some pointed questions, along with his answers.

PBD: It was a tweet of yours from October 13th that grabbed my attention.  You had mentioned that a new crop of pitchers/coaches are starting to actually *teach* messing with timing/delivery. We’ve also seen some pitchers start to use such techniques consistently, such as Marcus Stroman. in your opinion, how far away are we from seeing this turn into a verifiable trend?

ROB:  We’re at the very beginning of this being a trend.  First of all, a lot of young pitchers idolize Marcus Stroman, and since he’s doing it, there will be a bunch that follow. See Ethan Hankins, the #1 Ranked High School senior, who utilizes pauses/messing with timing. I think you will see more and more pitchers doing this. It puts some more creativity into the game and makes it more fun. In fact, some of my High School pitching staff will be doing it this season.

PBD (followup): is there still a lot of resistance to this thinking?

ROB: There is a definite resistance to this thinking among traditional coaches.  Traditional coaches teach “repeatability.”  This goes against that thinking.  However, think about it this way: How many pitching coaches teach a slide step?  How many pitching coaches teach different holds with runners on base? I’d say most do. So why have pitchers change their mechanics during the most stressful time of the game (with runners on base and the game on the line) and not do it with no one on?  Old School pitchers like Juan Marichal and Luis Tiant constantly varied arm slots and leg kicks.  Why not do it now? If it works in games, and pitching coaches see others being successful, you’ll see resistance breaking down. 

PBD: Pitchers have been preached to about repeatability for years. how can coaches break through this mindset, should a club want to start mixing in some of these philosophies?

ROB: I think clubs should mix in whatever works.  If a pitcher wants to try this, and they’re successful, they should be allowed to continue with it.  It’s fun and it definitely messes with hitters.  As hitters have bigger and bigger loads/leg kicks to produce power, the variations in a pitcher’s mechanics will likely to be more and more successful.  It makes it tougher to know when to start your load.  Marcus Stroman started doing it after talking to hitters (Donaldson/Bautista) and asking them what makes it more difficult to hit.  In fact, you can see Donaldson complaining about it here:

PBD: In your GIFs, we’ve also seen Clayton Kershaw drop his delivery down to get an edge at times…is this something that can even be taught on a wide scale? Does it take a special type of pitcher to be able to do this?

ROB: I don’t think it takes a special type of pitcher.  It’s just about being athletic.  Don’t bake athleticism out of the game by making pitchers repeatable robots!  Infielders throw with different arm slots.  Hitters are expected to adjust to pitches coming at them at 95mph and hit it squarely with a bat.  Why is it so forbidden to adjust or change when throwing from the mound?

PBD: One of the best parts about your twitter feed is that it’s not all GIFs…your mental game library is pretty large as well…in all of your time compiling these, is there a quote or two, a philosophy or two, that stands out in your mind?

ROB: My favorite is from David Price: If you don’t like it, pitcher better! [ie, don’t whine about it, get better] Also a big fan of this mindset of one pitch at a time:

I then asked Rob if there were any Pittsburgh Pirates hurlers that had the necessary skillset to adopt this practice. He reminded me of one that I missed.

I think that Gerrit Cole has already at least tried it (if that wasn’t on purpose, he clearly can do it).  I would love to see Rivero do it, just because he’s one of my personal favorites and it would be hilarious.  People can’t hit him anyway, and if he started messing with timing, it would be game over. Trevor Williams and Jameson Taillon, too. 

So, why not?

My takeaway from my conversation with Rob is that this small change can mean the world to pitchers. Showing different timing at spots can easily get in a hitter’s head, and can make the pitchers where the hurler does alter the timing even more effective. There is simply no reason why the Pittsburgh Pirates can’t jump on this burgeoning trend, and don’t be surprised to see more than one Pirates pitcher do just that in 2018.

Special thanks to Rob Friedman. Please follow him on twitter.

Image credit – Daniel Decker photography

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include rumbunter.com, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)