The Most Important Pitch in Your Arsenal

Nolan Ryan #34 of the Texas Rangers poses for a photo circa 1989-1993. Louis says it was the first photo shot of Nolan Ryan in a Rangers uniform. (Photo by Louis DeLuca)

All great pitchers usually have something in common: a good fastball. Having command of your fastball should be the main focus of every pitcher at every level of the game, yet that’s almost never the case. Too many kids (of all ages) tend to spend far too much time on learning how to throw junk, such as breaking balls.

We see it every year on ESPN when they have the Little League World Series on. I know a kid that tends to throw his curveball quite often, no matter how much crap I give him for throwing it. He has a great fastball with good control, yet he tends to want to throw his curveball far too often. I was that age as well and I do believe my love for throwing junk is ultimately what destroyed my elbow and, in turn, my career. I, too, once had a great fastball with good control, but I didn’t spend enough time focusing on development of that pitch. I was too focused on my 12-6 curve and forkball, which I had mastered. I regret that decision. If I had focused on my fastball things would probably have been different in my (eventually) short career.

Why the Fastball?

The fastball is the trickiest pitch in all of Baseball, because if you have plus command you can cause all sorts of havoc on a hitters mind with the placement of that pitch. Having a great fastball means you can get out of most situations, (sometimes) even with a lack of feel for the pitch. Those who understand that know how it is when you can’t get a good feel for your breaking ball. It’s practically impossible to throw that pitch anywhere near the plate. It’s frustrating.

Having a great fastball also means you can develop a secondary pitch: a changeup to simply throw the hitter’s timing off. This is the killer combination for almost every great pitcher in the history of Baseball, but we ‘over-beautify’ the breaking ball. Yes, breaking balls have their place and many MLB pitchers make their money off their breaking ball, so it seems. But in reality that’s not entirely true. Kershaw’s 12-6 curveball is one of the most fascinating pitches in all of Baseball, but he threw that pitch 376 times vs. 1506 fastballs in 2014. That’s 4 fastballs for every 1 curveball, from one of the most dominating pitchers in history, who throws one of the most devastating curves in the game.

The reality is that kids want to impress others, but there are actually fathers and coaches out there that want kids to throw these pitches, too. Insane. Stupid. Dangerous. I watched an 11 year old do this last night. ELEVEN YEARS OLD. And he was killing my hitters with his great fastball.

Infuriating.

Look, I understand that there are studies like this that will have you believe there are no safety issues for throwing the curve, but these are very limited studies and do not tell the whole story. Too many people use these studies to confirm their own bias, which is why I take most people linking to Baseball studies with a grain of salt. I’m not one to sit here and say that no kids should learn how to throw a curveball. The problem is how often they start throwing the curveball, and also how they are throwing those breaking pitches (ie, twisting the wrist, etc.). Kids will be kids and we were all kids at one point in time. Showing off, trying to strike hitters out with nothing but junk, etc.

Something to keep in mind is that a fastball is a pitch that’s thrown with full effort. Anyone can throw a pitch, but a true fastball is everything you have, everytime you throw that pitch.

Where’s Your Proof?

You might be thinking “where’s your proof that fastballs are better”?

I don’t want to stretch this into a book, so here are a few good points to learning how to throw a good fastball, and working on commanding that pitch before moving on to breaking balls:

  1. Easier to control. Whether it’s a 2-seam or 4-seam fastball, it’s going to be easier to control for pitchers of all ages. This means that you can move the ball around in your favor.
  2. Velocity matters. Fastballs are the going to be harder to hit for most levels of baseball, but they’ll also be the most fouled off pitch, according to this data. And having an 0-2 change-up is a great off-speed pitch at most levels of competition, especially the youth levels.
  3. Hiding pitches behind the fastball. What I mean by this is being able to use your fastball for deception, through various forms of ‘effective velocity‘ and/or ‘tunneling’ (great info on tunneling by Kyle Boddy here), which allows you to have more success with other pitches.
  4. The Fastball produces the most outs in MLB, which clearly proves its effectiveness at any level of play. You can read about pitch sequences here.

The bottom line is that your fastball is going to be your most important pitch in your arsenal, regardless of how great your breaking ball is. The proof exists in the data above, as well as the points. I hear some people bring up Greg Maddux and how he had great movement on various pitches and low velocity. This isn’t exactly true. Towards the end of his career he did suffer from a lack of 90 mph fastballs, but he had great command and threw very little breaking balls, as you can see here.

Side note: developing the velocity and control of your fastball allows you to excel at other positions too, whether that’s infield, outfield or maybe even on the other side of the plate at catcher.

Dads, coaches and pitchers, focus on learning how to command your fastball, while simultaneously working on velocity. The intent to throw hard is extremely important for youth pitchers.

When to Start Throwing a Curve or Other Pitches?

When the pitcher is ready. Physically and mentally. There are some kids that may be old enough, yet not mentally capable of throwing the curveball, forkball or some other type of breaking pitch responsibly. Most kids under 14 aren’t. But if you have a responsible kid that won’t be throwing it too often and can hit his spots with his fastball, and also has a good change-up, then you may be good to go. Just not at 11, dude. He’s barely not a toddler anymore.

Knowing the difference between control and command is important. Control is being able to hit a target. Command is being able to hit spots of that target. There’s a huge difference here and one that too many parents, coaches and pitchers fail to realize. If your little Johnny can’t hit anywhere near the target, he’s definitely not ready to be throwing a curveball.

In reality, teaching a pitcher different pitches should be more like this:

  1. Fastball
  2. Better Fastball (command + velocity)
  3. Change-up. This could be a C or Circle Change, palmball, etc. Maybe even a knuckleball.
  4. Variation of Fastball: sinker or different grips to allow movement
  5. Curveball
  6. For the love of everything, please leave the Slider in the back of your head until he reaches Senior year of HS, dad/coach.

If you don’t have a good fastball, you are not a good pitcher. That’s the reality. If you want to improve your game, improve your velo or command, not add a new pitch to your arsenal. It doesn’t make sense. Scouts aren’t going to say “Well, he only throws 85, but he’s got a hell of a curve!” …not realistic. They want to see your fastball, first and foremost.

Work on it.