There’s a lot that goes into pitching in a professional baseball game. It’s not just stepping on the rubber in the first inning and blindly throwing as hard as you can. There’s a lot that goes into an outing, and it’s a never-ending cycle that pitchers go through to make sure they can go out and pitch well each time they’re out there.
In Major League Baseball, the hot topic surrounding pitching is spin rate and how that has impacted velocity on fastballs and break in off-speed pitches. But down in Danville, the Atlanta Braves rookie affiliate, spin rate and the rest of the advanced metrics are far down on the list of priorities for the pitching staff. Instead, it’s all about commanding your fastball and using that pitch to get ahead in counts and getting quick outs.
Jason Stanford, the team’s pitching coach, pitched for the Cleveland Indians in parts of three seasons back in 2003, 2004, and 2007. Stanford said that he tries to keep things simple for his staff and that he doesn’t need them worrying about any more than they have to.
“For me, the biggest thing is going out there and competing every day,” he said. “Philosophy-wise, it’s trying to attack the lower half part of the zone with what you have.
“With these guys being new to the organization, new to pro baseball, trying to reinforce the one-pitch mentality to make sure they understand that it’s one pitch at a time… With that playing into what the Braves’ philosophy is, attack the lower half of the zone, try to really focus on glove-side command and then have everything else play off that.”
Alec Barger, the Braves’ 17th round draft pick in 2019, has made four starts this season for Danville and holds a 1.80 ERA. He’s a player that has taken what Stanford is preaching and using it when he takes the mound. The strikeout is the sexy stat for pitchers in the big leagues, but Barger and his teammates are focused on getting outs as quickly as they can.
“If you’re trying to get strikeouts you’re going to try to get too pretty with pitches and I don’t think that’s what our philosophy is,” Barger said. “We know we have good stuff and if we throw the ball where we want to throw it then we’re going to have success.”
For Zach Daniels, in his second season with the Braves organization after being selected in the 19th round in 2018, he’s focused on that lower half of the zone with the idea of getting groundballs.
“You’ve got to throw strikes first off. Probably just two-seams low and away, pitch down in the zone,” Daniels said. “(I) definitely (want) quick, efficient innings. My main goal is to get ground balls… The quicker the innings, the more innings you’ll throw.”
Like all teams in Minor League Baseball, the Danville Braves have access to TrackMan, a program used for player evaluation and development. Among other things, it tracks spin rate. It’s available to the team, and Stanford sees it, but it takes a backseat when it comes to using it to teach the pitchers.
“Down here we don’t focus on any of that. It’s there, and we’re taking the data and we’re sending it back up to Atlanta, but I think for us down here it’s the mindset of how do you get guys out? How can you attack guys? How can you sequence better? Learning the pro game coming from high school or college, it’s a lot different,” Stanford said. “If these guys start focusing on spin rate and this and that they’re going to be in a lot of trouble because now they’re going to forget how to get guys out.”
“The feedback is nice, but I don’t focus on that,” Daniels said of advanced metrics. “It’s nice to know, but I’ll specifically work on one thing during a bullpen, so it’s not like I’m analyzing that data and trying to go off that.”
“I think that’s more things that you worry about maybe in the offseason,” Barger said.
For most pitchers, the fastball is that go-to pitch, so that’s where Stanford starts when it comes to harnessing his pitching staff. He wants them to start with commanding the fastball, and then the secondary pitches can work from there.
“You start commanding your fastball down and away and then you’re able to work it in, now all of a sudden you can start working your change-up and you can start working your breaking ball,” Stanford said.
“I think as a whole staff right now what we want to do is attack with our fastball and let our off-speed just mix with our fastball. If you attack with the fastball, you set that up, it really helps all your off-speed and I think that’s our plan,” Barger said.
And from there, these young pitchers are also learning how to mix pitches and know when the right time to do that is. They want to use their fastballs, especially when it’s working, but there’s a time and place for the other pitches, and that’s where experience, feel, and trust in your stuff comes in.
“The thing that I’ve been working on is pitch sequence, so knowing what pitches to throw in what situation,” Daniels said. “(They’re) just asking about different pitches – understanding when to throw a certain pitch in a certain count and just the trust factor.”
It’s a lot of work that goes in for pitchers in Danville, but the hope for everyone involved is that the work being put in now will one day lead to them getting their shot at taking the field as a Major League Baseball player.
Chris Doherty is a sports reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. You can reach him at (276)638-8801 ext. 215.