Pitchers like C.J. Wilson finding a new way to win battle with hitters
What if a consequence of speeding up the game is that it takes even more offense out of it? In the case of the Los Angeles Angels' C.J. Wilson—and his mental skills coach, Fran Pirozzolo, a licensed consulting psychologist—that consequence is fully intended. With the help of Pirozzolo, Wilson decided over the winter to cut the amount of time between his pitches, a tactic not only encouraged by baseball’s new pace of play rules but also one that may yield statistical evidence as yet another way of suppressing offense.
In his first start of the season, the new and faster version of Wilson, who previously was known as a notorious nibbler and slow worker, did something he never did in 171 previous career starts: He threw eight innings with fewer than 100 pitches (96). The Angels beat Seattle, 2–0, in two hours, 13 minutes—the second shortest start by time in Wilson’s career.
Wilson’s second start, a 9–2 loss to Kansas City, was less successful, as he allowed six earned runs in 5 2/3 innings. But in both starts, Wilson sent a message: He is going to attack hitters, not just with his stuff but also in dictating a faster pace to the game.
"We talked about what a lot of the best pitchers do,” Pirozzolo said. “We worked on just trying to get him to trust his plan and more quickly attack with that attitude. Taking an extra beat or two invites intrusion of thought—the ‘what if?’ ‘What if the hitter is thinking this?’ ‘What if I miss with this pitch?’ That cognitive intrusion is what we wanted to eliminate. If you study something long enough, you’re going to have cognitive intrusion: ‘If I do this, than this could happen…’”
Pirozzolo has worked with Wilson for most of the lefthander’s 11-year career, first as the mental skills coach for Texas. When some Rangers officials were hesitant about converting Wilson from the bullpen to the rotation in 2010, Pirozzolo was one of the staff members arguing that Wilson would flourish in the role because of his analytical mind. Wilson won 15 games in his first season as a starter and 16 the next year.
Pirozzolo previously worked for NASA, the Houston Astros, Detroit Tigers and the championship New York Yankees teams managed by Joe Torre. Last week, he attended the Masters, where several of his golf clients participated. Pirozzolo has worked with Jason Dufner, Billy Horschel and Hunter Mahan, among others, and was chosen as one of the 10 best golf psychologists in a 2013 Golf Digest survey of players from the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours.
Last January, Pirozzolo visited Wilson in California for three days. Pirozzolo knows that Wilson is a natural contrarian who questions everything and prefers doing his own research.
"You can’t tell him what to do,” Pirozzolo said. “It just won’t work. He has an active mind to begin with, and when you have the cognitive intrusion on the mound that can lead to the ‘what if’ problem.”
Over the course of a few days, Pirozzolo gently guided Wilson toward self-examination of his pitching habits. Wilson was coming off a career-worst season as a starter in terms of ERA (4.51) and throwing strikes (58.8%, the worst in the American League). He threw a pitch, on average, every 22 seconds, which actually represented a slight improvement on his glacial 23.2 average in 2013. Translation: Wilson had become a classic nibbler.
While Pirozzolo worked with Wilson on his mental approach, Major League Baseball was preparing rules and procedures to speed up the pace of the game, including a rule for hitters to keep one foot in the batter’s box. Boston designated hitter David Ortiz was the first to suggest such a rule worked in favor of the pitcher, saying, “When you force a hitter to do that, 70 percent [chance you make an] out, because you don’t have time to think. And the only time you have to think about things is that time. I don’t know how this is going to end up.”
You have heard for years that when a pitcher works fast he puts the hitter on the defensive and his fielders in a better state of readiness. But is that really true?
Let’s examine what happened to the hares and the tortoises of pitching last season. The average hurler took 23.0 seconds between pitches last year. Among the 87 qualified starters, let’s consider only the 30 pitchers on the extremes: the 15 who worked the fastest, starting with Mark Buehrle (17.3), R. A. Dickey (18.3) and Doug Fister (18.5), and the 15 who worked the slowest, starting with David Price (26.6), Jorge De La Rosa (26.0) and Clay Buchholz (25.6). Here’s how they did:
This little test confirms some intuitive truths:
1) Strikeouts slow down the game; the slow workers were the better strikeout pitchers.
2) Working fast is more efficient, especially when it comes to the defense behind you; the fast workers posted a lower ERA and pitched to a lower batting average on balls in play.
Buehrle is the extreme outlier. He won his 200th game last week—even though his average fastball never has been better than 87.1 miles per hour and this year is down to 83.3. How does he do it? He is the ultimate example of Pirozzolo’s philosophy of eliminating cognitive intrusion. Buehrle doesn’t study hitters, doesn’t attend pregame “game plan” meetings and has not shaken off a sign from a catcher—any catcher—in at least a decade. Moreover, though he has a great pickoff move and is almost impossible to run against, Buehrle never throws to a base on his own; all of his pickoff attempts are called from the bench. Buehrle puts the entire game in the hands of the catcher and manager and simply follows along. There is never a single moment of “what if?”
The effect of this rapid-fire strategy is to disrupt the hitter’s timing in every sense. In his first start this season, last Friday in Baltimore, Buehrle averaged just 15.6 seconds between pitches—ridiculously fast even for him. He allowed just two runs over six innings in a 12–5 win against the Orioles.
Wilson is not exactly Buehrle—nobody is—but the Angels' starter is beginning to see the power of pace. He has cut his average time between pitches by three full seconds from two years ago, from 23.2 seconds to 20.2 seconds this year, a career low.
Wilson is far from alone in picking up the pace. The overall average time between pitches has dropped from 23.0 seconds to 22.2 seconds—cutting 3 1/2 minutes off the average time of game right there. Starting pitchers have cut their average time between pitches from 22.3 seconds to 21.5 seconds. The number of qualified starters using less than 20 seconds between pitches has jumped from nine last year to 19 this year (though as with all statistics this early in the year, beware the small sample size and hold off on your conclusions).
This much is true: pitchers are working faster, and so far, they are sucking more offense out of the game. Compared to last April, the leading offensive indicators are down slightly, including batting average (.242 from .249), OPS (.693 from .706) and runs per team per game (4.20 from 4.21). Let’s see how the rest of the season plays out. But for now, in addition to increased velocity, increased use of the cutter, a lower strike zone, defensive shifts and more specialized relief pitching, pitchers may have found yet another weapon in winning the war on offense: work faster.