Pitching Inside: The Lost Art That May Never Return

zack wheeler whiff

“People have gotten away from that, people are getting soft these days. I don’t care, if somebody is showing me up or throwing at one of our guys, you are going to get something inside to let you know I noticed that.” – Zack Wheeler in his recent New York Post interview.

Remember when the pitchers owned the inside of the plate? Hitters didn’t wear helmets, and it was much easier for a pitcher to intimidate a hitter. The inside half of the plate belonged to the pitcher. If you ventured too far into the pitcher’s territory, you more than likely got a nice clean shave from a pitch that was high and tight, reminding you that you crossed the line.

The pitchers used the inside pitch to keep hitters off balance. Hitters that were overly conscious of an inside pitch blazing in at 95mph were left vulnerable to off speed pitches and pitches on the outside part of the plate. Logically speaking, the pitchers that used the inside part of the plate as part of their strategy seemed to be more successful. Bob Gibson used the inside pitch to intimidate hitters. So did Pedro Martinez. Matt Harvey and Wheeler seem to like it. Heck, even a young Roy Oswalt commented on pitching inside in an early ESPN interview:

“It’s fun to see the fear of the hitter — especially if you’ve got a big-name hitter up there, and you throw inside, you can tell it gets under their skin. They want the ball out over the plate. Especially a young guy like me throwing inside, they don’t like that too much. I believe you have to. If you don’t knock ’em down once in a while, then they get real comfortable. The biggest key to being successful is throwing balls inside for strikes and balls inside to move their feet. You have to throw a pitch to get them out of their stance.”

I always believed that pitchers chose to shy away from pitching inside because of the steroid era freaks being able to turn on the inside pitch consistently, and park it in the bleacher seats. The hitters began to crowd the plate more and more as advanced equipment came out to protect them — remember Barry Bonds‘ robo-arm guard? The hitters had less fear of getting hit by an inside pitch, and had more ability than ever (due to the enhancements from PEDs) to do more damage with the inside pitch.

But the question is, now that game has been cleaned up from rampant PED use, why haven’t the pitchers taken back the area of the plate that was once rightfully theirs?

Since we are in this golden age of advanced statistics, I wondered if there were any that could show that pitchers are more successful if they don’t pitch inside. If that were the case, it would explain why pitchers have all but abandoned pounding the ball in.

The search didn’t take long. Sure enough, I stumbled on to an incredibly detailed article on Fangraphs which tackled this very topic. In the article, they use statistics to either validate or void some comments that Zack Greinke made about pitching inside. I’m not going to get into great detail here (Read article on Fangraphs), but Greinke basically says while he found that hitters made better contact and hit the ball harder when he stayed away, and hitters tend to get on base more on inside pitches.

The first part of the sentence made perfect sense to me, but the second half was hard to believe.

He goes on to add that even though the hitters tend to hit the outside pitch harder, most hitters don’t have the power to hit a ball over the outfielder’s head to the opposite field. If a guy hits a ball 300 feet in the air, it’s more than likely an out. When he came inside to hitters, they had just enough power to get a squib hit that would often drop in.

Very interesting. But did the stats back up what Grienke was saying?

I have to admit, I was skeptical in thinking the stats would back up all of his claims, but they did. In fact, the hitters had a higher batting average and slugging percentage on inside pitches. That means that not only were they getting on base more successfully, but they weren’t exactly squibs either. The data was so convincing, that they go on further in the article to question why any pitcher would pitch inside anymore.

Well that just busted my bubble. I was hoping that with this dominating Mets staff, where the average pitch speed is something like 94mph on the radar gun, we would see some old school pounding of that inside corner. Now I don’t think it’s such a great idea. Wheeler may have been right about people getting soft on pitching inside, but is more than likely the statistics dictating new pitching strategies as everyone is looking for every advantage in their journey to a World Series title.

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