There’s a reason why they say hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Regularly clocking in at speeds above 90 mph while darting, dashing, sinking, and (seemingly) rising, it will always be difficult to square up a round ball with a round bat. How can you learn to identify pitches over the course of a baseball game?
What are the best ways to differentiate between fastballs?
We’ll start with the heaters, the most common pitch classification in baseball. Before we dig into the different types of fastballs, let’s start with the basics. What is a fastball? Fastballs are the hardest thrown pitch in the sport, and generally have the least movement. They are generally thrown in the strike zone to get ahead in counts.
Four-seam fastballs are the pitch you’ll likely envision when a broadcaster utters the word “fastball.” The average four-seamer hovers around 94 mph and ranges from 90 to over 100 on the radar gun. The best ones will maximize the pitch’s backspin to create a rising effect.
Of course, it’s not actually rising; but the fastballs that drop the least drop less than the batter expects when he swings, prompting swings under the ball. Likewise, these pitches are largely thrown up in the zone with two strikes to generate swings and misses.
Sinkers, on the other hand, are meant to be thrown at the bottom of the strike zone and inside, where they can induce weak contact and ground outs. The sinking action they’re named after is apparent, but so is arm-side movement. This means that a right-handed pitcher’s sinker will break to the pitcher’s right–inside to a right-handed hitter.
Baseball of yesteryear may have played host to ground ball specialists boasting 88 mph sinkers, but the game is changing. Now more than ever, we can see sinkers touching triple digits, though the MLB average is ~93.5 mph. Also, for all intents and purposes, a sinker and a two-seam fastball are interchangeable.
Cutters are interesting in their tendency to warp themselves to each individual pitcher. Corbin Burnes uses his cutter as a high-velocity counterpart to his lethal sinker. Yu Darvish uses his almost like an off-speed pitch, throwing it 8.5 ticks slower than his fastball. Every cutter is different, but it can be helpful to view them as the midpoint between a fastball and a slider.
Unlike sinkers, they have glove-side movement, so a right-handed pitcher will expect it to break away from a right-handed hitter. Cutters, averaging 89 mph and generally ranging from 85-95 on the gun, can be used to generate called strikes and keep hitters off balance.
How to identify breaking balls
Perhaps the most prevalent non-fastball in the bigs today is the slider. A well-executed slider can be nearly impossible to hit, especially if it was set up by a preceding heater. Just ask Jacob deGrom what a good fastball-slider combination can do to hitters.
Sliders in today’s game are gaining velocity, entering the frontier of 90+ mph breaking pitches. This can make for some disgusting swings and misses. Still, the average slider sits in the mid-80s. This breaking pitch has heavy glove-side movement and/or vertical break. They come in all shapes and sizes. Shohei Ohtani’s slider has a ton of horizontal break, essentially aiming at the back foot of left-handed sluggers. Emmanuel Clase, on the other hand, seems to have a slider that drops straight down. These pitches are primarily used to look like fastballs until it’s too late to adjust.
It’s difficult to call out a specific pitch as it’s happening, but no pitch is easier to identify than a curveball. Rather than cosplaying as a fastball for 50-something feet, the curveball generally has a hump to it. Coming out of the hand, it may appear to go up before dropping down (even if its path is exaggerated by the pitcher propelling himself downhill.
Curveballs can be used to find early strike calls when hitters are expecting a fastball. The significant difference can scare them off early in the count. Later in the count, expect to see them spiked in the dirt, where their movement can generate more swings and misses. The two most popular types of curves are the standard curve, which appears to have movement from 1 to 7 on the clock (or 11 to 5 from a lefty), and a 12-6 curve that has a stricter vertical path.
Most curves will land between 75 and 85 mph. For some of the most tantalizing curves in the sport, go look up Clayton Kershaw highlights.
What are off-speed pitches?
Off-speed pitches are thrown meant to look like fastballs, but are generally thrown with much less velocity than fastballs. They don’t have as much movement as breaking balls, relying more on sequencing and tunneling to find success.
The most prevalent off-speed pitch is the changeup, which has two main branches: changeups and circle changeups. The lines between the two have blurred in the last decade, with some using the circle change grip (making a circle with one’s pointer and thumb) without the perceived benefits.
As a rule of thumb, though, you can consider a normal changeup to be the slower partner of a 4-seam fastball, and a circle change to look more like a sinker. These have drop to them, but less than other out pitches. Circle changes have more arm-side movement.
Keeping hitters off balance is a priority for pitchers, and changeups can be an integral part of their arsenal. Breaking pitches may find limited success when they break towards a batter, so having a changeup to counter is very helpful. They are largely thrown between 80 and 90 mph, and always slower than a fastball, unless your name is Zack Greinke.
Splitters, otherwise known as split-finger fastballs or split-changes, are quickly becoming one of baseball’s favorite pitches. When located well, they tunnel exceptionally well with 4-seamers, meaning they look identical for long periods of time.
The best split-finger fastball in the sport may belong to Kevin Gausman thanks to its break and location. A plot of his splitter would show that they are almost perfectly placed below his fastball. When you have to brace for 95 middle-in, 85 low and it feels like an ill-fated endeavor.
By paying attention to the break and velocity of a given pitch, along with some baseline research on your favorite pitchers, you too can easily identify the most common pitches in baseball.