38 Pitching Strategies For Setting Up Batters

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Setting up hitters image

How do you set up hitters when you're pitching?

What pitch sequences do you employ to put hitters away quickly and efficiently?

How do you mix up your pitch selection, location and velocity to keep batters uncomfortable?

In this article, I'm going to share some of my favorite baseball pitching strategies to keep hitters off-balance, off their game plan and off the base paths.

You'll learn everything you need to know about situational pitching strategies—pitch-by-pitch sequences, selections and game theory.

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But first, it's important to remember this:

Setting up hitters is not a set thing.

MLB pitcher Darren O'Day is a good example. During the 2015 season, O'Day was an extremely valuable piece is the O's pen because he was so effective in setting up hitters and keeping them off balance.

Darren O'Day pitching strategy
Image source: Keith Allison

In fact, there are a lot of different factors that need to be considered in order to effectively create doubt in a hitter's mind.

For example:

  • If you have a good secondary pitch like a slider or curveball, you can start good hitters off with it.
  • Or if a team is taking fastballs early in the count, get a strike on them right away.
  • Or if you fall behind in the count 1-0 or 2-0, throw an off-speed pitch and try get a strike or ground ball.

The most important thing is this:

Don't be predictable.

If you always start every hitter off with a fastball or throw two knuckle curves in a row when ahead in the count, you're just asking for trouble...

Good hitters will notice the sequencing of pitches and adjust.

That's why it's so important to mix up speeds, mix up location and pitch smart so you're not too predictable...

...every pitch counts!

Every pitch counts image

Developing a plan based on a pitcher's strengths

Every pitcher should go into a game with a solid plan for how he will pitch based on the strengths of his arsenal coupled with information about the other team.

Too often in high school and little league, a pitcher will try to beat his opponent by relying solely on exposing the hitter's weakness, even if that goes against the strength of his arsenal.

"This plan may have short-term value for the first time through the batting order or perhaps the second, but in the long term, this strategy does not usually yield consistent results," says Derek Johnson, minor league pitching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.

"A pitcher who stays true to what makes him effective in the first place—whether it be throwing a fastball to a certain side of the plate or using off-speed pitches that he owns rather than rents—will have more success," Johnson added.

A pitcher must also remember that at the beginning of the game, hitters are rarely truly ready to hit, so this is another good reason why a pitcher should use his strengths the first time through the batting order.

Let's take a closer look at other baseball strategies for pitching.

Here are 18 of my favorite baseball pitching strategies for setting up hitters and developing a game plan that you can put in your back pocket to become a more effective pitcher:

  1. When ahead in the count pitch inside.

    The batter is more protective and probably will wait longer with an inside-out swing.
  2. When behind in the count, pitch on the outside 1/3 of the plate.

    The hitter will usually try to muscle up and pull the ball more.
  3. On an 0-2 count to a good hitter, pitch him on the low-outside corner.
  4. If you don't throw hard, don't pitch inside often for strikes.
  5. After throwing a strike, don't repeat the same pitch in the same location. The hitter has just seen that one.
  6. After a ball, it's OK to repeat the same general location for a strike.
  7. Change speeds on the best hitters - big swingers.
  8. Don't change up on weak hitters, do them no favors!
  9. Except for the big swingers, don't change up with 2 strikes on a hitter.
  10. Know the game situation and the importance of each runner on base.
  11. Know your best pitch and use it when you're in trouble.
  12. Win the 1-1 count. No other count is as big of a game changer as the difference between 2-1 and 1-2.
  13. Stretch the strike zone or pitch to pressure zones. Pressure zones refer to the areas just outside the strike zone.
  14. Pressure zones image
    Image source: Human Kinetics
  15. Stay on the black.

    Even though the pitches that the Braves pitchers were throwing on the corner were not over the plate, they had earned those strikes. They did this by consistently putting their pitches around the area on the corner, and over time, umpires began to call this for a strike. This idea of stretching the strike zone can't work if a pitcher is erratic with his location.
  16. Work your way off.

    Once a pitcher establishes that he can show good location on the outer edge of the plate, it allows him to begin working his pitches further and further off of the plate. Too help his pitchers do this, long time Braves catcher Javy Lopez would often set up 2-3 inches off the plate, and have his pitchers hit his glove until he felt an umpire wouldn't give him that strike.
  17. Know the location of the umpire.

    Umpires can set up before pitches in two locations: 1) Behind the catcher on whatever side of the plate he sets up, and 2) In one stationary position regardless of where the catcher sets up. The second choice can turn into a advantage for pitchers. This is because umpires can sometimes have a poor view of pitches that are throw to the opposite location of where they set up. Pitchers need to be aware of this and see if a trend forms, so that they can take advantage of it.
  18. Note the hitter's position in the order.

    The spot in the order that a batter hits in has long been established to have certain roles. The 1-2 hitters are usually speedy hitters looking to put the ball in play, the 3-5 hitters are typically the strongest hitters in the line-up, and the rest tend to be lesser hitters. A manager is forced to give this information about his players to the opposing team when he turns in his line-up card – use this information to your advantage. For instance, when the pitcher is facing the 7-9 hitters, the pitcher should go right after them and challenge them with strikes. After all, even the opposing manager is telling you they're his worst hitters.
  19. Watch batting practice.

    Showing up to watch batting practice is the best way to see a hitter's natural swing. Once the game starts, you might only see several swings out of a hitter, so seeing batting practice is crucial. Some examples of points to watch are if the hitter's swing is long, are they strictly trying to pull pitches, and are they landing in a balanced position. This information can later be translated into what types of pitches to throw them and where.
  20. Look at a hitter's statistics.

    Hitter's stats are usually available at the high school level, so it's important to take advantage of this. Three immediate stats to look at are who has power (HR's), who is fast (SB's), and who is patient at the plate (BB's). A point of caution, however, is not to get tied up in the percentage based statistics such as AVG and OBP. While these stats are usually very useful at the major league level, they can be deceptive in the lower levels because of how the sample sizes are considerably smaller. This can create the perception that a hitter is doing very well, when in fact they are only a few hits away from having a bad year percentage wise.
  21. Watch at-bats.

    Once you've looked at a hitter's stats, batting practice, and where they are in the line-up, it's time to actually watch the game.
  22. Baseball field dimensions image
  23. How deep are the outfield walls?

    If there's a short porch to any field, you may not challenge hitters to hit it to that part of the field. Challenge hitters to go to the deepest parts of the park if they can. Most of the time they can't and your outfielders will catch their fly balls.
  24. How much foul ground territory is there?

    The more foul territory there is the more room for fielders to catch foul fly balls.
  25. How far is the backstop from the plate?

    If the backstop is not far from the catcher and the plate, you can be more aggressive with your pitches. If the ball gets past the catcher he doesn't have far to go to retrieve it. Runners are less likely to be aggressive on pass balls and wild pitches if there is room for the ball to get away. If the backstop is a long way, you will be more careful not to lose control of breaking pitches. You'll also communicate with your catcher about making sure he blocks everything in the dirt.
  26. Which way is the wind blowing?

    Always check the wind. If it's blowing out, you know to be extra careful in keeping the ball down. If it's blowing in, you can be more aggressive in challenging weaker hitters with fastballs.
  27. What's the slope of the mound?

    If you can hardly tell there is a pitching mound because it's so low, be prepared for a flatter trajectory of your fastball. If the mound looks like it angles straight down, be prepared to increase the tempo of your hands during the delivery and be aware of the need to stay back a little longer.
  28. How does the bullpen mound compare to the game mound?

    If the bullpen mound is steep and the game mound is flat, you need to be prepared for that before the game starts. You don't want to be surprised when you go out for the first pitch and let that affect your mental state.
  29. What's the playing surface like?

    Check out the infield and outfield grass. If the infield grass is really short, then you know ground balls will get to the outfield quicker and balls hit in the gaps will probably get to the fence. If the infield grass is really high, then you know it will slow the ball down considerably. This means infielders will have to get rid of the ball quicker when fielding ground balls hit by faster runners. But it also means the more ground balls you throw the better chance your fielders have of fielding them and getting outs.
  30. Does the hitter stand in the front or back of the batter's box?

    Look and see where the hitter's batting stance is in the box. The chances are that he stands in the back of the box generally to have more time to see the fastball. If he's in the back of the box, a good curveball will be tough for him to hit. If he sets up in the front of the batter's box, consider using your fastball. The closer he is to you, the less time he has to react to your fastball. Also remember hitters that struggle with breaking pitches tend to scoot closer to the pitcher to hit the pitch before it has time to fully break. So you can also use the breaking pitch effectively to this hitter as well.
  31. Does the hitter setup his batting stance a considerable distance away from the plate?

    Stay away from hitters who setup away from the plate and who don't dive into the outside pitch. These hitters want to get their hands extended and they typically can't get around on inside fastballs, which is why they setup off the plate.
  32. Does the hitter crowd the plate?

    This hitter can be one of two things: a weak hitter who wants to get hit and get on base; or he can be a good fastball hitter who wants you to challenge him. Either way, you must develop the skill of pitching inside. Also, breaking balls and located fastballs are in order for the good hitter who crowds the plate.
  33. Does the hitter have an open stance?

    This indicates the hitter probably wants the ball inside. He has a better chance of getting to this pitch if his hips are already pre-set to be open. Pitch this batter away until he proves he can hit the ball to the opposite field. His swing path is not setup to take the ball the other way which will cause him to miss hit and roll-over pitches for weak ground balls and easy outs.
  34. Does the hitter have a closed stance?

    This type of hitter generally likes to go the other way and overall wants to make contact. A closed stance is a great opportunity to establish the inside part of the plate. Closing the stance creates a significant hole in the swing and makes it very difficult to hit the inside pitch. A moving two-seam fastball would be an excellent for this hitter until he proves he can handle it.
  35. Does the hitter crouch down or have a low stance?

    This type of hitter is typically not a power guy and is most interested in a short swing that produces contact. This hitter still has two options: He can try to pull the ball, like most hitters do. Or he can try to go the other way predominantly. Most hitters now are training themselves to go the opposite way and therefore will gear their swings only to go that way. Bust those hitters in. If a hitter stays low in his stance and still tries to pull the ball, keep your pitches away from him and up in the zone.
  36. Does the hitter have a straight up normal stance?

    The hitters who have normal stance without much excessive movement typically are your better hitters. They don't give away clues as to what pitches they struggle with. Although these hitters may be harder to read in the box by their stance there are other ways to get an idea of their abilities. For instance: Where does he hit in the lineup? What are his stats? Where did other pitchers on my team pitch him in the past? What body type does he have? If he's short and stocky, he can probably handle the low pitch. If he's left handed and strong, I might not start him off with pitches low and inside. When all else fails, start the hitter off with either a fastball away or a fastball in and see how he handles it. Then gather as much info from that swing as you can.
  37. Does the pitcher have a long, slow swing?

    Most hitters will struggle keeping their hands inside the baseball when hitting. That means that the hitter's hands go away from his body during his swing. This provides a great opportunity to throw fastballs inside and establish your presence there. Even if a hitter has quick hands, if the path of his bat ends up going around the ball, he cannot handle the inside fastball well. If contact is made, it will likely result in a foul ball.
  38. Only throw a set-up pitch with two strikes

    The set-up pitch is meant to set the hitter up for the knockout pitch. At one strike, you've still got some more work to do.
  39. Never throw a set-up pitch with 2 balls

    0-2 or 1-2 are OK counts to use the set-up pitch. If you do a set-up pitch with 2 balls and the hitter doesn't bite, you're stuck with a full count and the pressure on a hitter is put back on the pitcher.
  40. Waste pitches image
    Image source: Blake Murphy

  41. And lastly... Don't waste pitches.

    I am not a believer in wasting any pitches. I am a believer in making the hitter swing at bad pitches because the pitcher is ahead in the count. And that's obviously the key to successful pitching. Stay ahead in the count and get the first hitter in each inning. If you can do those two things you will be successful.

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Youth pitching program

One of the big misconceptions in baseball is that playing the game keeps you in shape to pitch. I wish that was true. It's not.

To get to the next level, preparation is everything. Big league pitchers spend far more time preparing to pitch than actually pitching.

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What do you think?

Now it's time to hear from you:

Are there any additional baseball strategies for pitching I missed?

Or maybe you have an idea of how I can make this article even better.

Either way, leave a comment and let me know.


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