Obviously, very impressive.

One thing I noticed watching the highlights on espn.com a few minutes ago is that Stephen Strasburg used his curve ball as his strikeout pitch.  It’s obviously an extremely effective pitch against hitters who have not seen much of him (it was only his second AAA start) and very hard to adjust to after seeing his big fastball early in the count.

I have the feeling, though, that Strasburg will have to learn a change up and use that pitch, instead of the curve, as his primary second pitch, if he wants to have the same success at the major league level as Tim Lincecum.

Coming out of college, Lincecum’s primary two pitches were fastball and curve.  Once he reached the Giants, he very quickly developed a sort of split-finger change up, and almost overnight he became a Cy Young winner (in his second year and first full season at the major league level).

The Giants are an old school team, going all the way back to 1883, and their current pitching coach Dave Righetti has that same old-school mentality. He understands that at the most basic level pitching is about changing speeds and location and having command.

There are several advantages of the change up over the curve ball.  First, the change up, if thrown properly, looks exactly like the fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand and arm motion.  The curve is thrown with a different arm motion and considerably different spin on the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand, which makes it much easier for some hitters to tell if the pitch is something other than a fastball immediately after it leaves the pitcher’s hand.

Second, the change up is much easier to control than the curve ball.  Almost all pitchers have trouble controlling their curve balls consistently.  When it’s on, like it was for Strasburg last night, it is perhaps the most difficult pitch in baseball to hit, particularly if the break is sharp and down. 

However, there are many days when even the best curve-ballers have trouble throwing the pitch for strikes, and this is particularly the case if the curve breaks sharply.  Curve balls without a sharp break are a lot easier to throw for strikes, but pitchers end up losing a lot of those pitches to the bleacher seats if they throw them regularly.

Third, the change up takes a lot less out of a pitcher’s arm than the curve ball or the slider.  Breaking pitches are much harder on a pitcher’s arm than the fastball or the change up, which is basically thrown like a fastball, but with a grip that prevents all the arm momentum from being transferred to the ball.

Both the slider and the curve ball require a lot of arm torque, and they put intense stress on the pitcher’s arm at the elbow and the shoulder.  Giants’ announcer Mike Krukow, who once had a great overhand curve, has a line about how when pitching prospects enter professional baseball they are asked whether they want their shoulders to hurt or their elbows to hurt.  If they say shoulder, they are taught the curve; if they say elbow, they are taught the slider.

In fact, the primary reason why blown elbow tendons and Tommy John surgeries are so prevalent in the professional game today, compared to days of yore, is the primacy of the slider as the primary off-speed pitch.  The slider is easier to learn to throw with command than the curve ball, and a good slider is a great second pitch to go with the fastball, both because it’s easier to command than the curve, but also because it’s harder to differentiate the slider from the fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand than the curve.

It’s a common misperception that the fastball takes more out of the arm than breaking balls.  It stems from the fact that the fastball is obviously thrown hard.  However, it is thrown with a more natural motion than the breaking pitches, and good breaking pitches really require as much arm strength to throw properly as the fastball.  In fact, it’s usually the the hardest throwers that have the sharpest breaking curve balls and sliders, because these pitchers have the most arm strength.

The Giants and Dave Righetti are sold on the fastball-change-up combination in large part because the Giants turned Jason Schmidt into one of the NL’s top starters by convincing him to trade his plus curve ball for a change up as his primary second pitch.  In his career before coming to the Giants, Schmidt had been primarily a fastball-curve ball pitcher, and he had arm problems and a great deal of inconsistency.

The thing that is so impressive about Lincecum is that he made the transition so quickly in his professional career.  Generally speaking, when a young pitcher has a curve ball as good as Tim Lincecum or Jason Schmidt, it’s very difficult to get him to give it up for a change-up which is almost certainly not as good a pitch as the curve ball at least at the outset.

The beauty of the change-up is that because it takes less out of the arm than a breaking pitch, it can be practiced, practiced, practiced until it becomes a reliable major league pitch.

Strasburg has better stuff than Lincecum, and Lincecum had great, great stuff coming out of college.  What has made Lincecum a two-time Cy Young winner after only three seasons, is Lincecum’s exceptional ability to learn the nuances of pitching and the major league game as quickly as he has.

For example, Lincecum does not throw as hard today as he did when he first reached the majors.  He’s given up about three mph on his fastball, in order to have better command of the pitch and to keep himself fresher in the late innings. 

It takes an extraordinary amount of confidence and feel for the game for a young pitcher to give up speed on his fastball.  It’s obviously worked, however, as his walks rate has dropped each year as his strikeout rate remains roughly fixed.

If you watch Lincecum pitch now, he still throws the curve-ball, but if he’s locating his fastball and change-up, he rarely throws the curve more than ten times in a start.  Mainly, he uses the curve ball to steal called strikes, because the hitters are forced to look for the fastball or change-up on every pitch and can’t get the bat off their shoulders when the curve ball comes in.

Strasburg certainly seems to have an idea of how to pitch already, above and beyond his amazing stuff, and he seems to be a hard worker at this point in his life (he wasn’t when he first arrived at college, but he apparently had a come-to-Jesus moment early in his college career that he’s been able to maintain ever since). 

He certainly spouts all the right cliches about “working harder” and not taking “anything for granted” because “this game is going to humble you in a second” in this espn.com article after yesterday’s masterpiece.

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