Pitchers often complain that every breaking pitch a batter hit hard was a "mistake."
But in Kevin Millwood's case, it really is true. However, the mistake wasn't that he left the ball hanging in front of the hitter like a piñata, waiting to be hammered. The mistake was that the pitch was a strike to begin with.
As Little League pitchers blossom into high school, and eventually big league pitchers, they learn that the key to getting out quality hitters is expanding the strike zone. That means luring batters to swing at pitches that aren't strikes. For Millwood, that starts with spotting his fastball on the corners and ends, he hopes, and getting a batter to chase a breaking pitch in the dirt.
"Most of the time when I am throwing my curve ball, my curve ball is my out pitch," says Millwood, who won 18 games and struck out 200-plus batters last season. "So I am usually going to throw that with two strikes, and usually I'm not trying to throw that for a strike. I'm trying to bounce it, get guys to chase it.
"It's the same way with my slider, and probably my changeup this year, too. I think those pitches are pitches where I am trying to put guys away and strike them out. It's nice to have two or three pitches you can use to take guys out, and when I am going good, that is usually the case."
Most major league pitchers throw several breaking pitches. They vary from the traditional overhand curve ball to a faster slider. There also are combinations with names such as "slurve," or "cutter," which essentially is just a faster curve ball. Where the pitcher releases the ball, either overhand or ¾ arm, will determine the shape and sharpness of the break.
"I throw both," Millwood says. "I like to throw the curve and slider to righties and lefties. It's just another location pitch. It depends on the situation, but I like to push the throttle and then let off, and then push the throttle again. That works."
So long as it doesn't cross the plate.
Curveball Pitching Drill
Last October, Kevin Millwood pitched a one-hitter in a National League Division Series victory against the Houston Astros. His success that day shouldn't have surprised anyone: During the regular season, Millwood was the toughest pitcher to hit in the league, holding batters to just a .202 average. (Ahem, two guys you might have heard of, Randy Johnson (208.) and Kevin Brown (.222), were second and third.) While Millwood throws in the mid-90s, he credits his breaking pitches for his success.
How did his curve become so good? Practice, of course, like this:
"When I was growing up, I liked to get my catcher a little ways in front of the plate and try to throw my curveball short and get a good break on it. I think that helped me out a lot in developing a good curve ball."
There are two reasons the catcher moves in front of home plate. First, the pitcher develops a feel for how hard and far to throw the pitch. Second, because the pitcher wants to bounce this pitch at the plate, by moving up, a young catcher doesn't have to worry about blocking balls in the dirt.
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