First Pitch: Downhill and Down

I talked to Tyler Waldron after his start on Monday, and he had an interesting quote about his work on his fastball command — specifically his focus on throwing downhill and down.

“It sounds so easy, ‘downhill and down, downhill and down’, but it’s tough to get downhill,” Waldron said of the Pirates’ preference for pitchers to throw on a downhill plane, down in the zone. “I was probably 75/25 or 60/40 on down in the zone, so I definitely need to improve on that type of stuff.”

The Pirates talk so much about downward planes that it has sort of become a joke. It’s a joke for either two reasons. One, some people don’t understand it. Two, it sounds easier than it actually is, as Waldron points out.

Throwing on a downward plane is important. Imagine placing three zones over the plate. The first zone is up chest high for the batter. The second zone is around the batter’s waist. The third zone is around the knees. If a pitcher throws a flat fastball, it usually sits in one zone. That makes it easier for the batter to hit. When the ball comes out, the batter sees it in one zone. When the ball crosses the plate, it’s still in the same zone, right where the batter was expecting it.

This is why Jameson Taillon was hit hard in high school, and why Gerrit Cole was hit around in college. They had the tendency to over-power their pitches, flattening them out, and thus making their upper-90s fastballs easier for opponents to hit.

Now imagine those zones once again. This time a pitcher is throwing on a downward plane. When the ball comes out, the batter sees it in one zone. When it crosses the plate, it’s in a lower zone. The batter might initially see the pitch at the waist, but when it crosses the plate it will be at the knees, giving the batter less time to square up on the ball. Also, since the pitch is traveling down, it’s harder for a hitter to get a home run. The hitter has to go down and get under the ball to make strong contact, which is something that doesn’t have to be done with a flat fastball.

As Waldron mentions, it’s not easy. Those who can do it have a lot of success. Take Nick Kingham. The right-hander barely used his secondary pitches on Monday, and at one point struck out a batter with four straight fastballs, with the final three being strikes. Take a look at the at-bat in the second inning.

Downhill and down is the motto for the Pirates. They aren’t being innovators here, and they certainly aren’t the only team that focuses on pitching this way. I just don’t think other organizations openly talk about pitchers throwing on a downward plane, at least not as often as the Pirates.

I was reminded of the downhill and down motto when talking about Tim Alderson and long toss today. The Pirates are fine with long toss as long as a pitcher does it properly, and doesn’t allow the program to affect the delivery on the mound. One of the potential downsides of long toss is that it can cause pitchers to elevate pitches if they’re not doing it correctly. That’s the opposite of what the Pirates are striving for.

As Waldron mentioned, this all sounds simple, but it’s easier said than done.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 10-3 to the Yankees. Recap here.

**My feature on Tim Alderson, who has returned to his old long toss program, and has seen his velocity increase early in Spring Training.

**Kristy talked with Jose Tabata about playing in right field, and the comfort of playing in Roberto Clemente’s position on Clemente’s team.

**It was a busy day at Pirate City, with four intersquad games. Here is my notebook, and here is Kevin’s recap of the day.

**Tony Watson is focused on consistency this Spring.

**ESPN is releasing their top 500 MLB players. Today they released numbers 401-500. The Pirates had four on this portion of the list. A.J. Burnett ranked 410, Pedro Alvarez 436, Evan Meek 452, and Casey McGehee 455. Dan Szymborski of Baseball Think Factory looked at potential candidates from the list to be the next Jose Bautista, and named Pedro Alvarez one of those candidates. David Schoenfield mentioned Alex Presley as the best player who missed the top 500.

About Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He is a credentialed media member with every team in the Pirates’ system, including the Pirates themselves. He’s a regular guest on Extra Innings on 104.7, and makes regular appearances on ESPN 970, 93.7 The Fan, and TribLIVE Radio in Pittsburgh, as well as ESPN 1430 in Altoona and ESPN 1450 in State College.
  • Lee Young

    Great, great stuff….as always! If I ever get down to spring training, the fish is on me!