The Pitch Design Process
"Pitch Design" is the process where you are qualitatively and quantitatively analyzing a pitch arsenal and adding modifications to certain pitches to achieve a desired result, usually done in a bullpen setting. I say "typically" because to a degree, pitch design happens all the time and we don't even realize it. When we are playing catch and throw some of our other pitches, we are pitch designing. If you flip a curveball to your partner and it backs up and sails high/arm side, we can visually identify that was not the result we wanted. We will make an adjustment the next throw to achieve the result we desire. As simple as that is, that is pitch design. However, I will briefly discuss the pitch design process for both a coach or player.
The beginning of a pitch design process has to start with an evaluation of the pitcher's pitches, both from the athlete's perspective (subjectively) and what the data suggests (objectively). Some questions to ask the athlete can include: What is your best pitch/pitches? What pitch do you throw for strikes? What pitch do you throw for a K? What pitches are you comfortable/not comfortable throwing? This initial evaluation is important to get a feel for what the pitcher knows and believes about their arsenal. The athlete has to provide this information to allow the coach to accurately assess their pitches and compare the objective information.
Before making decisions on changing a pitcher's pitches, there are some things that you have to keep in mind about the athlete in general before doing so. What is the skill level of the pitcher? How is his "feel?" (aka how quickly will he be able to adopt different grips/releases and get results?) Some athletes can take modifications and change their pitches faster than others. Some it will take 8 pitches and others it will take three sessions. Is this pitcher a projected starter or reliever? Will he need 4 pitches or 2 really good ones? A HS relief pitcher doesn't need 4 below-average pitches. There are plenty of things to keep in mind during this process but those are some that came to mind. Basically, you need to be able to understand and convey to the athlete how and why the pitcher can benefit from your recommendations.
Now, once you have an idea for who the athlete is and how he perceives their arsenal to be, have them throw their pitches and analyze. Starting with their FB because *usually* that is the pitch they throw most often. Off-speed pitches play relative to how their FB move. Analyze the FB and then off-speed. PD can certainly be done without technology, a backed up CB can be easy to spot. However, sometimes our eyes can fool us, so it's important to have some sort of technology (radar gun, rapsodo, high speed camera, pitch logic ball, diamond kinetics, etc) to give us objective feedback on the pitch. Does this information support what the athlete previously told us? What is similar? What is contradicting? For example, an athlete might say their CT is their best pitch because they can throw it for strikes but the data might suggest it is pretty much a bad FB. It might tell us their CB is actually the best pitch movement wise. Analyze how their pitches move as a whole and process your feedback on their pitches.
-Goals: Adding a pitch, altering a pitch, deleting a pitch
Once you've surveyed the pitcher's arsenal and created a plan of attack to change certain pitches, it is now time to pitch design. I'm not going to go into detail about the thought process behind every pitch (I may do separate blogs for each pitch). But generally, this is the time where you use the objective feedback to apply your knowledge and give advice to the pitcher and he attempts to apply that advice. Pitchers should be throwing near game intensity with the priority placed on shape and movement, rather than command. Goals can be movement based, spin based, efficiency based, etc. It is a constant trial and error period where you set a goal for the pitcher and he attempts to attain that goal using provided grips adjustments, internal/external cues, etc. For example, an athletes fastball sits at around 1:20 PM and has below average spin. A recommendation to that athlete might be, lets try to get this FB closer to 1:00 PM to increase VB and keep our fingers closer together to see if RPMs will increase. Like I said before, how quickly an athlete can achieve results varies, but eventually when you get a success, what happens next?
Once a desired shape or movement for a certain pitch is achieved, it is now time to repeat until that desired goal can be replicated consistently. Now is the time to add more game-like variables to test your pitch. Instead of throwing 10 SL in a row, mix up your sequencing. Mix the windup and stretch. See if the shape holds true or changes. The length of this process can vary pitcher to pitcher but also for each individual pitch for one pitcher. A certain athlete might be able to replicate the desired SL shape right away and repeat it but might take three weeks to consistently repeat a new CH grip. It is unique to every athlete and patience is key, for the coach and athlete. After the athlete can consistently repeat the adjusted pitches, they are battle tested in some sort of competition.
-Battle Test (Game, inter squad, live-abs)
At the end of the day, it does not matter how well a pitch looks in a bullpen, or pitch design, or on a rapsodo if it doesn't get results against hitters. Hitters can be the best feedback at times, their reactions, swings, and at bats can tell us a lot about our pitches. Throw them in a competitive setting (preferably lower pressure at first-live abs/scrimmage) and assess the results. How did velocity/shape/command stack up in live vs pitch design/bullpen? If results were great, great. If they weren't, let's assess the problem and get back into PD to see if we can clean it up and retest.
How long do I tinker with a pitch without positive results before I go back to my old grip or scrap the pitch?
It's hard to say how long you should hang on to a pitch without getting the results you want. Pitchers can take YEARS to master a pitch so don't get discouraged if you spent two weeks learning a pitch and it gets smacked around in a scrimmage. However, there might be a point where it ends up being a lost cause. I think a major factor that plays a role into this is your level and time to return to play. If you are a high schooler getting ready to play baseball in a month and learn a CB, it might not be worth it to spend a majority of your time developing it. You should just sharpen the tools you have and get ready to compete. A professional can spend an entire off season developing a new pitch. It's all relative. The longer you have, the more time you can invest. If you play soon, it might be better to revert back to an old grip because you need results immediately. The main goal at the end of the day is results in game, that holds priority over everything.
Command vs shape?
There is definitely a command vs shape discussion that needs to happen post competition. In a perfect world, command was good with the desired shape. In some cases, the command of the desire shape can be bad and the command of the non-desirable shape could be good. I think it is ultimately up to the pitcher. If after three live-ab sessions you can't seem to find the zone with the shape you want, maybe its time to sacrifice some movement to throw it for strikes. Again, skill/level/feel/time all play roles.
Adding a pitch affects my other pitches?
You have a really good CB and we added a SL to have something hard with gloveside break. Now, instead of having a CB and SL, you have two pitches that are both slurves and basically the same pitch. This can happen when pitch designing. Adding a certain pitch can affect the others. This can be revisited in a future PD session to clean up. If that doesn't work, it may come down to decided which one to keep so you don't have two of the same pitches.