An impromptu conversation will sometimes glean quality interview material, and that was the case earlier this season when I chewed the fat with Scott Emerson in the visiting dugout at Fenway Park. The Oakland pitching coach loves discussing his craft, and that fact came to the fore when an answer to a question about an individual member of the A’s staff segued into what you’re about read here. From the importance of staying closed in a delivery to the value of disrupting timing and attacking weaknesses — with boxing, bullets, and airplane analogies thrown in for good measure — Emerson had a lot to offer.
Scott Emerson on pitching: “Some guys can create the analytic everybody is looking for with a bad delivery. What I mean by that is they bail out in their delivery and the hitters see the ball better. We can’t quantify the hitters seeing the ball, but the longer they see it — no matter what the spin rates are — the more it takes away from the effectiveness of the pitch. It gives the hitter the advantage.
“Sometimes it’s, ‘Oh, this guy can spin it,’ and people are wondering ‘Why does he have a 6.00 ERA?’ Well, he has a 6.00 ERA because he doesn’t hang onto his mechanics well enough. He exposes the ball to the hitter sooner. It’s like a boxer bailing out on a punch. If we’re boxing and I open up too much, I’m exposed and you can hit me with a left hook. But if I’m driving through you, I’m not exposing myself. I’m not giving you the opportunity to beat me up.
“For instance, when Daniel Mengden is really good, he stays closed longer. He’s down the lane, down the slope, closed, and then he explodes out of it. When he gets himself in trouble is when he wants to overthrow. His front shoulder bails out and he exposes the baseball to the hitter. That gets him in trouble.
“The guys who can hide the ball are really good. Again, guys who expose the baseball… that’s why you see minor-league guys throwing 100 and you wonder, ‘Man, why does he give up so many hits? He’s throwing 100 mph.’ Well, he’s falling off the mound and exposing the ball. His Iron Mike is real high and everybody can see it forever. Once you time a bullet, the effectiveness of velocity doesn’t mean anything. The longer you see that arm coming through the strike zone, the more hitters start gaining an advantage. We’re trying to not let them gain advantages by having a good, sound, repeatable delivery to execute those pitches.
“We show them on video. One thing we show is, ‘Look where your head is. If your head is bailing to the left, you’re exposing the ball. If your head is here — how your head got to here — they pick up the arm early. If your head is here, they pick up the arm late. We want the hitter to pick up the arm late.
“There’s also perceived velocity, which is what the hitter sees. You can make a pitch appear harder than one you threw at the same velocity. Say you throw a fastball, 90, right down the middle. If you throw it up and in, you may gain 2 mph of effect, because the hitter has to go out and get it out in front. Conversely, if you get the ball down and away, he perceives it to be 2 mph slower. You can actually have a 4 mph range by just using your fastball, at the same velo, by just putting it closer to the hitter’s eyes, or farther away.
“It’s like an airplane. If we’re sitting here in the dugout and we see an airplane in the air, we think it’s moving slow. When it gets farther away from the eye, it seems like it’s moving even slower. But if we’re on the ground when it lands, it’s going to appear to be moving fast because it’s closer to our eyes.
“What we’re trying to do as pitchers is disrupt the hitter’s timing. If we’re constantly disrupting the hitter’s timing, we should constantly be getting a low exit velocity from the hitter. But if we’re throwing hanging breaking balls, they come in with topspin and go out with backspin. That’s a hard-hit ball. If we’re constantly throwing predictable fastballs and they’re on time with their swing, that’s a hard-hit ball. That’s why the changeup is the second-best pitch in baseball other than a commanded fastball.
“Hitters generally have one offspeed pitch that’s a weakness and one area of the plate with a fastball that’s a weakness. We have to be good enough to spot our fastball all around the zone and know which soft we can go to, a changeup or a breaking ball.
“If you can’t exploit a glaring weakness, you need to get better at exploiting the glaring weakness. The best pitchers in the game not only pitch to their strengths, they also exploit the hitter’s weakness. There are some pitchers who can’t do that, and it can get them in trouble. We want to be able to cover a hitter’s weakness with a strength. That’s the ultimate goal. If he’s going to give us changeups, we better be able to throw changeups. If he’s going to overswing at breaking balls, we have to be able to throw breaking balls. If he’s going to give us high fastballs, we better be able to throw high fastballs.
“With more emphasis on launch angle now, hitters are trying to get under the ball a little more. Pitchers need to understand that pitching up in the zone, especially ahead in the count, is a good idea. Then being able to get them to chase that spinning breaking ball down and away is an even better idea. You get them thinking of two different areas, and it’s hard to cover both. If you have a clean delivery and can command the ball to different quadrants of the plate, and disrupt the hitter’s timing, you’re going to have a lot of success.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.