David Cone was a thinking-man’s pitcher before he became a thinking-man’s analyst. The New York Yankees’ television color man took the mound for five teams in 17 major league seasons, and he logged lots of big wins along the way. Moxie played a role. The right-hander augmented his plus stuff with the same cerebral approach he now takes to the broadcast booth.
Cone shared some of his views on pitching when the Yankees visited Fenway Park earlier this summer. As you ‘d expect, he had a lot of interesting things to offer.
Cone on Don Mattingly going 1-for-17 against him: “I can’t really explain it, but generally speaking, my formula for getting left-handed hitters out was fastball, split. Against right-handed hitters it was fastball, slider. Maybe I threw some decent splitters to him that promoted ground balls. It’s possible that he hit some balls pretty hard at defenders, too. It was probably a combination of both. Of course, 17 at bats isn’t a very big sample, either.
“A lot of times when I was throwing a splitter to a left-handed batter, it was either-or. It was to get a swing-and-miss, or to get the hitter out front – get his timing thrown off – and induce weak contact. I’d take either one, so it was sort of the same pitch, looking for two different outcomes.
“A lot of it depended on the count. There were times I felt I had to throw a different splitter to get it in the strike zone. Say it was a 2-1 or 3-1 count. I didn’t want to take a chance on throwing a harder splitter down and out of the zone. I’d take a little bit off to get it into the strike zone, because a lot of times, hitters will take an off-speed pitch if they recognize it out of your hand. If I was throwing Don Mattingly a splitter on 3-1, it was probably designed to act more like a changeup, as opposed to a harder splitter with more movement.
“A lot depends on the hitter and the angles. Platoon splits have a big affect on the hitter’s recognition. Mattingly, being left-handed, would have a split second longer to recognize the pitch.”
On throwing splitters to same-sided hitters: “I did more of that later in my career, just to mix it up. But it was always the third-best option for me against right-handed hitters. I always felt there was less margin for error. My splitter naturally had left-to-right movement, moving down. If I left it up to a righty, it was right to the wheelhouse. It was an all-or-nothing pitch; it could be a home run or it could be a strikeout. Psychologically, I was leery of throwing to a right-handed batter, whereas my slider would break away, off the plate, making my margin of error much greater.
“Feel did override the premise at times. In certain games, if I had a really good feel for that pitch, I would trust it. I knew it would dive down and in to a right-handed hitter, and not hang on the inner half.”
On knowing a hitter’s swing path: “There were a lot of left-handed hitters that I would attack down and in, particularly with sliders. My second-best pitch against a left-handed batter was a splitter, but I would throw what we call a back-leg slider. Generally, it would be lefties who had really good plate coverage. By that, I mean they could reach an outside pitch and pull it – a hooking style of a hitter. If there was a left-handed hitter who had that kind of swing path, he was more susceptible to down and in. Stephen Drew is like that. He hits kind of like his brother, J.D., in terms of not being a guy who will come inside with his hands and inside-out balls. He wants to pull and hit fly balls.
“That’s what I paid attention to the most: a hitter’s swing path. Was he a guy that brought his hands in and would lead with the knob of the bat like Derek Jeter used to do – a chicken-wing style – or was he a guy who really wanted to get the barrel out in front?
“It ultimately comes down to execution, but if there’s a hole you can attack – an area of the strike zone the hitter is susceptible to – you want to take advantage of it. I faced Joe Carter a lot, and he was a guy who could really feast off of mediocre sliders from a right-handed pitcher. If you remember the ball he hit off of Mitch Williams to win the World Series, the pitch wasn’t inside. It had a lot of the plate. Carter’s swing path was to get the barrel out in front, and he almost pulled it foul. He barely kept it fair.”
On commanding breaking balls: “Early in the count, against a really good fastball hitter, sometimes you can spin the ball and just get it in the strike zone, and he’ll take it. El Duque was great at that. He’d drop first-pitch, slow, rolling curveballs right down the middle. Left-handed batters would take it. They’d see it the whole way, but they wouldn’t swing because they didn’t want to risk making an out on that pitch early in the count, especially on the first pitch.
“When a pitcher hangs a breaking ball, it’s often designed to be off the plate or down. I threw a breaking ball that I wanted to be in the strike zone – if the hitter didn’t swing, the umpire would call it a strike – and that was a slider I definitely wanted to miss with. I wanted it to look like a strike and then be unhittable — in the dirt or off the plate. When I tried to throw that one, sometimes I would rush and it would hang. It would roll up there because I got a little ahead of myself and would try to snap it too hard with my wrist. Those are the breaking balls that tend to get hung.”
On Roger Craig and splitters: “The San Francisco Giants and Roger Craig were promoting the splitter in the 1980s. Ron Darling and Rick Aguilera threw one with the Mets, so I had a couple of guys around me as tutors. But the godfather of the splitter was Roger Craig. I went on the All-Star Japan tour with him in 1988. I talked to him about it – how to grip it, how to throw it – and he was very forthcoming.
“I said to (Craig), ‘I can’t really get it in there very wide.’ He said,’That’s not the way you do it. You hold it like a two-seam fastball with a moderate split.’ He showed me how to hold it just outside the seams, to get my fingertips off the seams and onto leather – maybe move my thumb up on the side of the ball just a bit. He also said to make sure that I threw it just like my fastball. That’s when the lightbulb went on for me.
“Part of it is being able to get a little tug and finish it out front. A lot of guys push it and have kind of a stuck wrist, instead of just normally rolling over with their wrist out in front. I think every pitcher who throws a good changeup or splitter has a little bit of artist-with-a-paintbrush to it. There’s a bit of a tug at the end that promotes movement, that promotes finish in the pitch.
“I don’t know why pitchers don’t throw more pitches, including splitters, in the dirt, right on top of home plate. If you set it up well, you can get a lot of swings and misses. Every warmup I had, if I couldn’t throw pitches right on top of home plate, I was upset with myself. Pitchers don’t practice that anymore; they just practice throwing perfect strikes.”
On influential pitching coaches: “I had several great pitching coaches, but the two who stand out the most are Mel Stottlemyre and Bruce Kison. I only worked with Roger Craig briefly, on that Japan trip. Bruce was probably the best, as far as mechanics. Mel was great emotionally, just keeping you up. He’s just the nicest guy — the most positive guy — I’ve ever been around. Never in a bad mood. Always something good to say. Always pumping you up, even in bad times.
“Mel got a plaque in Monument Park this year. He’s struggling with cancer, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to him. He’s just, ‘I’m fine, I’m O.K.’ That’s the kind of guy he is.”
On spin rate: “I wanted the spin on my slider to be really tight. A tight-spinning slider is like the eye of a hurricane, it’s a dot on the ball. I was more concerned with spin rate on breaking balls than I was on fastballs. But there have always been guys who don’t have high velocity but get a lot of swings and misses because they have life on their fastball. Their balls just seem to jump at the hitters. Hitters will say, ‘Man, this ball’s got some giddyup on it,’ and it was barely 90 mph.
“Sid Fernandez was the classic example of that. He threw 88 to 90 mph but he got an incredible amount of swings and misses on balls just above the belt. Hitters couldn’t pick it up. Part of it was deception, but he probably also had a high spin rate. A lot of times it would even surprise the catcher a little bit. He wasn’t anticipating that kind of rising action.
“A lightbulb went off with the (StatCast) comparison of Jered Weaver and Nathan Eovaldi, and how there’s a 10 mph differential on their fastballs. Weaver has the lesser velocity and the higher spin rate. John Smoltz and I were talking about it and it drove him crazy. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. It seems like velocity and spin rate have to be linked, but in actuality, they’re not.
“I kind of equate it to shooting a free throw. You see guys who can really spin the ball and you see guys who kind of throw knuckleballs up there. They’re traveling the same distance at pretty much the same velocity. Some shooters in basketball don’t have a lot of spin. Michael Jordan’s jump shot didn’t have a lot of spin or a lot of arc. There are 100 mph fastballs that don’t move or jump at hitters, even though they’re traveling at a high rate of velocity. I’m fascinated by that.
“I’d love to see Mariano Rivera’s spin rate on his cutter. I could make the ball break like Mariano’s did, but I couldn’t throw it as hard as he could. His ability to retain velocity yet still get movement was unique. I’ve never seen anybody — Mariano in his prime— be able to put those two together. When you throw a fastball you fully extend, and when you throw a cutter there has to be a little bit of a twist. The minute you start twisting you’re going to lose velocity. You lose extension; you lose the full range of motion.
“Chris Young is another guy with tremendous spin rate on his fastball and he’s 85 mph. Those are things I’ve been thinking about. I always do old school-new school, but that said, I don’t think the differences are as great as some people make them out to be. There are a lot of common denominators between big data and old-school philosophy.”
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.