Why Being A Control Pitcher Has Nothing To Do With Control (And Everything To Do With Command)

In part three of my five-part interview series with Bob Tewksbury, the new director of player development for the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as a former major leaguer and former mental skills coach for the Boston Red Sox, he talks about why performing at the highest level is, in big part, a matter of the degree of quality.

You averaged around 21 walks a season in your six years as a starting pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and, in 1993, pulled off a streak of 44 innings without giving up a single walk. Those are amazing numbers. So what was the secret to being one of baseball’s great control pitchers?

It’s interesting. I've always been known as a control pitcher, but it would have been more accurate to say I was a command pitcher.

What’s the difference?

When a pitcher has control that means he pitches in the strike zone. But when a pitcher has command that means he can hit spots within that strike zone.

Can you give me a specific game situation where pitching with command is required over just pitching with control?

Let’s say the count is three balls and one strike. In this scenario, the hitter will be looking for a fastball. The pitcher with command is able to throw it down and away but still in the strike zone. He will be able to paint the corner. If he does spot the pitch low and on the outside black part of the plate, more times than not, the hitter won’t swing because he’s looking for a ball middle of the plate in. A ball he can drive a long way. Now a pitcher with control, but not command, won’t be able to locate his pitch within the strike zone with the same level of refinement. As a result, he’s more likely to give the batter the pitch he’s looking for.

Is command physical or mental?

Both. Pitchers with command have repeatable mechanics. Repeating the same delivery over and over, pitch after pitch, is a key factor in being able to throw the ball to the exact spot they want 9 times out of 10.

And the mental side?

Mentally, a pitcher needs the mindset that, “I’m going to throw this pitch and I’m not afraid of them hitting it.”

Pitchers are afraid of the batter hitting the ball?

Many of them are. They pitch away from contact, or they try to make the perfect throw. As a result, they end up throwing balls out of the strike zone and walking guys. They’re trying to control the inevitable – that the batter is going to make contact. But pitchers with great command like Greg Maddux or John Lackey want them to hit the baseball. And they don’t worry if a hitter ends up reaching base. Their attitude is, “That’s fine. I’ll get the next guy.”

Was that your mentality?

Definitely. I didn’t have swing and miss stuff. I wanted them to put the ball in play. The secret was to get them to hit it on the bad part of the barrel, not on the sweet spot. I averaged around 3 pitches per hitter. I gave up a lot of hits but I didn’t walk people. And I got them to hit a lot of balls on the end of the bat or down by the label, which put the ball in play but not with much authority, giving my fielders a chance to make an out.

Can you give me another example of a pitcher who didn’t have overpowering speed but was able to thrive because of his command?

Dennis Eckersley. After two stellar seasons as a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, 1978 and 1979, Eck’s stuff started to fall off. His fastball didn’t have the same zip on it. By 1987, he had landed in the bullpen in Oakland. But the one thing he always had as a starter was great command, meaning he hardly ever walked anybody. He was able to translate his command skills to his new role as closer and he became practically unhittable. In fact, in 1990, he became the first reliever to have more saves than base runners allowed. That’s unworldly command. And now he’s in the Hall of Fame.

Do you think that there’s a larger lesson about control versus command that can be applied beyond pitching?

There are so many talented people in many different areas of live. But what separates the best from the rest is often that extra bit of precision and refinement in their work. So I think it’s important to ask yourself from time to time, can I bring another level to my game?

Image credit: Suzanne Tucker/Shutterstock

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