Location, Location, Location
Whether you own a restaurant or a hardware store, or stand on a pitcher's mound, the old adage "location, location, location" is integral to your success, or failure. Think about it. You make the best cheeseburger ever to adorn a plate, and your fries bring tears to the eyes they taste so good. Unfortunately, you have located your new restaurant atop Mount McKinley. The occasional brave climber might swoon as he enjoys the delightful taste and juicy succulence of that incredible burger, but your days are probably numbered in the restaurant business. It's not so different in baseball. The most electric fastball or the knee-buckling curve won't work all that well if you can't throw them to a pre-selected, well-designed spot. So, is location the most important aspect of pitching? Let's take a look ...
Virtually all MLB pitchers can locate, but how consistently is the key
Most major-league pitchers possess some ability to locate pitches. That guy with the amazing arm who can't locate is toiling in the minor leagues somewhere while the coaching staff works diligently to develop some semblance of control and command so he can locate his array of pitches. The guy who locates his pitches at least most of the time usually progresses faster, even if his velocity and movement aren't at the elite level, but that pitcher's ceiling is somewhat diminished. Therefore, the short answer is, consistent location is probably the most important aspect of pitching, albeit not the only critical factor. Without it, the 100-mph fastball just won't be all that effective.
There's a new word for this equation - consistent. Like I said, virtually all pitchers have the ability to locate at least a pitch or two in their repertoire. The pitcher who can locate three or four quality pitches, and locate all of them almost every time he sends the ball toward the plate, will be the pitcher who enjoys long-term success. If he can only locate one or two offerings, he generally ends up in the bullpen where he won't see hitters more than once a game. And, if he fails to locate all of his pitches consistently, he probably ends up being the subject of a flame thread in a fantasy baseball forum. He makes too many mistakes.
That's the next key word in the location analysis - mistake. Assuming they all have at least reasonably decent stuff, if MLB pitchers could throw virtually every pitch directly into the catcher's carefully placed target, baseball games would be low-scoring affairs. Hitters feast on mistakes, the better hitters feast with incredible effect, and the more mistakes they see, the bigger the banquet. And, the vast majority of pitcher mistakes involve location. If you live in the middle of the plate consistently, a lot of pitches will end up in the parking lot with fans scrambling to collect the home run ball.
Now that you are aware of the potential impact of poor location, the obvious question would be how to use that knowledge in evaluating the upside or potential of a specific pitcher. You'll need to know how to spot good or bad location, how to tie that location to pitch selection and how to interpret signs that indicate the likelihood for long-term success or impending implosions. When you can do that, you will have taken a big step in recognizing pitchers you want to own, and pitchers you want to avoid. It's especially useful when evaluating the current "flavor of the month" recent arrival.
Location logistics, or things to make you smile, and things to make you frown:
• The catcher's mitt is the easiest way to judge location consistency. Catchers provide a target for the pitcher to throw to, and when the pitcher hits that target pitch after pitch, the results are likely positive. Keep in mind that catcher's glove and where/how he sets up behind the plate are both important. If he sets up outside, and has to lunge back inside, the pitcher did not locate the pitch very well, and in many cases, a mistake over the middle of the plate is looming.
• Locating inside and outside are the most common targets. However, changing the hitter's eye level can be extremely effective, so a pitcher who can locate both in and out, and up and down, has a huge advantage. Give him extra credit. Some pitchers don't have the stuff to work up and down all that often, but if they can, and they can do it consistently, it immediately makes me take notice.
• Watch the location of the pitcher's full arsenal. Some pitchers can locate one or two pitches but can't really rely on hitting the target with their third and fourth pitches. That equates to a pitcher who almost has to use only his fastball when the count is in the hitter's favor. That reduces the types of pitches a hitter must consider, and boosts that hitter's chances for success.
• And, here's the big takeaway. Many pitchers enjoy success in their first few starts as they may have a deceptive delivery or hitters may simply not be as familiar with their pitch options and tendencies. Lack of familiarity and/or deceptive motion tends to wear off if the pitcher can't locate three or four quality pitches consistently. Those are the pitchers who make a splash, and then disintegrate as the league catches up with them. They may return to the minors and eventually develop that location consistency, but they may not help you in the short term. There is no question I am asked more often - what do you think of
Some Notable Rotation Happenings
Matt Cain (SF) - He is not locating consistently. His pitches still have jump, they still move and he can fool hitters as he always has. Unfortunately, he misses his spots too often, and that suggests a minor mechanical problem. I would guess there will be some adjustments, and he'll be back to form. Be patient.
Joe Saunders (SEA) - A perfect example of a pitcher who is unlikely to survive too many mistakes. He seems to like pitching at home but has been miserable on the road, so be careful how you use him. Mediocre stuff is volatile if the mound is a little different or you simply don't like the cooking during road trips.
Jose Fernandez (MIA) - Things looked solid in his first couple outings, but his lack of experience is beginning to show. There a lot of positives with him, but pitching for the Marlins and needing more seasoning have to be prominent on the negative side.
Ricky Romero (TOR) - There is a good chance he has been somewhat forgotten in many leagues, and he has been showing some positive results in a minor league rehab assignment. His mechanics were a mess last year, and this spring, but they are working on them, and he is not that far removed from being a very fantasy relevant arm.
Matt Harvey (NYM) - I wasn't too thrilled with the Mets letting him throw 120-plus pitches Monday night, but he was throwing free and easy. Harvey wasn't sharp that night, but he's for real, folks. I don't expect a big drop-off as he adjusts and hitters try to adjust to him. He can locate.
Jeremy Guthrie (KC) - He was mentioned here a couple of weeks ago, and he's getting another note now. His breaking pitches haven't look so good in recent - OK, recent or distant - memory. The Royals have to love this rejuvenated innings eater.
Joe Blanton (LAA) - Blanton was actually near the top of the list in the percentage of swinging strikes last season. Yet, he turns in mediocre to poor seasons year after year. Inconsistency kills when one pitch is a yacker and the next is center-cut with no movement. Remember, major league hitters live on mistakes.
Andrew Cashner (SD) - Does anyone else remember asking questions of the Magic Eight-Ball? Can Cashner be successful if he stays healthy. Yes. Can he stay healthy? Reply hazy, try again. Will there be an innings limit if he stays off the DL? Without a doubt. Is he worth the risk to add to my roster? As I see it, yes.
Kevin Gausman (BAL) - The Orioles have a thin rotation, and while there are veterans like Freddy Garcia and Jake Arrieta (if he can get some command issues ironed out) theoretically ahead of him in the food chain, rumors are starting to circulate on Gausman. I own him almost everywhere possible. Enough said?
Francisco Liriano (PIT) - His rehab is progressing, and barring any setbacks, he could be looking at a 2013 debut in mid-May. He has strikeout potential if he can ever stay healthy, but beware, in the past he has altered his motion to save his arm, and that hasn't worked so well.
It looks like Andrew Bailey will probably keep the closer's gig in Boston even now that Joel Hanrahan has returned. Bailey has a long injury history, so staying effective and healthy will be the potential obstacles. ... Brandon League has been mixing good outings with shaky ones, and while his leash is probably not too short just yet, one has to wonder if the Dodgers might try their real closer (Kenley Jansen). ... The Tigers passed over Jose Valverde and let Joaquin Benoit close out a game recently, but it was only because Valverde had pitched the previous two days and they didn't want to push it so soon. Valverde is the closer until further notice. I thought Fernando Rodney has looked a bit pre-2012ish the couple of times I have seen him this year. It's too early to panic, but the Rays have to hope he can start to throw some quality strikes soon. ... In Toronto, Sergio Santos is throwing again, but even if he can avoid any more setbacks, he won't be back before mid-May, and Casey Janssen has really taken advantage of his absence to solidify his hold on the closer's gig. ... At least for the time being, the closer situation in St. Louis has been settled. Edward Mujica is doing the job, and doing it well.