How the not-so-subtle art of chucking it right down the middle is helping MLB pitchers get ahead

The Kansas City Royals are considering paying their pitchers bonuses to give up home runs.

Let us explain.

Last year, the Royals were the worst team in baseball at throwing first-pitch strikes. Even if that wasn't the only reason they went 65-97, with the fourth-worst team ERA and the second-worst strikeout rate, it was definitely one of the reasons. Getting ahead early in counts has obvious, demonstrable value that compounds over the course of a game and a season. A pitcher can induce a strike by expertly painting the corners or fooling a hitter with a pitch out of the zone, but the simplest way is by throwing a pitch over the plate.

Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were among the best in baseball at throwing first-pitch strikes. This is not an accident; it’s a philosophy. They get guys with great stuff and teach them to trust it, even in the zone. Like everything the Rays do to great success, this so-simple-it-just-might-work strategy has started to proliferate around the sport in recent years, especially in places where former Rays are there to proselytize.

In need of a change, the Royals fired longtime head of baseball operations Dayton Moore at the end of last season and promoted his deputy, J.J. Picollo, who replaced manager Mike Matheney with former Rays bench coach Matt Quatraro. Quatraro, in turn, brought with him Paul Hoover, who had been the major-league field coordinator in Tampa.

Quatraro and Hoover have since set about instilling in Kansas City some of the approach they honed with the Rays, specifically advising their pitchers to challenge hitters in the zone, even if they’re worried they might get lit up.

“I'm sure some people might think that,” Quatraro said, “but then you can back it up and show him the numbers of what guys do on the first pitch and then, consequently, what they do if you're behind [in the count] or if you're ahead. It's not difficult to find those numbers.”

And if that doesn’t work, there’s the monetary compensation.

“It’s all been in discussion. Nothing’s been put in place yet,” Hoover said of the potential payout, which could be in the $50-$100 range. “But if you give up any home run on the first pitch, then there will be some incentive. Because if you throw 100 first-pitch strikes, you're probably going to give up five hits, and of those five hits, one could possibly be a home run. So if you're able to throw 100 first-pitch strikes, and it's only going to be beneficial to the hitter 5% of the time, then only a small fraction of that is going to be a home run.”

In 2023, the Royals are literally putting their money where many teams’ mouths are. Clubs intent on chasing data-driven advantages with simple, player-friendly advice are prioritizing strike-throwing to a degree that might seem extreme. It’s affecting how pitchers are developed, how they deploy their arsenals and even how catchers set up behind the plate. The tactics associated can be difficult to see, but they’re hard to miss once you spot them, and they deserve credit for some of the sport’s most eye-opening recent improvements and turnarounds.

Boiled down to its essence, the idea sounds almost ridiculous: Aim right down the middle and throw.

Skip the edges, claim an edge

The most likely time to see this in action is the first pitch of an at-bat. Arizona Diamondbacks pitching coach Brent Strom — long the innovative sherpa of the Houston Astros’ staff — said that working in the heart of the plate has been an emphasis in his club’s spring training, too.

“The difference between the 0-1 and the 1-0 is huge,” he said.

How huge? After reaching 0-1, MLB hitters bat .216/.261/.345, strike out 30.8% of the time and walk 4.9% of the time. Getting that first strike turns pitchers at large into Aaron Nola. After 1-0 counts, MLB hitters tally a .257/.376/.436 line. Their strikeout rate plummets to 18.7%, and the walk rate soars to 15.3%, numbers you just won't see from a pitcher with any hope of staying in the majors.

If you're thinking there's an obvious risk to this strategy, well, yes, hitters are more effective when they swing at the first pitch. But they don't do that very often. MLB hitters swung at 31% of initial offerings in 2022, a rate that has increased only marginally since 2015. In every other count combined, the swing rate was 53.7%. Factor in how many of those relatively infrequent first-pitch swings result in foul balls (as good as a strike) and how many of the balls actually put in play still result in outs (about 66% in 2022), and the Royals' math checks out: Pitchers get hurt on only about 6% of the first pitches they throw in the zone.

“So you're really playing like in Vegas: You’re the house,” Strom said of pitchers, “and the hitter is the player.”

This is not a secret. The Rays have been delivering the simple message — throw it down the middle — for years. Ben Heller, a 31-year-old, up-and-down reliever who signed with Tampa Bay this offseason, beamed about Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder's refreshing advice to "just let it rip down the middle" — on Twitter!

And that’s all because you can’t (or shouldn’t) do this as step one of a grand plan to dominate baseball. There’s an essential prerequisite. As such, the actual Rays model for baseball domination — which has become most everyone else’s model — goes like this:

Step 1: Develop unhittable stuffStep 2: Let it rip down the middleStep 3: Win

Pitchers today are relentlessly ahead of hitters because they keep developing pitches with more velocity, more movement, more everything. To wit, comparing 2022 and 2017, MLB's first-pitch swing rate rose by 6%, and the first-pitching swinging strike rate rose by 12.9%.

The Rays' process of finding pitchers with an unhittable pitch (or the potential to develop one) has understandably spawned imitators. In the player-development-centric game of the 2020s, that's actually more replicable than finding young or unheralded pitchers who can get major-league hitters out by painting the black and changing eye levels and working in and out. Sure, the occasional Zack Greinke or Kyle Hendricks comes along and actually dots corners for a living, but the vast majority of pitchers are better off building up their stuff and then doing whatever it takes to get it in the zone.

“You might shade the arm side or shade the glove side,” Strom said, “but going to corners is just fool’s gold.”

That's in part because where a pitcher aims … isn't necessarily where the ball is going to end up. But it's still vitally important, which is where catchers come in.

After years of discussing and quantifying pitch framing, the baseball world is leaning more toward "targeting," the practice of leading a pitcher toward his goal with glove placement. Quatraro calls it "strike inducement" and views it as more important than framing — or "strike stealing" — even though the best catchers are constantly working at both. He credits targeting for the monumental, surprising gains the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen made in 2022, harnessing and deploying nasty stuff from Felix Bautista, Cionel Perez and others.

Catchers are the maestros charged with directing this delicate dance on the field. They live in a constant negotiation, conducted via body language, to get both the pitcher in front of them and the umpire behind them to the same place: strike.

How catchers shape pitchers’ success

The catchers’ role in the Rays-inspired approach is critical. Hoover, the new Royals bench coach, said the messaging in Tampa Bay was “super, super simple.”

“We want the catchers to give the guys bigger targets, bigger areas of the plate, instead of throwing to smaller areas,” he said. “Because, as we know, if we miss from bigger, we are still in the strike zone, we still have a chance to get ahead and still get a swing. When we throw to smaller areas and we miss, it could be balls, and we fall behind, and we get into hitters’ counts.”

Simple, though, doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Despite the straightforwardness of the “stuff in the strike zone” approach, it doesn’t apply to every arsenal.

“You talk to Blake Snell — he's got some of the best stuff in the league. So his catcher is just, like, belt-high middle-middle, with everything thrown down the middle,” San Diego Padres starter Joe Musgrove said. “But he's not a great command guy. He walks a lot of guys.”

Snell — who is now Musgrove’s teammate after coming up with and winning a Cy Young with the Rays and who still raves about Tampa Bay’s coaching — averaged 96 mph on his fastball last season. He struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced, among the best in baseball, but gave a free pass to almost 10%.

“My stuff doesn't play like his, so I’ve got to kind of aim small, miss small and be a little bit finer with that,” Musgrove said.

Musgrove relies on location to get outs and avoid walks. Accordingly, he likes his catchers to show him — even if it’s just a flash of the glove, so as not to give away the location for too long — exactly where to put the pitch.

“The veteran pitcher who has pinpoint control, he wants you on the edges,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Because he can hit it.”

In Seattle — where the Mariners ended a historic postseason drought last year, thanks in large part to their young pitchers — that’s the exception to the rule. Servais said the Mariners pride themselves on getting that 0-1 count, and it’s reflected in their results: sixth-highest in first-pitch strikes last season. Which means defaulting to the center-of-the-strike-zone setup.

“When young pitchers come up — because we are so driven organizationally about getting ahead in the count — I think it’s way better to start in the middle and work your way out than start around the edges and work your way in,” Servais said.

Good catchers think of themselves as an extension of the coaching staff, working in service of maximizing each pitcher’s unique arsenal and ability. That means knowing who — among the ever expanding and often rotating array of pitchers on a major-league staff — wants what when it comes to providing a target. The best catchers, though, sometimes know better than the pitcher himself.

“If a guy is yanking a certain pitch, and we know he’s throwing to the glove, let’s put the glove more over here,” said Mike Zunino, who signed with the Cleveland Guardians in the offseason. “He may not want to start it over the middle of the plate, but we know it’s going to get the ball to end up where he wants it.”

Zunino, who caught for the Mariners and Rays previously, is someone who makes an entire pitching staff better. His former bench coach, Quatraro, said he’s an “incredible receiver,” who can provide just the right target while still presenting a 100 mph pitch on the corner for a strike.

“Not everybody can do that,” Quatraro said.

“That's the part of building relationships with guys — are they throwing off the hitter? Are they throwing off the catcher? Do they want the target as a starting point or end point?” Zunino rattled off, along with asking whether the pitcher is aiming at the glove or the chest protector or the mask when he looks at his catcher. “There's so many things.”

On the one hand, this kind of elaborate mental checklist can seem contradictory to trusting a guy’s stuff over the heart of the plate. But it’s more of a corollary. For a pitcher to feel free — that’s the word Zunino used to describe how the various Rays reclamation projects felt in Tampa Bay — to let it rip, he has to be set up for success.

‘That’s my bull’s-eye’

“Subconsciously, we throw to the glove,” New York Mets ace Max Scherzer said.

It was early in spring training, and he had just thrown a bullpen alongside Justin Verlander during which both future Hall of Famers instructed their catchers — new to each of them — to keep the glove a little more steady in the strike zone. Scherzer and Verlander can both locate, but it’s a testament to the fact that even the elite benefit from the right support on the other end.

“As we’ve tried to change a catcher’s stance and how they frame and all that, when they start putting the glove on the ground, that’s not right,” Scherzer said. “No, that’s my bull’s-eye. You gotta keep it there.”

Targeting and framing are not inherently at odds, but prioritizing one does often mean sacrificing the other. Getting that balance just right — or righter than other teams, at least — is the kind of incremental advantage everyone is looking for. It requires reconciling organizational priorities with individual proclivities and being prepared to react to shifting tides within the game at large.

That’s true of all the strategic trends in baseball: not quite a silver bullet, but close enough if you can get to it before everyone else. Something as simple as throwing concerted strikes can give a staff just enough of an edge to make a difference over the course of the thousands of at-bats in a season. And even if you’re not an early adopter, you still have to adapt to keep up.

Encouraging their pitchers to aim for the middle of the zone — occasional homers be damned — won’t turn the Royals’ rotation into a pack of Cy Young favorites, but it should put them in a better position to succeed if they can execute.

“That’s the thing — it’s who’s going to find the next thing,” Quatraro said. “But for where we are, we’ve got to do this. We’ve got to master this — or improve on this.”