I was recently in Spring Training with the MLB team I consult with, watching a few pitchers throw, when a Pitching Coordinator came over and remarked to another pitching coach that pitchers need to throw high fastballs to protect their curveball. I asked the coordinator to expand on his statement, and he explained the tunneling theory of keeping the high fastball in the same tunnel as the middle/low curveball to increase deception – that fastballs located outside of the tunnel can’t adequately “protect” the deception of a pitch with a hump in it.
As most know, I’m on board with tunneling theory, and we teach it all the time at Driveline Baseball:
However, I have never heard it referred to as “protecting your curveball.” I loved it! The phrase makes complete intuitive sense, and the pitchers on the MLB staff in question loved the idea and immediately grasped the concept. This is huge, because we in the nerd/sabermetric community tend to overcomplicate concepts for fear of diluting their meaning – however, simplifying the truth is possibly the most important gap to bridge when it comes to applicable use on the field.
Of course, this phenomenon had already been discussed by my former co-writer, Josh Kalk…
Ted Lilly and High Fastballs
Josh Kalk wrote about how he theorized Ted Lilly threw below-average fastballs up in the zone to protect his curveball in an outstanding Hardball Times article – Pitch sequence: High fastball, low curveball. In the article, Josh illustrated the difference between a fastball that protects a curveball:
And a curveball that is so far outside the fastball’s tunnel that pitch recognition becomes much easier:
Tons of words can be written on pitch tunneling (and will be in my upcoming book!), but this is a great graphical representation of the pitch tunneling theory as well as a bitesize phrase – “protect the curveball” – that makes a lot of sense!
If you’re curious if curveballs are more stressful than fastballs, we investigated that claim in our lab!