Player’s View: Is Pitching More of an Art or More of a Science?

I recently posed a question to 12 players. It was a question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Given the subjectivity involved, it doesn’t even have a right answer.

Is pitching more of an art or more of a science?

The question was phrased exactly that way. It was up to the people responding to interpret the meaning of “art or science” and to elaborate accordingly. Their responses are listed below in alphabetical order.

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Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander: “It’s probably more of an art. Every game is different, and every time you go out there you have to figure it out. You’re painting a different picture every time.

“The hitters are different, so you have to learn what they do and what they’re not good at. You have to adjust, or you’re not going to be around for very long. Being able to repeat your mechanics is obviously important, but maintaining your delivery — keeping things as consistent as you can — is kind of an art.”

Justin De Fratus, Philadelphia Phillies righthander: “I don’t think it’s either. If you look at the artistic and scientific worlds, nobody is really competing. They’re trying to contribute to their field. Scientists are trying to make a new discovery to contribute to the world of science. Artists are doing painting or music; they’re contributing to the arts. I don’t think it’s fair to classify pitching with the two, because pitching is about competition. Pitching is about the desire to win a little fight.

“I’m not concerned with what my WHIP is, or what his stance looks like, or how pretty his swing is. For me, it is ‘throw the ball as hard as I can to the target,’ and for the hitter it should be ‘see-the-ball-hit-the-ball.’ It’s that simple. I approach pitching the same way I do playing the guitar. I have tunnel vision doing both, so I‘d be spinning my wheels to try to consider pitching more of an art or a science.”

Scott Downs, Atlanta Braves lefthander: “It depends on how you look at it, but I’d think it would have to be a little bit of both. You have to know what you’re doing out there; you have to know the stats of the guys you’re facing. But the bottom line is you have to be comfortable with yourself.

“Knowing the hitters is a science part, because of the stats and the math behind the stats. There are all those different numbers. But pitching is a different view for everybody. You need to understand yourself and how that might differ from what the numbers say. You need to know your own strengths, and that’s more of an art. I can‘t say it‘s more one than the other.”

Charlie Furbush, Seattle Mariners lefthander: “Both. It’s art, because everyone is different. Everyone has their own way of doing it, and I think that’s fun to see. It’s fun to be a part of that and know there isn’t one correct way that’s ultimately going to work. Everyone is going to figure out what works best for them, and that’s the artistic side of it.

“The science part kind of correlates to that — just being able to create angles and use the ball in ways to make yourself successful in terms of making the ball move, whether it’s throwing it straight, sinking it, curveballs, changeups, slowing up speeds. All of those things go into the science of it, and how you can create the energy and the momentum to put that into a pitch and make it do things you want it to do.”

Aaron Harang, Seattle Mariners righthander: “I think it’s more of an art. There’s a lot that goes into your feel out there on the mound. It’s about muscle memory and the feel in your hand, doing certain things with the ball and being able to throw it to those locations.

“I think part of the sabermetric [aspect] is that you need to have the proper outcome for the sabermetrics to actually work. But it’s the art of finding that feel. It’s like a painter who has certain strokes on a canvas that make him a good artist. It’s the same thing with pitching. You have to have a certain feel to be able to throw certain pitches and to be able to trust yourself to throw them in any count.”

Brad Lidge, former All-Star righthander: “I think that pitching is more of an art. Try as you might to rely upon statistics, and what a hitter does and doesn’t do against certain pitches, when it comes down to it — and your adrenaline is going — you’re feeling a certain pitch and that’s the one you’re going to go with. You’re going to go with your strengths over the statistics every day. It might be a little different for a starter — he has to rely on tendencies a little more — but for a closer, at least for me, it’s an art form.

“In terms of mechanics, it’s more of a science. Of course, you’ll get the occasional oddball, like Tim Lincecum, where mechanics might be more of an art form. Overall, I’d say pitching is more art.”

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants righthander : “Art. I’ve always thought of it as an art. All of the clichés that are used, like painting on the edges, painting with a paintbrush — that kind of thing. After a game is done, people reference what you did as a work of art. Those references and connections are there. There has to be a science component as well, but I simply see it as more like an art.”

Javier Lopez, San Francisco Giants lefthander; “It’s more of an art for me. Besides the fundamental foundations of pitching — things like balance point and arm separation — the rest of it is on your own. I’m a side-arming left-handed reliever who can have success at a level where other guys are throwing 100 mph.

“There is a lot of variety, as a pitcher, whereas the basic mechanics of hitting are closer to the same all the way around. Everybody has built the same mechanics and it really just comes down to reaction time and strength. You don’t see too much variation of stances anymore. For pitchers, you see all sorts of different arm angles and mechanics. The fundamentals are the same, but everything beyond that has its own artistic flair.”

Roger McDowell, Atlanta Braves pitching coach: “It’s 50/50; it’s half art, half science. Pitching is the art component, and the science component would be… pitching. Every pitcher gets to some semblance of a balance point, although in a speed frame, some balance points might be longer than others. Is that an art or a science? I’d say it’s a combination of both.”

Jonathan Pettibone, Philadelphia Phillies righthander: “I think it’s more of an art. It’s more of a finesse thing. Your control is how well you’re going to succeed as a pitcher. The better your control, the better off you are, and I think that kind of relates more to an art aspect than a scientific one.

“You can look at your mechanics as science, and you have to repeat your delivery to throw strikes, but I think you could also look at being able to repeat your deliver as an art.”

John Smoltz, former All-Star righthander: “I’ll ask you this question: Is bowling an art or a science? The reason I say that is, anything you can perfect, over and over again, may not be considered an art. But when you’re pitching, there are so many things that can go wrong which you could equate to a bad pitch.

“It’s really a combination of both, because without the science part of it, without the mechanics — if you consider mechanics science… it’s a great question. ‘The art of pitching’ often falls under a category where the guy doesn’t have great stuff, but still finds a way to get people out. The art of pitching could be the way you carve up a guy. ‘The science of pitching’ would lend itself to thinking that, if mastered, you could throw the ball where you want every single time. But you can’t.

“I don’t think it’s a definable slam dunk either way, but I’d probably fall more toward it being the art of pitching.”

John Tudor, former big-league lefthander: “Good question. I don’t know, but I guess to me it was more of an art — an acquired art. I don’t think it’s so much of a science, although if you consider the thinking aspect of pitching to be science, it’s probably a little bit of both.

“Let me put it this way: From an old guy’s perspective, it was more of an art in the years I played. I think that now it’s more power than art. I think a lot of these guys are judged by hard they throw, as opposed to their ability to get people out.”

——

FINAL TALLY

More of an Art: Seven votes (Corbin, Harang, Lidge, Lincecum, Lopez, Pettibone, Smoltz)

More of a Science: Zero votes

Neutral — Five votes (De Fratus, Downs, Furbush, McDowell, Tudor)




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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA

13 Responses to “Player’s View: Is Pitching More of an Art or More of a Science?”

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  1. Harb says:

    I liked how Lidge ends his quote with a comment on Lincecum, and he’s the very next player quoted.

    Interesting how skewed toward art pitching is in comparison to hitting. This was a fun series.

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  2. Adam says:

    Scott Downs doesn’t pitch for the Giants and Roger McDowell isn’t the Phillies’ pitching coach. That’s bad.

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  3. Benzedrine says:

    Justin De Fratus seems completely oblivious to how competetive science research is. Art/music as well.

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    • mch38 says:

      It’s okay because he’s also completely oblivious of how to be an effective bullpen arm too.

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    • jfree says:

      He was the only guy who refused to let the question force him into a mental pigeonhole.

      And even if scientific research or art are “competitive” fields; that has absolutely nothing to do with either “science” or “art”. If the question had been — Is pitching more like politics or more like a zebra? — I’m sure that most of these pitchers would have contorted themselves into a pretzel trying to compare pitching to those two.

      The positive thing however is that none of them responded with cliches

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    • Max says:

      He also somehow managed to conclude that pitching wasn’t an art after comparing it to playing guitar.

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  4. wrinklebump says:

    This was a great series.

    Having lived in Asia for years I will testify that young pianists here are perhaps the most motivated, disciplined and merciless of all competitors, anywhere, ever, and that the lot of them view piano principally as a science, mastered through repetition and memorization. Akin perhaps to learning the multiplication tables, up to 9,999,999 x 9,999,999

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    • cass says:

      And yet there’s no scientific reason to play piano. Playing the piano is an aesthetic act. It will always be an art.

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  5. bob says:

    all the pitchers that say it is an art are good
    all the pitchers that say mixed are bad.

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  6. Andrew says:

    Smoltz:”The reason I say that is, anything you can perfect, over and over again, may not be considered an art.”

    So….. visual art technique, vocal or instrumental technique or dancing isn’t art? Just because you practice hours and hours to master your craft doesn’t mean it’s not art. if that’s the case, the only artists are the first-graders playing recorder and pre-school finger painting.

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