How to pitch a nine-inning game

In 10 seasons in the big leagues, Denny McLain started 264 games and completed 105.

While the game has changed in numerous ways over the years, pitching has not changed much, except for the disappearance of the complete game. Last season, the Tampa Bay Rays led the American League with 15 complete games. In 1968 I had 28 complete games myself.

I know that managers today think it takes a genius to shuffle around four pitchers each night, but let’s think about that. It takes four pitchers because the managers refuse to allow the starters to really “pitch” out of tough situations!

They don’t allow the pitchers to effectively figure out what to do, and pitchers today aren’t given the opportunity to learn how to pitch in the major leagues. It isn’t just about throwing one pitch after another, it’s planning the game, from the first inning on.

For the last 25 years or so, very few pitchers have really been what I would call “pitchers.” Modern pitchers more or less go at opposing hitters for as long as they can with no real concept for “pitching.”

As a pitcher who had a reputation for finishing what I started (I led the league in complete games in ’68 and pitched more than 300 innings twice), I’m qualified to explain what the difference is between pitching the first six innings of a game and the last three innings of a game, closing it out, and winning games in nine.

In the first inning of every game I pitched, I was feeling my way and seeing how my rhythm was going to be that night. The first inning was when I measured for velocity, the second inning, unless I was in trouble, was to test my breaking ball. Over the first six innings I would make sure I had “good stuff” and command of most of my pitches. By doing that, I would really know which pitches I had good control of and which ones I could count on if I got into trouble in the 7th, 8th or 9th innings.

Now we hear that pitchers try and save something for later, but later for what? If the pitcher gets into trouble he’s not in the game anyway. Never in my career did I try to save anything for later in a game, it was “balls to the walls” for nine innings.

By pitching with that mentality, I knew by the 3rd or 4th inning if I had good stuff, average stuff, great stuff, or “Uh-oh, I’m going to be backing up third base and home plate a lot tonight.”

Hell, on certain nights when you do have great stuff all you have to do is throw strikes and stay within yourself and don’t walk anyone! There is nothing worse than bases on balls, nothing causes more issues for a pitcher.

But the number one issue for all pitchers is whether they have concentration. It’s the one thing that all pitchers must maintain throughout the game.

Some pitchers say, “Well, my concentration went a little sideways and I lost my rhythm,” or “I was trying to throw too hard.”

That occurs due to a loss of concentration. If you don’t have good and consistent concentration you will never understand the “art of pitching.” Verlander stated the same thing a week or so ago that in the 9th inning of a game he wound up losing, he lost his rhythm.
“Loss of rhythm” is nothing more than a loss of concentration. All of a sudden he was thinking about muscling each and every pitch, he was trying to throw 100-mph fastballs on each pitch, and not pitching like he had for eight innings. For some reason no one saw what was going on at the time. Why not?

A pitcher must always stay within himself on the mound. He has to control himself, including his emotions. I will admit that in the 9th inning, with a lead, and a complete game in sight, my adrenalin would run a little crazy, but it was controlled.

Pitchers today fail to work on one pitch and one hitter at a time, after the 6th inning. I worked hard to concentrate on one hitter at a time, to not even think about the guy in the on-deck circle.

The most important element to pitching is still the same as it’s been for more than 100 years: “THROW STRIKES!” While my concentration was intense in almost every inning, after the 6th my goal was to get ahead of the hitter. First throw a strike, stay ahead on the count and never give the hitter a chance to get me once I was ahead of him in the count. More importantly I went “balls to the walls” to get the first hitter in each of the 7th, 8th and 9th innings. That was my own personal commitment to myself: get the first hitter and don’t walk anyone.

To complete games in the big leagues pitchers also need to know what the hitters are going to do in situations, and know what they are going to do as well. Pitchers can’t sit back and hope that they make a pitch. They have to pitch offensively, attack the batter and get him out. Pitching offensively is the key. To be effective, pitchers must stop nibbling at the corners, or “pitching defensively.” Throw strikes. Once you have him in a hole, put the hitter away. If I had a two or three-run lead I would just sit back and throw good strikes and challenge the hitters. Pitchers today seem to be afraid to challenge hitters.

Why do so many pitchers throw change ups when they have a hitter in the hole? I have never seen so many change-ups and off speed pitches thrown by pitchers when they are ahead of the hitters. There is an old saying, when you have a guy 0-2 or 1-2 never give him a chance. In other words, throw good hard fastballs or hard sliders. When you have the batter in the hole, the change-up isn’t going to finish him off.

Concentration is the most important thing for a pitcher to have if he wants to go deep in the game. In the 8th and 9th innings I very seldom heard the crowd. It’s great to have a good fast ball, curveball, slider, etc. but nothing can take the place of concentration. A pitcher has to isolate the game to a one-on-one level. There is no greater challenge for a pitcher, especially in the 8th and 9th innings.

6 replies on “How to pitch a nine-inning game

  • Hank

    You forgot the part about drinking a case of Pepsi each day…two cases on the days you’re scheduled to start.

  • Mike McCarthy

    I would like to ask Denny if he believes the high fastball, that he was known for, would be as effective in today’s game. Also, did he have another go-to pitch that he favored over others?

  • Denny McLain

    Hi Mike,
    My backup pitches were my slider and change-up. Occasionally Downer Curve-ball.
    God gave one one great talent: He gave me terrific control, not only strikes but to be able to throw just about anytime a strike with any pitch, that is God given.
    The high fastball will always be effective cause Hitters love the ball up above the belt and if you watch the games you will see numerous guys chase high fastballs and guys who throw with great velocity will usually always have pretty good movement on their fastballs.
    Also there are more and more high fast balls called for strikes it appears these past 2-3 years. Verlanders “OUT” pitch is a high fast ball as well.
    The game has not changed in maybe 80 years, nothing really can beat a guy with a terrific fastball and control.

  • Ron V.

    Denny, What can Scherzer and Porcello do to become consistent pitchers?
    imo Max has too much going on with his delivery/mechanics, and when Rick leaves any pitch up it gets hit out.
    Do they drop a type pitch, move pitches to different corners of k zone? or what?

  • Denny McLain

    Hi Ron,
    Scherzer needs to quit moving his head, its like golf. If you move your head bad things happen. Scherzer is pressing to make good pitches then moves his head more and more. A pitcher should never lose sight of the plate and the catcher’s position. The more the head moves the more walks you will give and then you try to force it and it’s bombs away. Porcello needs repetition. Its time for him to deliver. He’s got to concentrate on keeping the ball down and getting ahead of hitters with his little sinker. He has a habit of throwing off speed pitches to hitters he’s ahead of in the count and he does not have good enough command of his off speed pitches to pitch behind hitters. He must keep the ball down and work on another “OUT” PITCH. FROM time to time he gets out of tempo and when he’s not throwing strikes he’s really vulnerable.

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