On Sept. 13 against the Chicago Cubs, Charlie Morton walked Luis Valbuena, the second batter of the game. The next batter, Anthony Rizzo, flied out to deep center field and forced Andrew McCutchen to catch the ball with both feet on the warning track. • McCutchen pivoted and threw a missile to second base, hitting the bag on the fly and preventing Valbuena from advancing.
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That's not a throw McCutchen used to make. His arm strength, the one skill that lagged behind his otherwise MVP-caliber arsenal, has improved this season. As he does for most things, McCutchen has a simple explanation for the improvement.
"Keep long tossing," he said. "That's pretty much been it."
McCutchen and Travis Snider play long toss, where two players separated by hundreds of feet heave the ball back and forth, to strengthen their throwing arms.
"He's been one of the main reasons I've been keeping my arm strong and keeping the length on my throws," McCutchen said of Snider, "because we go out there and stretch it out every time we throw."
Players say they have scapula and rotator cuff exercises built into their lifting program, but there is not much they can do in the weight room to specifically improve the strength or accuracy of their long throws.
"You go through peaks and valleys physically throughout a season, especially him playing every day," Snider said. "I think just the consistency of a long toss program helps develop and maintain arm strength throughout a season, which a lot of guys -- we've all been there before where you don't take it as seriously because maybe it's not under the microscope."
First-base coach Rick Sofield hits balls to McCutchen when he needs to practice fielding and throwing on the run. Other than that, McCutchen said, consistently throwing from distance is the only way.
Two days later, McCutchen did it again. Rizzo flied out to deep center field, but McCutchen's on-target throw to second kept Darwin Barney at first base after a walk. In previous years, Barney likely advanced.
Ultimate zone rating is a defensive metric used to quantify how many runs a player saves or allows because of his defense. While three seasons of data are needed for the most accurate evaluations, McCutchen plays enough that one season is instructive. In 2012, McCutchen had a UZR of minus-8.8. This year, it's 5.4.
According to defensive runs saved, a similar statistic tracked by Baseball Info Solutions, McCutchen has improved by 12 runs, from five runs below average in 2012 to seven above average this season.
The battle of the outer half
Equilibrium prevails in baseball. A player's batting average on balls that he puts in play tends to return to his career mark or the league average. Same with the rate at which relievers leave runners on base.
Some examples are harder to quantify. How often should you bunt, for example, even if the situation, from a run production standpoint, does not call for it, if only to keep the third baseman from playing deep on every pitch?
A similar situation exists in the strike zone, and pitchers who can take advantage of it gain an edge. Left-hander Tony Watson's success against right-handed batters is well documented. His .199 career average allowed to righties entering the weekend was lower than his average allowed to lefties. Part of that, manager Clint Hurdle said, comes from Watson's ability to locate his fastball inside against righties.
"That's not something they see every day," Hurdle said.
It has worked well for Watson, who allows 6.4 hits per nine innings and only 1.5 walks per nine innings to go with his 2.44 ERA.
Depending on whom you ask, anywhere from 70 to 85 percent of pitches are thrown on the outer half of the plate or off the plate outside. Tom Glavine made a living doing it. So why don't batters move closer? Because what used to be an inside fastball now nicks the belt buckle.
"They can get closer to the plate, and you know what the old trick is, that the pitcher just throws it further inside," Hurdle said. "It still looks the same as it was when he was backed off the plate."
If the batter moves too close to the plate, the catcher will notify the pitcher and adjust. If he moves too far away to cover the inside, that opens the door again for the outside pitch. The pitcher's adjustments work in other directions, too.
"Hey, this guy just moved up in the box on you, might be looking for your changeup," Hurdle said. "Now's the time we might be able to beat him with the fastball. He's moved closer to the plate, looks like he might be trying to take care of that ball away. Now we can even go further in. Now he's backed off because he's looking in, now we can beat him with that two-seamer away or that changeup down and away."
So the batter and the pitcher settle into an equilibrium: not too close, not too far, giving neither one the distinct advantage. Unless someone like Watson can wreck the balance.
The final week
The Pirates took three of four from the Cubs at PNC Park last week and need another strong series to put themselves in good position entering Cincinnati this coming weekend.
Monday, the Pirates start a three-game series with the Cubs at Wrigley Field. They will look for another strong pitching performance against a Cubs offense that ranked third to last in the National League in runs per game entering the weekend.
In the three games the Pirates won last week, they held the Cubs to two runs or fewer.
First Published September 22, 2013 4:00 AM