Control Vs. Command
The MLB Strike Zone
Since we released the SSTN Top 15 Yankee Prospects, I have been asked numerous questions about player evaluation by friends and family. The one that sticks out to me, and has been asked previously in the Weekly Mailbag, is one that has great importance when evaluating pitchers. The question is as follows: what is the difference between control and command? It is a simple answer with significant implications.
Control is but the first step that any pitcher must gain with each of their pitches. Control is merely the ability to throw a pitch inside the strike zone. When any writer talks about a pitcher’s control, they are referencing their ability throw pitches inside of the strike zone. Statistics provide direct corollaries for this attribute. When we write about walks, walk rate, or walks per 9 innings (BB/9), we are talking about a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes. Inevitably, pitchers throw strikes more easily with some pitches than others. Most typically, pitchers can most easily control whatever variation of a fastball they throw as their primary pitch. Whether it’s a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, or a cutter (more on that in a future article), pitchers typically control a fastball better than their other pitches. Thereafter, pitchers that can control a breaking ball and a change-up have a chance at making a big league roster.
However, control is a small part of the equation. Command is one of the most important attributes that allows pitchers to throw to the same lineup multiple times. Command is the ability to target locations for a pitch both inside and outside the strike zone. If your intention is to bury a curve ball in the dirt on an 0-2 count, but it catches the meat of the plate to the clean-up hitter in a lineup, you’re in for a long day (been there, done that…it doesn’t end well). On the other hand, working hitters up, down, in and out, fastball, breaking ball, and off-speed at will while locating each pitch where you want it, makes you one of the most dangerous pitchers on earth with a baseball in your hand, no matter the circumstance. Command is relative to each pitch thrown. Some pitchers can command their primary offering, but never manage to command their secondary or tertiary pitches. Others show command over multiple pitches, but just don’t have enough stuff to make that command meaningful. Others still never show command over any of their pitches, but have stuff that is so wicked that they generate outs despite a lack of command.
Some modicum of control is necessary to become a Major League pitcher. For many pitchers, command never appears. To put this idea in the context of a Yankee pitcher, Dellin Betances comes to mind immediately. The Yankees allowed Betances to start for years in the minor leagues, right up until the point that they had to add him to the Major League roster, or expose him to waivers. Betances never showed consistent mechanics that would allow him to command any of his pitches, but he did find enough control in shorter outings to find the strike zone. His stuff was elite, so Betances was able to flourish in short outings out of the bullpen, and became one of the most valuable relievers in the sport despite the fact that he was never able to command either his fastball or breaking balls. Betances is an extreme example, who showed top-of-the scale stuff such that he only needed to control the baseball a little with little worry of command to be successful in short outings, but the point remains.
This reality had a significant impact on the way many of the SSTN writers judged the variety of arms in the Yankee system. The Yankee farm system is riddled with guys with huge stuff, maybe some control, but very little current ability to command the baseball. Stuff alone with a modicum of control can yield even a very good reliever. Stuff alone very rarely yields a valuable starting pitcher, even with two or more above-average pitches. This is important to keep in mind when the SSTN writers discuss pitchers with big stuff, such as Luis Medina, Luis Gil, or Alexander Vizcaino.. All of these guys show huge velocity, and they variably show the ability to throw breaking balls and off-speed stuff, but they very rarely show the ability to command any of their pitches at this time, and even control can sometimes elude some of them.
This is the crux of the evaluation process. Which of the “big stuff” Yankee prospects will eventually gain enough control to make them a viable bullpen arm? Which of them will find the ability to command one or two of their offerings enough to become a viable starting pitcher in the Major Leagues? While the SSTN writers have put forward their own opinions, only time will tell. Either way, control in some way, shape, or form is necessary to pitch in the big leagues, but command separates the journeymen from the stars.