Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

May 1979 Baseball Digest

Can Computer Data Make A Pitcher More Effective?
Baseball Digest
by Bob Gallas
May 1979

It is a scene like something straight out of George Orwell's "1984," and Minnesota Twins' reliever Mike Marshall can visualize it quite clearly.
The count is 3-and-2 with the bases loaded and two out in the bottom of the ninth.  Marshall is pitching and he looks for the sign from his catcher who in turn looks for the sign from the manager who looks to the far end of the dugout.

Sitting there is a computer operator at a portable terminal.  Patched into a computer, the operator punches some buttons and in seconds comes up with the right pitch to throw.  The signs are passed back through the chain hurriedly, and Marshall delivers strike three.

Futuristic?  Perhaps, but Marshall won't have to wait until 1984 to realize the dream.  Because when he pitches for the Twins, he looks at his catcher, but mentally takes signs from a computer.

"In a sense, anyway," said Marshall, who became proficient in the use and programming of a computer at Michigan State University.  He has used the knowledge to program a computer with information he has kept on every hitter he has ever faced.

"There won't be a guy with a computer terminal in the dugout, though," Marshall said.  "I don't think we'll go that far--yet."

Ever since he broke into the majors in 1971, Marshall has quietly kept a record of every pitch he has ever thrown to a hitter.  Up until now, the information went into a spiral notebook Marshall always carried and analyzed before every game.  Now, the information has been put into a computer, and Marshall has come up with some interesting results, gaining information on himself and tendencies of hitters.

"What this stuff will tell me is if I throw a fastball, low and away, for a strike on the first pitch, what pitch I should throw on the second pitch to a certain type of hitter in order to have the highest percentage of getting an out," Marshall said.

Sitting in the recreation room of his East Lansing, Michigan home one day last winter, Marshall displayed a one-foot-high pile of computer printouts, only a small part of the information he got from the computer.  "It won't prevent them from getting hits," he said.  "What I'm trying to do is take the sting out of their bats.  I figure if I take the sting out of their bats, after that it's just the luck of the game.

"The whole secret of pitching to me, besides the ability to throw the ball where you want it, which we assume every major league pitcher has, is sequencing your pitches properly," Marshall observed.  "It's not like Joe Garagiola says, 'location,' or as others say, 'movement of the ball.'  Those things are important, but sequence is the key."

Marshall's computer data includes detailed information on a hitter -- whether he is right-handed or left-handed, whether he is a pull or spray hitter, and also includes batting average and home run potential.  His notes include every pitch he has ever thrown to the individual, plus location and if or where the ball was hit.  Besides learning about the hitters, he also has learned a lot about himself.

"Just for an example, I'll show you an example out of an old book," he said.  "In 1971, my strike ratio was 65.8 percent for fastballs, 66.2 for sliders and 51.6 for screwballs.  Obviously, the screwball was a pitch that had only a 50 percent chance of going for a strike.  I really wasn't proficient with it then.

Now my outs-to-hits ratio for 1971 was 72.7 percent for a fastball, 73.9 for a slider and 83.1 for a screwball.  It doesn't take a genius to realize the screwball was getting them out, but I couldn't throw it for a strike.  If I had an 83.1 outs-to-hits, that means the opposition has a .169 batting average against me, and that would mean I'd win a lot of games.  But I'd better not throw the screwball when I really need a strike."

Marshall then opened his 1972 statistics book to further illustrate how his records helped him analyze how he pitched.

"In 1972, my total strike ratio went down for fastballs, from 65.8 percent the year before to 63.8.  The slider went up from 66.2 to 67.6.  But the screwball went from 51.6 to 60.4 percent, a rather dramatic increase in my ability to throw strikes with a screwball.

"At the same time, my outs-to-hits ratio went from 72.7 to 78.0 with the fastball, 73.9 to 77.0 with the slider and 83.1 to 82.9, virtually unchanged, with the screwball.  I had started to get more outs.  Why?  I think it comes down to the fact I was throwing more screwballs for strikes."

Further comparing his notes from the two years, Marshall found also that the variety of pitches he threw was more balanced in 1972.

"If we could find these things out about each pitcher, we'd know what pitch he should use and when," Marshall said.

No one has known until now, much about Marshall's charting and computer work.  "My teammates would see me writing in my book a lot, but that was about it," Marshall said, adding he isn't worried that someone will use the computer in the same way to get HIS tendencies and sequences down.

"Sure it would be possible, but there are variations and I don't think anyone would go through all the trouble yet.  And then there's always intuitiveness that makes you throw what the computer suggests right out the window.  I might see a hitter respond sluggishly to a fastball.  Then I know he's probably looking for an off-speed pitch, regardless of what the computer might say.

"You have to blend the scientific with the intuitive," Marshall said.  "The computer is only as smart as the person programming it.  It's very stupid and belligerent actually.  You have to tell it exactly what to do."

Marshall, who was out of baseball for more than a year after back surgery to repair a damaged disc, returned as a free agent with the Twins in June last year and ended up with 20 saves before the season was over.  He enetered the free agent bidding last winter and ended up signing a multi-year deal with the Twins calling for a total of nearly $1 million--and all that was without the aid of a computer.

He spent the winter analyzing the data he received from the computer and even though he could, he won't be talking to the computer again until next winter.

"You could update and add information to the computer during the season, but I won't go that far," he said.  "I will continue to carry my book, though.  Maybe at some time in the future I could go to that extent, but it's not necessary at this point."

Marshall does see a day when computers will be as common to baseball as backstops.

"The next logical step is for the hitters to chart themselves," he said.  "And it's not just enough to chart your own pitchers.  How long do you think it would take to find the tendencies of every pitcher in the league?  Not very long.

"Don't you think football teams know the tendencies of every team in their league?  They use the computer.  I don't know why baseball hasn't done it yet."

Marshall is more than willing to share his information.

"I've been on teams where guys sought advice and I've been on teams where the guys have been resentful I have the ability to give advice.  It's not that way in Minnesota, though.  In fact, sometimes I feel like that television commercial for the stock broker, E.F. Hutton.  When I start to answer a question, everything gets quiet.

"I think my teammates approach it like they don't want to bother me but, if I do answer a question, they listen and pick up what they can."

One person interested in Marshall's computer information was White Sox president Bill Veeck, who visited Marshall in East Lansing in the offseason, in an unsuccessful attempt to sign him.  Would Marshall help Veeck bring a computer to the Sox?

"Someday, maybe, if he'd like to give me a job," Marshall said with a smile.  "But I've got some ball playing to do first."

Happy Pitching Everybody

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