The Art and Science of Pitching a Wiffle Ball
By: Nick Schaefer
It is often stated that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Even one of the game’s greatest hitters, Ted Williams, spoke about the incredible challenge of hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely.
In baseball, it is estimated that a 95 mile per hour fastball gives the hitter less than half a second to decide if they want to swing or not. Not much time at all! You can make the case it is even more challenging to hit a Wiffle Ball (48 feet from the rubber to the strike zone target as compared to 60 feet 6 inches from the rubber to home plate).
Think about it. A baseball, weighing between 5 and 5 1⁄4 ounces can only move so much. Gravity controls it. However, a Wiffle Ball, weighing a measly .6 ounces and containing eight .75-inch holes, takes it to another level. A Wiffle Ball can move at different speeds and contain an incredible amount of movement - up and down, side-to-side, and sometimes both at the same time!
Hitting the game’s top pitchers can be very challenging. Today, The DROP goes inside the minds of some of the best hurlers in MAW to find out what makes them so, well, unhittable.
This fearsome foursome, Jordan Robles (ERL), Chris Sarnowski (Juggernauts), Connor Young (ERL), and Ray Lutick (Lemon Heads) drop knowledge on how and why they drop Wiffle Balls.
Pitching a baseball is generally broken down into three categories: fastball, breaking ball, and changeup. But there are different variations in those areas as well. For example, one can change the grip, pressure and arm angle of a fastball to alter it into a cutter, four-seam fastball, sinker, split-finger fastball, or two-seam fastball.
Wiffle Ball is similar but even more profound in what a pitcher can do with the ball. The box that Wiffle Balls come in can be deceiving. It has picture and description of two pitches: the curve and slider. Well, there is a heck of a lot more pitches available to Wiffle Ball pitchers than a curve and slider.
With different grips and arm angles, pitchers can utilize an almost countless array of pitches. Whether it is a curve, slider, screwball, changeup, drop, or riser, Wiffs pitchers can manipulate the speed and movement to create a different effect then the original pitch.
Despite already having many options to keep batters off balance, this quartet of elite pitchers are always looking to expand their abilities. You thought they were a challenge to hit before, wait until they get even better.
“I’m going to develop two more pitches before the season,” said Ray Lutick of the Lemonheads, who in 2018 focused mainly on the drop screw, straight drop, riser and screwball. “I already developed a drop curve over the offseason and am working on something else. I will also be throwing a lot harder this summer.”
We are all looking forward to that “something else”, well… everyone except the hitters.
Chris Sarno is looking to add some different looks to his flame-throwing arsenal that features a screwball, drop, riser and slider.
“I need to figure out the drop curve,” said Sarno. “Adding this pitch can bring a whole new element into my pitch selection and give me that much more variety.”
Deciding on what to pitch is based on several factors including the type of hitter you are facing, the weather, and how many innings you have already logged versus what you expect to pitch.
“It depends on the day and what pitches are working,” said Connor Young, who estimated he can throw 10 or more different pitches.
Weather does play a role. Lutick says it is especially difficult in getting a feel for pitches if it is wet, which he had to deal with rain throughout the 2018 Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament.
“I don’t seem to really find an issue with the weather,” added Sarno. “The other pitcher has to deal with it as well so it is an even playing field.”
The biggest factor in pitch selection might be the type of batter (slap versus power hitter). Both Robles and Lutick try to get the hitters to expand the zone, but with a slightly different approach.
“I try to get slap hitters to chase because they can be anxious to put the ball in play and possibly run into one,” Robles said. “For power hitters I try to locate better and keep them off balance and maybe save a pitch you haven’t used against them yet.”
Lutick added: “I’m always watching what the hitter is doing at the plate. I try to get power hitters to chase a lot and try to get slap hitters out on the inside. It is hard for a slap hitter to go opposite field on an inside pitch.”
But as Connor says, you also have to factor in how often the batter has seen you.
“The more you see a guy the better they see you and can hit you. I know what has worked and not worked against them and decide whether to continue doing what I have done or do something different.”
Sarno’s approach is different than the other three, in that it doesn’t change all that much.
“It honestly does not matter to me at all,” he confidently stated. “I usually throw as hard as I can and they either hit it or don’t. The only thing I will do for a power hitter is just try to be a little more aware of my pitch selection but other than that I like to carry the same approach to every batter.”
Throwing a near weightless, plastic ball with holes, outdoors is no easy task.
“Figure out the ball, understand the ball,” said Young. “While nobody should be limiting themselves in the amount and types of pitches they throw, it is important to have a smaller amount of pitches you can rely on when you need to throw an important strike.”
While the MAW format of only needing 2 strikes helps with creating more action and preventing pitching injuries, having plus control is important to being a successful pitcher.
“Control is everything,” said Lutick. “Hitters are more likely to take pitches from pitchers that are throwing at a high velocity. Knowing how your ball moves is important.”
Warming up is critical to in-game success according to Jordan.
“I like to see the ball hit the strike zone during warm ups,” said Robles, who estimated he likes to throw at least 10 strikes before beginning the game. “Warm ups are big. You can see what pitches are working and how the wind is.”
Sarno sometimes experienced control issues in 2018 but that also helped him keep batters off balance at times.
“I consider myself to be an effectively wild pitcher,” Sarno said. “I also find that having too much control can be an issue as well because if you just keep pounding strikes guys will begin to swing just knowing they will be getting a hittable pitch. A perfect scenario for me is having solid command and being able to throw my chase pitches when needed.”
A major league pitcher has a few legal options to break-in a baseball, including using a rosin bag and good old-fashioned rubbing the ball in one’s hands. Some pitchers try to get ahead with illegal substances such as pine tar, Vaseline, and sandpaper. If a professional baseball pitcher gets caught, he is likely to be suspended and fined.
However, in Wiffle Ball, it is encouraged to break-in or even drastically disfigure the ball. This includes scraping the ball on the ground, cutting the ball up with a knife, and using sandpaper. The goal is to make the ball less slick and easier to control.
Wiffle Ball pitchers have become a cross between an artist and a butcher when it comes to preparing balls for games.
Young might be even more feared with a knife than he is with a bat. Both Robles and Sarno use balls that Connor prepares. Like a professional sculptor, Young carefully makes precise cuts on the ball to get it game ready.
The process doesn’t take long since he has been doing it since his mid-teens. By holding the blade like a pencil and carefully cutting the ball into different grids, lines, and diagonals, Young is almost like the Leonardo da Vinci of Wiffle Ball. He works on his craft so much that his fingers often ache because of the pressure he puts on the ball while cutting.
Sarno will grab three to four of Connor’s prepared Wiffle Balls and see which one’s work.
“Whichever ones hits the zone the most and has nice movement is the one I will go with that day,” Sarno said. “After I use it I will keep it for the rest of the tournament and then when the tourney is done and if that ball did not break it goes back into the bag to be an option again in the future.”
Sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures. Robles sometimes has Anthony Didio, who lives more than 1,500 miles away in Colorado, prepare his Wiffle Balls. Instead of using a steak knife to slice up with New York Strip Steak, Didio uses it to cut up the Wiffle Ball for Jordan.
Maybe Lutick can apprentice under one of the skilled butchers, because as Young said, knifing has changed the game.
“It was my first full year in the sport and I’ve only played one other tourney before this summer,” Lutick said. “So I’m trying to learn the art of the scuff and breaking in wiffle balls.”
While these four are some of the nation’s best pitchers, they all seek one thing: constantly continuing to improve themselves.
“I want to get to a point where I am no longer wild and I can throw all my pitches over for a strike at all times,” Sarno said. “I would like to improve my stamina and be able to throw 15+ innings with no problem.”
Throwing a perfect game, no hitter or shutout are wonderful, but winning is the ultimate goal for these hurlers.
“I want to win championships,” said Robles. “I don’t care if I am the pitcher and we win 15-14. I don’t care about my ERA. I only want the W.”
“I want to win and will do whatever it takes to do that,” added Lutick, who has been going through baseball like workouts to improve his craft.
Young is extremely hard on himself when he is on the mound.
“I want to win every single game I throw,” said Connor. “If I don’t, I feel like I let the team down. I want to get better and am always working on figuring something else out.”
While MAW does allow for up to two DHs, pitchers still have to bat.
However, unlike a major league pitchers’ hitting performance (in the first 1,900 plate appearances in 2018 pitchers produced a combined slash line of .115/.146/.150, according to The Ringer), pitching may have a positive impact on their hitting performance, according to Young.
“I think I tend to relax more at the plate when I am pitching in the game. I don’t stress out as much. I know my main job is to shut the other team out and hitting is a bonus.”
Robles added that being a pitcher gives you some additional benefits when at the plate.
“I understand the pitcher and what they are trying to do. I get a feel for their tendencies and pickup what pitch they might throw.”
Besides being top of the rotation and highly competitive pitchers, these guys are always willing to lend a hand to new pitchers. Working on your craft was a common theme between the four pitchers.
“Pitching is an art, it’s not something that’s learned in one day,” said Lutick, who will begin his sophomore campaign in 2019.
“Practice and repetitions,” said Young. “There are no short cuts.”
Both Robles and Sarno harped on the importance of mastering one pitch at a time.
“Establish one pitch first,” said Robles. “Then build off of that.”
“I feel too many guys want to throw the whole kitchen sink and it just isn’t like that in wiffs,” added Sarno. “It takes a lot of time and practice to figure out.”
But once you figure it out you will fall in love with the game.
With MAW and other regional Wiffle Ball leagues and tournaments, the sport is on the rise, according to Young.
Sarno: “Wiffs is an incredible game. I miss baseball but being able to play wiffs fills my competitive void that would be missing if I didn’t have this platform to play on. I love telling people I play professional Wiffle Ball and the looks I get are hysterical.”
No matter your background or ability all are welcomed to join in the wiffleball fun.
“Give the game of wiffle a shot,” said Robles. “The wiffle community is open and very friendly. You will have a great time and meet some great people.”
Young: “Once you play you will become obsessed with it.”
So is hitting a baseball still the hardest thing to do in all of sports?
“Don’t get me wrong, hitting a baseball is not easy, it is tough,” said Young. “But it took me around 10 years to become a good Wiffle Ball hitter.”
A few years down the road, history may need to be revised to put the feat of hitting a Wiffle Ball on the level of a baseball. Robles wouldn’t necessarily argue that point.
“Hitting a Wiffle Ball is one of the most difficult things I have ever done.”