- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2015

At the center of every pitching mound is a white slab of rubber, 24 inches long and six inches wide. And all his life, at every level of the sport, Blake Treinen had approached it the same way.

Each time he took the mound, Treinen would stand on the first-base side of the rubber, aligning his right heel with the edge as he delivered a pitch. There was comfort there, and routine. Then midway through last season, when Treinen was at Triple-A Syracuse, a recommendation was made. Try throwing from the third-base side of the rubber, he was told. So he did.

“I’m a big believer in trying something, and if it doesn’t work, you go back to what you were doing,” the Washington Nationals reliever said. “But this has worked. It hasn’t made me worse, so we’re going with it.”

The act of pitching is wrought with nuance, from the mechanics of the delivery to the grip of the ball. Any tweaks in a pitcher’s method, however minor, can have noticeable effects. Where he stands on the rubber is no exception.

In most cases, right-handers prefer to stand on the third-base side of the rubber and left-handers choose the first-base side. But the decision — and rationale behind it — is different for everyone. For some, standing on the rubber is a matter of comfort, a routine developed in high school and never disrupted. For others, change is necessary to maximize the effectiveness of a certain pitch, or add another level of trickery to a delivery.

“I think it has a legitimate angle of deception, and that’s my biggest benefit: deception,” right-handed starter Doug Fister said. “Whether it’s my height, where I stand on the rubber, the sinker I throw, whatever it may be. Trying to deceive a hitter is what I’m trying to do, keep him off-balance. So, if moving over a little bit can help just a fraction of an inch, then hey, I’m going to try to take as much benefit out of it as I can.”

Fister was placed on the disabled list on Friday with a strained flexor muscle. Speaking in the Nationals‘ clubhouse a week earlier, he said he has moved all over the rubber during his professional career but now positions himself on the third-base side.

Coaches have questioned the approach at times, believing that he could better locate his fastball down-and-away to right-handed hitters from a different spot. Fister said that particular adjustment did more harm than good. Like many right-handers, he stands on the third-base side because it provides a sharper angle to the plate.

“If I’m on the first-base side, that creates more of a straight line to the plate, giving the hitter more time to see a ball,” Fister said.

Max Scherzer, another right-handed starter, has taken this idea to the extreme. With each passing year, he said he inches closer to third base. He has reached a point where his toes now hang off the edge of the rubber altogether.

“I have a low arm slot, so it’s way out from the side of my head. It feels like the farther I get out there, the more angle I’m able to create,” Scherzer said. “When you throw a slider, it has more bite coming that way, the farther you’re out. And I think it helps create a little bit more movement on my fastball, having to kind of spin it so it creates movement. I think it just helps all the action on my pitches, being that far out there.”

Many pitchers seek to create this angle, but that approach is not for everyone. Left-hander Matt Grace, for example, stands on the third-base side to increase the effectiveness of his sinker. Where other pitchers want to induce swings-and-misses with a deceptive delivery, he wants to induce weak contact. He said the change was suggested in the minors by either pitching coordinator Paul Menhart or Double-A Harrisburg pitching coach Chris Michalak.

“I think I get more swings out of it, because out of the hand I think people think it’s going to more in the zone longer,” Grace said. “If I were to be on the other side, it would be a different angle, so you’d probably get more looks than swings. And I kind of want swings.”

This is why there’s no short answer to questions about where pitchers stand on the rubber, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty explained. It’s not simply dependent upon whether a pitcher is left- or right-handed, but rather a variety of factors all mixed together.

“A lot of it has to do with personal style of pitching,” McCatty said. “What kind of guy you are, what kind of off-speed pitches you throw, if you’re able to be a right-hander or a left-hander and get the ball to the glove side. … There’s a lot of different reasons why, and a lot of different reasons to move. It’s whatever you feel comfortable with.”

Grace and Treinen are just two pitchers in the Nationals organization who have moved along the rubber, a change that McCatty believes can be helpful but is not “a career-changer.” In his nine major-league seasons pitching for the Oakland Athletics, he said he tried moving all over the rubber with little effect. Sometimes, he would have to move simply because another pitcher had been throwing from the same spot, tearing up that part of the mound.

“It depends on who it is, and the kind of stuff they have,” McCatty said. “Can it have a major impact where you say, ‘Oh my God, we landed on the Moon?’ Some guys it does. But most of the time, it’s not a big deal.”

Fister, Grace and Scherzer all believe that their positioning on the rubber makes a legitimate impact. Treinen isn’t quite sure. He said he’s noticed some later swings from right-handers in specific counts since moving to the third-base side of the rubber, but he can’t say for certain whether the two are linked.

In the end, standing on the rubber is as much about comfort as tangible effects. If a pitcher believes it helps, he will have confidence pitching from a certain spot. And with that confidence, he might have more success.

“It’s not a big deal,” McCatty concluded. “It’s just whether you want to make it a big deal or not.”

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