Last week the softball world lost one of its greats – pitching coach Ernie Parker. While he hasn’t been tremendously visible the last few years – which means younger readers may not recognize the name – he was extremely influential in the careers of a lot of pitchers and coaches. Including this one.
Back in the pre-Internet days it was difficult to find quality information on anything softball-related. Which is likely one of the reasons there was such a disparity between teams in Southern California and everywhere else in the country. Ernie’s video series was one of the first to explain the techniques for “California-style” pitching, i.e., explosive speed with dynamic ball movement.
Most of us non-Californians, especially those of us in the Midwest, hadn’t seen anything like it and had no idea how it was done. But through his videos (at that time on VHS) Ernie gave the rest of us some valuable clues on what the techniques should look like and ideas on how to teach them.
Not to say he necessarily got everything right. In those early videos he talked about the importance of “slamming the door,” or bringing the hips around, to finish the pitch. I spoke to him by phone a couple of years ago about that and he said he had long since changed his stance on that, like any good pitching coach would. He also focused a lot on developing the purposeful wrist snap. That aside, though, there was enough great information to help those of us who knew nothing begin to learn.
For me, Ernie was particularly influential in learning to teach the backhand changeup and the curve. His video was the first place I saw a well-disguised changeup, and I still use several of the tips he provided. For the curve, his video was where I learned to use a Frisbee to get a pitcher started. Again, that is something I still do today.
Despite his stature and accomplishments, Ernie always had time for anyone who contacted him, and he would always give you a straight answer. I remember emailing him years ago, lamenting about the lack of effort from a couple of students with good potential and commenting on how nice it must be to be Ernie Parker and have all your students work hard. He responded that he wished it were true, but he had the same issues as everyone else. Some students worked hard and did well, others put in little effort – I supposed counting on his name to make them great.
I have to admit it made me feel a little better about my own efforts, and helped me to understand there’s only so much a coach can do. The player has to want it.
Ernie had a passion for the game, and for helping players become the best versions of themselves they could be. He will be missed by those of us who knew him and/or learned from him. Thanks and farewell, Ernie.
Last night I was working with an 11U beginning pitcher named Alex. She’s a great kid, always smiling, always giving 100 percent. You can see a real love of the game in her, and a love of the opportunity her parents are giving her to learn how to pitch.
Being young, though, she has been struggling a bit to find the consistency that leads to control. Kids develop fine motor skills at different times, and it seems that Alex hasn’t quite gotten there yet. As a result, she was throwing balls all over the place.
Now, I am a believer that control is a result, not a goal. If you do the right things mechanically the ball will go where it’s supposed to go. But sometimes pitchers need a little help to push them toward that consistency.
You don’t want them to aim the ball, or do whatever it takes to get it to the catcher. That often leads to poor mechanics and slow pitches, which defeats the purpose of learning to pitch. But you do want them to start honing in on where they need to be. That’s when I got an idea.
I happened to have a Jugs Quick Snap pitching screen set up for hitting lessons that were happening after Alex’s pitching lesson. It’s the type with the hole in it. I use it so I can put the screen close to the hitter without giving my wife the opportunity to cash in the insurance policy she has on me – especially when I’m working with older hitters. That hole seemed like the perfect way to help Alex start working her way toward control.
So, I dragged it over and set it up a couple of feet in front of her and had her pitch through the hole. It’s large enough that it provides some leeway for the pitcher, yet small enough to make it something they have to work at. She struggled with it at first, but after a few minutes was able to get the ball through the hole (and toward her dad, who was catching) pretty regularly.
We then moved the screen to a distance of about 10 feet in front of her. She struggled again, but even when she didn’t get the ball through the hole she was getting a lot closer to that area than she had been.
What I liked about using the screen over having her pitch at close distance to the backstop (which we have also done) is it gave her context. It was regular pitching, but with a goal right in front of her.
As I write this it occurs to me we could even make a game of it – scoring points for getting the ball through the hold (with a full, 100 percent motion) and earning prizes depending on the score. Or maybe a prize for each time through, just to keep it fun. Hmmm, I’ll have to keep that in mind if we do it again.
I realize everyone doesn’t happen to have a Jugs protective screen handy. But if you do have access to one (or a similar screen) and are working with a pitcher who doesn’t quite seem to be able to lock in her mechanics, give it a try. Just be sure to let us know how it works for you.
As for Alex, it seemed to help. She’s still not quite there yet – it’s not a miracle cure by any means – but I have a feeling her brain will process it and she’ll be in a lot better shape the next time I see her.
Following is a guest post by Nathan Friedkin, founder of Maximum Performance Yoga. It presents some ideas for using yoga to help build the strength and flexibility required to play at your peak level. Keep in mind these exercises are best used during off-times or after a game. For pre-game warm-ups you’ll want to stick with dynamic warm-ups.
Softball involves quite a bit of twisting, during which the lower body stays grounded and still while the upper body rotates. Twists are involved in batting, throwing, and even trying to steal a base. A stable foundation in the lower body (strong glutes and thighs) and flexibility in the spine are the keys to executing a safe and healthy twist, which are not only important in a strong performance
but in preventing back injury. Yoga postures such as Revolved Crescent Lunge promote leg strength through isometric muscle contraction and spinal flexibility through a sustained twist.
Yoga is also helpful in maintaining both strength and flexibility in the shoulder girdle, which are incredibly important in pitching. A good pitch requires not only a great deal of power, but an extensive range of motion in the shoulder joint. By stretching the shoulders in postures such as a wide legged forward fold with interlacing the hands behind the back, and strengthening them in postures such as Chaturanga Dandasana (essentially a narrow-arm push-up), yoga may be helpful in improving pitching
performance and reducing incidence of injury.
Here are some key postures for preventing injuries for softball players:
- Four legged staff pose (chaturanga)
- Standing Bow Pulling Pose
- Chair Pose
- Half Lord of the Fishes
- Standing Head-to-Knee Pose
- Seated Head-to-Knee Pose
- Revolved triangle
- Balancing stick
- Supine hand to foot
- Revolved side angle
- Prayer twist
- Wide legged standing forward fold with bound arms
- Cow face pose
- Half pigeon
- Eye of the needle
- Side plank
Nathan Friedkin is an entrepreneur, yogi, video producer, and proud father of two sons. He is also the founder of Maximum Performance Yoga® MPY crushes convention, smashes stigma and brings the benefits of power yoga training to student athletes.
Join the evolution! http://www.MaxPerformanceYoga.com, FB.com/MaxPerformanceYoga, Twitter.com/MaxPerformanceYoga
As you may have noticed, Life in the Fastpitch Lane has a new look in the header. Three of them, actually.
The new headers come courtesy of one of my former players – Tina Kliver. I’d seen some of her softball “still lifes” before, so when it came time for a new header I asked her if she could make some up for me. What you see here is the result.
Hope you like it. Thanks to Tina for all her hard work.
One of the staples of fastpitch softball tournaments is the international tie breaker, or ITB. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a way of trying to get to a winner faster in a tie game. After seven innings, or the time limit expires if you’re playing with one of those, each team starts the inning with a runner on second base. The runner on second is the last out from the previous inning. Each team gets three outs to try to score as many runs as they can in their half-inning. If one score more than the other, they win. It’s sort of like the soccer shoot-out for those of you watching the World Cup, or a shoot-out in hockey. While I said “as many runs as you can,” in most instances you’re trying to get one run. Most games that go to the ITB are not double-digit slugfests. They’re usually low-scoring affairs, which is why you start with a runner on second. Softball strategy 101 says the team at bat should sacrifice bunt the runner to third, and then take two outs to try to bring her home. That’s what most teams do. But I have a strategy that, if you have the right pieces in place, can help you get that runner at least to third with no outs. It depends on two things. The first is a runner with decent speed – enough to make it a challenge for the shortstop to cover on a steal. The second is a hitter with the ability to slug bunt, i.e., show bunt then pull back and slap the ball hard on the ground. Here’s how you take advantage of them. If you can get the hitter to a favorable count such as 2-0 where the pitcher really needs to throw a strike, have your runner on second steal third, and your hitter execute a slug bunt. When you do this, you’re starting out by giving the defensive team what they expect – a bunt. Third base will likely be playing up for the bunt, which means the shortstop must cover third on a steal. When your runner takes off, the shortstop will likely start moving to cover third on the throw from the catcher. You may also get the second baseman moving to cover first if the first baseman is also playing close. That opens up some space. After showing bunt and pulling back, the hitter attempts to slap the ball on the ground, either to where the shortstop or second baseman normally plays. There are several possible good outcomes. One is if the shortstop or second baseman did start moving to their respective corners and the hitter gets the ball on the ground, it will roll through the area they vacated, perhaps to the outfield grass. Since your runner was already stealing, she may be far enough along to keep going and score. And you have a runner on first with no outs. What about if the hitter swings and misses? No problem. Perhaps the act of pulling back gets the shortstop to freeze long enough to allow your runner to get to third unchallenged. Even if she keeps going it’s still a tough play at third. A poor throw or a miss and your runner is either safe at third or headed home. Again, you also have a runner at first with no outs. And that runner will likely be standing on second after the next pitch, because the defense can’t afford to let the runner on third score. If the hitter goes for the slug and hits it directly to a fielder, the runner on second is still likely to get to third cleanly, although the batter may be out depending on her speed. In that case you’re no worse off than if you’d sacrifice bunted. Any of those outcomes will make you look like an offensive genius. About the only thing that can go wrong is if your hitter pops up instead of putting the ball on the ground. In that case the batter is out and the runner who was on second will probably get doubled off. Then everyone thinks you’re an idiot. Still, the odds are in your favor. With the summer tournament season heating up, you’re likely to face an ITB sooner or later. Keep this strategy in mind and you just may improve your odds of winning. Now it’s your turn? What other non-standard strategies do you employ on the ITB?
Back to focusing on softball with something that’s been on my mind for a little while. It never ceases to amaze me how obsessed coaches often are with whether their pitchers hit their spots. Especially at the younger ages.
It’s almost like that’s the only thing they know about pitching. Anytime a pitcher gives up a hit (or even comes close to it) some coach is likely to yell “you need to hit your spots.”
There are a couple of flaws in that thinking. The first is that the value of hitting a particular spot when it’s called is directly proportional to how good the person calling the pitches is at setting up hitters.
I’ve known of coaches who basically call low and outside fastballs 90% of the time. I’ve heard about coaches that call screwball after screwball because, well, they saw screwballs work on TV. I’ve seen coaches refuse to call the changeup because they prefer that their pitchers throw heat.
The problem with that is predictability. If you’re throwing to the same location all the time it probably won’t take long for hitters to figure it out and adjust. Speed kills, but as we saw in the last WCWS, even a 70 mph pitch isn’t enough alone to overcome good hitters. So sure as shootin’ a 45 or 55 mph pitch won’t be. You need a mix of speeds and locations.
There’s also an art to setting up a hitter. It takes time and effort to learn how to do it. For example, when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, a good follow-up pitch is a changeup. Of course, if you do it every time you become predictable.
When you get ahead in the count 0-2, you don’t want to throw a strike – you want to throw a ball that looks like a strike. Maybe a curve, maybe a high fastball or rise. But again, you need to mix it up to keep hitters from settling in.
An inexperienced coach often doesn’t know that. So they’ll call that favorite pitch even when it isn’t appropriate. The pitcher would actually be doing the coach a favor by missing the spot, truthfully. I’ve seen more than one coach saved by a pitcher who didn’t throw what was called.
The other reason hitting spots is often overrated is that it isn’t the best measure of a pitcher. Coaches like it because it can be quantified. They also like it because they can use it as justification for elevating one pitcher over another – i.e., pitcher A hits her spots and pitcher B doesn’t, so A must be better than B.
But the truth is the single best measure of a pitcher is whether she can get hitters out. She may not put the ball exactly where the coach called it, but if she’s getting hitters out what difference does it make? Hitting spots alone doesn’t get hitters out. You get no credit for that from the umpire, just as having a perfect swing doesn’t entitle you to get on base. I’ll take a sloppy pitcher who can get hitters out over a precise one who can’t any day of the week.
That’s not to say pitchers shouldn’t work on hitting their spots – they should. If for not other reason than they may play for a coach who actually does know how to call a game – or better yet how to teach a catcher to call one. If they can put the ball right where they want it they can really take command.
But coaches, don’t let it become your determining factor. See the whole picture and give some space to the pitchers who can get people out.
One more little housekeeping detail. Because of the move to WordPress, I believe you will need to resubscribe to receive notifications of posts in your email. You can do that by going to the sidebar on the right and clicking on Follow Blog by Email. Those of you who were subscribers I will appreciate you doing it again. Those who were not, but would like to be, can do it easily. And now you’ll receive immediately notice when there’s something new posted. I promise I will never sell your email address or use it for any nefarious purpose.
Thanks for hanging in there! Next post will be softball-related. I promise!
Surprised? So was I when I found out my former blog supplier (GoDaddy) was shutting down their blog product. I’m sure they supplied plenty of notice but they send so much spam I usually ignore the emails. Luckily I saw it today, the last day to do something about it.
So here we are, now on WordPress. Which is probably for the better because it’s the king of this sort of thing.
While the location has changed, I can promise you’ll still get the same quality fastpitch softball thoughts, musings and ideas. For better or for worse. :-)
So welcome! I look forward to continuing to serve you.
All of the players, and probably most of the parents by now, are too young to remember when radio dials were analog. Getting your favorite station tuned in was an art. You’d move the dial quickly to get it close, then move it very slowly until it sounded just right. Better radios also had a “fine tuning” knob that let you make smaller adjustments.
Where it really compares to softball is that once you had the station tuned in perfectly, there was no guarantee it would stay tuned in. The analog signal could “drift” a bit, at which point you’d have to re-tune it in. As compared to today’s digital radios where you set the correct numbers and they radio does all the work to lock it in and keep it locked in.
That’s why I say softball skills are analog. It would be nice if they were digital – you tune them in and they stay with you automatically. But the reality is your technique can slip just a bit, especially during the long season when there may not be time to practice and hone things as much as you’d like. You get off a bit, you start to worry and guess at corrections, and before you know it you’re further off than before. Soon it’s nothing but static.
That’s where a little in-season correction can help. Whether you do it yourself or go to see your coach for that particular skill, taking a little time to re-tune the skills can make a huge difference.
The value of using a private coach is he/she can take a look from the outside and compare what you’re doing to what you ought to be doing. It’s a little faster and easier than trying to diagnose it yourself. But the key is that comparison.
If you’re trying to do it on your own, don’t think about what you’re doing. Think about what you should be doing, and try to get back to that. Find the sweet spot on the “dial” and tune your skills to that. Before you know it you’ll be back on track.
Again, it would be nice if softball skills were digital. But they’re not. Everyone needs a little fine tuning now and then. Understand that they’re analog and make adjustments accordingly. You’ll have a much happier season.
Tonight I was watching a high school softball playoff game. It was a great game – a real seesaw battle where the lead changed several times. Each time you thought one team was down something would happen and momentum would change.
While it was entertaining, it also brought up a situation worth discussing – whether or not to pitch to the other team’s big hitter.
As I recall, it came up three times during the game. The team in the field held a one- or two-run lead, while the offensive team had runners on second or second and third (depending on the inning) when their best hitter came to the plate. This is a girl who is a total gamer and can really put the bat on the ball.
I was standing with a few of the other spectators, and we all agreed the smart thing to do with first base open and less than two outs is walk this girl and pitch to the next one. Time after time, though, the coach decided to pitch to her. Each time the hitter went 0-2, then knocked a hit that score a run or two. The offensive team went on to win by three runs – which was fewer than the total number of RBIs that hitter had.
I can understand maybe taking a chance and pitching to her early in the game – match strength for strength. (Although in reality the defensive team wasn’t throwing their #1 pitcher, who I think was injured.) But after getting burned once, it seems that discretion is the better part of valor.
In my mind, if you’re going to lose, make someone else beat you. Not the other team’s best hitter, especially in a playoff game. If the bag is open, put that big hitter on and take your chances with the next one. It doesn’t always work out, but your odds are better. If you’re really worried, maybe even walk her with bases loaded. Better to give up one run than two or three – or four.
What do you think? Would you go intentional walk? Or would you gut it out and pitch to that hitter?