Congratulations to Kirsten Stevens on her record-setting win

Saw this little news item as I was checking some scores tonight and couldn’t let it go by without a special shout-out. Congratulations to Kirsten Stevens on not only opening the SoCon tourney with a 9-0 shutout, but also for setting the Mercer University all-time record for wins in a season at 24. My guess is 24 isn’t going to hold up any longer than it takes Mercer's Kirsten Stevens as a youth pitcherKirsten to pitch her next game.

I’m excited about this because Kirsten was a former student of mine. I’m pretty sure she was in 8th grade when I first started working with her. She came to me through the recommendation of her coach Rick Cartright (I was also teaching his daughter Stephanie at the time).

I had a feeling she’d do well from the first time I saw her. Her technique was raw, but you didn’t have to be an expert to see there was thunder in her left arm. I remember catching for her a couple of times and she was definitely the poster child for throwing a “heavy” ball – the kind of pitch that when it hits the glove you feel it.

More important, though, Kirsten is a quality human being – kind, humble and funny. We always had a good time in our lessons. But of course she also worked hard in and out of them. I’m sure that has carried on to make her the outstanding pitcher she is today.

So congrats Kirsten and keep up the good work! Maybe we’ll finally have that lunch this summer when you get back. Oh, and sorry about the photo – it was the only one I had!

Update 5/7/15: I was right about that record. She added another shutout today. The record is now 25!

Beware of an over-reliance on gimmicks

You see them everywhere – in magazines, on websites, in YouTube videos and everywhere else fastpitch softball folks look for information. “They” are all the devices that promise to make your players better.

I call them “gimmicks” because often times that’s how they’re presented. The impression you’re given is that for $29.95 (plus shipping & handling), or $79.95 or $249.95 you can buy better performance. Gang, I can tell you that it just ain’t so.

I’m not saying these devices can’t help. Many of them can be useful in the right hands. But in order for yours to be the right hands, you first need to understand how a particular skill needs to be performed, and to a reasonably deep level.

A favorite example of mine comes from tryouts a few years ago. Three other coaches and I were observing pitching tryouts for a 16U team. One of the other coaches had a device that measures the spin rate of the ball and was using it to measure the revolutions per second of a pitcher’s curve ball.

“Ooooh” one of them exclaimed as a pitcher threw a pitch. “21.” “22.” And so on. They were all so focused on the device and what it supposedly told them that not a single one of them was watching the actual pitch.  If they had, they would’ve noticed that the “curve ball” was spinning pretty close to 12 to 6 (fastball or drop ball spin) and wasn’t moving at all. Even down.

By the standards of the device, this pitcher was throwing an awesome curve. But in the real world, she wasn’t even throwing a decent one. And last time I checked, hitters hit pitches thrown in the real world.

As an instructor I see this all the time. Some coaches have an entire bag full of gimmicks, and they just move from one to the next. Especially hitting coaches for some reason. Some I’ve seen just love to bring out the devices.

But if you don’t understand what you’re trying to achieve, the effectiveness of the device is pretty much wasted at worst, or randomly effective at best. It’s like plopping down $300 for the world’s best hammer when what you really need is a $3 screwdriver.

If you really want to help your players/daughter(s) improve you don’t need a duffel bag full of stuff. At least not right away. Instead, first take the time to learn how those skills should be performed. Study college games on TV. Look for video on the Internet. Invest in DVDs and books. Attend training seminars/coaches clinics where an accomplished coach with a history of success breaks down the skill in detail. Go to http://www.discussfastpitch.com and read the discussions there. In other words, first seek out information.

Once you have a feel for what the skill should look like, and how it should be executed, you’ll be in a better position to decide which devices can really help you teach those skills and make improvements in your players and which ones will end up sitting on a shelf on in a duffel bag in your garage collecting dust.

What makes me say that? I have my own collection of devices that I bought when I started coaching, hoping to find the magic one. Some were worthwhile, many were not. The more I learned, the better I was able to see which ones might be helpful and which ones would be relegated to the Island of Misfit Softball Toys.

That goes for choosing a coach too, whether it’s a private instructor or a team coach. Someone who’s pulling out gimmick after gimmick instead of having your daughter work on actual pitching, hitting, fielding, throwing or whatever skill it is she’s trying to learn may not be your best choice. Devices are no substitute for knowledge.

Ultimately the value of a device goes up in direct proportion to your understanding what you’re trying to accomplish with it. Become competent at that first and you’ll make better decisions on how to spend the rest of your cash.

A lesson for softball pitchers everywhere

Today after teaching some lessons I came home and settled in front of the TV to watch a couple of college games. First was Arizona and Oregon State, followed by UCLA and Oregon. (Gotta love the PAC12 network.)

Anytime I have a chance to watch college teams on TV is a good day. But this day was particularly interesting, and not just for the games themselves. It had to do with the number of pitchers I had a chance to watch.

You see, when I first got involved in softball, the standard was pretty much each team had an Ace, and they road that arm for better or for worse. I’m sure top teams had other pitchers, but you rarely saw them or even heard their names mentioned.

Today, however, there was an opportunity to see several pitchers. In the first game Arizona ended up winning 22-2. Oregon State went to the bullpen a couple of times trying to put a stop to the pain. Then in the second game, both UCLA and Oregon used three different pitchers (and UCLA brought back their starter) in a game Oregon finally won 6-4.

Entertaining as it was, it also provided a good lesson to young pitchers (and their parents): everyone has a tough day now and then.

It’s easy to forget that sometimes. A young pitcher walks a couple of hitters, or gives up a few hits, and it’s easy for her to get discouraged. Or for her parents to get upset with her. (You hear parents yelling “c’mon!” at youth games all the time.) I’ve seen pitchers reduced to tears as a result of a tough outing.

Then you watch today’s games. Plenty of walks (including runs walked in), a couple of hit by pitches, and some pretty big hits. Arizona alone hit two grand slams, and hit for the home run cycle – solo, 2-run and 3-run on top of the grand slams. The second game had plenty of struggles on both sides as well.

I’m pretty sure every pitcher who took the circle is getting all or at least much of her college education at major institutions paid for. Theoretically they’re among the best in the country. Yet there they were – walking hitters, hitting batters, serving up meatballs.

And there’s the lesson. It happens to everyone. While you never want to be in that position, sooner or later you probably will. You just need to pick yourself up and remember it’s not the end of the world. Instead, go back out the next time and do better.

And if you’re a parent, try not to live and die by every pitch. You could end up dying a thousand times. Instead, remember your daughter is still learning, and will have bad days now and then. Keep today’s pitchers in mind and give your daughter a break. As long as she keeps working she’ll be okay. The faster you can help her put it behind her, the better off she’ll be.

Best wishes to Bobby Simpson on a speedy recovery

Just wanted to take a moment to wish a speedy recovery to Bobby Simpson following successful open heart bypass surgery. Word has it that he came through the surgery well, and hopefully will be back on the field at Higher Ground helping players learn to play fastpitch softball the right way soon.

I met Bobby many years ago when he was a speaker at the National Sports Clinics. I had a chance to speak with him later and found him to be a very nice as well as knowledgeable man. We’ve kept in touch through the years through our mutual connection to Softball Magazine. I also get his weekly newsletter and find it to be both enjoyable and informative.

Bobby, if you’re reading this, follow the doctor’s instructions – he/she is the coach now. Best wishes for a fast and full recovery.

You have to take opportunities when they come

Last night I was watching Texas and Arkansas on the SEC network. It was a good game, with great plays and the lead changing a few times. I got to see an Arkansas home run record set and two teams playing all out.

Also saw a pitcher get her first-ever start for Arkansas. I didn’t catch the back story, but apparently she’s is normally an outfielder. But due to some sort of circumstances she was pressed into action. I think she’d been a high school or travel ball pitcher, but at Arkansas she’s an outfielder. Good for her for stepping up when the team needed her.

The thing that struck me, though, was what happened in the bottom of the 7th. Arkansas, the home team, was down a run. The leadoff batter went to first after being hit by pitch, and the next hitter – a power slapper – drove a ball just out of reach of the center fielder. The runner on first scored and the batter ended up on third.

So Arkansas was in a tie game with a runner on third an no outs. Oh, and all-important momentum on their side too. I thought for sure they were going to pull off a victory. All they needed was a ground ball with eyes, or a sac fly. Statistically, the run expectancy in this situation is at least one run for the inning.

Of course, that’s why they still have to play the game. The next hitter popped up. The one after that grounded out weakly to the pitcher, who held the runner at third. The next batter struck out, stranding the runner on third. Texas scored in the top of the eighth and held on to win the game.

Which brings me to my point. In this sport, especially when you’re the underdog, you have to find a way to capitalize on your opportunities. I’m sure the three hitters on Arkansas didn’t purposely try to make outs, but make outs they did. By not scoring that one more run they made it more difficult on themselves.

Maybe they were nervous, or trying too hard. Maybe they were thinking too much about outcomes (or the result of messing up) and took themselves out of it. Or maybe the Texas pitcher, faced with a tough situation, rose to the occasion. All I know is Arkansas had a great chance to pull off an upset but couldn’t quite get it done.

If you’re in that situation, it’s important to focus on the task at hand. If you’re the hitter, do your best to relax and just try to hit the ball hard – same as you always do. Because you may not get that chance again next inning, which means you have to take your opportunities when they come.

Very proud of one of my students

A rare double post from me today, but this is worth calling out. Tonight I had a lesson with one of my hitting students, a high school junior named Emma. We had a great session – she ought to have an amazing season crushing the ball – and after I got home I texted her mom to let her know how well Emma was doing. That’s when I heard a story that trumped softball.

After her lesson, Emma stopped at Starbuck’s before heading home. While she was there an elderly woman pulled in and parked in the middle of the parking lot. She seemed confused, so Emma stopped to talk to her.

Emma quickly recognized the woman was having trouble, and contacted the police to get some help. Turns out the woman suffers from Alzheimer’s and didn’t know where she was – or how to get home. Emma stayed with her until the police came, talking with her and comforting her.

We hear a lot about what’s wrong with the younger generation. We sometimes focus too much on how well a kid can hit or pitch a yellow ball. Tonight shows the world is going to be alright as long as there are people like Emma in the world. She’s a winner no matter what she does on the field this season.

Daylight Saving Time – yes or no?

This might seem a bit of an unusual topic for a softball blog but bear with me. Over the past few days (because of the changeover this weekend – hope you changed your clocks) I’ve been hearing a lot of talk in the media about getting rid of Daylight Saving Time (DST). DST

As a longtime softball coach, I would hate to see that happen. Wouldn’t you? Yeah, it’s kind of a pain to lose an hour of sleep in the first weekend of March. But the tradeoff is more softball time at night in the summer.

Where I live, for most of the summer it stays light outside until about 9:00. That means plenty of light to start a game at 6:00 and have it go for two hours without lights on the field. Even if it goes a couple of extra innings there’s plenty of extra light.

But without DST, by the time late July comes along you’d be pushing it to have enough light to finish a two-hour game. That seems wrong.

We have a summer sport. We need the extra daylight. If you’re given the opportunity to take a poll, be sure you say “yes” to DST!

So what have you been hearing? Would losing DST affect your season?

Fast-Pitch Love swings for the fences with tale of self-discovery

These days it seems like the Young Adult book category is crowded with stories of dystopian futures and heroic main characters doing the near-impossible. While they make for fun (and profitable) adventures, they may be a little difficult for the average teen to identify with. Fast-Pitch Love

There are no such issues with Fast-Pitch Love, a sweet story of young love that takes place over the summer of 2000. Written by first-time author Clayton Cormany it uses the development of a 12U rec league fastpitch softball team as the centerpiece for self-discovery of several of its characters.

The book is essentially the story of Jason (Jace) Waldron, a central Ohio boy and cross country runner who will be entering his senior year in high school. Jace has a crush on new girl Stephanie Thornapple, whose blue eyes and auburn hair make her the prettiest girl he’s ever personally known. Unfortunately for Jace, she is the girlfriend of tough-guy nose tackle Carson Ealy, who threatens anyone who even looks at her for too long.

As classes empty out on the last day of school, Jace’s best friend Stick – who is quite aware of Jace’s not-so-secret crush on Stephanie – informs him that Carson will be away for quite a bit of the summer working in a lumber yard in Michigan and checking out colleges, creating an opportunity for Jace to try to get in with Stephanie. All he needs is an excuse.

That excuse seems to present itself when Jace goes to the library to make copies of the roster for the softball team his mother will be coaching and his sister Phoebe will be playing on that summer. One of the players is Tina Thornapple; even better, SJ Thornapple is listed as the assistant coach. Jace begs his mother to allow him to help out with the team, figuring it will provide the perfect atmosphere to get to know Stephanie and win her away from Carson. She agrees, gets league approval for an extra assistant coach, and the stage is apparently set.

At least until the first day of practice when SJ Thornapple turns out to be Sylvia, Stephanie’s slightly heavier and somewhat less attractive sister. Once Jace realizes his mistake he starts thinking of excuses to back out but agrees to stay until the first game. In the meantime, Sylvia immediately recognizes why Jace signed up and offers to help him start dating her sister, even if he leaves the team.

Then the games start up, and the young Valkyries take a pummeling. Although Jace was never big on baseball when he played he feels bad for the girls and decides to stick around a little longer to help them learn the game. He and Sylvia work closely together to teach them how to throw, catch, field balls and hit. Sylvia is true to her word and helps Jace land his first date with Stephanie. As the summer goes on the Valkyries begin to improve – but that isn’t the only change.

Soon Sylvia starts letting her hair down and wearing makeup to practice and Jace finds himself attracted to her, even as he continues to date Stephanie. The latter sets up a confrontation with Carson when Jace is spotted at a carnival with Stephanie by one of Carson’s friends – just at the time Jace is beginning to wonder whether he is dating the right sister.

While it takes a little while to get going at first, Cormany does a great job of creating characters you care about – and feel you know. As I got deeper into the book I found it difficult to put down. Adults who remember their youth fondly will relate to the uncertainty and mixed feelings of the characters, which create tension without getting too deep into teen angst. Their feelings seem real. The young adult audience will likely either identify personally with the primary characters or feel they have friends like them.

The softball games are described with accuracy for the level. Neither the Valkyries or their opponents are portrayed as top-level travel teams. In fact, players are told at the beginning of the season they’ll be playing 11 games through summer plus the league tournament. That’s like a week in a travel team schedule, so hard core travel players and parents need to get past that.

Given the level of play, the game descriptions themselves stay true to form. Cormany describes them in great detail, giving you the feeling you’re reading a recap of a real game. There are errors and difficulties for both teams, again true for the level of play, which helps ground it in reality.

As a long-time travel coach myself I’m not so sure that the practices Jace uses to help the team improve will really work, and one in particular goes against what would be considered a best practice. But really, that’s a quibble. The key is the relationships between the characters and the overall development of the team. Both of those ring true.

There aren’t many stories out there that have fastpitch softball at the center, so young players and their families should enjoy that part of the book particularly. If you’re looking for an enjoyable read that will have you rooting for the characters to succeed – and to do what you know is the right thing – give Fast-Pitch Love a look.

Fast-Pitch Love is currently available digitally from Barnes and Noble at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/fast-pitch-love-clay-cormany/1120679928?ean=29401503840 or at Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/Fast-Pitch-Love-Clay-Cormany-ebook/dp/B00P744M7Q. The price is normally $4.99, but the author says he occasionally discounts it to $1.99 or even 99 cents so keep an eye out for that. There are also plans for it to come out in hard copy, although it hasn’t happened yet.

Do me one favor. Once you’ve had a chance to read it, let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

How To Make Yourself Stand Out At Softball Tryouts

Editor’s note: Next week begins high school tryouts in many states. This guest post by Brandon Capaletti, vice president of Cisco Athletic, offers some timely tips on how to have a successful tryout.

Tryouts can be a nerve-wracking process. Players are being scrutinized en masse, coaches are assessing needs and talent levels, and families are trying to determine if certain programs are worth the commitment (and money, in some cases).

Whether your daughter is attending tryouts for her high school softball team or a fall/summer travel squad, keep the following tips in mind during what often can be a grueling and anxiety-filled process:

  1.  Punctuality. Be on time. In fact, subscribe to the following credo: Early is on time, on time is late. That means cleats on, and glove/bat/helmet at the ready come starting time. Don’t give coaches and evaluators a reason to put a check mark next to your name for the wrong reason before tryouts start.
  2. Hustle. Any coach worth his or her salt values hustle and effort. Coaches will notice when you hustle (during drills and when moving from station to station) and when you don’t hustle. Hustle, which doesn’t require talent, says something about your character and level of desire.
  3. Listen/pay attention. In addition to assessing skills, evaluators will want to know: Are you coachable? Looking a coach in the eyes and following directions are imperative in athletics. Appearing disinterested or staring off into the distance while a coach is speaking and giving instructing can be construed as disrespectful. If you can’t or won’t listen to a coach during tryouts, the coach is likely to think you’ll do the same as a member of the team.
  4. Be the boss. On the field, a player needs to trust her instincts and preparation — and take ownership of her tryout. Nothing turns off a coach or evaluator more than a player who constantly looks to a parent for guidance — or a meddling parent who wants to “coach” from the other side of the fence. Those are red flags. A player who asserts her independence is an intriguing and valued prospect.
  5. State your desired positions: While the coach ultimately is responsible for deciding where you play should you make the team, it’s important that you get a look at the positions you prefer or have played in the past. Many tryouts require registration, which often provides an opportunity to list preferred positions. It’s especially important that pitchers and catchers get a chance to be seen at those positions.
  6. Avoid comparisons. It’s human nature for players to gauge how they stack up to their so-called competition at tryouts. Comparing arm strength, speed, fielding adeptness and hitting ability is natural, but try to concentrate more on what YOU do well rather than how other players perform. Be confident in your ability, and focus on the tasks at hand. Concern yourself with what you can control; don’t worry about what is out of your control.
  7. Stay positive/confident. Don’t overreact to mistakes — physical or mental. Coaches evaluate demeanor as well as ability, and no coach expects a perfect tryout from any player. A capable and experienced evaluator can see through physical mistakes (i.e., fielding errors, bad throws, swings and misses) to determine a good ball player. Show evaluators resilience in that you can bounce back from a mistake to make a good play. Maintain positive body language as well.
  8. Have fun! No matter what level, athletic competition is supposed to be enjoyable. Especially at tryouts, show evaluators that you are having fun playing a game that you love. Enjoy the experience as much as possible, even while you’re competing hard within a sometimes pressure-packed situation.

Softball players put in many hours of practice and preparation, many calling on the services of private instructors. Due diligence away from the field optimizes a player’s chances of performing well on the field. Trust what you know, believe in what you’ve worked on and let it all hang out in tryouts — the rest will take care of itself.

Brandon Capaletti is the vice president of Cisco Athletic, an athletic apparel manufacturer that designs, produces and distributes custom uniforms.

You might want to lay off that first pitch a little more

Saw this post over on the Fastpitch Analytics blog and thought I would share. This one is a quick visualization of another post which provides more depth behind the numbers. Both are worth reading.

What you’re looking at is an analysis of the slugging percentage for NCAA D1 hitters in 2014 based on pitch count. The author of the study says slugging on contact percentage was used rather than batting average because SLUGCON correlates better to runs scored. And since that’s the name of the game it makes sense.

Much of what you’ll see here is obvious, such as 3-1 is a great hitter’s count and 0-2 is not. But what’s really interesting is when you look at what happens after a 0-0 count.

Let’s say you take the first pitch. If it’s a strike you go to 0-1, and SLUGCON drops from .503 to .492 – a .011 drop. If it’s a ball, however, SLUGCON rises from .503 to .538 – a .035 improvement. In other words, your chances of getting the type of hit that scores runs goes up much more than it goes down by not swinging.

What does that mean in real terms? That you shouldn’t swing at the first pitch? Not really. That may be the best pitch you get in the entire at bat.

What it does mean, though, is that you shouldn’t feel the need to swing at any strike. Instead, you should be looking for a pitch you can hit hard. If it’s not in that zone, lay off of it. For example, if you struggle with the low and outside pitch and that’s the first pitch, you may want to let it go and see if the pitcher doesn’t come back with something more in your preferred range.

Of course, if she’s throwing everyone low and outside to start, you may want to crowd the plate and turn that low outside pitch into a low middle pitch and drive it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 888 other followers

%d bloggers like this: