The Neverending Softball Story

I was talking with a couple of fastpitch hitting and pitching students this week about their schedules for the next couple of weeks. They were explaining that they probably wouldn’t be coming out for lessons because “we have Nationals next week, then tryouts when we get back.”

There should be more time between the end of one softball season and the start of the next.That just seems crazy to me. I know it’s the way things are but I can’t help but think they shouldn’t be.

Why couldn’t there be a couple of weeks at least between the end of this season and the beginning of the next? What is so all-fired important about getting started on next season that it has to happen before players have had a chance to clean the dust off their equipment from the last one? Especially since many schools start classes around the middle of August now. Not much of a chance for the family of a softball player to take a week off for a little R&R that doesn’t involve getting to a field at 7:00 am on a Saturday.

Where it really gets crazy is how all the different alphabet soup of organizations have their so-called Nationals. Some are done already. Some are going on right now. Some will happen next week. Programs that went to one of the early ones often have their tryouts going on while some of the players who might like to play for them are away at other Nationals.

I guess it’s all about the race to capture the best players before someone else gets to them. When players go to these early tryouts, there is a lot of pressure (especially on the better players) to make a decision now – sometimes before they leave the first day of tryouts. They’re told if they don’t decide RIGHT NOW there may not be a roster spot available to them later.

Again, that seems crazy when the actual, important season for these teams doesn’t start for another 8-10 months (depending on their age). But of course, if you can secure those players now your team is set, and there’s no risk of some other team, especially a close rival, getting them instead.

The problem is the solution is the same as early recruiting for colleges. Programs would have to bring some sanity to the process by voluntarily holding off on tryouts until at least mid-August, and preferably a little later. But who wants to be the first?

If it’s going to work, it would have to start with the most desirable teams – the ones everyone would love to play for. If they didn’t start until later (secure in the knowledge players would join their teams (even if they had “committed” under pressure elsewhere first) there would be less incentive for the next tier to be early, and perhaps then it would trickle all the way down.

I don’t think the world would come to an end if tryouts didn’t happen until mid- or late August. So what do you say top tier teams? Will you be the first to start bringing a little sanity to the process, and give committed softball families a window to take a non-softball vacation before school starts (assuming they can afford one after all the travel)?

 

Playing the softball time game

Let me start out by saying I’ve made it pretty clear in the past that I am NOT a fan of time limits in fastpitch softball. The game was designed to be played across seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Yogi Berra’s statement “It ain’t over ’til it’s over” doesn’t make as much sense if you’re playing against a clock, because there is a definite point when it’s over. But then again Fastpitch softball shouldn't have a time limit, but when it does don't game the system.Yogi never had to make sense to be quotable.

In any case, whether we like it or not time limits have become the norm at nearly every summer tournament. The desire to get as many teams to play as many games as possible on a finite number of fields drives that. Maybe it’s greed, maybe it’s the “bigger is better” syndrome, but whatever it is as long as that’s the prevailing sentiment among those who are running tournaments you’re going to see time limits.

With that comes a new set of challenges for coaches. For example, if you’re dedicated to all of your players playing at least half the game, that’s fairly easy to accomplish when you know you have seven innings. Not so much when you have 1:15 no new inning with 1:30 drop dead. You have to keep an eye not only on the innings but on the clock, and may have to make substitutions at times you don’t want to.

The drop dead time limit can also change the strategy as far as whether you want to be the home or visiting team. If your team starts off hot at the plate but tends to fade in the field later in the game, you may want to take visitor if given the choice. You get to start out hitting, and if your team is booting the ball around in the bottom of the last inning it may not make a difference. In fact, if you’ve blow a lead you may even want to have them not get outs so the inning isn’t completed and the game defaults back to the previous inning when you were ahead.

And that brings us to today’s sermon topic, which is the games some coaches play when facing a time limit. The above being just one of the more egregious examples.

Some might call it being strategic. Others might call it short-sighted, since it’s kind of legalized cheating – you’re playing within the rules of the game, but not the spirit.

Not that I was always a saint about it, but after experiencing time limits a few times I quickly came to the philosophy that if you’re not good enough to win the game outright, you’re not good enough to win it.

As my buddy and assistant coach Rich Youngman once pointed out to me, what does it tell your team if you have to play these games? That you don’t have confidence in them to be the better team and win it outright, so you’re resorting to tricks?

Here are some examples. Your team is on defense, clinging to a one-run lead. You don’t want to go into a new inning because you know the heart of your opponent’s order is coming up, along with the bottom of yours. So you call a timeout to talk to the pitcher and gather the rest of your team in for your talk, which apparently becomes a manifesto. Tick tick tick.

Or you’re the home team on offense and don’t want a new inning to start. So you tell your team to walk slowly to batter’s box, and be sure to take a few practice swings between each pitch. If time is still moving too slowly you call a batter over for a conference. I even heard an instance of a coach telling a player to tie her shoe when it was already tied.

There are all kinds of ways to run a couple of extra minutes off the clock. Even an argument with an umpire can take up some precious time. A fake injury that doesn’t take too long to deal with can run some time off without stopping the clock too. Fielders taking a little extra time to throw the ball around after a strikeout, and maybe even throw it away on purpose or let a ball go by so they have to chase it down qualify as well.

This is not to say every strategy for killing time is bad. If you want to tell your players to take pitches until they get a strike on them, I’d consider that smart. Maybe you get a walk, but maybe you put your hitter in a hole that speeds up the at bat. That’s legit.

More borderline ethical is telling a hitter to strike out on purpose to kill an inning. I wouldn’t do it, but if it results in an extra inning being played you’re potentially not affecting the outcome of the game as much – both teams still have an equal chance to do something in that inning.

It’s the ones where you’re preventing the game from being played that get to me. If you’re there to play fastpitch softball, then play fastpitch softball. Man up, or woman up, and have confidence that the best team will win. Without the need for gimmicks. The lesson that will teach will mean a whole lot more to your kids than a $10 plastic trophy or medal.

A player gives back to the game

Been meaning to write this post for a little while because I just find this story to be so cool. It’s about a player named Ashley Lambert who clearly appreciates the opportunity she’s been given to play fastpitch softball. Ashley Lambert gives back to the game by becoming an umpire.

First a little background. Ashley definitely comes from a softball family. She’s been playing since she was tiny, strongly supported by her parents Drew and Tricia. Dan was her summer coach for all but I think one season (when she played for me), and you can keep up with Ashley’s softball exploits by following Tricia on Facebook. That’s where I learned about this story, in fact.

Ashley is in college now, playing third base and catching for Beloit College in Wisconsin. She’s #15 in this photo. Often college players will stay involved over the summer by helping coach a younger team, or maybe doing some teaching or clinics. But Ashley went a different route – she decided to become an umpire!

How cool is that? Umpiring is a tough job. I did it as a kid, and have done it in a pinch as an adult when there wasn’t anyone more qualified to do it. But being a real umpire is both physically and mentally wearing.

The physical side probably isn’t so bad for Ashley. As a catcher she’s used to wearing all that gear in 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Heck, it probably feels like home to her.

But then there’s the other side – putting up with coaches, parents and fans who all think they know better but have no interest in gearing up and getting out there themselves. She’s a sweet girl, but I’m guessing when she has the uniform on she doesn’t take a lot of guff. I’ve heard umpires say if both sides think they’ve favored the other team at the end of the game they know they’ve done a good job.

I think it’s great that Ashley is spending her summer making sure that when younger girls want to play a little softball that the game is played safely and fairly. I’m very impressed and proud to know her. I wish more former players would consider donning the gear while they’re playing or when their careers are done.

As a player, you might get a whole new appreciation and respect for the role umpires play; they really aren’t going out of their way to call you out. My guess is you’d certainly know the rules better because you’d have to.

If you’re done playing it’s a way to stay involved in the game, and as the title of this post says give a little something back to the game that gave you so much.

So kudos to Ashley for skipping the more fun and easy route of coaching and instead filling a very pressing need. You are an inspiration and a credit to your coaches, the game, and most of all your parents!

Sometimes you just gotta go with what you’ve got

As both a fastpitch softball instructor and general fanatic for the sport, I have to admit I spend an inordinate amount of my waking hours looking at information and analyzing techniques to try to become as educated as I possibly can. Hi, I’m Ken, and I’m a softball technique-aholicWhile strong mechanics are important, sometimes you just have to go with what you've got.

It’s well-intentioned to be sure. I firmly believe, based on roughly 20 years in the sport that the better-trained a player is, the higher the chance she has for success. And the less raw athletic ability she has, the more specific training she requires.

But I also believe (again based on experience) that there is a Law of Diminishing Returns when it comes to trying to perfect technique. While it’s true that optimal technique should yield the best results, that’s also only true if it’s implemented with optimal effort or enthusiasm.

This is where a lot of players seem to get hung up. Especially the most dedicated. They are focused so much on trying to achieve the optimal mechanics that they get in their own way.

Hitters become tentative trying to achieve the best bat path and as a result slow their swings down. Or they focus so much on one part of the swing that they let the rest fall apart.

Pitchers work so hard on getting just the right launch technique, or keeping the arm circle exactly where it should be, that they get all tight and don’t let their bodies work for them. Catchers worry so much about how they’re making the transfer on a steal that they become over-conscious and thus too slow.

Every part of the game can be affected, regardless of position, or whether you’re on offense or defense.

So here’s my advice: as they say in auto racing world, sometimes you gotta run with the one that brung you. Or in the case, go with what you’ve got.

If you’re a hitter still reworking her swing, do the best you can to use what you’re learning. But don’t focus on doing it perfectly. Do it the best you can while still coming at it with full energy.

After all, the ball doesn’t care how you hit it. A strong contact with an ugly-as-sin swing will beat a soft contact with a perfect swing every time. A strong swing with much-improved mechanics will generally yield better results than a tentative swing that looks good only on slow-motion video.

The same goes for the rest of the game. You may not have perfected that backhand or rake technique on ground balls, but if you go after them like you mean it you may just surprise yourself. Pitchers who continue to try to throw hard will be much more effective than those who again look like they’re trying to make the perfect video instead of getting hitters out.

Believe me, I’m all for perfect mechanics. But they should never be a conscious effort, at least in a game situation. When you’re in the game, go with what you’ve got. You can always work on perfecting it at the next practice.

Interesting opportunity for Jewish softball players

Any athlete who has done it says there’s nothing like the thrill of competing with the name USA on the front of your jersey. For most, however, it will never be more than a dream.

If you’re a fastpitch softball player of Jewish heritage, however, you have an extra 20th World Maccabiah Gamesopportunity to make that dream come true. Because Maccabi USA is seeking Jewish female softball players 18 years old and above to try out for the team that will represent America at the 20th World Maccabiah Games, July 4-18, 2017 in Israel.

From the looks of it, the World Maccabiah Games follows a format similar to the Olympics, with teams from around the world competing in a broad spectrum of sports. Your chances of being part of Team USA increase, of course, because the pool of eligible players is narrowed considerably. It looks like one of those “once in a lifetime” opportunities if you’re willing to spend the time to prepare – and willing to spend half of next July in Israel.

Tryouts for the women’s fastpitch team are July 23, 2016 in the metro Chicago area. The flier I saw did not have more specific information, but you can probably get that by contacting Shane Carr, Program Director, at scarr@maccabiusa.com or Jay Gelman, Softball Chair, at jaydg2@gmail.com. You’ll need to bring all the usuals – turf shoes, cleats, bats, position equipment and water.

If you’re interested in applying, you can do so here. Oh, and good luck to you!

Way cool: Slugger lets you customize your bat

Back when the Louisville Slugger Catalyst  fastpitch bats first came out and were the hot bats, my daughter Kim had a chance to get one for free, courtesy of my friends at Softball Magazine. But she decided to pass because they were yellow and she just didn’t like the way they looked. I know, right?

While it shouldn’t make a difference – the only measure of a bat should be how well you can hit with it – it actually does seem to matter. Kim’s not the only one to object to a piece of equipment because of its appearance.

These are all the same Louisville Slugger LTX HYPER fastpitch bat, customized to a wide variety of color choices and combinations.

Not your mother’s Slugger – you can customize your LXT HYPER fastpitch bat to suit your preferences. and tastes

For those with daughters/players who are fashion-forward, however, there is good news. On June 1 Louisville Slugger announced not only the release of the new LXT HYPER fastpitch bat line, but an amazing feature – you can customize it to suit your tastes by going here.

I tried it out earlier in the week and it’s way cool. Often times when companies say you can customize a product they mean you can change a couple of colors, or a graphic here or there. With the LXT HYPER you essentially start out with a colorless bat, then specify the color of every component, from the knob to the end cap.

(WARNING: If you are graphically challenged you may want to have one of your more artistic friends check your work before you submit, as you can really make it crazy. Unless that’s what you’re going for.)

I tried the site out earlier in the week and it was pretty easy to use. It walks you through the choices, and as you make each one that choice gets added to “your” bat. They have lots of color options, including some fades in certain areas, enabling you to go from subtle and reserved to Fantasia. You’ll be amazed at how many choices you’ll have to make.

Once you get the colors selected, you can also further customize your bat by having your name or nickname imprinted on it. You only get 9 characters, however. Not bad if your name is Sue Rolls but you’ll have some decisions to make if it’s Hyacynth Mickelweed. There are three font selections, from a script type of writing to a blockier style. But no matter what you put, at least there won’t be any more arguments with teammates should you happen to select all the same colors for your bat.

Now, it might be tempting for the whole team to get the same color combination, or you may want to select colors based on your current team. But these things tend to be moving targets. If you change teams, or your school team has a vastly different color scheme than your travel team, it might not work out so well. Just something to keep in mind.

Of course, good looks alone are no reason to select a bat. Ultimately it has to perform. Slugger’s press release says:

“Available in -11, -10, -9 and -8 weight drops, the LXT HYPER’s 100 percent composite design now features the all-new PBF Barrel Technology that doubles the sweet spot for unmatched power. Louisville Slugger has also improved the LXT HYPER’s patented TRU3 Dynamic Socket Connection, allowing for necessary movement between the barrel and handle. This maximizes barrel trampoline effect, while also eliminating negative vibration. The result is the absolute best possible feel when you bring the bat through the zone.”

Understand that all this wonderfulness doesn’t come cheap. The retail price is $479. But if you’re looking for a high-performance bat that lets you express your personality on the way to the plate as well as at it, and you can afford it, the LXT HYPER is definitely worth a look.

Sticking with the change

Regular Life in the Fastpitch Lane readers know that I am a huge fan of the changeup. I believe it’s essential if a pitcher is going to keep hitters off balance instead of getting comfortable in the batter’s box. The changeup is a critical pitch, even when it's not working its best.

Still, it can be tough for a pitcher to stick with it when it’s not working. If she doesn’t throw if for a strike the first time there is a temptation to just abandon it in favor of other pitches.

What’s odd is that if the other pitches don’t work she usually doesn’t abandon them. It seems peculiar to the change.

That’s what made what I observed tonight so interesting. I was watching a high school sectional game between two very good teams. The pitcher for the team I was rooting for was definitely having trouble with her change. Not just a little trouble either.

She was throwing them high – catcher has to jump up for them high. And she was throwing them low – as in rolling into the plate. In fact, I only remember her throwing one for a strike, called or swinging. Even on her best day it’s not her best pitch, but it’s usually more effective than it was today.

Yet she kept throwing it. Whether it was the pitcher, the catcher or the coach, when the situation called for a change they called it.

And darned if it didn’t help. As the hitters were getting on to her other pitches, the change would give them a different look. Even if it rolled in, it was enough to throw off the rhythm.

The team I was rooting for won. And as I recall there were only two or three well-hit balls all day. It was a great illustration of why you want to keep throwing the change, no matter what the outcome of the pitch is.

It’s not where you start the race…

One of my favorite sayings is “It’s not where you start the race that counts, but where you finish.” I will say it to players who didn’t make a team they wanted, or who start the season riding the bench, or otherwise find themselves in a less than desirable position.

Erin Yazel catch

One of my favorite pictures of Erin Yazel. A far cry from the girl who could barely catch a ball hit to her. 

Of course, it’s easy to say things like that; platitudes come easily. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite success stories today – one that proves that saying is more than words.

I first met Erin Yazel when she was a first-year 14U player. (I’m old school, so I only recognize even number team levels.) As I understand it, Erin had joined an A-level fastpitch team after coming from rec ball. Not on the basis of her skills as much as the team needed players and Erin tried out.

To put a little more perspective on it, I came to that team as an assistant coach after it was already formed, about midway through the offseason. When you’re working indoors in a small gym it’s tough to get a real read on things.

Once we were outside, however, it became apparent that even though she was an outfielder Erin’s outfield skills were not quite at the level that was expected. That was a potential problem since the team had a few legitimate A-level players and some of their parents were vocal about who could cut it and who couldn’t.

Erin was a hard worker, though, and a good kid, so I went to the head coach and asked her if I could work with Erin separately at practice to help her learn to track fly balls better. The head coach agreed, and off we went. I also suggested to Erin that I could meet her before practice, or stay after, to help her hone her skills some more. She was more than willing since she wanted to be a full-fledged contributor and she, her dad Steve and I spent a lot of time together.

Over the course of that first season she got better and more reliable, although she did end up breaking her nose in a game when she lost track of a fly ball in center. That one was ugly to see and hear, but it didn’t stop her. After a couple of weeks off she was back on the field, more determined than ever.

One of the qualities Erin brought with her was that she was fast – like 2.7 home to first fast. So naturally I suggested she spend the off-season becoming a lefty slapper.

We worked on that the entire winter, along with bunting and swinging away, and by the next spring she was a different player. She took naturally to slapping and soon had earned the leadoff spot in the lineup for our travel team. She also made her JV team as a freshman, and likely would’ve gone straight to varsity if the head coach hadn’t come straight from baseball and didn’t understand the importance of speed and the short game (a deficiency he fixed the following year, by the way).

Erin went on to have a great high school career as well as a travel ball career, and actually came back to me a couple of years later to play on my IOMT Castaways team. I encouraged her to try college softball, and even helped her make a recruiting video, but in the end she decided it wasn’t for her.

ISU club softball team

Erin’s ISU club team. She is first row, second from the right.

But that doesn’t mean it was the end of her fastpitch career. Instead, she became involved in the Illinois State University club team. If you’re not familiar with the concept, club teams are groups of girls who form their own teams and play against similar teams from other schools. It’s fun and competitive, without the bigtime commitment and time sink of playing at the college varsity level.

This past year was Erin’s second playing for the Redbirds, and it’s clear she’s still loving the game. Her mom Judy sent me her stats.

For the season she had a batting average of .488, with an OBP of .533 and slugging percentage of .537. In 41 at bats she had just 4 strikeouts, and her OPS was a healthy 1.090. You can check out her whole line here.

That’s pretty impressive for a girl who had trouble even getting on the field her first year of travel ball. But it shows what you can do when you have a love for the game, the determination to improve, and the support of great parents. Not to mention self confidence, which Erin always had boatloads of despite some of the outcomes.

So if you’re not quite where you want to be, take a lesson from Erin. Don’t let anyone else define you, and don’t define yourself by where you start. Because that doesn’t matter. The most important consideration is where you finish.

 

The most wonderful time of the year

You can almost hear the music, can’t you? But I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the Women’s College World Series (WCWS)!2016_womens_college_world_seriesb

It’s amazing how far this tournament has come in the last few years. It used to be you were lucky if you could find the championship game on TV. Now pretty much the entire tournament is being broadcast across several networks, including ESPN (every flavor except The Ocho), The Big Ten, PAC 12 and SEC. There may be a couple of others but those are the ones I know – and have watched so far.

What a great opportunity for younger players to immerse themselves in high-level softball too. From a single vantage point on the couch (or on the floor) they have a chance to see dozens of teams from across the country – to see the speed the play at and the energy they bring.

In my mind it’s also a great opportunity to see the mistakes they make, from getting double off a base on a line drive to running into a tag to misjudging a fly ball to throwing too high or too low and so on. Pitchers can see college pitchers whose educations are being fully (or at least partially paid for) leave a ball fat on the plate and then watching helplessly as it leaves the park. There is some comfort in knowing that even the best players aren’t always perfect.

I know for many players in the 10U -13U ranks that the travel and rec ball seasons have started, and you may have games over the next three weekends. But if you can, set your DVRs or grab a few moments between games and check out the WCWS. I think you’ll like what you see – and you’ll help boost the ratings so all those networks will keep showing all those games.

 

Calling pitches: Make the pitcher’s strengths a priority

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of fastpitch games on TV and in-person lately, but it seems like it’s time for my semi-annual rant on pitch calling. I never cease to be amazed at how often pitch selection seems to be based more on arbitrary rules or expectations about hitters than what the pitcher is good at throwing. Pitch selection should match the pitcher's strength

Here’s an example. Watching a college game last night, a pitcher who is ok at best with her drop but a natural riseball pitcher had the bulk of the pitches called low. It didn’t take long for the other team to adjust and start hitting her hard.

Now, I’m sure those complex and detailed charts in the dugout showed that the opponents had a history of struggling with drop balls. But what the charts didn’t explain was they had trouble with GOOD drop balls – the kind that come in thigh-high and flat, then fall off the table.

Clearly, they had no trouble with drop balls that started low and didn’t move much. A better strategy might have been to at least mix in more up pitches, if for no other reason than to keep the hitters from looking low. And if the pitcher had her rise working (as her replacement did), she could have used her strength to better advantage, and her team would have advanced in the conference tournament.

This sort of thing seems to happen at levels. A coach will fall in love with a particular pitch, or a pitch location, and want the pitcher to throw their constantly. That isn’t really a good idea under any circumstances – you want to mix it up and keep hitters guessing. But when the pitch or location the coach loves happens to also be a weakness for the pitcher, no one should be surprised when it doesn’t go so well.

Part of this also has to do with a pitcher’s psyche. To be successful, pitchers must feel confident overall, as well as in the immediate pitch they’re about to throw. The situation may call for a rise, or a change, but if the pitcher isn’t feeling good about her rise or change that day she probably won’t give it all she’s got. And on those two pitches in particular, a mistake can quickly turn into a disaster (aka a home run).

Personally, I’m an advocate of catchers calling games. Especially in travel ball where you’re unlikely to have any extensive history on a particular hitter and her tendencies. Catchers are right there close to the hitters, and have a bird’s eye view of what’s working for the pitcher, what isn’t, and what her mindset is.

If a catcher sees fear in the pitcher’s eyes when a change is called in a non-pressure situation, she likely will know best to steer clear of that pitch when the pressure is on. You can’t see that from the dugout.

But if coaches are going to call pitches, they need to understand as much as they can about their pitchers overall, as well as what’s happening with them today.

Coaches calling pitches should really make an effort to understand what each pitcher does well, and develop their game plans accordingly. If your pitcher has a strong rise and a weak drop, you’re probably better off planning on more riseballs even if the opponent is a good riseball hitting team. Or better yet, throw a pitcher who has a strong drop. (Hopefully the staff’s strengths are more complementary than matchy-matchy.)

On game day, watch the pitchers warm up, and talk to them and the catchers. The pitchers will tell you what they feel confident in, and the catchers will give you another data point/reality check based on the knowledge of that pitcher they have accumulated through hours of working together. Those things should also be factored in to the game plan.

Once the game is on, pay attention and make adjustments. If the drop is working and the screw is not breaking at all, work the drop in and out and put the screw in your pocket for that day. Or use it as an offspeed fastball instead of expecting it to miraculously start breaking. If the screw is running in too much, use it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count rather than when you need a strike. That can be particularly effective when a right handed pitcher is facing a lefty slapper.

All of this reminds me of a story from the classic book Ball Four, one of my all-time favorites. In one part, the pitching staff is talking about how to pitch to a particular hitter when one of them offers that when he was with the LA Dodgers, Sandy Koufax used to get him out by smoking him inside. To which the author, Jim Bouton, comments, “Which is great if you could throw fastballs like Sandy Koufax.” In other words, what worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time may not work for ordinary mortals.

Charts and such, whether they are general guidelines or specific to that team, can be helpful. But they’re not the last word.

Call pitchers to your pitchers’ strengths – overall and that day – and you’ll have a much greater likelihood of success.

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