Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

The definition of sportsmanship – and class

This isn’t a fastpitch softball story, but it’s still one I found worth sharing because it demonstrates everything great about sports and what they teach you. Full disclosure: I am friends with Abbey D’Agostino’s uncle Tim and Aunt Janet Boivin so the story has a little extra impact for me. Abbey D'Agostino

If you haven’t heard, this happened during the women’s 5000 meter race at the Olympics. Everyone was running in a pack when Nikki (no relation to Hillary) Hamblin of New Zealand tripped, and the USA’s Abbey D’Agostino fell over her.

Understand that Abbey has waited a long time for this opportunity. If I recall correctly she just missed the cut for the 2012 Olympics while she was still in college, so making the team and having the opportunity to go for the gold was the fulfillment of a dream.

After falling like that, many runners would have just gotten up and tried to make up the time. That’s what being a competitor is supposedly all about. But Abbey saw that Nikki was hurt, and instead of taking off she stopped to help Nikki up off the ground and start running again.

Then, in an interesting turn, after both ran a few meters Abbey went down again. (Later we would discover she tore her ACL and meniscus when she fell originally. Nikki stopped to help her up, and the two of them proceeded to help each other finish the race. (Shades of Cool Runnings, eh?)

The other thing to understand is they weren’t friends before. They didn’t know each other at all. But they are bound together for life now.

We see a lot of negative things out there in the world. At softball parks we see all kinds of bad behavior from players, coaches, parents and fans. But this story is a reminder, on the biggest stage of all for most sports, of what it’s really all about.

If you’d like to learn more, here’s one of the many stories that have come out of this incident, complete with an interview of both runners.

Hopefully Abbey will be back on the track sooner rather than later and will have another shot at a medal. But if she never runs competitively again, she’s set an amazing standard for all athletes. Watch for the Disney movie in about five years.🙂

Softball back in for the 2020 Olympics

Just saw the news that softball (and baseball) have officially been voted back in for the 2020 Olympics. Not too surprised given where they will be held.

Japan is as fanatical about fastpitch softball as the U.S. – maybe more. And they have a 2008 U.S. National team, the last team to play in the Olympicsgold medal to defend, despite the fact that it’s likely most of the players on that last team probably won’t be on the 2020 team.

I know a lot of people are really ecstatic about it. For me, I’m more “meh.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love watching the games on TV, especially the medal games. It’s exciting to see the best players in the world going head-to-head, and even though the Olympic rings have lost some of their luster it’s still a pretty big stage. And for me personally at least there’s now something interesting to watch.

But many of those who are so excited have a belief that having softball in the Olympics will drive participation and give female softball players something to dream about. For whatever it’s worth I disagree.

I don’t think young female softball players, as a whole, care that much about the national team. Just ask any you know who is on the national team right now. You’ll probably get a blank stare. Or ask who was ever on the Olympic team for the U.S. You might get a couple of good guesses, but beyond the high-visibility pitchers most probably won’t know.

When I’m doing lessons I will often ask students if they have heard of this top-level college player or that high-profile pro. Most have not. They just don’t care. They’re more focused on their own performance.

If participation overall is down I don’t think it’s because there was no Olympic team to aspire to. I would say cost is much more of a factor now. It used to be you could join a team and play all summer for around $500. Now it’s more like $1,500 to $2,000 on the low end, and $20,000+ on the high end for a bigtime exposure team that travels around the country.

That puts softball out of the reach of a lot of families, especially in the current economy. They’ll either find a cheaper sport, or they’ll find another activity that doesn’t cost them as much.

As far as the hopes and dreams go, let’s be honest. There are precious few spots on the Olympic roster to being with. You have to be a top-level college player (current or former) to have any hopes of making it (Crystal Bustos excepted).

It may be an incentive for a precious few. And good for them. But for most, reality will likely set in at a young age as they realize they’re not destined to become one of the greatest fastpitch softball players in the U.S.

I’m glad it’s back in, and I’m glad our sport will get more exposure. But is it a game changer? I don’t think so.

Fastpitch tip for learning the finish of a backhand changeup

One of the most important pitches in fastpitch softball is an effective changeup. By effective I mean one where the pitcher can go through her motion and appear to throw it hard while having the ball come out much slower than expected.

This is as opposed to a changeup where the only thing that changes from the fastball is the grip, or one where in order to get the ball to go slower the pitcher slows her arm down. Those aren’t changeups. Those are just bad fastballs.

While I teach a few different types depending on the pitcher, the one I teach most often is Drill for learning the finish on a changeupthe backhand change. Essentially, that is one where the back side of the hand leads the ball through the release zone.

Note that this is not a “flip” change. There is no flipping of the wrist at the end; I want the pitch to be dragged throw the release zone and thrown in a way that still has 12 to 6 forward spin. Flipping it puts backward spin on the ball, and often results in a pitch that comes in around belt high before traveling about 220 feet in the opposite direction.

The key to the finish of the backhand change as I teach it is to bend the elbow slightly and (again) drag the ball forward through the release zone until the pitcher’s arm is fully extended. After a momentary stop the ball comes out about hip high, immediately loses a bit of altitude to thigh high and then tails down around the plate. To do that the pitcher has to keep her hand moving forward and low until release rather than pulling it up as many like to do.

One cue I’ve used before is “punch your catcher in the nose.” In other words, go straight out instead up up and out. It’s worked pretty well, but it still requires the pitcher to do a little visualization.

So here’s another option. Have the pitcher line up sideways to a backstop with stride foot (left foot for a righty) right against the bottom of the screen. Then have her get her arm in the proper position (without the ball), pick out a spot on the screen that’s the right height and have her stab her fingers straight into the chain link fencing.

You might not want to have her go full speed, especially at first, to avoid jammed fingers.If you can’t get to a field, you can also do it into a tarp or even a shower curtain at home, as long as there is something specific to move the fingers toward.

Have the pitcher do it multiple times, until she starts to get the feel of what it’s like to go out straight instead of up. Then you can back her off the screen a bit and try the finish, or go back out to the pitching plate and see if there is improvement.

It’s simple yet effective. I only came up with this idea recently and so far it’s helped every pitcher I’ve tried it with.

If you have a pitcher who is struggling to keep her hand going out directly instead of bending the elbow or otherwise pulling up, give this a try. It just might work.

What are some other ideas you’ve tried to accomplish the same thing? How effective have they been? Anything you’ve tried that failed horribly? Go ahead and share – you’re among friends.

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.

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