Monthly Archives: June 2007

Conditioning without conditioning

As I watch and hear about various practices, it’s amazing to me how much practice time gets wasted on pure conditioning. For example, coaches will have their players line up on a foul line, then have them run endless rounds of 60′ sprints. In the meantime, the clock is ticking and you’re not solving any of your other softball-related concerns, such as throwing and catching.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I don’t see the value of conditioning. I do. I wouldn’t be checking out the Softball Performance web site all the time if I didn’t. But when you’re in-season, or even preparing for the season, running to run is just wasting time. Don’t even get me started on distance running!

Last night we ran a drill that on the surface is aimed at improving our ability to throw and catch on the run. It’s a variation of the four corners drill, where you set a player on each base and throw the ball around. Normally when this drill is run you stack two or three players at each base and alternate. Sometimes you throw to the left and run to the right, or throw right and run left to the next base to get a little movement in. But with two or three players waiting at the next base there’s no sense of urgency to get there, and the running is more of a job.

So we took it down to its bare essentials. One player on each base, throw left and run right. Now it’s a sprint, because that ball can get thrown around the bases a lot faster than anyone can jog. Depending on where you are, you barely have enough time to get there.

We ran the drill three times with each group. Do the math. Four sprints, three times each, equals 12 sprints. To make sure they were full sprints, we timed each set with a stopwatch, and on the third go-’round we offered a prize (a page of coupons to Dick’s Sporting Goods that I’d gotten for free) to each participant on the winning team. Later we used different people for baserunners in a fielding drill, which increased the amount of running considerably. But never, at any time, did we say “now it’s time for conditioning.” Everything was done within a softball context.

Imagine trying to motivate your team to run 20, 25, 30 sprints just for the sake of conditioning. You could find yourself mightily challenged. But put it into the right context and you won’t have to motivate them. They will motivate themselves and each other. And you’ll improve the conditioning of your athletes.

Knowing what’s coming

I was just reading one of Dave’s posts on the Girls Fastpitch Softball, and he hit on something that drives me crazy too: the way hitters will stand and watch good pitches go by for no reason.

Now, if you’re facing a pitcher throwing 65 mph with good movement and a change of speed, and you’re used to hitting 55 mph or less with little or no movement, it’s understandable that you might be a little overwhelmed. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about standing there taking perfectly good and hittable pitches coming in at a comfortable speed. It just makes no sense.

Now, I am an advocate of the Mike Epstein “get a good pitch to hit” philosophy. With a 0-0 count there’s no need to swing at a pitch you don’t hit particularly well. But if you let yourself get into a hole with an 0-2 count, your odds of getting a good hit decrease dramatically. Even MLB players hit sub-.200 with an 0-2 count, and they’re theoretically the best in the world.

Younger pitchers (and their coaches) tend to be obsessed with throwing strikes. Throwing a ball is considered a bad thing, and throwing two in a row usually gets action out in the bullpen. That’s a risk-averse mentality but a lot of people have it. That can be an advantage to a hitter if she knows how to deal with it.

If you’re not one of the first two hitters in the lineup, you should have a pretty good idea of what and where the pitcher is throwing by the time you come up to the plate. If you start out by looking for that pitch, you’ll give yourself an advantage. It’s like blackjack players counting cards in a casino. You only gain a 2% edge over the house, but if you’re smart about your approach it should be enough to carry out some cash.

The first thing to look at is does the pitcher tend to throw high or low? As a pitching coach I can tell you that pitchers are generally taught to keep the ball low. See if she mostly throws waist-high or below. That’s something that’s easy to tell from the on-deck circle, or even from the dugout. If she always starts out with a low pitch, you can cut the strike zone you’re trying to cover in half. Especially if you see that when she tries to go high she tends to throw a ball.

The next thing to look at is whether she tends to go inside, outside, or middle early in the count. The odds are she’ll be looking to go outside first, because most hitters don’t like that pitch and will let it go. But it’s not a certainty. Watch the catcher’s glove and see where she’s getting the ball. Middle is a gimme, so if you can see that she’s throwing mostly inside or outside you can cut the remaining strike zone in half. Now you’re looking for a pitch in 25% of the zone you were before. If she is consistent with her placement, and you’ve observed correctly, you can be looking for the ball in a particular spot as though she announced the location to you. That’s a nice advantage to have.

Suppose your observation tells you the pitch will likely be low and outside, and you don’t like that pitch. Well, you can let it go, but then your covered strike zone gets bigger. Instead, if outside is what bothers you move in closer to the plate and turn that outside pitch into a de facto down the middle pitch. Forget the plate, just see the ball coming down the pipe and pop it! If she likes to start inside, try backing off the plate to give yourself a little more time to get around on the ball. Don’t forget, you don’t have to start there. You can line yourself up normally, and then as she starts her windup creep in or out a bit. Just be sure to give yourself enough time to get set.

The changeup is another tough one. A good change will tend to freeze a hitter who’s not expecting it. But here’s where observation can help you again. First, look to see if she throws it on the same pitch count, then look to see if every batter sees one. If she’s throwing it to everyone, you may want to plan for it, and simply wait until she throws it to crank it. You can also look to see if she telegraphs it, either by playing with the grip, shortening her arm circle, or slowing down the arm. I watched an opposing pitcher last night give away her speed on all pitchers by her arm speed. If you can recognize the subtleties you’ll have a pretty good clue as to what’s coming.

For movement pitches, try to train yourself to recognize the spin. It requires a lot more focus and concentration than the average fastpitch player gives to her at bats, but it does make a difference. Ask your team’s pitchers how they throw movement pitches, or maybe volunteer to catch for them, so you can get used to seeing the motion and the spin. It definitely helps.

Hitting is still a low-percentage activity. Succeeding 3 out of 10 times makes you an All-Star. But you can help increase your odds by paying attention to what the pitcher is doing, learning her patterns, and narrowing down your happy zone. After all, it’s a lot easier to react to a sudden movement if you know what’s coming.

Trackbacks are temporarily closed

Just wanted to let everyone know that I have temporarily closed trackbacks for this blog. Ol’ Coach Ken was getting tired of having to delete robot-generated trackback notices for porn sites and wonder drugs from his e-mail.

I may open them back up after a couple of weeks. But for now, just remember on your own to give credit where it’s due. Thanks!

It’s about time to end the time limits

Over the weekend the Mundelein Thunder 16U team I coached played in an NSA World Series qualifier. The rules for the tournament stated that no new inning could start after one hour and fifteen minutes. Not just in pool play but in bracket play too.

That is just insane. The time elapsed to play one fastpitch softball game from beginning to end was less than that for a youth soccer, hockey, or basketball game. That’s just not right. All of those sports by nature have a clock, with natural breaks (quarters or halves) to reset strategy and make substitutions. They’re oriented toward a clock, and cutting out a little time per period doesn’t have a huge impact on the game.

Putting a clock on softball does. After all, as George Carlin says, it’s a pastoral sport played in a park. Or as Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. When you put a time limit on softball, especially one as short as 75 minutes, you have changed the essential nature of the game.

If you are dedicated to giving your players the opportunity to play (as I am), rather than the opportunity to watch their friends win trophies, a 75 minute time limit is particularly tough to deal with. You have to be ready to make substitutions around the 35 minute mark. Not so bad if you’re the home team. But if you’re the visitors and want to sub when you go on defense, some kids aren’t going to play very much. I find that managing the time is far more stressful than managing the game.

But even if you’re not trying to squeeze in all your players it can still be rough. Some teams, for whatever reason, take a little while to get going. By they time they’re hitting on all cylinders the game is over or nearly so. They never get a chance to establish their rhythm, wear down their opponents, or get the feel of the game. It’s wham, bam, thank you ma’am, clear the dugouts so the next team can get in. It definitely favors the team with the biggest, strongest pitcher since hitters sometimes need a couple of at bats before they can zone in on the pitcher. Hey, it took Arizona three full games to figure out Monica Abbott.

This is a phenomenon peculiar to summer ball. High school games can (and sometimes do) go on forever, as two worthy opponents slug it out. College games are the same, as is youth league play.

It’s tempting to say the time limit is driven by greedy tournament directors trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of teams in a 5 lb. facility. But that’s not necessarily true, at least in the majority of cases. What it probably points to more is a lack of adequate facilities to host these summer tournaments.

Not sure what the answer is, but after experiencing it this weekend I think all tournament directors should be required to post what the time limits will be where they have the entry information. That way coaches can at least make an informed decision BEFORE they’ve committed their teams and their budgets. As a postscipt, I once took a team to a tournament where the 1:15 time limit was cut to an hour because of rain the day before. Needless to say I’ve never gone back there.

At the high school level and above, two solid teams can complete a game in 1:30 to 1:45. If you have to have a time limit, use one of those. An hour and fifteen minutes doesn’t serve anyone well.

Pitch movement in the WCWS

Is it just me, or are the pitches in the WCWS not moving as much as the announcers are saying? I’ve been watching on a DVR, and when they show a view from behind the catcher I’ve been putting it into super slow motion.

I already knew the rise ball doesn’t really rise at the end. In fact, it seems like with the better pitchers it sort of flattens out at the end. But watching even curves and screws it seems like there hasn’t been a lot of pronounced movement. Especially with Monica Abbott. I really thing she’s throwing hard and fairly straight rather than getting late breaking movement. Whatever she’s been doing has been effective, but I don’t think it’s movement.

Maybe it’s an illusion with the DVR, but often I don’t even see the ball having the correct spin. I just watched a supposed screwball have a spin more like a curve ball. It didn’t seem to break much either way.

Take nothing away from these pitchers. Both are terrific. But if you watch closely, are you really seeing a lot of ball movement?

Sacrificing speed for control

Here’s another one that’s said a lot that drives me crazy. A pitcher will be in pitching a game. Apparently couldn’t find the plate if it was made uranium and she had a Geiger counter, so her coach advises her to “slow it down and throw strikes” or something to that effect.

I understand why it’s being said. If your pitcher keeps walking everyone it’s going to be tough to win the game. But having your pitcher slow down her motion in order to gain control is extremely counter-productive, both for her and for the team. If she has been working very hard to learn to be an effective pitcher, asking her to completely change what she’s doing is going to set her back. You’d actually be better off taking her out and putting someone else in there. After all, if speed doesn’t matter and you just want strikes, that isn’t that tough of a goal. You can put pretty much anyone in there to lob meatballs in order to avoid the almighty walk.

What got me thinking about this one is an article that re-ran recently in a business newspaper called Investors Business Daily, or IBD for short. In addition to the usual business articles about corporations and such they like to run articles about leadership and success. It just so happened that I picked up the issue where they were talking about a particular major league baseball pitcher who had the very same problem we’re discussing. He threw hard, but he was wild.

According to the article, when the pitcher had been in the league a couple of years “He’d go six or seven innings, throw 160 pitches, walk seven guys, strike out 15.” His strikeout-to-walk ratio ran close to 1:1 for several years, starting in the minors and continuing to the majors. He could chuck his fastball in the high 90s, which helped keep his ERA low (and kept him in the majors) but it could go anywhere. Think Nuke Lalouche in Bull Durham. He was also advised to slow down and get the ball over, ut he kept working at it, making changes in his mechanics to improve his control instead. It took a while, but he eventually harnessed his speed, and in six years made four All-Star teams, finished in the top 10 in Cy Young award voting five times (winning one) and dominated the game. The pitcher’s name? Randy Johnson.

In the same article, pitching coach Brent Strom is quoted as saying “With a pitcher like Johnson, who throws very hard but wild, you’re better off letting him be wild for a while. There’s a saying: ‘The best way to ruin a pitcher is to try and make him a pitcher.’ We take these guys who are a little wild, and we immediately want to slow them down to get more control. Invariably guys go from throwing 98-99 mph and wild to 91 and still wild. Taking away what a pitcher does best is the wrong thing to do.”

Yes, it can be hard to watch the girl you thought would be your ace walking half the Western world in a single game. But assuming she is practicing and taking lessons to learn her craft, you’re not doing her any favors by telling her to slow down. All you’re doing is taking away the one thing in her that made you want her in the first place.

Control is not a goal. It’s not something you have to work at separately. It is a result of good mechanics plain and simple. Encourage your pitchers to use their bodies properly to throw the ball and you’ll see plenty of strikes. Maybe not today, but it will happen if they work at it properly.

And don’t even bother telling her to “just throw strikes.” That’s a waste of breath, because unless she’s just emerged from a cave for the first time ever she knows she’s supposed to be throwing strikes. It’s just a lot harder than it looks.

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