Monthly Archives: April 2008

Adding Life in the Fastpitch Lane to your RSS reader

This entry should actually be filed under “housekeeping,” but since I don’t have that as a category we’ll just leave it under General Thoughts. It’s something that I was finally able to figure out how to do, so I want to pass it along. I might even add it as a sidebar instruction since it doesn’t seem to be intuitive.

The topic is how to add this blog to your RSS reader. Those who are into the whole Web 2.0 thing are probably familiar with RSS readers. They are tools that let you aggregate the content from various blogs in a single place so you can see what’s out there and decide whether to read it. (Hopefully the answer is always “yes” for Life in the Fastpitch Lane.) Google Reader, My AOLand Yahoo! are three examples. Bloglines is another.

In the past I’ve tried to add the buttons in the sidebar that make it simple, but it hasn’t worked. I’ve also tried using their tools, but when I entered the URL for this blog I received an error message.

Yesterday I figured it out. What you have to do (assuming you have an account with one of the services) is click on the button that lets you add a feed, then come to Life in the Fastpitch Lane, click on the type of feed you want, then copy and paste THAT URL into the feed reader.

Here’s an example from Google. On the Google home page, go to the top and click on the link to More. In the left hand column there is a button that says + Add subscription. Click on that, and it will give you a box that tells you to find feeds or paste in the URL. With me so far?

Now come to Life in the Fastpitch Lane. In the right hand column there is a section labeled Syndicate. Click on your choice (Entries RSS 1.0, Entries RSS 2.0, etc.). The page will change and there will be a new URL at the top of the page. Copy that and paste it into the box on Google. Once you’ve done that your feed reader will start showing the latest entries.

I haven’t tried it on the others yet but I will. If there is anything different to do I will let you know. But I know it definitely works with Google.

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For throwing problems, check the thumb

Sometimes the solution to a big problem is something small. Take throwing problems for example. If the ball is tailing off, or is not going hard enough, it could be due to the position of the thumb.

Girls have a tendency to lay their thumbs on the side of the ball rather than opposite the middle finger where it belongs. This is often driven by the size of their hands v. the size of the ball.

It’s funny when you think about it, really. Boys, who tend to have larger hands, play with a baseball that is nine inches in circumference. (Yes I know boys also play fastpitch, but it’s not predominant). Girls, whose hands are generally smaller than those of boys, play with a ball that has a circumference of 11 or 12 inches. It just doesn’t seem to match up.

The problem this creates is putting the thumb in the proper position opposite the middle finger can be somewhat uncomfortable for girls. The younger the girl, the more uncomfortable it can be. But laying the thumb out to the side is not a strong position, which means the throws won’t be as good as they could be.

As your players throw, it’s definitely worthwhile to check their grips and make the correction if needed. They may not like it at first, but you’ll be doing them a favor.

Outs are the clock in softball

“Outs are the clock in softball.” This is a phrase I heard or read earlier in the week. Can’t remember who said it — perhaps my friend and fellow coach Rich — but I think this is a great way to think of outs and what you want to do with them, especially late in the game.

To put it into perspective, let’s think about a different sport that does have a clock. I love football, so let’s look at that.

Let’s say you’re losing by 10 points and you have 2:30 left to play. To tie the game you will need to score twice — at least a touchdown and a field goal. To win you will need a two-point conversion as well.

Two minutes and 30 seconds is not a lot of time, but it’s doable. What it means is you need to score quickly, using as little time as possible, then get the ball back and try again. Ideally you’ll score the touchdown first, which takes some of the pressure off.

There are all kinds of plays you could run to try to advance the ball and score. The smart play is to pass, because generally speaking you can move the ball farther and move it closer to the sidelines to get out of bounds and stop the clock. Also, if you’re unsuccessful the clock stops, giving you more time to plan the next play.

You could also run the ball. But it’s tougher to get the ball out of bounds that way, and a good running play generally goes for about four to five yards. If you have a lot of ground to cover you’re expending a lot of time to try to get that score.

It’s all about clock management. Being able to stop the clock without expending timeouts will give you a better chance of scoring. The clock is your enemy at this point, so you need to conserve as much time as you can.

Now let’s bring it back to softball. Unless you’re playing in a tournament with a time limit, your “clock” is the number of outs. The more of them you use, the fewer you have left to try to score. If you’re in a close game, say down by one run, it may be a good move to trade an out for a run. But if you’re behind by two or more, it may not be such a good idea.

Let’s say it’s the top of the sixth, your team is behind by three runs, and you are the visitors. You now have six outs to try to score a minimum of three runs to tie or four to win. (You also may want a couple more to give yourself some insurance.)

In any case, that’s a lot of runs in two innings. You’re probably going to need every out you can get. What that means is you don’t want to be throwing them away by sacrifice bunting, attempting steals (unless you’re positive you can beat the throw) or using other such strategies. You don’t want to send a runner around third on an iffy play either. You’re going to have to trust your hitters to put the ball in play. It still may not work out, but it’s your best bet. You want to extend the inning as long as you can. That means not using up your outs on purpose.

Of course, one other factor that can have an effect is what the actual score is. There’s a huge difference in offensive potential between being behind 16-13 or 4-1.

In a seven-inning game, both teams start with 21 outs. How you use them from there often determines your fate. If you purposely expend one per inning, and your opponent doesn’t, you’ve just cut your allotted number of outs to 14. That’s a pretty big advantage to hand your opponent for no reason other than you don’t know what else to do, or you’re stuck on a single strategy.

If you were told that the local rules dictated that your team gets two outs per inning while your opponents get three, there’s little doubt you’d either protest or leave the contest entirely. But that’s exactly what you’re doing to yourself when you don’t use your outs more intelligently.

Before you just start giving them away, keep that idea in mind. Outs are the clock in our game of fastpitch softball. Don’t run the time needlessly off of yours.

What it’s all about

Had another one of those moments last night that reminds me of why I love coaching. One of my students came to her lesson all excited. She had pitched what the parent of another student called the game of her life against one of the top 14U teams in the area. She said she was throwing really well, all her pitches were working, and she was completely baffling them.

Although her team eventually lost the game 2-1 on two unearned runs in the bottom of the last inning, she felt like she’d won. She definitely made a statement.

Here in the midwest we spend a lot of time indoors working on pitching. In fact, often we spend far more time indoors than outdoors. The summer season runs from about April to August, with fall ball encompassing September and October. With so much time in the gym it’s easy for pitchers to lose perspective and forget why they’re practicing. Games like the one Rachel had this past weekend are the reward for what can often be long and tedious hours spent throwing ball after ball indoors.

I can tell you this much. Not only did she come in pumped up, she was as attentive and worked as hard as I’ve ever seen her work. A little taste of success can sure leave you hungry for more!

More on the sacrifice bunt

My pal Rich sent me some information today that further confirms what I said earlier — the sacrifice bunt is way over-used relative to its value.

Here’s a link to an incredible article that really breaks down the chances of scoring with various numbers of baserunners with 0,1, or 2 outs. This is not some guy offering his opinion on the way things should be. It’s an academic type performing a statistical analysis that Billy Beane would be proud of. Be warned — the article (or more accurately academic paper) is long and very mathematical. But it certainly reinforces the points I and others made before.

The basis for this paper is the analysis of the actual outcomes of at bats in Major League Baseball. It talks about how many runs are scored per inning on average in each of the situations. More than that, though, it also breaks it down by who is hitting, i.e. where in the lineup you are. The numbers are a little different for an 8 hitter than a 3 hitter, so this takes it into account. It also accounts for the DH in the American League v. having the pitcher hit in the National.

Let’s take a look at a classic scenario. The leadoff hitter gets on base, and the #2 hitter in the lineup bunts him to second. If you do that all the time, the probability of scoring at least one run is .439. If you leave the runner on first and have the #2 hitter swing away, the probability of scoring is .483. So you’ve actually hurt your chances of scoring by giving up that out to advance the runner.

Ok, that’s the top of the lineup. Let’s look at the #7 hitter getting on and the #8 hitter at bat. In that case, the probability of scoring from second with one out is .379, while the probability of scoring from first with no outs is .393. Hmmm. So why are we bunting again?

Where the sacrifice bunt does seem to make sense is with no outs and a runner on second. But it seems like a lot of softball coaches never give themselves the chance to get in that situation. They knee-jerk bunt as soon as a runner gets on first and regardless of whether a weak or strong hitter is at the plate. They take themselves out of more innings than they create opportunities.

Now I’m sure there are some who will say softball is not baseball, the bases are shorter, the pitcher is closer, blah blah blah. That argument may have been valid 15 years ago, but it’s not anymore. Today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster and better trained. Third basemen in particular make their bones by fielding the bunt and making the play, often times getting the lead runner. Hitters put in more work than they used to, and have bats that are a lot hotter than they used to be too. There is a much greater chance that they’ll put the ball in play and get a big inning started. One check of the local newspapers for high school games or the NCAA Web site will show you that the days of 1-0 15 inning nail biters are long past. Offense is all the rage, and those who can’t generate it by swinging the bats are doomed to wind up on the short end of the stick.

As Mike Hanscom pointed out before it’s a little different at the younger ages. But even there, better teams are starting to play the bunt better. You don’t see as many balls thrown away or as many runners reaching base safely as you used to. The expectations are higher.

Does all this mean you should never bunt? No! When the defense is playing back, or you know you’re playing for one run, or the defense has shown it’s a little sloppy on the bunt you should take advantage of it. It’s still a good weapon. But it’s not the be-all and end-all of fastpitch offense, and it shouldn’t be an automatic. If you’ve trained your hitters to hit then let them do their jobs. In most cases you’ll increase your probability of scoring. Not because I say so, but because the numbers don’t lie.


Playing hurt – a coach’s dilemma

About a week ago Coach Greg wrote to me to tell about his team’s performance in an early spring tournament. They came in second, which was a great start to their season. Along the way, though, he brought up an interesting topic.

It seems that one of his pitchers had hurt her wrist. Greg knew it was painful but the girl said she was ok to go, and she wound up pitching four innings. Later she went to get the wrist checked out and discovered it wasn’t just sprained but broken.

Greg said had he known the injury was that severe he would never have allowed her to pitch. The girl probably knew it too, soo she hid the true degree of her injury from him. Therein lies the dilemma.

As coaches, we have to rely on what our players tell us regarding injuries. We can try to test it, of course, but without formal medical training we’re really just guessing. The mind can be a powerful thing, even when it comes to pain. If a player wants to play bad enough, she may be able to push pain out of her mind in order to stay on the field.

The problem is pain is there for a reason. It’s our body’s way of warning us that something is wrong, and that we should cease whatever we’re doing before it gets worse. When we ignore those signs we do so at our own peril.

While there is a very small percentage of coaches who would knowingly allow a player to play with a major injury if they thought it meant winning a big game or a tournament, most would not. The key word is knowingly.

In the end, you have to follow your gut. I’ve certainly allowed players to play on serious injuries because I’ve wanted to believe them when they said they weren’t hurt too badly. But somewhere deep down inside I knew.

Players who are wincing every time they perform a skill, or who are favoring an arm, leg, or whatever are hurt enough to come out. Better to get them out now than risk more serious damage to their careers or their bodies down the road. They may not like it, but there’s a point where you cease being tough and instead are just being stupid.

By the way, this also applies to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Players who are sick to their stomachs, dizzy, pale, etc. have no place on the field. Take care of them even when they’re not willing to take care of themselves. It’s your responsibility as coach.

A corollary to the Law of Opposites

In a previous post I described what I cal the Law of Opposites, which essentially states that to make a ball move in one direction you must first go in the opposite direction.

There is a corollary to this law however. It applies to the changeup. This law says that to make a ball go slow, you must go fast. Not for one of those weak slow your arm down types of changes, but for a true change where you disguise the pitch speed.

Even those who are throwing a true change sometimes will let up off the pitch, especially at the end. That is the wrong approach to take. What it will do is actually make the change faster than it should be. Instead, you should focus on bringing the arm around as fast at you can. Going fast will take you past the normal point of release for a fastball, helping you release the ball at a weaker point. Throwing the ball from a weak release point, of course, will make it go slower.

It is counter-intuitive, but it works. Keep the arm speed up throughout and you’ll have greater success with the change.

Making the backhand change work

Most of you are probably aware of the importance of having a good changeup. It’s great for upsetting the timing of hitters, and even if it doesn’t work as it should (i.e. get thrown for a strike) it can still help set up the next pitch.

One of the most popular changes these days is the backhand change. It’s also called the flip change, but over the years I’ve found it’s better if you don’t flip the wrist.

I’ve talked previously about some of the mechanics, such as knuckles to nose and keeping a little bend in the arm as you bring it through. But one thing that bears repeating now and then is the importance of maintaining arm speed. Certainly it’s important for fooling the hitter. But it’s also important for taking speed off the ball.

That’s right. It may seem counterintuitive, but providing you’re using the right mechanics, the faster you go and the harder you try to throw it the slower the ball will go. And by the same token, if you slow your arm down you’ll throw it too fast, turning a good fastball into a crappy one, not a change.

Maintaining arm speed helps you get the ball past the fastball release point and out in front of the front leg. Slowing the arm down changes the timing, bringing the release point back closer to the normal fastball release.

If the change is coming out too fast, don’t slow down. Speed up. It’ll work a lot better.

A drop is the same as a fastball to a blind horse

Calling pitches is as much an art as a science. There are all kinds of rules of thumb you can follow, but the truth is some people have a better feel for it than others.

If you have the knack for it, or have a coach or catcher who does, consider yourself very fortunate. It makes things a whole lot easier for everyone.

But what if you are a pitcher (or the parent of one) whose has someone calling pitches that just doesn’t have the talent for it? Especially the kind who calls a fastball down the middle when you’re ahead in the count thinking you’ll go for the strikeout?
 
If you can blow the ball by the hitters it’s not that a bad a call. But as you move up the ladder, it becomes increasingly difficult to make that fastball stand up. Give a good hitter too many looks at the plate and it’s like letting her hit against a pitching machine. Sooner or later she’s going to figure out.

So what do you do if you know the person calling pitches is making bad calls? If it’s the catcher, you can always shake her off. She may not like it, but you have to throw what you’re comfortable with. Hopefully the pitcher and catcher can talk and get on the same page.

What about if it’s a coach, though? This gets a little tougher. Hopefully you have the type of coach you can talk to. Let the coach know it’s not working and you’d like to try something else, then make the suggestion.

If you don’t have a coach who’s open to suggestions, you may have to take more drastic action. One thing you can do is substitute a peel drop for the fastball. A pitch with movement is much tougher to hit, and a peel drop pretty much looks the same as a fastball, especially from the bench. For hitters who tend to stand up as they swing it’s a great pitch, because they’ll pull the bat up and over the ball as it moves down. For hitters who can follow it down, the tendency will be to hit ground balls; hopefully your infield is up to fielding them. Either way, it’s better than watching a home run go over the fence.

Understand that this strategy is more of a last resort. You shouldn’t go changing the pitch calls on a whim. But if what’s going on just isn’t working, and your “survival” is at stake, you may need to take things into your own hands. You’ll be doing everyone involved — including the coach — a favor.

Bunts, outs and strategy

Of all the offensive strategies in the game of fastpitch softball, none is more time-honored than using the bunt as a means of advancing a runner into scoring position. In fact, you could say that offensive strategy #1 goes like this: get your leadoff hitter on base, then have the next hitter sacrifice bunt her over to second.
 
That’s the way it’s always been. And for many that’s the way it continues to be. Yet there is a question as to whether it really makes sense to automatically lay down the bunt when you get a runner on base with no outs, no matter the quality of the opposing team or where you are in the lineup. 

Major League Baseball once did a study on the chances of scoring a runner from first base with no outs v. from second base with one out. It came from the study of 50 years worth of statistics. (MLB and the people who follow it intensely love to make with the stats.) According to Cindy Bristow’s must-have book Softball Strategies, Coverages, Signals & Charts, the chances of a runner scoring from first with no outs are 43%. The chances of scoring that same runner from second with one out are 45%. Is it really worth giving up an out automatically to increase your chances of scoring by 2%? It’s a good strategy sometimes — like when you’re in a tight, low-scoring game where you need to play for one run, when your team’s hitters are being dominated by the other team’s pitcher, or  you’re in the part of your lineup where rallies go to die.

But it may not be such a good idea when you’re early in the game and you know you can hit the opponent’s pitcher. Why not play for a big inning by letting hitter #2 swing away? She may advance the runner a lot further than second, and you still have all three outs left to try to get her home. Even if she only gets to second, the chances of scoring go up to 60% with no outs. If she makes it to third, you stand a 70% chance of getting her in. I’d say 70% looks a lot better than 45% — and 60 feet away looks better than 120 feet. After all, from third all you need is a wild pitch to score.

I’ve even seen some teams waste two outs trying to bunt a runner to third. Let’s look at the stats there. Again, with a runner on first and no outs your chances of scoring that runner are 43%. If you expend an out to bunt her to second and then another to bunt her to third, your situation is two outs and a runner on third. Your chances of scoring now have actually gone down. Statistically, you have a 32% chance of scoring — 11% less than when you started. How does that make sense? Unless your team is so horrible at swinging the bat that they have no chance of putting the ball in play, you are better off trying to hit that runner around and in.

If you follow softball 101 and bunt her to second, you’re still better off swinging the bat and using a hit to advance her to third. The chances of scoring a runner from third with one out are 54%. That’s a slight advantage over the “house” for you gamblers. Does it really make sense to give up 22% to get that runner to third? I don’t think so. Half of 54% is 27%, so you’re basically cutting your chances of scoring almost in half by sac bunting the runner to third. Who in their right minds wants to cut their chances of scoring in half? Yes, you might get lucky with a wild pitch now and then. But the higher a level you play, the less likely you are to get that luck. In the meantime, you’ve given up a lot of outs — and potential runs — for no reason.

Bunting is a great technique for advancing runners when used intelligently. I’ve done it myself lots of times. But it can also be a liability. Do the math. Make your bunts more strategic and you’ll generate a lot more offense.

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