Monthly Archives: January 2009

Choosing signals for pitches

I was having a discussion with a coach named Gail last night about the signals for her pitchers. There apparently were some inconsistencies on her team about the numbers assigned to various pitches. A couple of her pitchers come to me for lessons, and a couple go to someone else. The other pitching coach uses different numbers than Gail does for the pitches, and there were some questions about whether they should use different signals for the pitchers. This is actually more common than you might think, especially on younger teams.

In my mind, I don’t really care what numbers are assigned to various pitches by a team coach. Many of the team coaches of my students use a different numbering system than I do. That’s fine with me. I just need to know what system they use so when a student throws a pitch I know whether it did what it was supposed to do.

What I do believe is that whatever signals the team uses, they should use them for all pitchers. It’s just too confusing to have two or three sets of signals for different pitchers. A mistake will be inevitable, and since the softball gods can be cruel it will occur at the worst possible moment. If you or your catcher call for an outside pitch and the pitcher thinks it’s an inside one it’s probably going to end up at the screen.

How much do I believe this? Last the pitchers and catchers on the team I coach used a different numbering system than I use. There was confusion early in a practice game, so I told them to get together and figure it out. I believe it was the catchers who had the most input, since they call the pitches and needed to be confident in what they were calling.

Of course, that was a 16U team. If you’re not quite at that point, the head coach needs to make a decision and set the signals. That’s what Gail said she was going to do. You want everyone on board and pulling the same way. Having consistent pitch signals is one more way to do it.


Attitude may not be everything…

…but it sure is a lot. Last night I was teaching some pitching lessons at one of the local facilities. In the next couple of cages there were girls from an 18U travel team working on their hitting, with a couple of their coaches in attendance.

As my student was retrieving the ball her dad/catcher had thrown away on the return, I was distracted by something happening two cages over. A hitter was hitting off a machine that was being fed by the female coach. The coach noticed something in the girl’s swing — I didn’t get it all, but it sounded like she was over-coiling or doing something else that was causing her problems — and she pointed it out. The player’s response was “That’s how I swing.” And she said it with one of those “end of discussion” tones.

I have never understood that type of attitude. I don’t know what the player was doing or if the coach was right or wrong about it. But it sounded like the coach had some idea of what she was doing, and she was trying to help the player. But apparently the player (whom I do not remember being on the USA National Team or anything like that) wasn’t interested in any help. She was content right where she was.

What’s interesting is when you read stories about actual National Team players from any country, or MLB players, or most pro athletes in general, they’re some of the easiest players to work with. They’re always looking for an edge, and willing to try anything to get it. Many times they’re more open to new ideas, in fact, than youth players.

I know people who have worked with players at that level many times and they confirm that elite players tend to be very coachable. It’s probably what sets them apart from kids with equal talent but not equal accomplishment.

It’s a shame. I felt bad for the coach. She called over the other coach, a guy, to take a look and it sounded like there was more resistance. I didn’t really key in on it since 1) I had to focus on my lesson and 2) it wasn’t my business in any case. But that’s the kind of thing that can keep a player and a team from reaching its goals.

If you’re not willing to try new things or change what you’re doing, you’ll never be more than you are today. You don’t necessarily have to stick with it, but you should at least give it a try. You never know when some coach on a cold night January might be trying to hand you the keys to the kingdom.

Getting the slug bunt to work

One of the most fun short game techniques is the slug bunt, also known as the fake bunt and slap. You show bunt, getting the corners to come crashing in. You then pull back and slap the ball into play, past the corners crashing in and into one of the holes where one of the middle infielders used to be. Properly executed it can create all kinds of havoc, getting runners in motion and possibly scoring runs where they might not have been scored otherwise. It can also create some nice momentum that could result in a big inning.

Of course in order to get all of that you first have to be able to execute the skill. That can be more of a challenge than you might think. It seems easy as you describe it — show bunt, pull the bat back to your shoulder (without turning your body), then slap the ball when it comes in. Yet I’ve noticed that a lot of hitters seem to have trouble figuring out exactly how to do the actual slap.

I think it’s because there’s a difference between slapping like this and standard hitting. From what I’ve observed, hitters try to use the same technique for both. But there’s a critical difference in what the hands do. In a standard hit, when it’s time to launch the hands you pull the bottom hand, then drive the top hand through. But in a slap or slug bunt, it’s all top hand. Pulling the bottom hand first puts the hands too far out in front and doesn’t allow for a good, strong, quick slap.

Once the bat head is back to the shoulder, have your hitters launch the bat using the top hand only. It should snap forward smartly. The bottom hand just rides along to help balance the bat.

One other thing. Many hitters have a tendency to start too low, even on a regular bunt. On the slug bunt it’s death. You need to hit the ball down. It’s better to start out higher and chase the ball down if needed. The hitter will at least be headed in the right direct, and will be more likely to hit the top half of the ball.

Things that make me go hmmmm #2

Just got the new Softball Sales catalog in the mail yesterday. As usual, I paged through it even though it’s the same stuff I saw in the last 10 catalogs they sent me.

While I was in there, though, I was reminded about one of those things that makes me go hmmm. I always wonder why nearly every product that carries a player endorsement (such as a Jennie Finch or Jessica Mendoza bat) is a mid-level to low mid-level product?

If you were a top-level athlete, wouldn’t you want you name to be on the top of the line product? I know I would for a couple of reasons. One is I’d probably want to use a product that has my name on it, since by implication I’m saying I would. It would also be fun (and intimidating) to go to bat with a stick carrying my name. Another is what you’re associated with. I would hate to think that my name stood for “mid-level” performance when I’ve worked my whole life to become a top-level player. What’s the thinking — use the bat with Jennie Finch’s name on it unless you really want to do well, in which case you should buy this other bat?

The one company I’ve seen do it right, in my opinion, is Wilson. The Cat Osterman signature series is on the A2000, which is their top of the line glove. Sure, at $199 it’s out of the reach of most youth players. But on the other hand it gives them something to aspire to. I never owned an A2000 because by the time I could afford to buy one myself I’d quit playing. But if I had been serious, I would’ve wanted it — especially if one of the Williams brothers (Ted or Billy) had had his name on it too.

It just seems to me that if you’re a top-level athlete endorsing a product line, it should be a top-level product line. Let the mid-level stuff get endorsed by mid-level people.

I dunno. Maybe I just don’t understand marketing. No, wait — that’s my day job. I guess the real lesson here is be your own hero. If you want to be like Jennie, or Jessica, or Crystal, or any of the others, forget whose name is on the products and work your butt off instead.

NFCC class – day three

Back at home now after completing the class. We finished up this morning with some interesting discussions, some of which strayed from strategy and got more into becoming a better coach. For example, there was discussion about the roles of a first and third base coach, giving signs, picking opponents’ signs, and becoming a credible coach.

Lots of discussion with these sessions, along with a couple of interactive activities. We finished up with a little Q&A session with the instructors, where they listed some of their favorite books (coaching and general leadership) among others. Everyone was a little tired after three days, but it was still very valuable.

One suggestion I will make if you’re thinking about attending a future class (and I definitely recommend it) is to stay in the recommended hotel. Not only did I have a great room at a relative bargain price, but got to eat breakfast with Jay Miller and Scott Centala on Saturday and Sunday. We had some nice off-line discussions about all sorts of things, not just softball. I think we all found that the coaches are very down-to-earth people.

One other funny thing. One of the students talked about challenges he faces with his players, and said the instructors probably don’t have to deal with things like that, but the rest of us do. Carol Bruggeman was the first to pipe up “Don’t kid yourself. We face all the same challenges you do,” including players not being mentally into the game, discipline issues, and unhappy parents. The others agreed.

Tomorrow it’s back to work, in my real job. But it was definitely fun to talk offensive strategies with so many great people.

NFCC class day two

Gotta make this a quick one tonight. It’s after 11:30 PM and I have to be up and in class again tomorrow at 8:00 AM. But it was worth it — Rich and I had dinner with a high school buddy I haven’t seen in 20+ years: Dave Rutkowski. We’ve kept in touch via e-mail, but since I was in the area we got together for some good Tex-Mex. It doesn’t hurt that he’s CFO of the company!

Anyway, this was another good class today. We talked about making up a lineup, and how to develop a game plan based on statistics. Now, that’s probably pretty useless to us travel coaches because most of the time we don’t have any idea how the opponent is doing, or even who the opponent is half the time. But it was still interesting to learn how it’s done.

We spent some valuable time on the mental side of hitting as well. Scott talked about Ken Ravizza’s book Heads Up Baseball: Playing the Game One Pitch at a Time and some of the principles in there, as well as some of his own principles. He seems like a very positive-focused coach. He also has a resume that crosses both softball and professional baseball so he has a wide range of reference and experience.

Jay Miller led a discussion about the DP and Flex. I was glad to see I wasn’t the only one in the class who finds that whole thing confusing. Pretty much everyone does. It’s one reason I rarely use it. (The other is I like the kids to hit for themselves since I think it’s the most fun part of the game.) He also showed us how you can essentially have two DPs in the game. Let’s just say it involves an illegal substitution and the fact that hardly anyone pays any attention to which defensive players are in the game. Even Carol and Scott seemed shocked to hear he does this. Given that his wife is Lacy Lee Baker, executive director of the NFCA and a former NCAA employee, it seems really surprising that he’d out and out flout the rules. But there you go.

After taking this class, I am beginning to see the value in pushing the envelope as far as when your baserunners leave the bag — in other words leave a little early. The general philosophy is you have two choices on a steal — be safe or be called for leaving early. I’ve always been against it on principle but maybe I’m being parochial about it. In any case, it’s gotten me thinking that our baserunners may be leaving late in an effort to be on time. It’s something to check on next chance we get.

There was more on baserunning and manufacturing runs. Much of it was a repeat of things I already knew, but good to hear them reinforced again. The game is changing so fast these days it’s good to make sure what you’re doing isn’t outdated.

They also do a good job of distinguishing between a play — something you call in a specific situation — and a philosophy, such as take two bases unless something holds you up. Knowing your philosophy going in, and making sure your players know it, helps cut down on some of the delays that lead to mistakes.

One more half day to go tomorrow. Then it’s fly back home, take the test, and earn my second star in the Master Coach program. Wonder if anyone has shovelled the snow off the driveway? I’m not counting on it unless they couldn’t get their cars out!

And oh, by the way. Today it was much colder. So much for the sweet Dallas weather. Tomorrow should be closer to 60 so maybe it’ll make for a nice drive to the airport.

And oh yeah…

I forgot to add this in my last post. Today it was snowing back home in the Chicago area. But it was sunny and near 80 here in Texas. One more good reason to attend the class!

NFCC coaching class on offensive strategies – Day One

Greetings from Denton, Texas, where I am participating in the NFCA’s coaching college class on offensive strategies. So far it’s been a lot of fun. This particular group has been very open about sharing ideas and discussing strategies. I also think the instructors — Jay Miller, Carol Bruggeman, and Scott Centala are particularly adept at getting the discussions going.

This is a class I’ve wanted to take for a couple of years, so I’m glad to be able to do it this year. I feel strong on the technical aspects of the game, but have always felt I could use some improvement in the area of strategy. I’ve gotten better over the years through some effort, but I still felt there was more work to be done to become the coach I aspire to be.

In any case, the class has been very interesting. One of my favorites was the idea of using a fake bunt/slap to help a runner on second steal third. Covering a steal of third can be challenging for the defense under ordinary circumstances. Do they leave the third baseman back to cover third, thereby leaving themselves more vulnerable to a bunt (especially if their pitcher is not a particularly good fielder)? Do they have shortstop cover third, creating a foot race to the bag with the runner?

As an offensive coach you can take advantage of that. The fake bunt part will likely get the third baseman to come in another step or two at minimum, pulling her further away from the bag making it harder for her to cover. Showing slap will likely freeze the shortstop for a step or two, giving your runner more time to win the foot race. The beauty is the hitter doesn’t have to get the slap down. In fact, you can have her miss on purpose. You give up a strike, but advance the runner 60 feet. Sounds like a good idea, especially if your runner on second doesn’t have the speed to win the race outright. And you never know — it might create enough confusion to get a mishandle on the throw and score the runner.

One other thing they encouraged was taking more chances on the bases. For example, going for two bases instead of one whenever possible. Part of that depends on the speed of the runner of course. No sense being stupid about it. Another emphasis was on keeping the trailing runner running. If your hitter slashes a single to the outfield with a runner on first and no outs, your runner should be thinking of going to third instead of cruising into second. If she does, the batter/runner should be heading to second base, not watching the play from first. Even if the first runner is out, you’ll still have a runner in scoring position. And if she’s safe, you have two runners in scoring position with no outs, giving you a lot of options while putting pressure on the defense. Miller said you have to be willing to have runners thrown out now and then; if you’re risk-averse you’ll never create those opportunities. Lord knows I’ve had enough runners thrown out going for the extra base, so with a little smarter approach we should benefit.

Obviously there’s lots more to it. But those are a few highlights. If you have the means and opportunity to take this course, by all means do it. Makes me wish we had a game coming up (instead of more snow to shovel).

Oh, and one last thing. We went to dinner with a bunch of the other coaches and had some great conversations. The type of coaches who would take a class like this are pretty cool, as a rule!

There’s strong, then there’s…

Ok, I decided to borrow the Army’s slogan for this one. The full saying from them is there’s strong, then there’s Army strong. With a son who is on his way back to Afghanistan after a 15-day leave I guess the Army is on my mind.

What made me think of this today was working with one of my students, a girl named Haley, tonight. With the holidays and all it’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve seen her. Haley was working hard when I got to the facility tonight, really putting a lot of effort in. Yet because she was trying so hard she was forming a bad habit. As she moved into release, she sort of did this arm curl move where she pulled her hand straight up instead of letting the forearm and hand whip past the elbow.

I told her I realized she was doing it because it felt strong, but it actually was limiting her speed. It was also putting her at risk of injury, most likely to the elbow but also possibly the shoulder the way she was tightening everything up.

We worked on getting the arm long again at release and after a little while she was back on track and moving on to other things. As she got it corrected she could feel how much easier it was to throw hard by staying loose. I told her she’d last a lot longer at a tournament that way too.

Fortunately, Haley is very coachable as well as being talented, so it was easy to get her to change. Not every kid is like that, however. They will want to stay with what feels strong instead of what actually is strong. But just because something takes a lot of effort doesn’t mean you’re using strength efficiently. Most players who are “in the zone” will tell you the activity feels almost effortless. That’s definitely true for pitching. They’ll use a lot of energy, but it will be easy energy. If it’s not, something is wrong.

Get quicker earlier

There is pretty much always more than one reason why pitches go wild in one direction or another. Some are obvious and easy to spot, others not so much.

Here’s one for pitches going high. Check to make sure that the pitcher is accelerating her arm circle at the right time. There can be a tendency sometimes for pitchers to wait too long to start accelerating their arm. Instead of speeding up from the top of the circle to the bottom, they wait until they hit the bottom of the circle, then start accelerating.

The phrase I like is get quicker earlier. In other words, start accelerating as soon as you pass the top. If you do that, and use a long, loose arm, you’ll feel the proper release point at the bottom of the circle, and have the proper timing. It’ll help you throw harder, too.

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