Monthly Archives: May 2009

On a personal note

Hi all,

Sorry to depart from our usual softball discussions, but I know some of you are aware that for the last year my son Adam has been serving with the Illinois National Guard in an infantry unit in Afghanistan. I wanted to let you know that we found out yesterday he has now arrived safely at Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, and we will be picking him up Monday afternoon in Effingham, IL which is his home post (due to the fact he signed up while a student at Eastern Illinois University).

Obviously, we are very excited by this. It’s been a long and anxious year. He was a front-line soldier who saw his fair share of battle action, and from what we’re told helped disrupt Taliban operations in the southern part of the country.

Thanks to those of you who kept Adam in your thoughts and prayers; it meant a lot. And remember that there are still many soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guard members who are paying for our ability to argue whether the rise ball actually rises and the “right” way to hit a softball by giving up their comfy homes here and putting their lives on the line.

We are looking forward to yelling at him to clean his room, do something with his life, and stop spending his money like he’s been out of the country for a year. In other words, normal stuff.

Ken

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Learning to judge a fly ball

I can’t believe I’ve never done a post on playing the outfield before. But apparently I haven’t because I had to create a new category for this one. What really surprises me about that is that I love outfielders. As a slow pitch player I always enjoyed the outfield myself. But stranger things have happened, I guess.

In any case, one of the challenges of training outfielders is there’s just no substitute for experience. You can short toss by hand to work on the catching techniques, but judging a fly ball off a bat is a skill unto itself. It’s not something you can really drill, per se. You just have to do it enough to get the feel for it. Some players never do get it.

There is one trick you can try if your outfielders are close, but tend to let the ball get just over their heads. Tell them to go back farther than they think they should. It sounds simple — almost too simple — but it definitely works.

It all has to do with consistency and making adjustments. Players who are consistently allowing the ball to go just over their heads haven’t quite calibrated their brains to judge the exact trajectory of an incoming ball. They think they’re under it, but instead they’re just ahead of where it will land. Having them move a little further back than they think they should helps them make the adjustment, and starts to train their brains on where they should be rather than where they think they should be.

That, and a few thousand fly balls hit from the plate to the outfield, ought to do it!

Playing on the edge instead of where it’s safe

Sorry it’s been a little while since I’ve posted something new. Hope the old posts were keeping you entertained, at least to some extent. At least was for a good reason, though: I’ve been trying to make the rounds of games to see my students and the girls I coach in the summer playing in some of their games. I’ve also been trying to wean myself off the computer at night, at least as much as I’ve been on. When you find yourself emailing your wife, and she’s sitting on the couch right next to you, you have a problem.

But that’s not what got me on here today. I actually saw another great email message from Bobby Simpson of Higher Ground Softball. He was talking about a book he’d read called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. What struck Bobby, and me by extension, was the discovery that more than half of all the top performers in a given sport got there through a series of small failures. It wasn’t that they were bad, really. It was more that they were willing to go out beyond their comfort zones, where they knew they could succeed, and instead be willing to fail today so they could be better tomorrow. This was a worldwide phenomenon.

How many times have you seen (or coached) the opposite? You have a pitcher who has been working on developing a drop and/or curve ball. But when game time comes, she throws only fastballs and changeups because she knows she can throw them for strikes. Or worse yet, she want to throw drops and curves but you as the coach don’t let her because you might lose the game if she throws them, but feel confident you’ll win if she doesn’t. She never develops those weapons, and when you face a team that is hitting her fastball consistently you have nowhere else to go but the bullpen.

Or what about the situation I’ve railed on lately — the automatic bunt with a runner on first. The coach does it because it’s the “safe” thing to do. No one can criticize her for following “the book.” Well, except me I suppose. But if she lets her hitters hit away now and then in that situation she might find she can play for three or four runs instead of one in an inning. Sure, there’s a risk you get none. But you’re taking that risk by bunting away outs anyway.

It’s human nature to want to succeed. When we’re successful we feel good about ourselves. And here in America it’s particularly important because we love winners and hate losing. But the truth is most of the time you don’t learn a damn thing from winning and succeeding. Especially if you do the same things all the time. If you’re winning almost all your games you’re probably playing the wrong opponents or in the wrong tournaments.

The same goes for players. If they’re going to go beyond where they are, they need to stretch beyond their current limitations. Sure, they may find their reach exceeded their grasp at times. But they may also find out their grasp extended farther than they thought. After all, you can’t get anywhere just standing still.

If you’re a player, get out of your comfort zone. Try those new things. They may not work out, but at least you’ll have a better idea of what you can and can’t do — or perhaps what you could do with a little more work.

If you’re a coach, push your players out of their comfort zones, and do the same for yourself. Especially early in the season. Give that developing pitcher a chance to test her skills. Be willing to lose a few games early to win more games late. It’s what the best in the world do.

The illogic of over-pitching

I should probably stop reading the newspapers, because the things I read sometimes just drive me crazy. Here’s the latest.

I was reading about a local high school team and an overview of its season. As part of the story the coach talked about how his star pitcher had pitched all but one inning in the 26 games they had played so far. The team’s record was 7-19 at the time of the article.

That’s crazy to me on several levels. One I’ve talked about before — the risk of overuse/repetitive injuries. It has to take a toll on your body, as more and more studies are showing.

But even if you discount that part of it, it doesn’t make sense for other reasons. Not the least of which is lack of a backup plan. If your star pitcher has pitched all but one inning, and then she gets hurt for whatever reason, what do you do then? What if an unscrupulous coach decides that the path to winning Regionals or a conference championship is to take that pitcher out of the game? The season is basically over for them. What if she twists an ankle or jams a finger? What do they do then? 

Then there’s your basic fatigue. It’s gruelling mentally as well as physically to pitch that many games  in such a short period of time. While this pitcher will likely rise to the challenge (as she has in the past), she could certainly come in fresher and better-prepared with a little rest now and then. She could come in even more ready to play.

Winning is great, that’s for sure. But their record is already 7-19. Are you telling me there isn’t anybody else in that school who could’ve pitched in some of those 19 losses?

It just doesn’t make sense. Splitting off some of that pitching time would be better for everyone — the pitcher, the team, and even the coach. The sooner coaches learn that the better off everyone will be.

Bunting yourself out of an inning

Heard about this particular incident in a recent high school game, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen or heard something like this. First let me set the stage, then I’ll comment.

Top of the sixth inning. Visiting team is down by one run. Leadoff hitter for the inning gets to first base on a hit. Next better up (who is the team’s home run leader) bunts her to second. Hitter after that bunts her to third. You now have a runner on third and two outs. Fourth batter of the inning flies out to CF. Inning over, no runs scored. Coach is mad at the girl who hit the ball to center field for not getting a safe hit. Visiting team goes on to lose by — you guessed it — one run.

Strategically, bunting twice to put the runner on third makes little sense. First of all, you have nobody out and a long ball hitter at the plate. I don’t know her recent history so maybe she’s been struggling, but still: why give her up (along with an out)? Let her swing the bat and maybe something good will happen. Maybe try a hit and run, or even a fake bunt/slap. Whatever.

Where it really falls down, though, is giving up that second out to move the runner to third. Now you’re asking for a lot from that last hitter. If you still had an out to play with you’d have more options. That long fly ball to center with one out might score the runner from second (it’s a big field). If the previous hitter got a hit and advanced the runner to third, the run would definitely score and you’re on your way to a big inning.

Now let’s look at the percentages. According to Cindy Bristow’s book on strategy, your chance of scoring a runner from first with no one out is 43%. Your chance of scoring a runner from third with two out is 32%. So what did you gain by bunting her over there? Nothing, except the comfort of seeing a runner at third. In actual fact, you decreased your chance of scoring by 11%. Who would voluntarily do that?

When it comes to decisions like that, you really need to take emotion or comfort out of it. Even if your team can’t hit water if they fall out of a boat, you need to give them their best chance to score. Taking the bats out of their hands and simultaneously decreasing your odds of scoring isn’t the way to go. Know the situation, and act accordingly.

Shortening the stride for the drop

One of the most common cues for learning the drop ball (either peel or rollover) is that you need to get up and over the pitch. One of the ways of doing that is shortening the stride so you can lean out over it.

NOTE: If you are one of those people who believes that all pitchers can be taught to throw all pitches from the same position, go ahead and skip this article. It’s only going to make you mad. My experience is that most pitchers need a little help to get the ball to move the way it should, i.e. they need to vary from their core mechanics, not just spin the ball a different way. If the pitchers you know don’t do that, awesome! But not everyone can do that. I’ve found that leaning over the drop ball, for example, definitely helps.

Ok, for the rest of you, as I mentioned shortening the stride is a well-accepted technique for getting that forward lean. Not a bend at the waist, but a lean out over the front with the head, shoulders and chest. The question is, how much shorter should the stride be? I’ve seen pitchers who would leap out hard on their fastball, then barely step off to get over their drops. That’s way too short, and way too obvious.

The target I like to use is to have the toes land where the heel was. In other words, you land roughly one length of your foot shorter. It’s not obvious to the hitter, yet it can have a big effect on the pitcher’s success.

Indoors, I use my trusty garden kneeling pad to mark the distance. Outdoors, and especially in a game, there’s an easier way to do it. Have pitcher throw her normal fastball, but keep her stride foot in place after she throws. Then pivot on the heel and draw a line. That’s the goal line for the drop. It’s simple and not very obvious to the hitter. But it does give the pitcher a visual to shoot for.

One thing about the shorter stride to keep in mind: the pitcher still needs to drive out hard. She’s not landing her whole body short, just her foot. The effect then becomes akin to stumbling, i.e. the upper body continues out forward while the foot stops short. If she just lets up on her stride she’ll remain vertical, and thus there’s no reason to land short. She will also lose speed. But if she drives out hard she not only gets into position, she maintains speed. Or in some cases might even throw faster (due to working harder to spin the ball).

If you have a pitcher who’s having trouble getting the drop to work, try having her draw the line. It can make a real difference.

Why so serious?

Since my own daughter opted out of playing high school softball her senior year, I’ve found I have a lot of time on my hands. It doesn’t go to waste, though. I tend to wander out and catch games that either involve students of mine, players on my team, kids I know, or sometimes even some random game.

If you’ve never done it — gone to a game where you don’t have a direct stake in the outcome — it’s really an interesting experience. What you notice the most is how emotional, upset, angry, etc. otherwise seemingly reasonable people can get. I’ve watched as parents and/or other fans totally freak out over an umpire’s call — even if it’s the right call. They get angry over a poor strategic move, a missed play or dozens of other things.

I understand. I’ve been there too. But when you stop and watch a game you ‘re not totally invested in you can see how silly it sounds at times.

For most of us, we are watching kids playing a kid’s game. Winning that game, that tournament, that league championship may seem important at the time, but it’s really not. At least not in the big scheme of things.

We want to see our kids do well, or better yet do their best. But sometimes that desire gets in the way of common sense. If you find your blood boiling and your tolerance level dropping, take a deep breath, take a step back, and ask yourself the Joker’s question — why so serious? Then take a chill pill and be glad you live somewhere that a fastpitch softball game can be your biggest concern in the world.

Learning v. relearning a pitch

Here’s a phenomenon I’ve seen more than a few times since I started teaching lessons. Sometimes it takes longer for a pitcher to re-learn a pitch that has gone away than it did to learn the pitch originally.

Last year I had a couple of pitchers suddenly lose their curveballs. For no apparent reason they couldn’t couldn’t get the spin, couldn’t get the movement, couldn’t throw the pitch. We went back over all the steps, lesson after lesson, breaking it down. But the result was still the same — very little improvement. It probably took four times as long to get it back as it did to acquire it originally.

Tonight the same thing happened with a pitcher and her changeup. I first taught it to her during a tryout for my team, actually. It took her about five minutes to pick up the basics then. Tonight I was giving her a tune-up and she just couldn’t get it for the longest time. I tried all my usual tricks but they just didn’t seem to work. She finally did get it back, but it was a struggle.

I’m not sure why that happens. Perhaps when it’s new a pitcher is more open to change. But when it goes away, it goes away because the mechanics have deteriorated over time. At that point the “wrong” mechanics have become more ingrained (since she’s been using them) and thus they are tougher to overcome. Even moreso if she’s been successful in spite of the pitch not working at its optimum level, i.e. a changeup that’s too fast or a curveball that is angling in the right direction but not really breaking.

Whatever the reason, it’s probably a good indication of how important it is to be pristine in your practicing or games, lest you take yourself out of a pitch. ‘Cause once you lose the feel, it can be a long, tough road back.

The changeup smells fear

Had this discussion tonight with one of my students. I’d watched her a couple of weeks ago, and at that time it looked to me like she was telegraphing her changeup. The main way was slowing down as she threw it. It got hit most of the time, so I think it was a pretty good bet.

Tonight she and her dad came in, and the priority was the change. It’s a good pitch for her, and it just wasn’t working. I watched her throw one, then told her to try to go faster and throw it harder. That’s all it took. Boom! It was back and better than ever.

This is something I see a lot. Pitchers who are afraid the changeup won’t work tend to hesitate, which throws off the timing. At that point it won’t work, or at least it won’t work well.

That’s why I say the changeup smells fear. If you throw it with fear it won’t work. But if you put those doubts out of your mind and throw it hard, it will treat you right.

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