Monthly Archives: March 2013

Handicaps for softball games

Finally! The weather finally got halfway decent, the snow had melted off the field, so I got to watch a high school softball game. It was a JV game, but softball is softball. Or so I thought.

It was pretty brutal. The team I was rooting for (because one of my players was helping out there today) just destroyed the other team by 20+ runs in each game.

Truthfully I started feeling bad for the other team.Their girls were trying hard, but they just don’t have the skills. I actually saw a ground ball roll through the second baseman’s legs out to right field, where the right fielder kicked it into center trying to pick it up, and the hitter wound up on second instead of being thrown out easily at first. All it was missing was the music from the Bad News Bears (the original 1976 version, still the best!).

That got me to thinking. Some sports use a handicapping system to make them more balanced and fair. Horse racing, for example. They add weight to the load the horses have to carry to make everything more balanced.

Or what about golf and bowling? They let the weaker player subtract strokes from or add pins to their scores to balance things out more. In sailboat racing they subtract time from the times of the slower boats to even things out a bit.

So why not softball? Rather than watching a complete blowout, which is the equivalent of watching paint dry, why not institute a handicapping system that gives the struggling team a chance at a comeback, and gives the far better team more of a challenge, which makes the game more worthwhile?

It wouldn’t kick in right away. But let’s say you set a 15-run limit. After that, the losing team gets to add an extra fielder or two to try and cut down on the number of errors by closing up the field.

Or you can do what we did as kids when we didn’t have enough players – close a field. For right handed hitters you could close left, i.e. any ball hit there is an out and a dead ball, and any runners on base have to go back. For lefties you’d close right field. Not only would that cut back on the scoring, it would force the hitters to have to learn how to go to the opposite field.

An obvious one is to have the hitters on the successful team turn around and hit opposite-handed. I remember doing that in co-rec softball years ago. Or you could force them to use cheap aluminum bats instead of their $350 super bats.

Here’s another idea. After 15 runs, the two teams switch pitchers. That way the better pitcher is pitching to her own team, challenging them, while the weaker team gets to hit off the pitchers who’s been getting pounded all game. Either they’ll hit better or the pitcher will feel better about herself.

The dominating team could start each inning with one out, and/or the hitters would have an 0-1 count. Or you could give the weaker team an extra strike. (I’ve noticed many umpires tend to do that anyway by closing up the strike zone for the better pitcher trying to make a game of it.)

Obviously, this is tongue-in-cheek. Truth is it’s up to the coach of the weaker team to coach his/her players up so they improve. Still, when you’re wondering if the inning will ever be over, the mind does tend to wander.

So how about you? What sorts of handicaps would you impose to help move the game along?

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Tips for calling pitches in fastpitch softball

I imagine that calling pitching in baseball is similar to doing it in fastpitch softball, but since I only have experience with the latter, and this is a softball blog, we’re going to focus there. You baseball folks can let me know if it’s the same in your world.

In any case, calling pitches in fastpitch softball is definitely an art. Some people seem to have a natural feel for it, while others tend to struggle making the right calls.

Having charts on hitters’ tendencies makes it somewhat easier, although even at that you never know. Maybe that hitter worked on her game in the off-season and doesn’t have the same weaknesses she had before.

Of course, if you’re a travel coach facing many different teams throughout the season the odds are you’re not going to have much information on most of the hitters you face. Which means you’re going to be doing a fair amount of guesswork.

No matter whether you have a lot or little information, here are a few tips to help make it easier. We can debate who makes these calls — the catcher or a coach — another day.

1. Mix it up

Mixing pitches is the cardinal rule of pitch calling. I don’t care how good you are or how well or hard the pitcher throw a particular pitch. If you give the hitters a steady diet of the same pitch, or location, or speed, sooner or later they’re going to figure it out and start sitting on it.

Think about hitters hitting off a pitching machine. You can crank it up to its max speed, which will seem overpowering at first. But eventually, if the machine is throwing the same speed to the same location the hitters will start hitting it.

A smart pitch caller will go up and down, in and out, and will certainly mix changeups or off-speed pitches in. You can walk up the ladder — starting low and working your way higher as you go. Or throw inside, inside and then outside or vice versa. You want the hitter worried about the entire strike zone, not just a portion of it, and about looking bad being ahead of an off-speed or change.

You’ll also want to mix in pitches the pitcher is struggling with, just to keep the hitters honest. For example, if the pitcher is having trouble with her changeup you still want to throw it now and then – if for no other reason than to make her other pitches look faster. But mostly, you just don’t want the hitters getting comfortable.

2. Avoid predictability

This is a corrollary to #1. When you’re mixing pitches you don’t want to fall into predictable patterns. One of the classics, of course, is throwing a changeup on an 0-2 count. You can do it now and then, but if you do it every time, a smart hitter will just concede the first two strike to get to the meatball. (A strategy my oldest daughter Stefanie was very good at, by the way.)

You can have a couple of pre-set patterns, but you don’t want to use them over and over. The more predictable your pitch calling is the easier it is for smart hitters (or their coaches) to zero in on a particular pitch on a particular count and send it toward South America.

3. Know your pitchers’ strengths

Every pitcher has pitches they throw well, and those they don’t. That’s something that can change from day to day, too.

It’s one of those funny things – a particular pitch might decide to hide on a particular day. But assuming all is well, it’s important to know what the pitcher’s best pitches are, and which the weaker ones are, so you can call the game to the pitcher’s strengths while using the weaknesses as filler or for contrast.

For example, if your pitcher has a great curve but a weak drop, calling the drop over and over is unlikely to yield the results you’re hoping for – unless the result you’re hoping for is a lot of hits and/or a frustrated pitcher.

Knowing your pitchers’ strengths is especially important deep in the count. You want to know what the pitcher can throw to get hitters out reliably. Sure, sometimes your pitchers’ strengths will be the same as the hitter’s strength. But more often than not you’re going to want to match strength to strength and let the one who wants it most win.

4. Don’t assume what you see is what you’ll get

You’ve probably seen the charts that tell you “if the hitter does this then throw this.” For example, if the hitter is standing close to the plate, throw a screwball or inside fastball.

Yes, that might work. But the hitter might also be standing in close to the plate because her strength is inside pitches. And maybe she has trouble with outside pitches, so standing in close turns them more into middle pitches.

One other thing a hitter might be doing is standing up there to bait the inside pitches so she can back off a bit and drive the heck out of the pitch because she hates outside pitches. So don’t assume the charts are right – pay close attention and make adjustment to whatever is in front of you.

5. Remember Einstein’s definition of insanity

Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It doesn’t matter what else you make think or believe philosophically.

If you’re calling a particular pitch and it’s getting hit consistently, don’t be a fool. Call something else.

6. Work with your pitchers, not against them

Remember as a coach that your job first and foremost is to put your players in a position to succeed. A big part of that is building their confidence and setting your own ego aside.

You may want a particular pitch in a situation, but if your pitcher isn’t confident in that pitch it’s unlikely she’ll throw what you think she’ll throw and that you’ll be happy with the result. Personally, I’d rather see a pitcher shake off a pitch she can’t throw with absolute confidence than meekly go along and get hammered.

Confident players are successful players. Help your pitchers develop confidence in themselves and they’ll have more confidence in you.

Ok, what did I miss? What other tips do you have for calling pitches?

Look beyond the surface of fastpitch players

There is a tendency in all sports, not just fastpitch softball, to look for players who look like the best athletes. It makes sense on one level. You’d think the better the athlete the better the player will be.

But that isn’t always necessarily true, as evidenced by a post on Daniel Coyles’ The Talent Code blog. In it he takes a look back to the 2000 NFL Combine, and one player in particular. It was a quarterback who didn’t show too well in the tests they put players through.

He was fairly slow, running the 40 yard dash in about 5.2 seconds. (Understand that 4.8 is considered slow for an NFL player.) He didn’t have a bad arm, but it didn’t knock anyone out either. Still, one NFL team saw something in his character and thought he might just the right man for them.

The team was the New England Patriots, and the quarterback was Tom Brady. If you know anything about football, and probably even if you don’t, you know it was a pretty good selection.

You see, there’s a lot more to being a player than just athletic ability. Character plays a big part in an individual’s and a team’s success – especially in fastpitch softball, where there is so much adversity and failure. If you don’t have players of high character, they’re going to crumble pretty quickly under the pressure.

The IOMT Castaways

As at least some of the readers of this blog know, I am coaching an 18U team this year called the IOMT Castaways. IOMT stands for Island Of Misfit Toys. I recruited every single player on it, based not just on athletic ability but on character. IOMT Castaways

They’re misfit toys because somewhere along the way some coach didn’t think very much of them, but I believe they can play. For the most part they’re not going to impress anyone with their time against a stopwatch, or the way they walk onto the field. But it doesn’t matter, because when the game is on they can flat out play!

The most important thing, at least so far, is how much they enjoy being together and playing together. Because of their individual histories there are no egos here, no one yelling at a teammate, none of the drama that often goes with the territory. Instead, they’re playing for the love of the game – as it should be.

It’s always tempting to go for that great athlete. But a lot of great athletes fail. In my book, and even at the professional level, character counts for more. Choose wisely and you can’t go wrong.

Fastpitch coaches behaving badly

Last week I had the opportunity to witness a type of fastpitch softball coach I thought was extinct. It was sort of like going to Jurassic Park and seeing a T Rex rushing at your Jeep.

The genus was Coachus Jerkus. In layman’s terms it was one of those old-style “command and control” coaches who seems to believe the more you yell at, embarass and humiliate your players in front of their teammates, parents, opponents and passers-by, the better of a coach you are.

It started with a pitcher (who was 15 or 16 years old) not hitting the spot the coach had called, with the result that the hitter hit a home run on a 1-2 count. (Understand that hitting a home run in this indoor venue basically meant popping a “Texas Leaguer” over a curtain about 120 feet away).

When the ball sailed over the curtain the coach screamed (and I am not exaggerating, it was like the aforesaid T Rex spotting prey) something unkind at the pitcher. I don’t recall the specifics of what was said, but it was along the lines of “What the hell are you doing?”

The intimidated pitcher’s first pitch to the next hitter went high and wide. To which the coach screamed “That’s where the LAST pitch should’ve been.” And on it went. If a player bobbled a ball, or didn’t make a throw quick enough, or didn’t get the bunt down she’d hear about it. As would all the rest of us. It went on from the beginning of the game all the way through the end.

To tell you the truth, I felt bad for the girls on the other team, although I understand this guy has been coaching for a while so they (or their parents) all probably knew what they were getting into. When the game was over that was unhappy-looking group of girls.

What’s really puts the capper on this behavior is that there was nothing at stake in these games. In fact, they were barely softball games. They were indoors on a short field with a 1-hour drop dead time limit. The purpose is to let the girls get out of the practice gym and try out their skills. Pitchers get to pitch to hitters, hitters get to hit off pitchers, teams get to work on plays, everybody has fun. Well, almost everybody I guess.

To go so over-the-top on any softball game when there are so many real problems in the world is wrong in my opinion. In this particular situation it’s particularly uncalled-for. The softball world could really use a governing board to report this kind of behavior so coaches who verbally abuse their players in this fashion can be disciplined.

The real shame, though, is that all that yelling and screaming really doesn’t help. Study after study shows that this old school style of coaching is actually counter-productive. Especially with females, where the old Mike Candrea admonition “Boys have to play good to feel good, but girls have to feel good to play good” comes into play.

Let’s hope this particular guy leaves the ’70s behind someday and learns that it’s ok to treat your players with caring and respect. In fact, it’s the way you get the most out of them.

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