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?