Monthly Archives: May 2016

It’s not where you start the race…

One of my favorite sayings is “It’s not where you start the race that counts, but where you finish.” I will say it to players who didn’t make a team they wanted, or who start the season riding the bench, or otherwise find themselves in a less than desirable position.

Erin Yazel catch

One of my favorite pictures of Erin Yazel. A far cry from the girl who could barely catch a ball hit to her. 

Of course, it’s easy to say things like that; platitudes come easily. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite success stories today – one that proves that saying is more than words.

I first met Erin Yazel when she was a first-year 14U player. (I’m old school, so I only recognize even number team levels.) As I understand it, Erin had joined an A-level fastpitch team after coming from rec ball. Not on the basis of her skills as much as the team needed players and Erin tried out.

To put a little more perspective on it, I came to that team as an assistant coach after it was already formed, about midway through the offseason. When you’re working indoors in a small gym it’s tough to get a real read on things.

Once we were outside, however, it became apparent that even though she was an outfielder Erin’s outfield skills were not quite at the level that was expected. That was a potential problem since the team had a few legitimate A-level players and some of their parents were vocal about who could cut it and who couldn’t.

Erin was a hard worker, though, and a good kid, so I went to the head coach and asked her if I could work with Erin separately at practice to help her learn to track fly balls better. The head coach agreed, and off we went. I also suggested to Erin that I could meet her before practice, or stay after, to help her hone her skills some more. She was more than willing since she wanted to be a full-fledged contributor and she, her dad Steve and I spent a lot of time together.

Over the course of that first season she got better and more reliable, although she did end up breaking her nose in a game when she lost track of a fly ball in center. That one was ugly to see and hear, but it didn’t stop her. After a couple of weeks off she was back on the field, more determined than ever.

One of the qualities Erin brought with her was that she was fast – like 2.7 home to first fast. So naturally I suggested she spend the off-season becoming a lefty slapper.

We worked on that the entire winter, along with bunting and swinging away, and by the next spring she was a different player. She took naturally to slapping and soon had earned the leadoff spot in the lineup for our travel team. She also made her JV team as a freshman, and likely would’ve gone straight to varsity if the head coach hadn’t come straight from baseball and didn’t understand the importance of speed and the short game (a deficiency he fixed the following year, by the way).

Erin went on to have a great high school career as well as a travel ball career, and actually came back to me a couple of years later to play on my IOMT Castaways team. I encouraged her to try college softball, and even helped her make a recruiting video, but in the end she decided it wasn’t for her.

ISU club softball team

Erin’s ISU club team. She is first row, second from the right.

But that doesn’t mean it was the end of her fastpitch career. Instead, she became involved in the Illinois State University club team. If you’re not familiar with the concept, club teams are groups of girls who form their own teams and play against similar teams from other schools. It’s fun and competitive, without the bigtime commitment and time sink of playing at the college varsity level.

This past year was Erin’s second playing for the Redbirds, and it’s clear she’s still loving the game. Her mom Judy sent me her stats.

For the season she had a batting average of .488, with an OBP of .533 and slugging percentage of .537. In 41 at bats she had just 4 strikeouts, and her OPS was a healthy 1.090. You can check out her whole line here.

That’s pretty impressive for a girl who had trouble even getting on the field her first year of travel ball. But it shows what you can do when you have a love for the game, the determination to improve, and the support of great parents. Not to mention self confidence, which Erin always had boatloads of despite some of the outcomes.

So if you’re not quite where you want to be, take a lesson from Erin. Don’t let anyone else define you, and don’t define yourself by where you start. Because that doesn’t matter. The most important consideration is where you finish.

 

The most wonderful time of the year

You can almost hear the music, can’t you? But I’m not talking about Christmas. I’m talking about the Women’s College World Series (WCWS)!2016_womens_college_world_seriesb

It’s amazing how far this tournament has come in the last few years. It used to be you were lucky if you could find the championship game on TV. Now pretty much the entire tournament is being broadcast across several networks, including ESPN (every flavor except The Ocho), The Big Ten, PAC 12 and SEC. There may be a couple of others but those are the ones I know – and have watched so far.

What a great opportunity for younger players to immerse themselves in high-level softball too. From a single vantage point on the couch (or on the floor) they have a chance to see dozens of teams from across the country – to see the speed the play at and the energy they bring.

In my mind it’s also a great opportunity to see the mistakes they make, from getting double off a base on a line drive to running into a tag to misjudging a fly ball to throwing too high or too low and so on. Pitchers can see college pitchers whose educations are being fully (or at least partially paid for) leave a ball fat on the plate and then watching helplessly as it leaves the park. There is some comfort in knowing that even the best players aren’t always perfect.

I know for many players in the 10U -13U ranks that the travel and rec ball seasons have started, and you may have games over the next three weekends. But if you can, set your DVRs or grab a few moments between games and check out the WCWS. I think you’ll like what you see – and you’ll help boost the ratings so all those networks will keep showing all those games.

 

Calling pitches: Make the pitcher’s strengths a priority

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of fastpitch games on TV and in-person lately, but it seems like it’s time for my semi-annual rant on pitch calling. I never cease to be amazed at how often pitch selection seems to be based more on arbitrary rules or expectations about hitters than what the pitcher is good at throwing. Pitch selection should match the pitcher's strength

Here’s an example. Watching a college game last night, a pitcher who is ok at best with her drop but a natural riseball pitcher had the bulk of the pitches called low. It didn’t take long for the other team to adjust and start hitting her hard.

Now, I’m sure those complex and detailed charts in the dugout showed that the opponents had a history of struggling with drop balls. But what the charts didn’t explain was they had trouble with GOOD drop balls – the kind that come in thigh-high and flat, then fall off the table.

Clearly, they had no trouble with drop balls that started low and didn’t move much. A better strategy might have been to at least mix in more up pitches, if for no other reason than to keep the hitters from looking low. And if the pitcher had her rise working (as her replacement did), she could have used her strength to better advantage, and her team would have advanced in the conference tournament.

This sort of thing seems to happen at levels. A coach will fall in love with a particular pitch, or a pitch location, and want the pitcher to throw their constantly. That isn’t really a good idea under any circumstances – you want to mix it up and keep hitters guessing. But when the pitch or location the coach loves happens to also be a weakness for the pitcher, no one should be surprised when it doesn’t go so well.

Part of this also has to do with a pitcher’s psyche. To be successful, pitchers must feel confident overall, as well as in the immediate pitch they’re about to throw. The situation may call for a rise, or a change, but if the pitcher isn’t feeling good about her rise or change that day she probably won’t give it all she’s got. And on those two pitches in particular, a mistake can quickly turn into a disaster (aka a home run).

Personally, I’m an advocate of catchers calling games. Especially in travel ball where you’re unlikely to have any extensive history on a particular hitter and her tendencies. Catchers are right there close to the hitters, and have a bird’s eye view of what’s working for the pitcher, what isn’t, and what her mindset is.

If a catcher sees fear in the pitcher’s eyes when a change is called in a non-pressure situation, she likely will know best to steer clear of that pitch when the pressure is on. You can’t see that from the dugout.

But if coaches are going to call pitches, they need to understand as much as they can about their pitchers overall, as well as what’s happening with them today.

Coaches calling pitches should really make an effort to understand what each pitcher does well, and develop their game plans accordingly. If your pitcher has a strong rise and a weak drop, you’re probably better off planning on more riseballs even if the opponent is a good riseball hitting team. Or better yet, throw a pitcher who has a strong drop. (Hopefully the staff’s strengths are more complementary than matchy-matchy.)

On game day, watch the pitchers warm up, and talk to them and the catchers. The pitchers will tell you what they feel confident in, and the catchers will give you another data point/reality check based on the knowledge of that pitcher they have accumulated through hours of working together. Those things should also be factored in to the game plan.

Once the game is on, pay attention and make adjustments. If the drop is working and the screw is not breaking at all, work the drop in and out and put the screw in your pocket for that day. Or use it as an offspeed fastball instead of expecting it to miraculously start breaking. If the screw is running in too much, use it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count rather than when you need a strike. That can be particularly effective when a right handed pitcher is facing a lefty slapper.

All of this reminds me of a story from the classic book Ball Four, one of my all-time favorites. In one part, the pitching staff is talking about how to pitch to a particular hitter when one of them offers that when he was with the LA Dodgers, Sandy Koufax used to get him out by smoking him inside. To which the author, Jim Bouton, comments, “Which is great if you could throw fastballs like Sandy Koufax.” In other words, what worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time may not work for ordinary mortals.

Charts and such, whether they are general guidelines or specific to that team, can be helpful. But they’re not the last word.

Call pitchers to your pitchers’ strengths – overall and that day – and you’ll have a much greater likelihood of success.

The Indiana Jones drill for fastpitch pitchers

Increasing leg drive is an important factor in maximizing speed for fastpitch pitchers. While a lot of the speed comes out of properly using the arm, strong leg drive helps generate more power that can be transferred into the arm.

Sometimes, however, no matter how much you talk about leg drive the pitcher has trouble feeling what it’s really like. She steps or maybe jumps forward a little, but doesn’t really push and drive.

If you’re facing that situation, here’s a fun little drill I like to call the Indiana Jones drill. The name comes from a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

You remember the one. It’s when he’s trying to get to the room that actually contains the Holy Grail. 

Indy had already passed the first test, the one with the sawblades that come flying out of the walls (the Penitent Man), and is now up to the second test about the name of God. He must jump from letter to letter spelling out the name Jehovah (and at first forgets there was no J in the Latin alphabet and thus must start with I).

In this drill, the pitcher starts at the rubber, then jumps forward, one jump at a time and alternating legs, until she reaches the plate, as Abbie is demonstrating here. Then she goes back the other way.

As she does this, count the number of jumps it takes. Then challenge her to cover the distance in one less jump. As she continues to try to take out one jump she will be developing not only leg strength but also the feel of what it’s like to push out more powerfully.

It’s fun, and it works. Of course, the Indy reference works better if the pitcher has seen the movie. But if nothing else the dads are amused.

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