Monthly Archives: April 2021

Travel Ball’s Long-Term Effect on the Future of Pitching

I have made it clear in the past that I am not a fan of time limits on fastpitch softball games. Maybe I’m just old but I believe the game is meant to be played over a minimum of seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Time limits, however, are a fact of life in travel ball. Whether you believe it’s tournament directors/organizations being greedy by trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of play into a 5 lb. set of fields or well-meaning tournament directors/organizations trying to ensure that games run on time out of respect for the teams who spend all day at the ballpark, time limits don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

With that in mind, I have a few observations on how these time limits are affecting the game today, and how they will affect it in the future. Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.

Observation #1: Pitchers find it more difficult to last seven innings when required. I am seeing that a lot in high school ball right now.

Pitchers who are used to games lasting 75 or 85 minutes are able to perform at a high level for five innings or so. But come inning #6, they start having a lot more trouble.

Now, I know some will say that’s because they’ve gone around the batting order a couple of times and the hitters have seen them. But I don’t think that’s the sole reason.

I believe that mentally they are used to the games being done by that point, and the thought that they have to keep going requires some adjustment. For some, it can even get tough at the end of the fifth as they realize they still need to have something in the tank for another two innings.

Does that mean they can’t adjust? Of course not. But it may take them a while before they learn to pace themselves properly for a seven-inning game.

Observation #2: Teams can no longer ride one pitcher for the season. Back in the day, to be successful a travel team, high school team, or even a college team really needed only one Ace pitcher. She was expected to carry the load, pitching every inning (or nearly every inning at least) in every major tournament.

That is no longer the case. Now, it could be that the hitters have gotten a lot better, actually working at their craft in the off-season like pitchers always have.

Rule changes have also made it tougher to ride one pitcher. Pushing the pitching distance back and moving from white balls with white seams to yellow balls with red seams has brought more offense into the game. So has bat technology, which sometimes allows a ball struck with a half swing to carry over the fence.

But I also think the way travel teams and tournaments are structured has had an effect on pitchers’ ability to carry that type of load. All the stop/start of more games can place more stress on young arms, so teams are spreading the load more.

While I think that’s a good thing overall, it also means many young pitchers don’t learn HOW to carry the load. They know there’s always help available.

Greater availability of facilities and lessons also means there are more pitchers out there than ever before. Those pitchers aren’t going to stick around very long, however, if they don’t get innings, so that means coaches must ensure #2 and #3 receive enough circle time to stay with the team.

From a health and safety perspective that’s a good thing, in my opinion. But it does mean that fewer #1s are learning how to be that pitcher. They are becoming more inclined to thinking they did their job in game one, and now it’s time for someone else to step up.

Observation #3: We will likely see more specialization in the future. As a result of the previous changes, I think it’s likely fastpitch softball, especially at the collegiate level, will start to look more like baseball, with a bullpen full of specialists.

Right now, all pitchers are considered to be starters. That doesn’t mean they all get starts – that decision is still merit-based (or political, depending on who you talk to).

But pitchers in a college bullpen aren’t thought of as being middle relievers, or closers, or really anything other than an arm available to throw in a game.

I think that will change, especially with a generation of pitchers used to working within time limits. That girl who is lights-out for one inning but deteriorates rapidly after?

Instead of trying to force her to improve her endurance, make her a closer. She can just go in and rocket the ball for three or four hitters rather than giving the top of the lineup a chance to see the starter for a third or fourth time.

Your #3 or #4 starter? Maybe she’s better suited to be a middle reliever. Pair her up with a starter where she will be a contrast – like a dropball pitcher paired with a riseball pitcher – and let her come in when hitters start getting comfortable with the starter.

The more teams use their pitchers as a staff in specific roles rather than trying to fit everyone into the “starter” category, the more they can become strategic.

Would it be better to have one Ace you knew you could ride the whole way? Maybe. But thanks to the way pitchers are being developed these days I think that ship has sailed.

Rather than fighting it, it’s time for colleges to look at what they’re getting and figure out how best to use them. The good news for players is that this sort of change in thinking might open up some new opportunities that weren’t there before. Especially for those who fit that “closer” description.

Matching reality

The foundation of softball at the high school and collegiate levels is youth softball – primarily travel ball. Changes there will affect the way the game is played all the way up the food chain.

Rather than fighting it, or clinging to old ways, schools need to take a hard look at the way the game is being played at the younger levels and adjust their strategies accordingly. Those who do will likely have greater success in both the short- and long-term.

Better Idea on Advertising for a Player

One the (many) things that make me shake my head in confusion is to see the way teams advertise for players. Whether it’s on a discussion board such as Discuss Fastpitch, in one of the many softball-related Facebook groups, or somewhere else, it’s always the same:

“‘Team Awesome’ is looking for two or three players to fill out its roster for the upcoming season. We need an ‘A’ level #1 starter; must throw 65+ with great control and command of all movement pitches. Also looking for a catcher with pop times of 1.7 seconds who can hit bombs and a shortstop with great lateral movement and an overhand throw of 60+.”

Aren’t we all?

I mean, look at those descriptions. Great teams start with being strong up the middle. If you can acquire a true Ace pitcher, a stud catcher, and a D1 prospect shortstop you’d be pretty well set up to win a lot of ballgames, even if the rest of your team was mediocre at best.

But that’s the thing. Those types of players don’t grow on trees. They’re highly desired by everyone, which means by the time Team Awesome’s ad runs those players have already been snapped up.

It’s also a pretty good bet that the name-brand top-level teams don’t have to advertise or post to find those players. Those players come to them because of their reputation and ability to get them seen by college coaches.

So it’s a pretty good bet Team Awesome is not going to find that caliber of player sitting around after tryout season is done.

That doesn’t mean Team Awesome can’t find great players – players who can help them elevate the state of their game. What they should be doing, in my opinion, is taking a tack more like this:

“Team Awesome has a couple of open opportunities for players ready to make a bigger impact and see the field more often. If you’re a great #2 pitcher stuck behind an incredible #1, come give us a look. If you’re a catcher who has been working her butt off to become a starter but can’t even get a look, we’ll look at you. If you think you have what it takes to play the field against high-level competition but just get overlooked on your current team, we could use another good (position) – especially if you can hit. Being on a trophy-winning team is nice, but being the reason your team earns a trophy is even better.”

Those are the players who are likely to be available. Or who are at least considering seeking their fortunes elsewhere.

Most kids sign up because they want to play ball, not sit on the bench while others play ball. And while there is tremendous satisfaction in working your way up and earning your spot on your current team, that’s not always in the cards for everyone.

Some players are victims of “Daddyball” or “Mommyball,” where the team is built for and around the daughter(s) of the coach(es). No matter how hard you work you’re never going to overcome that mindset, so a change of scenery will create new opportunities.

On the other hand, sometimes, no matter how hard a player works, there are others in their position who also work just as hard – and were blessed with more athletic ability/talent/whatever you want to call it. If a player is stuck behind that person – and rightfully so because she’s better – she can either accept limited playing time or find another situation where she can contribute more.

Those are the players you should be trying to find – the hidden gems looking for a place to shine. They can make just as much of a difference to your team as the studs you think you want but without some of the risk.

Because those stud players you’re advertising for can go anywhere. But the kids who are given opportunities to stand out will likely be at least a little more loyal to the team that gave them that opportunity. Which means you’re less likely to have to run the same ad next year. They’re also likely to be a little more forgiving if your team isn’t quite as awesome as you told them it was during the recruiting process because at least they’re getting the innings they were looking for.

Next time you’re looking for a couple more players, instead of advertising for known studs try encouraging those looking for an opportunity to prove they can be the studs to give your team a try. You never know who you might find that will make your team look better – and you like a recruiting genius.

Pitching: The Train Carries the Passenger, Not Vice Versa

As I have mentioned plenty of times in the past, “A League of Their Own” is one of my favorite movies. Not just sports movies but movies in general.

A particular highlight (at least for me) is Jon Lovitz as Ernie Capidino, the scout assigned to find players for the new women’s professional baseball league. He has many hilarious lines, including this one as he tries to hustle new recruit Marla Hooch onto the train so they can get on their way:

Maybe I had this in the back of my mind as I was working with some young pitchers tonight, because the idea of a train came to me as I was trying to explain how to get more drive out of the lower half of the body instead of just lurching forward with the upper body.

I told them that everything from the waist down is the train, and everything from the waist up is the passenger. In order for the passenger to reach her destination the train has to move and carry the passenger. If the passenger is what moves, or primarily moves, it’s unlikely that it will be able to carry the train out of the station.

In other words, it’s the lower body that drives out, with both feet moving forward at the same time, rather than the head and shoulders leading the way. With the former you get power, good posture and stability. With the latter you get all kinds of problems, including reduced speed, a lack of consistency and ultimately pitches that fly all over the place.

Once the pitcher understands, the goal is to get the train in motion and let the passenger just go along for the ride. That comes with getting a bit of a push from the stride leg and then a good push from the drive leg instead of letting the stride leg just run past and reach out.

The drive leg has to actively push/thrust out. This is made easier, of course, if the core is already over or even slightly in front of the pitching rubber instead of behind it as the legs begin to push.

The more there is a feeling of motion and coordinated effort between the feet, the hips and the rest of the core, the more efficiently and effectively the pitcher will drive forward. That movement creates more energy that can be transferred into the ball.

But if the passenger, i.e., the upper body, is what initiates the drive forward, a ton of energy will be left behind and it will feel like the passenger is dragging the train behind her. Which is as much wasted effort as it sounds.

So if you have a pitcher who is leading with the upper body, try having her picture the train and the passenger. It might be just what she needs to improve her overall drive.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Great New Resource for Learning Pitch Movement

I’ve spoken in the past about Rick and Sarah Pauly’s High Performance Pitching courses. They have put together a great series of Beginner, Intermediate and Elite-level online training courses that give professional instructors and bucket parents alike the ability to learn from two of the best in fastpitch softball pitching.

Recently they released a brand new course for the Elite program called “Tips for Making a Ball Move.” (Click on the Elite tab to find it.)

In his usual friendly and accessible way, Rick walks through topics such as what order to learn movement (i.e., non-fastball) pitches, increasing spin rates on pitches and how to be effective with grips. Lots of great information, and best of all it’s FREE!

But there was a three-part set of lessons in there I thought would be particularly helpful for bucket parents. Two of the lessons cover different types of training balls, and the other one talks about other types of gadgets.

I think these are some very valuable lessons for a couple of reasons. One is that we all look at those things hoping to find a shortcut to helping our daughters/players/students pitch more effectively.

As Rick shows his personal collection I felt like a kid again going through baseball cards with my friends – got that, got that, got that, hmmm, that looks interesting. As much as I say I’m not a gadget guy I’ve certainly spent my fair share of money checking things out.

Rick walks through each of them, talking honestly about what he uses regularly and which balls or devices mostly collect dust on his shelf. Before you hit the “submit” button on Amazon or an individual website I highly recommend you check out this series of videos.

You know the feeling.

The good thing is Rick isn’t really passing judgment on the balls or devices as much as he is sharing his experience. Why that’s important is that while a ball or device may not have worked for him, it might be just the thing you need. After watching the videos you’ll get a better idea of whether they’re worth checking out.

For example, he talks about SpinForm softballs. They are great for helping pitchers learn the curve or rise. But in my experience they’re also great for teaching the overhand throw – especially for a player who tends to get side spin instead of 12-6 spin on her overhand throw.

It’s hard to miss whether the ball is being thrown properly or not, especially if you play catch with someone who does throw properly. That visual helps players figure out what they need to do to improve. If you pair up a pitcher working on her curve with a catcher who needs some spin help it’s a win-win.

And honestly, that’s the thing about these various balls and devices. None of them are necessarily good or bad. Just like drills, using them to achieve success has a lot to do with the coach and the student.

If you have a specific need and use the device properly, it may be valuable to you – even if it wasn’t to me. But if you don’t put in the work with it, or use it as intended, you’re probably going to find it one day covered in dirt and grime when you go to clean out your garage.

The nice thing about Rick’s videos is they give you an unbiased head start on determining whether whatever you’re thinking about purchasing will help solve the issue you’re trying to solve. And again, that course is free so even if you don’t watch the rest of the lessons you can pop in and get what you need.

Please let this work. Please let this work.

So before you go off chasing the latest softball device rainbow, give those videos a look. It might just save you a few bucks you can use to pay for your next hotel stay.

P.S. Just FYI, no matter what device or tool you buy, they tend to work better when you use them regularly.

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