Still Value in Learning to Think Like a Pitcher
Posted by Ken Krause
These days, even at the younger levels, it seems like the goal is to turn softball players into robots. Nowhere is that illustrated more than the way pitch calling is often handled these days.
In many instances, perhaps even most, coaches are calling pitches from the bench. This occurs whether they actually know how to call a game or not. (Many do not.)
All that’s expected of pitchers and catchers is that they look at their ubiquitous arm bands, follow the rows and columns to the number called, and then throw whatever the answer key says. No thought required, and no shaking off the call.
That’s why I was heartened to receive an email from Tony Carlin, whose daughter Alyssa is a class of ’23 player currently pitching for her high school team.
She was pitching a game, he says, and breezed through the first four innings. Then, as I discussed in a previous post, she began to run into some trouble in the fifth inning.
The opposing team began to hit her, probably because they’d seen her a couple of times by now and was in a different situation than she usually faces in time limit-shortened games. I will let Tony tell the rest of the story:
“The 6th and 7th inning she told me she changed her strategy , and she did very well. She noticed that the batters started showing confidence, were making good contact, and were swinging at the 1st pitch, so she threw everything off the plate or below the knees and got them to chase , and chase badly.”
Brilliant! Alyssa saw that the other team’s hitters were trying to jump on her first pitch so she just threw junk at them – the kinds of pitches you normally reserve for an 0-2 or 1-2 count. In doing so she re-took control of the game and got the win.
What I like most is that she wasn’t just in the circle throwing – she was thinking.
Pitching to hitters is very much a cat-and-mouse game. When the hitters change what they’re doing, pitchers must adjust or they may end up getting clobbered.
But what do you do when the coach is calling the pitches and insisting you throw what he/she calls? Figure out how to change the equation while living within the parameters.
For example, if the call is for a dropball on the outside corner and you know the umpire is giving that and more, throw the ball off the plate. If hitters are being aggressive, throw it a little lower or further outside – anywhere it’s tougher to hit.
If hitters are routinely taking the first pitch, throw your first pitch fat on the plate, the way you would on a 3-0 count. If hitters are routinely laying off a pitch in a location and the umpire is calling it, talk to your coach about starting the hitter with that pitch.
After all, the goal is to get ahead of the hitter. What better way than to throw a pitch she doesn’t like to swing at? You never know – you may force the hitters to start swinging at pitches they don’t like and can’t hit well, either giving you a free strike or a weak contact that turns into an out.
The key thing is to pay attention to what is going on, and figure out for yourself where you can gain an advantage. It’s not only a lot more effective – it’s a lot more fun.
One other thing Tony told me is he was reminding Alyssa to pitch the full seven innings required for a traditional game by holding up seven fingers. He said the coach probably thought he was signaling pitches from the sidelines but he would never do that. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t fall into the time limit trap.
There is more to pitching than great mechanics – much more. True pitchers know how to take what hitters (and umpires) are giving them and use it to their advantage.
Pitchers should regularly walk through imaginary lineups, types of hitters, and situation to learn not just how to throw but what to throw when. It just might help you get out of a serious jam someday.