Monthly Archives: October 2021

Changing Teams? Use GameChanger (et. al.) As A Research Tool

So, the new travel team you joined after July/August tryouts isn’t working out quite the way you hoped and now you’re considering other options. But, of course, after being burned once you are worried that you may jump from the frying pan into the fire.

How do you make sure that whatever issues caused your dissatisfaction with the current team aren’t the same (or worse) with the new team you’re thinking of joining?

One way, of course, is to talk to people who are already on the team. If you or your daughter have friends connected to the new team they can give you a “behind the curtain” glimpse into how things run.

Does the coach favor certain players over others, especially in your daughter’s preferred position? Does the team play against quality opponents, which will help your daughter stretch and grow her skills? Is the coach a screamer? Are the other players/families nice to be around or will you be embarrassed to be associated with the team in public?

But what if you don’t have a connection that can give you a reliable word-of-mouth appraisal? That’s where apps like GameChanger/TeamManager and their ilk can come in handy.

They won’t answer all your questions, like whether the coach is a screamer or what the families are like. But they can certainly give you some pretty good insight into a lot of other aspects.

Circle time

The first is what you can expect for playing time. Let’s say your daughter is a pitcher. Look up the prospective team and see how many pitchers they have and what kind of innings they’re getting.

If you see they have six pitchers, each of whom are getting an inning or two per game/tournament, adding your daughter to the mix will probably not go well. Now the pie will be sliced even thinner and she’s not going to learn how to be a #1.

On the other hand, if the same one or two girls pitch almost every inning of every game, that can be a red flag as well. It means the coach isn’t willing to lose a pool play game or a during-the-week friendly to enable his/her other pitchers to develop.

He/she wants the win, so if your daughter isn’t already ready to deliver that level of performance on a daily basis you should probably pass as well. And even if she is, she may still not get the opportunity if the only two pitchers the coach trusts are the ones currently getting all the innings.

Another scenario to look for is the team has two, three, maybe even four pitchers but only one of them gets any quality innings in bracket play. Especially if that pitcher is a coach’s daughter.

You probably won’t be too happy with that situation, particularly if your daughter is ready to lead the team to victory on Sundays but never gets the opportunity. You can pretty much count on having to find another team next season.

Then there is the team that only has one player who even wants to pitch. Your daughter will likely get a lot of opportunity, even if she still needs some development. (Not a guarantee but a likelihood.)

She can prove herself and earn more time as she goes along, which benefits both pitchers.

Finally, if the pitchers on a team never play the field that may also be a red flag for you. This one, however, depends on what your daughter wants from the game.

If she only wants to pitch (and not hit or play the field) this team will be a good fit. If she wants to do more, be aware the coach’s philosophy probably isn’t going to change for your daughter.

What you want to look for is an opportunity that aligns with what you want out of the experience.

Playing time for fielders

For field players you can also look at how many the team has at that position and how many innings they’re getting. If all other positions show two or three players getting quality time but the first baseman is always the same, and your daughter loves playing first base, that team is probably not going to be a fit.

Another thing to look for is how many positions players are playing on a regular basis. At the younger ages (up to 10U or maybe 12U) it’s great to expose kids to a lot of different positions to help them find what they like.

Beyond that, however, they need to start narrowing it down to one or two in my opinion. There are a lot of nuances to fastpitch softball and each position requires time to learn them.

That’s tough to do if you’re being shuffled all over the field.

It’s great to be versatile so you’re ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves, but there’s a limit. It’s better to learn two, maybe three at the most and learn them well than be all over the field all the time.

Another thing to look for is the difference between the Saturday and Sunday lineups. If some current players consistently are listed on Saturday but not Sunday you’ll know the team has “pool play only” players on their roster.

If that’s acceptable to you, no problem. If not, you may need to do more in-depth research or find a team that is more liberal in its playing time.

One final thing to check is the overall roster size. For travel ball, 12 or 13 is usually the maximum. Anything above that, especially if the team has pool-play-only players, and it’s unlikely you’ll be very happy as the new person coming in.

Playing quality opponents

This one should be fairly easy to do. Take a look at the schedule to see who the team played and the scores of the game.

If you’re familiar with teams in your area you should be able to immediately recognize whether they play strong or weak teams on a regular basis. If your daughter hopes to play in college and the team is only playing weak opponents it’s not a good fit. You have to play quality to achieve quality.

If you’re not familiar with the teams they’re playing, look at their won-loss record and the scores of the games they played. If they’re beating up on teams 12-0, 15-1, 23-1 or some other lopsided score on a regular basis they are probably not playing very good teams.

The better bet is a team that is winning its games by one or two runs on a regular basis, whether that’s 2-0 or 8-6. Those scores indicate the teams were fairly evenly matched.

Likewise, if their Won-Loss record is 43-3 it’s pretty clear they’re not challenging themselves very much. That’s fine if you just want to be on a team that wins all the time but be aware it’s probably not going to make your daughter a better player.

A team that wins 60% to 70% of their games, particularly if they are playing in PGF or USA-sanctioned tournaments, is probably a strong team that plays strong opponents.

At the same time, a team that wins 35-40% of their games against good opponents may just be one or two players away from becoming strong. Perhaps your daughter can be one of those difference-makers.

Number of errors game to game

This one can be a little dicey because it’s entirely dependent on whoever is scoring the game in the app. Some people score everything a hit because they don’t know what constitutes an error, or they want to make the fielders/team look good.

Others score a lot of errors to help keep the pitchers’ ERAs low. The difference between a passed ball and wild pitch may also depend on whether it’s the pitcher’s or catcher’s parent who is scoring the game.

But that aside, looking at error totals game to game can give you a sense for how the team plays in the field. And how well-coached they are.

An occasional high error count happens to everyone. But if it happens consistently, and doesn’t change over time, that team may not be particularly well-coached.

If errors are rarely or never charged, and the team’s record is only so-so, you can pretty much count on it being a deficiency in scorekeeping. In other words, the team probably makes a lot of errors that get counted as hits.

Not saying that’s a reason not to join the team. Just be aware that you’re going to be watching those games and they’re probably not going to get better as they go along.

Opponents’ stolen bases

This one again can be subjective, up to the judgment/knowledge of the scorekeeper. But it can be an indicator of how the team performs.

High opponent stolen base counts can be an indicator of weak catchers. Or weak fielders.

Keep in mind you can have the greatest catcher in the world with a pop time under 1.8 seconds. But if there’s no one on the other end to receive that ball and place the tag, or the catch gets muffed all the time, opponent stolen bases will be high.

But that stat could also indicate that the pitching is, shall we say, somewhat wild. While the advancement of the runner should be scored as a wild pitch or passed ball, those who don’t know better (and some who do) will mark it as a stolen base.

So if you see a lot of stolen bases, especially at the younger levels, take it with a grain of salt and look for other factors, such as the number of strikes versus total pitches. If that count is low, you’re probably looking at advances on wild pitches/passed balls rather than a problem with catcher throws or fielder receives. Which usually indicates a weaker team.

Grain of salt

Of course, everything in an app like GameChanger has to be taken with a grain of salt. Unless you know the scorekeeper personally and can vouch for his/her knowledge of fastpitch softball, the statistical information you glean will always have some doubt associated with it.

But by taking several of these data points together you can get a pretty good idea of who the teams plays, how they play them, and whether your daughter would be a good fit and vice versa. If nothing else you can keep from making some of the same mistakes again – so you don’t find yourself in the same position six months from now!

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5 Tips to Help Catchers Throw Out More Base Runners

While there are many things that go into being a great catcher, there are really two aspects where catchers “make their bones.”

The first is blocking. In a tight game especially, the ability to block a pitch that’s thrown in the dirt can make the difference between winning and losing. Great blocking can also give pitchers the confidence to throw to the edge of their ability, which also is a factor in winning more often than not.

The other aspect is the ability to throw out base runners. Particularly runners going from first to second. If you can prevent teams from moving runners into scoring position without having to hit the ball or sacrifice an out by bunting, in the long run you will do better than teams with catchers who allow every single or walk to automatically turn into a double.

I’m pretty sure that makes sense to everyone, and is (or at least should be) fairly self-evident.

Probably the most important steal to stop is the first one. Coaches rarely send their slowest runners to test the waters. Instead, they generally send their fastest, or one of their fastest.

Shoot down that rabbit, or at least make it close, and you’ll find opposing teams are less likely to send the rest.

Be vewwy vewwy quiet…

But that’s the what. The bigger question is “how?” As in how do you make stealing bases such a low-percentage play that teams would rather take their chances elsewhere?

Following are a few tips to make that happen.

Tip #1: Start with a good stance

One of the easiest ways to spot an untrained catcher is by her stance, especially with runners on base.

Untrained (or poorly trained) catchers will usually squat on their toes. This is a terrible position to start from as you have little balance and little ability to move in any direction – including up

When I see a catcher in that position, the first thing I usually do when I am training them is push on their forehead. At which point they tip backwards on their butts. Point made.

When there are runners on base you want to use a stance where your feet are flat on the ground, toes pointed slightly outward, you butt above your knees, and your back and thighs fairly parallel to the ground. You are now solid and able to block, pop up, or drop to your knees and throw depending on the situation.

Like this

Tip #2: Pop up instead of running forward

Probably the thing that most drives me crazy when I watch a catcher, even a young one, is when the catcher climbs out of her stance to make a throw, runs forward a couple of steps, and then throws. That’s a lot of wasted time.

I get why they do it. They feel like they can throw harder if they build up some momentum, like an outfielder throwing home. And they probably can.

But they can’t throw hard enough to make up the time they lost by running up. Because while they’re running up, the base runner is running to the next base.

The reality is you can throw the ball and have it roll to the base faster than any runner can run. Making it there on a fly is just an added bonus.

So instead of running up, have the catcher pop up/spring up with both legs, drop her throwing side leg back (a little love for your lefty catchers), land with the weight back on that leg, and then drive forward with the legs and body.

Get more body on the ball and you’ll throw harder. It takes a little work but it can be learned.

One way to get catchers to land weight-back is to start by having them pop up and land ONLY on the throwing-side foot in a way that their next instinct is to fall forward. Have them land into the leg, instead of back and over it, and they’ll get the load.

Then have them try it while landing on both feet.

By the way, a faster throw is only one benefit. Another is that the catcher won’t step on the plate – particularly important in those early morning games where the dew is still on the bases, or rainy days where they won’t stop the game.

A slippery plate creates a risk of a bad throw – not to mention a risk to the back of the catcher. Throw from solid ground and you remove those risks.

Finally, if the catcher runs up and the hitter is doing a delayed swing to cover the steal, either the catcher will stop when she sees the bat moving or will get hit with the bat. At which point she is not only in pain, and possibly injured, but also could be called for interference (as long as the late swing isn’t too obvious).

Something like this.

Pop up and throw from where you started and your catcher will avoid all these issues.

If you want to your older catcher to throw from her knees instead, this blog post will help you with that.

Tip #3: Work on the transfer

This is where I see a lot of young catchers have trouble. It takes them too long to get the ball from their glove to their hand so they can throw it. But it can plague even older catchers with weak technique.

Start by teaching your catchers to bring the ball back to their hand instead of reaching forward to take the ball out of the glove and then having to pull it back. Any delays when you reach forward are amplified during the throwing process.

The transfer should really be a part of the throw, not a separate operation. If you’re pulling the glove back to the hand, which is waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear, you can slam the ball into your hand and then have the hand go right into the throwing motion.

To train this, start with no glove. From a standing position, put the ball in the glove hand, pull it back and slam it into the throwing hand. For younger catchers you can use a smaller ball, like a tennis ball, to get the process started.

Then progress to doing the same thing but starting with the ball in the glove. No throws yet, just transfers. Then go from a squat, again without a throw.

Finally, toss the ball to a catcher in her squat and have her pop up and transfer the ball. When she can do that cleanly and successfully have her add in the throw. You’ll be amazed at how much faster she can get the ball on its way – fast enough to send a message to the other team to not even bother trying.

Tip #4: Develop great throwing technique on purpose

That sounds like an odd statement but it’s really not. As I’ve said before, throwing is often one of the most under-taught aspects of fastpitch softball.

This despite that fact that good throws are one of the most crucial and controllable techniques you can develop.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program.

I’ve observed it, I’ve taught it, I highly recommend it. Your catchers will not only throw harder and more accurately, they’ll also protect their shoulders and arms.

But whatever throwing protocol you follow, be sure to work at it regularly. Hold your catchers accountable for using good technique rather than judging solely on whether they get the ball to the base.

The more you make them accountable, the more frequently they’ll throw well.

As part of that, measure their throws. If you don’t have one, borrow a radar from your local pitching coach and record how hard they throw. Knowing they’re being measured often brings out the best in them.

Also measure their pop times on a regular basis. (If you’re not familiar with it, pop time is the time from when the pitch hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the receiving fielder’s glove after a throw.)

A good pop time is around two (2) seconds. If your catcher can go 2.0 seconds exactly she’s met one of the requirements to try out for the USA National team.

If your catcher can get under 2.0 seconds consistently your team is probably going to have a pretty good day.

Tip #5: Let her throw, even if she’s not good at it (yet)

This one is about player development, and it particularly applies to coaches of younger teams.

Another of my pet peeves is hearing that a team coach doesn’t want his/her catchers to make a throw to base, whether on a steal or a pickoff, because she might throw it away and cost them a run.

I say so what?

The only way she’s going to learn to make those throws under pressure is by doing it. Every. Chance. She. Gets.

Yeah, it’s always nice to win. But here’s a little secret I will share: Nobody cares how many fall ball games you won at 10U or 12U or in your rec league.

That’s the time to give your players the green light to develop their abilities and learn from their mistakes. Because if not now, when?

These are the same abilities, by the way, that will play into how successful your team is at the older ages. Remember that fastpitch players get faster as they get older. If your catcher doesn’t learn to make the throws now, by 14U/high school the infield will resemble a merry-go-round when you’re on defense.

Or whatever this is.

Let your catchers make those throws and just live with the consequences. They might just surprise you.

Follow these tips and your catcher will be one of the most feared in your league or area. Just prepare her for one thing: Once she builds her reputation her stats will go down. Hard to gun down runners if no one is willing to try running on you!

Yes, Virginia, In Pitching Speed Does Matter

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Spin. Spot. Speed. Everyone involved in fastpitch pitching, whether as a player, parent, coach, instructor, or just interested observer loves to talk about those three attributes.

One of the most common statements you’ll see in Facebook fastpitch group discussions is something to the effect of, “Speed is good. But it’s really your ability to hit your spots and spin the ball that matters.”

In other words, don’t worry about whether you have speed. As long as you can throw movement pitches to the spots coaches call you’ll be fine.

The people who say these kinds of things remind me of this little burst of honesty from the movie “Liar, Liar:”

To me, it’s often the same with the speed discussion. “Speed isn’t that important” is usually something parents of kids who don’t have it say.

The reality is, speed is not only important on its own. It’s a door-opener to opportunities someone who doesn’t have it is less likely to get.

Take the idea of playing in college.

A college coach goes to watch a travel or high school game. The pitcher on one side is hitting her spots but doesn’t throw very hard, roughly in the mid-50s. She is getting people out primarily with weak hits, and maybe 3-4 Ks.

The pitcher on the other side is throwing gas, perhaps in the low to mid- 60s, but clearly has control trouble. Still, despite walking 6 hitters she also strikes out 10-12. Which one is the college coach going to talk to after the game?

If you guessed the girl throwing heat you’re right. The college coach will figure he/she can teach that girl to hit her spots a lot more easily than he/she can teach the other one to throw 65 mph.

The same is true at travel ball, high school, or even rec league tryouts. Coaches are generally going to pick the girl who throws the fastest with less accuracy over the one who is spot-on but has mediocre speed at best.

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Even if her results look like this.

We really saw that at the 2021 Womens College World Series. In closeup after closeup, the camera showed “rise balls,” “drop balls,” “curve balls,” “screwballs” and whatever other variations there were being thrown with bullet/gyro spin.

That’s a ball that isn’t likely to actually move much at all horizontally or vertically, unless there is some seam-shifted wake action going on.

But those pitches, when thrown at 70 mph, were more than effective because, well, it’s just darned hard to hit a pitch going that fast no matter how much of a direct line it takes from the pitcher’s hand to wherever it ends up by the plate. Even if it’s well out of the strike zone by that time.

Here’s another reality. Take two pitchers who are struggling to get hitters out. One is hitting her spots, but the team’s opponents are crushing her in game after game.

The other is more random, but gets more Ks, swings and misses, or weaker hits because she just flat-out throws harder than the opposing hitters are used to seeing. Which one do you think the head coach is going to give more leeway to, or give more chances to prove herself?

Of course, this is about the time that people say, “But Cat Osterman…” Or baseball fanatics say “But Greg Maddux…”

Yup, I will grant you that, although neither were exactly slow. Cat in her heyday through in the low 60s, which especially at that time was only a few mph under the top speedsters. And Maddux threw around 93 early in his career, which is hardly slow.

So here’s what I’ll on that. IF your pitcher can move the ball like Cat (or Greg), she can probably be pretty successful with just spot and spin. But that’s a pretty big IF.

If not, it will probably be in her best interest to work on adding as much speed as she can, which will make everything else she does more effective.

I’m not saying she has to be Monica Abbott or Yukiko Ueno or Rachel Garcia or any of the other members of the 70 mph club. Those are rare birds.

She may never even hit 60 mph. That’s still kind of a magic number in womens fastpitch softball for a good reason – not everyone can do it, whether due to genetics, training or the desire to work at it.

What I am saying is don’t go thinking if your favorite pitcher is hitting her spots and getting some spin on the ball that the speed of her pitches doesn’t matter. It does.

Keep working at it. Put in the time in mechanics, strength, speed and agility and whatever other training you can find to help her elevate her pitch speeds to the highest level of which she’s capable.

It’s well worth the investment.

Drill to Help Achieve Better Bat Angle

One of the enduring myths in hitting, both in fastpitch softball and in baseball, is the concept of a “level swing.” And by level, most people mean making the bat parallel to the ground.

This is a myth I have attempted to dispel many times, dating all the way back to 2006. Yet still it persists.

In case you don’t feel like following the link, I will briefly go into the problems with this instruction before offering a way to address it. The admonition to swing level causes several issues.

One is that it leaves you very little surface with which to contact the ball and achieve a good hit. If you strike it dead-on in the right spot you can get a rising line. But be off by just a smidge either way and you’ll end up with a popup or a ground ball – neither of which is a great outcome.

If you’re really trying to swing level, you’ll only be able to do that until about waist-high, or however low your arms reach. After that, you’ll either have to bend down awkwardly, killing any chance you have of hitting the ball hard, or you’ll have to lower the bat head anyway.

Not to mention attempting to swing level often leads to casting, or stiffly pulling the bat across the strike zone instead of getting a powerful, sequenced swing.

Swinging level also means you don’t have much adjustability in your swing. You kind of set a bat height early and have little range of motion up or down.

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That’s a problem because, you know, gravity. And rise balls.

There’s more, but you get the idea.

Of course, players who have had the concept of “swing level” beaten into them for so many years often have trouble developing a new, better swing pattern that results in a good bat angle. They can’t feel what they’re supposed to do so they continue to drop their hands and try to cut across.

So here’s a way to help them develop that feel by using their eyes. Take a roll of duct tape and place a few strips on a convenient poll, tree, or other vertical object at the desired angle at contact at several different heights. In the photo above I just did it on one of the poles on a backstop.

Then have the hitter go through the swing motion and try to match the bat angle at various heights. As she works on matching that angle, the hands naturally stay up and the barrel goes down.

Rinse and repeat as-needed until the hitter can achieve the proper angle without thinking about it or putting in any extraordinary effort.

If you’re worried about the hitter losing control of that $500 bat you just bought, substituted a piece of PVC pipe or a broom handle or any other object that simulates a bat but won’t break your heart if it gets smashed into the pole.

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Parent after realizing the $500 bat’s warranty doesn’t cover using it to hit metal poles.

This drill works, and it works pretty quickly -if the hitter does it frequently at home. You’re not going to get instant results at a practice or an individual lesson, but if she does it at home on a daily basis for about a week the pattern will set in and she’ll start to go from popups and grounders to more well-hit, rising line drives.

The best part is it’s very cheap and doesn’t require a lot of supervision. Just make the marks using whatever tape or even paint you have lying around and have the hitter have at it.

If you have a hitter who can’t seem to get the ball out of the infield, take a look at her bat at contact. If it’s flat/level, give this drill a whirl. I think you’ll like the results.

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