Category Archives: Hitting

When softball coach and player preferences clash

The coach's job is to get a pillow

There’s an old saying that if a hitter can hit .400 (or whatever number you prefer) standing on her head, the coach’s job is to get her a pillow. It’s really just a snazzier way of saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Yet for many coaches, it’s almost impossible to resist the temptation to tinker. I get that you can always improve on something. But as they say in Bull Durham, a player on a streak has to respect the streak. (WARNING: This clip is definite NSFW so use earbuds.)

Coaches need to as well. They may believe in their hearts that hitters should always go after the first pitch, because pitchers are likely to throw strikes to try to get ahead.

But if the player feels more comfortable letting that first one go by, AND in doing so can perform well later in the count, it makes sense to let her do it. After all, Ted Williams rarely swung at the first pitch and he seemed to do ok considering he’s generally thought to be the greatest MLB hitter ever.

The same goes for calling pitches. The coach may be a huge fan of throwing low and outside, but if that’s not a pitcher’s strength you’re just asking for her to get lit up.

Or take the case of a favorite pitch. The coach may be a huge fan of the screwball, or the riseball, or some other pitch. But if the pitcher has better pitches in her arsenal, it makes more sense to rely more on those. Coaches may love the idea of speed, but if you don’t throw some changeups now and then hitter will eventually time the pitches and then it’s bye bye speed pitch.

I’ve talked lots of times about getting stuck in certain philosophies, such as sacrifice bunting a runner to second every time you get one of first with no outs. Not only doesn’t it make sense mathematically, it also makes you very predictable.

And why play for one run all the time when you have a lineup that can put up multiple runs in an inning?

One of my favorite stories involves the U.S. Olympic team, I believe in 2004. When Lisa Fernandez wasn’t pitching, she started at 3rd base and hit cleanup. But when she was pitching, the team would use a DP in her place, because back then (and really up until recently) the “book” said you DP for the pitcher.

In an interview Mike Candrea said he finally realized that every time he put his best pitcher into the game he was taking out one of his best bats, which was foolish. By bucking conventional wisdom and letting her hit for herself, he not only kept her bat in the lineup but actually added one more by using the DP for someone that didn’t hit as well.

One Gold Medal later that looked like a pretty good idea. And you’re starting to see a lot more of that thinking in the college game today.

As coaches we all have our preferences, beliefs, and philosophies. They may have worked for us in the past, but we always have to be mindful of the present.

Rather than getting caught up in “shoulds,” we need to focus on what is.

Oh, and if you are a player, keep this mind. From time to time, you’ll probably be told to do this or that by a well-meaning coach. If you’re struggling or under-performing, it may be a good idea.

But if you’re kicking butt and taking names, think about this. If you don’t follow that advice but keep performing, the coach may not be happy with you but will likely leave you in anyway. He/she would be foolish to take you out and hurt the team’s chances of winning just to prove a point. If you do follow the advice and your success rates goes down, however, you’ll likely find yourself on the bench eventually.

Not an easy choice, I know. But that’s the reality. Hopefully, however, your coach will be one who keeps a ready supply of pillows around.

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What taking personal responsibility looks like

Taylor Danielson takes personal responsibility by hustling to chase down a foul ball

In my last post, I talked about the need for players to take personal responsibility when it comes to playing time. The idea is to control things you can control, like your effort, being on time, always being prepared, keeping a positive attitude (yes attitude is a choice), etc. rather than focusing on factors such as whether the coach likes you, or politics are at play, or things like that.

That’s great in the abstract. You’ll hear that sort of thing all the time. Here’s a great video of UCLA head coach Kelly Inouye-Perez talking about how she observes (and ultimately judges) players.

But how well does it work in real life? Let me share a story with you about a college player who has worked her way into the starting lineup by following these principles, and then taken the maximum advantage of that opportunity.

Her name is Taylor Danielson, and she is a freshman at the University of Indianapolis (UIndy), one of the top D2 softball programs in the country. Longtime readers know I’m a big fan of Taylor’s, and have been for a long time.

Taylor is a catcher, and a terrific one. That’s what she was recruited for at UIndy, and eventually I think she’ll wind up behind the plate.

But to start her freshman season, UIndy already had someone in that position they liked. Rather than complain that life is unfair, or get angry that she wasn’t “being given a fair chance” like many people would, Taylor kept working hard and getting herself ready for whatever opportunities she did get.

It didn’t take long. The coaches liked what she was showing in the batting cage, so they decided to see how the freshman would handle the jump to college pitching. They made her the DP, which meant she hit but didn’t play the field.

After a “close but no cigar” start, Taylor started ripping into the ball, becoming a significant contributor on offense. You can check out her stats here. As of this writing they’re pretty impressive. Or you can just check out this video.

If nothing else, it definitely demonstrates that if you can hit, the coach will find a place for you in the lineup.

Next, the coaching staff decided to see what she could do on the field. She’s done a little catching, but most of her innings have come elsewhere. So far this season she has started in left, right, and at second base. (Again, this is after being recruited as a catcher.)

Basically, rather than worrying about what SHE wanted to do, Taylor took the mindset of “whatever you need, I’m there.” In fact, as she started to gain innings in the outfield she asked the coaches if she could take extra practice time with the outfielders to make sure she was ready.

So, you may wonder how she made such an impression. I recently had the chance to watch her play and can tell you one of the factors.

Taylor was in left on a chilly day. There wasn’t a lot of action out her way, but every now and then a hitter would get around on a pitch and pull it foul down the left field line.

Most players probably would have jogged after the ball to retrieve it. No one would blame them either. But not Taylor.

Instead, she sprinted after every one of those obvious foul balls as if the game was on the line. There was just a joy about her, that she had this opportunity to play the sport she loved. Although there is also a school of thought that says it was a convenient way for her to raise her body temperature a bit in the cold and the wind. 🙂

Now, it is possible to put in all that work, hustle, be a good teammate and all that and still not have it work. My next post will talk about a situation where that scenario did occur.

But in the end, you want to know you did everything you could to be successful. If you’re going to fail, fail doing your best.

Taylor took her best shot, and it has paid off bigtime. Perhaps you can generate similar results.

Another good reason to hit hips-first

Visualization of the optimal contact point for good, strong hits

When I work with fastpitch softball hitters, one of the things I will drill into them (incessantly, if you listen to some) is the sequence “hips-shoulders-bat.” It’s the order in which body parts should be fired if you’re going to be successful.

(Yes, I know “bat” isn’t a body part but I try to distinguish that from the “hands to the ball” teaching that used to be so prevalent.)

It’s basically a mantra we use. If the hitter only gives a partial turn, or leads with her hands, or swings everything at once like a gate, I will ask her “What’s your sequence?”

The correct answer is “hips-shoulders-bat.” Repeating it over and over helps drill the point across.

There are several reasons “hips-shoulders-bat” is the optimal sequence. For one, it allows the largest, strongest muscles to get the body moving and create the power that will drive the ball into gaps and over fences.

Another is that it gives the hitter more time to see the ball before committing her bat. If you swing hands/bat-first, you have to start moving the bat into the hitting zone before you know where it will be, or how it’s spinning (for more advanced hitters).

But if you drive the hips first, then add on the shoulders, then finally launch the bat, you will have a couple tenths of a second more time to gather information about the pitch and recognize patterns. Doesn’t sound like much, but to a hitter in fastpitch, where the pitcher is throwing at high speeds anywhere from 35-43 feet away as a starting point, it’s an eternity.

Working hips-shoulders-bat also makes it easier to avoid the dreaded “dropping of the hands.” If you swing hands-first, it’s much easier to take the hands down to your waist and swing level to the ground rather than keeping a good bat path.

Getting to the optimal hitting zone

One important reason that doesn’t seem to be talked about as much, however, is the effect a good hips-shoulders-bat sequence has making contact in the optimal hitting zone.

The photo at the top of the post illustrates what I mean. The red, green, and yellow bars represent the quality of contact you can expect to achieve if you hit the ball in each of those areas. (It’s a general illustration, so don’t hold me to the exact placement of each color.)

If Kayleigh started the swing with her hands, her bat would have a long way to travel from the load position to where it will make contact with the ball. This gives her the opportunity to make contact somewhere in the red zone. In fact, there is a pretty good likelihood she will because of the issues of time and distance.

The red zone is red for a reason – which is, you don’t want to make contact there if you can avoid it. The swing hasn’t fully developed yet, and you’re only using the smaller muscles of the arms to move the bat, so you’re probably not going to hit the ball very hard. Your more likely outcome is a popup or a weak ground ball.

If you turn your hips first, then add your shoulders onto that turn before you launch the bat, you will have done a couple of things. One is you will have recruited the big muscles of the legs, butt/glutes, abdominals, chest and shoulders to create power. Now your bat can jump on that moving train and be accelerated into the pitch.

The other is that you will have carried the bat further forward before launch. Now you can’t help but make contact in the green zone (or the yellow zone if you’re a little early) because your bat has effectively bypassed the red zone in the pre-launch phase.

Like Kayleigh here, you will be a great position to take the bat to the ball and give it a ride.

Adjusting inside-out

Of course, like other things relating to softball hitting there are always exceptions. For example, the optimal hitting zone changes depending on how close the pitch is to the hitter.

The more inside the pitch, the further out-front it needs to be hit in order to drive it. Looking from the top, the optimal hitting zone will tend to look more like the photo inset (for a right-handed hitter). Again, this is an approximation; your mileage may vary.

General view of the hitting zone

Exact placement of the hitting zone depends on where the hitter stands in the box, height, and other factors. This is just a general idea.

But for a basic concept, I think this works pretty well.

If you are a hitter, the more you understand where you need to make contact with the ball the more likely you will be to adopt a hips-shoulders-bat sequence.

If you are a coach, use the photo at the top of the post to help your hitters understand where they want to contact the ball – and why. Many of us are visual learners, so a picture will be worth the proverbial thousand words.

Either way, it’s one more incentive to learn the body sequence for hitting that will drive greater success. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments.

 

Softball tryouts – hitting off the pitching machine

In my last post, I offered up some general tips for a successful tryout. While it was aimed at high school softball tryouts, the truth is those tips apply to all types of tryouts – and most to more than just fastpitch softball.

Included in the post was a brief mention about getting used to hitting off a pitching machine if that’s what will be used during your tryouts. This is an issue a lot of players face.

They will crush it against front toss and even live pitching. But stand them up in front of a machine and they struggle.

So for all of you who are in that boat, or know someone who is, I’m reprising this video blog to help you make sure you’re ready when it’s time to show your stuff. Follow these tips and you should have much greater success in showing what you can really do.

Another hitting myth: Keeping the head steady

Hitting at impact

When you spend as much time as I do around batting cages, one of the things you’re bound to hear is a coach telling a hitter about the importance of keeping his/her head steady. What the coach means by this is that you should set your body in a position, and then the head should stay there throughout the entire swing.

The rationale is that if the head is moving then the eyes are moving, and it’s too hard to see the ball that way. With a steady head – presumably one where if you had a video and put your cursor on the head it stays in one place throughout the swing – you should get a better look at the ball and be able to hit it.

Only one problem with that theory. That’s now how high-level hitters hit, as this video shows. While in some cases the camera is moving and therefore you can’t really mark it and watch, in others it’s rock steady. If you place your cursor on the starting position you’ll see a couple of things.

First, in most cases the head moves from back to front. That’s because as the hitter strides there is a linear movement forward with the core of the body, carrying the head (and eyes) along with it. Unless you stand still and spin for the swing, which is not a good idea, the head is going to have to move forward.

The other thing you’ll see on lower pitches is that the head moves downward as the hitter follows the ball down. That makes sense.

You don’t want to stand upright and drop your hands to hit a lower pitch. You want to go down with it, both to get a better look at the ball and to be able to use your entire body to hit it.

If you stand up tall, with your head frozen in place, you’re far more likely to hit a weak ground ball. But if you let your body (and head) move, you can lift that low pitch into the outfield – and perhaps even over the fence.

Think about this, too. In the rest of our lives, our head and eyes are moving all the time. If you’re driving, your head is moving forward, perhaps being bounced around by the road, and maybe even bobbing to the music. But you can still see just fine.

Tennis players are constantly on the move, returning sometimes high speed volleys with a ball that’s substantially smaller than a softball. They can see it just fine.

Infielders have to move left or right, up or back, to field hard grounders and pop-ups. Doesn’t seem to hurt their ability to see.

The fact is our eyes (and brains) have an amazing ability to adjust to our surroundings, and to take in and process information while we are on the move. If they didn’t our species would have died off a long time ago.

Clearly you don’t want the head swinging all over the place for no reason. But trying to force the head to stay “steady” is attempting to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. To hit well, the body needs to adjust, and the head with it. Otherwise you’ll wind up with a disconnected swing – and a stiff hitter. And no one wants that.

What fastpitch softball coaches can learn from HGTV shows

Sometimes you have to take fastpitch softball players down to the studs.

As a fastpitch softball coach , when you’re looking for ways to improve your players, it’s likely you think of DVDs, YouTube videos, books, and sites like the Discuss Fastpitch Forum as your go-to resources. Yet there is another, kind of out-of-the-box option that might help you from a philosophical point of view: HGTV.

No, they haven’t suddenly started running fastpitch softball content there, although that would be nice. But what they do a lot of is shows such as Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop Atlanta that take an older, cramped-looking, out-of-date house and turn it into an amazing showplace home with giant, airy rooms, lots of sunlight and picture-perfect furnishings.

Of course any of you with kids (or who are players who are part of a family) know that about 10 minutes after the cameras leave the new owners are going to crap it up with all kinds of stuff that doesn’t fit the decorating theme laying everywhere. But for those few brief, shining moments it’s practically a palace.

What’s fun about those shows is seeing how they do it. Sometimes the house they finally pick (usually from two or three options) is just old and outdated. It has gold or avocado appliances, yellowing linoleum floors, a bunch of small rooms, a tiny kitchen, etc. Every now and then, though, they get the big challenge – a house where there is actual garbage (or worse) in every room, the siding is missing, the shingles are coming off, the ceiling is falling apart, and there are holes in the walls.

Whatever the current state of the house, that’s what they work with. Just like a fastpitch softball coach getting a player.

The first step, of course, is evaluating what needs to be done to get the house to its ultimate state. Sometimes that just means some tweaks here or there, such as tearing out a wall or two, adding a fresh coat of paint, and updating cabinets and fixtures in the kitchen and bathrooms. Of course, even their “tweaks” cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Other times, however, the only solution is to tear the house down to the studs and foundation, inside and out, and start over.

That’s what fastpitch softball coaches face too. Sometimes a player comes in with a pretty good swing, or decent throwing technique, or a good pitching motion, etc. and just needs a few tweaks to up their game.

Other times, it doesn’t take long to see that a swing looks like an unmade bed (unorganized, no particular sequence or purpose to the movements). Or the throwing technique makes you wonder how they get the ball anywhere at all. Or the pitching motion was learned at the bowling alley.

In cases like that, it’s not time to be shy. You just have to tear it down to the studs and start over.

Of course, just like on HGTV you first have to get buy-in from the owner – in this case from the player. On the house programs, they draw up plans on the computer and show the owners what they plan to do. As a coach you can also use a computer to show examples of high-level players  to demonstrate the swing/technique/motion you’re going for.

But you need to go beyond that as well. You need to paint the picture for them in their minds about what their softball life will be like once they make the fix. You also need to explain it’s not something they can master in a week or two.

The HGTV shows are compressed to fit into an hour, but really they’re like a Rocky training montage. A lot of people put in a lot of work to make the changes happen.

In the case of fastpitch softball players, only one person can really put in the work – the player. Can’t subcontract out drills or practice and expect any improvements to be made. Which is another reason the player needs to be on-board.

The climax of the HGTV shows is the Big Reveal – the point where they walk the owners through their new, way better than before home. Many happy tears are shed and high fives exchanged.

The Big Reveal for players is when they finally get back on the field, and suddenly things that were difficult or nerve-wracking become easy and relaxed. Hitters go to the plate with confidence, knowing they can take the pitcher deep. Fielders can make quick, sharp plays and throws because they’re not worried about whether they’ll catch it or where the ball will go. Pitchers can focus on dominating hitters rather than wondering where the ball will go or if it will do what it’s supposed to do.

Take your cue from HGTV. Figure out what your players need to make them showplace-worthy (or showcase-worthy I suppose) and put your plan together from there. If you do have to take one down to the studs, be kind. It will be worth it in the end.

Photo credit: chumlee10 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

For all those who have struggled with a pitching machine

Over the last few years there has been a lot of debate over whether pitching machines are helpful or useless. Some say they’re not very realistic, while others realize it’s often the only means at their disposal to simulate a pitch coming in at full speed and distance.

Players also have their problems, saying they can’t hit off the machine, despite hitting well otherwise.

What I have found, however, is like anything else, the pitching machine is just a tool. It’s how you use it that’s the problem. This video goes into detail on where the issues arise and how to deal with them so you can incorporate machines into your practice – or if you’re a player, how you can get past the flaws.

This is my first vlog, by the way. In the future I’ll work on carrying a bit more friendly of a facial expression. 🙂

Thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber

Tough times can happen to anyone, even MLB stars.

Once again an odd title for a fastpitch softball blog, but bear with me. It’ll make sense.

Adversity is one of those things most fastpitch softball players have to face at one time or another. Our sport is hard, and it’s unforgiving.

Just a few inches either way on a pitch can mean the difference between a backward K and walking in the tying run. It can also mean the difference between a line drive single and a line drive out.

When too many bad things start to happen, it can quickly become overwhelming – especially for young players contending with all those hormones, social pressures, and other things we adults tend to forget about as soon as we can. It can definitely get players feeling bad about themselves, and into a mindset that they are the only ones it’s happening to.

So again, thank goodness for Kyle Schwarber. He was one of the heroes of the Cubs’ World Series win in 2016, coming back from a knee injury to play a key role in several victories. A guy who seemingly had it all knocked.

Well, if you don’t follow the Cubs you may not be aware that for the last couple of weeks he wasn’t with the Chicago National League ballclub . Instead, he was down on their AAA affiliate in Iowa.

The reason? After all his heroics and accolades, he’d lost his swing this year. Just couldn’t quite seem to get into a groove, relax and hit. So the Cubs thought they’d take some pressure off of him, let him go into the minors for a few games to get his swing back away from the glare of the spotlight in Chicago.

It seems to have worked, because he’s back with the Big Club now. (Glad I checked that – gotta love the Internet.) Hopefully he’s exorcised his hitting demons and will start tearing it up again.

The lesson here for young fastpitch softball players is that it can happen to anyone. Schwarber gets paid millions of dollars to play a game that bears a lot of similarities to ours. If he can lose his swing, what makes a fastpitch players whose parents are paying hundreds or thousands of dollars for them to play think it can’t happen to them?

Fastpitch players may not have a lower-level farm team to go to when they are in trouble, but they can certainly follow the same principles:

  • R-E-L-A-X (mixing a little football in here, even if it’s from a team I despise) – The world isn’t coming to an end, and peace in our time isn’t riding on your next at bat. You already know you can do well because you’ve done it before. Worrying won’t help. Just get out of your own head for a bit and try to ease the tension.
  • Go back to basics – Work on your fundamentals. If you’re having trouble hitting, jump on a tee and take some quality swings. If you’re a pitcher who has lost her control, work your way back from the end of the pitch and see where the problem is occurring.
  • Stay positive – It’s easy to fall into the negative thinking trap. But having trouble doesn’t make you a bad player, or a bad person. It just makes you human. Try a little positive self-talk. Think about what it felt like when you were successful. Focus on the good and it will come back a lot faster.
  • Know you will come through it – I remember reading about something called the Stockdale Paradox in the book Good to Great. If you want the long version, follow the link (I highly recommend it). Otherwise, here’s the short version. When you’re in a tough situation, you need to do two things. One is know you’ll come through it. The second is don’t put a timeline on when you will come through it, because if you don’t come out of your funk by the next day, or the next tournament, or the next whatever deadline, you’ll get more depressed and make your situation worse.

If a player like Kyle Schwarber can hit a point where he needs to take a step back in Iowa, it can happen to anyone. Just know you’re not alone, and remember that often the only way out is through.

Photo by Minda Haas, @minda33, Instagram minda.haas

Lessons Learned from the Women’s College World Series

 

Well, that was quite a Women’s College World Series (WCWS) wasn’t it? Lots of fastpitch softball drama (the good kind) from the Regional games all the way up to Championship Series.

Show of hands: how many stayed up until the bottom of the 17th on Monday? I know I did, and I paid for it the rest of the week with interrupted sleep patterns.

As I did the lessons the last few weeks I also asked my students if they were watching the games. Some were, some weren’t. That’s too bad for the ones who weren’t because there’s lots to be learned from watching the game played at such a high level.

With that in mind, here are a few of my own observations and takeaways coming out of a very fun series.

Catchers need to block

Not just sometimes but every time. I saw several balls get by catchers in crucial situations because they tried to glove a ball and couldn’t quite do it. When pitches are coming in at 65+ mph and hit shinguards, they tend to bounce far away. And usually in odd directions.

Get that ball centered on your body – judging where it’s going, not where it is – get on your knees and get over the ball.

Good framing helps

There were definitely strikes called that could have gone either way. (And some, of course, that should have gone the other way, but that’s a different topic.) Catchers framing pitches well can sometimes – sometimes – make the difference.

More bullet spin than you’d expect

When the TV would show the slow motion replays of certain pitches, I was surprised to see just how many pitches had bullet spin rather than directional spin. Bullet spin is not generally desirable in fastpitch softball pitching

(For those who aren’t familiar with the term, bullet spin is when the ball is spinning like a clock face as it’s coming toward you, and you can see the “button” on the front. Bullets spin this way so they don’t move off their direct targets when fired. Good for bullets, bad for pitchers because nothing is easier to hit than a ball that doesn’t change direction.)

I know announcing from the press box is tougher than it looks – I’ve done it – but it was rather funny when a commentator would talk about so-and-so’s tight spin on her rise ball, or how the pitcher just threw a late breaking curve ball, and as he/she is saying it you can clearly see the ball with bullet spin.

Rise balls don’t really rise, but if they were going to they’d have to be spinning backwards. Curve balls would have to have side spin on them. And so forth. A ball with bullet spin isn’t going to break – early, late, or otherwise.

It pays to work on baserunning

I saw some really amazing plays where heads-up baserunning definitely gave the team on offense an advantage.

I saw a runner on first take second on a changeup. I saw runners alerting watching as a throw from the outfield was directed toward a base they weren’t going for, giving them a chance to advance unexpectedly. I saw runners sliding away from possible tags to avoid being out.

Then there was the other stuff. I saw runners going from first to second on a ground ball allow themselves to be tagged so the defense could make a double play. I saw runners over-estimating their speed when they were the only play in town and making an out instead of giving their team a base runner. I saw runners run in front of a fielder going for a ground ball instead of behind and getting called out for interference.

Getting runners on base is really the key to success. The more the merrier. But they don’t really matter until they reach one base: home. The more you can do to get them there, the more runs you’ll score and the more likely you are to win ballgames.

Putting the fast in fastpitch

By the time the Championship Series came around we had the opportunity to see some incredible pitching.

It’s hard to imagine thinking of a pitcher who throws in the mid-’60s as “slower,” but when the others are consistently in the 70s – even up to 75! – that kind of is the case.

What was interesting was that 70 mph pitch speeds didn’t make for 1-0 games. Even the 17 inning barn burner wound up with a double-digit run total. But the ability to throw flat-out harder than everyone else does make a difference, especially in crucial situations where a team really, really needs an out.

I think we saw that even at that level, it’s tough not to be enamored of the pitchers who can flat-out bring it.

It takes a pitching staff

It seems that gone are the days when you could just ride one big arm for the entire tournament. Even if she threw 200 pitches the day before.

Both Oklahoma and Florida got to the big dance using two pitchers, and on Tuesday night Florida pulled in a third and Oklahoma used four!

Has the pitching gotten worse, or the pitchers gotten softer? Not from where I sit. The hitters have simply gotten better. They say hitting is about timing and pitching is about disrupting timing. No better way to disrupt a group of hitters and keep them from getting comfortable in the batter’s box than by showing them different looks, speeds, and styles.

Great defense still makes a difference

Maybe more than ever. There were so many great defensive plays throughout the last few weeks that you could easily make a lengthy highlight reel just on that.

The key for the winners in different games wasn’t the spectacular stuff, though. A lot of it came down to making the plays they were supposed to make. You do that, and the rest is icing on the cake.

Great coaches care about their players

It’s unfortunate that at every level – even D1 college – there are coaches who care more about their records and looking good in front of whoever than they do about their players. Those coaches tend to view their players like the do the field or the equipment – pieces that are there to be used as-needed to fulfill the coach’s goals.

That’s not what you saw with the teams who made it to the final 8. Or especially the Championship Series. From the outside at least, both Patty Gasso and Tim Walton seem to genuinely care about their players, and build relationships with them. Not just the stars but also the role players.

I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote from a coach who said something to the effect of “We all know the same X’s and O’s. It’s what you do with the players on your team that makes the difference.”

While knowing the game and recruiting great talent areimportant, many teams have smart coaches and great talent. There’s a reason Oklahoma and Florida have dominated the WCWS the last few years.

Umpires are human

Yup, saw some bad pitch calls and blown calls on plays at various bases. But while they may be the topic of conversation, those are the minority. That’s a tough job, and there are bound to be mistakes.

I occasionally make mistakes in my job too. I try not to but it happens. Get over it.

Seeing that umpires may blow a call should be that much more incentive to do more so that a blown call doesn’t cost you the game. In high school and college, games last seven innings. (In travel ball usually fewer due to time limits.) Within the allotted 21 outs there is ample time to hit, field, run bases, etc. in a way that will help your team win. Focus on that.

Look at it this way: if your team is leading 10-1 and an umpire blows a play at the plate, calling an opponent safe instead of out, no one is likely to get too worked up about it. Put yourself in that position and the rest takes care of itself.

Those were some of the things I saw. How about you? What stood out to you? What did you see that you haven’t before, or that made you cringe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

 

Tips for winning the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters

cat and mouse

One of the most fundamental elements of a fastpitch softball game, especially at the higher levels, is the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters. Once you get past pitchers just hoping to throw more strikes than balls, and hitters just hoping to make some sort of contact and get on base, the “game within the game” within the first 35-43 feet of the field is quite something to behold.

I work with both pitchers and hitters, so in writing this post I’m kind of like the arms dealer selling to both sides. But it also gives me a pretty interesting perspective because I have a pretty good idea of what each side is being told.

One of the keys to winning that cat-and-mouse game, however, is a willingness to adjust your strategy as the game goes on. Those who go in with a plan and stick to it, no matter what’s actually happening during the game, aren’t going to be as successful as those recognize a new opportunity has come up or what they’re doing, no matter how well-researched it was, just isn’t working.

Here are a few examples of what pitchers (and their catchers, can’t forget them) and hitters can do to adjust to what’s happening in a game. While this list is by no means all-inclusive, or even universally agreed-to, hopefully it can at least create a starting point for better in-game thinking on both sides.

Aggressive hitters

If there’s one universal taught to every pitcher, it’s the concept of getting ahead of the hitter in the count. Almost all the time that means throw the first pitch for a strike, usually with heat behind it.

When a pitcher is facing an aggressive team, or even a single aggressive hitter, who like to swing at the first pitch, that can get dangerous. You’re throwing a strike to hitters who are looking to pound one.

So the counter to that is to start hitters with a changeup or offspeed pitch. Get them to swing and miss, foul off that first pitch, or even mis-hit it into the field for an out. You might even want to follow that up with another one. After all, who expects two changeups in a row? It’s called fastpitch, right?

By throwing a first-pitch change (or first two pitches offspeed) you will often get the results above, AND upset the hitter’s timing for the rest of the at-bat since your change will make your heat seem even faster. Plus, it’s really tough to hit out of an 0-2 hole.

If you’re a hitter, the counter-move to that is to pay attention and figure out the pattern. In other words, if the three batters in front of you got a first-pitch change, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get one two. Sit on that pitch and drive it. Then don’t forget to tell your friends.

Drop balls

The first thing hitters need to do when facing a drop ball pitcher is to figure out where the ball is dropping. Once they know that they have a couple of options.

If the ball is dropping pretty much on the plate, or at the back of it, one thing they can do is move forward in the box to catch the ball before it drops. The other option is to move to the back of the box so the ball is pretty much landing even with their front foot.

In doing so you’re pushing the umpire further back, and making it tougher to call the pitch for a strike. Although technically a strike is the height of the ball over the plate, that gets tougher to judge when the hitter is further back. If you’re successful with this strategy you can start taking those drops for balls, and maybe even take that pitch out of the pitcher’s arsenal that day.

For pitchers, the counter to that move is to have the ability to adjust where the ball breaks based on where the hitter is standing. That’s easier said than done.

Most times when pitchers practice drop balls they only practice them to one location. Smart pitchers, however, will practice moving the break forward and backward by having the catcher move up and back and changing their release point slightly to accommodate the different distances. When a pitcher can do that, her drop becomes a more formidable weapon.

The hitter’s counter? Get better at hitting drop balls.

Pervasive changeups

Ever seen a pitcher (or a coach calling signals) who is in love with her changeup? She throws a great one, so every hitter gets one or two each at bat.

If you as a hitter are having trouble with her speed or movement, here’s an idea: you know the change will come. Just wait for it and hit that. I’ve seen that strategy executed very successfully. Not only do you get the hits; you take the change off the table for a while.

I’ve also seen that ignored – even in the Women’s College World Series. I remember Arizona’s Taryne Mowatt win a national championship by feeding Tennessee’s hitters a steady diet of changeups. I also remember thinking “Why isn’t Tennessee sitting on that change?” – a thought even the announcers echoed an inning or two later. Make the pitcher pay and she will stop it.

The counter for pitchers is not to abandon it entirely. Just lay off it while it seems like the hitters are waiting for it. Once they start getting more aggressive at the plate, bring it back.

Working inside/outside

Pitchers who are consistently pounding the inside or outside corner should be fairly easy to deal with after a couple of innings. Hitters simply need to move into the plate when pitchers are living on the outside corner, thus turning an outside pitch into a middle pitch, or back off a bit if the pitcher is living on the inside corner to turn that inside pitch into a middle pitch. By the way, in my world right handed hitters should always start in on the plate against left handed pitchers until they see the pitcher will throw them inside.

The counter for pitchers, of course, is to take advantage of what the hitters are leaving on the table. In other words, if they’re backing off the plate due to inside pitches, then start throwing the outside corner. Conversely if they’re crowding to get the outside pitch, throw them inside.

That said, pitchers also need to be careful about getting baited to throw a pitch the hitter really likes. I’ve had any number of hitting students who were able to turn well on an inside pitch but struggled a little to let the ball get deep enough on an outside pitch. I will also tell them to crowd the plate. If you throw them inside that ball is likely to go a long way. The last thing the cat wants to do is get caught in the mousetrap.

Zoning in

If hitters don’t want to adjust where they stand at the plate, another strategy they can use is to identify where the pitcher is throwing the ball the most and cut the strike zone in half – or even into one quarter.

For example, one former high school coach I know of was very risk-averse, so he only liked to throw on the low outside corner. If you know that, you can narrow your strike zone to that one zone, look for a ball there, and take it downtown.

Most of the time, though, you’ll probably wind up cutting it in half. If the pitcher can’t throw a strike from the waist up, then just put the blinders on (or maybe pull your helmet visor down a little lower) and only swing at pitches below the waist.

The same for pitchers who throw almost all outside or inside. Where you make contact with the ball changes on inside versus outside, so if you know which half of the plate the ball is likely to be on you can adjust accordingly.

The counter for pitchers (at least where you have control over pitch locations) is to start breaking the pattern to keep the hitters honest, especially when you’re ahead in the count and can afford to miss the strike zone. You might even want to do it now and then even if you don’t have control of pitch calling because, hey, everyone misses a location now and then. Just be prepared to take the heat in the dugout afterwards – even if you’re successful in getting the hitter out.

Slappers

The conventional wisdom on slappers is to pitch them low and outside. But since a slapper wants to hit the ball on the ground in the 5-6 hole, throwing low and out may be the biggest gift you can give them. That’s usually where I start the tee when I begin teaching slappers because it’s the easiest way to get the proper results.

I always tell pitchers there are two types of slappers: those who run straight at the pitcher, and those who try to run to first base as they slap. The strategies are different for each of them.

For slappers who try to run to first base first, the low and out strategy will often work. For well-trained slappers, however, not so much.

In that case, you want to throw them up and in or low and in. Get them to pop up, or hit a weak ground ball to the right side of the infield where the throw is shorter.

For those who are anxious and starting a bit early, you can also throw them a change. Maybe they’ll run through the box, make contact outside of it, and get called out. Or maybe they’ll have to hold up to avoid running out, taking away some of the advantage of the running start.

For slappers, the first counter is to run straight at the pitcher every time. If you see the ball coming at you, then peel off a bit. You can also start a little later than normal to let the ball get deeper on you, or even a bit behind before you make contact (assuming the pitcher is throwing you inside consistently). Unlike hitting away, the closer the ball is to you the deeper you want to let it get so you can get it to the left side.

The other key counter for slappers is not to be one-dimensional. Be able to hit, straight bunt, drag bunt up the first baseline, soft slap, or hit up and over depending on how you’re being pitched and where the defense is playing you. The more you can do, the less the pitcher can rely on any one strategy.

Pay attention

The one common thread you may have noticed in all of those cat-and-mouse games is the need to be aware of what’s going on and pick up on any patterns or tendencies the other side has. The more you do that, the more likely you are to win the battle.

Now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What can hitters or pitchers take advantage of, and what is the counter to that move? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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