Category Archives: Pitching
It’s no great revelation to say that working the corners by being able to hit your spots inside and outside is a critical skill for fastpitch softball pitchers. The easiest pitches to hit are the ones down the middle, so once you can do that reliably the next step is learning to never throw there again (except maybe on a 3-0 count).
Of course, it’s easy to say “you have to hit your spots.” It’s another thing for fastpitch pitchers, especially younger ones, to be able to do it.
There are a lot of moving parts involved in fastpitch pitching, and going inside and outside reliably requires being able to make fine motor adjustments. Not every pitcher is able to do that on-command.
So with that in mind, here’s a quick video blog that shows a drill to help pitchers get the concept of making adjustments by starting broader and working their way back in. The drill will work no matter what technique you use to throw inside/outside.
It’s being demonstrated with an outside curve ball, by the way, but it will work for any pitch.
Once upon a time there were three little pigs who wanted to become fastpitch softball pitchers.
“We should find someone to teach us how,” said one of the pigs to the others. “Because fastpitch pitching is a tough skill to learn, and a good coach can help us learn faster.”
The others agreed, but they all went about it differently.
The first little pig said, “Lessons are lessons, right? As long as I’m taking lessons from someone I should be fine. No need to look into it any further than that.”
So she went to a coach who didn’t keep up with the state of the art in softball pitching. She was taught to turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push the ball down the back side of the circle. She was taught to point her elbow at the catcher when she was done, and slam the door. But as long as she didn’t play very good teams she managed to get by.
The second little pig said, “I know some mechanics are better than others, but the only coach around who teaches good mechanics is 45 minutes away. That’s too inconvenient for me. So I’ll just find someone closer. Certainly any lessons are better than none.”
So the second pig also learned to push the ball down the circle, point her elbow and slam the door. She realized it wasn’t what the high-level pitchers she saw on TV do, but it was a lot easier to get to those lessons than to the better coach so she decided to take the easy way.
The third little pig was also aware of what good mechanics are, and knew they were the key to becoming a high-level performer. So she looked and looked until she could find a coach who could teach her that way. And that’s who she went to.
It took up more time, and her coach insisted she practice regularly to learn exactly what he was teaching. The other two pigs laughed and laughed at the third one. They laughed because of how much extra time it took her to get to and from lessons, and how she didn’t do wrist flips as her first warm-up. They laughed because what she was learning was different.
While the third little pig was practicing her mechanics, the other two were busy doing other things, like playing on their phones or hanging out at the mall.
“As long as we can throw strikes, that’s all we really need to do,” they said. “We can already do that, so no need for the extra practice time.”
Then one day their team had a game scheduled against the Big Bad Wolves. The coach put the first little pig in to pitch, because she never walked anyone. “We can’t defend a walk,” she constantly reminded her team.
But the first little pig got rocked, because pushing fastballs down the middle against a team that can hit bombs like the Big Bad Wolves is a recipe for disaster.
So then he put in the second little pig. She had done well last week when they played the Little Chickadees so she should do well now. But she didn’t. The Big Bad Wolves feasted on the meatballs she was serving.
Finally, the coach turned the third little pig. “See if you can get us out of this jam.” she said.
So the third little pig went into the circle, and all her hard work paid off. She was able to relax and bring the heat, because her mechanics worked the way her body was designed to work. All the time she spent learning good mechanics, and in the car going to the coach who taught them, paid off.
She set down the Big Bad Wolves 1-2-3, and dominated from that point until the end of the game. Had they not given away so many runs in the beginning they might have even won! But they didn’t.
The morale of the story is that there is a difference in pitching mechanics. If you want to excel, just taking any old lessons won’t do it. Rather than settling for what’s easy or convenient, go where you’ll get the best value for your investment in time and money.
As I write this, it’s the best time of the year for fastpitch softball fanatics. The NCAA Division I tournament is underway, and the airwaves (or cable waves) are filled with a seemingly endless diet of games.
You can hardly swing a dead cat without coming across a game somewhere over the next few weekends. That’s good news for the families of younger softball players, because it gives them a chance to see how many of the top players play the game.
Yet as you watch, it’s tempting to think that all those high performers were just naturally gifted, and always played the way they play now (more or less). The fact is in many cases it isn’t true.
If you talked to them you’d find out that many of these players started out as benchwarmers who were just happy to get a few innings in here or there. Or that the awesome pitcher you’re watching lead her team to victory in Regionals, Super Regionals, or even the Women’s College World Series wasn’t always the #1 player on her travel or even high school team.
Many top players, in fact, had to work their way into the positions they are in today. That’s nothing new, either. It’s always been that way.
For evidence, I’m going to point you to a couple of good stories of personal struggle. The first two come from Amanda Scarborough.
I’m sure many of you recognize that name. She was an All American pitcher at Texas A&M, runs pitching clinics all over the U.S. as part of The Packaged Deal, and is now a commentator on ESPN. Pretty good resume, I’d say.
Yet Amanda will tell you she wasn’t always on the fast track to stardom. In fact, in this blog post she talks about how on her first travel team, she was the #4 or #5 pitcher, and rarely saw the plate or the field when she wasn’t pitching. Not exactly the start you’d expect for someone who has done as much as she’s done.
Yet she kept working at it, and didn’t let her lack of opportunity discourage her.
But surely by the time she got high school she was the star, right? No, and don’t call me Shirley!
In this blog post, she talks about being the #2 pitcher behind an older girl until that girl graduated. So the reality is you don’t have to be the starter as a freshman to do great things.
Another pitcher you may have heard of is Cat Osterman. She set all kinds of records as a pitcher while at the University of Texas at Austin, including strikeout ratio, WHIP, and perfect games. She won a gold and silver medal in two Olympic games (2004 and 2008), and had a stellar career in National Pro Fastpitch league. Sounds like a natural, right?
Actually, not. According to this story, she was short, scrawny, and uncoordinated as a youngster. When she tried out for the Little League All-Star team she was the only player they cut. Doesn’t sound like a future Olympian in the making does it?
After that season she went to a travel team, and spent a lot of time watching games from the bench.
But again, she didn’t let it get her down. She just kept working, and eventually become the pitcher she was capable of becoming.
I share all of this because it’s easy to think that today’s stars were yesterday’s stars too. That’s not always the case, however. Players who start with natural advantages in size, strength or athleticism can be passed by those who work harder – especially when nature takes its course and the late bloomers begin to grow.
You can’t control how people perceive you. But you can control how hard you work to get better.
As I always like to say, it doesn’t matter where you start the race – only where you finish it. Take heart in knowing that even some of the best who ever played the game started out just like you – fighting for scraps, and working their way up the depth chart. And remember it’s not how good you are but how badly you want it that will make the difference.
Or, as they say in “Galaxy Quest:”
Ok, now it’s your turn. Do you have a story about a player, famous or not, who overcame a slower start and became successful? Share your story in the comments below.
I can’t believe we’re still having this discussion in 2018 (as I write this, for those of you finding it in the future as you ride along in your self-driving, flying cars) but it’s amazing to me how many players, parents, team coaches, and yes, even pitching coaches, don’t understand what the arm throwing arm should be doing on the back side of the circle. That’s the part where the ball goes from directly overhead to down and through release.
I see it when I’m walking through a facility or past a field where someone is giving a pitching lesson. I hear it from parents of my students telling me horror stories about their daughter’s first practice with the new team coach. I get emails from around the country about it.
The story is pretty much the same. Whoever is offering the “instruction” says the following: “At the top of the circle, point the ball toward second base, with your arm stretched high. Then push the ball face down through the back side of the circle, until you get to the bottom. Then snap your wrist and finish high, with your elbow pointed at the catcher.” That last part is often referred to as a “hello elbow.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. I could tell you all the technical reasons why it’s not a good idea – how it hurts speed and accuracy, how it works against the way our bodies are designed, and so forth. But probably the best reason not to do it is this: NO HIGH-PERFORMING PITCHER DOES THAT. Not even the ones who tell you to do it.
Why? Because it hurts speed and accuracy, works against the way our bodies are designed, etc. And ultimately limits your ability to do your very best.
No need to debate the point, however. Let’s just take a look at what a few very high-level, successful pitchers do when they pitch. Run the videos, then pause them at the top and see which way the ball is facing. Then take a look at what they do through the rest of the circle – bent elbow v. straight arm, whipping the ball through the zone from back to front, long, loose, natural release instead of a forced arm raise. HINT: Once the video is paused, you can step through it by pressing the “,” key to move backwards and the “.” to go forwards.
I could point to more, but you get the point. Of course, if you want to see more, go to YouTube, search for a top pitcher and watch the video. You’ll find they do the same thing (more or less, depending on the pitch).
Now, I realize I’m running the risk of the Backfire Effect. Parents who are investing money in their kids being taught those poor mechanics, or pitching coaches who are making money teaching them, may decide to double down on their beliefs. No one likes to admit they’re wrong.
But the proof is in the pudding. Or in this case in the videos.
If you’re a parent taking your daughter to pitching lessons, and you hear her being told to turn the ball toward second and push it face-down through the back of the circle, my advice to you is to politely stop the lesson, feign a family emergency, and run (not walk) away. Then find a pitching coach who teaches what you see in the videos above.
If you’re a pitching coach teaching that stuff, it’s time to refresh your knowledge so you can be sure you’re helping your students become the best they can be. Presumably, that’s what you’re in it for, so use the tools we have available today to find out what makes the best the best, and teach to that standard. It’s not easy changing what you’re doing – I’ve had to do it before – but it’s worth the effort.
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.
One of the challenges of working with younger fastpitch softball pitchers is getting them to understand the importance of maintaining good posture during the pitch.
You want them to be upright, with a firm, straight posture and plenty of front side resistance. But what you get instead is more of a hunched over look.
There can be a variety of reasons for it. One is that they don’t have the core strength to maintain good posture, especially at the younger ages.
More often than not, though, it’s either inexperience or a desire to keep the pitch from going high. They figure if they schlump their shoulders down, or bend at the waist, that will help them keep the ball down.
Unfortunately, the opposite will most likely occur due to Coach Ken’s law of opposites, i.e., to make a ball go down you must first go up.
Now, you can tell them to stay up straight, but the words alone aren’t always meaningful. Sometimes you need to illustrate it more for them.
To do that I will tell the pitcher that she has the choice of being a servant or a queen. A servant stands with her shoulders bowed and head down. A queen stands up straight, with her head up. Then I ask her – which would you rather be, a servant or a queen?
I have yet to have anyone answer servant. So I tell them if you want to be a queen, finish like one. If they bend over while pitching, I can then ask them if they were a servant or a queen? That’s something they understand.
(Another way to make the same point, by the way, is to compare a chimpanzee or baboon to a giraffe. The primate hunches over. The giraffe stands tall.)
So if you’re having trouble getting a pitcher to stay up straight, give this idea a try.
One of the most common problems I see when trying to teach fastpitch pitchers to learn to whip the arm through the release zone is overcoming the urge to aim.
They’ll be doing a good job of bending at the elbow and letting the upper arm lead through the back of the circle (rather than pushing the ball down with their hands). But then, right before they get to that critical moment where the upper arm slows down naturally and the lower arm passes it to create the whipping action, they will instead let the ball get ahead too early and defeat the whip.
I’m pretty convinced the reason they do this is they’re trying to make sure they throw a strike. So what do they do? They tighten up and try to direct the ball at the plate rather than allowing the arm to finish its natural motion.
Not only is this a speed killer, it actually works against their original goal of throwing a strike. If you stay relaxed and let the joints in the shoulder and arm do their job, it’s actually fairly easy to throw a strike.
As long as you direct the momentum that’s been built up toward the plate, the ball will go there. Like I often say, the ball doesn’t care where it goes, so it will go anywhere you tell it to go.
But when you tighten up before the whip can happen, now you’re pushing the ball through the release zone. Momentum is no longer helping you, so it’s very easy for the arm to get off-course and send the ball in the wrong direction. If you’re off even just a few degrees from where you want to go, or you twist your hand funny, suddenly the ball is not going where you want it to.
For pitchers with this issue, a pattern usually develops. Say she throws low and way inside on the first pitch. On the next one, she will try to correct and direct the ball toward the outside, often going high and well out. Then you’re on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with balls careening all over the place.
So while the goal was to “just throw strikes” (a phrase I really dislike, by the way), instead control becomes more difficult than ever.
Making the fix
How do you overcome this tendency? First, the pitcher has to understand that strikes are a result, not a goal. Consciously focusing on the far end rather than herself is the wrong thing to do.
With that in mind, have her move up close and just work on the finishing action to get the feel of the whip. As Rick Pauly says, if you can’t hit the target from close up you won’t hit it from far away. A good place to start that motion is with the ball about shoulder high, with the palm facing up.
One of the things the pitcher should focus on is feeling her upper arm pull all the way into her ribcage, with the ball trailing behind the whole way. If needed, you can even isolate that motion, i.e., eliminate the actual throw until she gets the feel of the upper arm leading.
Once she has that down, have her continue through and throw. The goal is to feel relaxed and let it happen naturally. Check to be sure she isn’t trying to throw the ball too early. There should be a definite pendulum (or two-piece) movement rather than the whole arm coming through at once.
As the pitcher gets the feel of it from that starting point, work your way back, first starting at 12:00 and then making a full arm circle, but still without a full windup or much leg drive. Only when she can execute the full circle and get the whip should she be allowed to pitch from a windup position.
The catcher dilemma
One other thing you may need to do is have the pitcher throw into a screen or net rather than to a catcher. The reason is psychological.
If there is a catcher there, the pitcher will focus on throwing the ball to her rather than on what her arm is doing. Double that if the catcher is Dad or Mom. That defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to do. So if the pitcher isn’t willing to make mistakes when there’s a catcher involved, remove the catcher so it’s no longer an issue.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s tough to see whether the pitcher is getting the ball ahead a little too early with the naked eye. That’s where video is so helpful.
There are plenty of inexpensive mobile apps that will help you capture and analyze video to see what’s happening in “the last mile” of the pitch. Even regular high-speed video on a smartphone or tablet will do in a pinch. Not only does capturing the motion on video let you see it. It also lets the pitcher see it, which is often very helpful in encouraging her to correct it.
Aim not to aim
It’s easy for pitchers, especially those who are just developing their mechanics, to want to measure their success in terms of balls and strikes. After all, that’s how it’s often measured in a game.
Yet real development comes when pitchers are able to stop consciously aiming the ball and learn to use a proper whipping motion instead. It will lead to far greater success in the long run.
Once a pitcher’s mechanics are strong, one of the most effective ways to improve speed is through long toss. The pitcher starts at her normal pitching distance, then moves back 5-8 feet and throws another pitch.
She keeps doing that until she can’t make it to the plate anymore, at which point she starts working her way back in. The goal, of course, is to get as far out as you can – eventually to the outfield grass. You need to be strong, with a quick, aggressive motion, to get there.
Of course, to perform long toss effectively you need to have the distance to throw it. Easy enough on the field, but not so easy when you’re in a 50′ batting cage or a gym with other players – as many of us in the Northern part of the world are right now.
That’s where having a set of properly weighted balls can come in very handy. With weighted balls, and a quality training program, you can work on both arm strength and arm speed where space is limited.
The key is having balls of the proper weight. In particular, you want to be sure the weighted ball isn’t too heavy – no more than 1.5 ounces more than a normal ball, which is roughly 6.5 ounces. Anything heavier and you risk putting undue stress on the shoulder.
That’s why I’ve come to like Decker Weighted Softballs from Decker Sports. The overload/underload variance is relatively small: 7.8 oz. for the heavy ball, 5.2 oz. for the light ball, plus a “normal” 6.5 oz. ball. Each ball is very clearly marked, with large numbers and color coding, so there is no risk of using the wrong ball for the particular purpose.
Another thing I like about the balls is they come with a line around the circumference going across the four seams, so you can easily see the spin on the ball. That will give you an idea of whether you’re maintaining good mechanics as you work with them.
I also like the feel of the balls. They have good “tack” on them with good seams. The previous set of weighted balls I had never had very good tack, and by now are positively shiny. It was definitely time to retire them. The Decker Sports balls feel more natural to the pitchers, helping them focus on what they’re doing rather than wondering whether the balls will slip out of their hands.
Decker Sports does more than sell you a product, however. The balls come with an off-season and in-season training program. You can see a preview here. There are also other training programs out there, so you can find one that fits your needs and time constraints.
That’s another good point to make. Working with weighted balls can take some time. In lessons, where we only have a half hour once a week, I will often expose players (and parents) to weighted balls but won’t continue to use them on a regular basis.
That’s the sort of thing that’s best done on your own. I feel the time spent with me can best be spent on other aspects – you don’t need a coach for that.
Studies have shown that using a good weighted ball protocol can help increase speed. If you’re looking to help your pitch pick up some velocity (and who isn’t), give these weighted balls a try. You may even want to carry on with them once you go back outside.
I could have sworn I have posted this before, but I just ran a bunch of searches and couldn’t find it so just in case here it goes again.
One of the keys to throwing an effective backhand change is to pull or drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first rather than pushing it ball first. Or snapping it like a fastball.
Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for pitchers to get that feeling. That’s what the drill shown at the top of this post is for, demonstrated by a former student of mine named Tayler Janda (helped by her mom Jennie) back when she was in high school.
Essentially, you set the pitcher up with her feet apart so they won’t move. Then have her grasp a swim noodle with her knuckles facing forward. When you say go, she pulls the noodle out of your hand and flings it forward. (NOTE: have her try to do it without spinning her shoulders like Tayler is doing in the video.)
The goal of this drill is to get the pitcher to feel what it’s like to hold onto the ball until she reaches forward as far as she can go before releasing, and to maintain speed all the way through.
A few repetitions and she should start to get the feel. The nice thing about this drill is you can do it indoors on a rainy day just as easily as you can on a field or in a cage.
If you have (or are) a pitcher who is having trouble finding the proper release on your change, give this one a try.
One of the toughest things for any fastpitch softball pitcher is keeping control over her emotions. Pitchers are very exposed, and face a lot of pressure on every pitch, so it’s easy for them to get too high or too low depending on the outcome of the pitcher. Neither is terribly good.
This high/low issue was very evident in one of my pitching students, a 12U pitcher named Sarah. She’d throw a great pitch during a lesson and have a wide grin on her face. Then she’d try another, it wouldn’t work right, and the sad face came out.
It wasn’t just a little bit of disappointment. Her spirits would visibly fall – exaggerated by how high the last high was.
I would talk to her about needing to “maintain an even strain,” and she would nod, but the next time it would happen she’d do the same thing. I kept trying to think of how I could explain it better.
Then it hit me: Halloween was coming up, and with it Halloween merchandise. I thought about the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
If you’ve never seen it, the character is the Mayor of Halloween Town. He has two faces. One is a gigantic grin; the other is a sad face. (See the graphic at the top of the post.)
His head spins around to show the appropriate face, depending on his mood. There is no in-between. Just like Sarah, I thought!
I thought what better way to illustrate it than to pick up a Mayor doll of some sort and give it to Sarah. So I ran to Walgreen’s, and found the perfect representation. It was just the head, about the size of a Beanie Baby. It was the kind of thing she could keep in her bag as a reminder not to go into “Mayor mode.” And it was fun.
She got it immediately, and was happy to get the gift. But it’s what happened next that was most interesting.
In her next lesson, she was a lot more even in her moods. If something went wrong she was able to shrug it off pretty easily – much more so than before. When she did make a face, I’d just call her Mayor and she’d smile and come out of it. Seemed like the Mayor had done his job.
Fast forward to this past Monday. As she was putting her glove in her bag after her lesson she pulled out the Mayor, and that brought up a discussion. She said she had another girl on her team who would have even bigger mood swings, so she handed the girl the Mayor to help her pull out of a bad one.
Apparently the Mayor has become somewhat of a team mascot. Whenever someone gets down, they get the Mayor, and he helps them snap out of it. Fun to hear they’re all sharing him, and reaping the benefits.
Helping the mental game can be tough, because you never know what might work. But if you have a player, or a team, that is struggling with evening out their moods, get out and see if you can pick up a Mayor while Halloween is still going on. It just might do the trick.