Category Archives: Pitching
One of the most common questions I get from the parents of fastpitch softball pitchers is “How many pitches should my daughter throw per day?” Sometimes they’re worried that throw too much, but most of the time it’s that they don’t throw enough.
I know they’re looking for a hard and fast number, like 100, but it’s actually a tough question to give a blanket answer to. Here’s why.
If I tell them 100, or 200, or 50, then someone is probably going to start counting the pitches. The goal then becomes getting to the target number when the goal should be to improve with every pitch. That’s just human nature.
The problem is empty repetitions, where you’re just throwing to hit the number, are like eating empty calories. It might feel good at the time, but you’re really not helping yourself.
In fact, in the long run you may be hurting yourself. Just as you are what you eat, you also are what you practice. If you practice the wrong mechanics simply because you’re trying to hit that count of 100 pitches, you’re locking down a way of throwing that will make you worse, or at least keep you in the same place, rather than making you better.
I know this from personal experience. When I was a young lad, I took piano lessons. The requirement was I had to practice for a half hour a day. Well, a lot of times I wanted to be outside with my friends instead of sitting at our crappy old piano that had some broken keys, playing exercises and songs I didn’t care about. So I put in the required half hour (and not a minute more) without really accomplishing much of anything.
If you’re hungry and have a candy bar, you’ve staved off the hunger for a bit. But you haven’t nourished your body. You’re not making it healthier; you’re just making yourself fatter and more prone to whatever illness is going around. If your goal is to be strong and healthy, you need to eat foods that will help you accomplish that goal. Which means thinking before you eat.
The same is true of practicing. At each practice session you should have a goal. Maybe you need to fix your arm circle, or improve your leg drive, or gain control of your change-up. There’s always something to work on.
Knowing what your goal is, you should work toward that. It may come in 20 pitches. It may come in 1,000 pitches spread across a period of days. Whatever it takes, you should focus on what you need to do to reach your goal rather than how many pitches you’ve thrown that day.
It’s a much more efficient way to practice. In fact, I’d rather see a player throw 20 mindful pitches, or spend 10 mindful minutes working on something, than just “putting in the time” like a prisoner in the Big House.
This idea doesn’t just apply to pitching, by the way. It is the same for hitting, throwing, base running, position play, and so forth. Empty repetitions gain you nothing. In fact, the mindset that makes them empty will also tend to make them less than great, helping you get worse instead of better.
Instead, go for the substance. Nurture your game with focused practice and you’ll reach your goals more quickly – and with greater ease.
One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?
Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.
Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.
So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.
The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.
Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.
When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.
Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.
Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.
When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.
The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.
What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.
For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.
With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.
Last night I was working with a fastpitch pitcher named Kylie that my old job would have classified as a “boomerang.” I had given her lessons for a few months, then she ended up on one of those teams run through a facility that includes the lessons in the package.
After being dissatisfied with her progress as a pitcher over there, she recently returned to me as a student. (Most of that description has nothing to do with the story, but I just love the term boomerang.)
Anyway, at one point her dad, who was catching for her, told her to ask me the question she had. It turned out to be a really good one. What I liked about it in particular was it showed a desire to understand and get better at a deeper level than “because I say so.”
I love getting questions like that. Actually, I love getting any questions from students, or players on a team, because it shows they’re engaged. Yet I think often times many athletes, girls in particular, are reluctant to ask questions – even when they really want to know the answer.
I’m not sure why this happens, but I can speculate. I think one answer is that they might be concerned that the coach/instructor/other authority figure will feel like his/her position of authority is being challenged. Or maybe the athlete asked a question once and got reprimanded for it. Or maybe the athlete thinks somehow she should already know the answer and doesn’t want to feel stupid for asking. I’m sure there are other reasons as well.
In some cases, those fears may be true. Some coaches really might not like questions because they’re not secure in their own knowledge and don’t want to be trapped, or might be one of those “command and conquer” types who thinks communication should only flow one way. They’re certainly out there.
But athletes should never feel intimidated about asking questions. This is how we learn. How many great discoveries in the world started with, “I wonder why…” or “Did anyone ever consider…?”
Although you do have to be careful around “I wonder what would happen if…?” Often not much good comes out of that question, especially if it’s followed by “Here, hold my beer.”
From my point of view, though, questions are great. Again, they show the athlete is engaged in learning. I’ve always said that the first requirement for improvement is a willingness to change. Athletes like Kylie who ask questions absolutely embody that philosophy.
She heard what I was instructing, and knew she wasn’t quite doing it. She could feel it. But she didn’t quite know how to get where I wanted her to go. So instead of just nodding along and struggling, she asked a question that led to a more in-depth explanation. She tried it, and she got it.
She also asked one of the toughest things I think young athletes can ask: She had gone to a pitching clinic somewhere and they told her about keeping her weight back as she drove out; she wanted to know if that was right, and if so how do you do that if you’re trying to go forward.
That led to an explanation from me about how it’s like riding a skateboard on one leg, then putting your other leg down in front. Yes, you’re moving forward, but you want your entire body to be moving forward at once rather than a piece at a time. If you do that, you can drive into your front leg and get more whip rather than landing down, on top of your front leg and having everything come to a dead stop before you throw.
She got it, and was immediately able to improve her leg drive. Not to mention feel when her weight wasn’t quite where it needed to be. Either way, she now has the tools she needs to improve. And hopefully she’s a little more confident about asking me other questions in the future.
I’m definitely a fan of the Socratic method of teaching, where questions lead to dialog and critical thinking, rather than the “open the top of your head, I will pour in the knowledge, and then we’ll be done” method some coaches seem to favor. The more players understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, the more likely they will be to do it with passion.
It all starts with those questions. Not just from the coaches to players, but players to coaches. Incidentally, if you ask a coach why you should do something in terms of mechanics and he/she doesn’t have an answer, you might want to think twice about doing it. The coach could just be repeating something he/she heard somewhere once, and it may not be what you need to take you where you want to go.
If you’re a player, especially a young one, I know it can be intimidating to ask questions. But get over it and ask anyway. It will help the coach know how to make the information more understandable to you.
If you’re a coach, embrace questions. They show passion and involvement, that so-called “spark” it takes to achieve at a higher level. You want to encourage that behavior as much as you can, because a team full of inquisitive, engaged players are going to win a lot more games than a bunch of disinterested robots.
The only caveat with me is be careful when you ask me a question. You may end up hearing more than you ever wanted to know – especially if you’re the last lesson of the night. I love talking softball!
Right now we are coming up on what is probably the toughest time of the year in fastpitch softball – tryout season.
While the current playing season hasn’t quite concluded yet for most players, the finish line is definitely in sight for most. And that means they need to make a decision about next year, asking the musical question:
In some cases it may be whether a player should make the jump from rec ball to travel ball. In other cases it’s whether to stay with the current team or move to a new one, or whether to play up or stay down. So many decisions!
I’m asked my advice on this a lot, and I usually share it on a one-to-one basis because every situation is a little different. But there are a few common scenarios where I can pretty much make a blanket recommendation.
The biggest one is about seeking out opportunity, especially if you are (or your daughter is) a pitcher. As my headline says, pitchers gotta pitch. You can practice all you want, but the only way you’re going to know if you’re getting better is if you get the opportunity to pitch in games. Not just a few scrub innings here or there, but quality innings.
So let’s look at this typical scenario. (I’m going to say you to keep it simple, but you can also read “your daughter.)
You’re on a team that already has two good, established pitchers who get the bulk of the work. You started pitching a year ago, and while you’ve been working hard you haven’t had much opportunity to show your stuff. The coaches are too afraid they might lose a game with you in the circle.
Odds are that situation isn’t going to get any better next year. It’s probably time for you to seek your fortunes elsewhere, even if it’s with a team that isn’t as good overall, or isn’t as likely to win as many games as your current team.
What you need right now are game innings. So what if the team doesn’t play great defense and you take some losses. What you want is the opportunity to get in the circle, make yourself better, and see if you can make the team better to boot. Now, if you improve and the team doesn’t, next year will probably be a different story. But for now, your best bet is to go where the opportunity is.
Another tough one is whether a 10U pitcher should move up when her team goes to 12U or stay down at 10U. There’s no single answer for this one. If you’re rocking it at 10U, you can probably move up to the next level no problem. Especially if you’re a bigger 10U player. A smaller one might have trouble adjusting to the larger ball and extra five feet of pitching distance.
On the other hand, if you’re a developing 10U pitcher who hasn’t had much circle time, the jump to 12U might be pretty rough. If you get rocked a couple of times at 12U that might be the end of your pitching career. My recommendation in general would be to stay down, get a chance to dominate and build some confidence first. It will help ease the transition.
What about going from rec ball to travel ball? That can be a pretty big (and eye-opening) jump. To me, this is more about general attitude toward the game. If softball is primarily a social thing for you, it may not be a good idea. The increased practice and game schedules, even at the lower end of travel ball, might be too much for you.
On the other hand, if you’re a competitive type you’re very likely going to thrive in the travel ball world. You’ll enjoy the harder practices and tougher competition. And you (as well as your parents) will likely make friends for life.
On the other side of the stay/go coin is the desire to win trophies above all else. Yes, there are teams you can go to that will let you clutter your bedroom, and the living room, and the basement with plastic “hardware.” But will they help you become a better player?
Winning teams aren’t always run by great coaches. Sometimes they’re run by a parent who has a very talented daughter (who also has a few talented friends) or they are able to attract very talented, already-formed players and assemble them into a team. The coaches don’t make them better, they just act like NASCAR drivers; the drivers don’t build the cars, they just drive them. Not that it doesn’t take skill to drive a NASCAR vehicle, but it’s a different skillset than getting the car ready for race day.
The point is, you want to know that if you’re not already fully-formed and ready to rock that you will get the training you need to get there. A team that wins less but learns more is probably going to be your better bet.
There are other scenarios as well, but these should form a good start. If you look at what your needs and desires from the game are, you’ll have a lot better idea as where you should be playing next year. Good luck with it!
Oh, and if I missed any scenarios or you have questions, feel free to mention them in the comments below.
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
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.
(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.
Just had to give one last shout out to Kirsten Stevens at the University of Wisconsin Madison for ending her fastpitch softball career with a bang. Kirsten was named to the Eugene Regional All-Tournament team after a stellar performance last weekend.
Her key accomplishment in the Regional was throwing a 2-0, five-hit shutout against the UIC Flames in a must-win game. It’s my understanding that this was the farthest UW Madison has gone in the NCAA Division 1 tournament in its history, and she got to be a contributor to the team getting there.
In that game, Kirsten secure 8 strikeouts, including one to end the nail-biter of a 7th inning when UIC threatened to tie the game by opening the inning with two hits to put runners on first and second with no outs. But Kirsten bore down, getting the next hitter to pop up a bunt attempt on a lovely riseball to relieve some pressure, then inducing another out before finishing out the game with the final K to send UW Madison to the finals against Oregon.
It was quite the storybook finish for her. Or so it appeared.
The next day, Kirsten was brought in to throw one more time after UW Madison fell behind the Ducks. After settling in she was able to secure three outs, including once again finishing out the inning with a K, bringing her tournament total to 9, which was second only to Oregon star Maggie Balint. Her tournament ERA was 0.88, which was also good for second-best, this time behind Oregon’s Miranda Elish, who blanked the Badgers in the final. To add to the accomplishments, Kirsten gave up no walks in 8 innings pitched, making her #1 in K/BB ratio. Needless to say, she was on fire.
It was quite a way for the senior to finish a great career filled with many accolades. Congrats to Kirsten on a job, and a pitching career, well done.
One of the fun but challenging aspects of working with very young fastpitch softball players (under about 10 years old) is getting them to focus for any length of time. There are usually lots of things going on in their heads at any given time, and the slightest activity anywhere else can distract them in a major way.
That can be a problem at any position. But it gets even more noticeable with pitchers. As a fastpitch pitcher you have to be able to dial in to the strike zone. Visualizing the pitch location before you throw it is helpful for improving accuracy. That’s tough to do, however, when the three ring circus is playing in your head.
This is where playing to the player’s competitive nature can be a real asset. Giving her something specific to do, with a prize attached, can help drive that focus level right up.
I actually stole this idea from Cindy Bristow at Softball Excellence. It came in one of her newsletters, which are a great source for drills and games.
Set up a tee on the plate, and place a ball on top of it. Then challenge the pitcher to knock the ball off the tee with a pitch. You’ll be amazed at how quickly she gets dialed in.
That’s what we did here with Kaitlyn, the girl in the accompanying video. She was having a bit of trouble focusing on this day, so I set up the tee and put a 14 inch ball on top of it. It probably would’ve been more fair to use a basketball or soccer ball, but I decided to challenge her.
In the beginning, I offered her a sucker if she knocked it off. Her mom immediately upped the ante and offered her a milkshake on the way home if she succeeded. We then spent the last 10 minutes of that lesson with her pitching balls at the tee. The rule was she had to hit it directly – no fair bouncing the ball into the tee so it falls off. Also she had to use good mechanics, not just aim the ball at the target any old way.
That first night she came close a bunch of times but didn’t quite get it. The following week her mom told me Kaitlyn was in a foul mood on the way home. She really wanted that milkshake.
The video is from that next lesson. We gave her 15 minutes this time. Kaitlyn ratcheted up the focus, and was right around it for much of that time. Thinking she needed a little extra help to succeed, I had her little sister stand directly behind the tee on the other side of the net. A few more throws and Bingo! Success!
Of course as Han Solo says, good against a remote is one thing. Good against the living is something else.
Today I heard Kaitlyn earned a game ball for her pitching. Two scoreless innings with a couple of strikeouts.
I wouldn’t say it was all in the drill. She put in a lot of hard work throughout the off-season. But I will say it helped.
If you have a pitcher who could use a little help zoning in during practice give this drill a try.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Also, one quick plug. If you haven’t already done it, you can subscribe to receive notifications every time there’s a new post on Life in the Fastpitch Lane. Fill in your email in the box on the upper left side and never miss a post again!
One of the things that keeps being a fastpitch softball instructor fun and interesting is that there is always some new puzzle to solve. That was certainly the case with a girl named Kate and her pitching.
I started working with Kate on her pitching late in the summer last year. Once the weather turned cold I didn’t see her for a while – schedules just didn’t match up – but she continued to work on her own.
When we did get together earlier in the year her speed just wasn’t quite where it should have been. She was working hard, and putting in plenty of effort, but when the ball came out it sort of floated toward the plate. It was almost as if every pitch was a changeup.
That just didn’t sit well with me, of course. Kate is a terrific girl, always smiling and very polite. If I say “good job” she invariably says “thank you.” I’ve actually told her she doesn’t have to thank me every time I say something nice, but it’s tough to overcome good upbringing.
Anyway, I knew here was more speed in Kate, but we were having trouble finding it. It just didn’t seem like she was driving her arm/hand through release.
I tried a couple of different drills, and even gave her a Jugs Lite Flite ball to practice with, thinking the lighter weight might help her feel acceleration into release a little better. The light ball helped a little, but there was still something not working in her delivery.
The other night she came in for a lesson, and I could see during warmups she still wasn’t getting the ball out properly. So I decided to try the towel drill. This is a drill where the player holds a towel, goes into a K position, then whips the towel through. If you do it right you’ll it snap forward somewhat.
Well, that wasn’t working either. After a couple of attempts I wasn’t seeing what I wanted. Then I had an inspiration. I told Kate rather than holding onto the towel she should bring it down and throw it to her dad, Mark, who was about 10 feet in front of her.
The first time she tried it the towel didn’t go anywhere. The second time it went straight to the top of the cage we were working in. But then she started to get it, and the towel went forward. A few more reps and she was easily throwing it quickly to her dad.
So I backed her up and put a ball in her hand. Sure enough, there was a visible speed jump from before. She did it again and had the same result. We finished normal warm-ups and went into full pitches and whaddya know? Suddenly the ball was hitting the catcher’s glove with a nice “thwack!”
She was a bit wild, but I told her don’t worry about that right now. Let’s just focus on your newfound speed. She was able to maintain it throughout the lesson and we were all happy about the breakthrough.
Still, you never know. Sometimes these gains are only temporary. That’s why I was so delighted to receive this text from Mark a couple of days later:
“(W)e can hardly contain our excitement!!!! We just finished our team practice and Kate absolutely rocked it. IT being the pitching part. Her speed is nearly matching the other girl. Perhaps just a few mph difference, and that’s negligible in pitching speak.
On the way home Kate said the sweetest thing to a dad’s ear. ‘I’m so happy.’ I asked her ‘about what, Kate?’ ‘That you found our coach, Ken.'”
I believe what was happening with Kate was that she was twisting her wrist as she released – probably the result of all those wrist flips she used to do before starting with me. Once I had her throw the towel she couldn’t do that anymore if she wanted it to go anywhere, and that gave her the feeling of how to get the ball through the release zone properly.
So if you have a pitcher who is struggling with speed – especially if it looks like she’s in permanent changeup mode relative to her effort level – give this drill a try. Maybe you’ll get a nice text too!