Category Archives: Pitching

Bring a Little Fun to Corrections By Playing HORSE

Help player learn skills faster by playing HORSE

Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.

This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.

Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.

One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.

For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.

So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.

Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.

That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!

I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.

But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.

In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.

Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.

(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)

The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.

If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.

In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.

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Beginner’s Guide to Calling Pitches

Makayla

This came up recently when the mom of one of my students asked me for a little help in learning how to call pitches for her daughter. Makayla worked very hard through the off-season, pre-season, and then the season itself to learn to throw a good, reliable fastball, a strong change, and the beginnings of a drop ball.

The thing is, knowing how to throw those pitches isn’t enough. You also need to know when. Sarah wanted to use the pitches strategically but wasn’t sure how.

Now, you can search for fastpitch pitch calling guides on the Internet, but most of them assume a much older, more experienced pitcher with a variety of pitches at their disposal. Yes, it’s great to say “throw a curve followed by a rise” to this type of hitter. But what if you  don’t have either?

To help her out, I put together the guide below. You can either copy and print it out, from this post or you can download the attachment which contains the same information.

The guide essentially speaks to how to use “just” a fastball and a change to get ahead of hitters and keep them off-balance so they either strike out or make weak contact. It goes through what to throw different types of hitters as well as some core strategies.

This information has been vetted, too. I checked in with Sarah after Makayla’s last tournament and she said it worked great. So if you’re just getting into the whole cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters, this guide should give you a good start.

Basic Pitch Calling Guide

This guide assumes the pitcher has a fastball and changeup, and can locate her fastball reasonably well. Keep in mind that you also have to pay attention to what the pitcher has that day. If she can’t throw to the outside corner this day, you won’t want to do that as often and so on.

Good hitter (1-5 in lineup most likely)

  • Start low and out. Most hitters don’t like that pitch and will let it go by for a free strike. “When in doubt, throw low and out.”
  • When ahead in the count (0-2 or 1-2), don’t throw strikes trying to go for the “quick kill.” Try throwing a high pitch, or well outside.
  • Mix it up. If you threw two outside pitches in a row, come back inside. But don’t do it every time. Having a set pattern will come back to haunt you.
  • If the changeup is working, try starting a strong hitter with a change. They’re usually looking to rock a fastball so a change will throw them off – maybe for the entire at bat.

Power hitter

  • Keep the ball low. You want ground balls, not fly balls.
  • Again, try starting with a changeup.
  • If the first change worked, don’t be afraid to throw another one right away. Hitters rarely expect back-to-back changeups.
  • Depending on the situation, a walk may not be a bad option. Better to give up one base than four. Especially with runners on base.
  • With an 0-1 count, try coming inside. Let her crush a pitch foul down the left field line (right handed batter). It’s just a long strike, but it provides an overblown sense of self-confidence. Then go back outside, or throw a change.

Weaker hitter

  • If you can blow the ball by them, do it. Don’t try to get too fancy until they prove they can catch up to the fastball. A changeup may be the only pitch they can hit.
  • Don’t worry as much about inside/outside either. If you’re overpowering them, just rear back and rock it in there.
  • If they look nervous at the plate, come inside for a strike. One inside pitch ought to be enough to freeze their bats.

Slappers (if you see any)

  • Watch how they run toward the front of the box
    • If they go directly at the pitcher, throw inside to try and jam them; throwing low and out just helps them by putting the ball where they want it
    • If they try to run to first base right away, throw outside
  • Throw changeups to take away the advantage of a running start
  • Throw high to try to get them to pop up

Good times to throw a changeup

  • First pitch to a good hitter (but not all the time).
  • Right after pulling the ball far down the line foul. She’s ahead of the fastball. She’ll REALLY be ahead of the change.
  • When she fouls a pitch straight back.
  • Right after she missed a changeup.
  • When she’s been fouling off several pitches. She has the timing down, just hasn’t quite gotten the bat on the ball. Throw the change, even if it’s for a ball. The change in speed will upset her timing.

Hitter location at the plate

  • Standing close to the plate – throw inside (but be careful – some hitters like inside and not inside; I teach hitters like that to crowd the plate on purpose to turn outside pitches into middle pitches and to try to draw inside pitches)
  • Standing away from the plate – throw outside; they won’t be able to reach the pitch, and are probably scared of being hit

Basic Pitch Calling Guide

Drill for helping softball pitchers learn to go inside and outside

Allison Musgrove photo

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.

The Three Little Pigs and Softball Pitching

Three Little Pigs

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.

The End.

Even the best fastpitch players weren’t always the best players

Never give up, never surrender

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.

Fastpitch softball pitching: understanding the back side of the circle

In fastpitch pitching, the ball faces forward, not toward second base, at the top of the circle

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.

Yukiko Ueno

Amanda Scarborough

Monica Abbott

Kelly Barnhill

Sarah Pauly

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.

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.

Softball Pitchers: Be A Queen, Not A Servant

Sammie Queen

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.

Overcoming the urge to aim in fastpitch pitching

 

Katie whip

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.

Use video

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.

Product Review: Decker Weighted Softballs

Weighted softballs can help pitchers improve velocity

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.

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