Blog Archives

Still Value in Learning to Think Like a Pitcher

These days, even at the younger levels, it seems like the goal is to turn softball players into robots. Nowhere is that illustrated more than the way pitch calling is often handled these days.

In many instances, perhaps even most, coaches are calling pitches from the bench. This occurs whether they actually know how to call a game or not. (Many do not.)

All that’s expected of pitchers and catchers is that they look at their ubiquitous arm bands, follow the rows and columns to the number called, and then throw whatever the answer key says. No thought required, and no shaking off the call.

That’s why I was heartened to receive an email from Tony Carlin, whose daughter Alyssa is a class of ’23 player currently pitching for her high school team.

She was pitching a game, he says, and breezed through the first four innings. Then, as I discussed in a previous post, she began to run into some trouble in the fifth inning.

The opposing team began to hit her, probably because they’d seen her a couple of times by now and was in a different situation than she usually faces in time limit-shortened games. I will let Tony tell the rest of the story:

“The 6th and 7th inning she told me she changed her strategy , and she did very well. She noticed that the batters started showing confidence, were making good contact, and were swinging at the 1st pitch, so she threw everything off the plate or below the knees and got them to chase , and chase badly.”

Brilliant! Alyssa saw that the other team’s hitters were trying to jump on her first pitch so she just threw junk at them – the kinds of pitches you normally reserve for an 0-2 or 1-2 count. In doing so she re-took control of the game and got the win.

What I like most is that she wasn’t just in the circle throwing – she was thinking.

Pitching to hitters is very much a cat-and-mouse game. When the hitters change what they’re doing, pitchers must adjust or they may end up getting clobbered.

But what do you do when the coach is calling the pitches and insisting you throw what he/she calls? Figure out how to change the equation while living within the parameters.

For example, if the call is for a dropball on the outside corner and you know the umpire is giving that and more, throw the ball off the plate. If hitters are being aggressive, throw it a little lower or further outside – anywhere it’s tougher to hit.

If hitters are routinely taking the first pitch, throw your first pitch fat on the plate, the way you would on a 3-0 count. If hitters are routinely laying off a pitch in a location and the umpire is calling it, talk to your coach about starting the hitter with that pitch.

After all, the goal is to get ahead of the hitter. What better way than to throw a pitch she doesn’t like to swing at? You never know – you may force the hitters to start swinging at pitches they don’t like and can’t hit well, either giving you a free strike or a weak contact that turns into an out.

The key thing is to pay attention to what is going on, and figure out for yourself where you can gain an advantage. It’s not only a lot more effective – it’s a lot more fun.

One other thing Tony told me is he was reminding Alyssa to pitch the full seven innings required for a traditional game by holding up seven fingers. He said the coach probably thought he was signaling pitches from the sidelines but he would never do that. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t fall into the time limit trap.

There is more to pitching than great mechanics – much more. True pitchers know how to take what hitters (and umpires) are giving them and use it to their advantage.

Pitchers should regularly walk through imaginary lineups, types of hitters, and situation to learn not just how to throw but what to throw when. It just might help you get out of a serious jam someday.

Making adjustments part of the fastpitch game plan

Fastpitch game plans are good, but when they stop working you have to make adjustments

Establishing a game plan is an important part of approaching fastpitch softball games strategically. Especially when you have the opportunity to scout your opponent.

For pitchers, you want to match your strengths to the hitters’ weaknesses. For defense, you want to play to the tendencies. For hitters, you want to get a feel for what’s coming so you  can jump on it when you see it.

Yet all too often I see game plans that look like they were written on stone tablets, dictated by a coach in the form of a burning bush. In other words, the game plan a team starts with is the one they stay with for the entire game.

The problem is, smart coaches on the other side are always looking to figure out what your game plan is so they can adjust theirs. If you just stay with the stone tablets, the game can turn on your pretty quickly.

For example, a coach who notices your hitter are very aggressive at the plate will want to throw more first-pitch changeups. Get you to the pull the ball foul, or swing through the pitch for an easy first strike.

You then have two options. You can continue to go to the plate looking for heat on the first pitch. Or you can recognize what’s happening and sit on the change. Then it’s up to the other team to stick stubbornly to their plan or make an adjustment.

Pitchers may have worked all week on a great sequence of pitches. But if you’re starting every hitter with a rise, or a curve, or a whatever, it probably won’t take them more than 2-3 innings to figure out there’s a pattern to your throwing. Once you see they’re onto you, it’s time to change it up  – perhaps literally with a changeup, or a drop, or a screw. Anything to get them to either swing at the wrong pitch or take it for a strike.

The less comfortable hitters are at the plate, the better it is for pitchers.

This mentality also applies to general strategy. Coaches who sac bunt whenever they get a runner on first are pretty easy to defend. In fact, with one team I coached, where I had a very athletic third baseman, I told her if she caught a bunt in the air for an out I would give her an ice cream upgrade, i.e. when the team went for ice cream cones I’d buy her whatever she wanted. Danged if she didn’t win that challenge too. But it was worth it.

The idea of making adjustments shouldn’t be foreign, especially if you watch football. They talk about halftime adjustments all the time. The winning team usually makes them, getting rid of the plays that aren’t working and changing their defenses to match what the offense is trying to do. The losing team usually doesn’t. And guess which coaching staff lasts longer?

The greatest game plan in the world is worthless if it’s not working – or if it stops working during the game. It’s not something you can pre-program for 7 innings.

Yes, know what you want to do going in, but don’t fall so in love with it that you can’t make changes when you need them. Recognize when the plan’s not working anymore and try something else.

If you can’t do it, maybe designate another coach or even a bench player to be that voice that says “Hey, time to change things up.” Then listen. You may just find yourself on the winning side at the end.

%d bloggers like this: