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Sticking with the change

Regular Life in the Fastpitch Lane readers know that I am a huge fan of the changeup. I believe it’s essential if a pitcher is going to keep hitters off balance instead of getting comfortable in the batter’s box. The changeup is a critical pitch, even when it's not working its best.

Still, it can be tough for a pitcher to stick with it when it’s not working. If she doesn’t throw if for a strike the first time there is a temptation to just abandon it in favor of other pitches.

What’s odd is that if the other pitches don’t work she usually doesn’t abandon them. It seems peculiar to the change.

That’s what made what I observed tonight so interesting. I was watching a high school sectional game between two very good teams. The pitcher for the team I was rooting for was definitely having trouble with her change. Not just a little trouble either.

She was throwing them high – catcher has to jump up for them high. And she was throwing them low – as in rolling into the plate. In fact, I only remember her throwing one for a strike, called or swinging. Even on her best day it’s not her best pitch, but it’s usually more effective than it was today.

Yet she kept throwing it. Whether it was the pitcher, the catcher or the coach, when the situation called for a change they called it.

And darned if it didn’t help. As the hitters were getting on to her other pitches, the change would give them a different look. Even if it rolled in, it was enough to throw off the rhythm.

The team I was rooting for won. And as I recall there were only two or three well-hit balls all day. It was a great illustration of why you want to keep throwing the change, no matter what the outcome of the pitch is.

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Calling pitches: Make the pitcher’s strengths a priority

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of fastpitch games on TV and in-person lately, but it seems like it’s time for my semi-annual rant on pitch calling. I never cease to be amazed at how often pitch selection seems to be based more on arbitrary rules or expectations about hitters than what the pitcher is good at throwing. Pitch selection should match the pitcher's strength

Here’s an example. Watching a college game last night, a pitcher who is ok at best with her drop but a natural riseball pitcher had the bulk of the pitches called low. It didn’t take long for the other team to adjust and start hitting her hard.

Now, I’m sure those complex and detailed charts in the dugout showed that the opponents had a history of struggling with drop balls. But what the charts didn’t explain was they had trouble with GOOD drop balls – the kind that come in thigh-high and flat, then fall off the table.

Clearly, they had no trouble with drop balls that started low and didn’t move much. A better strategy might have been to at least mix in more up pitches, if for no other reason than to keep the hitters from looking low. And if the pitcher had her rise working (as her replacement did), she could have used her strength to better advantage, and her team would have advanced in the conference tournament.

This sort of thing seems to happen at levels. A coach will fall in love with a particular pitch, or a pitch location, and want the pitcher to throw their constantly. That isn’t really a good idea under any circumstances – you want to mix it up and keep hitters guessing. But when the pitch or location the coach loves happens to also be a weakness for the pitcher, no one should be surprised when it doesn’t go so well.

Part of this also has to do with a pitcher’s psyche. To be successful, pitchers must feel confident overall, as well as in the immediate pitch they’re about to throw. The situation may call for a rise, or a change, but if the pitcher isn’t feeling good about her rise or change that day she probably won’t give it all she’s got. And on those two pitches in particular, a mistake can quickly turn into a disaster (aka a home run).

Personally, I’m an advocate of catchers calling games. Especially in travel ball where you’re unlikely to have any extensive history on a particular hitter and her tendencies. Catchers are right there close to the hitters, and have a bird’s eye view of what’s working for the pitcher, what isn’t, and what her mindset is.

If a catcher sees fear in the pitcher’s eyes when a change is called in a non-pressure situation, she likely will know best to steer clear of that pitch when the pressure is on. You can’t see that from the dugout.

But if coaches are going to call pitches, they need to understand as much as they can about their pitchers overall, as well as what’s happening with them today.

Coaches calling pitches should really make an effort to understand what each pitcher does well, and develop their game plans accordingly. If your pitcher has a strong rise and a weak drop, you’re probably better off planning on more riseballs even if the opponent is a good riseball hitting team. Or better yet, throw a pitcher who has a strong drop. (Hopefully the staff’s strengths are more complementary than matchy-matchy.)

On game day, watch the pitchers warm up, and talk to them and the catchers. The pitchers will tell you what they feel confident in, and the catchers will give you another data point/reality check based on the knowledge of that pitcher they have accumulated through hours of working together. Those things should also be factored in to the game plan.

Once the game is on, pay attention and make adjustments. If the drop is working and the screw is not breaking at all, work the drop in and out and put the screw in your pocket for that day. Or use it as an offspeed fastball instead of expecting it to miraculously start breaking. If the screw is running in too much, use it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count rather than when you need a strike. That can be particularly effective when a right handed pitcher is facing a lefty slapper.

All of this reminds me of a story from the classic book Ball Four, one of my all-time favorites. In one part, the pitching staff is talking about how to pitch to a particular hitter when one of them offers that when he was with the LA Dodgers, Sandy Koufax used to get him out by smoking him inside. To which the author, Jim Bouton, comments, “Which is great if you could throw fastballs like Sandy Koufax.” In other words, what worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time may not work for ordinary mortals.

Charts and such, whether they are general guidelines or specific to that team, can be helpful. But they’re not the last word.

Call pitchers to your pitchers’ strengths – overall and that day – and you’ll have a much greater likelihood of success.

Great article from Cindy Bristow on pitch calling

Just had to share this article from Cindy Bristow at Softball Excellence. It’s about the four biggest mistakes you can make when calling pitches.

Cindy really hits the nail on the head! No surprise there – she’s brilliant. And very realistic when it comes to the subtleties of coaching fastpitch softball.

I have certainly seen all of the mistakes she mentions made at one time or another. The first two in particular – not knowing your pitcher’s capabilities overall and THAT DAY, and calling YOUR favorite pitches instead of the pitcher’s best ones.

One major example was what happened to a former student of mine when she went to pitch in college. The team’s pitching coach (who was maybe a second-year coach) didn’t seem too interested in helping the pitcher become the best she could be. Instead, it was almost like she went out of her way to make her look bad.

The two biggest mistakes were 1) not calling the girl’s best pitch (a dynamite curveball) because the coach preferred screwballs and 2) calling almost nothing but screwballs, thereby making the pitches predictable. This pitcher had a great screwball too, and could survive on it for a couple of inning. But after a steady diet of them college hitters figured out if they backed off the plate a little bit they could feast on them.

And even then the PC wouldn’t call a curve, or a rise, or change, or a drop. Instead she’d let her get pounded, then have the coach take her out because “she wasn’t effective.”

I don’t know of any pitcher anywhere who can throw the same pitch time after time and be effective. Even the greats mix it up. But when you insist on making a pitcher one-dimensional it doesn’t take long for good hitters to make them look bad.

Absolutely check out this article, if for no other reason than to make sure you (or your PC) isn’t falling into one of these traps. And be sure to sign up for Cindy’s newsletter while you’re there. Tons of great information lands right in your email every couple of weeks.

Pitching: hitting your spots not the be-all and end-all

Hitting spots is not the be-all and end-allBack to focusing on softball with something that’s been on my mind for a little while. It never ceases to amaze me how obsessed coaches often are with whether their pitchers hit their spots. Especially at the younger ages.

It’s almost like that’s the only thing they know about pitching. Anytime a pitcher gives up a hit (or even comes close to it) some coach is likely to yell “you need to hit your spots.”

There are a couple of flaws in that thinking. The first is that the value of hitting a particular spot when it’s called is directly proportional to how good the person calling the pitches is at setting up hitters.

I’ve known of coaches who basically call low and outside fastballs 90% of the time. I’ve heard about coaches that call screwball after screwball because, well, they saw screwballs work on TV. I’ve seen coaches refuse to call the changeup because they prefer that their pitchers throw heat.

The problem with that is predictability. If you’re throwing to the same location all the time it probably won’t take long for hitters to figure it out and adjust. Speed kills, but as we saw in the last WCWS, even a 70 mph pitch isn’t enough alone to overcome good hitters. So sure as shootin’ a 45 or 55 mph pitch won’t be. You need a mix of speeds and locations.

There’s also an art to setting up a hitter. It takes time and effort to learn how to do it. For example, when a hitter fouls a ball straight back, a good follow-up pitch is a changeup. Of course, if you do it every time you become predictable.

When you get ahead in the count 0-2, you don’t want to throw a strike – you want to throw a ball that looks like a strike. Maybe a curve, maybe a high fastball or rise. But again, you need to mix it up to keep hitters from settling in.

An inexperienced coach often doesn’t know that. So they’ll call that favorite pitch even when it isn’t appropriate. The pitcher would actually be doing the coach a favor by missing the spot, truthfully. I’ve seen more than one coach saved by a pitcher who didn’t throw what was called.

The other reason hitting spots is often overrated is that it isn’t the best measure of a pitcher. Coaches like it because it can be quantified. They also like it because they can use it as justification for elevating one pitcher over another – i.e., pitcher A hits her spots and pitcher B doesn’t, so A must be better than B.

But the truth is the single best measure of a pitcher is whether she can get hitters out. She may not put the ball exactly where the coach called it, but if she’s getting hitters out what difference does it make? Hitting spots alone doesn’t get hitters out. You get no credit for that from the umpire, just as having a perfect swing doesn’t entitle you to get on base. I’ll take a sloppy pitcher who can get hitters out over a precise one who can’t any day of the week.

That’s not to say pitchers shouldn’t work on hitting their spots – they should. If for not other reason than they may play for a coach who actually does know how to call a game – or better yet how to teach a catcher to call one. If they can put the ball right where they want it they can really take command.

But coaches, don’t let it become your determining factor. See the whole picture and give some space to the pitchers who can get people out.

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