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.
- 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.
- 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
I could have sworn I have posted this before, but I just ran a bunch of searches and couldn’t find it so just in case here it goes again.
One of the keys to throwing an effective backhand change is to pull or drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first rather than pushing it ball first. Or snapping it like a fastball.
Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for pitchers to get that feeling. That’s what the drill shown at the top of this post is for, demonstrated by a former student of mine named Tayler Janda (helped by her mom Jennie) back when she was in high school.
Essentially, you set the pitcher up with her feet apart so they won’t move. Then have her grasp a swim noodle with her knuckles facing forward. When you say go, she pulls the noodle out of your hand and flings it forward. (NOTE: have her try to do it without spinning her shoulders like Tayler is doing in the video.)
The goal of this drill is to get the pitcher to feel what it’s like to hold onto the ball until she reaches forward as far as she can go before releasing, and to maintain speed all the way through.
A few repetitions and she should start to get the feel. The nice thing about this drill is you can do it indoors on a rainy day just as easily as you can on a field or in a cage.
If you have (or are) a pitcher who is having trouble finding the proper release on your change, give this one a try.
I have always been a big believer in the ability of kids, at least certain kids, to learn the nuances of softball through osmosis. I certainly saw it with my own daughters, who were eight years apart.
When my older daughter Stefanie was playing, we dragged all the other kids out to her games. We had to – she was the oldest, and we couldn’t leave the others at home.
When Stefanie was playing 14U, my youngest child Kim was 6. I was coaching, so I mostly remember seeing her heading off to a playground or just sitting in the grass. We never talked to her much about what was going on.
But somewhere along the way it must’ve stuck in her brain, because by the time she started playing she had a pretty high level of innate knowledge about what to do when. For example, I never had to teach Kim about going after the lead runner on comebacker to the pitcher. She just knew.
I am convinced that’s because she saw so many games. Even if she wasn’t constantly thinking about what was going on, she picked up a lot of it by osmosis. I think that’s the benefit the younger sister (or brother) gets.
I bring this up because of something that happened last night that just tickled me. I have been working with a 12U pitcher named Jenna for a little over a year now. (I refuse to say anyone is 11, 13, 15 or any other odd number of U. Old school.)
Anyway, I started with Jenna when she was 10U, and she’s made the transition to 12U pretty easily. It’s fun to see how far she’s come in a short period of time, and how she can take command of a game.
This summer, her dad Gary decided it would be a good time to get his younger daughter Sammie started. She was 8 when we started, playing rec league, but I know Gary has aspirations for her future. 🙂 She turned 9 not long ago.
At first she had all the challenges 8/9 year olds typically have. Like being so literal about her form that she looked all stiff and robotic.
But she’s determined, and has been working hard. The last couple of lessons the light bulb has started coming on and she’s been throwing more relaxed. Her strikes are going up, and she’s definitely throwing hard. So last night I thought it might be a good time to get her started on the basics of a changeup.
When I said that, Gary told me, “Sammie’s already gotten started on it.” Apparently she’d been watching Jenna and thought it looked pretty cool, so she decided to start working on it on her own.
I asked her to show me, and darned if she didn’t do a nice job! The pitch was really high, but it was straight, and more importantly it was the right speed without slowing her arm down. She did a couple more and it was the same thing.
Honestly, I was impressed. I asked Gary if he had been working with her and he said no. Sammie had just picked it up by watching Jenna.
I think what knocked me out was that she was maintaining her arm speed. Normally, when a new pitcher is trying a change on her own she’ll slow down to make the ball go slower. (Which, by the way, is the opposite of what you really want to do.) Not Sammie, though. She just cranked it right out there and let the design of the mechanics do the job.
Of course, it helps that she has a great example to model herself after. Jenna throws a killer change that is quite effective in games. But still. Sammie just sort of figured it out by watching.
We did some quick work and got Sammie throwing it for a strike at least part of the time. But it sure was nice to start from a solid foundation!
So there you go. Learning the game, or even parts of it, doesn’t always require a formal setting. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, it just happens. Gotta love osmosis.
One of the most important pitches in fastpitch softball is an effective changeup. By effective I mean one where the pitcher can go through her motion and appear to throw it hard while having the ball come out much slower than expected.
This is as opposed to a changeup where the only thing that changes from the fastball is the grip, or one where in order to get the ball to go slower the pitcher slows her arm down. Those aren’t changeups. Those are just bad fastballs.
While I teach a few different types depending on the pitcher, the one I teach most often is the backhand change. Essentially, that is one where the back side of the hand leads the ball through the release zone.
Note that this is not a “flip” change. There is no flipping of the wrist at the end; I want the pitch to be dragged throw the release zone and thrown in a way that still has 12 to 6 forward spin. Flipping it puts backward spin on the ball, and often results in a pitch that comes in around belt high before traveling about 220 feet in the opposite direction.
The key to the finish of the backhand change as I teach it is to bend the elbow slightly and (again) drag the ball forward through the release zone until the pitcher’s arm is fully extended. After a momentary stop the ball comes out about hip high, immediately loses a bit of altitude to thigh high and then tails down around the plate. To do that the pitcher has to keep her hand moving forward and low until release rather than pulling it up as many like to do.
One cue I’ve used before is “punch your catcher in the nose.” In other words, go straight out instead up up and out. It’s worked pretty well, but it still requires the pitcher to do a little visualization.
So here’s another option. Have the pitcher line up sideways to a backstop with stride foot (left foot for a righty) right against the bottom of the screen. Then have her get her arm in the proper position (without the ball), pick out a spot on the screen that’s the right height and have her stab her fingers straight into the chain link fencing.
You might not want to have her go full speed, especially at first, to avoid jammed fingers.If you can’t get to a field, you can also do it into a tarp or even a shower curtain at home, as long as there is something specific to move the fingers toward.
Have the pitcher do it multiple times, until she starts to get the feel of what it’s like to go out straight instead of up. Then you can back her off the screen a bit and try the finish, or go back out to the pitching plate and see if there is improvement.
It’s simple yet effective. I only came up with this idea recently and so far it’s helped every pitcher I’ve tried it with.
If you have a pitcher who is struggling to keep her hand going out directly instead of bending the elbow or otherwise pulling up, give this a try. It just might work.
What are some other ideas you’ve tried to accomplish the same thing? How effective have they been? Anything you’ve tried that failed horribly? Go ahead and share – you’re among friends.
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.
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.
Most of the time I teach a backhand change, which requires the pitcher to drag the ball through the release zone knuckles-first. But sometimes that one doesn’t work. So the backup plan is the back of the hand change.
With this pitch, you bring it down normally, then spin the hand around so the little finger is facing the plate, with the back of your hand facing your thigh.
One of the challenges of the back of the hand changeup is learning to get the hand spun around at the proper time so the ball actually does come out the other side. If you don’t it just becomes a bad fastball, or maybe a handshake change at best.
Young pitchers in particular don’t always understand how quickly the hand needs to turn, so here’s an activity they can do to get the hang of it. All they need to do is take a quarter (or a half dollar or a silver dollar, anything round and decently sized) and spin it counter-clockwise on the table (for a right handed pitcher; a lefty spins it clockwise).
The idea is to get the coin spinning as fast as you can while turning the hand in the proper direction. Pitchers can challenge themselves to see how long they can keep the coin spinning with a tight rotation.
A little time spent indoors on a rainy day can make a huge difference out on the field.