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No Need to Paint the Corners with a Changeup

Recently my friend and fellow pitching coach Linda Lensch, a trainer with the NJ Ruthless and owner of Greased Lightning Fastpitch High Performance Instruction LLC attended an online presentation about how new technologies are improving and changing the game.

Linda was kind enough to share the PowerPoint of the presentation with a few of us pitching coaches. Included was some data, presented by Florida State assistant coach Troy Cameron, that came out of pitching tracking by YakkerTech at five D1 schools.

One of the things I found most interesting was the heat map on changeup locations and results, which you can see on the far left.

Notice how both the vast majority of pitch locations AND the vast majority of whiffs (swings and misses) aren’t on the corners. Instead, they are dead red.

I have been preaching this for years based on my own observations and experience, and have heard many college coaches say the same thing. You don’t have to be clever or try to paint the corners if you have an effective changeup. Just throw it down the middle, mid-thigh-high or below, and you’ll get the desired effect – a whiff.

Now we have the data to prove it.

I’ll say it again a little louder for those in the back, and for those who have been coaching he same way for 20 years and don’t like new information: YOU DON’T NEED TO PAINT THE CORNERS WITH A CHANGEUP. JUST THROW IT DEAD RED.

What does this mean from a practical standpoint?

For one, pitchers can quit wasting time trying to lean how to paint the corners with a changeup and instead focus their time on disguising the fact that it IS a changeup.

Most pitchers start out learning to throw different pitches down the middle, and then once they can do that will move on to moving them out. In this case, once a pitcher can throw it low and slow without giving it away in her motion she can move on to other pitches.

It also means coaches can quit insisting until their hair is on fire that their pitchers must be able to spot their changeups inside and out. Less stress for the pitcher and the pitch caller.

Yeah, something like this.

The pitchers’ parents can also relax in the stands if they see their daughters throwing changeups down the middle. It’s fine, dude or dudette. That’s where it’s most effective.

Why is it most effective down the middle? Now we get into speculation and theories, but I have a pretty good suspicion on that topic based on 20+ years of teaching that pitch.

The whole point of a changeup is to either induce a hitter to swing well ahead of the ball arriving at the plate or confuse her on what she’s seeing to the point where she lets the pitch go by before she can process it. The way you do that is by bringing the body and arm at one speed while having the ball travel at a different, slower speed. Easier said than done, by the way.

It’s like a reverse pitching machine. With a machine, the feeder’s arm usually moves glacially slow (and may even fumble putting the ball in the chute) while the pitch is delivered at 55, 60, 65, etc. mph. The arm speed and the pitch speed don’t match up, so the hitter is perpetually behind the pitch unless she know the keys to hitting off a machine.

With the changeup the opposite is true. The body and especially the arm are traveling through space at a rate of speed that matches the pitcher’s fastest pitch (usually the fastball), but the design of the pitch allows it to be delivered 12-15 mph slower than the fastest pitch without any visible clues that it will be slower.

That’s why you see hitters’ knees buckle when a well-thrown change comes at them. The visual clues and the reality don’t match up and they contort themselves into a pretzel trying to adjust on the fly.

Until they look like this.

And if you can do that as a pitcher, down the middle works just fine. In fact it’s probably preferable because it can fool umpires too, so why not make it easier for them to call?

Now, before anyone starts saying “Oh, that only works at the lower levels” remember where this data comes from. It comes from five colleges that tracked every pitch of their pitchers and their opponents during home games.

And since these are not cheap systems by any means, you can bet that these were some pretty big schools, i.e., ones you see on TV all the time. They’re the only ones with the budgets to afford it.

So if it works at that level, you can be pretty sure it will work at yours.

The data doesn’t lie. It’s all there in black and white and red.

Quit wasting time focusing on painting the corners with changeups and just turn your pitchers loose to deliver them where they will be most effective based on the data: dead red.

You’ll get better results. And your pitchers will have one less thing to worry about.

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Spice Up Your Games with Some “Trick” Plays – Part One

As about every third online ad tells us, we are in the middle of pumpkin spice season.

Now, for those who love it this is the best time of the year, at least culinary-wise. And for those who hate it (there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground on this), hang in there; the holidays and all their sweet goodies are just around the corner.

Pretty easy to tell which side this guy falls on.

I think what those who are into it (including me and especially my daughter Stefanie) love about pumpkin spice season is that it’s something a little different.

We might not be so excited about it if it was available all year long. But since it’s outside the norm we can definitely appreciate it when it comes along.

Which brings us in a roundabout way to today’s topic: “trick” plays on defense and offense in fastpitch softball.

I am definitely a proponent of getting your fundamentals together first. It is absolutely critical for individuals and teams to learn how to field routine ground balls, make simple throws, cover bases, run the bases, swing the bat, etc. with near-100% reliability.

If you can’t do the fundamental things, no amount of trick plays is going to save you.

But if you can do those things, having a few trick plays in your arsenal can not only spice up practices and get your players pumped during games, they can also help you turn the momentum of a game around.

Following are a few of my favorites. Today’s post is focusing on defensive plays. Next week we’ll look at some on offense.

You can pick and choose one or two you think your team might like and be able to handle. Or you can try to incorporate them all to help you get out of a jam – or put the other team in one.

Again, just be sure you don’t spend so much time on them in practice that you neglect the fundamentals. It doesn’t take much to get the wheels to fall off the wagon – at which point the townspeople (parents) will be coming for you with torches and pitchforks.

How coaches see parents.

Defensive Trick Plays

Third Base Sucker Play

My formers players will recognize this one as “code blue” or just simply blue. It’s great for getting a critical out in a tight game with minimal risk.

The situation is there is a runner on third with fewer than two outs and it’s important that the runner on third doesn’t score. It should be a called play so everyone on the defense is prepared for what happens.

If a ground ball is hit to the third baseman (or the pitcher if the pitcher is a good fielder, or dropped right in front of the catcher), the fielder picks up the ball, LOOKS THE RUNNER BACK, then pretends to throw to first. Looking the runner back is critical to convincing her that once the fielder turns toward first she will throw.

Only she doesn’t. She pulls the ball down and immediately spins around to see where the runner on third is.

If she bites on the fake throw and takes off for home, the fielder can either tag the runner or get her into a rundown. If your team is any good at rundowns they should get the out while erasing a scoring threat from 60 feet away.

(The counter on this for the offense, by the way, is for the batter/runner to keep running as soon as she realizes the defense is focused on the runner on third. If she’s fast enough, or the runner on third stays alive long enough, she might even go all the way to third figuring the original runner on third will be out sooner or later anyway.)

You want to run this against an aggressive baserunning team – the type that is looking to take advantage of every opportunity to score. It doesn’t work so well against the cautious, the slow, or the ones who just don’t pay attention.

If you are worried about the ball slipping out of the fielder’s hand on the fake throw, have her keep the ball in her glove and throw with an empty hand. At most levels the runner is looking at the arm motion, not whether the fielder has a ball in her hand, and will go as soon as the throwing motion is complete.

Third Base Sucker Play with Real Throw

Ok, so your opponent got fooled once, either in this game or another, and has cautioned their runners to make sure of the throw before taking off from third. Does that mean you’re done?

Not at all. Same situation – aggressive runner on third with fewer than two outs.

This one works best on a ball hit to the third baseman, and again presents minimal risk.

When the ball is hit, the third baseman fields the ball, looks the runner back, and proceeds to throw it to the first baseman. Except the first baseman isn’t at first base; she is halfway up the first base line, in the perfect position to begin a rundown.

It’s rare that anyone pays attention to where the first baseman is, or where the throw is pointed. From the runner’s (and third base coach’s) point of view, the throw from the third baseman is going toward first.

It isn’t until the rundown starts that they realize it didn’t. Again, if your team is good at rundowns it should result in an out (versus just holding the ball, which will rarely produce an out), but worst case it will prevent the runner from scoring.

Pickoff to Third

For this one you need a catcher who has a quick transfer and is good at throwing from her knees. And by good I mean she not only throws hard but is accurate.

Most coaches will teach their baserunners on third to lead off as far as the third baseman. Makes sense, because the closer they can get to home the better chance they have to score on a ground ball.

You can take advantage of that. When the ball is pitched, assuming it’s not hit the catcher makes and immediate transfer and quick throw to third.

The third baseman gets the ball and immediately sweeps a tag to her right, preferably all in one motion. The suddenness of the moves can catch a runner napping and allow her to be tagged before she can react. And the presence of a right-handed batter helps cover the catcher’s movements, making it hard to tell that she’s throwing down to third.

If you execute it well it can be a game-changer. One time I was coaching a game where we were clinging to a one-run lead.

In the seventh inning the leadoff batter on the other team hit a triple, completely changing the momentum of the game. But we ran this play and she never even moved. Got the out, wiped her off the board, and the momentum shifted back to us for the win.

Understand, though, this can be a medium-to-high risk play. Because if your catcher chucks the ball into left field instead of to the third baseman, well, see the graphic above.

But if you do it right it’s a thing of beauty.

Pick Behind the Runner at First

This is a great way to get a quick out in a tough situation, such as when bases are loaded. The lowest-risk version is when there are two outs, because if you execute it successfully you’re out of the inning.

But you can run it on any number of outs, especially if you’re willing to trade an out for a run.

As I said, the situation is bases are loaded. You notice that the runner on first is taking a decent leadoff but not really paying attention to what happens after the pitch if the ball isn’t hit.

For example, she drops her head and turns around to walk back to the base figuring no one is paying attention to her.

For this play you want to have your first baseman move up the line so the runner (and first base coach) figure the runner is totally safe. You call an outside pitch so the catcher is moving a bit toward first and the hitter doesn’t hit it.

That last part is important because as soon as the pitch is thrown and all eyes are on home, the second baseman is going to sneak in behind the runner to cover first. The catcher then throws down immediately to first, the first baseman gets out of the way, and the second baseman places the tag. She may even have to walk out to the runner to do it because the runner is so shocked (I’ve seen it happen).

There is a risk, of course, of the catcher chucking the ball into right field and allowing one or even multiple runners to score. But if you work at it you can pull this one off and have some fun doing it.

Sneaky Catcher Pick to First

This is a variation of the last play. It relies a lot on deception and definitely requires a catcher to practice it diligently. But again you can catch a runner napping pretty easily if you can execute it.

The lowest-risk situation is bases loaded with two outs to prevent the runner on first from just taking off. But you can do it in a first-and-third situation if you think either the runner on third won’t go on the throw or she’s slow enough that you can recover if she does.

Here’s how it works. The pitch is thrown, the catcher receives it, and she starts running the runner on third back to the base.

Once that runner goes back, the catcher CASUALLY turns toward the pitcher and takes a step toward her to throw. She also looks right at the pitcher – all’s quiet on the Western Front.

But instead of throwing back to the pitcher, she opens her shoulders a little more and fires to first without ever looking. If it is done correctly it will catch the runner and first base coach off-guard enabling an easy tag.

Of course, done incorrectly it will either tip off the runner to hurry back or sail into foul territory in right field starting up the merry-go-round of baserunners.

This is why catchers have to spend some quality time learning to make this no-look, awkward throw. But if they can learn to do it properly they can catch a baserunner even if she knows it’s coming. I’ve seen it happen.

Continuation Play

This is one of those things that I’m sure most coaches love when their teams do it and are really annoyed when other teams do it. You know the one.

There is a runner on third and the batter walks. She starts trotting down to first base, and as she gets there she takes off for second base.

Your team is confused, you as a coach are embarrassed, and your opponents now have runners at second and third.

Indeed.

How bad it actually is kind of depends on your team’s skill and level of play. In many cases it’s not really that bad because the batter/runner was just going to steal second on the next pitch anyway. It just made you look bad that she did it.

But if you do want to try to prevent it you have a couple of options.

The first is to have your catcher throw the ball to the first baseman instead of the pitcher when the walk occurs. The first baseman then stands between first and second so if the runner tries to go she will be tagged out immediately.

She just has to keep an eye on the runner on third (and be able to make a good throw home if she goes).

The second is to have your pitcher walk to the back of the circle with the ball and stand there. Your shortstop then covers second and your second baseman stands about 10-15 feet to the first base side of second.

Under the Look Back rule, once the ball is in the circle and the batter/runner reaches first, the runner on third either has to go forward or go back. This is providing the pitcher doesn’t make any moves toward either runner.

If the batter/runner takes off for second, the pitcher waits until the batter/runner is fairly close to the second baseman and then turns to throw. In the meantime, the catcher is laser-focused on the runner on third in case she decides to take off, which she can do once the pitcher turns toward the batter/runner.

If the runner on third stays put the second baseman puts the tag on the batter/runner. If the runner on third tries to score, the second baseman starts running in to get a rundown started and throws ahead of the runner if necessary. If she can put the tag on the batter/runner first even better.

There are a few variables in play here. For example, if your team is up by a few runs forget the runner on third and get the batter/runner.

The same goes for if there are two outs and you can get the batter/runner quickly, before the runner on third scores.

But in a close game the runner on third remains your priority. Even if you don’t get the out at second this time you’ve at least given the other team’s coach something to think about.

The Dreaded First and Third Situation

In this situation there are runners at first and third with fewer than two outs. You know the other team is going to try to move that runner on first up to scoring position and you’d like to get her out if you can. But you need to keep the runner on third from scoring too.

There are a few different plays you can try. One is the fake throw from the catcher. It doesn’t work most of the time but if you have an aggressive (and probably inexperienced) runner on third she may fall for it.

You can also try just throwing the runner out at second. Teams have gotten so good about being aware of the runner at third and trying to fake her into running into an out that most are pretty cautious these days.

That hesitation can cause her not to run, even if you do throw.

But if you really want to play with the big kids here’s what you do. On the steal, the shortstop goes to cover second and the second baseman moves up to a cut position between the pitcher’s rubber and second base.

This is sometimes called a “Pattern Defense.” Here’s a diagram to help make it clearer.

I drew this myself. No, really.

The catcher throws down to try to throw out the runner going from first to second. You now have a couple of options.

The easier, safer play is that the second baseman steps in to cut the ball off as a planned play. If the runner on third takes off she throws home and either a tag or rundown ensues. If not the runner stole second just as if you did nothing.

The bigtime play is that the second baseman ONLY cuts the ball if the runner on third takes off for home. This requires someone to keep an eye on the runner on third and to call it out if she’s going.

A logical choice is the third baseman but it could also be the first baseman. Or both.

You need some smart players with strong arms and quick reactions to pull this off. But if you can it can be a thing of beauty.

Plenty to Work On

These plays should give you some fun things to work on at practice. I wouldn’t start with them, but they can definitely help you change a game. And even if you never use them in a game they can inject a little extra fun into your practices.

Next week we’ll be looking at some offensive plays to help you generate more runs when you can’t just bash the ball. In the meantime, if you have any defensive plays you’d like to share leave them in the comments below.

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