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When Designing Your Scheme, Be Sure It Fits Your Players

Today’s topic may seem completely self-evident to some of you – to the point where you say “Duh!”

Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a game (in person on TV) or spoken with players and/or parents and realized what should be a cardinal rule of softball has been violated yet again.

This rule is particularly important in middle school or high school ball, where coaches don’t get to choose their teams from a vast pool of players but instead must make the best out of whoever goes to that school. Sometimes those coaches win the lottery, and other times they end up with a donkey.

Don’t think we’re riding this team to the State championship

But even if you do have a wider range, ultimately you have to look at the skillsets and physical attributes of your players and make decisions accordingly. Here’s an example.

For a long time, slapping and the short game was the key to winning, especially in college. As a coach you may love to create chaos on the basepaths and force the other team into making mistakes. But if you look at your team in the huddle and what you see more closely resembles a nest of baby turtles, you’re going to have to find another way to score runs.

C’mon Coach, give me the steal sign.

The reverse is also true on offense. If you roughly weigh more yourself than all your players put together, you’re probably not going to be going deep with any regularity. So while you may love the way college teams like Oklahoma and Arizona State launch bombs on a regular basis, you’re probably going to need your players to master techniques such as bunting, slug bunting, and the ol’ hit-and-run. At least if you want to win ballgames.

The same is true of your pitching staff. If you have one or more dominant pitchers who can rack up 10, 12, 14 strikeouts a game, with the mental toughness to get critical strikeouts when needed, you can probably give up a few more defensive errors, or put a weak glove in the lineup if it means one more strong bat. If, however, your pitchers are more along the lines of letting hitters get weak hits and counting on your defense to get the outs, you’d better have strong gloves out on the field.

You can always use the big hitter/weak glove as a DH or pinch hitter. With the added benefit in the latter case of having that big bat available on demand rather than having to hope you get to her.

Speaking of defense, the type of players you have will (or at least should) affect the types of defense you play as well. Let’s take the outfield for example.

If you have speedy outfielders who are good at going back on fly balls, you can afford to play them in a little closer to the infield to try to cut off the Texas Leaguers and duck snorts that seem to plague your team and no one else’s. That is, unless your pitcher is prone to give out moon shots the way Olive Garden gives out breadsticks.

In big bunches until you can’t take it anymore.

Your players’ capabilities will (or should) also affect scheme decisions such as bunt coverages. In fastpitch softball it’s standard to have the first and third basemen crash the plate on bunts.

But if your first baseman isn’t particularly good (or even adequate) at fielding balls on the ground, or making a quick throw from a bent over position, or is the biggest turtle in the conference or the complex, having her try to field a bunt up the first base line may be your ticket to an early ulcer.

You may want to consider having your pitcher field anything up the line. Unless, of course, she is a hot mess fielding as well, in which case you can either try pulling your second baseman up next to the pitcher in obvious bunt situations or have a track coach work with your third baseman so she can try to cover everything up-close.

The bottom line is you may have done X, Y, or Z when you played, or seen a particular approach on TV, or attended a coaches clinic where a Power 5 coach with a multi-million dollar budget that includes a huge scholarship pool said “This is what we do.” Or gotten your butt beaten by a vastly superior team whose success you’d very much like to copy.

But before you pull the trigger on introducing your new scheme, ask yourself honestly if you have the players who can pull it off.

If so, great. Have at it.

But if not, it’s better to take a look at what you DO have and build your schemes accordingly. You’ll ultimately produce WAY better results.

Defense can make a fastpitch pitcher look good – or bad

While it may same rather obvious on the surface, after watching the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) championship game on TV I thought it might be worthwhile to bring it up again. It, of course, being the effect defense has on making a fastpitch pitcher look good or bad.

(By the way, kudos to my hometown team, the Chicago Bandits, for taking the title for the second year in a row.)

Normally at the NPF level you expect to see a lot of dominant pitching. While the pitching was good in this game, I wouldn’t call it dominant. The definition of dominant being a lot of strikeouts or weak infield hits. Fastpitch defense can make a pitcher look good or bad

There were some of each, but there were also plenty of balls that got tagged pretty well; all three runs came off of solo home runs.

So in the absence of huge numbers of Ks, it becomes pretty obvious that the other 7 players who are not part of the battery had to step up to keep this a 2-1 game. If you watched the game you certainly saw that.

Which brings me to my point. The game ended 2-1, but the score could have easily been much higher were it not for some spectacular plays on both sides, both in the infield and outfield.

Those defenders made their pitchers look awfully good. And that’s ok, because I really believe the pitcher’s job isn’t to strike everyone out. That’s just fortunate when it happens. Instead, a pitcher’s job is to induce weak contacts that are easy to field.

In other words, the perfect inning isn’t 9 pitches for three Ks. It’s 3 pitches, all easy popups to 1st base so the first baseman can just pick up the ball and step on the bag if she drops it.

So contrast that defensive performance with others I’ve seen or heard about over the years, where the pitcher does her job. But instead of weak grounders or popups resulting in outs, they result in runners on base because of errors or lack of effort on the fielders’ part.

And what happens after a few of those? The coach calls time, heads out to the circle, and replaces the pitcher (who hasn’t made an error yet). It’s clearly not the pitcher’s fault, but I guess it’s easier to replace one pitcher than four defensive players.

So in the stats as well as in live action the pitcher ends up looking bad. Especially if those errors get marked as hits. (Anyone ever seen a box score that showed one error when you know there were at least 6? I sure have, especially in high school games.)

The thing is, having a porous defense doesn’t just have a short-term effect on the team, i.e., losing a game or a tournament. It also has a long-term effect. Because good pitchers don’t want to look bad, or have to work overtime every game to get three outs. So what happens? Good pitchers will leave, and tell other good pitchers why. Then it gets tough to get good pitchers, so the team has to settle for lesser pitchers, who give up more contacts that turn into even more baserunners. Then you’re in the death spiral.

Here’s another way to think of it. What coach would sign up for a tournament where the rules stated certain teams would be given 6 offensive outs per inning while theirs only got 3? You’d have to be crazy to agree to that. But that’s what happens when the team can’t play good defense behind their pitcher. And that makes it tough to win.

So while it’s easy to blame the pitcher, or give too much credit for that matter, the reality is the better your defense is the better your pitching will look. Just ask the world champion Bandits.

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