The other day I was talking with Rick Pauly of Pauly Girl Fastpitch about the challenges of developing young fastpitch pitchers – especially those in the the 8-10 year old range.
Rick said it’s something that has been on his mind for a while, but really came home after completing another of his successful pitching clinics, this time in Fairmont, Minnesota.
The Beginner session included several very young pitchers who worked very hard at the drills and techniques being taught. But clearly they were going to take a while before they were ready to go out and dominate.
The problem is most of them, even the rec league players, often don’t have “a while” before they have to be game ready. It can easily take several months to a year or more for young players to throw strikes on a regular basis.
Most have limited proprioception (body awareness), which means that they can’t feel where various body parts are in space. They may be trying to mimic the movements they’ve been taught or the instructions they’re receiving, but can’t quite feel whether they are successful or not in that moment.
Don’t even get me started on attention span for most of them.
If they continue to work at it they will eventually get it and no doubt become very good at their craft. They’ll be the pitchers who are mowing down the competition left and right, whether it’s racking up tons of Ks or regularly getting out of innings after throwing only 10 or 12 pitches.
The problem is that future competence is not what their youth teams need right now. They need pitchers who can get the ball over the plate.
So what happens? The most valuable pitchers on those young teams are the ones who can throw strikes, no matter how they throw them.
As a result, those girls tend to get the bulk of the innings while those who are taking lessons and practicing all the time get very little circle time. Which means some who might be quite good one day get discouraged and quit pitching while parents who are taking time out of their schedules and paying for lessons begin to wonder whether that investment is worth it.
Look, I get it. While pitching to a large extent may be an individual effort, it’s still performed in the context of a team sport. It’s no fun for everyone if pitchers on both sides are throwing walkfests, and the other eight players on the field (not to mention the team that’s batting) don’t learn much if none of the hitters have an opportunity to hit the ball.
You want there to be some sort of activity on the field that resembles actual softball.
But at the same time, the future of the game isn’t with the lobbers. It’s with those few who are trying to learn how to pitch the right way.
There has to be some sort of solution. I’m sure some of you are thinking “We let the pitchers pitch until they load the bases, then a coach steps in after three balls to pitch.”
That’s ok in theory, but the reality is the coach who’s pitching isn’t helping the hitters much at all. They’re probably not throwing with a realistic motion, and since most want to win the game (because nothing is more important in the world than a $30 plastic trophy) they’re more throwing where the hitter is swinging than teaching hitters to take the bat to wherever the ball is.
It just seems there has to be a better way. I don’t know what it is, but maybe we can all put on our collective thinking caps and figure out how we can enable young pitchers to develop while still making the game fun for everyone else.
One idea is to put restrictions on when pitchers can be pulled. Give them a chance to find their way in a game rather than getting yanked after two or three walks.
Perhaps the pitcher is required to pitch to the full lineup, or half of it until she can be taken out. That might remove some of the pressure she may feel and give her a chance to find her groove, even if momentarily.
Or perhaps we formally loosen up the strike zone to the tops of the shoulders to the tops of the ankles. (I don’t think widening it will help because, well, short bats and short arms.) A bigger zone will also give hitters encouragement to swing more rather than just waiting for the walk, or for the coach to come in and pitch targeted meatballs.
Another idea is to cut the number of outs a team is given at the plate if their opponents are using pitchers who are seeing a recognized pitching coach. In other words, if I am pitching a girl who is taking lessons but struggling, we only have to get two outs to flip the inning. That one might be a little tough to enforce but if the goal is to develop pitchers for the long term hopefully it won’t be abused.
Those are just a few thoughts on our part. Not saying they’re the right way, or the best way, but they might provide a solution.
How about you? Especially those of you who are closer to that age level.
What ideas do you have to encourage young pitchers to keep learning to pitch the right way while not penalizing everyone else on the field? I know we have smart readers here, so leave your comments below and let’s start developing that next generation of pitchers to realize their full potential.