I once worked with a woman, an older lady we’ll call Katherine, who was hired to be a sort of all-around office assistant. The idea was if you needed a package FedExed, or some repetitive data entered into a spreadsheet, or other time-consuming but not exactly brain-taxing help, you could hand it off to her and she would take care of it.
The problem was Katherine was so timid and afraid of making a mistake, she would ask whoever gave her the assignment to sit with her while she did it to make sure she did it correctly. While you can appreciate her desire to get it right, you can probably also see the flaw in this approach.
If not, it’s this: the whole purpose of her job was for Katherine to take the burden of tedious work off of me and others so we could move on to other, more higher-value assignments. If we were going to sit there while she did it then there was no point in giving it to her because, quite frankly, we could do it better and faster than she could. It’s just not what the company wanted us spending our time on.
So what does all this have to do with fastpitch softball? A lot of times players are like Katherine. They become so reliant on coaches telling them what to do that they quit thinking and learning.
In other words, rather than becoming independent and intelligent, they become more like robots, dutifully doing whatever they’re told to do in practice without understanding the reasoning or strategy behind it. This goes double, by the way, if they have a coach who is constantly in their faces screaming any time they make a mistake, but it’s not exclusive to that scenario.
Then when game time comes and they need to make a quick decision (which is pretty much any time the ball is in play) or correct a problem in their mechanics they’re unprepared to do so. Instead, they get more of the deer in headlights look.
Remember the old computer axiom garbage in, garbage out (GIGO). If you program players like robots they will respond like robots.
Which means they will continue to do the same thing over and over, whether it works or not, because that’s what they’ve been told to do. Anyone who has a watched a Roomba frantically moving back and forth for 10 minutes when it gets stuck under a chair or in a corner knows what I’m talking about.
It isn’t enough to tell players what to do. You also need to give them some context and reasoning behind why they’re doing it so if what they’re doing isn’t working they can think their way out of the situation.
This can be as simple as asking questions. For example, when I’m in a pitching lesson and a pitcher throws three fastballs in the dirt in the right-handed batter’s box, unless she’s new I often won’t tell her how to fix it. Instead I will ask, “What usually causes your pitch to go low and in the dirt?” and she will answer “I’m releasing behind my hip.”
I will then suggest she try fixing that. She does, and she’s back to throwing strikes. Miracle of miracles!
Or one of my favorite questions to ask players who are struggling mechanically, especially the older ones I’ve worked with for a while, is “What would I tell you if I were here right now?” They stop and think, give me an answer (almost always the correct one) and I say ok, try that.
When it works I point out that she didn’t need me to fix the problem. She did all of that on her own – I didn’t give her a single clue. All I did was ask her to tap into the knowledge she already had – in other words, think! – instead of mindlessly going through the motions.
(As a side note, I had a high school-age pitcher this week tell me that “What would Coach Ken tell me if he was here?” is exactly what she thinks about when her mechanics break down. How cool is that?)
This is relatively easy to do for mechanical issues, especially for pitchers and hitters. They have some time to reflect and make corrections, and they know they’re going to have to throw another pitch or swing the bat again.
It’s a little tougher for defensive players and base runners because their skills are largely reactive. If they make a physical or mental mistake that may be the only play like that they have all game. Or even all week or all tournament.
In this case, what’s important is that they learn to think and understand so they don’t continue making the same mistake every time the situation arises, such as a runner on third who continually stands 10 feet off the base on a fly ball to medium left with less than two outs instead of tagging up automatically. Or a fielder who doesn’t set her feet before she throws and sails the ball into the parking lot.
The player who learns to think will understand she did something wrong and make a mental note to avoid having it happen again. The player who always waits for a coach to tell her what she did wrong will likely never really internalize the information – which means there’s a high probability she’s going to do it again.
Don’t just tell your players what to do. Instead, insist they learn what to do and why. Help them gain a better understanding of their skills, and the game, and both you and they will be far more successful.
Most fastpitch softball (and baseball for that matter) hitting coaches agree that tee work is one of the most valuable ways hitters can spend their time. By taking the element of a moving ball out of the equation hitters can focus on developing the mechanics that will enable them to hit the ball harder, farther, at better launch angle, and with more consistency rather than simply trying to “make contact.”
The typical tee is great for simulating pitches from just above the knees up to the armpits on all but those on the most extreme ends of the height spectrum. But what about those extra low pitches that umpire strike zones sometimes dictate hitters must be able to cover?
Without understanding the adjustments that need to be made on shin-high, or just-below-the-knee pitches, hitters will be more likely to swing over the top of the ball resulting in a sinking line drive or a weak grounder. Which, of course, is exactly the result pitchers (and whoever is calling pitches) are hoping for when they throw it there in the first place.
This is where the Jugs Short T is such a great addition to your hitting toolbox. Built with the same durable construction and materials as the regular Jugs T, which was previously reviewed here, the Short T makes it easy to get quality reps going after those pesky low pitches.
Getting down to it
The advantage of the Short T is that it can go as low as 16 inches off the ground, then extend up to 23 inches. (The standard Jugs T starts at 24 inches high.) That should cover the bottom of the zone (and then some) for just about any hitter.
The base is the same as that used for the standard Jugs T, which means if you’re tight on space and don’t mind putting in a little extra effort you can carry one base and two tee heights. They also sell a combo kit with both heights if you are so inclined.
The base itself is heavy enough to keep from getting knocked over even by strong hitters who swing under the ball – no need to carry an extra weight around. It also has a convenient carrying handle built in, making it easy to move from a shed, locker, car, etc. to wherever you plan to hit.
The tee section itself is solid enough to hold its height even after repeated use, yet still slides up and down easily. I’ve had my standard Jugs T for several years now and it holds as well as it did the day I got it – unlike some tees that eventually start sinking the minute you put a ball on them.
You can use it with multiple hitters, day after day, with no worries that it will lose its solid performance over time.
While the primary reason anyone would purchase the Short T is to work on low pitches, it can also be used to address another issue that is common with fastpitch softball hitters – the desire to stand up straight as they make contact.
Part of that habit, I’m sure, is driven by well-meaning but poorly informed coaches who instruct their hitters to “swing level” or “keep your shoulders level.” That’s just not how good hitters hit. Instead, they tend to have a shoulder angle that tilts in toward the ball.
Or it could just be that they got into the habit of standing up straight and never learned anything different. No matter the cause, the desire to finish standing up with shoulders level is a problem.
When you think about how little surface of the bat and ball contact each other, even a deviation of an inch – say from starting to stand up, which pulls the bat up – can have a significant effect on the outcome of the swing. Demonstrate you can’t hit the low pitch well and you will see a steady diet of dropballs and low fastballs for the rest of the game – especially if you’re a big hitter.
A phrase I like to use is “get on it and stay on it.” In other words, adjust to the pitch and then stay there. The Jugs Short T helps train that behavior by forcing hitters to go lower and stay down. If they try to stand up as they swing they will either miss completely or just tap the ball.
That’s what Grace Bradley, a powerful hitter in her own right, is working on in this video.
She is building a pattern where she can go down and dig the ball out to get the kind of launch angle that helps create her high OPS.
After a few practice swings on the Jugs Short T we switched to front toss and she was digging out even the ankle-high stuff for line drives that move base runners and let her trot rather than sprint around the bases.
That’s bad news for pitchers too. Because if they can’t throw you high, and they can’t throw you low, you’re going to be an awfully tough out.
Worth the money
Whether you (or your team if you’re a coach) is struggling with the low pitch or you just want to train your hitters to adjust better overall, at $75 to $80 retail the Jugs Short T is a great investment. It will help you create better hitters this year. And for many years to come.
One of the most fundamental elements of a fastpitch softball game, especially at the higher levels, is the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters. Once you get past pitchers just hoping to throw more strikes than balls, and hitters just hoping to make some sort of contact and get on base, the “game within the game” within the first 35-43 feet of the field is quite something to behold.
I work with both pitchers and hitters, so in writing this post I’m kind of like the arms dealer selling to both sides. But it also gives me a pretty interesting perspective because I have a pretty good idea of what each side is being told.
One of the keys to winning that cat-and-mouse game, however, is a willingness to adjust your strategy as the game goes on. Those who go in with a plan and stick to it, no matter what’s actually happening during the game, aren’t going to be as successful as those recognize a new opportunity has come up or what they’re doing, no matter how well-researched it was, just isn’t working.
Here are a few examples of what pitchers (and their catchers, can’t forget them) and hitters can do to adjust to what’s happening in a game. While this list is by no means all-inclusive, or even universally agreed-to, hopefully it can at least create a starting point for better in-game thinking on both sides.
If there’s one universal taught to every pitcher, it’s the concept of getting ahead of the hitter in the count. Almost all the time that means throw the first pitch for a strike, usually with heat behind it.
When a pitcher is facing an aggressive team, or even a single aggressive hitter, who like to swing at the first pitch, that can get dangerous. You’re throwing a strike to hitters who are looking to pound one.
So the counter to that is to start hitters with a changeup or offspeed pitch. Get them to swing and miss, foul off that first pitch, or even mis-hit it into the field for an out. You might even want to follow that up with another one. After all, who expects two changeups in a row? It’s called fastpitch, right?
By throwing a first-pitch change (or first two pitches offspeed) you will often get the results above, AND upset the hitter’s timing for the rest of the at-bat since your change will make your heat seem even faster. Plus, it’s really tough to hit out of an 0-2 hole.
If you’re a hitter, the counter-move to that is to pay attention and figure out the pattern. In other words, if the three batters in front of you got a first-pitch change, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get one two. Sit on that pitch and drive it. Then don’t forget to tell your friends.
The first thing hitters need to do when facing a drop ball pitcher is to figure out where the ball is dropping. Once they know that they have a couple of options.
If the ball is dropping pretty much on the plate, or at the back of it, one thing they can do is move forward in the box to catch the ball before it drops. The other option is to move to the back of the box so the ball is pretty much landing even with their front foot.
In doing so you’re pushing the umpire further back, and making it tougher to call the pitch for a strike. Although technically a strike is the height of the ball over the plate, that gets tougher to judge when the hitter is further back. If you’re successful with this strategy you can start taking those drops for balls, and maybe even take that pitch out of the pitcher’s arsenal that day.
For pitchers, the counter to that move is to have the ability to adjust where the ball breaks based on where the hitter is standing. That’s easier said than done.
Most times when pitchers practice drop balls they only practice them to one location. Smart pitchers, however, will practice moving the break forward and backward by having the catcher move up and back and changing their release point slightly to accommodate the different distances. When a pitcher can do that, her drop becomes a more formidable weapon.
The hitter’s counter? Get better at hitting drop balls.
Ever seen a pitcher (or a coach calling signals) who is in love with her changeup? She throws a great one, so every hitter gets one or two each at bat.
If you as a hitter are having trouble with her speed or movement, here’s an idea: you know the change will come. Just wait for it and hit that. I’ve seen that strategy executed very successfully. Not only do you get the hits; you take the change off the table for a while.
I’ve also seen that ignored – even in the Women’s College World Series. I remember Arizona’s Taryne Mowatt win a national championship by feeding Tennessee’s hitters a steady diet of changeups. I also remember thinking “Why isn’t Tennessee sitting on that change?” – a thought even the announcers echoed an inning or two later. Make the pitcher pay and she will stop it.
The counter for pitchers is not to abandon it entirely. Just lay off it while it seems like the hitters are waiting for it. Once they start getting more aggressive at the plate, bring it back.
Pitchers who are consistently pounding the inside or outside corner should be fairly easy to deal with after a couple of innings. Hitters simply need to move into the plate when pitchers are living on the outside corner, thus turning an outside pitch into a middle pitch, or back off a bit if the pitcher is living on the inside corner to turn that inside pitch into a middle pitch. By the way, in my world right handed hitters should always start in on the plate against left handed pitchers until they see the pitcher will throw them inside.
The counter for pitchers, of course, is to take advantage of what the hitters are leaving on the table. In other words, if they’re backing off the plate due to inside pitches, then start throwing the outside corner. Conversely if they’re crowding to get the outside pitch, throw them inside.
That said, pitchers also need to be careful about getting baited to throw a pitch the hitter really likes. I’ve had any number of hitting students who were able to turn well on an inside pitch but struggled a little to let the ball get deep enough on an outside pitch. I will also tell them to crowd the plate. If you throw them inside that ball is likely to go a long way. The last thing the cat wants to do is get caught in the mousetrap.
If hitters don’t want to adjust where they stand at the plate, another strategy they can use is to identify where the pitcher is throwing the ball the most and cut the strike zone in half – or even into one quarter.
For example, one former high school coach I know of was very risk-averse, so he only liked to throw on the low outside corner. If you know that, you can narrow your strike zone to that one zone, look for a ball there, and take it downtown.
Most of the time, though, you’ll probably wind up cutting it in half. If the pitcher can’t throw a strike from the waist up, then just put the blinders on (or maybe pull your helmet visor down a little lower) and only swing at pitches below the waist.
The same for pitchers who throw almost all outside or inside. Where you make contact with the ball changes on inside versus outside, so if you know which half of the plate the ball is likely to be on you can adjust accordingly.
The counter for pitchers (at least where you have control over pitch locations) is to start breaking the pattern to keep the hitters honest, especially when you’re ahead in the count and can afford to miss the strike zone. You might even want to do it now and then even if you don’t have control of pitch calling because, hey, everyone misses a location now and then. Just be prepared to take the heat in the dugout afterwards – even if you’re successful in getting the hitter out.
The conventional wisdom on slappers is to pitch them low and outside. But since a slapper wants to hit the ball on the ground in the 5-6 hole, throwing low and out may be the biggest gift you can give them. That’s usually where I start the tee when I begin teaching slappers because it’s the easiest way to get the proper results.
I always tell pitchers there are two types of slappers: those who run straight at the pitcher, and those who try to run to first base as they slap. The strategies are different for each of them.
For slappers who try to run to first base first, the low and out strategy will often work. For well-trained slappers, however, not so much.
In that case, you want to throw them up and in or low and in. Get them to pop up, or hit a weak ground ball to the right side of the infield where the throw is shorter.
For those who are anxious and starting a bit early, you can also throw them a change. Maybe they’ll run through the box, make contact outside of it, and get called out. Or maybe they’ll have to hold up to avoid running out, taking away some of the advantage of the running start.
For slappers, the first counter is to run straight at the pitcher every time. If you see the ball coming at you, then peel off a bit. You can also start a little later than normal to let the ball get deeper on you, or even a bit behind before you make contact (assuming the pitcher is throwing you inside consistently). Unlike hitting away, the closer the ball is to you the deeper you want to let it get so you can get it to the left side.
The other key counter for slappers is not to be one-dimensional. Be able to hit, straight bunt, drag bunt up the first baseline, soft slap, or hit up and over depending on how you’re being pitched and where the defense is playing you. The more you can do, the less the pitcher can rely on any one strategy.
The one common thread you may have noticed in all of those cat-and-mouse games is the need to be aware of what’s going on and pick up on any patterns or tendencies the other side has. The more you do that, the more likely you are to win the battle.
Now it’s your turn. What did I miss? What can hitters or pitchers take advantage of, and what is the counter to that move? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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