One of the most important contributors to being successful in fastpitch softball pitching (and many other skills for that matter) is the ability to feel what your body is doing while it’s doing it.
The fancy word for that is “proprioception” – your ability to feel your body and the movement of your limbs in space. If you want to impress someone call it that. Otherwise you can just say body awareness.
Yet while it’s easy to say you should have body awareness, achieving it can be difficult for many pitchers, especially (but not limited to) younger ones. Keep in mind that it wasn’t all that long ago they were learning to walk, and many are still struggling to improve their fine motor skills.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to achieving body awareness, however, is our eyes. How often do we tell pitchers to focus on the target, or yell at catchers to “give her a bigger target” when a pitcher is struggling.
According to research, 90% of what our brains process is visual information. That leaves very little processing power for our other senses.
It makes sense from a survival point of view. We can see threats long before we can hear them, or smell them, or taste them.
But if your goal is oriented toward athletic performance instead of survival, all that visual information can get in the way of feeling what your body is doing.
The solution is as simple as it is obvious: if you can’t feel your body when you’re practicing, close your eyes. (I do not recommend the same during a game since there is a person with a $500 bat at the other end of the pitch waiting to drill you with a comebacker.)
With your eyes closed, you no longer have the distraction(s) of what your eyes see. You HAVE to become more aware of what your body is doing, and where its various parts are going, if you’re going to have any chance of getting it even near the plate.
I have done this with many pitchers over the years, and it has invariably helped to different degrees. Some start to feel whether their arms are stiffening up or they’re pushing the ball through release where they couldn’t before.
Some feel their bodies going off line, or gyrating in all kinds of crazy directions instead of just moving forward and stabilizing at release.
In some cases, girls who were struggling with control actually start throwing more strikes with their eyes closed than they did with their eyes open. Again, because they’re starting to FEEL the things we were talking about.
One thing I like to emphasize with eyes-closed pitching is for the pitcher to visualize where the catcher is before she starts the pitch. See it in her mind’s eye the way she would see it if her eyes were open.
Then, once she has it visualized, go ahead and throw the pitch.
Even if she struggles at first she will usually start to feel what her body is doing at a much deeper level, putting her in a position to start correcting it. Then, by the time she opens her eyes again she will be better prepared to deliver the type of results you’re hoping for.
If you have a pitcher who is struggling to feel what she’s doing, give this a try. It can be an eye-opening experience for pitchers – and their parents.
Let me start by declaring right in the beginning I am a huge advocate of the pitching mechanics known as “internal rotation” or IR. While it may also go by other names – “forearm fire” and “the whip” comes to mind – it essentially involves what happens on the back side of the circle.
With IR, the palm of the hand points toward the catcher or somewhat toward the third base line as it passes overhead at 12:00 (aka the “show it” position), the comes down with the elbow and upper arm leading through the circle. From 12:00 to 9:00 it may point to the sky or out toward the third base line. Then something interesting happens.
The bone in the upper arm (the humorous) rotates inward so the underside of the upper comes into contact with the ribs while the elbow remains bent and the hand stays pointed away from the body until you get into release, where it quickly turns inward (pronates). It is this action that helps create the whip that results in the high speeds high-level pitchers achieve.
This action, by the way, is opposite of so-called “hello elbow” or HE mechanics where the ball is pointed toward second at the top of the circle and is then pushed down the back side of the circle until the pitcher consciously snaps her wrist and then pulls her elbow up until it points to the catcher.
Note that I don’t call these styles, by the way, because they’re not. A “style” is something a pitcher does that is individual to them but not a material part of the pitch, like how they wind up. What “style” you use doesn’t matter a whole lot.
But mechanics are everything in the pitch, and the mechanics you use will have a huge impact on your results as well as your health.
IR is demonstrably superior to HE for producing high levels of speed. The easiest proof is to look at the mechanics of those who pitch 70+ mph. You won’t find an HE thrower in the bunch, although you’ll probably find a couple who THINK they throw that way, which is a sad story for another day.
It also makes biomechanical sense that IR would produce better speed results. Imagine push a peanut across a table versus putting into a rubber band and shooting it across the table. I know which one I’d rather be on the receiving end of.
So when trying to defend what they teach, some HE pitching instructors will respond by questioning how safe it is to put young arms into the various positions required by IR versus the single position required by HE. They have no evidence, mind you. They’re just going by “what they’ve heard” or what they think.
Here’s the reality: IR is so effective because it works with the body is designed to work rather than against it. Try these little body position experiments and see what happens.
Experiment #1 – Jumping Jacks Hand Position
Anyone who has ever been to gym class knows how to do a jumping jack. You start with your hands together and feet at your side, then jump up and spread your feet while bringing your hands overhead. If you’re still unsure, Mickey Mouse will demonstrate:
Look at what Mickey’s hands are doing. They’re not turning away from each other at the top, and they’re definitely not getting into a position where they would push a ball down the back side of the circle. They are rotated externally, then rotating back internally.
Experiment #2 – How You Stand
Now let’s take movement out of it. Stand in front of a mirror with your hands at your sides, hanging down loosely. What do you see?
If you are like 99% of the population, your upper arms are likely touching your ribs and your hands are touching your thighs. In other words, you’re exactly in the delivery position used for IR.
To take this idea further, raise your arms up about shoulder high, then let them fall. At shoulder height your the palms of your hands will either be facing straight out or slightly up unless you purposely TRY to put them into a different position.
When they fall, if you let them fall naturally, they will return to the inward (pronated) position. And if you don’t stiffen up, your upper arms will lead the lower arms down rather than the whole arm coming down at once.
What this means is that IR is the most natural movement your arm(s) can make as they drop from overhead to your sides. If you’re using your arms the way they move naturally how can that movement be dangerous? Or even stressful?
When they fall, you will also notice that your upper arms fall naturally to your ribcage and your forearms lightly bump up against your hips, accelerating the inward pronation of your hands. This is what brush contact is.
Brush contact is not a thwacking of the elbow or forearm into your side. If you’re getting bruised you’re doing it wrong.
Think of what you mean by saying your brushed against someone versus you ran into them. Brushing against them implies you touched lightly and slightly altered your path. Bumping into them means you significantly altered your path, or even stopped.
The brush not only helps accelerate the inward turn. It also gives you a specific point your body can use to help you release the ball more consistently – which results in more accurate pitching. It’s a two-fer that helps you become a more successful pitcher.
Experiment #3 – Swing Your Glove Arm Around
If you use your pitching arm you may fall prey to habits if you’ve been taught HE. So try swinging your glove arm around fast and loose and see what it does.
I’ll bet it looks a lot like the IR movement described above. That’s what your throwing arm would be doing if it hadn’t been trained out of you.
And what it actually may be doing when you throw a pitch. You just don’t know it.
The more you look at the biomechanics of the IR versus HE, the more you can see how IR uses the body’s natural motions while HE superimposes alternate movements on it. If anything, this means there’s more likelihood of HE hurting a young pitcher than IR.
The forced nature of HE is most likely to show up in the shoulder or back. Usually when pitchers have a complaint with pain in their trapezius muscle or down closer to their shoulder blades, it’s because they’re not getting much energy generated through the HE mechanics and so try to recruit the shoulders unnaturally to make up for it. That forced movement places a lot of stress on it.
They may also find that their elbows start to get sore if they are really committed to pulling the hand up and pointing the elbow after release, although in my experience that is more rare. Usually elbow issues result from overuse, which can happen no matter what type of mechanics you use.
The bottom line is that if the health and safety of young (or older for that matter) pitchers is important to you, don’t get fooled by “I’ve heard” or “Everybody knows” statements. Make a point of checking to see which way of pitching works to take advantage of the body’s natural movements, which will minimize the stress while maximizing the results.
I think you’ll find yourself saying goodbye to the hello elbow.
Setting goals is an important part of any sort of development, athletic or otherwise. Without them, it’s easy to meander your way through life. As the Cheshire Cat told Alice during her adventures in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
One phenomenon that isn’t often spoken of, however, is what happens to us mentally after a goal has been met. It’s amazing how it can turn around.
I’ve seen this particularly after I started setting up a Pocket Radar Smart Coach for virtually every pitching lesson. Each pitch thrown is captured, and the result is displayed on a Smart Display unit in bright, red numbers.
I call it my “accountability meter” because it shows immediately if a pitcher is giving anything less than her best effort. A sudden dropoff of 6 mph is a very obvious indication that a pitcher was slacking off on that particular pitch.
Here’s the scenario I’m addressing. Let’s say a young pitcher is working hard trying to move from throwing 46 mph to 50 mph. She’s been practicing hard, working on whatever was assigned to her, and slowly her speed starts creeping up.
She gets up as high as 49 once, but then falls back a bit again. She knows she can do it.
Then the stars align and voila! The display reads 50. Then it does it again. And again.
There are big smiles and a whoop or two of triumph! Goal met! Pictures are taken and high fives (real or virtual) are exchanged.
A few weeks later, the pitcher continues her speed climb and achieves 52. Once again, celebrations all around and she starts looking toward 60 mph.
The next lesson she throws a bunch of 50s, but can’t quite seem to get over that mark. What happens now?
Is there still the elation she had just a few weeks before? Nope. Now it’s nothing but sadness.
That 50 mph speed that once seemed like a noble, worthy goal is now nothing but a frustrating disappointment.
That would be the case for Ajai in the photo at the top. She was all smiles when we took this picture a couple of months ago. But if that was her top speed today she would be anything but happy.
But that’s ok, because it’s all part of the journey. We always want to be building our skills; goals are the blocks we use to do it.
But once they have been met, they are really of no more use to us. Instead, they need to be replaced with bigger, better goals. That’s what drives any competitor to achieve more.
So yes, today’s goals will quickly become tomorrow’s disappointments. But that’s okay.
Remember how far you’ve come, but always keep in mind there is more to go. Stay hungry for new achievements and you just might amaze yourself.
Once upon a time there were three little pigs who wanted to become fastpitch softball pitchers.
“We should find someone to teach us how,” said one of the pigs to the others. “Because fastpitch pitching is a tough skill to learn, and a good coach can help us learn faster.”
The others agreed, but they all went about it differently.
The first little pig said, “Lessons are lessons, right? As long as I’m taking lessons from someone I should be fine. No need to look into it any further than that.”
So she went to a coach who didn’t keep up with the state of the art in softball pitching. She was taught to turn the ball toward second base at the top of the circle and push the ball down the back side of the circle. She was taught to point her elbow at the catcher when she was done, and slam the door. But as long as she didn’t play very good teams she managed to get by.
The second little pig said, “I know some mechanics are better than others, but the only coach around who teaches good mechanics is 45 minutes away. That’s too inconvenient for me. So I’ll just find someone closer. Certainly any lessons are better than none.”
So the second pig also learned to push the ball down the circle, point her elbow and slam the door. She realized it wasn’t what the high-level pitchers she saw on TV do, but it was a lot easier to get to those lessons than to the better coach so she decided to take the easy way.
The third little pig was also aware of what good mechanics are, and knew they were the key to becoming a high-level performer. So she looked and looked until she could find a coach who could teach her that way. And that’s who she went to.
It took up more time, and her coach insisted she practice regularly to learn exactly what he was teaching. The other two pigs laughed and laughed at the third one. They laughed because of how much extra time it took her to get to and from lessons, and how she didn’t do wrist flips as her first warm-up. They laughed because what she was learning was different.
While the third little pig was practicing her mechanics, the other two were busy doing other things, like playing on their phones or hanging out at the mall.
“As long as we can throw strikes, that’s all we really need to do,” they said. “We can already do that, so no need for the extra practice time.”
Then one day their team had a game scheduled against the Big Bad Wolves. The coach put the first little pig in to pitch, because she never walked anyone. “We can’t defend a walk,” she constantly reminded her team.
But the first little pig got rocked, because pushing fastballs down the middle against a team that can hit bombs like the Big Bad Wolves is a recipe for disaster.
So then he put in the second little pig. She had done well last week when they played the Little Chickadees so she should do well now. But she didn’t. The Big Bad Wolves feasted on the meatballs she was serving.
Finally, the coach turned the third little pig. “See if you can get us out of this jam.” she said.
So the third little pig went into the circle, and all her hard work paid off. She was able to relax and bring the heat, because her mechanics worked the way her body was designed to work. All the time she spent learning good mechanics, and in the car going to the coach who taught them, paid off.
She set down the Big Bad Wolves 1-2-3, and dominated from that point until the end of the game. Had they not given away so many runs in the beginning they might have even won! But they didn’t.
The morale of the story is that there is a difference in pitching mechanics. If you want to excel, just taking any old lessons won’t do it. Rather than settling for what’s easy or convenient, go where you’ll get the best value for your investment in time and money.
One of the most common problems I see when trying to teach fastpitch pitchers to learn to whip the arm through the release zone is overcoming the urge to aim.
They’ll be doing a good job of bending at the elbow and letting the upper arm lead through the back of the circle (rather than pushing the ball down with their hands). But then, right before they get to that critical moment where the upper arm slows down naturally and the lower arm passes it to create the whipping action, they will instead let the ball get ahead too early and defeat the whip.
I’m pretty convinced the reason they do this is they’re trying to make sure they throw a strike. So what do they do? They tighten up and try to direct the ball at the plate rather than allowing the arm to finish its natural motion.
Not only is this a speed killer, it actually works against their original goal of throwing a strike. If you stay relaxed and let the joints in the shoulder and arm do their job, it’s actually fairly easy to throw a strike.
As long as you direct the momentum that’s been built up toward the plate, the ball will go there. Like I often say, the ball doesn’t care where it goes, so it will go anywhere you tell it to go.
But when you tighten up before the whip can happen, now you’re pushing the ball through the release zone. Momentum is no longer helping you, so it’s very easy for the arm to get off-course and send the ball in the wrong direction. If you’re off even just a few degrees from where you want to go, or you twist your hand funny, suddenly the ball is not going where you want it to.
For pitchers with this issue, a pattern usually develops. Say she throws low and way inside on the first pitch. On the next one, she will try to correct and direct the ball toward the outside, often going high and well out. Then you’re on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, with balls careening all over the place.
So while the goal was to “just throw strikes” (a phrase I really dislike, by the way), instead control becomes more difficult than ever.
Making the fix
How do you overcome this tendency? First, the pitcher has to understand that strikes are a result, not a goal. Consciously focusing on the far end rather than herself is the wrong thing to do.
With that in mind, have her move up close and just work on the finishing action to get the feel of the whip. As Rick Pauly says, if you can’t hit the target from close up you won’t hit it from far away. A good place to start that motion is with the ball about shoulder high, with the palm facing up.
One of the things the pitcher should focus on is feeling her upper arm pull all the way into her ribcage, with the ball trailing behind the whole way. If needed, you can even isolate that motion, i.e., eliminate the actual throw until she gets the feel of the upper arm leading.
Once she has that down, have her continue through and throw. The goal is to feel relaxed and let it happen naturally. Check to be sure she isn’t trying to throw the ball too early. There should be a definite pendulum (or two-piece) movement rather than the whole arm coming through at once.
As the pitcher gets the feel of it from that starting point, work your way back, first starting at 12:00 and then making a full arm circle, but still without a full windup or much leg drive. Only when she can execute the full circle and get the whip should she be allowed to pitch from a windup position.
The catcher dilemma
One other thing you may need to do is have the pitcher throw into a screen or net rather than to a catcher. The reason is psychological.
If there is a catcher there, the pitcher will focus on throwing the ball to her rather than on what her arm is doing. Double that if the catcher is Dad or Mom. That defeats the purpose of what you’re trying to do. So if the pitcher isn’t willing to make mistakes when there’s a catcher involved, remove the catcher so it’s no longer an issue.
Admittedly, sometimes it’s tough to see whether the pitcher is getting the ball ahead a little too early with the naked eye. That’s where video is so helpful.
There are plenty of inexpensive mobile apps that will help you capture and analyze video to see what’s happening in “the last mile” of the pitch. Even regular high-speed video on a smartphone or tablet will do in a pinch. Not only does capturing the motion on video let you see it. It also lets the pitcher see it, which is often very helpful in encouraging her to correct it.
Aim not to aim
It’s easy for pitchers, especially those who are just developing their mechanics, to want to measure their success in terms of balls and strikes. After all, that’s how it’s often measured in a game.
Yet real development comes when pitchers are able to stop consciously aiming the ball and learn to use a proper whipping motion instead. It will lead to far greater success in the long run.
Once a pitcher’s mechanics are strong, one of the most effective ways to improve speed is through long toss. The pitcher starts at her normal pitching distance, then moves back 5-8 feet and throws another pitch.
She keeps doing that until she can’t make it to the plate anymore, at which point she starts working her way back in. The goal, of course, is to get as far out as you can – eventually to the outfield grass. You need to be strong, with a quick, aggressive motion, to get there.
Of course, to perform long toss effectively you need to have the distance to throw it. Easy enough on the field, but not so easy when you’re in a 50′ batting cage or a gym with other players – as many of us in the Northern part of the world are right now.
That’s where having a set of properly weighted balls can come in very handy. With weighted balls, and a quality training program, you can work on both arm strength and arm speed where space is limited.
The key is having balls of the proper weight. In particular, you want to be sure the weighted ball isn’t too heavy – no more than 1.5 ounces more than a normal ball, which is roughly 6.5 ounces. Anything heavier and you risk putting undue stress on the shoulder.
That’s why I’ve come to like Decker Weighted Softballs from Decker Sports. The overload/underload variance is relatively small: 7.8 oz. for the heavy ball, 5.2 oz. for the light ball, plus a “normal” 6.5 oz. ball. Each ball is very clearly marked, with large numbers and color coding, so there is no risk of using the wrong ball for the particular purpose.
Another thing I like about the balls is they come with a line around the circumference going across the four seams, so you can easily see the spin on the ball. That will give you an idea of whether you’re maintaining good mechanics as you work with them.
I also like the feel of the balls. They have good “tack” on them with good seams. The previous set of weighted balls I had never had very good tack, and by now are positively shiny. It was definitely time to retire them. The Decker Sports balls feel more natural to the pitchers, helping them focus on what they’re doing rather than wondering whether the balls will slip out of their hands.
Decker Sports does more than sell you a product, however. The balls come with an off-season and in-season training program. You can see a preview here. There are also other training programs out there, so you can find one that fits your needs and time constraints.
That’s another good point to make. Working with weighted balls can take some time. In lessons, where we only have a half hour once a week, I will often expose players (and parents) to weighted balls but won’t continue to use them on a regular basis.
That’s the sort of thing that’s best done on your own. I feel the time spent with me can best be spent on other aspects – you don’t need a coach for that.
Studies have shown that using a good weighted ball protocol can help increase speed. If you’re looking to help your pitch pick up some velocity (and who isn’t), give these weighted balls a try. You may even want to carry on with them once you go back outside.
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.
One of the toughest things for any fastpitch softball pitcher is keeping control over her emotions. Pitchers are very exposed, and face a lot of pressure on every pitch, so it’s easy for them to get too high or too low depending on the outcome of the pitcher. Neither is terribly good.
This high/low issue was very evident in one of my pitching students, a 12U pitcher named Sarah. She’d throw a great pitch during a lesson and have a wide grin on her face. Then she’d try another, it wouldn’t work right, and the sad face came out.
It wasn’t just a little bit of disappointment. Her spirits would visibly fall – exaggerated by how high the last high was.
I would talk to her about needing to “maintain an even strain,” and she would nod, but the next time it would happen she’d do the same thing. I kept trying to think of how I could explain it better.
Then it hit me: Halloween was coming up, and with it Halloween merchandise. I thought about the Mayor from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
If you’ve never seen it, the character is the Mayor of Halloween Town. He has two faces. One is a gigantic grin; the other is a sad face. (See the graphic at the top of the post.)
His head spins around to show the appropriate face, depending on his mood. There is no in-between. Just like Sarah, I thought!
I thought what better way to illustrate it than to pick up a Mayor doll of some sort and give it to Sarah. So I ran to Walgreen’s, and found the perfect representation. It was just the head, about the size of a Beanie Baby. It was the kind of thing she could keep in her bag as a reminder not to go into “Mayor mode.” And it was fun.
She got it immediately, and was happy to get the gift. But it’s what happened next that was most interesting.
In her next lesson, she was a lot more even in her moods. If something went wrong she was able to shrug it off pretty easily – much more so than before. When she did make a face, I’d just call her Mayor and she’d smile and come out of it. Seemed like the Mayor had done his job.
Fast forward to this past Monday. As she was putting her glove in her bag after her lesson she pulled out the Mayor, and that brought up a discussion. She said she had another girl on her team who would have even bigger mood swings, so she handed the girl the Mayor to help her pull out of a bad one.
Apparently the Mayor has become somewhat of a team mascot. Whenever someone gets down, they get the Mayor, and he helps them snap out of it. Fun to hear they’re all sharing him, and reaping the benefits.
Helping the mental game can be tough, because you never know what might work. But if you have a player, or a team, that is struggling with evening out their moods, get out and see if you can pick up a Mayor while Halloween is still going on. It just might do the trick.
One of the most widespread, ongoing debates in fastpitch pitching is: which comes first – speed or accuracy? In other words, should pitchers focus on developing all the speed they can and worry about accuracy later? Or should they first make sure they can throw the ball for a strike, then try to add speed later?
Part of the answer, of course, is driven by the needs of whoever is in the debate. Instructors tend to like to focus on speed, because in the long term the pitcher’s best opportunities will come when speed is maximized. You don’t see too many accurate pitchers throwing 48 mph getting offered scholarships.
Team coaches tend to want accuracy first, because they don’t want their pitcher walking too many hitters. “We can’t defend a walk,” they often say. Although some of their teams can’t defend a ground ball or a pop-up either.
So what’s the answer? In my mind, neither. Focusing on either speed or accuracy is the answer to the wrong question. What you really want to focus on is the mechanics.
The ball doesn’t care where it’s thrown. It’s an inanimate object, so it will go wherever the pitcher sends it. Which means accuracy isn’t a goal, it’s a result. If you do the right set of movements, you will throw a strike. Lock in those movements and you will throw strikes repeatedly.
Focusing on accuracy usually gets in the way of a good pitch. It causes pitchers to slow their arms down, or let the ball get ahead of the elbow on going into release so they can “guide” the ball at release. Neither of those options is conducive to accuracy or speed.
When you slow the arm down, you allow more time for something to go wrong. Not only that, but slowing the arm down causes a loss of momentum, letting you change where the arm is headed. Whereas if you’re using good mechanics and maintaining arm speed the arm will be carried toward the right direction automatically by the momentum that has been generated.
Letting the hand get ahead of the elbow at release prevents the whipping motion that creates speed. It also requires the pitcher to think too much, because pushing the ball through release means you can push it in nearly any direction. If you’re pulling it through release your options narrow considerably.
Having good mechanics makes the direction of the pitch far more automatic while enabling the speed to be maximized. You shouldn’t need to guide the pitch, or force it to go anywhere. If you really have your mechanics on lockdown you should be able to pitch blindfolded – a challenge I put forth to every pitcher sooner or later.
When you let go of your conscious thoughts of trying to guide the ball and just focus on doing the right things at the right time and in the right order, good things happen. You can then place your focus where it belongs – on maximizing the amount of energy delivered to the ball at release.
The result is speed AND accuracy, all in one nice, neat package.
What about a pitcher’s confidence, you say? If she’s struggling to throw strikes in a game won’t she lose confidence? Probably. But if she’s getting pummeled in a game she’s going to lose confidence too. Confidence comes from knowing you put in the work and doing what you do to the maximum of your abilities. The more you are able to take command of the game as a pitcher, rather than just surviving by pushing strikes across the plate, the more your confidence will grow. Because you will feel like you’ve created success rather than avoided failure.
For any pitcher, the objective should be to optimize the mechanics. Don’t worry about where the balls goes at first, except to use that as a way of diagnosing problems with mechanics. Fix the mechanics, and the ball will go where you want it to, as fast as you’re capable of throwing it.
With that mindset, you will have a solid foundation to build from.
Well, that was quite a Women’s College World Series (WCWS) wasn’t it? Lots of fastpitch softball drama (the good kind) from the Regional games all the way up to Championship Series.
Show of hands: how many stayed up until the bottom of the 17th on Monday? I know I did, and I paid for it the rest of the week with interrupted sleep patterns.
As I did the lessons the last few weeks I also asked my students if they were watching the games. Some were, some weren’t. That’s too bad for the ones who weren’t because there’s lots to be learned from watching the game played at such a high level.
With that in mind, here are a few of my own observations and takeaways coming out of a very fun series.
Catchers need to block
Not just sometimes but every time. I saw several balls get by catchers in crucial situations because they tried to glove a ball and couldn’t quite do it. When pitches are coming in at 65+ mph and hit shinguards, they tend to bounce far away. And usually in odd directions.
Get that ball centered on your body – judging where it’s going, not where it is – get on your knees and get over the ball.
Good framing helps
There were definitely strikes called that could have gone either way. (And some, of course, that should have gone the other way, but that’s a different topic.) Catchers framing pitches well can sometimes – sometimes – make the difference.
More bullet spin than you’d expect
When the TV would show the slow motion replays of certain pitches, I was surprised to see just how many pitches had bullet spin rather than directional spin.
(For those who aren’t familiar with the term, bullet spin is when the ball is spinning like a clock face as it’s coming toward you, and you can see the “button” on the front. Bullets spin this way so they don’t move off their direct targets when fired. Good for bullets, bad for pitchers because nothing is easier to hit than a ball that doesn’t change direction.)
I know announcing from the press box is tougher than it looks – I’ve done it – but it was rather funny when a commentator would talk about so-and-so’s tight spin on her rise ball, or how the pitcher just threw a late breaking curve ball, and as he/she is saying it you can clearly see the ball with bullet spin.
Rise balls don’t really rise, but if they were going to they’d have to be spinning backwards. Curve balls would have to have side spin on them. And so forth. A ball with bullet spin isn’t going to break – early, late, or otherwise.
It pays to work on baserunning
I saw some really amazing plays where heads-up baserunning definitely gave the team on offense an advantage.
I saw a runner on first take second on a changeup. I saw runners alerting watching as a throw from the outfield was directed toward a base they weren’t going for, giving them a chance to advance unexpectedly. I saw runners sliding away from possible tags to avoid being out.
Then there was the other stuff. I saw runners going from first to second on a ground ball allow themselves to be tagged so the defense could make a double play. I saw runners over-estimating their speed when they were the only play in town and making an out instead of giving their team a base runner. I saw runners run in front of a fielder going for a ground ball instead of behind and getting called out for interference.
Getting runners on base is really the key to success. The more the merrier. But they don’t really matter until they reach one base: home. The more you can do to get them there, the more runs you’ll score and the more likely you are to win ballgames.
Putting the fast in fastpitch
By the time the Championship Series came around we had the opportunity to see some incredible pitching.
It’s hard to imagine thinking of a pitcher who throws in the mid-’60s as “slower,” but when the others are consistently in the 70s – even up to 75! – that kind of is the case.
What was interesting was that 70 mph pitch speeds didn’t make for 1-0 games. Even the 17 inning barn burner wound up with a double-digit run total. But the ability to throw flat-out harder than everyone else does make a difference, especially in crucial situations where a team really, really needs an out.
I think we saw that even at that level, it’s tough not to be enamored of the pitchers who can flat-out bring it.
It takes a pitching staff
It seems that gone are the days when you could just ride one big arm for the entire tournament. Even if she threw 200 pitches the day before.
Both Oklahoma and Florida got to the big dance using two pitchers, and on Tuesday night Florida pulled in a third and Oklahoma used four!
Has the pitching gotten worse, or the pitchers gotten softer? Not from where I sit. The hitters have simply gotten better. They say hitting is about timing and pitching is about disrupting timing. No better way to disrupt a group of hitters and keep them from getting comfortable in the batter’s box than by showing them different looks, speeds, and styles.
Great defense still makes a difference
Maybe more than ever. There were so many great defensive plays throughout the last few weeks that you could easily make a lengthy highlight reel just on that.
The key for the winners in different games wasn’t the spectacular stuff, though. A lot of it came down to making the plays they were supposed to make. You do that, and the rest is icing on the cake.
Great coaches care about their players
It’s unfortunate that at every level – even D1 college – there are coaches who care more about their records and looking good in front of whoever than they do about their players. Those coaches tend to view their players like the do the field or the equipment – pieces that are there to be used as-needed to fulfill the coach’s goals.
That’s not what you saw with the teams who made it to the final 8. Or especially the Championship Series. From the outside at least, both Patty Gasso and Tim Walton seem to genuinely care about their players, and build relationships with them. Not just the stars but also the role players.
I can’t remember who said it, but there is a quote from a coach who said something to the effect of “We all know the same X’s and O’s. It’s what you do with the players on your team that makes the difference.”
While knowing the game and recruiting great talent areimportant, many teams have smart coaches and great talent. There’s a reason Oklahoma and Florida have dominated the WCWS the last few years.
Umpires are human
Yup, saw some bad pitch calls and blown calls on plays at various bases. But while they may be the topic of conversation, those are the minority. That’s a tough job, and there are bound to be mistakes.
I occasionally make mistakes in my job too. I try not to but it happens. Get over it.
Seeing that umpires may blow a call should be that much more incentive to do more so that a blown call doesn’t cost you the game. In high school and college, games last seven innings. (In travel ball usually fewer due to time limits.) Within the allotted 21 outs there is ample time to hit, field, run bases, etc. in a way that will help your team win. Focus on that.
Look at it this way: if your team is leading 10-1 and an umpire blows a play at the plate, calling an opponent safe instead of out, no one is likely to get too worked up about it. Put yourself in that position and the rest takes care of itself.
Those were some of the things I saw. How about you? What stood out to you? What did you see that you haven’t before, or that made you cringe? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.