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The Three Little Pigs and Softball Pitching

Three Little Pigs

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.

The End.

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Overcoming the urge to aim in fastpitch pitching

 

Katie whip

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.

Use video

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.

Product Review: Decker Weighted Softballs

Weighted softballs can help pitchers improve velocity

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.

Getting the feel of dragging the changeup

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.

The Mayor: Fun way to help pitchers with the mental game

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.

No need to sacrifice speed for accuracy in fastpitch pitching

Speed or accuracy in fastpitch pitching? The answer is mechanics.

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.

Lessons Learned from the Women’s College World Series

 

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. Bullet spin is not generally desirable in fastpitch softball pitching

(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.

 

What a way to end your career

 

UW Madison's Kirsten Stevens was named to the 2017 Eugene Regional All-Tournament Team

Just had to give one last shout out to Kirsten Stevens at the University of Wisconsin Madison for ending her fastpitch softball career with a bang. Kirsten was named to the Eugene Regional All-Tournament team after a stellar performance last weekend.

Her key accomplishment in the Regional was throwing a 2-0, five-hit shutout against the UIC Flames in a must-win game. It’s my understanding that this was the farthest UW Madison has gone in the NCAA Division 1 tournament in its history, and she got to be a contributor to the team getting there. Kirsten Stevens Named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week

In that game, Kirsten secure 8 strikeouts, including one to end the nail-biter of a 7th inning when UIC threatened to tie the game by opening the inning with two hits to put runners on first and second with no outs. But Kirsten bore down, getting the next hitter to pop up a bunt attempt on a lovely riseball to relieve some pressure, then inducing another out before finishing out the game with the final K to send UW Madison to the finals against Oregon.

It was quite the storybook finish for her. Or so it appeared.

The next day, Kirsten was brought in to throw one more time after UW Madison fell behind the Ducks. After settling in she was able to secure three outs, including once again finishing out the inning with a K, bringing her tournament total to 9, which was second only to Oregon star Maggie Balint. Her tournament ERA was 0.88, which was also good for second-best, this time behind Oregon’s Miranda Elish, who blanked the Badgers in the final. To add to the accomplishments, Kirsten gave up no walks in 8 innings pitched, making her #1 in K/BB ratio. Needless to say, she was on fire.

It was quite a way for the senior to finish a great career filled with many accolades. Congrats to Kirsten on a job, and a pitching career, well done.

Related content:

Big 10 Pitcher of the Week

Record-setting win

Tips for winning the cat-and-mouse game between pitchers and hitters

cat and mouse

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.

Aggressive hitters

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.

Drop balls

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.

Pervasive changeups

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.

Working inside/outside

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.

Zoning in

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.

Slappers

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.

Pay attention

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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Fastpitch pitchers: getting the feel of the whip

One of the things that keeps being a fastpitch softball instructor fun and interesting is that there is always some new puzzle to solve. That was certainly the case with a girl named Kate and her pitching.

I started working with Kate on her pitching late in the summer last year. Once the weather turned cold I didn’t see her for a while – schedules just didn’t match up – but she continued to work on her own.

When we did get together earlier in the year her speed just wasn’t quite where it should have been. She was working hard, and putting in plenty of effort, but when the ball came out it sort of floated toward the plate. It was almost as if every pitch was a changeup.

That just didn’t sit well with me, of course. Kate is a terrific girl, always smiling and very polite. If I say “good job” she invariably says “thank you.” I’ve actually told her she doesn’t have to thank me every time I say something nice, but it’s tough to overcome good upbringing.

Anyway, I knew here was more speed in Kate, but we were having trouble finding it. It just didn’t seem like she was driving her arm/hand through release.

I tried a couple of different drills, and even gave her a Jugs Lite Flite ball to practice with, thinking the lighter weight might help her feel acceleration into release a little better. The light ball helped a little, but there was still something not working in her delivery.

The other night she came in for a lesson, and I could see during warmups she still wasn’t getting the ball out properly. So I decided to try the towel drill. This is a drill where the player holds a towel, goes into a K position, then whips the towel through. If you do it right you’ll it snap forward somewhat.

Well, that wasn’t working either. After a couple of attempts I wasn’t seeing what I wanted. Then I had an inspiration. I told Kate rather than holding onto the towel she should bring it down and throw it to her dad, Mark, who was about 10 feet in front of her.

The first time she tried it the towel didn’t go anywhere. The second time it went straight to the top of the cage we were working in. But then she started to get it, and the towel went forward. A few more reps and she was easily throwing it quickly to her dad.

So I backed her up and put a ball in her hand. Sure enough, there was a visible speed jump from before. She did it again and had the same result. We finished normal warm-ups and went into full pitches and whaddya know? Suddenly the ball was hitting the catcher’s glove with a nice “thwack!”

She was a bit wild, but I told her don’t worry about that right now. Let’s just focus on your newfound speed. She was able to maintain it throughout the lesson and we were all happy about the breakthrough.

Still, you never know. Sometimes these gains are only temporary. That’s why I was so delighted to receive this text from Mark a couple of days later:

“(W)e can hardly contain our excitement!!!! We just finished our team practice and Kate absolutely rocked it. IT being the pitching part. Her speed is nearly matching the other girl. Perhaps just a few mph difference, and that’s negligible in pitching speak.

On the way home Kate said the sweetest thing to a dad’s ear. ‘I’m so happy.’ I asked her ‘about what, Kate?’ ‘That you found our coach, Ken.'”

I believe what was happening with Kate was that she was twisting her wrist as she released – probably the result of all those wrist flips she used to do before starting with me. Once I had her throw the towel she couldn’t do that anymore if she wanted it to go anywhere, and that gave her the feeling of how to get the ball through the release zone properly.

So if you have a pitcher who is struggling with speed – especially if it looks like she’s in permanent changeup mode relative to her effort level – give this drill a try. Maybe you’ll get a nice text too!

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