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Travel Ball’s Long-Term Effect on the Future of Pitching

I have made it clear in the past that I am not a fan of time limits on fastpitch softball games. Maybe I’m just old but I believe the game is meant to be played over a minimum of seven innings, no matter how long that takes.

Time limits, however, are a fact of life in travel ball. Whether you believe it’s tournament directors/organizations being greedy by trying to squeeze 10 lbs. of play into a 5 lb. set of fields or well-meaning tournament directors/organizations trying to ensure that games run on time out of respect for the teams who spend all day at the ballpark, time limits don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

With that in mind, I have a few observations on how these time limits are affecting the game today, and how they will affect it in the future. Whether you agree or disagree, let me know in the comments below.

Observation #1: Pitchers find it more difficult to last seven innings when required. I am seeing that a lot in high school ball right now.

Pitchers who are used to games lasting 75 or 85 minutes are able to perform at a high level for five innings or so. But come inning #6, they start having a lot more trouble.

Now, I know some will say that’s because they’ve gone around the batting order a couple of times and the hitters have seen them. But I don’t think that’s the sole reason.

I believe that mentally they are used to the games being done by that point, and the thought that they have to keep going requires some adjustment. For some, it can even get tough at the end of the fifth as they realize they still need to have something in the tank for another two innings.

Does that mean they can’t adjust? Of course not. But it may take them a while before they learn to pace themselves properly for a seven-inning game.

Observation #2: Teams can no longer ride one pitcher for the season. Back in the day, to be successful a travel team, high school team, or even a college team really needed only one Ace pitcher. She was expected to carry the load, pitching every inning (or nearly every inning at least) in every major tournament.

That is no longer the case. Now, it could be that the hitters have gotten a lot better, actually working at their craft in the off-season like pitchers always have.

Rule changes have also made it tougher to ride one pitcher. Pushing the pitching distance back and moving from white balls with white seams to yellow balls with red seams has brought more offense into the game. So has bat technology, which sometimes allows a ball struck with a half swing to carry over the fence.

But I also think the way travel teams and tournaments are structured has had an effect on pitchers’ ability to carry that type of load. All the stop/start of more games can place more stress on young arms, so teams are spreading the load more.

While I think that’s a good thing overall, it also means many young pitchers don’t learn HOW to carry the load. They know there’s always help available.

Greater availability of facilities and lessons also means there are more pitchers out there than ever before. Those pitchers aren’t going to stick around very long, however, if they don’t get innings, so that means coaches must ensure #2 and #3 receive enough circle time to stay with the team.

From a health and safety perspective that’s a good thing, in my opinion. But it does mean that fewer #1s are learning how to be that pitcher. They are becoming more inclined to thinking they did their job in game one, and now it’s time for someone else to step up.

Observation #3: We will likely see more specialization in the future. As a result of the previous changes, I think it’s likely fastpitch softball, especially at the collegiate level, will start to look more like baseball, with a bullpen full of specialists.

Right now, all pitchers are considered to be starters. That doesn’t mean they all get starts – that decision is still merit-based (or political, depending on who you talk to).

But pitchers in a college bullpen aren’t thought of as being middle relievers, or closers, or really anything other than an arm available to throw in a game.

I think that will change, especially with a generation of pitchers used to working within time limits. That girl who is lights-out for one inning but deteriorates rapidly after?

Instead of trying to force her to improve her endurance, make her a closer. She can just go in and rocket the ball for three or four hitters rather than giving the top of the lineup a chance to see the starter for a third or fourth time.

Your #3 or #4 starter? Maybe she’s better suited to be a middle reliever. Pair her up with a starter where she will be a contrast – like a dropball pitcher paired with a riseball pitcher – and let her come in when hitters start getting comfortable with the starter.

The more teams use their pitchers as a staff in specific roles rather than trying to fit everyone into the “starter” category, the more they can become strategic.

Would it be better to have one Ace you knew you could ride the whole way? Maybe. But thanks to the way pitchers are being developed these days I think that ship has sailed.

Rather than fighting it, it’s time for colleges to look at what they’re getting and figure out how best to use them. The good news for players is that this sort of change in thinking might open up some new opportunities that weren’t there before. Especially for those who fit that “closer” description.

Matching reality

The foundation of softball at the high school and collegiate levels is youth softball – primarily travel ball. Changes there will affect the way the game is played all the way up the food chain.

Rather than fighting it, or clinging to old ways, schools need to take a hard look at the way the game is being played at the younger levels and adjust their strategies accordingly. Those who do will likely have greater success in both the short- and long-term.

The Importance of Developing a Pitching Staff

Today’s post was inspired by a Zoom session with Rick Pauly of Paulygirl Fastpitch and High Performance Pitching. Always important to give credit where it’s due!

The overall topic of the session was on keeping pitchers healthy. But one of the points covered, in my mind, was of particular importance – the need to develop a pitching staff.

We’ve probably all heard the statement that fastpitch softball’s windmill pitching motion is “safe” and “natural.” Implied within that message is “therefore you can pitch the heck out of your pitchers, every inning of every game, without having to worry about them getting hurt.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s “safe.” Mushrooms are natural. But there are whole species of them that are anything but safe.

Could be deliciousness, could be death. Care to roll the dice, Karen?

Pitching a softball, at least when done correctly, requires a series of violent, ballistic movements. Over time, especially when there isn’t enough rest in-between sessions, those movements no matter how mechanically sound can take their toll on bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, etc.

When they do, you end up with injuries, some of which can be severe or even career-threatening. Even if they’re not bad enough to sit a pitcher down they can cause enough pain for her to change her mechanics to prevent that feeling, which can have further effects downstream.

The key to avoiding these types of overuse injuries is to abandon the old school approach of riding one pitcher’s arm for the entire season and instead developing a pitching staff. There are different ways you can do that.

The simplest is to bring on 3-5 pitchers who rotate starts, with the assumption they will pitch the whole game. In a travel ball weekend with seven games, where you have three pitchers, each would pitch two and the three could split the third one. Your choice whether that happens at the beginning or the end of the tournament.

In a high school season with one game per day Tuesday-Friday and two on Saturday, each would get two. In a college season with games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday or two on Saturday and one Sunday, each would get one game.

That, of course, assumes that all three pitchers are fairly comparable. If you have one Ace and two others who are just ok, you may have to look at splitting games between the two who are ok while letting the Ace pitch complete games.

But that’s not the only approach. You can also look at it more like baseball does, with pitchers who fill different roles depending on how the game goes.

You might have a girl who can throw unhittable gas for two innings then gets gassed herself. She might better serve the team as the “closer” who can protect tight leads toward the end of the game.

Your fair-to-middlin’ pitchers might do well as a bridge between a high-quality starter and the closer. You’re not expecting those pitchers to win the game for you; you just want them to keep the game manageable until it’s time to either bring in the closer or bring back the Ace, who now has more innings available without the risk of injury.

You can also do it by who matches up best to a particular team. While it’s probably less effective in the highest levels of D1, in many other levels throwing a pitcher who’s a little slower than average, or relies on movement rather than overpowering speed, might be enough to throw off a team that just finished a week and/or weekend facing high heat in every game. It all depends on the hitters’ ability to adjust.

I’ve seen that one work with my own daughter Stefanie back in the day. Her team was playing an opponent her coaches expected to blow them out. They even came over to where the parents were and warned us the game would be a rough one. (I was merely there as a parent for this game, by the way.)

So of course, rather than waste who they thought was their best pitcher on a blowout, they gave the game to Stefanie. Only instead of getting blown out she confounded them with a mix of drops, curves and changes and held them to two runs as I recall.

Unfortunately, sensing blood and a possible upset the head coach, who clearly had no idea why Stefanie was being effective decided to replace her with their Ace in the fourth inning. As you can probably guess, the Ace got lit up quickly and that was the end of that.

Which brings me to an important reminder: when your pitcher is doing well, just go with it. Don’t question it, don’t get clever or think you’re going to put something over on someone. As the saying goes, ride that horse ’til he bucks you.

Another good reason to have a staff is even if you have an Ace, somewhere out there is a team that practices hitting the way your Ace pitches. In other words, they’ll be all over her like stink on batting gloves.

If you have no other options it’s going to make for a long afternoon. And it could damage your Ace’s psyche a bit too, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season. But throwing in a change of pace pitcher might throw your opponents off while saving the Ace for a game where the other team doesn’t match up so well.

The days of riding one pitcher’s arm for the season are long gone. Everyone plays too many games, and the hitting has improved considerably in our sport since it first started getting population.

Develop a staff and give yourself options. It’s better for the pitchers (and their health). And it’s better for the team’s chances of success too.

Mushroom photo by Visually Us on Pexels.com

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