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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

Making adjustments part of the fastpitch game plan

Fastpitch game plans are good, but when they stop working you have to make adjustments

Establishing a game plan is an important part of approaching fastpitch softball games strategically. Especially when you have the opportunity to scout your opponent.

For pitchers, you want to match your strengths to the hitters’ weaknesses. For defense, you want to play to the tendencies. For hitters, you want to get a feel for what’s coming so you  can jump on it when you see it.

Yet all too often I see game plans that look like they were written on stone tablets, dictated by a coach in the form of a burning bush. In other words, the game plan a team starts with is the one they stay with for the entire game.

The problem is, smart coaches on the other side are always looking to figure out what your game plan is so they can adjust theirs. If you just stay with the stone tablets, the game can turn on your pretty quickly.

For example, a coach who notices your hitter are very aggressive at the plate will want to throw more first-pitch changeups. Get you to the pull the ball foul, or swing through the pitch for an easy first strike.

You then have two options. You can continue to go to the plate looking for heat on the first pitch. Or you can recognize what’s happening and sit on the change. Then it’s up to the other team to stick stubbornly to their plan or make an adjustment.

Pitchers may have worked all week on a great sequence of pitches. But if you’re starting every hitter with a rise, or a curve, or a whatever, it probably won’t take them more than 2-3 innings to figure out there’s a pattern to your throwing. Once you see they’re onto you, it’s time to change it up  – perhaps literally with a changeup, or a drop, or a screw. Anything to get them to either swing at the wrong pitch or take it for a strike.

The less comfortable hitters are at the plate, the better it is for pitchers.

This mentality also applies to general strategy. Coaches who sac bunt whenever they get a runner on first are pretty easy to defend. In fact, with one team I coached, where I had a very athletic third baseman, I told her if she caught a bunt in the air for an out I would give her an ice cream upgrade, i.e. when the team went for ice cream cones I’d buy her whatever she wanted. Danged if she didn’t win that challenge too. But it was worth it.

The idea of making adjustments shouldn’t be foreign, especially if you watch football. They talk about halftime adjustments all the time. The winning team usually makes them, getting rid of the plays that aren’t working and changing their defenses to match what the offense is trying to do. The losing team usually doesn’t. And guess which coaching staff lasts longer?

The greatest game plan in the world is worthless if it’s not working – or if it stops working during the game. It’s not something you can pre-program for 7 innings.

Yes, know what you want to do going in, but don’t fall so in love with it that you can’t make changes when you need them. Recognize when the plan’s not working anymore and try something else.

If you can’t do it, maybe designate another coach or even a bench player to be that voice that says “Hey, time to change things up.” Then listen. You may just find yourself on the winning side at the end.

How many pitches should a fastpitch pitcher have?

I know the title sounds like a tongue twister (how much wood can a woodchuck chuck), but the question of how many pitches a fastpitch pitcher should have is an important one. Mostly because it determines how pitchers will be spending their valuable practice time.Sarah Pauly demonstrates a pitch

The “old school” approach is that a pitcher only needs three pitches – drop, changeup and riseball. And that approach has served many pitchers well for a lot of years.

That may be outdated thinking, however. Over the weekend I again was one of the supporting instructors at the Indiana United Fastpitch Elite clinic, which was led by Rick and Sarah Pauly. On Friday night, Rick presented a PowerPoint talking about the overall mechanics of pitching, and then took questions both during and after the presentation.

One of the questions, from my friend Mike Borelli, was how many pitches should a pitcher have. Rick turned to Sarah, the winningest pitcher in National Pro Fastpitch history, and asked her how many she had.

Her reply wasn’t three. It was seven. As I recall she named drop, change, rise, two curves, backdoor curve and a screwball.

Rick and Sarah then went on to talk about how with today’s hitters you need to have more weapons.

Think about why that is. In the old days in women’s fastpitch, the ball was white, with white seams, and pitchers even at the international level stood 40 feet away. Pitchers put in way more time learning their craft in the off-season than hitters did. That might have been a good thing because what most people were teaching about hitting was pretty bad. Hitters are smarter, too, spending more time studying pitchers and looking for patterns. Also, there is no doubt today’s bats are much hotter than those back in the day.

You put all that together and having more than three ways to attack a hitter starts to make sense. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have quite a bit of confirmation bias in this way of thinking because I’ve been saying it for years.)

If all you have is three pitches, even if they’re great ones, you become more predictable. And predictability is deadly. Just ask any pitcher who has a coach who likes to favor certain pitches. It’s a lot easier to dig in and hit if you know what’s coming.

Now, no doubt some of your pitches will be better than others. No doubt you will throw them more than others. But if that’s all you throw, it’s easier to prepare to hit against you. Throwing in something a little different, even now and then, keeps hitters off balance and uncomfortable, which is the key to great pitching.

It was great to hear this philosophy confirmed by someone who has been around the women’s game, and played the men’s game, for a long time. If you’ve been restricting yourself/your daughter/your students to three pitches, you might want to give this a little thought. Perhaps it’s time to add a new pitch.

Calling pitches: Make the pitcher’s strengths a priority

Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of fastpitch games on TV and in-person lately, but it seems like it’s time for my semi-annual rant on pitch calling. I never cease to be amazed at how often pitch selection seems to be based more on arbitrary rules or expectations about hitters than what the pitcher is good at throwing. Pitch selection should match the pitcher's strength

Here’s an example. Watching a college game last night, a pitcher who is ok at best with her drop but a natural riseball pitcher had the bulk of the pitches called low. It didn’t take long for the other team to adjust and start hitting her hard.

Now, I’m sure those complex and detailed charts in the dugout showed that the opponents had a history of struggling with drop balls. But what the charts didn’t explain was they had trouble with GOOD drop balls – the kind that come in thigh-high and flat, then fall off the table.

Clearly, they had no trouble with drop balls that started low and didn’t move much. A better strategy might have been to at least mix in more up pitches, if for no other reason than to keep the hitters from looking low. And if the pitcher had her rise working (as her replacement did), she could have used her strength to better advantage, and her team would have advanced in the conference tournament.

This sort of thing seems to happen at levels. A coach will fall in love with a particular pitch, or a pitch location, and want the pitcher to throw their constantly. That isn’t really a good idea under any circumstances – you want to mix it up and keep hitters guessing. But when the pitch or location the coach loves happens to also be a weakness for the pitcher, no one should be surprised when it doesn’t go so well.

Part of this also has to do with a pitcher’s psyche. To be successful, pitchers must feel confident overall, as well as in the immediate pitch they’re about to throw. The situation may call for a rise, or a change, but if the pitcher isn’t feeling good about her rise or change that day she probably won’t give it all she’s got. And on those two pitches in particular, a mistake can quickly turn into a disaster (aka a home run).

Personally, I’m an advocate of catchers calling games. Especially in travel ball where you’re unlikely to have any extensive history on a particular hitter and her tendencies. Catchers are right there close to the hitters, and have a bird’s eye view of what’s working for the pitcher, what isn’t, and what her mindset is.

If a catcher sees fear in the pitcher’s eyes when a change is called in a non-pressure situation, she likely will know best to steer clear of that pitch when the pressure is on. You can’t see that from the dugout.

But if coaches are going to call pitches, they need to understand as much as they can about their pitchers overall, as well as what’s happening with them today.

Coaches calling pitches should really make an effort to understand what each pitcher does well, and develop their game plans accordingly. If your pitcher has a strong rise and a weak drop, you’re probably better off planning on more riseballs even if the opponent is a good riseball hitting team. Or better yet, throw a pitcher who has a strong drop. (Hopefully the staff’s strengths are more complementary than matchy-matchy.)

On game day, watch the pitchers warm up, and talk to them and the catchers. The pitchers will tell you what they feel confident in, and the catchers will give you another data point/reality check based on the knowledge of that pitcher they have accumulated through hours of working together. Those things should also be factored in to the game plan.

Once the game is on, pay attention and make adjustments. If the drop is working and the screw is not breaking at all, work the drop in and out and put the screw in your pocket for that day. Or use it as an offspeed fastball instead of expecting it to miraculously start breaking. If the screw is running in too much, use it as a waste pitch when ahead in the count rather than when you need a strike. That can be particularly effective when a right handed pitcher is facing a lefty slapper.

All of this reminds me of a story from the classic book Ball Four, one of my all-time favorites. In one part, the pitching staff is talking about how to pitch to a particular hitter when one of them offers that when he was with the LA Dodgers, Sandy Koufax used to get him out by smoking him inside. To which the author, Jim Bouton, comments, “Which is great if you could throw fastballs like Sandy Koufax.” In other words, what worked for one of the greatest pitchers of all time may not work for ordinary mortals.

Charts and such, whether they are general guidelines or specific to that team, can be helpful. But they’re not the last word.

Call pitchers to your pitchers’ strengths – overall and that day – and you’ll have a much greater likelihood of success.

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