Blog Archives

Still Value in Learning to Think Like a Pitcher

These days, even at the younger levels, it seems like the goal is to turn softball players into robots. Nowhere is that illustrated more than the way pitch calling is often handled these days.

In many instances, perhaps even most, coaches are calling pitches from the bench. This occurs whether they actually know how to call a game or not. (Many do not.)

All that’s expected of pitchers and catchers is that they look at their ubiquitous arm bands, follow the rows and columns to the number called, and then throw whatever the answer key says. No thought required, and no shaking off the call.

That’s why I was heartened to receive an email from Tony Carlin, whose daughter Alyssa is a class of ’23 player currently pitching for her high school team.

She was pitching a game, he says, and breezed through the first four innings. Then, as I discussed in a previous post, she began to run into some trouble in the fifth inning.

The opposing team began to hit her, probably because they’d seen her a couple of times by now and was in a different situation than she usually faces in time limit-shortened games. I will let Tony tell the rest of the story:

“The 6th and 7th inning she told me she changed her strategy , and she did very well. She noticed that the batters started showing confidence, were making good contact, and were swinging at the 1st pitch, so she threw everything off the plate or below the knees and got them to chase , and chase badly.”

Brilliant! Alyssa saw that the other team’s hitters were trying to jump on her first pitch so she just threw junk at them – the kinds of pitches you normally reserve for an 0-2 or 1-2 count. In doing so she re-took control of the game and got the win.

What I like most is that she wasn’t just in the circle throwing – she was thinking.

Pitching to hitters is very much a cat-and-mouse game. When the hitters change what they’re doing, pitchers must adjust or they may end up getting clobbered.

But what do you do when the coach is calling the pitches and insisting you throw what he/she calls? Figure out how to change the equation while living within the parameters.

For example, if the call is for a dropball on the outside corner and you know the umpire is giving that and more, throw the ball off the plate. If hitters are being aggressive, throw it a little lower or further outside – anywhere it’s tougher to hit.

If hitters are routinely taking the first pitch, throw your first pitch fat on the plate, the way you would on a 3-0 count. If hitters are routinely laying off a pitch in a location and the umpire is calling it, talk to your coach about starting the hitter with that pitch.

After all, the goal is to get ahead of the hitter. What better way than to throw a pitch she doesn’t like to swing at? You never know – you may force the hitters to start swinging at pitches they don’t like and can’t hit well, either giving you a free strike or a weak contact that turns into an out.

The key thing is to pay attention to what is going on, and figure out for yourself where you can gain an advantage. It’s not only a lot more effective – it’s a lot more fun.

One other thing Tony told me is he was reminding Alyssa to pitch the full seven innings required for a traditional game by holding up seven fingers. He said the coach probably thought he was signaling pitches from the sidelines but he would never do that. He just wanted to be sure she didn’t fall into the time limit trap.

There is more to pitching than great mechanics – much more. True pitchers know how to take what hitters (and umpires) are giving them and use it to their advantage.

Pitchers should regularly walk through imaginary lineups, types of hitters, and situation to learn not just how to throw but what to throw when. It just might help you get out of a serious jam someday.

A quick rundown on why you should regularly practice rundowns

Practicing rundowns can pay off on both sides of the ball

A few years ago, when I was still coaching teams, I heard through the grapevine that one of the parents was griping about how much we practiced rundowns. He was a “baseball guy,” and as such was of the belief that rundowns didn’t happen very often. He couldn’t figure out why we would spend so much time on them.

Forget about the fact that if he’s opened his eyes a little more he would’ve seen that in fastpitch softball, rundowns tend to happen a little more often. It’s a faster game than baseball, with shorter distances between bases (60 feet v 90 feet for those who don’t know) and a smaller field overall.

As a result, baserunning tends to be somewhat more aggressive, and runners (as well as coaches) are more likely to take chances. Especially if they’re not sure they’re going to have many opportunities to score.

But even if that wasn’t the case, there are a lot of other things your team can gain from practicing rundowns other than the specific skill of handling rundowns. Here are a few.

Precision

Rundowns occur over shorter distances overall, and they tend to squeeze in more as they go on. That means there isn’t a lot of room for error. Throwers learn to throw to a specific spot instead of a general direction, and receivers learn to focus intensely – especially when the throw may be coming from an odd angle because the thrower didn’t maintain a good line of sight.

Grace under pressure

This goes along with precision. Things happen quickly in a rundown, and they can go wrong very quickly. If you panic, you’re likely to pull the glove down early and miss a throw, or make a throw you don’t need to make, or hold the ball too long. Rundowns help players learn to handle pressure and stay focused on the task instead of the outcome. By the way, that goes for the person running too. Their job is to stay alive until the defense makes a mistake. Can’t do that if you’re in panic mode.

Communication and teamwork

The ideal rundown has zero throws: the ball gets ahead of the runner, and the fielder chases her down until she makes the tag. But that doesn’t happen too often, so fielders need to be able to communicate effectively to coordinate their efforts. I’m not a believer in the receiver calling “ball” and the thrower holding the ball until they hear that, but if one side isn’t doing their job the other side needs to be able to tell them. Or if the thrower is running with the runner between her and the receiver, blocking the line of site, one of them needs to tell the other to move over so she can see. Or think about a first-and-third situation, with a runner caught between first and second. The team needs to know how to communicate effectively if the runner on third starts heading for home, so the team can break off the rundown on the trail runner and get the lead runner. So much going on!

Conditioning and agility

Yeah, you could have your team line up on the baseline and run a bunch of sprints to build up their speed and recovery time. But why not have them practice rundowns instead? They can get the same level of conditioning – especially if you limit the number of runners who can sub in – and you don’t have to listen to all the complaining. Create a little competition with a prize at the end and they’ll practically kill themselves trying to win. They’ll also learn how to change directions quicker – a valuable skill in several aspects of the game.

It’s fun

When I was a kid, we used to call it “running bases.” Others call it “pickle,” and I’m sure there are other names. But the basic rundown was something we used to do for fun when there weren’t enough kids around or we didn’t have enough time to play a regular game. All you need is a couple of gloves, a ball, something to use for bases, and some space. Instead of treating it like a drill, treat it like a reward – something fun to do at the end of practice.

The beautiful thing is if your team gets really, really good at executing rundowns, they can generate more outs in the field. They’ll look for opportunities, and will be more confident in going after the lead runner in tag situations. On the offensive side, they’ll be more comfortable if they do wind up in one, helping you avoid some outs on the basepaths.

Don’t take rundowns for granted. Make them a regular part of your practice routine and watch the difference they make.

Now it’s your turn. How often do you practice rundowns? How good is your team at executing them? And if you played running bases/pickle as a kid, what did you call it?

%d bloggers like this: