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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 Unintended Consequences of Time Limits

countdown clock

Long-time readers (and those who dig in beyond the first post they came to read) know that I am no fan of time limits for fastpitch softball games. Especially some of the ridiculously short time limits that have been imposed over the last few years.

An hour and 15 minutes drop dead? Puh-leeze! One hour? Most games are just getting interesting at that point.

I get why tournaments have gone that route. If we want to be positive, it’s easier to keep things running on-time so teams know when they’re playing and it’s easier to adjust for events such as rain delays or an umpire crew that’s temporarily MIA. It also helps more teams get an opportunity to play in a particular tournament.

If we want to be cynical, it’s greedy tournament directors trying to squeeze as much money as they can out of teams by over-booking the venue.

No matter which side you come down on, however, they have become a fact of life. In any game where there is a decent amount of offense, especially on both side, you’re unlikely to play a 7-inning game.

That phenomenon has created an unintended consequence that could become more troublesome in the future: today’s youth players often seem to lack the mental stamina to play a full 7-inning game.

I don’t think it’s a physical thing. Honestly, physical conditioning is better and more pervasive than ever. Most travel players work hard in practice, practice more often, and do other conditioning exercises (or speed and agility training) outside of formal team practices.

Mentally, however, it seems to be a different story.

First of all, you have the issue of short attention spans. Humans naturally have short attention spans, but some research by Microsoft suggests that our attention spans have decreased considerably since 2000.

But I also believe that players who spend most of their time playing games that are an hour and 15 minutes long or so become conditioned to expect that’s how long a game should be. When placed into a situation where the time limit is longer, or where the game ends when seven innings are completed, they have a difficult time staying in the game mentally once that 1:15 point is reached.

Does it happen all the time, and with every player? Certainly not. When there is something at stake, such as a tournament championship, players can often manage to remain more invested in the game. Especially if it’s a close one.

Even then, however, you’ll often see a drop-off in the quality of play around the fifth inning or so. Suddenly two teams that seemed to be on top of it throughout the contest are suddenly making errors on simple plays, pitchers are having trouble finding the strike zone, and hitters are not managing the quality at-bats they did earlier.

And, since a lot of tournaments will remove the time limit for the finals (and even semi-finals), players’ time limit-conditioned internal clock will tend to take them out of a game before it’s actually over.

Where you’re most likely to see it, however, is in non-tournament play where there is no immediate end goal. Or maybe no end goal at all.

If you’re playing scrimmages or friendlies, it won’t be uncommon to see the level of play drop as the game gets past (or in some cases drags past) the typical time limit your team plays. You begin to wonder at what point the alien ship landed and the pod people took over your team’s bodies.

So what can you do? Being aware of this phenomenon is one thing. Keep an eye on the time, and when you’re getting close to your typical time limit find ways to give your players a mental energy boost:

  • If you’re good at pep talks, now might be a good time to give one. Try to re-light the pilot light.
  • You can remind your team that you still have 1,2,3 or whatever innings left to go before the game is over. Maybe suggest you focus on winning the next inning if you aren’t doing at already to keep the time horizon short.
  • Send the team off for a quick jog up the sidelines to clear their heads.
  • Tell them to re-set their mental clocks as if it’s a new game; maybe even do a pre-game cheer at that point if your team normally does one.
  • Try to get the lead domino excited about the next few innings so she can get her teammates excited.

We are all products of our conditioning. And right now, many players are being conditioned that fastpitch softball has a time limit, which means they only need to remain mentally focused during that time period.

Don’t let your players fall into that trap. Help them to remain on top of their game no matter how long the game is. It’ll be better for your team’s success. And it will be better for your players when they start (or continue) playing in situations where time limits aren’t a factor.

So what do you think? Is there some validity to these thoughts about time limits, or do your players not have any problems making the adjustment when the game goes longer? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

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