Master the four-seam fastball first

So often, pitchers arrive at the high-school level without a proper knowledge of the most basic pitches and the benefits of them.
Too often most pitchers are bogged down with too many curveballs and other types of off speed pitches. It’s kind of like trying to learn algebra 2 before understanding basic math. It can be difficult and create bad habits.
First and foremost, pitchers need to learn to master both basic types of fastballs – the four-seam and the two-seam. Preferably, the four-seam should be tight first. Once again, I’ve found that Little League and Babe Ruth coaches are fast to teach and prefer the two-seam fastball first because it allows for more movement. But control is more difficult to master -which leads to more walks and a higher pitch count- and velocity is down. Lets take a look at both pitches.

Four-seam fastball
The four-seamer is the most common pitch in baseball. The benefits to this pitch are velocity and control.

Grip the four-seam fastball loosely and across the horseshoe.

Grip the four-seam fastball loosely and across the horseshoe.

The ball should be gripped by the index and middle fingers across the horseshoe of the ball and the grip should be loose -don’t choke the ball. Sometimes this can be hard for youth pitchers with small hands but work with it the best you can. (This is also the basic grip for any fielder throwing the baseball.)
The four-seamer will boast about 3-5mph of velocity more than its two-seam cousin and will be easier to control, which will drop walk numbers.

Two-seam fastball
The two-seamer tends to tail but it can move in different directions depending on finger pressure. Velocity will be down slightly, but movement will increase- making this pitch more ideal when pitching even or ahead in the count.
The grip should be with the index and middle fingers running along the narrowest seams of the ball. The ball should be gripped loosely, just like the four-seam grip. (Note: playing with the grip firmness will toy with velocity, which can be very effective in mixing up pitch speeds).

Two-seam fastball

Two-seam fastball

As pitchers start to control this pitch well, let him start applying more pressure with one finger than the other and watch the ball cut in different directions. Be sure to talk to your pitchers about when to play and when to not. If he is ahead in the count it’s okay to use something with a lot of movement that might find the dirt. If he is behind 2-0 or 3-1 or even 3-2, then stick with what is controlled best.

Change it up
No, not the change-up pitch – mix up the fastballs.
These two pitches alone make for a solid arsenal at the youth, and even the high school level. They allow for change of speed, some movement and, most importantly, force command of the two most essential pitches. Forcing a pitcher to mix up his speeds and hit location using just two pitches will ultimately help him understand the art of pitching much sooner and help with other, more advanced pitches. That will come in handy later in a pitchers career when he is in a tough spot and needs a go-to pitch to get out of a jam.
So at the Little League level, even the seventh grade level of middle school ball- stay away from curves and stick with the heat. (Nothing wrong with the change-up either, but we will talk bout that later).
Sure, you can strike out the other team 12 times now because they can’t hit the curve yet. But they will catch up to that and when they do, you won’t have a pitch to go to. Remember it isn’t all about winning at the lower levels. It is about developing players and keeping them safe. This will make them thrive later in their careers and that is what your career as a coach should be judged on.

Posted in Baseball Coaching Tips, Build your team to win from the bottom up, How to call pitches effectively, On the mound: keys to commanding the game | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Keep your pitchers on a count

Too often pitchers are overused just to win a relatively meaningless Babe Ruth All-Star game or even at the high or middle school level. I watched a middle school pitcher taxed for 170 pitches once.
Not only is it outrageous, but irresponsible. It could, and should, be labeled an indirect form of abuse.
Pitchers are tough to deal with. A good competitor will almost always say he wants to keep going or that his arm feels good. Coaches have to protect players and don’t place the value of a win over player safety. A blown shoulder is a bummer for life.
First, it’s a good idea to establish a throwing program. If you are at the high school level it should be a year around program. The lower levels shouldn’t be year around, but a program can still be done.
Lets look at high school. The fall should be used for long tossing at least three days a week. After throwing arms should be put through rigorous stretching and the use of stretch cords for rotator cuff exercises is highly recommended. Don’t overdo it. At the least, get a 2.5 pound or 5 pound weight plate and use for rotator cuff exercises. Too much weight can damage the shoulder or will start working muscles in the traps instead of internal muscles. The idea is high reps at very low weight.
As the winter approaches, try to keep your program going if weather permits. You can even long toss indoors using baseball socks, a ball and athletic tape (tape the sock over the ball and throw into it.)
After Christmas, assuming your season starts with practice around mid-February, bullpens should start with scripted work and arm exercises. Pitchers should start throwing flat ground around 20 pitches and work up weekly to 80. Dont start mixing in breaking balls until the third week. Start the first week with fastballs only, then mix in changeups before adding some breaking pitches. Remember, the season doesn’t start tomorrow, no need to start breaking off hooks. After that, around the first week of official practice, pitchers should start throwing off the mound with the pitch count dropped down to 30 and working back up. The idea is to have pitchers ready to throw 80 pitches in games early in the year. Remember during your scripted work to have each pitcher work out of the stretch and mix up his timing to the plate (it is a good habit to get into early).
Remember, winning early in the season isn’t nearly as important as winning late in the year. Slowly increase the pitch count through the year until a top pitcher, junior or senior, will be ready for 115-120 pitches late in the year. At the middle school level, pitchers should not top the 80-90 pitch range.
Between starts its important to have your pitchers on a regimen of ice, running and throwing. Preferably, light throwing on two days rest and a light bullpen day on the third day of rest (around 20 pitches). Drill work, whatever your favorites may be, should be done every day between starts.
Days of rest should depend on the length of the outing. A day of 20 pitches or less shouldn’t require any rest; 21-30 pitches should require a day of rest; 31-45 pitches should take two days of rest; 46-60 pitches should be three days rest and anything over 80 should require five days of rest.
Remember, it is important to stretch pitchers and build strength. But not too much and not too soon.

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Catcher: baseball’s quarterback

The guy behind the plate is probably the single most important position on the baseball diamond. Not to belittle other spots, anything up the middle – shortstop, second base, centerfield and pitcher – is key to a solid defense. But the catcher controls it all, especially as you rise to the middle and high school levels. A good catcher does, anyway.
I’m not going to spend any time talking about specific drills and techniques for catchers in this post, but more so the needed characteristics.
A catcher, first and foremost, has to be mentally and physically tough. I always told catchers entering our program that they better be sure it’s what they really want to do, because I ride catchers harder than any other position. They quickly found out I wasn’t playing around.
Mentally, a catcher has to be able to not only understand what he has to do and where he has to be, but he has to know what every other player on the field has to do at any given time. He must be cerebral. Catchers have to be vocal and confident. He is the man who has to make calls on where the play is when the ball is hit, often times lineup a cutoff man and make calls on cuts and relays to direct where the ball should be going.
Sounds easy on paper. But think about it this way. One out, bases loaded, ball in the gap. It’s an immediate double-relay four (or home) call for the catcher. He has to lineup a first baseman with the double-relay team (which is being lined up by the third baseman) in the outfield while watching the base runners. As the throw is on the way (no more than halfway) to the double relay team he has to make a cut call. Lets say he calls “cut four.” The cut team shoots the ball towards the plate but the runner looks like he will score before the ball makes it. But the batter/runner just rounded second hard and is trucking for third. Now the catcher has to change the cut call before the ball is halfway to the next cut (the first baseman). He calls “cut three” to nail the runner at third.
All that happens with fans screaming, adrenaline pumping, he glances to make sure the pitcher is backing up the right base. It is not easy. The situations have to be repped out over and over in practice and it have to be second nature to a catcher.
The catcher also has to make base calls on balls that are bunted with fielders having their back turned and a bad call can turn a small inning into one of those ugly 5-8 run innings or worse.
And the catcher also has to take some mental abuse from a coach. One missed block, one wrong cut call and guess who gets yelled at? The catcher.
The catcher has to demand respect from his fielders and most importantly, the other fielders have to trust and believe in him. As a third baseman setting up to cut to the plate on a single to left field, there is nothing less comforting than having your back turned and to hear your catcher say: “ummmmm, cuuuut. Umm no.mmm yeah cut 4.” Calls have to be quick, clear and loud.
Physically, a catcher doesn’t have to bench press 300 pounds or be cut up with muscles. That’s not the type of physical you want. In fact, too big and bulky and the quickness that is pertinent wont be there. But physically tough as in a guy who can take a foul tip from a 90 mph fastball off the collarbone and keep going. A guy who can take a backswing to the back of the helmet and still think clearly. A guy that can handle squatting and getting up and down thousands of times throughout the season. Is he scared to get in the dirt and stop a 92 mph fastball to keep the tying run at finest base late in the game? Will he do that all game or just in certain situations? He needs to do it all game.
I always told my catchers, “I don’t care if you get a hit all year, just play perfect defense.”
It helped them to know the clear goals for the position.
We will talk more about drills and more physical attributes later. Until then, happy hunting for the rig guy to get behind the plate.

Posted in Baseball Coaching Tips, Battery mate: be a leader behind the plate, Build your team to win from the bottom up | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baseball is fun; parents are not

Throughout the six years I spent coaching at the high school level I can tell you one thing that has absolute power over you and your ability to enjoy baseball: parents.
From my experience I can tell you this – parents suck. Don’t take that to heart if you are a parent. But it’s true. I used to tell my players this almost every year: “guys, I love you to death but I hate your parents.”
They would laugh but I meant it. Parents, 85 percent of them, are sneaky. It’s a shame that the other 15 percent have to suffer under that same umbrella, but it’s reality.
I’ve found parents, at least in my neck of the woods, have a strong sense of entitlement. It’s entitlement that comes from one word: money. Baseball in most areas is a “minor sport” that is cash strapped and reliant on booster clubs and, in turn, parents. It’s a shame too. It’s kind of fun to watch the parents, though. Some work hard and raise money and will talk to you like you are their best friend until … Their kid isn’t playing.
“But wait one minute,” they think. “I have bought my son’s playing time, damnit.”
Good coaches won’t ever buy into it. Bad coaches, or ones in bad political positions, won’t have a chance. They will fold to that pressure.
One of the best things I ever heard was coach Chase Jones speech to parents after try outs every summer. He would say, “Listen, if you aren’t ready for hard work then you aren’t ready for this. All of the equipment we have, uniforms, bats, balls, field, hitting facility, we have it because we have worked our ass off for it.” (Keep in mind this speech is to the parents.)
“If you aren’t ready to work hot summer days selling beverages or Tennessee Titans games selling concessions, then this isn’t for you. And let me be clear, I expect this out of all the parents and not just a select few. And if you outwork another parent, you won’t make headway with your child’s playing time. Everyone needs to raise money for the good of the program, but when it comes down to making a lineup I will put the best nine on the field. I don’t care who their parents are who how much money they raised.”
It was really fun to watch the faces. Of course, some parents didn’t take that serious and thought it was a Bs speech. They soon learned.
All of that said, here is a couple of tips to deal with out-of-control parents.

1. Implement a 24-hour rule. Early in the season talk to your parents about a 24-hour rule. This can work at all levels: t-ball and up. Tell your parents that you’re open to discuss anything with them except for two things: playing time and another kid. And should a parent want to talk with you, they should wait 24 hours after the incident or you won’t talk. For instance, little Billy’s dad isn’t happy that Billy isn’t in the starting lineup Monday night. After the game and some time to let his anger build up, Billy’s dad decides to embarrass himself and Billy and approaches you on the field during cleanup in a very confrontational manner. Calmly inform him that you’ll talk about it, but not for 24 hours. See how he responds. Hopefully, he respects your rule and this will give tempers time to calm and you time to put together information for Billy’s dad.

2. Don’t make friends. We had a coach once who loved to be very buddy-buddy with parents. It was such a poison pill for the program. This coach kept trying to convince us to put certain kids in the lineup and use them in unconventional situations just to appease parents he was friends with. Bad idea. Tell parents early on, “no offense, but I am your sons ball coach and not your friend. I don’t want to make friends and don’t intend to. I’m approachable, but not interested in anything more than baseball.” If you have a strong desire to be liked, you probably can’t handle coaching anyway.

3. All jokes aside, respect their side. I fear the days of parents expecting their kids to actually earn playing time are over. And baseball is the worst, because every dad won a Little League championship and knows better than you. But let’s get realistic, it’s just reality. Let parents know you understand that they want what’s best for their kid but you hope that they can trust that you know what you’re doing. Tell them, politely, how much you care for their kid but you care for all the kids and treating them firmly and fairly is your goal. That you’ll make mistakes but always with their best interest at heart. That should get you a little more respect and patience.

Good luck!

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Have a baseball plan

All across the country, lights are coming on and staying on deeper and deeper into the night as high schools, middle schools and Little League’s are preparing for the upcoming baseball season. It’s like Christmas, really.
Early on in practice, as a coach or player, the tendency is to try and do too much. Defense needs fine tuned. Can that new kid play shortstop? Bunt coverages need to be drilled. When can we do first-third coverages. Our cuts and relays have to be better than last year. Wait, what about batting practice? We have been inside all this time, we need to get some cuts on the field.
Don’t worry and, please, don’t take the last paragraph serious. One thing to remember is that every team in your league, whether it be a high school district or a local Little League, is in the same boat as you. Everyone deals with the same weather and the same basic obstacles. The idea is to plan and not overwhelm your players, especially at the younger levels.
Sit down at night with a pen and paper, or more accordingly for today’s age a computer, and make a plan. Make a long term plan and a short tremble prepared to make adjustments to it and, most importantly, execute it!

Long term
Before you have your very first practice, make a season long master plan for how you want to conduct practices. How will each practice begin? What do you want to teach on the first day, second day, third day, etc. after the first five days or so, make the additional time a weekly plan, because its obviously subject to change once you see what your team is good at, what it is sorta good at and what it really needs help with.
For example, at the high school level, a long term plan might look like this:
Day 1-
*Team stretches (20 minutes)
*Team throwing progressions (45,60,90,120,200 feet) (20 minutes)
*Quick hands, quick feet drills (5 minutes)
*Run down drills (10 minutes)
*Individual period (30 minutes)
– infielders with infield coach- stationary ball drills, short ground ball drills, short hop drills, fly ball drills in the hole, round of infield)
-outfielders with outfield coach- read ball drill, communications drill, find the fence drill, set up and catch drill, do or die throwing drill, catch fungo fly balls)
-catchers with catchers coach- mirror drill, back hand flip drill, bare hand frame drill, glove on, short frames, sit and get hit blocking drills, short blocks, short frame/blocks, catch and transfer drills.
*Team defense- cuts and relays (30 minutes)
*Bunt defense- install coverages with only a few live reps each (30 minutes.
*Conditioning- 10, 30 yard sprints, ab circuit (15 minutes
Clean up and go home
Total time – 2:45

That’s not too long of a practice for day one. Notice a lot of things weren’t covered: first-third coverages, pitcher fielding practice, fly-ball communication, etc. but it is a start. The key is to stick very close to the schedule, and if you are up against time to be done with a certain area, make a mental note of where you left off and keep going. The more you move and keep bungs fresh, the more attentive players tend to be. If you do get behind, things like conditioning at the end can be cut back or cutout altogether. Don’t make it a habit, though.

Day 2:
*Team stretches (20 minutes)
*Team throwing progressions (20 minutes)
*Quick hands/quick feet drills (5 minutes)
*Run down drills (5 minutes)
*Individual period (25 minutes)
-same basic drills as day one
*Biggest problem from day one that needs refreshing or reworked (10 minutes)
*Set up for batting practice (10 minutes)
*Take batting practice (1:10)
-split team into groups of six, each group hits 10 minutes, rotating on five pitches. One round could be bunts, next straight baseballs, next outside baseballs, final round meat pitches. If time is short cut the last round. Pitchers throw bullpens during BP)
*Clean up
Total time- 2:45

Day 3:
Team stretches (20 minutes)
Team throwing progressions (20 minutes)
Quick hands/quick feet drills (5 minutes)
Run down drills (5 minutes)
PFPs (pitcher fielding practice, 30 minutes) (non pitchers take fungi fly balls in the outfield or ground balls on infield from assistant coach except catchers, they are needed for PFPs.)
-play the bunt, first base line
-play the bunt, third base line
-come backers, easy, make throw to first
-come backers, hard, make throw to first
-cover first base on ball hit to first, used first baseman and live grounders
-double play turns on come backers
*Team defense: fly ball communication (20 minutes)
*First and third coverages (30 minutes)
-install the basics with few reps
*Conditioning (15 minutes)
Total time: 2:25

Day 4:
*Team stretches (20 minutes)
*Throwing progressions (20 minutes
*Quick hands/quick feet drills (5 minutes)
*Run down drills (5 minutes)
*Team intra-squad (2 hours)
-Each pitcher on a one inning or 30 pitch limit (assuming all pitchers have gone through throwing program in the offseason leading up to practice)
Total time: 2:50

Day 5:
*Team stretches (20 minutes)
*Team throwing progressions (10 minutes, light on sore arms after scrimmage)
*Bunt defense (20 minutes, use outfielders as runners and alternate pitchers)
*First/third defense (20 minutes, alternate pitchers on the mound)
*Conditioning (20 minutes)
Total time: 1:30

Day 6:
Team scrimmage vs. opponent
Top pitchers on 45 pitch count or two innings, whichever comes first.

Day 7:
Day off

Week 2:
*Start the week with batting practice and be sure to have one good day dedicated to team defense and then have team defense vs. live hitting (controlled scrimmage)

Week 3:
*Start week with heavy emphasis on bunt and first/third coverages. Spend a day on all base running in all situations. Spend day emphasizing bunts during BP, including squeeze and safety squeeze plays.

Week 4:
*Hold intra-squad or team scrimmages early in the week. Make sure pitchers have pitch count stretched to 70-80 range. Fine tune individual drills this week. Also fine tune team defense and pitcher fielding practice.

Week 5
Games start.

The short term plans are mixed in there – such as the individual day schedules. As each day approaches you will have to add and subtract to those due to weather and such.
At younger levels, such as Little League, it is probably best to start early with very basic fundamentals on defense. Fielding ground balls, fly balls, basic throwing and catching properly and whiffle ball hitting with a heavy emphasis on hitting.
As far as the drills listed in this post, we will explain those in depth as posts continue go up.
Remember, these are your plans, change them and tweak them how you please. But have a general plan- don’t just show up at the field and wing it. And remember, if everything isn’t perfect by the first game, that’s ok, baseball at the college level and down is a tournament sport.
Save your best ball for the end!
Finishing 5-0 when it counts is much better than starting 5-0 and fading late.
Happy baseball season!

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