Monday, January 31, 2011

Proper Conditioning

At many warm climate high schools and on most college campuses, baseball practice has already started. At northern high schools, the start of practices is still a couple of weeks away. Most programs start their workouts with the thing players hate most - conditioning. 

There are generally two ways of thinking - the old school and new school. The old school way asks players to run for long distances and typically stays out of the weight room. The newer thinking is to lift year-round and stick to a quicker, more explosive conditioning program.

So which way is best?

I was fortunate to earn my bachelor's degree in Exercise Science, so I am familiar with the different muscles in the body and what each does. I know that strength training, sprint work and plyometrics directly led to my success.

Let me ask you to think about this. A baseball game is made up of quick, repetitive exercises. Every pitch, swing and defensive play is explosive. If each play is explosive, doesn't it make sense to train explosive?

I understand that it is hard to change a way of thinking. But if you were on the fence or weren't sure, it's something to think about.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and our free eBook at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Breaking Up Home Plate

Though the course of a season, there are going to be games when a pitcher feels “locked in” or “in the zone” and other times when he struggles to find the strike zone with any consistency. While confidence plays a big role, if you are in a slump, how do you get out of it?

Depending on how long you have been pitching, it’s likely you have heard the expressions “quit trying to be too fine” or “quit aiming the ball.” Both are meant to remind pitchers their job is to throw and not aim.

Home plate is 17 inches wide so you do not have to throw a perfect strike on the very last inch of the outside corner. Though some pitchers think if they don’t hit the very edge, the baseball will be hit 400 feet and that is the problem.

When pitchers are scared of what will happen if the batter actually makes contact that is when it seems the walks start to pile up.

Here is some advice I used when I played to focus on the batter, home plate and cut down on my walks. Break up home plate. Focus on certain areas and pitch to the area, not to the inch. The count will dictate how many areas to focus on and the numbers of areas change almost every pitch of an at-bat. Let me explain.

At the start of an at-bat, break home plate into five sections – the inside and outside corners, down the middle, middle-in and middle-away. Each section is roughly three inches wide and now gives you a target to throw to rather than a corner to aim for.

If you throw a strike, stay with the five section plate. If you throw a ball, shrink home plate into four sections – down the middle makes up two, the outer fourth and the inner fourth. You have created a four inch area to target.

Say you throw a strike on the one ball, no strike pitch (1-0), stay at the four sections. If you throw another ball and the count is now two balls and no strikes (2-0), shrink again to three sections – the outer third, inner third and down the middle. Each area is now roughly six inches wide.

Falling behind to three balls and no strikes (3-0) really eliminates any zones as your focus should simply be throwing the ball over the plate.

I don’t want to confuse anybody, so here are rules to remember.

If you are even in the count (meaning there are an equal number of balls and strikes), use five zones. If you are ahead in the count (you have thrown more strikes than balls, 0-1, 1-2, 0-2), use five zones. If there behind in the count by one ball (you have thrown one more ball than strike, 1-0, 2-1), use four zones. If you are behind by two balls (2-0, 3-1) or you have a full count (it is important to throw a pitch over the plate rather than issue a walk), use three zones.

These suggestions aren’t written in stone. In fact, I often suggest to some of my current pitchers to shrink the zone after a walk. If you just walked a batter and don’t feel like you have the control you need or want, start out with three zones. Developing confidence in the middle of a game is important. Maybe in the first inning you start each at-bat looking at three zones, but by the third inning, you feel more in control and are back to four or five.

As you probably already know, we want to stay out of the middle of the plate at all times. Pitches thrown in the middle of the plate are typically hit the hardest and the farthest. The only time it’s alright to pitch in the middle zones is if we have fallen behind three balls and no strikes as discussed (though as you progress up the baseball ladder, hitters will swing on 3-0 counts, so you have to be careful).

If you struggle with control problems regularly or in the middle of a game, ask yourself if you are focusing on certain areas of home plate or are you aiming to an exact spot.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Take Something Positive or Dwell on the Negative?

One of my first columns talked about confidence. To be a successful person and baseball player, you have to believe in yourself above all else. You have to know that when the ball is hit to you or you are on the mound or you are taking a test or you are interviewing for a job that you are ready to perform. 

The subject of this column is different.  Confidence is necessary in the heat of the moment, when you are right in the middle of things. But what do you take away from a game, a team practice or working out on your own? 

Are you better to take something positive or is it better to dwell on the negative?

Some coaches are super positive (I’m pretty sure I fall into this category). Because of the confidence factor, I think it is important to remain positive at all times. If I can quietly teach instead of yelling and screaming, why wouldn’t I?

But I don’t want to look at this article from a coach’s point-of-view. What about a player? 

When I sat down to write this, I was only going to write about thinking positively. But then I started to think and realized that when I played I almost always looked on the negative sides of a practice or game. It wasn’t negative in the sense that “I stink” or “I can’t play” or “I’ll never amount to anything,” but what didn’t I do very well that I can improve on. 

It is rare that you have an absolutely perfect game or practice. There is simply something that is below average. What is it? The good thing is, is that it doesn’t have to be anything major.

Maybe you had trouble fielding a ground ball while moving to your left. If you catch, maybe you weren’t perfect and let a couple of wild pitches get past you. Did you strike out twice, both times on changeups? Is hitting the cut-off man a problem? 

Any of these above situations do not require you to completely learn new mechanics. They are little tweaks that can be improved by taking the time and performing extra repetitions. 

Say you struck out twice on changeups while batting and, as a catcher, you didn’t block all of the wild pitches. But you also had a single and threw out two base runners. Your pitcher threw well to you and your team won the game.

Now what? There are a few positives and a few negatives. 

First and foremost, team success is more important than personal success. Winning should trump any individual performance – either positive or negative. But dwelling on the negatives is not going home and locking yourself your room because you think you are terrible. 

Maybe it is poor word choice, so instead of “dwelling,” let’s embrace the negatives. 

To become a better player, you have to know what you did and didn’t do well. Be proud that your team won and you had a decent game.

But you have to understand what you didn’t do very well so you know what to practice. You don’t become a better player by only practicing your above-average skills. If you only looked at the positives, would you ever fully understand your flaws?

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Should I Use Weighted Baseballs?

One of the ongoing arguments among baseball coaches and instructors is whether or not to use weighted baseballs for training purposes. And while I'll give you my opinion, as always, it is up to you to make your own decision.

The exercise scientist in me say that it is a bad idea for a two main reasons. The smaller shoulder muscles that you rely on to throw aren't used to handling a six or seven or ten ounce ball (a regulation ball is five ounces). By putting more stress on your shoulder, you increase your risk of injury.

The other aspect you need to look at is the difference between fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles. In order to throw faster, your arm has to move faster. When you throw a heavier ball, your shoulder moves through the pitching motion slower.  And when you consider muscle memory (which is your body adapting to performing a motion over and over), it isn't out of the question that if you throw a heavy ball too much, you will actually decrease your velocity.

So when you throw a heavier ball, your pitching arm is slower and you are putting a heavier load on the smaller, stabilizing muscles of the shoulder.

You are better off to work on proper mechanical development and correctly using your body. By using your entire body, you can generate power you weren't aware of and throw harder. It isn't the quick fix, but it is a better solution.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Bob Feller

My cousin posted this on a social networking site. Being that it is my family, I'll take his word.

Bob Feller pitched 18 years for the Cleveland Indians. He won 266 career games, was an eight time All-Star and is a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won 20 or more games in six seasons, pitched more than 300 innings in three seasons and finished with an ERA below 3.00 in five seasons.

But during a documentary that my cousin was watching, when asked what was his most memorable win (or something to that effect), his answer was World War II.

Wow.

Bob Feller missed three full season in the prime of his career to fight for our country in World War II. He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 23 after the Japanese attach on Pearl Harbor. When he came home in 1945, he pitched for the Indians two days later and won.

Thousands of heroic men and women serve our county each day. Each day, the freedom is protected by brave soldiers and sailors. 

Let's quit taking it for granted.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Mark Burk

I fell upon this show by accident, but the Golf Channel has a new series titled "Pipe Dream." It is the story about a professional golfer (professional because he was paid, not because he was on the PGA Tour), who has been accused of domestic violence and ends up homeless on the streets living in a culvert pipes that are stacked next to train tracks.

I must admit that I don't know that much about his story, only that he has spent everything he ever made to "clear his name" (I'm not sure if he was convicted, pleaded guilty, found innocent, entered a plea agreement, etc.).

His dream is to continue to attempt making it through the qualifying school for the PGA Champions Tour, which is for those aged 50 and over. In addition to trying to survive, he spends time each day stretching and practicing his swing. After not playing for a couple of years, he shot a three over on a previous episode.

There are two lessons to be learned. One is the obvious of having a goal and not taking no for an answer. Mark is prepared to do whatever it takes to reach his goal and realizes that there is no substitute for hard work.

But in the broader picture, there is an lesson that shouldn't be underscored and that is to not put yourself in vulnerable positions.

As I said, I don't know a lot of the background of the story. But regardless of innocence or guilt, Mark put himself in a position that he is now paying dearly for. And while we are all victims of circumstances at one point or another in our lives and we can't control everything that is written, printed or said about us, we can certainly avoid situation that seem uneasy.

I'm anxious to see how Mark's story unfolds.

Pipe Dream airs Tuesdays at 9:30.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

What's The Difference Between a 4-seam and 2-seam Fastball?

If you have ever wondered about the different types of fastball you hear about, I'm here to help.

There are several different varieties of fastballs, but two are the most common - the four-seam and two-seam. What is the point of each? Why is it valuable to learn both? When should I throw them?

All good questions (and there are probably more, but these are the most basic - let me know if you have any others).

The biggest difference is movement. A four-seam fastball will stay straight and a pitcher will have more control. It is also usually thrown a little harder than any other pitch. A two-seam fastball "runs away from you." If you are right-handed, the ball should run back towards the right-handed batters box. A two-seamer for a lefty, moves back towards the left-handed batter's box.

Four-seam fastballs are used whenever a pitcher needs to pitch to a certain location. A good example is a 2-0 or 3-1 count when you can't afford to miss out of the strike zone.

A two-seam fastball is a better pitch because of the movement, but you have to learn to harness the movement and use it to your advantage. If you are a lefty and are trying to throw to the right-handed corner of home plate, you have to be aware that a two-seamer may very well end up over the middle of the plate. Any pitch over the middle has a good chance of being hit hard.

So you have to get used to how much your ball moves. Now, in the above situation, to hit that same corner, you have to throw outside of the strike zone and hope the pitch moves back and catches the corner for a strike.

A four seam is easy to throw. Get a baseball. Hold it so the seam looks like a horseshoe. Place your index and middle finger across that horseshoe so your finger tips are on top of one seam. Your thumb should also grip the seam underneath. Try to keep your ring finger off the ball, but this will depend on how big your hand is.

The two-seam is a little trickier. Position the ball so the seams are close together. Now this is where you are going to have to experiment. There are different ways to make the ball move and you have to figure out which way works for you.

Some players can put their index finger on one seam and the middle on the other. I put my middle finger on the right seam (I am a righty) and my index was in between. I also put pressure with my middle finger. Other pitchers use their index finger as the pressure finger and that can work from either seam.

Experiment with finger placements and applying pressure and see what works best for you.

To answer my final question from above, it is important to throw two types of fastballs - a four-seam and something with movement. And the quicker you can control and understand a two-seam fastball, the better off you will be.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos, which includes Around the Mound that features an entire chapter on the correct grips and release points of 10 different pitches,  and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Practicing Down the Middle?

During a practice, an individual lesson or a camp, many times kids question why we do not do a majority of our hitting drills on pitches down the middle. That is the pitch that most can hit the best – hardest and farthest. So naturally, kids want to do what they do best. And that involves the middle of home plate. 

Let me start by giving you a brief overview of my hitting philosophy. 

Hitting isn’t nearly as complicated as most people try to make it out to be and you should spend more time hitting off of a batting tee than anything else. 

I am usually met with disappointment – again with 22-year old college players or 8-year old campers. Everyone wants to hit off the pitcher.  Tees are boring and most players tend to go through the motions, waiting for their time in the batting cage. 

But if you can’t execute a perfect swing while the ball is stationary on a tee, how can you hit a ball that is moving? 

The exercise scientist in me knows the power of the body and how important muscle memory when performing a skill repetitively. In order to achieve the muscles memory you need, you have to practice an action over and over again. This is why the tee plays such an important role. 

So you have read the above paragraphs, and I have already sold you on the importance of tee work. You plan on spending 30 minutes a day working on the tee because now know that that is the best way to become a better hitter. 

But now ask yourself, where do I position the ball? Some tees are adjustable and some aren’t. If you have one that is not, the tee is in the center of the plate. If you were to position yourself in relation to the attached home plate, you would only work on pitches down the middle. 

Whether you pitch or not, the answer to my next question is simple. How many pitchers plan on throwing a pitch down the middle of the plate? Not many. So if the goal of the pitcher is to throw pitches on the inside and outside corner, why would you spend an extended period of time working on pitches down the middle?

Start by practicing with pitches down the middle of the plate. It is good way to warm up and get into a rhythm. But after the first five minutes, start to move the tee around to other areas of the plate. 

How do I work on pitches in other areas of the strike zone? Positioning the tee isn’t as simple as moving the tee closer to you or farther away. There are different places that you should work on the respective pitches.
To work on an inside pitch, position the tee in front of the plate. Line the ball up on the inside corner about three inches in front of the plate.  For an outside pitch, adjust the tee so the ball is lined up over the back outside corner of the plate (The plate runs with the lines of the batter’s box, then angles towards the catcher. You want to be where the plate starts to angle).

Realize that pitches should be hit to the side of the field the ball is placed on the tee. Right handed hitters hit inside pitches to left field and outside pitches to right. Lefties hit inside pitches to right field and outside pitches to left. When you do work on pitches down the middle, they should be hit back up the middle, towards center field. 

I understand that working off the tee and practicing pitches on the corners can be boring and frustrating. But if you want to become the best player you can, you have to focus on your weaknesses and improve. 

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

How Much Baseball IsToo Much?

I was recently asked this question by a concerned parent who was worried that their son’s love the game could eventually consume him. The main fear was obviously long-term health. But there were others – becoming burned out and not experiencing and developing at other sports were also discussed. 

How much is too much? 

I’m all for physical activity. I think that kids should be kids and spend as much time playing outdoors as possible. I urge caution in playing too much, but raise a red flag when it comes to pitching.
Before getting into specifics, see if you can answer this question. 

Every August, the baseball community focuses on Williamsport for the Little League World Series (I was there for the first time this past summer and if you have never attended, do whatever you can to experience it). There is always the kid who throws hard, has a nasty curveball and slider and dominates every team he pitches against. 

How many of those kids are pitching in the Major League Baseball? I understand that this is somewhat of a stretch to compare what a kid does at 12 to where he is in life at 27, but doesn’t it make you wonder? 

Talent is talent. In hockey and basketball, it is not out of the question for scouts and college coaches to be buzzing around kids when they are in middle school. Yet in baseball, it seems that many of these same players with 75 MPH fastballs and unhittable curveballs never make it to the top of their profession. 

If you are fortunate to live in a warm part of the world, where baseball can be played year-round, I’m jealous. But does that make it right for a 12-year old to play baseball for 12 months? 

My advice was simple. Play baseball all you want. Hit and play the field 12 months out of the year IF that is what your child wants. I understand that as a parent, you have an obligation to tell your child no if the action is something you deem to be unhealthy or unnecessary. 

But I also think that kids can be doing a lot worse. Baseball – or any organized activity – can provide structure, social skills and a sense of belonging.  You know your kids better than anyone. Are they genuinely enthusiastic about going to practice and games? Do they enjoy camps, lessons and DVDs? 

Or do they agree to play because they don’t want to disappoint you or feel that they will let you down? Are you pushing your child to play and be the best player because that is what you want? (You probably weren’t anticipating such deep questions when you began.)

Let’s get back to pitching. I do not endorse pitching competitively for 12 months out of the year. If professional pitchers (who are also fully grown, physically developed adults) know the importance of taking time off and resting your arm, shouldn’t the same principle apply to children and teens? 

My recommendation is that everyone, regardless of age, should take a total of three months off in a calendar year, preferably consecutively. 

When I have this conversation, inevitably two more questions come up – won’t my child lose his arm strength and what will happen to the mechanics he worked so hard to develop? 

Your body needs time off. Muscles, tendons and ligaments that are subject to overuse become fatigued.  The chances of injury increase. What sounds better – taking three months off to rest or taking six months off because of a sprained ligament? The rest is needed and will lead to a sense of rejuvenation. 

The answer to question number two is that you do not need to throw to practice pitching mechanics. In fact, you are probably better off not to throw because you can practice longer and more often. Find a big mirror and, without a ball, concentrate on developing solid pitching mechanics. 

I grew up in Ohio, not exactly known for its baseball weather for half the year. If I lived in another part of the country, my guess is that I would have played baseball year round. But I also think that there is something to be said for not having the opportunity. 

Baseball was all I thought about between October and March. Not being able to play undoubtedly made me appreciate the game when the weather allowed. I didn’t grow tired of the game, become burned out or become complacent in my development. 

In the end, my recommendation is from my experience. As a professional pitcher, I took off from October through December and never had any serious arm problems.  But you know your children better than anyone. You can read their body language and know when they are truly having fun. I’m confident you will make the best decision for them.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Are You an Early Developer or Late Bloomer? A Player’s Approach to Each.

Every baseball player out there falls into two categories – an early developer or a late bloomer. You are the best player on your team or even in your league. Or you love the game, but your talent puts you in the middle of the pack.

There is a fine line between making it and being passed over. As baseball’s ladder progresses, from youth to junior to high school to college to professional, making a team becomes harder and can literally depend on a bad day, a bad at-bat or a bad pitch on the mound. 

If you have been fortunate to develop early, realize that you are lucky. Enjoy your success on the field, allow your confidence to grow, but don’t think it will always be easy. 

As I was coming through the ranks, I was good enough to be on a few all-star teams, but never good enough to play much. No question taking part in the all-star teams helped, as I was able to take part in all the extra practices.

I was cut from my high school program as a freshman (we had three teams) and made the junior varsity a year later. As a junior in high school, I pitched six innings for the varsity team, made seven plate appearances and was passed over for my local American Legion summer program. I had to go play for another program. 

This turn of events was one of the best things that happened to me. Forcing me to go play for an extremely inferior summer program allowed me the thing I needed most – to play the field and hit every day and pitch every fourth or fifth day. I was no longer sitting the bench and this allowed me to develop. 

My story isn’t meant to inspire. It is simply shows that if you work at something, you will get better. If you work on hitting or pitching mechanics, new pitches, defensive positioning, speed or whatever is your weakness, you will improve. 

But my story is meant as a warning. Most of the kids that were better than me and excelled in youth baseball were not around by the time we reached high school. Most of them didn’t work on their baseball skills. 

Because they were gifted at an early age, they always expected that baseball would come easy. It didn’t.
As late bloomers catch up, they pass the early developers. Why? They have developed true baseball skills. Early developers rely on physical maturation and natural talent. Developed skills will always win out over natural talent that isn’t refined.

If you are an early developer, make sure you continue to work on your skills. Don’t take them for granted and expect that you will always be one of the best players regardless of the amount of time you invest. Every player has a weakness. Ask your coach about yours and improve. 

If you don’t play much, didn’t make the all-star team, were passed over for a travel team, left off the select team or cut from your high school, do you still want to play? If you love the game, continue to work on it. Figure out what your flaws are and practice. Just know that you will have to practice a little more. 

Whether you are an early developer or a late bloomer, hard work does not go unrewarded.

Visit our complete online resource for instructional baseball videos and eBooks at www.ToTheTopPerformance.com.