Monday, February 28, 2011

Throwing a Bullpen or To Live Hitters

I find it fascinating that players can throw perfect pitches in a practice bullpen, but struggle when facing live hitters. If your approach is the same, shouldn’t the results? 

I understand there is a difference between a hitter standing in the batter’s box ready to hit any mistake you throw and pitching to a catcher with no real hitter. There is no real pressure because there are no consequences. If a pitcher throws a fastball down the middle of the plate, there is no one to hit it in the gap or over the fence. 

But why do players that throw excellent practice bullpens struggle in a game? Many pitchers are scared of contact. 

Recently, one of my players struggled with his command when throwing live to hitters. But he threw an outstanding bullpen where he showed great command of his pitches. I already knew the answer to my question, but I asked him his thoughts. 

Sure enough, he said that he gets a little more timid with him pitches when a batter is standing in the box.
As a pitcher, you have to try to eliminate the hitter from your mind as you are ready to pitch. While you have to take the hitter into account when choosing what pitch to throw and in which location, once that decision is made, remove the hitter.  Think of yourself as throwing a bullpen to the catcher. 

If you throw a pitch where you want it, three things will happen. The hitter will take the pitch and it will hopefully be called a strike. The hitter will make contact, but because the pitch is where you wanted to throw it, he will get out. Or he will hit a ball over the infield that may fall in for a single. 

The worst thing that can happen if you execute the pitch is a single. And while this isn’t scientific, I would guess that happens about five percent of the time. 

Good things happen when you throw the pitch you want in the place you want. 

Again, I understand that it is easier for me to say these things than to put them into action. But they can be accomplished. 

Focus on every pitch. Remove the hitter from the at-bat. Welcome contact. Three things to help improve your accuracy, cut down your walks and allow you to pitch deeper into games. Three things to make you a more successful pitcher.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Adam Wainwright

St. Louis Cardinals' starting pitcher Adam Wainwright was recently diagnosed with a torn ligament in his pitching elbow that will require surgery and end his season days after it started.

I was fortunate to never sustain a major injury that would require surgery. It has to be devastating.

The sad part is that Wainwright didn't make his last scheduled start of the 2010 season because of discomfort in the elbow. The Cardinals had it checked out and there wasn't any problems detected. But, according to a St. Louis Dispatch article, he was apparently worried that something wasn't right and was scared to pitch.

I feel bad for him because I know who much time goes into to preparing for a long baseball season. Parts of almost every day of the off-season are spent getting ready for the long grind - especially of being a starting pitcher.

And to have your season cut short just a week after it started has to be a hard pill to swallow.

But I'm sure Adam Wainwright will resurface. You don't get to become a Cy Young Award candidate without hard work and discipline.

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In a Rundown? Run Into Someone.

It’s known by several names – rundown and pickle are the most common – and it usually doesn’t turn out well for the runner. 

A rundown occurs when a base runner is caught between two bases. The fielders end up chasing the runner – running him down – and throwing the ball back and forth until he is tagged out. 

I don’t know the percentage, but the chances of you successfully making out of a rundown are slim. But you should be aware of the easiest way to advance – interference. 

If you are caught in a rundown, you should be trying to accomplish two things – staying alive as long as possible and finding someone to run into.

The longer you stay in a rundown, more people get involved and the better chance someone screws up. If you are the runner, your goal is to find any fielder that you could possibly make contact with. If the fielder is ruled by the umpire to be in the base path, interference should be called and all runners advance. 

Now, you can’t go out of your way to bump into someone. You have to stay within the baseline. If you go out of the base line, you will most likely be called out, but then again, you are most likely going to be out if you stay in the pickle. 

It isn’t cheating or dirty. It is taking advantage of a team executing a sloppy run down. And it is the easiest way to get out safely.

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Get Your Feet Underneath of You

There is one simple mechanical issue you can make sure of to hit for more power. Be certain your front foot is planted on the ground before starting your swing. It may not sound like much, but you generate much of your power from your hips. 

Almost every hitter takes a small step towards the pitcher before starting the swing. You want to be certain your front foot is down before starting the rest of your swing. 

To maximize that power, your front foot has to be on the ground before your start to rotate your hips. You need to have two bases to rotate. 

Do me a favor and get out of your chair and stand up. 

Stand on one leg and try to rotate 90 degrees quickly. What happened? You probably didn’t go very fast, feel very powerful and you almost (or maybe did) lose your balance. Now stand on both legs and try the same thing. You felt quicker, more powerful and stayed in control. 

Try it two more times, but take a step laterally – to the side, not forward or backward. 

On the first try, rotate your hips before your foot hits the ground. You probably didn’t lose your balance because your foot landed and caught you. But I’m guessing you didn’t feel quick or powerful.

Take the same step, but this time, wait for your foot to hit the ground before rotating. You felt powerful, didn’t you? 

Your body had two bases to rotate on and you were able to generate more power because of that.
It is one of the easiest mechanical flaws to fix. And it is one that can lead to a big improvement.

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Left Handed Pitchers – Runner at Third Base

With a base runner at first base, left-handed pitchers have a great advantage. Facing the runner, a lefty can watch the runner and try to gauge whether or not the runner is thinking of attempting a steal. But with a runner on third, left-handed pitchers have a disadvantage. 

The disadvantage of the lefty is a bigger deal than that of the right-handed pitcher. A runner advancing from first to second may lead to a change is strategy, but a runner scoring from third can change the game. 

Because the threat of stealing home is significantly lower than an attempt to steal second base, the third baseman typically doesn’t hold the bag and wait for a throw as a first baseman does. Not only does a left-handed pitcher have his back to the runner, but there usually isn’t the threat of a pickoff, which allows the runner to get a bigger lead. 

There are two potential game-changing situations that a left-handed pitcher should be aware of with a runner at third base. 

The first is an attempted squeeze bunt – which occurs when the runner from third base breaks for home in the middle of the pitching motion and the batter attempts to bunt the ball. If it works, the runner will score easily and the only play will be at first base. 

If a squeeze play is attempted on a right-handed pitcher, they can catch a glimpse of the runner and attempt to alter the pitch. Hopefully the batter will miss the pitch and the runner will be out at home plate. 

But for a lefty, you can’t see the runner break. You have to rely on your teammates to alert you. And if a squeeze is executed properly, it will be too late. The only chance you have is if the runner doesn’t do his job. 

A runner trying to steal home is the second situation. And while I have only seen it happen twice, a runner stealing home can change the outcome of a game. The swing in momentum can be too large to overcome. 

It is really only a concern if you have a fast runner on third base and the left-handed pitcher is pitching out of the windup. As soon as the pitcher takes a starter step, he is committed to throwing to home and this can give the runner a tremendous head start. Again, not being able to see the runner, the pitcher must hope his teammates alert him. 

But here is the difference. On a squeeze, you should try to throw a pitch that is difficult to hit. When a runner is trying to steal home, you shouldn’t throw a pitch out of the zone. Throw a strike. 

Why? Two reasons. 

If the runner has a head start - he may be close to home plate by the time the ball reaches the hitting zone – and we throw a ball out of the zone (especially with a right-handed hitter up), our catcher probably won’t have time to catch it and put the tag on before the runner scores. 

Secondly, a hitter isn’t going to swing with the runner attempting a steal of home. It is an extremely dangerous play. Throwing the pitch that was called and take your chances.

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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Becoming a Spectator

My strength and conditioning coach in high school, Rick Camilletti, always let us know, “if you are standing around, you’re wrong.” He was right then and he is absolutely right in the game of baseball. 

The two positions that are usually guilty of standing around and watching the play around them are outfielders and pitchers. But there is always something that can be done, on every play, to help your team in some way. There are four things every player – not just outfielder and pitchers – should ask themselves as a play is happening.

Can I make the play? Is there any way that you will be able to get to the ball and either make and out or prevent the base runner from advancing farther?

Can I cover a base? If the infielder that would typically cover a base has to make the play, will the base be covered? The three most common scenarios are a ground ball to the first baseman – the pitcher should cover first base, a short fly ball in left field that both the shortstop and third baseman run out to catch – the pitcher should cover third base, and a bunt down the third base line that the third baseman fields – either the pitcher or catcher should cover third base. 

Can I get involved in the play? Is there a potential for a rundown? If so, you better get into a position to jump in to prevent the runner from reaching a base safely. 

Can I back up a throw? Typically, the outfielders and pitchers standing around fall into this category.
There is always a throw or at least the possibility of a throw that can be backed up. Outfielders have to be aware of the possibility of a stolen base attempt or the catcher trying to pick a runner off. Infielders should realize that there will be a throw to the pitcher after each play – whether the catcher after each pitch, the first baseman after a pickoff attempt or the third baseman after a base hit. 

Pitchers, on a hard hit ball that you know the runner will get a double for sure, you have to back up third base in case the runner tries to pick up an extra base. Or if there is a chance a runner will score – either from second base on a base hit or third base on a sacrifice fly – you have to back up home plate in case the throw would get away from the catcher. 

Even catchers can get in the act. If there are no other runners on base, a catcher should trail the runner towards first base, running against the fence or dugout. If the throw gets past the first baseman, hopefully the catcher is in position to prevent the runner from advancing to second base. 

There are thousands of situations and I can’t go through each one here. But stick to the four questions on each play and you won’t be caught standing around.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pitch Counts

I really enjoy any topic that allows me to combine my baseball experience and my degree in Exercise Science. One of my favorite topics is to discuss pitch counts.

Pitch counts have become more prevalent over the last ten years – for good reason. Young players are at risk of coming under the wrath of overbearing coaches who put winning ahead of a players health. We have all heard stories of the coach who pitches a young player because he is head and shoulders above any other pitcher on the roster. The overused player can become injured and the other players never get a chance to develop. 

For those reasons, especially among young players, pitch counts are needed. But are pitch counts necessary at the high school and collegiate levels? At higher levels, you are more likely to have deeper talent and more competent coaches (I said more likely - it isn’t an absolute). 

Before you start to roll your eyes – or leave this post altogether – hear me out. I also understand that most Major League organizations put per game pitch limits and season inning limits on their best prospects. But they do that most times because of the financial investment they have made in the player. 

But is that smart? Doesn’t it seem that many times the twenty-something guys that throw outrageously hard in the minor leagues never reach their full potential? Is it because of pitch counts? 

The exercise scientist in me says that throwing a lot allows you to throw harder and pitch longer. The only way to throw harder is to make your arm go faster. There are different ways to accomplish that – strength, momentum, and mechanics – but in the end, your arm speed is what matters. 

While mechanics are important and strength training is a good complement, throwing is what primarily builds arm strength. What about stamina? Conditioning is important, but there really is no substitute for building muscle stamina through throwing. 

But the best argument I have is the former Major League pitchers. These players rarely were injured and all seemed to throw harder. Let’s use the benchmark of 275 innings pitched in a season.

Bob Feller reached that mark seven times as did Bob Gibson. Don Drysdale, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan all had five seasons. 

In comparison to some of the greatest pitchers of this and the last generation, Roger Clemens had one. Neither Randy Johnson (271.2) nor Andy Pettite (240.1) had a single season. Phillies’ stars Roy Halladay (266.0), Cliff Lee (231.2) and Roy Oswalt (241.2) have all failed to eclipse the 275 inning mark even once.

I understand that there is an argument that these players all have had long, successful careers. But I also don’t think it is fair to compare Major League players to high school and college players. 

All I ask is you keep an open mind and really think about this. If your son or player isn’t throwing as hard as you feel they should, are they throwing enough, especially off the mound?

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