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Pitching Foundation

by Dave
Thursday, September 10, 2009

In order to build a house, you've got to start with a foundation.   OK, so we're not trying to build a house.   We're trying to build a windmill.   Take a look at the picture.   Now that's a windmill with a foundation!   Sure, it is obviously quite an old windmill.   The modern ones are built with a much more slim look.   But the modern versions are built with very sturdy materials and cost quite a bit.   Besides I'm not convinced these newer windmills will stand the test of time.   And that's what we're after today, a windmill that will stand the test of time.

I could have called this piece pitching fundamentals but everybody shies away from anything called "fundamentals."   Similarly, I could have titled it something "beginner."   But some would jump over this and seek out something better or more relevant to their situation.   We, as a society or culture, have an aversion to anything called fundamental.   We want to jump ahead to the intermediate level of everything.   We're looking for nuance, tips and tricks, shortcuts.   That is not a formula for success with anything complex.   Windmill pitching is complex.

Another reason why readers of this blog might look beyond anything fundamental or for beginners is they already pay a coach for lessons and the fundamentals are the coach's responsibility.   I've got absolutely nothing against pitching coaches.   To me, they are critical.   I'm not prepared to make myself into the expert the way Mr. Tincher did.   I doubt most of you are either.

Pitching coaches are great but let's not forget that they are selling a product.   The pitch9ing coach is putting out the product he believes you are willing to buy.   If the coach has you as a client and you are less interested in fundamentals than say the curve ball or making your daughter into a functional pitcher today, that is what he or she is going to sell you.   If the pitching coach does not offer what his or her clients want, there will not be sufficient customers to continue the practice.   So, while most pitching coaches do teach fundamentals, they need to move things forward to a level at which you are willing to pay for their expertise pretty quickly.   I'm going to get into the fundamentals in a moment but before I do, I want to explain a little more deeply why pitching coaches often do not address them and why parents of pitchers are often not only none the wiser for it but often the actual cause.

The typical kid who first steps into pitching lessons is a rec pitcher, say about 8 to 11 years old.   The parent of the pitcher wants their kid to be a functional pitcher, one who does not get pulled in the first inning for walking in 3 runs before getting an out.   They want their daughter to "just throw strikes."   They are less interested in the kid building a foundation that will last into high school than they are avoiding personal embarrassment this Saturday.   They are less interested in a proper wrist snap or good body posture than they are having their kid throw those strikes.   They are less interested in her starting with two feet on the rubber than they are with her getting outs.   They are less interested in avoiding a crow hop or leap than they are in her speed.   They are less interested in her having an effective change-up than they are with her learning to throw that curve or drop.

If you want to pitch past 10U, you've got to learn some basics and learn them well.   I have seen too many pitchers who have a defective wrist snap, who bend over to deliver that strike, who walk into their pitches or don't even push off the rubber, elt alone drag away from it, who do not develop pitches in the right order or who rely too much on a particular pitch because they can throw it for a strike and are getting batters out.   The result is often a pitcher who will get hit hard at the next level, up an age group or over to a higher level of travel.   The result is often a pitcher will be frustrated in the future and perhaps give it up before her time is due.

To begin into the foundations that every pitcher ought to work on, I see a couple items which should be given more attention than perhaps most people are willing to give.   When coaches build pitchers from the ground up, they usually begin with the release point and work backwards.   The release point follows the wrist snap so that's where we'll start.   Before the wrist snap is a good "perfect" circle.   Before that is a leg drive and drag from the rubber, followed by good body posture.   And before that is two, yes two, feet on the rubber or pitcher's plate.

Having a good wrist snap is absolutely critical.   Some pitchers develop lazy wrists which results in a rollover or a straight-wrist release.   They put a cut on the ball one way or the other.   This often gets missed because they still throw the ball hard and because they get baby hooks or cuts on their pitches, batters miss the ball.

I remember seeing a couple 12 year old pitchers at different times who had cuts on their fastballs.   They got batters out.   But they didn't nearly get the speed they might have on their pitches and, in fact, they had less movement than they should have on their fastballs as they got older.   Eventually they became mediocre pitchers or gave it up altogether.   A "true" wrist snap is 12 to 6 on the clock.   There is no such thing as perfection in any human endeavor.   If there were, our eyes couldn't tell us anyway because they are not that keen.   But a ball which rotates nearly perfectly is what we're after.   If the catcher sees any sort of dot or wobble in the pitch, the wrist snap has not been as near to perfect as it should be.

When a pitcher throws a very good wrist snap, the ball rotates rapidly.   This causes a couple things to happen.   First off, a rapidly rotation ball is harder for a batter to vector.   batters' eyes put together the meeting point of bat and ball in subliminal ways and apparent rotation factors into the hitter's subconscious mental equation.   A rapidly rotating ball tells the eyes something about its expected speed.   Batters have trouble with good, fast rotation.

Secondly, whereas the errant pitcher's cut will cause the ball to move early on, as she ages and gets faster, the movement will diminish.   A good 12 to 6 wrist snap will put harder and harder break on the ball as a pitcher gets faster and faster.   The baby hook will not get the job done.   As pitchers get older and faster, their hooks need to be more pronounced, more clean, faster rotating than the slight cut.   Pitchers who have cuts often get the batters out in rec.   They also find success in 10U and 12U travel.   But as batters get older and better, they learn to deal with real hooks.   Baby hooks are like candy.   Hard drops remain one of the hardest things to deal with.

Finally, having a clean snap aids in the development of other pitches.   For example, if you want to develop a peel drop or good change-up, having a clean snapped fastball is the route.   The peel drop is a great pitch because it looks like an ordinary batting practice fastball but breaks hard as it approaches the plate.   It is very hard to judge whether it will be in the zone or not and it is very hard to adjust to and hit into play with anything but a simple grounder.   When girls get to changes, they often either grip the ball completely different than the fastball and use the fastball motion, they do not snap at realease, or they use some different technique.   Having a true, reliable, 12 to 6, hard wrist snap with which to change off of is the way to go.   If a kid has a cut on her fastball, the change-up can be very hard to perfect.

To work on the wrist snap, you have to do a lot of boring repetition.   But this work needs to be done.   The pitcher stands about 15 feet from the catcher and merely snaps the ball to him or her.   She can do this facing the catcher, sideways or both at different times.   Emphasis should be on the isolated movement of the wrist, straight up.   Of course, some girls struggle with merely snapping - they need to move their arm some.   That does not represent any particular difficulty provided that the arm motion is slight and the emphasis is on the actual snap.

Wrist snaps should be done as often as a girl pitches.   It should be the first of many warm-up drills.   I like to use a pre-set count of snaps as our first step.   If you are getting ready for a game, sometimes you are in a rush and you don't have time to do a lot of snaps.   I have nothing to tell you about that.   But in a normal prac tice session, you really should begin with 10-20 fronts and 10-20 sides.   My kids have been pitching for a number of years and always do at least 10 of each.   I would strongly suggest that beginner (0 to 2plus years) ought to do more.   On some occassions with my kids, when they were starting out, they threw as many as 50-100 snaps to improve their mechanics.   On occassions when they were too tired or sick, we did entire practice sessions of nothing but snaps.   Once, when my kid had a broken non-pitching arm, we did well more than 100 snaops in order to keep her pitching arm in decent shape and to retain her mechanics.   The beginning pitcher needs to do loads of wrists snaps over a long period to get this critical foundation set.   Older pitchers who have bad snapping motions should be treated like beginners for purposes of fixing what is broken.   As you probably know, fixing a busted foundation is tougher than fixing a leaky roof.

The next foundational piece to pitching involves the circle.   I've explained why the longest poossible circle is the best before but for the purposes of anyone new, I'll do it again.   If you take a string and twirl it in a circle like the axle of a wheel, one point will remain basically stationery while others will be in motion.   The point on the string moving the furthest around the circle will be the end point.   In one second elapsed time, the point on the string which is at the center of the circle will move zero distance, the center of the string will move some distance which we'll call "1/2 X," and the furthest point on the string will move double that distance which we'll call "X."   The end of the string at the center of the circle moves at speed 0, the middle of the string moves at 1/2X per second and the end point at the outside of the circle mnoves at X per second.   So, in other words, if you compare the string to a shoulder and arm, the shoulder is moving very little, the elbow is moving much faster but about half the speed of the hand which is moving the fastest.   When you windmill a pitch, the ball is released while moving at the speed of the hand.   The shorter one's arms are, the slower the pitch is released.   The longer, the faster.   So if a pitcher does not legthen her arm, if she short-arms it, she is slowing down the pitch.   That is why the length of the circle is so important.

There are two main reasons why pitchers short-arm it.   For one thing, if you windmill your arm in a circle, once with full extension and once with a shorter arm, the full extension feels out of control.   The short arm is an attempt at control.   So, if a girl needs to throw strikes to shut her parents up, to avoid sighing from the sidelines, to prevent the trip to the mound by the rec coach who says, "just throw it over the middle of the plate," she short arms it to control the darn ball.   This must be avoided.

It is better to not pitch at all in games until you can control a long armed pitch than it is to pitch and develop this bad habit.   I remember watching a kid who had little formal training.   She was the right physical and mental specimen to be a pitcher long into her later years as a player.   But she pitched with an incredibly bent arm.   It almost seemed like she was pretending to windmill.   She dropped out of pitching by 14.   Her mechanics were terrible.

I have also seen kids who have been through formal training develop the same habit.   The cause is invariably the desire to control the pitch, to just throw strikes, usually in rec ball or for the middle school team.   Walks are a disaster and kids who walk lots of batters don't get to pitch.   But kids who have bent arms pitch only in the very young years.   After maybe two years, they are washed up.

The other reason kids develop the short-arm problem is because it feels faster to pitch with a bent arm, particularly early on.   If you spin your arm around in a circle while trying to judge in which case it is moving faster, I'd be willing to bet that the shorter arm version feels faster.   Perhaps it even is slightly faster.   But again the geometry tells us that even if the short arm is moving slightly faster, the hand is not until it reaches nearly full extension.   So kids who short-arm it because they feel faster, should be discouraged from doing so.   once they master a longer extension and practice it, that will be faster.

Think of it this way, of the best pitchers you have ever seen, not at the lower levels, how many short-arm it and how many get good extension?   I guarantee you that Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, and some of the other big names get very good extension.   The best kids I have ever watched at 12U through high school all get exceptional extension.   I've never seen a short-armer succeed for very long.

The next subject involves body posture.   The pitcher's back should be straight up, perpendicular to the ground, not hunched over.   If you think of a tripod, the weight is balanced.   If there is too much weight on one of the legs, the thing falls over.   We want our weight to be balanced pretty well at the release point.   If a girl is all hunched over, leaning over her front foot, she cannot get much on a pitch.   Girls do this, again, because it feels as if they can gain control on the pitch.   They do this just to get the darn ball over in the strike zone, in order to "just throw strikes."

When we are sitting in the dugout watching the opposing pitcher throw her 5 warm-ups before a game, the most frequent comment I have ever made or heard others make is "oh, she's a leaner."   We know that this is a girl who is trying very hard to throw strikes, meaning she probably has not progressed all that far with her location.   We are going to tell our hitters to go after anything in the zone because we expect they'll be able to hit it.   Girls develop the leaning mistake because they have been coerced into throwing strikes at the cost of a proper motion.

Another possible reason some girls develop leaning tendencies is in order to get spins on some pitch they are trying to master.   Some pitchers have decent posture on their fastballs but lean when they throw their change or drop.   They are still often doing it to throw strikes.   But sometimes they need to put that extra body language on the ball in order to get it to drop.   In any event, it is a very bad habit.   Not only does it prevent any sort of speed from being put on the ball, it can actually cause you to get less spin and it is a back problem looking for an opportunity to show its head.

Our next foundational piece is the leg drive.   Usually, if you short-arm it or lean, you can't really get that good push off.   But more importantly, some of the biggest problems I have seen with the push-off and leg drive are crow-hopping and leaping problems.   Now, for years, umpires have not been calling crow-hops and leaps but they are starting to.   We watched the same pitcher ply her trade for freshman through junior year pretty successfully.   This year, in one game, she had double digit illegal pitches called against her in just a few innings.   There have been complaints about crow-hoppers for years near me and over the past couple of years, I have seen umps call them against college and even Olympic pitchers. &n bsp; It is slowly getting around to travel ball.

The other day, we were playing a fall ball game and a new pitcher was brought in.   I watched the kid for a batter or two and dsaid to one of the other coaches, "hey watch this girl, she's hopping like crazy."   My comments were meant for just the other coach but the plate ump overheard me and was apparently thinking the same thing.   He called out the other team's coach and discussed it with him.   the coach went out and talked to his pitcher.   This league is essentially an organized way of scrimmaging.   We weren't looking for any illegal pitch calls and the ump was not about to make any.   But he did feel obliged to point the problem out to the coach and have him work with the girl on it.   Umps are getting very sensitive to hopping and leaping.   If you or one of your pitchers are doing it, watch out.   You're gonna get called.

I think girls develop crow hopping early on due to the way in which they are taught to pitch, with certain pause points in their motions until they get the whole thing ready to pull together.   There are also some pitching drills which require one to crow hop and stop.   Unfortunately, some girls never break out of the tendency to hop.   If your kids are pitchers, you really need to understand what a crow hop is and break your kids of it as early as possible.

Another reason kids develop into crow hoppers is because they propel themselves closer to the batter at realease and thereby are able to put pitches past them more easily.   Also, when kids practice their pitching in gymnasiums or at other facilities without being able to push off from a rubber and drag properly, they sometimes develop hops in order to maintain balance that would be easily accomplished on a real field.   Whatever the reason a crow hop develops, it should be corrected before it becomes habit.

Leaping is more difficult.   I'm not sure why it develops.   The difference between a hop and a leap is on the hop, a new pushoff point (a new point of impetus) is found.   With leaping, the pivot foot becomes airborn, it does not drag away.   I have one kid who developed this and I really don't know why.   But what we did to correct it was place a cloth on the ground underneath the pivot foot and make her drag that cloth all the way through to her finished pitch point.   I'm not sure if that will help you fix a leap or not but again, umps are more likely to call leaops now than at anytime in the past couple of years.   They are looking for them.

Finally, one foundation piece I really want to emphasize involves starting with two feet on the rubber.   Little League, PONY, NFHS and perhaps others do not have a requirement that the pitcher start with both feet on the rubber.   But ASA and college definitely do.   Even if you are not intending to pitch in college, it is more than likely that one day you'll play some kind of ASA ball in which both feet is a requirement.   Why not do it at the get-go.   Most pitching
coaches will not emphasize this precisely because high schools, PONY, and LL don't.   Parents of pitchers should force their kids to start with both feet on the rubber just to avoid future problems and because, if addressed early, it really is not all that hard.

To go one step further, there are two minor bad habits which should be addressed when teaching the pitcher to start with both feet on the rubber.   The first of these is to take the sign while on the rubber.   I have seen more pitchers take the sign before stepping on the rubber than I have seen take it while on it.   But this is in the rules.   Pitchers are required to take a sign or pretend to take a sign once they get on the rubber.   Understand that I really don't give a rat's arse where a girl takes the actual sign.   What I want is for a girl to step on the rubber, compose and balance herself before throwing the pitch.   if she takes the sign in back of the rubber, grabs her grip, then steps onto the rubber to pitch, chances are pretty good that she is not going to really be balanced and centered and then she is also running the risk of an ancillary problem of walking into the pitch.

Walking into the pitch happens when a pitcher successively steps onto the rubber and then begins her wind-up without hesitating.   This is definitely not fair to batters and is often called.   Pitchers, by rule, are required to step onto the rubber, take the sign, bring their hands together for about a second, and then pitch.

If a pitcher steps calmly onto the rubber (with both feet in my view), pauses to take a sign or to pretend to take a sign, if she only then brings her hands together (presents the ball) and then, after about a second, delivers the pitch, she will never walk into her pitch and get her rhythm broken by an umpire requiring her to do so.   If she has a hood wrist snap, she'll find more success than if she doesn't.   If she has a straight arm in her windmill, she will pitch better.   If she keeps her back straight up, she'll not only be better, she will also not develop back problems so easily.   If she avoids hopping and leaping, she'll avoid confrontations with umps.   If she pushes off well and practices sound fundamentals, life will be better for years to come.

You need a foundation to build a house.   You need a foundation to build a windmill.   It is easier to build the foundation before the structure.   But if you've already built the house on a faulty foundation, you should still try to fix the foundation.   Otherwise the thing will fall over eventually.

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