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Hare Of The Tortoise Who Nipped Me

by Dave
Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Softball is life.   Girls fastpitch softball is a long-duration sport.   There's plenty of quick twitching and sprinting but, as my wife frequently reminds me, softball is a marathon, not a sprint.

Jeff wrote in for advice about how to bring his daughters up in the sport.   He was asking about how to teach an 8 year-old and her 5 year-old sister the strike zone - how to swing at mostly strikes.   His older daughter is currently in a slowpitch-coach-pitched league but next year she'll enter 10U fastpitch, mostly-kid-pitched ball.   She swings the bat pretty well but his concerns involve the transition from arc ball to flatter, faster pitches.

He is also concerned because his older daughter is not very discerning at the plate.   She "refuses to lay off pitches at all."   As he said, "for the life of me, I cannot remember how I learned the strike zone (when to swing and when to take) when I was a kid.   He thinks perhaps there is a way to teach her the strike zone and he wonders if putting her into a pitching machine will help her to adjust to the faster, flatter pitching.

I told Jeff to relax.   I'm not saying that he is unusually tense right now.   I'm not saying that he should "take a pill and chill."   I am saying that if he thinks he has serious questions now, just wait.   I am saying that he is going to get very tense before much longer!   So relax now or prepare to get ever more tense!

The basic advice I have for anyone who has a child, or several of them, just now beginning to play baseball or softball, is to relax and have fun.   Don't sprint to the point where your kid is some sort of 10U wunderkind.   Sprinting leaves you short of breath and in no condition to think clearly.

If your child is starting into softball, just make sure it is fun, tons of fun.   Practice with her all the time, all the time she wants to practice.   She will eventually come to the point at which she wants to grab you anytime you are available to go out into the yard and play catch.   In the purest sense, that is really what baseball and softball are all about.   They are about a kid wanting to get their parents' attention for a half hour game of catch.

Let me put it this way.   I am almost 50.   My father passed away over 3 decades ago.   Right now I can picture him in his grass-stained, cruddy shorts, with nobby knees, squatting down to catch my pitching in the cul-de-sac.   That didn't happen often.   My dad was always working.   The number of times he caught me is probably something I can count on my fingers without resorting to my toes.   But I can clearly picture it in my mind.

The other day my oldest, my wife and I were at some fields where my youngest's team was practicing.   We brought our equipment and my wife hit grounders to my oldest while I took throws and gave instruction to her at all the infield positions.   This was a very enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.   And my wife and I will eventually recover from our injuries.

My fondest hope is that my daughters will grow up into the kind of parents who will want to spend great quality (as well as quantity) time with their kids.   We will each pass the torch onto the next generation to really care about each other and have fun together.

I also hope my kids grow up to excel at the sport.   But my reasons for wanting that have more to do with their development as people than they do anything to do with scholarships or getting their names in the paper during high school.   I want them to look back at the time they spent in softball, the time they spent with us, and remember that they persevered and got better at a game they loved.

I completely get the line of thinking which Jeff exhibited via his questions.   I just think that if you put fun first, the rest of it will fall into place.   Yes, of course, there will be times when the lessons about hardwork and achieving your goals will be more important than "fun."   But fun will never lose all its importance and before you can love something, you have to like it.

Right now, at 8, the like is more important than anything else.

As far as specific guidance for teaching the strike zone, I think I have some wisdom to share.   First off, Jeff doesn't remember how he learned the strike zone.   Neither do I.   Do you?

My guess is none of us really remembers how we learned the strike zone because it didn't happen in a single moment of revelation.   We learned the strike zone over a long period of experiences.   We swung at a ball over our heads which we could not possibly hit.   We were slightly embarrassed, more so when we heard the crowd laugh or act weird about our swing.   Our parents complained to us.   We failed, we learned, we got better.

To introduce the concept of a strike zone, I suggested to Jeff that he try to get his daughter out to watch some game involving older kids.   Buy her an ice cream.   Sit and watch at least a half hour of some game.   Be by yourselves, together.   Then when some kid takes an outside pitch, poke your daughter.   Tickle her.   Then say, "hey, why didn't that girl swing at that pitch?"   See how she responds.   Most likely, she'll giggle and say, "because it wasn't a strike."   Ask her to explain what she means.   "What do you mean not a strike?   What's a strike?"   Let her do the teaching.

All you are doing with this is having a great time and getting her to think about the existence of a strike zone and what area constitutes it.   Later, like four years later, you can get into all those other concepts like umpires strike zone, the "black," etc.   For now, all we want to do is make sure she knows there is a strike zone and that you don't have to swing at pitches you cannot possibly make contact with.   You need teach nothing more than that.   The rest will come via experiences she has in the game.   If she has questions or seems confused about the exact dimensions of the strike zone at some later date, she'll ask you or you can ask her and then teach her.

But, if instead, you write down the rules of the sport on index (flash) cards and you make her memorize the precise dimensions of the zone and then pass daily quizzes on the subject, if you get out and throw her a bunch of pitches and demand that she, rather than swinging at the ball, yell out "ball" or "strike" for hours on end, each and every day, well, great.   You will produce a very weird kid who thinks softball is approximately the same thing as piano lessons.   That's just what we need in this world.

Jeff noted that he purchased a hit-n-stik which has helped her learn to make consistent contact but worries that he should be using some other tools, devices and drills to improve her hitting.

I would continue to use the hit-n-stik and also get yourself a tee and a net to hit into.   I wouldn't worry very much about the trajectory of the ball, either now or in the future.   If she loves the game and has fun doing it, those things will come on their own.   Just hit the stick, off the tee, and soft toss.

I believe that if you give your daughter a good, short stroke with which to hit, you hold the stick for her, you have her hit off the tee and via short toss, everything else will fall into place.   She'll learn the zone and eventually become a selective hitter, etc.   If she has fun playing ball, she'll want to figure out all these things and then you can teach her what she already has the desire to learn.

If you want to, you certainly can take her to hit the machines.   Heck, that's fun!   Why not do that?   I would start at the slowest speeds available (25-35) and then move up when she seems to have mastered it.   Then, if she fails at the higher speed, go back to the slower one.   We don't need to challenge her at this point.   We need her to have fun swinging the stick.

You don;t become a great game hitter by hitting off machines.   The speed has nothing to do with it.   You become a good hitter by having a good swing, building the strength in your arms, torso, legs, etc., and by having lots of game pitch experience.

It fascinates me when people get worked up either because their town or team doesn't have a pitching machine or when it does, their kid takes loads of batting practice, and then can't hit.   You do not learn to hit purely off a machine.   You have to face real pitching in game situations in order to perfect your hitting.   And before you are ready to do that, you have to take lots of swings - stick, tee, soft toss, etc.   There is nothing magical about a machine just because it throws about the same speed as a pitcher or because it can throw drops, curves, rises.   No matter how good your machine is, it does not have all the quirks that a real pitcher and her windup offer.   There is no way to mimick hitting off a real pitcher even with all the elaborate video equipment some places use.   If there were, major leagyue baseball players would not rehab in the minors, our Olympic team wouldn't have played all those games before the real games began.

So hit off the machine if you want but don't do it to prep your 8 year-old daughter for flatter, faster pitching.   Do it because it is fun.

Too often I think we forget a basic fact.   That fact is human beings are made by evolution or our creator, by birth in any event, to have difficulty vectoring slow moving objects.   If an object were to enter your field of vision, way off in the distance while moving very slowly, initially we would have trouble following it.   If the object were to enter our field of vision while moving quickly, we would have no trouble.   That's because human beings are made for the hunt, to be able to follow the fast stuff we want for dinner.

Think of it this way - if I ball up a paper towel and throw it to you, at first you perceive an object moving towards you at, you presume, a certain speed.   You reach up your hand to catch it.   But the paper towel opens and encounters friction with the air.   It slows down.   You can't catch it.   By contrast, if I whip a ping pong ball at you when you can just barely see it out of the corner of your eye, you turn, perceive it and make the catch cleanly.   The ball started fast and continues fast but you made the catch easily.

In baseball and softball, kids have a ton of trouble hitting those first few years because the ball is so slow.   They actually do better when it starts coming faster.   Even really good hitters have trouble with the slow stuff, with movement or not.

Several years ago there was a study about this.   I think I referenced it at the time.   But the scientists determined that humans had an optimum speed at which they easily vectored moving objects.   25 mph was too slow.   50 was easier.

So to all you parents whose kids are playing 6U, 8U, 10U rec or travel ball, if they aren't hitting very well, it is not time to take drastic measures or quit the sport altogether.   Instead, pick up the fun quotient.   practice but have fun doing it.   Take lots of swings but don't get stressed out.   If a kid has lots of fun swinging at balls, she'll figure it out.   She'll learn the zone because she wants something to hit, because she knows she can't succeed swinging at balls out of the zone, and because she doesn't want to end her at-bats with called strike threes.

I've said this many times before and I'll say it many times more in the future.   The softball scrap heaps are full of kids who were fantastic at 10 but who didn't get it, didn't have fun at the game.   Their parents were sure they would be the next Jennie Finch because they were just so gifted naturally and because they could really hit the ball at 8, 9, 10.   But the kid didn't like the game and learn to love it enough to want to go out there and face the 60 mph pitchers.   Just keep on keeping on.   Just have fun and everything else will fall into place.

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Permanent Link:  Hare Of The Tortoise Who Nipped Me


Numbers Game

by Dave
Friday, June 20, 2008

It is going to come as a shock to you but baseball and softball are not really strict numbers games.   I guess it is more accurate to say that they are not always strict numbers games.   Certainly from a fan or fantasy league perspective, numbers are important.   And sometimes players and coaches have to "play the percentages."   But, for the most part numbers are not what rules decision making in this game.

I was very amused once when someone tried to tell me, "In softball, a good batting average is .500 and up.   It isn't like baseball where .300 is considered a good batting average."   What was most amusing to me is the fellow telling me this was comparing up high school fastpitch softball batting averages with those of MLB baseball.   It never occurred to him that batting averages were indeed higher in youth, high school, and even college baseball than they were up in the big leagues of baseball.   Also, in college softball, batting averages are quite a bit lower than they are in high school.

In our local high schools, once upon a time there was a girl who hit .700 for the season.   I watched her play a couple games against some of the better teams and her results were not quite as good.   She had an outstanding swing, made good contact against even the better pitchers, but I would say that in top level competition, she was about a .333 hitter.   It is relatively easy to impeach a player's high school stats because these are often reported to newspapers by coaches who really do not take this function particularly seriously.   often, the kid or parent who keeps the book doesn't really understand how scoring works or how errors should be assigned.   They are well meaning but they just don't know.

For example, we see that in high level NCAA play, balls that are struck back to pitchers who apparently boot the play generally do not result in the assignment of an error because it is rather difficult to field a ball hit in the 90s when you are just 37 feet from the contact point.   Usually, sharply hit balls are given hits when the pitcher fails to make a play.   But most people do not appreciate that.

Secondly, I have heard more misconceptions about when to assign a stolen base, a passed ball, a wildpitch, etc. than I have heard folks bragging about their daughter's .450 batting average.   For example, I have seen "WP" written in books on pitches which hit the dirt directly in back of the point of homeplate and which bounced true.   I won't argue the point but to me that's not a wildpitch.   Similarly, I have seen "PB" written into books on curveballs which bounce in the dirt a foot in front of the plate and fly past the catcher a full two feet outside of their wingspan.   I have seen books which reflect a stolen base for the runner from first on double steals on which the lead runner was thrown out at third.   I don;t wish to debate particular plays but my point is, the books do not always accurately reflect what has transpired.

Even if books are perfectly kept, high schoolers sporting those .700 BAs do not usually run off to college and repeat their monumental successes at the next level.   In Div I college softball, girls who hit .500 and up in high school generally don't come close to that.   A .500 batting average is quite rare in Div I play.   Anything above .400 is rather stupendous.   .300 is often a quite good BA.

On a related topic, I am often amused by youth softball managers and parents who try to use the numbers to make or change decisions with respect to the lineup.   One manager once told me that so and so has a really good on-base percentage so we're going to bat her first this (elimination) game.   She had been in the 7th-9th spot all season, had maybe two basehits in 40 games, and proceeded to strike out every time up from the first spot in that important game.   During the year, she had walked quite a bit, particularly against weak teams.   She had walked a lot mostly because, after the first couple of games, she didn't hit and had gone up there trying to get walked.   I worked to make her more aggressive at the plate, but she refused and continued to go up looking to walk.   Against better teams and pitchers, she often struck out looking.   Still, those 4 walk games against weak opponents had her on-base percentage pretty high and the "by-the-numbers" folks were convinced that this mattered.   The kid she supplanted at the top of the order, by the way, went 2 for 3 that game.   But because she was deep in the order where some of our weaker hitters were and she was left on base every time.

When I try to make out a line-up, I have my own philosophy and I don't want to really get into that.   Some coaches try to spread out the real hitters.   Some coaches use a traditional baseball approach.   But whatever way you try to craft a line-up, the way you evaluate hitters should not be based on the numbers.   Lots of kids get most of their stats compiled in games against weak pitchers and the numbers look really good.   But when they face better pitchers, their numbers drop off precipitously.   Some girls don't get a lot of hits when the team is up 8-0 after two innings.   Yet they are the only ones who hit or otherwise get on base in the later rounds of the tourneys.   A coach has to use more feel than that.

Once upon a tryout season, a father came to me to tell me that his daughter had achieved a .300 BA and .450 OBA during the previous season.   The idea was I should take her and probably bat her in one of the top 4 spots.   But her swing was terrible and she went after a lot of bad pitches when the stress was high.   I can judge a kid's potential and swing for myself.   I don't need to look at her stats.   I'm pretty sure other youth coaches, not to mention HS, college and bigger time coaches, feel the same way.

A very long time ago, I played on a baseball team which produced a kid who had a decent major league career.   He had a great swing and was an exceptional defensive player.   When all was said and done with our summer travel league, I had a better batting average, more RBIs, etc. than this fellow.   I know this because the manager compiled stats at the end of the year and went over them with us.   You know, that other fellow batted fourth for us in every game while I batted 5th or 6th.   There was never any thought of moving him off the clean-up spot.   No coach ever contemplated it.   I never contemplated it.   Nobody in their right mind would have even considered it.   It was a far superior hitter than I.   Stats be damned.   Anyone, especially the MLB scouts, could see he had something and I didn't.

So the moral of this part of the story is, please don't tell me about, or manage your team, exclusively by, compiling the stats in your scorebook and basing your line-up by your hitters' batting averages or other numbers.

I've gone astray from what I originally wanted to do with this piece.   Where I wanted to take this is in the direction of some numbers which are actually somewhat important.   The numbers which are actually important, though not controlling in the decision making process are those numbers which college coaches use, at least in part, in their evaluations of players.   We are at a time of the year during which players go to these NFCA recruitment camps to show their stuff and some of the numbers which are recorded there can have an impact.

Also, recently, I have received a number of e-mails inquiring about some numbers.   Folks want to get some idea of where their daughters stand with respect to other players around the country and, in particular, the "typical college player."   I'm afraid I can't do anything for you there.   I am unaware of any statistical table which shows pitch speed, catcher pop times, infielder/outfielder throwing and running speed, or anything like that for the country as a whiole at a particular age group or at the high school or NCAA levels.   The best I can offer is a proxy, an easily available link to some numbers recorded at an NFCA recruiting camp.

Recently, the NFCA administered recruitment Pennsbury camp in Yardley, PA took place with a couple hundred college scholarship hopefuls and over one hundred college coaches from all levels in attendance.   The campers were not necessarily the top prospects within these United States but there were some pretty good players there.   The 2008 camp results can be viewed online.   And now for my take on these numbers.

First of all, keep in mind that the players who performed these tests are not all juniors and seniors in high school who are headed to play in college.   There is an application process by which kids are admitted into the camp.   Many seniors who will play ball in college have already performed at these camps.   They likely won't participate in the testing if they already know where they are headed.   Even many recent juniors are already armed with pens, waiting for July 1, when they can sign NLIs or otherwise formally commit to schools.   I can't seem to locate the list of participants at this camp but, in years past, I have seen a good number of middle schoolers, freshman, etc.

Secondly, Pennsbury represents one area of the country.   There are five NFCA administered camps in various corners of the country, of which Pennsbury is but one.   There are also numerous "NFCA endorsed camps."   I cannot speak to the relative talent levels at the various camps.   What I can tell you is that conspicuously absent from this camp were any representatives from the PAC 10, Big 10, Big 12, SEC, etc.   And while there certainly were some reasonably competitive college programs in all divisions there, even many Big East schools were not in attendance.   In short, I'm pretty sure that the best kids across the nation as a whole are not reflected in the test results.

The first thing which interests me is the pitching results.   Of just less than 140 girls who had a couple fastballs recorded, the average speed was about 56 mph.   The fastest speed recorded was 63 and the slowest (on a fastball) was upper 40s.   I don't know about you but upper 40s is shocking to me.   I wonder why someone throwing in the 40s would participate in such a camp regardless of what else they might bring to the table.

Of greater interest to me was the disparity between some of the fastballs and other pitches.   One girl threw a 60 mph fastball and a 38 mph change-up.   Another hit 63 on her fastball and 65 on her curve.   While a 63 fastball might not garner a kid a ton of attention in and of itself - not all that many true fastballs thrown at the college level - a good breaking curve at 65 should.   You cannot judge a change-up purely by its speed or lack thereof since all change-ups are not equal.   But a 22 mph gap between fastball and change is at least noteworthy.

What strikes me in all this is loads of people like to use 60 mph as the measuring rod for their pitchers.   I have heard a number of claims that this or that pitcher throws 60.   My 13 year old daughter's coach has frequently said something to me along the lines of "how fast do you think she throws, I'm guessing 60."   I tell him that I cannot judge pitch speed with my rather poor eyes but I do believe she's mid 50s, maybe 57 on occasion."   He usually gets upset with me but I know what I know and 60 is somewhat rare, particularly with 14U players.   Apparently, these claims by others are just not valid.

Understand that I'm not dissing everybody on pitcher's speeds.   I'm just suggesting that when we stand there along the sidelines and claim this kid throws 60 or whatever, we might be wrong.   Also pitch speed is not the only evaluation tool that is relevant to evaluating pitchers.   Let's face it, even if the fastball were the only pitch available, some girls might throw a flat 60 in the middle of the plate or not be able to hit corners.   Other girls might throw a 58 with sharp break due to good wrist snap, be able to hit corners at will, and have a very crafty approach to pitching in games.   Which would you start in your most important game of the year?

The pitching number which intrigues me most on the chart is the rotations per second.   Obviously, break on whatever plane is to a high degree controlled by spin.   There are other factors but spin is undeniably important.   I have no way to evaluate these numbers because this is the first time I have seen them.   But I am intrigued by these.   I need to get a gun which can give me that.   That's got to be my next toy!

Still, you can't evaluate a pitcher simply by measuring her spins.   Lots of girls get over-adrenlaized and then overthrow their movement pitches in big games.   And aside from not getting the right amount of break, some girls are just so crafty with their curves, drops, rises, and screws, that the pure amount of spin or break is not nearly enough to judge them.   The best HS pitcher I have observed is a girl who throws a nasty curve.   The stuff itself is nasty but what is more nasty than her stuff is the way she uses it.   She throws a drop curve on the outside corner and batter's usually sit and watch it only to go down 0-1.   Her next pitch is usually 6 inches off the corner, basically unhittable.   Then she's typically up 0-2.   the next one might be further off the plate, a backdoor version, or possibly some other pitch in a location which causes the batter to go fishing.   She never gets batters out purely via her speed or the amount of rotation on her pitches.   She gets batters out by pitching - with her mind as much as her body.

Enough about pitchers.   Let's move on to catchers.

The metric most often used to evaluate catchers is called "pop time" which is basically the time between pops - the pop of the catcher's mitt and that of the infielder covering second.   Another somewhat though less important measure is overhand throwing speed.   At Pennsbury, overhand throwing averaged around 56 and pop times averaged just above 2.   I have heard some coaches claim that the cutoff for pop times is about 2 seconds.   This is so because average runners get to second in about 2.7 to 3.0 seconds, pitches take about a half second to reach the first pop, and if you're going to throw out a reasonable percentage of runners, anything over 2 seconds isn't going to get the job done even with an accurate throw.

The fastest throwing speeds were around 60 - 64 and most of these girls, though not all, had sub-2 pop times.   It is interesting to note that several catchers who were in the top 10 or so of pop times had throwing speeds beneath 60.   Also noteworthy is the fact that several girls with plus throwing speed had pop times above 2 and were in the bottom half of all participants in the record.   That goes to show you that throwing speed is not everything when it comes to evaluating catchers.

To be fair, pop times and throwing speed, even when combined are not sufficient for evaluation.   There are girls who once they are in games, throw a lot less hard or have trouble matching a dry pop time.   There are also girls who thrive so much on real competition that when they are in game situations, their pop times and throwing speed can go up.   Let's face it, some people are gamers and some are not.   And that's why, despite the availability of numbers, coaches still want to see kids in games.

As a final view of pure numbers, several times over the past year parents have written to me inquiring about running speed.   What I usually tell them is it depends on position and age / physical maturity, and good times are usually something like below 3 seconds to first.   Unlike in years past, I believe, the Pennsbury results do not show running speed to first by position.   One speed measurement that was published was home to home and these figures weren't published for all positions.   The next best number to home to first was the SPARQ 20 yard dash.

SPARQ stands for Speed, Power, Agility, Reaction and Quickness.   It is supposed to be a measure of overall athleticism.   I know very little about it and so I won't bother to get into it.   If you want to do some research, here is this venture's website: SPARQTraining.   I'm not sure how they measure the 20 yard dash but it stands to reason that this should be a close approximation to a run to first.   If anything, I would expect the times to be somewhat faster than times to first since, from what little I know, you should get a better start when doing a sprint.   Yet, I saw no sub 3 times in this record.   And that surprised me.

My kids do some speed/agility stuff, though not officially SPARQ.   I'd say one of my kids runs at an above average speed and the other is about average.   My 11 year old regularly runs a 3 or just below 3 20 yard dash.   She's hit 2.9.   My older kid sometimes has trouble getting below 3.1 but on rare occasions she has just barely broken 3.   Maybe I better go check the stopwatch of the guy timing them.   Maybe there is something flawed about the way they have been measured.

Still, I have always understood that times to first of good runners generally run in the 2.7 to 2.9 range.   I'm a little shocked that of all these girls at Pennsbury, some of whom are very good athletes, nobody broke 3.   I've seen some of the girls run before and they are quite fast.   I cannot explain these numbers but maybe it has something to do with the way SPARQ testing is performed.

Of all the relevant numbers used to measure softball players, I believe running speed might be the best one we use.   Batting average depends on who batters are facing, who is keeping the book and other things.   A girl can pitch 70 mph but if she throws it flat and down the middle, she isn't going to make a big splash on the pitching scene.   A pitcher can really spin the ball when she wants to but she has to find the right speed to throw each breaking pitch, has to have command, and needs some craftiness if she is going to get people out.   Catchers can throw very hard but if they are slow to get the ball out of their gloves, if they do not rise to the adrenaline rush of real base stealers running, they are not going to get people out and coaches are not going to be as interested in them.   Fast girls can and often are taught how to run bases.   yes there is a discernible skill with respect to baserunning.   But more and more we are seeing at the college level a type of kid who might be described as a designated runner.   She might play soccer, basketball or run track.   But she is undeniably quick and college softball coaches seem to feel that they can take these girls and make them pinchrunners.

I suppose people are always interested in some objective measure with which to compare themselves or their kids against others.   We throw numbers around pretty loosely.   How many pitchers in your corner of the world supposedly throw 60?   How many .500 batting averages are bragged about?   How many people claim that their kid runs sub 3 home to first, sub 13 home to home?   How many people tell you that their daughter throws the ball overhand at about 65-70 mph?   How many really good softball players are there?   We need numbers to describe things but we should never become slaves to them.

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Breaking Views

by Dave
Monday, May 19, 2008

I have to admit that when the NFCA held their caucus (no not for the US presidential nomination) and decided to alter the strike zone a bit for NCAA games, I never heard anything nor paid much attention.   But anyone who aspires to the next level ought to give this a good long think.   And the powers that be in high school and youth fastpitch softball also should take this into consideration as we move forward.

First of all, the NCAA strike zone is now from the top of the front knee to the bottom of the sternum when the batter takes up her natural stance.   Take a look at the chart at the bottom of this web page: NCAA Softball Rules Changes for 2008 for a visual aid.   At first glance, this doesn't seem to be much of a big difference.   Looking at the picture, it seems to be maybe two inches.   But, in practice, this is a huge difference.

The reasons I feel this is a huge difference is because it moves the umpires focal point to anything at his eyes down to the knees to a spot below his normal eye level.   Human beings, being fallible, will have a tendency to frame this new strike zone a bit lower than it might have been, that is, the actual strike zone in practice will be lower than the bottom of the sternum.   As it was, umps hade a tendency to call strikes above where it was supposed to be.   They didn't stop at the arm pits of a batter taking up her natural stance.   They called anything near the shoulder a strike.   So, I suspect the actual strike zone has shifted downwards more than the 2-4 inches which should result from moving it from the arm pits to the sternum.

I expect many of you watched some of the NCAA Regional action this past weekend.   We recorded hours and hours of these games since we were at tournaments and then watched them a little too late into the night.   While watching these games and many others in the weeks previous, several effects of the strike zone change struck me.

I would like to see a statistical analysis comparing run production 2008 vs. 2007 for the entire college game.   I don't have that nor the resources to put together a proxy.   But I'll go out on a limb and say that I believe run production was up this year.   I may be wrong but that's my perception.   I can't say that more homeruns were hit but the scores I saw were definitely bigger than in year's past.   Before I ever heard anything about the strike zone change, I felt run production was up.   I was actually a little shocked at the amount of hitting and run scoring there was at the college games I attended.   Again, I have no statistics to back up my claim but those are my perceptions.

I believe this was the objective of the rule change.   In softball as in baseball, folks have been eroding any advantage pitchers have in order to slowly change the game from one dominated by pitchers to one dominated by the offense.   The same way we have watched a steady, though deliberate, gradual changing of the rules of the game to make more "hitter friendly."   The pitchers plate was moved back to 43 feet from 40 in college and higher level youth and international play.   We have begun to see a greater focus on the legality of the pitch including the amount of time a pitcher can stand there while a batter gets tighter and tighter, and to a lesser extent, pitchers remaining legal with their feet and hands.

(I still say the foot work rules are not enforced in a meaningful way but they are sometimes enforced as they were against Finch in the B-4-Beijing tour and several college pitchers at various times.   My thinking is that since the same infractions were occurring over and over again yet the illegal pitch called no more than 2-6 times per game, the rule isn't being enforced in a meaningful way.   Yet, if some umpire decided to really make an issue out of it, that would really kill a game.   You'd have perhaps some of the greatest pitchers to ever have played the game breaking down in tears in the circle while runs were pushed across the plate by multiple, consecutive illegal pitch calls! &nbasp; We want hitting to be more important in the game but we don't want to go through transitional experiences like that to get us there.)

The objectives of ruling bodies has clearly been to inject more offense into the game.   Nobody really makes any bones about it.   There are still too many 1-0 games well into extra innings where the winning run scores primarily because of the ITB plus a misplayed ball or two in the field.   We set our game length limits to 7 innings because we feel that is how long a game should be.   The ITB is used because ... well ... this thing has to end sometime.   I am one of those purists who loves a well pitched and played 1-0 game but even I have to admit that when only a handful of balls are put into play, I sometimes find myself confused, waking up in a beach chair with a terrible sunburn and bug bites at a field after everyone has long gone home.   In other words, even I get bored when 21 outs are recorded, 17 of them by the K, or when the game is decided on an error in the 19th inning by some girl who really needs to get to a doctor's appointment and is getting nervous that she'll miss it if this blasted game doesn't end.

So I think the objective of shrinking the strike zone has to be about getting more offense into the game.   Rule makers, in effect, wanted to neutralize the most dominant pitch, the rise ball.

I believe over the past several years (perhaps longer than that), it became clear that the riseball was the "Cadillac" of all pitches.   Pitching coaches worked hard to teach girls to throw it at younger and younger ages.   Even when they didn't specifically teach a particular girl an actual riseball, they were focused on skills which would eventually lead up to it.

On the whole, the most effective pitchers I observed (particularly in HS and college) all shared one thing in common, an effective riseball.   I can't count the number of times I saw pitchers who relied upon the rise.   There was one well known college pitcher who during her freshman year seemed to throw 60-80% rises with tremendous success.   There were some extremely effective drop ball pitchers too (including obviously Texas' Osterman and Alabama's Stephanie VanBrakle) but I believe the vast majority of effective college pitchers relied upon a good riseball.   Certainly many of the top strike-out pitchers like Abbott were riseball throwers.   Osterman's success with breaking stuff cannot be disputed but the largest percentage of dominant strike-out pitchers used the rise.

You can argue that a riseball can be brought even with or under the sternum but this is not its most effective location.   The most effective location is just above the armpits (the old upper limit of the strike zone).   It gets into the eyes of the hitter and, at first, looks like a meatball that she is going to drive out of the park.   Then as the pitch gets into the no-see zone (the last .15 seconds of its trip), it drifts up and out and there is no way to keep your hands on top of it.   It is a swing and miss pitch except on those rare occasions you can make contact with it and pop it up to the infield.

Yes, an effective riseball pitcher can throw it in the zone as well as out but if the thing is thrown too low, it truly can become a meatball and end up on the wrong side of the outfield fence.   And the riseball thrown under the armpits was always a set-up pitch, a set-up for the one thrown just above the zone.   You brought a rise into the zone say on 3-0 and then threw one above it on 3-1, then maybe again on 3-2 after the batter swung and missed on 3-1.   It also complemented an effective screwball since batters might misread the rotation and react to the screw only to swing and miss as it rose up and tied up their hands.

So the principal advantage of the rise has historically been as a swing and miss, just out of the zone pitch.   And moving the strike zone downwards is a way to neutralize that particular pitch.   One of the observations which surprised me while watching this year's NCAA Div I Regionals was the transformation of Jelly Selden from a riseball pitcher into a dropball one.   Jelly can certainly still throw the rise but she doesn't necessarily rely upon it.   She throws drops in and out, mixes in other pitches including the rise and she gets girls out with the breaking stuff.   I believe we will see more of that from all college pitchers in the future.

I totally get that this change will not completely erradicate the riseball from the game.   You can get a girl to swing at a high one regardless of where the strike zone is.   I assume we will continue to see efective rises thrown on say 0-1, 0-2, 1-2 counts.   But I don't expect to see its use be as dominant as it has been in the past.   That is because any good batting coach, who has many empirical observations in which the rise is called a ball, will eventually begin working with his or her hitters to lay off the pitch, even at the risk of being punched out by umps with an over-extended zone.   Eventually college hitters will lay off the rise the way many do the low thrown change-up.

This development has many far-reaching implications for high school and youth-play girls who aspire to play at the next level.   For one thing, pitchers are going to need to work the low, breaking stuff more.   It is no longer going to be in a pitcher's best interests to go through youth with a killer fastball and change while having other pitches but not having relative command of them, then as a young high schooler, develop a rise.

Pitchers who want to get the attention of college coaches are going to have to have good breaking stuff and laterally moving pitches.   The softball strike zone is still fairly broad and pretty low.   Who knows, those may be the next things to go?   But for now, merely grazing the sides and bottom of the zone have become the most effective pitches.   And a pitcher is more likely to succeed by "expanding" the zone laterally rather than trying to push it up, at least in the college game.   Sure there will be fewer Ks as badly hit balls will be the sign of a pitcher who is on.   And as the riseball is made more and more ineffective by the confluence of umps not giving the pitch and batters being trained to lay off it, the pitchers who will dominate the game going forwards will be throwing breaking stuff.

As a result of this development which I think will take place over the coming years, batters will, of course, have to adjust to the gradual change in the pitching they see.   I don't believe I will get an argument that some girls are better low ball hitters than others just as some are better high ball hitters.   You can work to change your swing but some girls physical make-up puts them in a better position to hit lower balls than others.   The girls whose bodies make them better high ball hitters will have to adjust.   And the world of hitting instructors will also make the adjustment.   As another aside, I believe it is just possible that we'll see further inroads made by those who teach more of what is referred to as "rotational hitting" mechanics in which the bat head is often held below the hands - something you can't do when facing a riseball pitcher.   But I'm getting way ahead of myself.   I don't want to expand the restriction of the upper strike zone quite that far.

The bottom line in all this is what are high school aged players going to do about it?   I expect pitchers will work the breaking stuff more and hitters will change their swings to adapt but the major consideration which I think must be looked at is the way high school and youth umps call the game.   We conduct neither youth tournaments nor high school games in order to provide talent to the colleges.   The largest percentage of age group and high school players will never set foot onto a college diamond.   We don't need to alter their game in order to prepare the few college prospects to play at the next level.   Yet, the history of all games begs the question of why we would want the thing played differently below 18 than it is above.   In baseball, the game is essentially the game, in terms of rules and the way it is played, from say 14 years old onwards.   The same is true of most, if not all, other sports.   Why should we have different rules between HS and college just for girls softball?

While we don't want to change the game only so the colleges have a small percentage of kids prepared to play, there is no reason to penalize the kids who will move on in order to keep the HS and youth games stagnant.   If the lowered strike zone is good enough for the college game, it should be good enough for every level of competition from say 14U up.   And if the rule changes could make for more offensive production in games at these age levels, why not adopt them?   What are the affirmative reasons to make the game different for these slightly younger age categories?

Having said this, I just realized that perhaps the HS strike zone has already changed but I did not bother to check that.   And even if it did, it isn't being enforced properly, at least not in my state.   I've been to dozens and dozens of high school games already this year with hopes of seeing maybe another dozen in the coming weeks.   HS umps are definitely still giving the high rise continued importance in that game.   Several times I have had to wonder if the strike zone ended at the chin, nose, eyes, or top of the helmet of the batter!   I have had the opportunity to observe a few senior pitchers who have already signed NLIs as well as many juniors who may this July and several underclassmen who have either already gotten the attention of college coaches or may this summer.   Most of these kids, not all, at least in their high school personas are riseball pitchers.

I cannot say with any certainty that high or low ball hitters have been the focus of college coaches but I have to wonder if this might be a consideration going forwards.   If they start looking to recruit dropball and sideways movement pitchers, you really have to wonder if simultaneously they'll be looking to pick up low ball hitters.

Well, I hope this piece provides you food for thought.   Obviously, there is, as always, a fair amount of my own personal opinion here.   I have to say that I'm a little late to the picnic.   This rule change has been out there the whole college season.   I didn't know about it until recently.   I thought I saw more offensive production in colleges this year but I really didn't know why.   I also thought I saw fewer riseballs being thrown and, again, wasn't sure why.   Maybe I'm just making a mountain out of a mole hill but I suspect my observations are right.   I don't mind if you disagree with me and as always, if you do disagree, please feel free to write.   The only thing I will warn you about is, if you write, I just may publish your opinion!

Scott from Texas writes in to offer his opinion:


Baseball moved from pitching advantage to hitting advantage because scoring meant more fans.   I think in general that has proven true.   As a dad like yourself with two pretty decent softball girls, I have fallen in love with the game and wish it had more of a fan base.   So I would love to see the strikezone get a bit smaller and generate some more scoring.   We also have a hard time keeping girls interested in the game, because unless you are the pitcher or the catcher, not a lot of action.   Hitting is the funnest part of the game and it would go a long way to keep girls playing this sport instead of soccer or basketball.

I say this as a pitcher's dad as well (and travel ball coach).   My daughter isn't old enough yet to pitch the rise ball - she is just 12. However, we are ahead of the curve on the drop and curve and screwball - most of her peer pitchers are fastball/change up pitchers.   I love that she can spin the ball and I think it makes her game a ton of fun, trying to outwit her batting opponent.   I get really bored with pure power - I'm more of a Greg Maddux fan.   Most of the pitching coaches I've interacted with are teaching power pitching and I also believe it leads to injuries that are unnecessary, particularly for the age that we are in.

So all in all, I believe the change would be good for this game.   I am probably reaching a bit, but it could also be a formula that re-instates it as an Olympic sport.   Right now, what chance does the rest of the world have against the US and Japan with the pitching as dominant as it is?

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Opposite Field Dribblers

by Dave
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Terry writes in to ask:

"I help a couple of girls teams (14U and 18U).   We have a very new travel and high school program.   We are starting to get some athletes and now more than ever we need to start playing the game better and seeing signs of drastic improvement.   Our school has 5 different sports to choose from during the time we play and there aren't alot of girls to go around.   I know for a fact we have lost a couple of the better players because the program is new and losing.   In the second year our defense really improved with better players and a more solid pitcher.   But we still only won a few games.   Our problem is hitting.   Many of the girls still have rec swing problems and they are hard to solve.   And part of the problem is they don't/can't/won't put in the 100 balls off the tee to succeed.   Instead of teaching them to hit the right way, I feel like I almost have to break down each kid and work with what they do best.   I really want to get these girls in a spot where they can at least enjoy some success.   A couple of things that I want to run by someone with some knowledge.   One thing these girls lack is strength.   I'm trying to work on bat speed while keeping everything still.   Is there lack of strength as big an issue as I think it is?   Some of them look as if the ball is almost stopping the bat as they make contact, causing opposite field dribblers.   Also I've been tempted to try and teach a couple of these girls the Charlie Lau method of hitting but I thought that might me too extreme of a weight shift.   My biggest reason for thinking this was to get rid of the typical rec league knee bend because the pitch is coming in so slow.   I'm a baseball guy and I know this is a different game just for the fact of the distance/speed.   What suggestions would you give?"

Terry, your question is a complicated, multi-part one.   As I try to answer it, I'm going to break it down into several parts and try to address each one in order.

1) Is lack of strength a big issue in girls softball and what do I do about it?   Are baseball and softball swings really different as a result of this or something else?

I do not believe lack of strength is an issue which is broadly spread throughout the girls fastpitch softball world.   There are plenty of strong girls out there who do hit with authority.   There are certainly plenty who do not but the issue is really an individual one rather than gender specific.   Any girl can easily gain sufficient strength to swing a 22 - 24 oz. stick hard enough to propel a 6.8 oz. object.

It does not take a steroid-propelled, gym rat, Adonis to swing a bat.   It takes some strength to do it but the greatest baseball and softball players to ever take the field were not the strongest men and women on Earth.   If the key to diamond sports success were strength, we would see bigger fellows (300+ pounders) playing baseball than we see playing football since the money is better and careers longer.   That's just not the case.

I recall an article, I think in the New York Times, which discussed a coach going over to Russia to train a men's baseball team.   The coach noted that his athletes were all 6 foot 3 and chiseled like statues.   They were all exceedingly athletic, fast, strong, agile, etc.   He proceeded to hit a few grounders and was shocked when these perfect specimens picked up the ball and "threw like girls."   My apologies for the "threw like girls" comment.   Obviously this coach never saw girls throw like I have.

The point of the story is no matter how strong and well trained an athlete is, he or she still cannot perform the mechanical skills necessary to play diamond sports unless he or she has been trained to do so.   I believe the same principles we talk about in throwing a ball apply to hitting since both are acquired skills.   Technique trumps everything else in this sport.   Appropriate strength is necessary in all sports but technique is more important.

We recently had a hitting practice with a 12U team.   The smallest girl on that team is tiny, you'd almost say puny.   She's a youngish 11.   I'm guessing but I think she is maybe four and a half feet tall and weighs 60-80 pounds.   I have trouble guessing kids' weights but suffice it to say she is a peanut.   She does, however, swing the bat pretty well.   One of the coaches was throwing her soft toss and he got a little too far in front of her.   Then he mistakenly tossed the ball a little too far outside and this girl drove it opposite field ... right into his forehead, just above the eye.   The coach went down and there was blood everywhere.   Three stitches later, he seems to be coming around from the incident, although I suspect he's a bit embarrassed.   He shouldn't be since that girl probably hit the ball near to 80-90 miles per hour.   I consider him lucky to have not suffered a concussion or fractured skull.

The girl who drilled the coach is not particularly strong.   She's a good athlete but she is pre-pubescent, does no weight training or other strength exercise, and is not in any way susceptible to being called a "bruiser."   She is, however, able to swing the bat hard by using pretty good technique and propelling her body's inertia into the ball the right way.

The best hitters have A) technique, B) tremendous hand-eye coordination (enhanced by experience), C) a good bat and D) moderate strength.   We can address the first three at a different time since your question right now deals with the strength issue.

I suppose many would argue that strength is a key issue and that is why we have seen the development of "rotational" hitting mechanics in our sport.   The discussion which most gets on my nerves occurs when someone talks about how softball hitting is different than baseball and the difference is "all the best softball girls use rotational hitting mechanics."   If I had a nickel for every time I've heard that one!   Guess what?   Rotational hitting is a baseball concept.   It is traceable to Ted Williams.   It didn't develop in softball.   It cannot even remotely be called a "softball swing."

The fact is, if we are talking, in both baseball and softball, about swinging a stick at an object hurled in our direction, it amounts to fundamentally the same thing.   The acts of hitting in both sports are so similar that it defies reason to claim that the fundamental mechanic in one sport is completely different than it is in the other.   Yes, girls and boys have different physical make-ups.   Yes the softball arrives in the hitting zone with greater force than does the baseball, despite the slower pitch speed, thanks to the greater weight of the ball.   Yes, the spins are different, the size of the object to be struck is different.   The games are generally quite a bit different.   Yet the mechanics of propelling a lever with as great a force as possible just cannot be fundamentally different in the two sports.   99% of the action is identical.   So the fundamental mechanics must be identical.

The power with which the ball is struck in both sports is dependent upon bat speed and intertia of the lever machine at contact point.   You want to hit the ball hard, so swing the lever hard and use your body to form a heavy, strong machine.   In order to do that, you've got to have some strength in the key muscles, swing properly in a mechanical sense, and use your hips, back, legs and arms properly.

2) How do I build strength so the girls can drive the ball?

The pathway to strength is, obviously, exercise.   The muscles necessary to hit the ball are many and varied.   All need work.   Big biceps do not determine whether a girl can hit with power or not.   Core muscles (abdomen, etc.) and legs are probably the most important groups.   Any sort of exercise which strengthens the quadriceps, stomach and back muscles is going to help you hit.   All those speed and agility exercises you think you are doing exclusively for fielding and base-running purposes actually do matter for hitting as well.

There is an exercise we do which is ostensibly for fielding which I'll discuss here.   You place 4 cones in a square ten feet apart from each other.   Two girls, each holding a ball, stand on one side of the square, each next to a cone.   A third girl stands on the other side of the square and gets in a fielding ready position.   One girl rolls a ball to the cone opposite the fielder and the fielder shuffles across, feet moving heel to heel.   She fields the grounder, rolls the ball back to the thrower and then shuffles back to the other side where the other girl has rolled the ball to the other cone.   She continues performing this drill, back and forth, until a timer calls it "over," say after 30 seconds.   Then the girls switch positions and the fielder becomes one of the rollers.   We rotate the drill so that each kid gets at least 2 chances as a fielder.   If you've got the time, rotate more but you won't get through as many of these as you might think.

To make this drill fun, we turn it into a contest.   The teams of three compete to see which individuals and which groups can get the most number of fielding reps in each 30 second interval.   At the end of each turn, we ask how many and the fielder is required to keep count.   We have a contest to see which girl can field the most balls in 30 seconds and which team can get the most in a full rotation.

This exercise looks a lot easier than it is.   30 seconds generally has the fielder pretty tired.   Two rotations have the girls all red in the face, huffing and puffing.   Every once in a while I get carried away since I don't have to perform the drill often and do not have appreciation for how intense it is.   The result is the girls legs are wobbly and they're extremely tired.   One time we had a number of girls at practice which was not divisible by three.   I stood in as the third person, a roller, with one group.   When we got to the end of the drill, we asked each team to choose a member for one last try to see which group could get the highest number.   My team chose, you guessed it, me.   I wasn't going to lose to a bunch of girls!   So I pushed my body as hard as I could and won that little competition.   I was shocked how winded I was and how badly my quads burned for a good half an hour afterwards.   I was pretty useless for the duration of practice!

This exercise is great for speed and agility but more importantly, it helps build the quadriceps muscles while also strengthening one's core.   This drill along with the usual litany of speed agility stuff will make the legs, back and stomach stronger in terms of explosive force which is what we're after when we're at the plate.   Any other exercises you can come up with that build explosive strength in these muscles are good for hitting assuming you've also got good technique and the other important muscles are strong too.

In terms of the arms, more important than the biceps are the muscles in the back of the arm and in the wrists.   The triceps, back of the arm, can be worked many ways including push-ups or taking swings.   Similarly the forearm and wrist muscles also improve by doing these exercises.   The legs and core muscles are also strengthened by swings - dry, at the tee or whatever way you choose.   The trick when you take swings is to pay attention to mechanics - take proper swings.   Don't just swing the bat perfunctorily to get through 100 swings.

The forearms and wrists can also be strengthened by doing wrist curls and other exercises.   A device which aids hitters is the Marcy Wedge which isolates the wrist muscles in a curl exercise.   It costs about 40 bucks and lasts a long time.   We own one and I recommend getting one if you want to improve your hitting strength.   In lieu of the Wedge or in addition to it, using light dumbells is also a good way to improve strength.   We're not after huge rippling arms.   Light weights, 2 to 5 pounds, provide sufficient resistance for the task.   And rather than performing full curls which generally work the biceps, perform wrist curls and other exercises for the triceps.   Also those balls which you grip and squeeze can help develop the lower arm muscles necessary for swinging the bat well.

I discussed this briefly but I want to emphasize that the batting tee is a great place to work all these muscles too.   I'm not a huge fan of the parachute you attach to the bat or those weights which slide on because they alter your swing.   If you dry swing an ordinary bat 100 times, I would guess that you get at least as much benefit as swinging the bat with a chute or weight on it 80 times.   And dry swinging does not require you to alter your swing.   Instead you get to work proper swing mechanics and build motor memory while you strength train.

Another technique you can use involves a basketball.   Obviously a basketball weighs quite a bit more than a softball.   Yet, hitting one should not alter your swing.   You hit at it as if it were a softball and attempt to drive it.   We do this off the tee into a net but you can also do it using soft toss into a backstop.   I've seen a lot of heavy hitting teams work with basketballs and while I cannot directly attest to it making a difference, I think logic dictates that girls have to get their body weight into the swing in order to drive it.   It reinforces good swing mechanics.

I'm not going to go into swing mechanics here because Terry indicated that he is already familiar with Charlie Lau and his particulasr question involved issues of strength.   But I do want to say that any human being who uses proper swing mechanics can drive the ball regardless of strength.   That's because the most important aspect of your swing is your body's inertia.   Even a "90 pound weakling" can drive the ball if his or her mechanics are very good.   That's what I was trying to tell you when I mentioned the story about the little 11 year old girl.   And our specimen 6 foot 3 muscled Russian Adnonis will have trouble getting the ball past the pitcher if his swing stinks.

3) Should I try to teach the Lau method of hitting or continue to handle problems one at a time on a per girl basis?

There is a problem with handling problems one at a time or trying to improve a fundamentally poor overall swing mechanic.   The problem is that you will most likely end up with kids who can hit no better than they could before batting practice started.   What I would suggest you do is start with an overview of a proper swing.   For this, I don't care if you use a conventional linear hitting model, Charlie Lau or the rotational method.   But I do care that you use one of them and remain consistent about it.

Once you've chosen your poison, develop a very good understanding of what you want to teach.   Then break it down into stages.   And teach every kid the same way.   When you start to try to look at a kid's swing and then make alterations based on the model you use, you get a kid who is 90% wrong and maybe 10% right.   Save tweaking for only those kids who do 90% of everything right.   For those kids who do 90% wrong, try to wipe the slate clean and start it all over again.

Also, it bears mentioning that if you have any kids who go to batting clinics somewhat regularly, you don't want to start messing with their swings.   I've seen this done almost as many times as I've heard some genius talking about how linear is a baseball swing and rotational is a softball one.   The way it happens is some guy gets a little bit of knowledge and then starts coaching by using that knowledge.   A girl who is about 10 and learning linear hitting gets herself a coach who knows 5% of rotational mechanics and he starts tinkering with her swing.   The result is inevitably a tragedy.

So pick your poison and break it down into stages.   Then teach all the girls, excluding those who go to a coach, in the mechanics you have chosen beginning with the stance and proceeding through the follow-through.   I would prefer if you taught your team from the ground up even if it meant they still didn't find much success in games.   At least that way, perhaps the next year they would hit.   If you tweak their mechanics, chances are pretty good they won't hit better anyway.   At least if you teach the full motion, they'll have a foundation on which to build.

4) My girls refuse to take 100 swings per day at the tee.   What can I do about that.

Well, you can lead a horse to water ...   What I have seen coaches do in this regard is continue to reiterate the point whether the team obeys or not.   Don't get discouraged because nobody seems to be listening.   Just keep telling them what they ought to do if they want to get better.   Eventually somebody is going to listen to you.

In the meantime, if you feel your kids are not taking 100 swings on their own, make sure they take 150 at your practices, every practice.   If your pitching and fielding are pretty good and you are losing games because you have no offense, make sure they take plenty of swings in practice, work on mechanics and strength, and, perhaps most importantly, make sure they see some live pitching as often as possible.

All other things being equal, there is no substitute for facing live pitching.   Have your pitchers throw to batters whenever the opportunity arises.   Play lots of scrimmages and tournaments against myriad teams.   Keep the girls away from the Iron Mike overhand pitching machines many teams use because they ain't got nothing else.   Watching a ball released above the shoulder is not helping a softballer to pick it up out of a windmiller's hand.   Before you use a pitching machine, make sure it throws the ball from a point below your waist.   Don't have such a machine, fine, use the tee and soft toss instead.   There are no benefits to hitting off an overhand throwing machine.

In conclusion, mechanics are the key to driving the ball.   They're far more important than strength.   You should do some strength training.   However, it doesn't have to involve power lifting.   Some of the speed and agility stuff you should be doing anyways will help.   The girls should hit off the tee.   If they won't do it on their own, make them do it in practice.   It only takes about 15 minutes to take 100 swings.   If your kids do not have overall reasonably good hitting mechanics, take them to school starting with the ABCs.   Don't try to teach a little calculus to girls who can't do multiplication tables and aren't all that familiar with algebra.   Pick your swing mechanic and teach it from the ground up.   Break it into steps.   Then drill them on this as often as you practice.

Remember what Vince Lombardi once said, "practice does not make perfect, only perfect practice makes perfect."   So its mechanics, strength, repetition, live pitching.   That should get your girls to hit the ball better.

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Just Hit The Ball

by Dave
Friday, June 15, 2007

This one is meant especially for parents of fastpitch softball players who themselves never played the game.   By never played the game, I mean fathers who, though they may have played some youth baseball, never faced pitching over say 70-75 mph, and/or mothers who never faced a windmiller throwing in excess of 50 mph.   I know the world is full of these folks.   I see them all the time at tournaments.   I've met many on teams I've been involved with.   And I want to give them a special message to contemplate when they sit there angry with their child because she just struck out, maybe even looking.   You parents have good reason to calm down and my objective with this pieceis to clarify that point.

Let's break this down.   I know I've done this plenty before but the point is so important, I feel it needs to be driven home as often as possible.   I just checked a conversion chart and one mile per hour converts to 1.467 feet per second.   If your darling daughter just rose up to 12U ball and is now facing pitchers throwing in excess of 50 mph, she has approximately four tenths of a second to see the release, determine if it is going to be a ball or strike, decide to swing and then execute a swing.

A world class athlete is able to make a decision to act and then initiate that act in about .15 seconds.   The average human reacts somewhere between .2 and .25 seconds.   That's simple reaction time but when the action in response is more complicated, the total time of decision making is longer.   For example, when automobile experts examine accidents, they use a reaction time of somewhere around 1 to 1.5 seconds.   When they look at the fender bender you were in last year, they assume it took you 1.5 seconds to step on the brakes.   That's why tailgating laws generally require you to stay back one full car length or more for every ten miles per hour you are driving.   In the UK and some other places, they prefer you to keep a car and a half length behind the next car per 10 mph speed.

So where does this leave your daughter?   She uses a little more than half her allotted time - after the pitcher releases the ball - to decide whether she should swing or not.   After she has decided to swing, she gets a whopping additional .2 seconds to execute the swing!   That includes deciding where to swing in order to hit the ball.

In order to demonstrate this fraction of second concept, I'd like you to borrow a stopwatch.   All I want you to do with this is start and stop the watch repeatedly until you can get the thing to read .4 seconds and then try to reach .2 seconds.   Go ahead.   I'll wait.   This is important stuff.

It isn't quite as easy as you thought, is it?   I can get the stopwatch to stop about a hundredth or two on either side of .4 and .2 but it takes me a lot of tries.   And pushing a button is a heck of a lot easier than swinging a stick.   Add location to the mix and it is near impossible.   Yet they do it, don't they?   Remember that weak groundball your daughter hit to second the other day?   She DID hit the ball.   That should amaze you!   You should be in awe of her.

But she was a great 10U hitter!?



I've gone over this before but, again, I think it is necessary to state it again in this context.   Girls change a lot both physically and mentally between the ages of roughly 9 and 14.   The body grows and then the nerves race to catch up.   Add the raging hormones of puberty into the picture and what you've got is one big mess.   Now add the advancement which pitchers make in this age span and I think you'll see that you've just got to calm down.

I may be off a bit here but my observations of top notch 9 - 14 year old pitchers go like this:   A good 9 year-old will throw around 40-45.   A stellar 10 year-old will probably be around 50 but that's with the 11 inch ball.   A very good 11 year old is most likely in the neighborhood of 50 with the 12 inch ball.   Top 12 year olds throw in the near 55, the best 13s are 2 - 5 mph higher than that, and 14s add a few mph.   I've seen 12s who can throw 60.   I;ve seen decent 14s live around 53.   There are a wide range of speeds at the various ages.   But when you look at average pitch speed in the various age classes, I think what you're left with is the realization that the biggest jump occurrs between the 10U and 12U categories.   14Us generally improve just as much as 12Us but their improvement is often more about location, pitch selection, and movement.

Just because your superstar hit great at 10U does not mean she's going to knock the world over at 11 in 12U ball.   It will take her significant time, lots of at-bats, to make the necessary adjustment to the increased speed.   And just when she begins making the adjustment and hitting the ball, she'll undoubtedly face some kid with a great change-up or one with better than average control who knows how to throw the ball just out of reach of your daughter's bat.   It is an intensely frustrating game.   And there's good reason why many claim that batting the pitched ball is the most complicated act in sport.

She hits the ball but she swings or hits it so weakly



We've gone over the amount of time needed to decide to swing and execute it.   We've been over the fact that pitchers improve a lot during this 9-14 age span.   You understand all that but you just can't come to grips with why your daughter swings so weakly.   She's hitting the ball now that she's been in 12U for half a season but everytime she hits it, it's an easy grounder to second.   Why doesn't she hit it harder?   She was a homerun hitter (get back, get back, get back) just last year.   Why isn't she hitting with more authority?

Well, first off, if she's jumped from 10U to 12U, the 12 inch ball is quite a bit heavier than the 11.   It's a bigger target but when you make contact, it feels like a bowling ball.   That has to do with both the weight and the speed at which it is pitched.

An 11 inch softball weighs around 6 ounces.   An official 12 inch softball weighs in at around 6.8 ounces.   If you pick up something which weighs 8 tenths of an ounce, you will notice that it seems very light.   But the percentage increase from one ball to the other is almost 15 percent.   That's significant and more so when it's weight is being moved at, say, a 20% greater speed.   So, while making contact is enough of a chore, actually driving the thing is even more difficult.

Also, consider that you got upset when she swung and missed so many times early in the year.   Her reaction to that was to try to just hit the darn ball and get mom or dad off my back.   Maybe if I hit it, they'll stop bugging me.   If you are having trouble hitting something because it is moving too darn hard, your first reaction is to swing less hard.   To demonstrate, go to your local carnival and pony up a couple bucks to play "whack-a-mole."   What I want you to do is swing your absolute hardest every time one of those moles sticks his head up.   After you have done this once or twice swinging as hard as humanly possible, I want you to try it again a few times, this time trying to hit as many moles as you can.   I'll wait.   I;ve got nothing better to do.

OK, so how was the carnival?   Was it more crowded than you expected?   You shouldn't go on bracelet days.   Everybody goes then.   Did you find a "whack-a-mole" game?   Good.   How many did you hit with your hardest swings?   I see.   No, I didn;t think you'd hit many.   How did you do the other times?   Oh, you won a prize?   Good for you.   That's what you really need in your house, isn't it, more junk.

Anyways, if you did my experiment, I think you'll see that when you want to hit a fast moving object and you experience some difficulty, your first reaction is to shorten your stroke - to make it weaker, more under control.   This happens a lot at 11 years old.   The emphasis is placed first on just making contact.   That's why so many 11 year-olds ground out to second when they first start making contact against 12 year-old pitchers.

This problem of the weak swing will be overcome through experience.   The more pitching one faces at fast speeds, the more quickly the good swing will come back.   It is, after all, the good swing that we're after more than anything else.   That's where your emphasis should be placed rather than on your daughter making contact or driving the ball.

If you examine the top hitters in sport, I believe what you will see that they all have in common is a very good swing.   They also possess excellent reaction speeds but this is less evident as the only way to measure that is which testing.   They may possess fast hands too but that's more a gift than it is something which can be developed.   The only thing you can really work on via repetition in practice is a good swing.   The other elements of successful hitting are more reliant on experience, lots of experience.   So when you work with yourdaughter to try to help her hit better, what you must focus on is a good swing.   You can also9 try to get her out to the batting cages where you'll have her face the fastest pitching available but the emphasis must be on a good swing.

Why can't she hit the change-ups?



For some reason, folks get it into their heads that if a kid is having trouble hitting fast pitching, she should at least be able to get a good hack at a change.   I don't see why that should logically follow.   She's up there tense, getting herself ready to pull the trigger on a 55 mph fastball, and when the thing comes hurling at her at 40, she acts as if she cannot even see the ball.   That's pretty natural.   It is difficult to hit a good change-up.   Unfortunately, I do not have a handy experiment to demonstrate this to you but if you watched the Women's College World Series, you already know how difficult it is to hit that pitch.

I've talked about Arizona ace Taryne Mowatt's change-up in a number of columns recently.   Her best fast pitches clock in at about 65-68.   Her change-up is closer to 45-50.   She had blister problems and had to throw the change far more than anyone ever imagined.   And the Tennesse hitters were unable to hit it even when they should have known it was coming.   That's a bunch of world class hitters unable to meet a 50 mph pitch with no particular movement on it!   If that doesn't tell you everything you need to know, I really suggest you pick up a bat and take your best shot before you get mad at your daughter for striking out on a change-up.

In closing, I want to leave you with a picture.   In a championship tournament in my state, there was a girl pitching who is headed for a top division one program.   She brings it in as high as 67, some claim she hits 70 occassionally.   She also has several very good movement pitches, changes speed extremely well, and hits her spots on almost every pitch.   This girl threw a perfect game against an otherwise good hitting club.   But that's not the amazing thing.   The amazing thing is in a top level game, against a good hitting club, she struck out 20 of the 21 batters she faced.   No ball was hit into fair territory until the final batter who grounded weakly to an infielder and was put out at first.   Something like 10-11 kids who have all played fastpitch softball for the better part of ten years and found decent success were unable to touch this pitcher.   That happens more frequently in this game than it does in baseball.   The deck is stacked against your softball-playing daughter.   Give her some support rather than grief.   Be amazed on the few occassions she hits the ball at all, let alone drives it hard into the outfield.

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Permanent Link:  Just Hit The Ball


2007 Anderson Rocket Tech

by Dave
Monday, September 25, 2006

Well, I don't know about you but I'm excited about the recent approval of the 2007 Anderson Rocket Tech (actually spelled RockeTech) fastpitch bats.   The bat will be available for sale October 1, 2006.   If you're getting in line to get yours, you can line up behind me, cause I'm now ahead of you!

Our hitting coach suggests that once you perfect your swing, everyone will want to see what brand of bat you're using.   I agree.   A bad swing with a great and expensive bat is still a bad swing.   And if you can't hit the ball, it doesn't much matter what kind of bat you're using.   Even considering this, I now can say with complete confidence that not all bats are created equal.

At the beginning of last spring season, I wrote about several good bats with an emphasis on Louisville Slugger's Catalyst which comes in both -10 and -8.   I was sold on the -10 because I liked it so much.   I put my money where my mouth is - I bought one for a good price (beneath $200) and had my kid use it for awhile.   She liked it a lot, at least until she borrowed a Rocket Tech.

The Rocket Tech was weighted quite a bit differently than the Catalyst.   I believe the term of art is "end-loaded."   This means the end of the bat has more weight on the end than those which are not "end-loaded."   If you try swinging bats which are end-loaded and then those that aren't, the difference becomes easy to understand.   The handle also felt more comfortable but the weighting difference made her swing more comfortable.   She switched over to the Rocket Tech and began hitting more than my pocket hard.   Several members of her team also switched from the Catalyst and the results were amazing.

Keep in mind that the ASA has speed limitations for girls fastpitch softball bats.   All the top priced bats come in at about the same place on the tests the ASA conducts.   So, there is no scientific way to say this bat hits harder than that and so forth.   But because of the difference in weighting, my daughter's hitting dramatically improved.

Now, I've read a lot of negative comments about the 2005 RockeTech.   Most imply that those who use them have an unfair advantage and, therefore, the bat should be banned.   ASA never did ban the bat due to excessive speed.   But there were some concerns with the Rocket Tech pancaking over time through use.   Pancaking occurs where a bat begins to flatten out.   If you've ever stood through an umpires bat examination, you will see most umps use a device which checks the roundness of the barrel.   If the bat has flattened out beyond a particular point, it is disallowed.   Our Rocket Tech nearly suffered this problem.   A Pony ump first disallowed it and then after we asked him to reexamine it, it was allowed.   But our bat was pancaking after just a few months use.

The 2007 Rocket Tech is supposed to cure the problems past models have suffered especially with respect to pancaking.   Anderson has made some changes and this current model should not give you these problems.   Obviously I have no experience with it since it isn't yet available but if I do, I'll let you know right away.   And if you experience pancaking with this model, I urge you to share it with this site as well as the company itself.

You can make a purchase of a new 2007 Anderson Rocket Tech in a number of places.   Dick's Sporting Goods offers it at under $250.   Sports Authority offers it at the same price with free shipping and you can get   10%  off   orders   over   $100   at   SportsAuthority.com which makes it perhaps the best buy of all.   You can find these and other bats on ebay and perhaps you may find a bargain there.   But since this is a new model of bat which isn't available today, don't expect vendors to offer cheap prices.   And don't forget to add shipping to your total cost before deciding from whom to buy.

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Interpreting Common Bunting Terminology

by Dave
Thursday, September 21, 2006

A reader writes in:

"Please explain to me what are meant by the terms "slap bunt," "drop bunt," "drag bunt," "push bunt," etc.   I'm driving myself batty trying to understand these apparently basic terms when I discuss softball with my daughter.   No matter how hard I try, I am always wrong and just don't know anything.   Help!

Always Wrong in Peoria"

Peoria,

I'm afraid I can't really help you.   No matter how hard I try, I'm always wrong too.   Depending on who is doing the talking, I just cannot seem to use the right phrase to describe bunting.   It is a constant source of annoyance to me.   But let me explain the way I see these terms.

First off, when I was a wee tike, we played baseball.   In baseball, during my day, you either hit away or you bunted.   If you bunted, you either tried to sacrifice or you "dragged."   When you tried a sacrifice, you squared around and then tried to place the ball between the fielders.   You gave yourself up at first in order to move runners along so you weren't so much concerned about getting out of the box as you were hitting the ball fair and as far away from fielders as possible.

Today softball players always seem concerned about making it to first after bunting.   They often foul the ball off as they change their body position to get out of the box.   The art of the true sacrifice has been lost.   That's why in so many games from youth through the NCAA WCWS, teams have so much difficulty moving runners along.

When I was a child, as I said, there was another form of bunting called "dragging."   This form focused on surprising the fielders and getting out of the box in order to make it to first safely.   It mattered not whether you bunted the ball towards first, third or the pitcher.   All the fielders were surprised so you caught them off guard.   Today this style is sort of broken down to include "drag bunts" in which you must pull the ball and "push bunts" in which you push the ball to the opposite side of the field - third for a lefty.   I learned this after a few minutes argument with a parent who was upset I wanted his lefty daughter to work on dragging a bunt by hitting it to third.   But what I learned subsequently was he was basically wrong.   A "push bunt" does not require the element of surprise the traditional "drag bunt" does.   Instead it works because you push the ball between and perhaps past the charging fielders.   In other words, everyone can know you are bunting (which they shouldn't when you drag), but you beat them by pushing the ball past the fielders - first or third.   There's probably other terms which further break down what I call a "drag bunt" but I ignore them lest my head explode with useless information.   It makes no difference to me what you call it.   If you bunt while beginning to run to first, I call it a drag bunt.   But many will argue with me.   I just won't argue back.

To my traditional view of hitting, where you either hit, sacrifice or drag, is added the softball hitting strategy called slapping.   Slappers start running while the pitch is in the air, make contact, and continue on to first.   I have been educated that there are two basic kinds of slapping, the regular slap and the power slap.   The regular slap involves chopping down on the ball or trying to hit it down the third baseline and running to first.   Power slapping as I understand it involves striking the ball harder, getting it over the third baseman's head by hitting a linedrive.   I've seen Andrea Duran, formerly of UCLA, using what I would describe as a power slap, hit the ball over the fence.   To me, you hit a homerun and you aren't really slapping.   Instead you're hitting differently than other people!   But I know most people will not agree with me on that.

Into this mix, I see the term "slap-bunting" used quite a bit.   To me, slap-bunting means when you approach the ball like a slapper and then just dink the ball out past the plate.   But I have been "educated" by an eleven-year-old that "slap bunting" is when you hold the bat out as if to bunt and then slap at the ball to drive it past the charging fielders.   I would call that a "bunt-slap" not a "slap-bunt" but we're getting carried away here.

Most often when I read the rules of any tournament which prohibits "slap bunting," what I am confronted with is the situation where the hitter acts as if she is going to bunt and then swings away - be that as a slapping motion or not.   I give up trying to interpret and instead instruct my players that you cannot pretend to bunt and then swing.   I tell them, I don't care what you call it, you can't fake bunt and then hit - it isn't allowed.

To me, there is another combined use of the "slap" and the "bunt."   That is a drag bunt where you run at the pitch and then, as I said, just dink the ball into fair territory.   It's really a drag bunt but it uses more of a light slapping motion than what one thinks of in traditional drag bunting.

I suppose you can look through what I have discussed so far and conclude either that I'm nuts, confused, or both.   But to sum up thus far, I believe there are: 1) sacrifice bunts which are boring and work only to advance the runners; 2) drag bunts where you surprise the fielders and it doesn't matter where you hit the ball; 3) push bunts where the defense may or may not know you are bunting but where you try to push the ball between fielders, whereever they are; and 4) slap bunting where you fake a bunt and then hit away.

Next up for your consideration is the "drop bunt," another source of pain for me.   For my money, a drop bunt means the kind of bunt where you try to place the ball close to homeplate by dropping one down, as opposed to pushing, dragging or hitting the ball further out.   To me, you drop bunt because you want to force the catcher to make the play.   But there is another way of defining the term "drop bunt."   Some define it as going to bunt and then dropping the bat onto the ball as it approaches.   I'm not entirely sure what this accomplishes but most descriptions suggest you would be three or so steps down the baseline before the ball and bat collide.   I suggest to you that this is impossible.

It takes a half second for the ball to reach homeplate.   If you dropped a bat from four feet up, in a quarter of a second that bat would drop about 2 feet.   So if the pitched ball is 2 feet above the ground, you would have to drop the bat at exactly the point at which the ball was 18 feet away.   Of course, if the pitcher's stride were off by 6 inches, she varied the speed by 2 mph, or she refused to pitch the ball exactly two feet from the ground, my calculations would be off and the bat would miss the ball.   Perhaps what is really being described is the batter holds the bat to bunt and let's go of it at the moment right before contact and starts running in which case she would be about three inches down the first baseline.   But all kidding around, I suppose the drop bunt described when a batter bunts while letting go of the bat.   I'm not entirely sure I see the benefit of doing this but like you, I can't be right.

One of the reasons for employing the "drop bunt" strategy is to put the bat out in front of homeplate, presumably in the way of the catcher.   If the bat hits the ball a second time, after the bunt, the umpire can make a call that the bunt is not legal but I've never seen this called because homeplate umps usually cannot see the second hit and field umps usually aren't looking for it.   Most often umps don't worry about the bat being in the way of the catcher because they assume the batter couldn't do any better to get it out of the way.   But I believe most girls are taught to drop the bat in front of the plate specifically to hinder the catcher.

Summary

Most "expert" softball web sites I have seen refer to 7 types of bunts.   These types of bunts are:

  • Sacrifice
  • Drag
  • Push
  • Slap
  • Drop
  • Sucicide Squeeze
  • Safety Sqeeze


I won't discuss the suicide or safety squeeze this time around because it complicates issues of bunting types.   Suffice it to say that the differences between the two types of squeezes have more to do with what the runner on third does than how the hitter bunts the ball.   I think I have fairly, if not completely, described the other five types of bunts.   But I warn against using the terms in public because undoubtedly you will be wrong.   And please don't cite this web site to support your understanding of different bunts types.   If you ignore my advice about discussing this in public, you deal with the consequences.   I don't need the extra hate mail.

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Permanent Link:  Interpreting Common Bunting Terminology


Hitched Swing

by Dave
Thursday, August 03, 2006

Mitchell writes in with a hitting question:

"Dave :

I read your article about batting for softball, my daughter is 11, she has been playing for about 4 years.   The last two years have been tournament teams, but even with all of this time and practice she is still having a problem with her hitting.   She is lefty and when she swings at a pitch it looks like a two step swing.   Her swing kind of breaks in the middle.   Some have told me she hits like Darryl Strawberry's old swing.   Heres the funny part, when she is practicing off the tee, she swings good and at the batting cage she is hitting 55 mph balls.   This problem only appears with live pitching at a game and she is not hitting a ball at a game not even a little contact.   Help is needed here and we would appreciate it very much."


Hi Mitchell,

What you are describing is a "hitch" in your daughter's swing.   Hitches can be caused by a number of things.   But before we get into that, I want you to consider a couple of things.

First consider that there is far less hitting in softball than there is in its cousin baseball.   Even at 12U tournament games are lower scoring than in baseball except in certain overmatch situations.   Often games which end 10-0 involve just a handful of big hits and numerous aggressive baserunning plays.   Many of us approach softball as if it is just the girls' version of baseball.   It isn't.   There are fewer girls who hit the ball hard and far in softball than there are boys who do so in baseball.   Our objective in softball should be more about good contact than it should be about driving the ball far.

Next consider that, if your daughter is 11, she's probably playing 12U softball where the pitching has jumped from probably 45 mph or so in 10U up to 55 mph or even higher in some tournaments.   That 55 mph pitch is released from about 34 feet after a 12 year old's 6 foot leg drive as opposed to the 45 mph 10U pitch released from around 32 feet by a beginning 9 or 10 year old windmiller.   Now compare those pitches to a baseball thrown by a high school varsity pitcher at 85 mph from around 55 feet, after the stride.   The 55 mph 12U pitch takes .56 seconds to reach home.   The 45 mph 10U pitch takes .7 seconds and a good high school fastball takes .58 seconds.   That means your 11 year old girl has graduated to a pitch which is about 25% faster than she faced at 10U and in many ways is comparable to a boys high school varsity pitching speed!

Also, if you figure the pitch speed jump from 10U to 12U as being around 8 - 10 mph and the 12U pitch speed as around 55, now consider than Cat Osterman is most effective at around 62-63.   That means the difference between 12U and world class is about the same as the jump between 10U and 12U pitching!   The jump from 12U to 14U, by comparison, will probably be something like around 55 to just shy of 60.   This is the toughest year for most hitters.

Next consider the way in which young girls grow.   There is a growth spurt around the 11 to 12 age change which is possibly unrivaled at other ages except maybe the 12 to 13 range.   Girls do more physical maturing in the 11 - 13 range than they do at any other time.   When puberty sets in, sometime around this age, a clock starts in which a girl will typically grow rapidly for about two more years and then stop or significantly slow down.   Her muscles will develop quite a bit during this period too.   If your daughter is not yet in puberty, she is probably getting ready to travel there soon.   Girls going into puberty grow pretty rapidly too and they lose coordination along the way.   They get it back but sometimes they get really clumsy first.   Bad mechanical problems can develop for a short time as a result.

Again, 11 year olds are often overmatched by 12 year olds.   The first year of 12U ball is often very difficult for 11 year olds, far more difficult than say 18U is for 15 year olds.   The parent of an 11 year old has to lower their expectations when it comes to 12U ball.   You want her to hit but don't reinforce any mental pressing she is doing at the plate.   Complement her swing and mental approach.   Understand if she weakly grounds the ball to second.   If she's making decent contact via a good swing, be happy about that.   The strength will come.

If there are fewer big hits in softball, the pitch speed at 12U is one of the bigger jumps an age grouper will face, and the onset of puberty with its accompanying growth, temporary bouts of uncoordination, and eventual increase in strength is about to happen, we must adjust our approach accordingly.   What we are after is all about swing mechanics.   Forget about results for a while.

Finally consider what happens with world class amateur and professional baseball and softball players.   If you go to a practice of high level college, world class or professional baseball or softball players, you will notice that they do a lot of work off the tee and with soft tossed balls.   Why do they do this?   They do it because most of hitting is the swing mechanics.   They are working on muscle / tendon memory.   The player currently leading the majors or Team USA in hitting works off the tee because he or she needs to perfect their swing mechanics!   You should do the same thing.

Have you ever observed someone go into a hitting slump?   Usually they hit into some tough luck and then they begin to press too much.   Their swing falls apart and then they really slump.   The best way to get out of a slump is to go back to the basics, back to the tee, back to the swing mechanics fundamentals.   The worst way to deal with a slump is to keep doing the same pressing and adjust your swing in an attempt to hit the darn ball.

This is a long-winded way of getting to what I think is your daughter's problem.   I think she is reacting to drastically faster pitching by pressing.   She is trying to match the high speed of the pitch by swinging hard.   She feels small when she steps in against a big 12 year old throwing 55.   Machine pitching isn't the same.   So it matters little if she can hit 55 in the cages.   She needs to swing less hard (though firmly) in order to hit the 12U pitchers she is facing.

It is now August so much of the summer season has gone by.   What I'm going to suggest you do is work off the tee rather than the machine.   You can also work soft toss.   Your emphasis is going to be on that smooth stroke you see when she hits off the tee.   Don't let her body reinforce the hitched swing she does in games when she feels a little overmatched.   Have her do sessions of 50-100 balls smoothly hit off the tee.   Then do some soft tossed hitting.   Stay away from the machines as long as you can.

Do a couple sessions per week through the winter if you can.   Teach her body to forget how to hitch.   If she hits smoothly off the tee twice a week for two months, she won't remember how to hitch!   Focus on solid contact not hitting the ball hard.   The hard hitting will come with a good swing, an increase in body and muscle mass, and age.   Have her hit the top half to the middle of the ball.   Don't let her try to hit the ball hard or far by swinging hard.

If you ever had the opportunity to watch the hardest hit balls by the best hitters, one thing would stick out in your mind.   You would be surprised at the ease of swing which produced those hard hits.   Daryl Strawberry never swung hard when he hit even monstrous home runs 450 feet to dead center.   I know.   I watched him every night as a young Mets fan and later when he played for the Yankees.   His swing was always about smoothness.   Most of the best softball players are the same way.   There was one home run hit in the world cup which was produced by one of the easiest swings I have ever seen.   I was shocked the ball got out of the yard because I couldn't imagine such an easy swing hitting a homerun.   But that's the way things usually go.

As a final note regarding swing hitches, I want to express a little about the most common cause of a hitched swing.   I discussed mental pressing above but there is something more insidious than that.   Often we teach hitters to step into the pitch in order to generate greater hitting power.   That's wrong for softball and is probably wrong for baseball too.   I remember sitting calmly watching my then 8 year old at a "clinic" game.   Her coach tried to get her to step into the pitch as if she were playing old man's arc pitch softball and trying to drive the ball over the fence.   Many years later she still steps too much.

The proper step (if you even step) in softball is one which produces the 60-40, 40-60 result.   You start with 50 percent of your weight on each foot.   As the pitcher goes into her wind up, you shift 60 percent of your weight to the back foot.   As you swing, the object is to be moving 60 percent of your weight to the front foot at the end of the swing.   At the point of contact, about 50 percent of the weight is again on the front foot and the momentum is towards the 60 percent at the end of the swing, after contact.   Power in the swing is generated by the hip movement, the force generated by nearly full arm extension, and the weight shift.   "Western style" swing coaches teach the girls to not step but rather lift the front foot up on the toes as the pitch wind up occurs and then put it down again with the swing.   Those who don't teach "western style" hitting usually teach a step but that step is a small one and is a timing device, not a momentum builder.   It can assist with the backward shift of 10 percent of the weight but it does not generate hitting force in and of itself.

One of the important fundamentals of hitting is the "quiet head" which doesn't relate to either not talking or being calm.   A quiet head is one that is not moving.   Your eyes are an important part of the swing.   You need to have them unmoving like the eyes of a sharpshooter before during and after pulling the trigger.   The head is still mostly because of other mechanical things.   For example, if you take an old man's arc pitch swing with its big step, there is no way to keep your head quiet.   Your head moves and so do your eyes.   A good swing is one in which the head moves the least.   If your daughter is hitching, her head is moving and this is causing her to miss the ball as much as the hitch itself is.   There can be other causes to a hitch but the bottom line is if you aim to keep your head quiet and your eyes steady, you probably won't hitch.   Two problems are solved at the cost of one.

I hope this adequately addresses the problems your daughter is facing.   I've gone and written far too much.   What I really want to communicate is work off the tee and at most using soft toss.   If your daughter swings nice and smoothly off the tee, reinforce that by doing just tee work.   Teach her to forget the hard pressing swing she developed in her first year of 12U tournament ball.   Talk to her about not pressing so hard in games.   Tell her to work on making good contact rather than driving the ball.   Tell her that a hard swing does not help you make contact with a fast pitch.   Don't let her muscles and tendons remember how to swing hard with a hitch.   Make her body forget this mistake.

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