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You Just Gotta Laugh or Cry!

by Dave
Sunday, April 25, 2010

We got rained out today!   I was freed from field duty and about 9 hours of watching games, so I took the day off from everything.   I was innocently just kicking back and watching TV.   Big mistake!   Innocence is often penalized!!!!!!

My baseball team wasn't on the tube yet so I went over to watch some college softball on ESPNU.   There was a game being televised between Radford and Winthrop.   During the early innings, the play by play man, Mike Gleason, asked color commentator, Cindy Bristow, former All American pitcher and member of the softball Hall of Fame, "Tell us something about the umpires this year, what they're really looking for when they look at the pitchers."

Bristow replied they are trying to cut down on illegal pitches, "trying to make sure that pitchers either don't leap or crow hop which are the two ways that pitchers can try and get an advantage."   The broadcast then "leaped" to a previously filmed segment in which Bristow discussed the ins and outs of crow hopping and leaping with the help of a pitcher demonstrating each infraction.   I wasn't precisely certain but I think the demonstrator was actually Bristow, herself.

I suppose it is always better to see something than merely hear it discussed.   Words have their limits.   Reading rules or listening to someone discuss them often falls short from creating the mental picture we need to fully grasp the concepts.   That is true, unless the demonstration fails to accurately depict what is being discussed.   Bristow's discussion was accurate but the demonstration confused things completely.

Bristow said a leap happens "when the pitcher leaves the ground at the same time with both feet."   She then discussed crow hopping and noted it occurs "where the pitcher's pivot foot replants before her stride foot hits the ground."   She then added that the "crow hop is the more common of the two."

The NCAA rulebook regarding a leap, reads as follows:

Rule 1.73 Leap (Pitcher)
"An illegal act in which the pitcher becomes airborne on her initial movement
and push from the pitcher's plate."

Rule 10.4.4
"No leaping is allowed.   The pitcher may not become airborne on the
initial drive from the pitcher's plate.   The pivot foot must slide/drag on
the ground."

In regards to a crow hop, it says:

1.28 Crow Hop (Pitcher)
"An illegal act in which the pitcher's pivot foot leaves the pitcher's plate and
re-contacts the ground before the release of the pitch."

Rule 10.4.5
"No crow hopping is allowed.   The pitcher may not replant, gain a
second starting point and push off her pivot foot.   Once having lost
contact with the pitcher's plate, the pivot foot may trail on the ground
but may not bear weight again until the pitch is released."

Bristow's descriptions comport with the NCAA softball rulebook.   Unfortunately, the pitcher-demonstrator performed basically the same mistake during each try.   There was a very slight difference because she did obtain a new point of impetus, a second starting point, in her crow hop example.   But to the casual observer, including IMHO umpires and many coaches as well as pitching instructors, the two infractions were indistinguishable.

The reason I find this issue disturbing is because I have seen any number of pitchers at various levels either get called for crow hopping or be told by an umpire at a friendly that they are crow hopping when they were very clearly leaping!   One coach recently instructed a kid who was throwing on a gymnasium floor and very obviously leaping that she was crow hopping.

It seems it is next to impossible to find anyone in this sport who can actually demonstrate a real knowledge of the difference between the two.   This is important because, if nobody can actually distinguish between the two, how can they presume to call one or the other?   And how is a pitcher supposed to correct her actions if she is being told she is doing one when she is actually doing the other?

It should be simple.   In a leap, the pitcher's feet are both in the air after push off and before ball release.   She must drag away from the rubber.   If she pushes into the air and both her feet are off the ground simultaneously, she has committed the leap and this is illegal.

A crow hop is essentially a leap in which the pivot foot lands again and a push off from the second point occurs.   In other words, if a pitcher leaps and her pivot foot replants, bears weight and is pushed off from, she has crow hopped.

These two types of infractions may seem to be so similar that no distinction is necessary but let me explain why I think it is important.   When girls first start learning the windmill, a couple simplification techniques are utilized.   It is a very complex motion which must be broken down into stages.   One technique/drill involves beginning the motion and then stopping with the hand and ball held straight overhead (at 12:00 o'clock).   Girls will do this drill 0over and over again to make sure pushing off well while rotating their hips and shoulders and getting their hand into the "perfect circle."   The next p-hase of the drill involves pausing at this 12:00 o'clock position and then finishing the delivery.   In this way, a singular complex motion is broken into two discreet parts in order to simplify things for the student.   This drill is pretty important but it involves a crow hop!

Next, after girls have the basic mechanics down fairly well, the most important thing they need to do is practice.   Not very many of us have a perfectly well manicured pitcher's circle in which to practice.   Often, the local recreational field has a huge hole in front of the chewed up rubber.   Many times, there are teams practicing on the field.   Sometimes, it is too dark or cold or wet outside to practice.   Generally girls working on their pitching practice on concrete, blacktop, gymnasium floors, or any old spot in some field either with or without a rubber or initial point from which to push.   They make adjustments so as not to hurt their knees, ruin their sneakers or spikes, or otherwise accommodate the less than ideal practice facilities.   They develop habits which follow them into games where coaches and umpires call them for crow hopping when they are leaping and leaping when they are crow hopping!   This is less than optimal for our sport.

Most importantly, when we consider the crow hop, it is a fundamental flaw which is involved with timing and pulling together a complex motion.   The way to correct it is really to work basic mechanics anew and then bring them together with proper timing.   The leap can best be cured by: 1) making the pitcher aware of what it is she is doing vs. what she should be doing and then 2) emphasizing her drag away through some means.   What I have done is placed a cloth on the ground next to where the girl pushes off the rubber and had her work on dragging that cloth with her on push off.   Generally that is enough at least until she truies to pitch from the rubber with the two foot deep hole in front of it.   In that case, I suppose, when the ump calls leaping, coaches should insist the pitch9ing area be repaired!   But I digress.

What makes matters worse with this issue is that nobody seems to be able to demonstrate correct and legal pitching mechanics.   The third demonstration on ESPNU's little segment was a pitch presumably thrown legally.   The demonstrator went into her windup, stepped off the rubber and forwards a few inches, then pitched while dragging her foot away.

That's very much illegal!   That is precisely what Jennie Finch was called for several times during the Olympics.   You cannot lift your pivot foot off the rubber.   You cannot step in front of the rubber and then pitch.   You must keep contact with the rubber, push off and then drag away.   The demonstrator, hall of fame pitcher or not, showed us exactly what not to do, however inadvertently!

I don't know whether to laugh or cry!!

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Permanent Link:  You Just Gotta Laugh or Cry!

Calling Out All Crowhoppers!

by Dave
Wednesday, April 07, 2010

There is a definite change in the air and I'm not talking about the weather.   Umpires are actually calling illegal pitches this year.   And they're doing it a lot.   I'm not sure precisely why - probably an instruction from the NCAA or some such - but high school and youth umps are following suit.   The issue and the new found frequent rate of calls brings up a number of questions that may have some folks fairly confused.   I'd like to discuss some of these to help clarify things a bit.

I was going to list out issues and questions numerically but there are so many cross-related items that I find I must write this in my usual rambling way.   I'm gonna throw a bunch of stuff against the wall and see what sticks.

The first item on the agenda is: why am I writing this now?   I am writing about illegal pitches because I have seen and heard more calls and more comments by umpires and coaches in the first few weeks of this year than I have in the several full years prior.   I watched my first college game on TV a few weeks back and witnessed multiple illegal pitch calls against both pitchers of two top teams.   Obviously the umps are calling it at the collegiate level.   This may be an early season emphasis on pitching rules or it may continue throughout the season as the ruling bodies actually get serious about it.

I do believe that the illegal pitch call must start at the top and emanate downwards through youth play.   If the college umps are not calling egregious infractions, why the heck should an ump at a 10U game care particularly much?   I have seen much ado about illegal pitches at the high school level and so I assume that every umpire is hot on the trail.   I expect to see more calls in travel ball this year than ever before.   Therefore, we must all be concerned with it until that supposition is proven wrong.

So what is an illegal pitch?   Aside from a pitcher going to her mouth while on the rubber, bringing her hands together twice, not bringing her hands together at all, etc., there are really three sorts of illegal pitches, one called a "crow hop" another a "leap."   The third kind involves a pitcher stepping outside the pitching lane but I'm not going to get into that today.

The distinction between crow hopping and leaping is really only important in as much as it elaborates upon the overall rules.   That is, an illegal pitch, whether crow hop or leap, is still an illegal pitch.   But nobody seems to grasp the difference between the two and this leads to something of a misunderstanding.

The basic rules of windmill pitching require the pitcher to maintain contact with the pitcher's plate (rubber) until she releases the ball from her hand.   Obviously, very few pitchers are actually in contact with the rubber when they release the pitch.   That is because it is not physically possible to push off well and throw using your legs while maintaining contact.   Therefore, the rules logically say that if the pitcher drags her push off (pivot) foot along the ground, she is deemed to have maintained contact with the rubber.   In short, you don't have to maintain contact with the rubber until you let the ball go.   You must be in contact initially and then drag away, not lose touch with the ground, before releasing the ball.

The infraction known as a "leap" involves the pitcher losing contact with the ground with her pivot foot.   The pitcher pushes off, becomes air-born with both feet off the ground and then throws.   It is not imperative that both feet be off the ground for a "leaping" infraction.   All that must happen is for the foot pushing off the rubber to lose contact with it and the ground.   You do not cure leaping by having a pitcher land with the other foot before losing contact with the pivot foot.   Generally, "leapers" become completely air-born, if but only briefly.

The "crow hop" is related to the leap but, in this case, the would-be "leaper" lands her pivot foot anew before releasing the ball.   She obtains what is called a "new point of impetus" before she completes her windmill.   This has the effect of putting her much closer to home than she would otherwise be.   That is, a pitcher throwing from 43 feet might leap to a new point of impetus several feet in front of the rubber and, in effect, be pitching from 40 feet or closer rather than the rulebook distance of 43.

Why do pitchers crow hop?   Some folks claim that they do this in order to throw harder because throwing with a crow hop is faster than throwing legally.   I very much doubt this is true.   The fact is a proper pitching motion is more efficient than an improper one.   The crow hop is not a faster method.   It does shorten the distance and thereby make it seem as if the pitcher is throwing harder but it does not make her faster.   I say this because I've heard claims that it actually adds mph on the radar gun.   There's just no way that is true.   Those who make the claim are just not thinking the thing through.

Still, a crow hop does provide an advantage to the pitch because it brings her closer to the batter and shortens the time, however slightly, that the batter has to decide and swing.   It provides an unfair advantage, one contemplated by the rule makers and is specifically prohibited.   The leap is also prohibited but I doubt it gives any real advantage to the pitcher.

When an illegal pitch is called, the batter gets a ball and any runners on base are moved forward one base.   Some folks confuse this with a balk in baseball because that is close to what results with a baseball balk.   But the two are really completely unrelated.   A baseball balk has nothing to do with a pitcher getting an unfair advantage over a batter.   Rather it is the baserunner(s) over whom an unfair advantage has been obtained.   Obviously baserunning rules in the two sports are very different.   Since there is no leading before the pitch in fastpitch softball, the baseball balk is completely irrelevant to softball.

There are generally two types of baseball balks, a procedural balk and a punitive balk.   The punitive balk happens when there are runners on base.   A delayed dead ball is theoretically called and runners advance a base.   I say "theoretically" because in practice, everything stops on a balk call.   There's no delay about it though that is what the rules call for.

When there are no runners on base, the only sort of balk that can happen is a procedural one.   Because the balk rule specifically contemplates baserunners being deceived, there is no penalty unless the umpires believe the pitcher was doing something illegal in order to fool the batter in which case they may award a ball.   When a softball illegal pitch is called, the batter is always awarded a ball and any baserunners awarded the next base.   There is no distinction between a procedural or punitive illegal pitch.

Baseball pitchers do not crow hop because this provides a disadvantage to them.   Every baseball pitcher knows that they need to keep their pivot foot on the rubber as they push off and come forward to the release point.   There is nothing to be gained from bringing the pivot foot forward on the mound, obtaining a new point of impetus and then throwing because they lose some of the downward trajectory advantage they have and because they cannot get as strong a push off.   This brings up a point relevant to windmill pitching but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Baseball pitchers' pivot feet frequently do not drag away from the rubber, however, because, I suppose, the mechanics of baseball pitching are different - they are overhand.   Any overhand throw ends with either a foot dragging or not.   It is about 50/50.   There doesn't seem to be much particular reason to do either.   Neither is markedly more powerful than the other - it is more a question of style or habit.   Some pitchers do drag, some do not.   It depends on the style of pitching they are performing.   Some pitchers have their pivot foot fly away after push off and before release.   Some pitchers drag.   But it ain't covered in the baseball rulebook and absolutely nobody cares.

Regardless of what is covered in the baseball rulebook and regardless of whether baseball pitchers do or do not crow hop or leap, the fact is these are both illegal in windmill pitching.   So, why do girls do it?   There are several reasons but, again, I do not believe anyone is trying to learn to do it in order to gain an advantage.

Windmill pitchers, unlike their brothers in baseball, must train by performing actual pitches throughout much of the year.   In youth and high school ball, many baseball pitchers take much more of the year off than windmillers do.   The windmill is just that much harder.   But in most places, one cannot practice pitching outside on an actual pitching surface.

Most pitchers do their "winter work" on a flat surface, without a rubber, or on some type of artificial surface with a rubber but no actual dirt around it.   The gymnasium floor is often a place where pitchers work.   It is very difficult to drag away from a point of impetus (rubber or not) on gym floor surfaces because they are made for NOT SLIPPING.

If you get yourself one of those mats with a rubber on it, you can drag away more easily than on a gym floor but it is still far more difficult than real dirt.   So, regardless of where they perform their winter workouts, many softball pitcher's get out of the habit of dragging away.

Sometimes, they actually develop crow hops while throwing on these indoor surfaces.   I'm not sure why this is but perhaps it could have something to do with trying to develop more speed.   Again, the crow hop is not a faster method of pitching but when a girl is pitching on a difficult surface to push and drag, she may do things in order to gain leverage so as tyo throw hard and not put too much stress on her shoulder.   Since she doesn't lose anything in the gym because she has no rubber, perhaps she can be prone to crow hopping.   I really do not know but I have seen many gymnasium pitchers who were legal outside develop crow hops during the winter.

A larger reason why pitchers develop crow hops has to do with the windmill learning process.   The motion is, in my humble opinion, one of the most complicated moves in all of athletics.   There is so much to learn separately with the upper and lower body, not to mention the core muscles, that it has to be taught in pieces.   A girl learns to snap the ball out of her hand, then bring her arm down and snap, and then a full rotation followed by a snap.   After the basic arm rotation is taught, then and only then, the twisting of the core is taught.   Only after these two pieces are learned fairly well is she taught about pushing off.   Thereafter, drills and warm up routines are established which break the motion down into pieces and ultimately bring them together.   It is very complicated and many girls struggle along the way.

I have watched several girls who have been trained to pitch for several years have difficulty maintaining a reasonable circle throughout their rotation.   I have seen many who do not fully open and thereby reduce the quality and length of their circle from which much of the power is gained.   I have seen many other girls who, despite fully opening and maintaining pretty good arm circles, have difficulty with the end of the motion or simply get into the habit of forgetting to snap the ball.   It is not easy.

In order to fix broken parts, many coaches go back to the drawing board and build up from the bottom again.   Then, after the broken piece is mended, girls sometimes have trouble bringing the thing back together again.   Or, and this is really frustrating, the girl fixes the broken piece and then something else is out of alignment.   Windmill pitching can very much be "Humpty-Dumpty."

Sometimes girls learn to pitch while making the mistake of crow hopping or leaping and these aren't fixed by their coaches for a couple reasons.   First of all, if a coach is working on 50 different little pieces that need tweaking, probably the last thing he or she is concerned with is a tiny leap.   Secondly, because the leap is very hard to fix on a poor surface for pitching, why bother?   Heck, she'll fix that when she gets back outside and we have so much else to do!

Another reason why pitching coaches do not or have not in the past bothered to fix little leaps and hops is because nobody has been calling them for years.   There has been a lot of talk about the subject but nobody has done anything about it for a long time.   Now, all of a sudden, the talk has caught the attention of the governing bodies and they are trying to fix what they allowed to break in the first place.   So, at the last Olympics, illegal pitches were actually called.   Also, last year the NCAA got slightly tougher on pitchers' feet.   Then the high school umps applied it a bit more than they had in the past.   This year seems to be the water shed.   Umps are calling it left and right.

Why was the illegal pitch almost never called before last year and this one?   I can't really say for sure but I assume that 1) nobody saw a real advantage gained by pitchers and 2) the rule has one major defect.

In baseball, as I said, the pitcher who commits a balk is trying to get, or in effect getting, an advantage over the baserunner.   In softball, that's not the case.   In baseball, the rules very sanely say, if you're trying to get an illegal advantage over the baserunner, then not only will we not allow it but we will give the baserunner an advantage by moving him up one base very time you do it.

In softball, where the pitcher is trying to get, or in effect deemed to be getting, an advantage over the batter.   We sanely penalize her by awarding a ball.   But, we then turnaround and also award baserunners a free advance to the next base.   We penalize the pitcher once by awarding a ball to the batter and that should be about right.   That should be it.

Umpires are often gifted with a good amount of common game sense, whether they know the rulebook precisely as written or not.   Many I have encountered over the years have taken time to explain not only to pitchers but also to coaches precisely what it is they think she is doing wrong.   I have even seen umps take the additional step of explaining the problem to parents of pitchers between innings.   They seldom make the illegal pitch call, or have historically done it seldom, because it changes the game, slows it down and basically destroys much of the good.

If you walk up to a random field and observe a pitcher at 10U through 18U, chances are probably 50/50 or better that you will see a pitcher make at least one illegal pitch during any inning.   Most likely, if you stay for both innings, you will see both pitchers make multiple illegal pitches.   Can you imagine going to a softball game, expecting it to be a low scoring, hour and a half affair but when you get there, the first pitch is called illegal, then the second, and so on?   That nice pure game will end up taking more than the 4 hours many baseball games take.   The score will be something like 50-49.   And both pitcher will have thrown no hitters!   VERY BORING!

Many umps recognize this and call illegal pitches infrequently unless the game is an important one.   The last thing they want to do is make the game a huge bore for all involved.

Another reason umps have often ignored illegal pitches is because when you take some 11, 12, 16 year-old pitcher and tell her to change her motion in the middle of a game, two things can happen.   One is she is going to throw so badly that the ball is going to be hit all over the place.   It is not because she has lost that wonderful advantage she illegally gained over the prior hitters.   It is because she is now out of sync and unable to pitch the way she has thrown the last forty thousand practice pitches.  -; She doesn't know what to do.

More importantly, when a pitcher changes her motion in the second inning of some game and then continues to throw another 100 pitches in a failed attempt to correct the mistake she has been making without correction over the past 3 or 5 years, she is going to put far too much stress on her shoulder, her back or some part of her body.   She is going to end up injured.   And that is a really bad outcome of trying to correct something like this during a game.

Do you think I am overstating reality by claiming that most pitchers throw illegally and can be called multiple times each inning?   Take a look at the top names in our game and show me five pitcher who do not throw illegally!   Jennie Finch?   Sorry, almost every pitch she throws involves a slight step forward off the rubber onto the ground in front of it.   Monica Abbott?   Cat?   Ditto, ditto.   Keep going.   I guarantee you that almost every pitcher in the top 50 or even 150 in the world, some of the greatest pitchers of all time, has some sort of routine flaw with her feet that should, if the letter of the rules are followed, result in a call at least some of the time.

Now, there are crow hops and there are crow hops.   There are leaps and there are leaps.   Jennie Finch gains nothing worth noting with her "step" which is technically a crow hop.   I'm not sure that any of the top pitchers really do gain from their hops or leaps.   It is just hard to be athletic with one very important foot nailed to the ground.

Further, even the game surface is somewhat imperfect.   Have you ever taken a good look at the dirt in the circle during a tournament game when 5 games have already been played on this field and the only repair work is by some guy like me who is absolutely clueless and even if he had a clue, doesn't have the proper materials or equipment to fix holes in the surface?

I have watched games on occasion where a pitcher was called for leaping because she lost contact with the ground after push off.   But the area in front of the rubber had a one foot drop and it is getting worse each and every pitch!   That is certainly not true of international or NCAA level games but in everything from high school on down, there are some pretty bad field conditions.   And even with state of the art equipment and materials applied by a real ground crew, during play, there are going to be holes dug.

How about this resolution to the illegal pitch?   Let's get a guy with clay at the ready and a tamper to pat down each application.   Now let's call him in after each inning to fix the surface?   No, that's not fair, he should come in every half inning.   And if the area gets beat up during a half inning, the plate ump can call him in to fix it.   This will really make the game fun and quick!

As I said, there are girls who hop quite egregiously.   And there are girls who leap very badly regardless of field conditions.   These problems need to be fixed.   A pitcher with a 3 foot crow hop should not be allowed to continue doing it year after year.   I'm not really sure about the leap since I don't think it really provides anything positive and really results from bad timing and coordination or lousy field conditions.

A likely rebuttal to my diatribe today is probably going to be something like the rules are the rules and they should be applied evenly, period.   To that, I will say that, technically, if you apply the rules perfectly, no player on the defensive team, nor her parents in the stands for that matter, is allowed to distract an offensive or defensive player in any way, shape or manner.   That being the case, and the rules are the rules, you must remain quiet in the stands in those tense moments that determine the outcome of the game.   Probably it would be best if players only spoke when the ball is in the circle and the pitcher is not on the rubber lest they distract anyone.   So no chatter of any kind is allowed.   All those catchers taught to block the plate while the throw is still incoming, that is obstruction.   Any contact made between an incoming runner and the catcher has to be either interference or obstruction and because these players are really not supposed to come into contact at all, someone should be ejected from the game on almost every close play at the plate I have seen.

The point is rules can be taken to extremes.   Obviously there is need for most rules.   They ought to be applied and applied evenly.  , But rules change or are clarified every year because they are, by nature, imperfect.  -; before we go from a speed of -0- to one of 120 mph, we ought to at least consider the bigger picture (I almost wrote pitcher).

Personally, I think some degree of latitude should be given to the finch's of the world.   I think there should be room for a "crow hop" on one or two inches which really would be limited to a mere slipping and sliding of the pivot foot from the rubber to a point right in front of it.   I also think a degree of rationality should be applied to the leap rule.   I saw a pitcher against who illegal pitches were called the other night on my Tivo.   The broadcasters noted that she had lost touch with the ground by a few inches on each delivery.   I replayed one over and over until I saw it.   She did leave the ground though you'd have to have very good eyes to notice it.   The funny thing was that she left the ground on those pitches on which illegal was called almost as often as she did when it wasn't called!

We might also want to at least look over at our brethren on the baseball diamond and make note of their balk rule, just as a reference point.   if the attempted illegal advantage is over the runners, they should get the benefit of any penalty.   If it isn't, they shouldn't.   The windmill pitch is a theoretical attempt to gain on the batter, not the runners.   The penalty should be a ball.   Why should the runners advance????

Finally, I seriously doubt that many folks out there, be they umps, coaches or whatever, have a good understanding of pitching rules.   One umpire recently said to a pitcher throwing warm-ups that she was crow hopping.   She wasn't.   She was leaping.   And, by the way, you are allowed to do that during your warm-ups!   A coach once recently was heard telling a pitcher that she was crow hopping, she wasn't.   She was leaping but that was because the field was in such terrible condition that had she dragged, she would have ripped her toe nails off inside her shoes.

I know rules are often hard to understand and harder to apply fairly.   But to the guy coaching first base who screamed balk as my then 9 year old was about to release the ball approximately 100 times during a nothing tournament game several years ago, read my lips.   THERE IS NO BALK IN GIRLS FASTPITCH SOFTBALL.   Also, to the same fellow, your daughter is an egregious crow hopper!   For the rest of you, please consider the words of ten year MLB umpire, Ron Luciano, as he addressed the issue of baseball's balk.   he said, "I never called a balk in my life.   I didn't understand the rule."

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Permanent Link:  Calling Out All Crowhoppers!

One For The Bucket Brigade!

by Dave
Friday, January 29, 2010

Tom writes in to ask, "How about doing one for the bucket dads?   Everyone talks about the kids!"

You know, Tom, I would do something for the bucket dads and moms but I don't want to wallow in self-pity.   So I am going to try to stick to anecdotes you and others have sent me, as well as some interesting stories I have heard or seen.   I will, of course, talk about some of my personal experiences because those are the ones I know best.

Tom complains of pain he got while returning the ball to his two daughters when they practice pitched to him.   As he notes, "there are no points for throwing it back on the fly."   I'll add that there are no points for looking like a pro when you throw the ball back either!

I have not only caught a lot of pitching sessions, I have watched others do almost as many.   One of the more comical things I have noted is the father or mother who squats like a real catcher and then tries to whip the ball back to the pitcher, again, like a real catcher.   I know the mentality.   I did this a few times and gave it up for personal safety reasons and to avoid pain.

Even funnier than the would be major league catcher is a fellow I know who wanted to work his daughter's ability to protect herself from line drives by whipping the ball back at her as hard as he possibly could each and every time.   His throws probably maxed out at 50-60 mph.   Nobody hits a ball back to the pitcher that softly beyond 10U.   It doesn't do any good to whip the ball back at her if that's the best you can do.   It just gets your blood up and makes her dislike you.   It also will eventually burn out your arm.

Let me provide some advice to all parent catchers and this same advice was mentioned to me by Tom.   Flipping the ball back on one hop is not a shameful act.   It will save your arm.   If your daughter is really, really going to grow up to be a pitcher, you are probably going to have to catch 2 - 4 times per week for 100 pitches and returns at the very least.   A good average might be 3 times per week for 150 pitches and even that is a bit understated.   That is 450 return throws per week, 44 weeks per year, over the span of perhaps an 8 year career, yields 158,400 throw backs.   If you, like Tom and I, have 2 daughters, figure it out.   You are going to hurt your arm!

I have a pretty bad right, throwing arm.   I broke my elbow playing football when I was 15 and still have shards of bone on the inside of the elbow.   I know the shards are there because my doctor warned about this at the time of the injury and, quite a while ago, I hurt it and it locked into place.   When I had X-rays done, the doctor noted that he could see the shards and it was the swelling around them that had caused the lock-up.   Years later, when my kids first got involved in softball, I threw a little too hard with another father before practice one day.   My arm was sore for weeks after that.

Once you get the knack of throwing it back on one hop, it may actually save you time because you won't suffer all those bad throws as you try to emulate Pudge-Rod.   Tom suggests that bouncing the ball back will make them better fielders.   I'm not sure if it is true or not.   But it certainly does not hurt their fielding ... or your arm.

The knees are probably your most abused joints.   If you ski, snow or water board, that's more so.   If you value your ability to walk around, up the stairs, into an elevator, I suggest trying something besides the standard catcher crouch.   I am fully aware that there is a little known Medicare benefit for which you might qualify.   I am slightly jealous of all those people on the TV who got their Power Chair and didn't have to pay a penny out of pocket for it.   But if you are in your 40s, you will look silly making your way to the restaurant/bar/supermarket in an electrical chair.   The alternative is a knee replacement but those replacements need to be replaced after a decade or so.   You can count on having to replace your bad knee(s) as many as 5 more times during your life if you need your first one at 40 or so.   Save your knees, get something to sit on during pitching practice!

Tom suggests a high bucket.   He recommends this because 1) he has sufficient room to toss the ball back underhand and 2) he is able to get out of the way of a wayward pitch very quickly without stressing his knees too much.   I prefer a lower bucket.   I use one of the shortest buckets around, one I used on my boat before I got rid of the boat in favor of softball lessons.   I like the shorter bucket because I can set a lower target and I want my kids to throw a lot of low pitches in order to induce grounders.   But I may rethink my approach very soon as I am missing out on the benefits Tom noted.

I do not suggest spending money to get the item I have seen in stores and online.   That is a stool which stands on one leg and is sold specifically for bucket dads and moms.   I got one for Father's Day.   It is not very convenient and I have fallen off it several times.   The thing about a bucket is you can use it as a bucket in which to carry gloves and balls.   It is sturdy.   One cheap little plastic bucket will probably survive your kids' pitching careers and you will be able to will it to them when they become parents.

At this point I have to tell you a story or two story about buckets.   I learned about them my first year of travel.   The warehouse superstore was selling seeds in a bucket for a very cheap price and we decided to buy one for the team.   I had hoped to recoup the bucket after the seeds were gone because it looked like it might make a good seat.   But when the seeds were depleted, the team's manager, a father of a pitcher, grabbed the bucket and made it his own faster than I could possibly have grabbed it back.   A month or two went by and someone took the top of that bucket and attached a proper seat cushion to it for the coach.   He still has my bucket today!   I think he is rather proud of it.

Another bucket brigade dad I know often catches his daughter when she pitches.   He does so in pitching lessons and practice sessions, at team practices and before games.   I noticed that he sits sideways on the bucket in order to protect his potential to produce children in the future.   After years of watching this, I commented to my wife about it and was surprised by her reaction.   She told me that when she first saw him sit sideways like that, she lost all respect for the man!   She said he should sit like a real man!!   So if you are at all concerned about the way people perceive you as you sit on your bucket, sit straight and protect yourself through other means.

Yet another bucket dad I know has a daughter who is a good pitcher but not always that successful when pitching against the best kids.   We were conducting a tryout for catchers one day and she was pitching to them.   I asked her if she had a dropball because I wanted to see the catchers block.   She said she did and proceeded to throw several very good ones.   I was genuinely impressed, not with the catchers but with this girl's dropball.   So I asked the father about why he never had her throw the drop in games.   He looked at me with a puzzled expression and said,

"Well, she really doesn't have a drop.   I mean we don't work on it at all.   I can't stand catching the thing.   So she never works on it.   I didn't think it was very good because I haven't seen her throw one in many months."

I informed him that she does indeed have a good drop.   I also told him that she practices it when she throws with her younger sister, a catcher.   I strongly suggested that he begin calling the pitch as one of her main ones in games.   Do you know, that pitch has become her mainstay and she is a much more effective pitcher now than she was before she started throwing the drop a lot.

Yet, I understand why a father would not want his daughter to spend a lot of practice time working on the drop, at least not while he was catching it.   The drop is the bane of many bucket dads' existence.   I remember talking to one father who had a daughter with a good drop.   He was catching her in the yard one summer evening when one pitch pointed out a tree root he had not completely removed from their throwing area.   He was struck in the knee by a drop that bounded off the tree root.   For months afterwards, he walked around with a softball sized bump on one leg.   This guy used to wear shorts in weather above 25 degrees.   But during July and August of that summer, he wore long pants due to his embarrassment.

Speaking of embarrassment, another father of a talented drop ball pitcher I know took one off his shins.   He had to go in for X-rays after a few weeks of hobbling.   The pain was excruciating.   But this guy had some trouble with the doctor because he refused to tell the man flat out that the injury was caused by catching his daughter's pitching!   The doctor wanted to know how it happened.   He said "never mind."   The doctor persisted relentlessly.   I think the doctor finally accepted some explanation about a foul ball at a high school baseball game.

The moral of that story is shin guards are advisable.   I actually don't wear them because I can't stand them.   I caught until I was 18 but I never really loved wearing guards.   And as an adult, I really can't handle the feeling, especially when I wear shorts.   That's not a very good excuse and I have chipped bones on my shins too, though nothing that hindered my ability to walk.   I guess I am pig headed and one day my daughter's dropball will convince me to wear the shin guards I have.

Tom has some advice if you also refuse to wear baseball/softball shin guards.   He uses soccer style leg guards.   I may have to look into this because it makes a lot of sense.   But I may have trouble finding anything that fits properly.   If you don't have football shaped calves, you might want to look into soccer shin guards to protect you while catching.

I have one final dropball story for you.   I was at the field one day and noticed a bunch of guys from our organization standing around a pick-up truck chatting.   As I walked towards them, they were laughing and making all kinds of odd faces.   As I got close, one yelled out to me, "hey Dave, have you ever taken one in the ... you know?"   I replied, "yes, many times, it ain't pretty, it's always the darn dropball."   As I uttered the beginning of the word "dro" they all broke out into hysterical laughter.   They were all pitchers' dads.   They knew exactly what I meant.   They all had the same experience.

I understand what Tom is saying about the higher bucket.   If you are catching a dropballer, it is best to get the heck out of the way once that ball hits the ground.   It has a lot of spin on it.   You really do not know where it is going to go.   The faster you can get out of the way, the better.

Still, I cling to my low bucket.   And one of my kids is a dropballer.   I have worked a way to protect myself and that is: I stay closer to the plate and when the ball hits the ground, usually it is right around the plate.   I go forward rather than trying to block it like a catcher.   I attempt to short hop it right near where it hits the ground so it doesn't have the opportunity to jump.   It doesn't matter to me if I catch it or merely knock it away.   Just so long as it doesn't jump me.   So far, that technique has worked.

The worst I have ever been struck is actually on a change-up.   My kid's change is pretty good.   It moves and dives.   When it hits the ground, it is difficult to know which direction it will bounce in.   She once threw one that hit the plate, bounced up, and caught me in the chin.   I saw stars.   I got a nice little knot on my face that stayed there for several months.   I think perhaps the bone was chipped but I never sought medical treatment because I was a little too embarrassed.   I didn't need to hear another human being suggest I wear a mask.   So I won't go into proseltyzing you about wearing a mask.   I'll just say that there is a good reason to put one on, and leave it at that.

So to recap, a bucket is better than squatting.   I prefer a low one but Tom likes a high one and he can offer some sound logic for choosing that size.   Protective equipment is probably a good idea though I admit to wearing none.   You must be hyper vigilant to protect yourself.   And those of us too proud to admit it hurts when we get hit should probably rethink our manhood.

Speaking of manhood, I don't want to shortchange the many women who catch their daughters' sessions.   I know several who, for one reason or another, do the job.   They may be better athletes than their husbands are.   They may just be the only one available when their daughters take their lessons.   I think I know of more fathers than mothers but there are penty of each and all have their own war stories.

As a matter of fact, I know that one of the guys who laughed at my comment above no longer catches his daughter's lessons.   Instead, he has his wife do that.   The reason is he has become very good friends with the pitching coach.   When the coach sees him, he likes to talk endlessly.   The guy not only feels as if his daughter is shortchanged due to the coach's excessive conversation, but also he is concerned because he too often gets distracted from the job at hand.   His daughter has hit 60 on the gun.   But she is a little wild, especially when throwing movement pitches.  l; He often finds himself nearly getting hit because he is too engaged in conversation.   So now his wife catches the daughter at lessons.   And she's the one sporting the injuries most of the time.

I really urge you in the strongest terms possible to not allow yourself to be distracted when catching.   Even a 50 mph pitch can do some damage when it hits you in the head.   Talking with others is possibly the most insidious form of being distracted.   I just heard on the radio that the result of laws prohibiting cell phone usage behind the wheel actually have accomplished one of their objectives - to lower the rate of usage while driving.   Unfortunately, the laws did not accomplish the main objective.   Accident rates did not go down.   While hands-free devices are used to a much higher degree than before, it turns out that they do not prevent accidents.   It is the talking that yields the distraction, not the use of hands.   If you try to hold a deep conversation while catching your daughter, you're gonna pay a price.

I have on many occasions found that I am not quite as wide awake as I should be when catching.   Sometimes my concentration drifts.   Sometimes my relatively weak eyesight takes me out of focus.   That is not good.

I strongly suggest that before you get behind the plate, you make certain you are wide awake.   I now very often drink a full cup of coffee before catching.   I sometimes take a shower beforehand.   I will try almost anything to ensure that I am as awake as possible.   It is no fun to recognize that you almost got hit by that pitch.

Speaking of those times when you feel like you almost just got hit, it is difficult for those whose daughters don't yet throw hard or those who have never been part of the bucket brigade to understand our plight.   The best way I can describe this is via analogy.

Do you know that feeling which immediately follows a near miss auto accident?   Your adrenaline pumps at full throttle.   You feel sweat start to well up in all the usual places despite having been relatively cold before the incident.   Your heart pounds.   You feel throbbing at your temples.   That's an almost car accident.   Almost being hit by a pitch is not as bad.   I would say that on every pitch my daughter throws, I feel about 5 percent of the car feeling.   And when I almost get hit, I suspect I reach to about 10 or 15 percent of that extreme.   During the winter, we catch down in my basement which is very large.   The basement is also rather cool, perhaps 45 - 50 degrees.   But after we are done, I am always sweating.   And when I almost get hit, I sweat profusely.

Women have more sense than men.   They are more willing to don the full gear.   Men are often either too lazy or too stupid unless or until their daughters become demonic hard throwers.   I know of a Division one pitcher whose father always puts on the equipment.   He does this because his daughter has been clocked around 67 and for one other reason.   When the kid throws to him, which she still does on occasion, he abuses her psychologically.   When he does this, she usually throws harder.   And she, I believe, aims to hurt him.   He throws the ball back at her hard a lot - he doesn't follow my one bounce advice and when he does throw it hard at her, I believe he aims to hurt her.   Their sessions are rather violent.   He dons the gear as a matter of survival.   She should consider pitching with catcher's gear on too.   Then again, she throws harder than he does.

One other item about gear, as a person who has suffered several concussions, not as a result of catching, I urge you to use the old style of catchers mask which is generally more protective of your brains.   I know the newer, hockey style masks are more in vogue and look better.   But the helmet part is intended to deal with foul balls.   I personally do not think you need to use a helmet.   And the hockey style mask provides less cushion when the mask is struck.   That is my opinion formed after doing some research.   You can do your own thinking and research.

The plight of the bucket dad or mom is not a well respected one.   Those of you who regularly catch your daughters know of what I speak.   We in the bucket brigade suffer all manner of injuries and humiliation.   A little common sense can go a long way towards reducing the number of our injuries.   And learning from others is at the heart of the human condition.   So take Tom's advice and mine.   Don't let your pride get in the way of protecting yourself.   Also, when your daughter can throw a projectile hard enough to kill you, it is best not to anger her too much.

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Permanent Link:  One For The Bucket Brigade!

Now Is The Time

by Dave
Monday, November 30, 2009

Many, if not most, of us are in the off-season.   Yes, elite travel players aged about 14 and up are working towards winter showcases in Florida and elsewhere.   Many warm weather states are playing their winter seasons.   And in the cold states, some few are making plans for indoor winter ball or their indoor workout sessions.   But that's travel ball and what I'm about to discuss has nothing to do with that.   Right now, my thoughts are with rec programs around the country.   Officers and other league officials are making plans for the coming season including tryouts which will happen for many right after the holidays.   In going with the catch phrase of 2009, how about thinking about some sort of "change" for the 2010 season?!

When my mind drifts back to rec ball, a couple images come to mind.   For one thing, there are those eternally long games between large teams (15 or more) of girls aged 7 to 10.   Another image that comes to mind is of girls in the 12U division who really are not interested in playing softball at a high level but just want to get out and socialize with their friends.   The final image that comes to mind is of the older divisions which have depleted rosters either because most of the skilled players are somewhere else, perhaps in travel, or because softball is competing with school and other activities.

These are macro images and when I think of each, a couple sub-set images come to mind.   In the 10U age group, typically you have about half the girls who have never played anything beyond tee ball and about half the girls who have already played a full year, possibly more, of real softball.   Of those who have played some, there is a smaller sub-set of girls who have attended clinics on their own or possibly gotten involved with travel ball someplace where they played 50 games outside the rec league, practiced all winter and developed their skills well beyond the newbies.

Generally, the pitching stinks in this category except for a very small group of girls who have actually taken lessons, perhaps even pitched travel ball for a year.   There are not nearly enough of these girls to go around to all the teams and because the league restricts girls from pitching more than say 3 innings a game or week, the games almost always degrade into walk-fests with a few hits when the pitcher finds the strike zone and the wrong kid, some travel kid, is at bat.

Games usually have some sort of time restriction like 2 hours and thank goodness for that because nobody could take any more.   A game might start out with a bunch of walks and then somebody hits a grounder that exceeds the reach of any infielder and rolls past the outfielders.   Finally the last outs are recorded and the teams switch.   the next half inning might proceed like the first or the other team might have one of those travel pitchers.   In any event, it continues until the score is pretty high, the travel pitcher ends her permitted number, or some such.   Nobody has really gained from the experience.   But everyone goes out for ice cream or speeds off to a family party or other event.   Meet back here Tuesday or next Saturday and we'll replay the same game against another team.

At 12U, most of the girls are more coordinated and there is more "quality" pitching.   A few teams have one travel pitcher, possibly two.   Some teams do not.   Generally the teams that have pitchers will make it to the playoffs by blowing out the others.   And then there are some quality games, quality for the more serious players, that is.   The less serious, less skilled kids will be either at home because their team is no longer playing or stuck out in the outfield and overwhelmed by the opposing pitching.   Games are shorter throughout the season and particularly in the playoffs.   Bragging rights are established.   And many girls start considering leaving softball for something a little more interesting and exciting, or something they can actually excel at.

In the older age categories, there is a massively reduced number of players because girls have left for other activities because they have absolutely no confidence on the softball diamond.   Some play although they are not serious about the game because they can still hold their own and there is nothing else much that interests them.   When basketball or some other event conflicts with their rec softball games, they choose the other activity which causes teams to have trouble fielding 9.   There are fewer and fewer teams and age groups are often combined in order to have enough teams with enough kids to play games.

This is the rec softball pyramid.   We start out with too many kids to count at age 7 or 8 and end up with too few kids to bother counting by 15 and 16.   Competition stinks in the early ages.   It gets marginally better in older ones and then degrades as the number of participants depletes.   It is a shame for a truly great game.

But what do we do about it?   Like I said, right now is the planning stage for many rec programs.   If I have accurately described rec softball, ultimately, We can really do only one of two things.   We can leave it alone and assume nothing will make it any better, or fooling with it might make it worse.   Or we can try to make some positive changes.   What some of these changes could be are the subject of today's discussion.

Some leagues divide up the girls between 8U and 10U or 8-9 and 10U while some have leagues where 7 and under are relegated to tee ball while everyone over 8 and under 10 plays in a single league.   The differences in coordination, strength, athleticism, etc. between a youngish 9 (let alone 8) and an older 10 is considerable.   IMHO, girls aged 8 should not be playing with the 10s.   It would be preferable if programs could establish separate leagues for 8U and 10U, even perhaps divide up the 9s and 10s into competitive and less competitive play.

If for example, you have 8 teams of 10U in which all different skill and age levels are represented, what would be wrong with creating 2 divisions, based partly on age and partly on skill.   These would then play against just 3 other teams rather than having a single 8-team league in which some kid who could not field a grounder or make a decent throw to first must play against another who has played a year of travel ball in addition to rec.   So my first recommendation is to consider dividing up your 10U league into competitive and less competitive divisions.   If you do not wish to do this at 10U for whatever reasons, consider doing it for 12U.

Next, it is almost painful to watch the pitching at 10U in most rec leagues.   Yes, there are some which train their pitchers and that is generally a better league.   Many just conduct tryouts and leave the teams to their own devices.   One team has one great pitcher and many poor ones.   Other teams have decent pitchers who do not walk the world.   But overall, the total quality of pitching is very poor.

Right now, when budgets are being established and plans for the season are being laid out, why not consider addressing the pitching issue?   What you can do is bring in a professional instructor to train a group of pitchers at weekly clinics.   If a professional trainer is not within the realm of budgetary possibility, comsider talking to local high school coaches to get a kid pitching at that level who would volunteer to work with the kids.   Every high schooler who aspires to go to college must perform a minimum number of hours of community volunteering.   This would be a fun way to earn one's required points.

These clinics could be conducted during the late winter months in some school gymnasium or other facility.   Presumably the local rec league can gain access to a school gym for free or some sort of nominal charge.   You get your space, some balls, an instructor and see how things develop.

The pitching clinics should not be some sort of free benefit provided by the league that anyone who wants to come whenever they want to come can feel free to attend.   It should be mandatory for all girls who state they want to pitch in the league.   There could be a nominal fee to cover expenses.   If a professional instructor would accept $200 for a two hour clinic and you were able to squeeze 20 kids into a lesson, $5 - $10 per kid is not bad for one or two hours worth of Saturday afternoon baby sitting for a girl to gain the opportunity to stand in the circle.   Add to this the other costs and divide by 20 or have the league pick up those costs.   The point is, this could be accomplished for very little cost per aspiring pitcher.

One league I have spoken about in the past puts the word out that anyone who wishes to pitch must attend their pitching clinics which have a paid instructor plus some high school volunteers.   A good instructor can easily handle 20 kids but give him 2 high school aged, softball playing girls and everything goes very smoothly.   Attendance is taken at these clinics.   Girls who want to pitch must attend, regardless of excuses provided.   If your clinic consists of 8 to 10 sessions, you might allow any one girl to miss 2 but more than that and they are no longer pitchers.   yes that's tough politically but if you want your league to provide a quality experience, trust me, this is a necessary step.

Girls who attend their own private lessons, could be exempted or have a reduced number of sessions, provided that it is clear that they are actually attending lessons and do not need additional work in a group setting.   This can easily be seen in tryouts or at a first clinic session at which skills are evaluated.   Don't simply accept anyone's word that a particular kid is in lessons and therefore has a valid e4xcuse not to show at your clinics.   Otherwise, you will most certainly see more kids laying claim to being in lessons while your league's pitching improves only a bit.

The point about improving pitching is not merely some way to alleviate parental pain caused by sitting through horrendous walk-fest games.   There is a better reason to take the plunge and do this.   While hitting is very much a mechanical issue that should be addressed in a vacuum, it is also critical for hitters to see decent pitching, as mush as possible.   When walk-fests take place, nobody benefits, not the struggling pitchers, not the bored fielders, not the batters who never get to take swings.   When a league's 10U pitching improves, everybody benefits.   Batters take their cuts.   Fielders field balls because batters are hitting them.   And the game moves along so nobody is caught yawning either in the stands or out in right field.

It should be noted that when 10U pitching improves, 12U games are better too as kids move up having actually pitched somewhat well.   Others have fielded real grounders or flies.   And batters have real experiences of seeing strikes and ripping at them.

As a side note, there is another pitching related issue which can be addressed to improve your local rec league.   That issue can be addressed either in a non-competitive 10U or, if you have a 9U or other pre-10U league, there.   That issue is walks.

One way to deal with the issue is to alter the number of balls required before a batter is walked.   At young ages, 6 might be the magic number which changes the game for the better.   If that doesn't cut down the number of bases on balls, there is another approach which is guaranteed to.   Abolish them.   That is, do not permit walking.   When the pitcher throws 4 or 6 balls, have a coach pitch.

One league we were involved with had a rule which limited walks to 4 per inning.   After that, a coach pitched the rest of the inning.   That did not really work all that well.   Almost every inning began with 4 walks followed by, of course, coaches pitching.   if you want to do that sort of thing, why not put 3 runners on base, give the batting team a run and then have coaches pitch the whole thing?   Of course, this also solves nothing.   So, instead, consider doing away with walks, just at this low level, and allow pitchers to try to throw strikes to each and every batter without facing the risk of boring their teammates to death.

A peripheral issue involves the way teams are set up.   Say you have 8 teams in your league and 16 kids have attended the clinics.   That works out nicely since 2 pitchers could be placed on each team.   But that is never the way it works unless you design it as such.   if you want to improve your league's games along with the pitching, conduct separate drafts of pitchers and other players.   The teams which go first in the pitcher draft go last in the player draft.   And do not allow two parents who also happen to have their kids in pitching lessons to coach on the same team.   Split them up.   I don't really care who is friends with whom.   The league exists for the good of the largest possible number of participants, not to ensure that Sally gets to play with her best friends.

This raises an issue unrelated to generally improving a rec league but I want to address it nonetheless because it is a thorn in my side.   How many times have you seen this kind of thing happen: Matt, Sara's dad who is coaching the Marlins or Phillies has Sara, an ace pitcher on his team.   His daughter knows Jane and Mollie who are very good softball players that can also pitch in a pinch.   They know Maggie, Allie, Kristen and Lauren, also good players.   The group conspires to go to tryouts and not really try.   Matt is able to draft all 6 girls plus his daughter and they crush all comers in the league once games start.   One of the 7 always pitches, another always catches, and the others make up the infield.   They bat 1-7 with the "other girls" filling in remaining spots and sharing tim e on the bench.   This kind of stuff cannot be allowed to go unpunished.   It happens all the time across this nation and most other league participants are hurt in some fashion by it.   Enough of that.   If a league president knows about such shenanigans and is too spineless to put a stop to it, he or she should not be president.

So that is pitching and two related draft issues which could be addressed in order to improve a rec league.   I believe that this issue alone, if it is resolved, will lead to a better rec league.   But I'm going to delve a bit further into other areas because I do not believe resolving this issue alone will lead to better participation, particularly as girls age up.

Another area which can be addressed is fundamental defensive skills.   So many kids progress through rec softball without ever really knowing how to field a ball or make a throw or catch that it is mind boggling.   Kids come out for the lowest levels and coaches do make an effort to teach their teams how to field and throw.   But before long, they come to the conclusion that half the kids can do it and the other half cannot.   They also conclude that the only way they are going to win games is to take the kids who can field and throw, put them in the infield, and then teach them where to throw.   They encourage these more naturally gifted kids to take over control of the game.   If the ball is hit to the outfield and you can get it, go get it.   Don't wait to allow the others to try to make a play.   Just take charge and make every play you possibly can.   While there is nothing wrong with the philosophy of going for everything in general, it can devolve into the old "Bad News Bear" scene in which one kid races back and forth and catches the ball right in front of another kid.   That's not good.

A better approach is to require coaches to teach basic skills.   That's tougher than it sounds since most coaches: A) do not have the slightest idea of what basic skills are, let alone how to teach them; B) see the rec league as a way of raising their own egos or providing their kid with a winning experience; or C) do not want to be told how to coach or structure a practice since they played college ball and the league officials did not.   Leagues must coach their coaches.

If you go watch a very good rec league, one of the elements of play which will strike you is the fundamental skills of the players.   This league might just be blessed with better water or soil which yields a better crop of athletes.   But if that happens year after year, most likely the water and soil have nothing to do with it.   There must be another reason.   Most likely they teach all the participants those fundamental skills.

Many towns have certain requirements their coaches must meet.   They have to attend the safety training class.   They must attend a meeting which tells them that they should emphasize certain things like fun, basic skills, and team work, not winning.   But even when these perfunctory meetings and classes are conducted at which all the good intentions are laid out, nothing much changes.   We have to find a way to force or coerce coaches into teaching sound fundamentals, putting the emphasis on the right thing, or otherwise improving everyone's experience and learning.

The first issue is to make sure coaches know fundamental skills.   For this, perhaps a film session followed by an open discussion would suffice.   There are videos out there which teach fundamentals.   Most are addressed to players but there is no harm in having coaches watch them.   An alternative is to bring in a competent local high school or travel coach.   I say competent because there are plenty of incompetents.   I know of some high school coaches who parents of players would like to sit down and teach the basics of the game to.   If the local high school coach is merely taking additional pay for the least possible amount of effort, perhaps a travel coach would be willing to come in and help out.   If he or she pulls many of their players from the local area, this can only benefit their program.

The second issue is finding a way to make sure the coaches teach the skills to their players.   It is nearly impossible to draft up a specimen practice regimen, require its use, and then enforce the requirement.   Nobody takes kindly to this sort of control from league officials.   But some sort of requirement for teaching skills is absolutely necessary at young ages.

There are a couple ways to resolve the issue.   One is to require coaches to conduct practices of a certain duration consisting of a certain amount (say half of practice) of fundamental skills teaching and practicing.  [; The second half is theirs to do with as they choose.   This can be tough to police unless a league rep can attend practices regularly and watch in order to enforce the rule.   A secojnd, more effective way to enforce the requirement of spending a certain amount of time working fundamental skills is to take away the practice time and put it into "clinic" time.   You have 8 to 16 coaches looking to practice their players.   You have say 160 girls looking to practice.   Rather than conducting separate practices by team, use half the time to conduct clinics at which the team coaches are instructors under the supervision of a coordinator who directs what is to be done, when and how.

A league which, for example, plays its games on Sunday and Wednesday could establish some sort of Saturday clinic schedule and then allow teams no more than one practice outside the clinis per week.   Coaches might work with their players for some of the time but be supervised by league officials or the coordinator while conducting the drills.   There are many ways to conduct these clinis but you can figure this out for yourselves.

As a final comment about clinics as opposed to practices, I find that many leagues do this sort of thing but only at the youngest age levels.   It would be best if these kinds of skills clinics could be continued at least through 10U.   It would be better if they continued up to at least 12U, though in more sophisticated form.

And as a final comment about coaching or policing coaches, some sort of evaluation program should be implemented.   It should be formal and standardized.   It must involve the players, parents or both.   Each participant's family ought to receive an evaluation form concerning how the team was run.   The form should contain a questionnaire which grades coaches ability and willingness to teach fundamental skills.   The questions must be objective such as:

"Fundamental skills" (circle all comments that apply)

"I (my daughter) was taught fundamental skills more than / less than half of all practice time"

"I (my daughter) had ample / insufficient time to learn these skills"

"The coach was knowledgeable / needs work on his understanding of skills / ability to communicate those skills with the kids."

I think you get the idea.   No, I don't have a specimen questionnaire for you to use.   You need to draft one up which mirrors your organization's values.   But keep in mind that you want a high level of participation in the process.   Getting 50% or less of these questionnaires back is not only a good thing, it makes the entire batch completely useless.   You cannot evaluate coaches based on a half return rate.   You need a minimum of 75%.   Also the process must be anonymous.   Specific comments, if you allow parents to provide them, cannot be read back to the coach.   When the process is over, the overall grade is the only thing which you share with the coach.

For example, a coach might be told, you had an overwhelming response which indicated that you do not like to teach fundamentals or you need to work on your communication skills.   A coach might be told that the majority of respondents felt that you put winning too high on your list of priorities.   Again, I think you get the idea and can do for yourselves.

So, these are my suggestions to you to improve your rec league.   I have no vested interest in this.   It really just popped into my head this morning.   I suppose I know where it all came from.   I was discussing some softball issues with a web friend.   He directed me to a forum which discussed all sorts of softball issues in his state.   I was struck by how similar the discussion was to similar forums regarding my state.   I was also struck by how many of the same issues pop up all over the place.

One of the issues which was raised had to do with "how do we bring our state's softball up to the level of California?"   In that discussion, one of the readers wondered why CA players were so good.   All sorts of reasons were givewn and most I take issue with.   For one thing, there is this assumption that the only good ball is played in CA.   Last I looked Florida is making some large inroads.   Further, there is very good softball being played in Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Georgia, etc, (sorry if I missed your state).

For another thing, everyone assumes CA has better softball because it has such great weather.   yes, they do have great weather but not everywhere in the state.   Some places are way too hot to play ball in the summer.   Some places actually get snow.   Some places are just grand to play softball 365 days per year but, you know, I know of some teams that play in colder, less pleasant climates who play over 100 games per year, play indoors whenever the weather is no good, and otherwise ought to be able to compete with CA teams.   Yet there must be other reasons because one particular organization which does this and who I am thinking about is good but hardly the best around.

The fact is CA has been at this fastpitch thing longer than most places.   In my state and many others, girls were playing slowpitch or modified for many decades before they gradually moved over to fastpitch.   Heck, there are some high schools which still play slowpitch in a few places around the country.   Fastpitch hasn't really been around many places for very long.   I think that people either don;t know or forget that colleges in the SEC and ACC have not fielded softball teams for very long, mostly less than two decades.   Until the game has been around for longer and things have sorted themselves out, just a few places will continue to yield the largest, highest quality crop of softball players and teams.   The question cannot be what does CA have that we'll never have which allows them to produce better softball.   The question has to be, what can we learn from other places about how to improve our softball.   One, important place we can improve is the quality of our rec leagues.   If we drastically improve our rec leagues, the entire game in our region will improve.   But not only that, also more and more girls will come to appreciate our game.   More and more girls will have fun p[laying softball well.   That is why I wrote this today.

"Change" is the catchword of today.   We do need to make changes in many aspects of our lives.   It cannot be change for change's sake.   It must be change for the sake of improvement.   I've laid out a few areas in which our rec softball leagues can change.   Pitching is key.   Fundamentals are almost as important.   As you, the league officials, plan for the coming rec season, how about thinking about some positive changes?

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Stable Of One?

by Dave
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I received an e-mail from a regular reader which suggested I put a little something into the blog regarding the overuse of pitchers.   I have to note that in the past, I have tended to fall on the side of the argument which believed pitchers could throw as long as they liked and as long as they were not generally worn out.   But my views on this are undergoing some changes and I'm about to put forth arguments which differ from what I have said in the past.   This subject is somewhat controversial.   I know I will hear from the other side in short order.

When I was first involved with this sport, somewhere along the way I read about how underhanded pitching was a much more natural motion than overhand.   That is a somewhat obvious observation although not, in my view, a very careful analysis of the realities of windmill pitching.   The notion was proffered that softball pitchers could throw virtually endlessly.   They would wear out their legs and brains long before their arms or shoulders showed signs of strain.   That is why, I read, you see so many of the top pitchers throwing so many innings, especially in the championship setting.

For years, medical professionals have warned us in the softball community that while the overhand and underhand motions do effect the joints differently, we would be mistaken to conclude that windmillers could go on forever, without ever suffering serious consequences to their joints, tendons and ligaments.   We know that very often pitchers do suffer injuries.   Yet we have seen so many very good teams on which the ace of the squad pitches 14 or more innings on a single day, sometimes on back to back days.   We also recognize that there are not enough good pitchers to go around.   We take these observations and conclude that if a girl is going to be a top caliber pitcher, she had better get used to pitching more than a single game on any day and be prepared to drive herself to physical exhaustion in championship brackets.   Coaches put together teams knowing that they only have one true A level pitcher but reason that if they can get a kid here and there to just eat up one of their three games, the ace will take care of the other 14 innings.

Softball is just different.   It certainly is not baseball.   I saw the pitcher from (insert top 25 NCAA Div I team) throw 16 innings to keep her team alive on the WCWS.   Obviously, good windmill pitchers can go the distance more than their baseball counterparts.

Let's take a look at just a little history.   Long ago in baseball, pitchers threw a lot more than they do today.   Some baseball pitchers threw full double headers.   Some pitched back to back days, some back to back to back.   A few baseball pitchers threw one game with their right arm and another with their left.   Pitchers often played other positions when not pitching.   Remember, Babe Ruth was a pitcher in the major leagues before he began to focus exclusively on hitting home runs.

When sports grow older, they often go through transformations.   In the early days of football, not only did they wear very little padding and their helmets were laughably inadequate, but also players often played both ways, offensive and defensive teams.   As the sport progressed, teams recognized that they got better results with 11 guys dedicated to offense and a different 11 to defense. nbsp; They had themselves specialists for functions like punting and field goal kicking but that was about it.   Later on, they discovered certain position players were more well suited to certain types of plays.   Certain blockers were better at pass blocking, run blocking or pulling and other types of plays.   The same held true for other players like running backs and tight ends.   And the same held true on the defensive side of the ball.   Players were shuttles in and out based on expectations regarding the type of play likely.   Defenses and offenses got more and more sophisticated to the point that coaches established whole "packages" of players for defensive situations.   Now almost half the defensive team comes off the field to be replaced by another "package" of players depending on what is going on with the down and distance.   Football has become almost as sophisticated as baseball!

(If you find that you are a purest who believes football teams are wrong to run players in and out on every play, you should consider that offensive teams do not generally agree with you.   That is why the whole no-huddle offense was created - to take away time for coaches to make up their minds which package to send in and to sometimes prevent them from making any changes at all.)

Baseball, at least in terms of pitching, has become perhaps the most complicated sport on Earth.   Like I said, in the day, pitchers threw often.   They also often pitched complete games.   Later, pitchers got into a rotation in which they threw every 4, then 5 days.   Then, as time wore on, there came an era of the "fireman" who was a relief pitcher that was as dominant as a good starter.   The fireman would come in when the pitcher seemed to be out of gas, generally in the 7th or 8th inning, sometimes earlier, sometimes in the 9th.   The fireman typically pitched innings, not batters.

Teams noticed when their competition stopped trying to stretch out their pitchers to a full 9.   They took notice when a fresh guy came in after the starter walked the leadoff hitter in the 7th and the fresh guy shut their teams down.   Before long, the fireman was something they had to have.   And the number of complete games dwindled.   In the current era, we see things much more complicated than that.   There are middle relievers, 7th inning guys, 8th innings guys, and closers.

Not very long ago, the only guys anybody worried about were the starters and the closer.   Then it began to be recognized that teams without a true 8th inning guy were losing games when maybe they shouldn't.   All of a sudden, the 8th inning guy became more important.   Then the same became true of the 7th inning guy.   Today it is fairly normal for a starter to go no more than 6, possibly 7 innings, another specialist or two to come in and throw just one inning in the 7th or 8th, and then either the 8th inning guy or the closer comes in to try to seal up the victory.

Even more extreme, many baseball teams carry a guy just to get out a single lefty, perhaps two, late in the game.   These guys are probably the oddest breed of them all.   Can you imagine a point in your pitching career where your warm-up pitches are 3 or 4 times more numerous than your game ones?   These guys sometimes warm for 15 minutes and then come in to throw a single pitch!   And I have heard team general managers complain that they are dissatisfied with the guy who is their "lefty specialist" and the market for such players is too thin!!!

There seems to be some dissatisfaction amongst purests regarding this kid-glove treatment of pitchers.   They seem to think that teams are babying pitchers and this is leading to a weakened state of the game.   Notable amongst the purests who want to extend pitchers in terms of innings and pitches is Nolan Ryan, whose pitching record stands in stark contrast to the way pitchers are treated today.   He threw complete games.   He was not beholden to any sort of pitch or inning count.   He just gutted it out when he got tired.   And he is going to try to get things back to the way they were with the team he runs.

Only time will tell if baseball will move back to a more rigorous pitching schedule.   But one thing is for certain, the results, not anyone's philosophy, will push the action.   If stretching pitchers out results in wins, particularly world series wins, then everyone in baseball will eventually follow suit.   If it does not, it will not continue.   And, even if we see more complete games in the future, we will not see the role of good relievers diminished very much, if at all.

Some of the reasons that baseball pitchers do not go as long today as they once did have to do with the ball and game conditions.   Some of them have to do with the batters.   Some of them have to do with medical reasons.   And some are just plain common sense.

When baseball decided it wanted more balance between offense and defense because folks were not happy paying big money to go watch a pitchers' duel in which one team had 3 base hits and the other 1, they began taking steps to "level the playing field" between offense and defense.   In the old days, outfield fences stood out near the horizon.   Those were brought back in by large percentages.   The pitchers mound was lowered.   The ball was juiced.   In the olden days, a pitcher threw what was practically a bean bag at a batter way down there who needed to hit the thing 450 feet just to hit the fence.   Today, the baseball pitcher throws a super-ball straight at a batter who, if he check swings too hard and makes decent contact, has a very real chance of going yard.

Batters have much more sophisticated training today than they had in Ty Cobb or Ruth's generation.   They have more video analysis than NASA once did.   They have machines which train their eyes to hit all manner of pitches at all speeds, even those not humanly possible.   There are numerous folks with doctorates in medical fields analyzing the most efficient swings.   Coaching has become more and more sophisticated because, as anyone with a sports page this time of year can tell you, there is gold to be earned in them there hills.   If hitters are not better trained today than they were 20, 50, 100 years ago, I'd be shocked speechless.   These guys take batting practices in which there are video screens set up with tapes of the guy they are going to face tomorrow throwing.   The hitters of today are more well prepared, if perhaps not better athletes than those of yesteryear.

They also undergo more strength and athletic training which is geared to hitting homeruns or just plain hitting.   Pitchers have sophisticated prep too.   But that does not diminish the prep batters have before they face them.   Batters also get customized laser vision correction which sometimes gives them incredible vision comaprable to the games greats when their genetics would have failed them.   The worlds of video analysis coupled with medical and sports training professionals has tailored training regimens to make them more effective.   The entire world of technology seems destined to make baseball pitchers' lives more difficult.

And on top of these developments, batters have become more well schooled as the game has progressed.   They make adjustments to pitchers, pitches, and to situations.   All the knowledge of the previous generations has been passed down in the game.   The hitters of today truly stand on the shoulders of those who went before them.   The result is pitchers get run out of games earlier and earlier.   Few pitchers have nearly as much success the second time through the lineup as they had with the first.   Very few survive their third time through. &nbvsp; Only the absolute best can do more than that.

To go further, medical professionals have had many more years of examining the results of over-pitching in baseball.   Each and every year, better and better understanding of injuries occurs.   Over much time, we have come to understand that the pitching motion is very hard on the body.   We have cut down the amount of pitches to the point where things like the "Joba Rules" in which a young pitcher for the New York Yankees had his number of innings and pitches held to a very low number in the name of preserving the longevity of his career, are becoming more commonplace despite the wisdom of the Nolan Ryans of the world.

So that's baseball and, to a lesser extent, football, two games which have a longer history than softball in the sense of person hours spent playing and examining the structures of the game in order to put together more wins.   In both, a high degree of specialization has formed.   Teams whose success and failure rides on their ability to win games and, hopefully, championships have instituted relatively high degrees of specialization.   Nowhere is that more drastic than with baseball pitching.

To contrast baseball with fastpitch softball does not take a genius.   I suppose that is why I am able to do it!   Fastpitch softball much more resembles the baseball of Ruth and Cobb than it does the game of today.   Teams will often use just one pitcher in the semifinal and championship games.   Girls are called upon to throw 10 innings on Saturday and 14 or more on Sunday.   Pitchers play the field when not pitching on today's lean travel team rosters.   They very often have Ruthian hitting skills.   Teams can sometimes jump on the back of one pitcher and ride her to high levels.

The result of seeing these pitchers aligned against us throw back to back games and play when they are not pitching is we come to the conclusion that we should expect this out of our best pitchers.   We should search for an ace who can carry the entire team on her back.   And the result often is that the team's best pitcher is expected to pitch one heck of a lot of innings, sometimes more than her body can take.

Our game is also becoming far more sophisticated.   If you doubt this, consider the that 30 years ago, the SEC and ACC schools didn't even field teams in fastpitch.   High schools in most states had either slow pitch or modified fastpitch.   Softball did not merely take a back seat to baseball, it was required to ride in the pickup trucks' bay with the feed and livestock.   And that was during hail storms.

Today there are fastpitch teams everywhere.   More pop up every year.   Schools are dropping slowpitch in favor of our game.   Position players are going to see position specific private coaches.   All players at pre-college higher levels are going to see sport-specific trainers.   Batting instructors are far more numerous than they were 5, 10, 20 years ago.   Teams travel all around the country to play against better competition.   Whereas players from Florida were recruited for just church leagues twenty years ago, today it is becoming somewhat rare for a college team to not have some kid from there.   A team from Florida actually won ASA Gold one year.   And other states are quickly following suit by developing their programs to compete with the best.

As far as the game itself goes, the pitcher's plate was moved back to 43 feet from 40 with the specific idea of balancing the game's offense and defense.   Some few dominant pitchers continued to strike out batters in droves but overall, there are more balls hit into play than there once were.   While baseball is still the money sport and the money provides much of the sophisticated training, there is naturally a crumb phenomenon in which the best baseball technology becomes available to softballers.   Hitters are better and the deck is stacked somewhat against pitchers.

On top of these developments, we are coming to recognize that pitchers, be they windmill or overhand, all have pretty high incidences of injury.   The truth is there is nothing particularly natural about any pitching motion.   Underhand may be more natural than overhand but it ain't something that is easy on the body.   Pitchers can develop back problems, knee issues, and, of course, shoulder and arm injuries from overuse.

Further, it would be one thing if everybody in windmill pitching threw mostly fastballs with a few changes or a curve mixed in the way baseballers do.   But that's not our game.   Our game consists of rises, drops, screws, curves, etc.   Again, it does not take a genius to recognize that windmillers contort their arms to make the ball dance.

I recall seeing a still photo one time of a pitcher right at ball release.   This girl was wearing your typical uniform top so you could see her entire arm and shoulder.   She was throwing a drop or a curve in the shot.   She was a fairly skinny kid with not particularly much flesh to hide her muscles, tendons and ligaments from view.   In the picture, as she released the ball, the muscles on her arms looked like elongated rubber band balls.   You could see the actual fibers straining underneath her thin skin.   The strain in tendons and ligaments was also apparently visible.   The overall picture was one of almost her skin being transparent.   Strain was plainly visible.

I would hazard a guess that this kid threw as many as 50% of her pitches using that particular pitch.   Girls in our game do come to rely on one or two pitches as their bread and butter while using other types of pitches for set up or to throw the batter off their mainstays.   And that "out pitch" or pitches is generally something that requires considerable strain, well beyond the mere fastball.   It is common for an ace to be a dropballer, riseballer, or some such.   The result is an incredible amount of strain on muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments, more than is evident in the statement that underhand throwing is more natural and less stressful on the body than overhand.

We do see college squads using more than just the ace in most istuations beyond the conference or NCAA championships.   Typically, many colleges have three or four pitchers who see a fair amount of action.   Typically, the same kid will not appear in both games of a routine, middle of the season, double header.   When she does, it is usually for just a part of each game or most of one and little of the other.   And many times, when she is used in more than one game, it is due to an injury to one or more of the other pitchers.

High school squads usually do not have the depth to use more than one pitcher most of the time.   They may have a kid who fills out innings when they are playing weaker teams.   But against the mediocre and good teams, a single kid is used unless they find themselves in one of those rare games in which they luck into a big lead.   Sometimes, when scheduling puts demands on a team, the same kid might throw 7 innings in the morning and 7 in the evening.   Very often, the same kid is pitching complete games on multiple consecutive days.   It can be quite a grind.

Travel rosters, typically consisting of no more than 12 kids, sometimes 11, rarely find they have tremendous depth in pitching.   Certainly a few fortunate teams have a wealth of pitching.   But, as anyone in travel can tell you, if you have too much pitching today, you won't for very long because the pitchers who see too little action will quickly leave.   Travel teams often have one ace plus a couple other pitchers who vary in terms of abilities.   I have been involved with or known teams that have one good pitcher and several mediocre or below.   I have been fortunate to involved with teams that have a good amount (3 or 4) of pitchers who can each throw 4-7 innings successfully almost any day.   That's a real luxury.

By far the most common circumstance I have seen occurs in which a travel team has one kid who is head and shoulders above the other pitchers.   Maybe she is an absolute flamethrower or perhaps she has a great mix of speeds.   Maybe she is one of the few who can truly master the rise or maybe she is really a refined girl destined to play D-1 softball and be good at it.   In any event, these teams often overuse these aces.

They start out Saturday with a plan of giving each kid a game and alternating their relief pitchers.   Then they get to their first game and the number 3 struggles so they bring in number 1 who is still scheduled to start game three.   She works four innings and then goes back to CF for game 2.   Then in game 2, number 2 pitcher does very well until maybe the 4th or 5th when she loads up the bases.   The team would like her to finish but they lost the first game, need to win this one, and are currently leading by a couple runs.   So, in comes the ace to throw a couple more innings.   There is a one game break and then game 3 starts.   Of course, the ace is scheduled and will pitch it like usual.   She's gone 13 or 14 on the day and tomorrow she will be expected to pitch 14 or more depending on how deep into the tournament the team goes.

This tremendous workload for the ace pitcher is done all the time in the travel world.   There, luckily, the games come just once a week, unless the team scrimmages a lot during the week or has the ace pitch live batting practices a couple times.   Still, it places tremendous stress on the pitcher's muscles, tendons, ligaments, and lest we forget, brain.

I was talking to someone on a fairly typical travel team the other day.   His daughter was a pitcher at 12U for an ambitious team.   They played something like 100-110 games during one year.   That is a lot even for top travel clubs, at least in my experience.   This team was the typical travel club in that they had 3 pitchers.   One struggled that year because she was younger.   The number 2 was pretty good but could not get batters out after the second time through the lineup.   The ace, this guy's daughter, pitched the lion's share of the innings.   In about 100 games, averaging perhaps 6 innings, yielding about 600 innings on work, this guy figured his kid pitched about half to two thirds.   That's 300 to 400 innings!   You know what?   After that season, she got hurt.

There are more injuries to windmill pitchers than anyone likes to talk about.   Sometimes these injuries are traced to non-work-level reasons.   Sometimes the tracing is done for self-serving reasons.   I have often heard folks talk about how their ace pitcher got hurt because she is generally out of shape or because she must do something wrong with one of her pitches.   It isn't the pitching that caused the stress, it was the kid's fault.   Many times, the injury is pegged to a reason that isn't the kid's fault but is just one of those things.   I think she slept on her shoulder wrong.   Her parents have bad shoulders (knees or whatever) and she inherited them.   S0ometimes it is game related but not in any way related to pitching.   She hurt her foot running the bases and was over-compensating for that when she pulled a muscle in her arm while pitching.

Excuses are like ..., everybody has one.   Everybody has more reasons to explain something than they have excuses!

We examine data in order to trace and locate cause and effect.   Pitchers, by the numbers, get hurt.   It does not so much matter that we can use anecdote to blame something other than overuse.   Co-incidence does not necessarily indicate causality but one has to wonder about the relationship between pitching too much and other factors.   On top of this, we have the whispers of medical professionals in our ears.   They are warning those of us who believe firmly that windmill pitching doesn't cause strain that perhaps they are wrong.   They are telling us that the strains of the windmiller are similar enough to those on baseball pitchers to take a closer look.   They are telling us that we need to have more pitching and to use it.

I hope I am at least causing travel and other coaches to think about how much they use pitchers.   I hope I am getting you to at least think about it.   The game is quickly maturing though it will never mature as much as baseball or football - there just is not that kind of money around.   As it matures, there will be more and more need for more pitchers.   I think we are starting to see this development in the college game.   Eventually that may make its way down to high school though depth will still be a problem.   We need to at least consider it for the travel game.   Parents of ace pitchers should watch the amount of time (innings and pitches) their daughters work.  m Pitchers should not allow themselves to be used when they are overtired.   A stable of one is just not enough.

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