Friday, January 22, 2010

2009: The Year I Stopped Throwing BP

In late May of 2000, I was on a flight to Newark, New Jersey for my cousin’s wedding. At the time, I was 23 years old and just situated into my first coaching job. We had just completed our high school spring season with a 3-9 record. The summer season was due to start in June and judging from our record we had some work to do.

On the flight, I sat next to a baseball coach from South Carolina. He was a nice man who loved to talk about the game. During our conversation, he mentioned that his team just completed their best season in recent memory. I asked him the details around their success, back then my “toolbox” was empty. His first sentence stunned me,” I stopped throwing batting practice!”

As a first year coach, I was floored. How could someone let their players throwing batting practice? I couldn’t trust our players to pick up the bases after practice, let alone, prepare each other’s swing for competition. Didn’t this guy know that coaches had to make sure strikes were thrown, time was not wasted, and players got a certain number of swings? I began to think this guy was nuts.

He continued with his story. “Instead of the batting cage, we used the field; the kids threw off the mound to each other.” I just about fainted. My pitchers couldn’t throw strikes in a game; batting practice would take forever if they were in charge of it. How could you not use the batting cage? Isn’t that where hitters are made? I shut this guy out completely. He must have a bunch of all-stars on his team; no one else could just the kids throw and be good.

The plane eventually landed and we both went separate directions. Being a know-in-all young guy, I brushed off what the coach had said knowing it couldn’t possibly work for me. That season, under intense coaching supervision and detailed scheduling, my team experienced great success. My methodology was reinforced; I knew how to do things!!
In 2009, nine years later, I was in a different situation. For my entire coaching career, I detailed how my teams would get swing repetitions in practice. There would be soft toss, tee drills, and cage work. Players would see coach thrown batting practice everyday, either by me or an assistant. It was organized, orderly, and controlled. Nothing like an actual game; where things are free-flowing and independent.

Last year, though, things had to different. With only one coach for my entire team, I could not be the only one to throw batting practice. Plus, my arm had not been the best. It could not handle a season of 200-250 throws per practice. That’s when I thought of the old coach, who I sat next to on that flight in 2000. The light bulb went on, instantly.

So our batting practice changed. Having an available portable mound, we moved it into the batting cage. Along with the cage mound, our team used the practice field mound. Outdoors, with two mounds, our players took batting practice off live pitching every practice. When the weather turned bad, the mound was moved indoors and live pitching was thrown in the gym. Being in Nebraska, the weather was quite cold early in the season.

Hitters would be given about 5-10 minutes with each pitcher often seeing 50-60 pitches per practice. The pitcher would throw from the wind-up and set positions, mixing in change-ups and breaking balls. Depending on their location, hitters would take 35-45 actual swings. A far cry from the previous practice of players getting 80-100 swings in drills and short cage work.

The results……………. Well let’s just say at 32, I was a much better listener than 22. Age definitely makes you smarter. Of course, the ole’ coach’s advice worked as our team produced 35 extra base hits in only 16 games. Also, our walk to strike out ratio was 2:1. An unbelievable statistic if you would have saw batting practice our first day. More importantly our record was 9-7. Not too exciting, but compared to a 0-16 mark these players had a freshman a truly great improvement.

So coaches, learn from my mistakes. Take a deep breath and loosen the reins. Let the kids throw. Make sure they stay on task, but make every practice a head to head battle. Not only did our offense produce but our pitchers performed so much better as the year progressed. It was awesome to watch. Moreover, the kids had fun doing it. They loved throwing against each other; it helped make practice enjoyable. Begrudgingly, I admit now that watching five REAL pitches (not even swinging) in the batter’s box is better than 50 meaningless cage swings. If you don’t believe me; ask that guy from South Carolina……………………..



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