Friday, March 26, 2010

Teaching the Curveball

As an experienced coach, I have always thought teaching the curveball has been the hardest pitch for players to master. Whether it be the arm slot, spin, or grip; the curve has been a challenge to teach. Players who come into high school having never thrown the pitch; seldom managed to perfect the vertical break a good curve possesses.

It wasn’t until I started giving structured lessons at a local baseball academy, that I got a clear picture on the skills needed to throw the breaking ball. After seeing a lot of players struggle with the pitch, I started having the players use the following sequence to master the curveball. Segmenting the movement, without slowing each action down, helps the body master the physical programming at actual game speed.

The process allows players to do the five things needed to throw a nasty breaking pitch. Three of the drills should be performed on flat ground; the final exercise should be done on the pitching mound. Here is the list:

- Create Maximum Top Spin

- Use Fastball Arm Action

- Incorporate Appropriate Leverage

- Release Producing Vertical Break

- Linear Finish in Proper Fielding Position

1. Two Knee Laydown Spinners: Players start on two knees with a 45 degree relationship between their shoulders and the target. With their throwing elbow raised to slightly below parallel with shoulder, players lay their forearm down on their bicep. With the forearm resting against the upper arm, the player should point their glove toward the target.

When ready, players extend the throwing elbow working on spinning the ball in a vertical fashion. Extension should occur at the highest possible point to help the pitching break in a 12-6 fashion.

2. Two Knee Arm Swing Spinners: Players start on two knees with a 45 degree relationship between their shoulders and the target. With their hands together, players wait to start the drill. When ready, players violently break their hands, starting a forceful downward swing of the arm.

As the arm circles past the pass the pitching ear, players incorporate the increased elbow flexion practiced in Drill #1. Passing through that position, players again try to release the pitch at the highest point. Releasing high encourages a larger break in the pitching due to increased gravity Pulldown.

3. Getting to the Kickstand: Players start with their lower body in a torque position. That is, with the pitchers glove toe facing the target while their shoulders stay back facing either first or third base (depending on which hand the player throw with). Also, like in Drill #2, players start with their hands together.

The drill, much like Drill #1 and #2, isolate the pitcher’s upper body. The legs are not used in this drill as well. On the hand break, pitchers explode the ball down trying to gain maximum momentum into the circle. Pitchers release out front, at the highest point, pulling the rear heel off the ground.

With the rear heel off the ground, the pitcher’s toe remains connected. This helps the pitcher maintain balance and stay in a straight line with the target. Getting a vertical break does require the pitcher to keep a linear relationship with the target. Many times, too many rotational movement increases the horizontal movement on the pitch.

After release, a pitcher’s rear shoelaces, belly-button, chest, and nose should be pointed at the target.  Staying in a straight line with the target, pitchers encourage their arm to travel in a linear path producing proper up/down break on the ball. 

4. Step-Behind Spinners: Players start with their feet and glove shoulder facing the target. With hands together, players take a step forward with their rear leg. The step should be behind the glove leg not in front (like a traditional crow hop). Stepping behind allows the player a chance to swing the glove leg open using their hips to throw the baseball.

During the linear step, the pitcher should tilt their glove shoulder up creating a teeter-totter effect. During the forceful lower body step, players should break their hands and circle the arm at an increased tempo.

With the lower body action, players should be able to throw harder than normal. This should help produce “fastball” type arm action. Keeping the same arm action allows the pitcher a chance to get the greatest amount of spin on the baseball.

5. Double Bounce Karate Chops: On the mound, pitchers assume a balanced position with their glove leg lifted parallel at the waist. With their hands together, the pitcher takes two small hops with their rear leg. Both of the hops should be straight up and down, so ground is not being gained forward. Instead, these hops should be used to build energy from the ground up.

After the second hop, players are “putting together” each movement practiced. That is why Drill #5 is performed last. Players should tilt the shoulders, circle the arm, provide flexion to the elbow, and release at the highest possible point. Also, the drill should provide pitchers with enough momentum to get enhanced action on their pitches.

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