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.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Blind Guy Hitting: Check it Out!!!

What is that old adage; seeing is believing, right? How many times has that been said over the years? I had always believed these old words until I saw firsthand the exception to the rule. For years, one Omaha man has been breaking every logical rule that common sense puts forth.

Mark Wetzel has been legally blind for a long time. He has almost no straight forward vision. Instead, he relies on his peripheral sight to help him navigate the world. With all these obstacles, someone would wonder how Wetzel has become one of the Midwest’s best hitting instructors. How on earth could this happen?

Tucked away in the hills of North Omaha, Wetzel hitting facility is definitely off the beaten path. Driving up the quarter mile path, hitters find posted messages sticking out of the ground on motivation, work ethic, and concentration. With two batting cages confined in an aluminum shed, Wetzel works his magic almost seven days a week.

Players are not just local; they come from all over the Midwest to seek his advice. Also, they vary in age from youth to professional. No kidding!! On some nights, it is likely to find a seven year old waiting for a lesson while a college player is getting instruction. The dynamics are crazy, but the message is clear: hitting is all about fundamentals.

Wetzel, who quit baseball as a teen once his sight started to go, was motivated to learn about hitting when his son started playing little league baseball. With bad vision, Wetzel would almost press his face against the television to view hitting tapes by all the professional instructors. From there, Wetzel would take the information and apply it to his son’s swing.

His son’s ability to hit improved rapidly. Soon, other parents began to notice how Wetzel’s son had progressed. Gradually, other players migrated to Wetzel’s house to learn new batting tips. By the season’s end, Wetzel’s team was setting league batting records at the delight of their parents.

That was just the start. In the following years, Wetzel’s business took off. Players from around the Midwest would drive in to seek Wetzel’s advice. Tony Gwynn, one of the game’s best hitters ever, has sought out Wetzel for swing guidance and instruction. Furthermore, Wetzel has served a variety of college and professional teams as a consultant.

On his website, Wetzel’s most famous students are listed. Several have gotten chances to play professionally with one actually making it to the Major Leagues! Wetzel’s story is certainly amazing and shows that nothing can get in the way of someone who is determined to achieve a specific goal.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

When the Going Get’s Tough; The Tough Get Going: Why Do Baseball Players Quit?

I was doing a little research on the internet looking at local little leagues for my seven year old son. As a former high school baseball coach, one trend really struck a cord with me. Looking at the league’s tee ball/coach pitch section the teams numbered 13-15 per division. If each team consisted of 12-13 kids, that would mean almost 200 participants. For a local little league, I thought that was pretty good.

The league had a much smaller 13-14 year old division. That group only had two teams, a big difference from the first group of young kids. I was shocked; in the matter of 5-6 years, almost 85% of the kids quit baseball. I am sure some of these kids could have helped out their high school team someday, especially in the urban area where the league was located. What was going on that soured kids on the game?

I went to other league websites and they illustrated the same trend. By the age of 13, many kids were done with baseball. Why? Interested, I started to do a little snooping around. This was not scientific, but I started talking to some people to see what I could find out. Participation is vital in helping the game of baseball continue to grow.

One big roadblock for baseball is other sports, particularly football and basketball. With an abundance of summer camps, these sports lure participants away. Many feel guilty about missing summer games and practices so they decide to quit. Although their absence may frustrate coaches, these players need to be encouraged to continue playing.

In high school, many of these players realize that their athletism does not translate to success in basketball or football. Depending on the competitive level, both of these sports require athletes to be or adequate size and strength. What if any athlete stops growing? What if they can’t put on the bulk that is necessary for these sports? Having continued with baseball, their skills might be a better fit with better.

Having written on this subject before; improvement is imperative to getting kids to continue with baseball. If kids start the season not being able to catch; they better learn by the end. If not, they wouldn’t be back next year. If they chose to volunteer, coaches have a responsibility to their players to think of ways to improve their skills. Many times, traditional methods may not work with players. Coaches must look outside the box to help players refine their coordination, balance, and vision.

Boredom is another problem baseball was encountered. In some cases, the games and practices move slowly. Kids just stand around waiting for some action. Coaches need to find ways to speed things up. Having equipment set-up, enough adult assistance, and scheduled activities planned should help things move faster. Games are always an awesome way to keep kids involved in what is going on. If a coach becomes creative, they can use games to help teach any situation.

Self-image is another concept that coaches must be aware of when dealing with young kids. When players are young; they view themselves as great. No matter where their skill level is at. This naivety is awesome because kids go out in the yard pretend to be Ken Griffey Jr. or Derek Jeter. Sometimes, they even view their future profession as a “ballplayer”.

Here is example of how things may be taken a little too far at a young age. Last fall, I spoke to a neighbor whose son had not been picked for a league’s All-Star team. I think the kid was like seven years old. She said he always thought of himself as good; but now he didn’t want to play anymore. To make things worse, besides three kids, his entire team made the All-Stars. Wow, is that really an All-Star team?

During our whole conversation, I never told the lady I coached baseball or anything like that. I just listened to her story. After awhile, I began to wonder who else had story like this lady. Our conversation forced me to take time to analyze what she said from a coach’s viewpoint. Who was right; who was wrong?

Is 7 years old too young to start labeling kids “All Stars”? Is it more for the parents than the kids? How many other kids quit because of a similar situation? Finally, do these youth All-Star come out better when their careers are over? I pondered all of these questions as I thought about player development.

I remembered a unique article I read in the local paper about a year earlier. The story followed three successful Omaha pitchers. Each player had been cut at the youth level from the elite “select” teams. All three of these players ended up on the same team as young kids. The ironic twist to the article is that these players now pitch professionally in the Twins, Yankees, and Phillies organization. Even after being cut during their youth; these guys were the best at the end.

What does that mean? I am not real sure; obviously these kinds of examples are found on both sides. As an urban baseball coach, I shudder to think kids are being “run off” at such a young age; especially kids that could someday contribute to a HS program. On the other hand, if I’m a coach at a place where numbers aren’t a problem Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest” mentality might be a better way to trim the fat.

In the end, I guess there has to be a happy medium where kids are allowed to failed but not be labeled a “loser” just because there slightly behind as a 5-6 year old. If it happens too much, baseball will continue to lose players to soccer and other youth sports that are more inclusive. As a fan, I desperately do not want that to happen!!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Making the Adjustment: Coaching College vs. HS Players

This summer, after ten years of coaching high school baseball, I got a chance to coach a college baseball team in the summer. The squad consisted of players from multiple colleges migrating back to Nebraska for the summer. There ages varied with the oldest being a college senior. Much different from the 15 and 16 year olds I was use to dealing with.

To be honest, I was a little worried. Coming from the high school level, I didn’t know how my “act” would play. On the high school front, I was pretty regimented in the way my teams approached practice and pre-game. I was concerned some players would think my drills were childish or immature. They had never been used on older players; I was concerned about their effectiveness.

In the end, I was issued an excellent group of young men. So my initial worries fell by the wayside. These guys would have followed any instruction given to them, no matter how stupid. They did not challenge anything I offered about mechanics or instruction. In fact, they seemed far more interested than my high school kids.

More importantly, I got a chance to observe how other coaches did things. It was interesting to see how they interacted with their players, especially the more veteran coaches. The following are a list of C’s that I observed these coaches demonstrating while they were working with players:

• Confidence

The effective coaches displayed a lot of confidence working with players and implementing strategy on the field. By their body language, you could tell, they didn’t second guess game decisions like unexecuted bunts, runners getting thrown out, or missed scoring opportunities. Their disposition seemed to say,” We will get it next time.” You do not always see that type of coaching style at the younger levels.

• Communication

Talking to players was a major area of difference between the HS and college level. During the high school season, I was use to talking at players. During the summer, I noticed effective coaches talking “with” players. Also, in my observation, the older players did not respond well to coaches using a “talking at” style. That could be a result of not being their actual college coach. Nevertheless, the more mature level of communication the coach outputted; the better players responded to their message.

• Command

There is no concrete way to describe this attribute; it is totally subjective. I guess the best way to put it is that most veteran coaches have a “presence”. It is the way they carry themselves around the team, opposing coaches, umpires, and fans. No one matter happens, nothing can take them off their rhythm.

This was my biggest struggle when switching over to older players. A lot of it had to do with confrontation. It is a big difference jumping a 15 year old over running out a ground ball compared to a 21 year old. It takes some time to get use to. I feel like I got better at it; but still have a long ways to go to be comfortable.

Also, confrontation extended between other teams. As you know, baseball is a sport etched in respect. People get spiked, thrown at, and run over during a game. The coach has a split second to decide how to handle those situations. Was it on purpose? How should it be responded to? This part of the game is not tolerated at the high school level, but is a common occurrence at higher level. Coaches have to know what to do and be comfortable with these confrontations.

• Common-Sense

When emotion is used, a person’s ability to use logical thinking is compromised. You hear about people making stupid decisions out of anger all the time. Veteran coaches know how to separate emotion from their decisions. Also, they know how to communicate that to their players.

With so many one on one battles, baseball can present players with a lot of frustration. College players have a lot time and effort invested into each at-bat, fielding attempt, and pitch. Their reaction to failure in a one on one battle may be the difference between their successes next time.

I noticed the successful veteran coaches know when to approach a player after one of these incidents.  They let the player "cool" down and are not confrontational about helmet throwing (when it's their own).  These coaches understand players have real emotions when it comes to their performance.  At the high school level, I understand why this cannot happen.  Kids take things to far and are not able to contain frustration from becoming stupidity.  Veteran coaches know their is a fine line and are successful because their kids don't cross it.   

• Commitment

College players are very interested in baseball especially if they are willing to give up their summer. With that expectation, coaches need to be aware that baseball is their priority. Keeping that in mind, coaches need to match their energy level and dedication. At the high school level, this is not allows the case.

To successful veteran guys, being committed is second nature. It’s like putting on pants. These guys are comparable to basketball’s “gym rats”. They are always around… showing, discussing, and drills. It seemed to me, they always went the extra step to help players in the game. These guys never seemed to tire of baseball even in the summer’s intense heat.

Just a few things I noticed..................

Monday, March 01, 2010

Baserunning: Committing to it Everyday

Special Note***Was not able to post the diagrams for this article.  Please email me at for them if you are interested.  Sorry for the trouble. 

Baserunning is the most under practiced part of the game. It is kind of like special teams in football. Taken for granted, many coaches do not want to waste valuable practice time on things outside of offense or defense. The only time they really stand out is when something goes wrong. It is only then that coaches realize how important baserunning really is to the game.

Warming up athletes to start practice is an every day activity in high school sports. Usually coaches spend between 10-15 minutes on it each practice. The time may be spent constructively or not depending on the level of planning a coach puts into it. Some coach use the time to let players relax and ease into practice. Other coaches have the opposite approach.

I have found that using baserunnering as a warm-up kills two birds with one stone. First, it allows players to use a dynamic lower body warm up in a functional way. It stops the static stretching and meaningless form running. Secondly, done over time, it allows players the ability to increase their comfort level on the base paths.

Below are descriptions and diagrams of three baserunnering circuits my teams have used to warm up. Generally to start, the team will take two home run laps around the bases. Circling the bases, players jog at a 50% exertion level making sure each bag is touched. As players progress into the stages their exertion level should move to 75% finally reaching maximum effort.

There are several reasons to practice baserunner daily:

1.   Practicing transitions: During a play, there are several transitions players must make running the bases. First, they must get out of the batter’s box quickly. Secondly, they must accelerate through first base or use the proper footwork to align with second. From there, they must execute an aggressive rounding or running straight through. That is just on a single. With extra base hits there is even more to practice.

2.   Shortening the angles: Kids always find the easiest way; no matter what subject is being talked about. If they do something long enough, they seem to find a way to gain advantages. Baserunning is no different. As players practice, they should improve their ability to get from base to base. They will find a way to quicken their time from home to second or second to home. Their footwork on each base should improve helping them to create better angles. These angles help singles get stretched into doubles; something every coach loves to see.

3.   Body absorbing pressure and tension: In each of the stages, sliding is incorporated into the drill. Sliding is an activity rarely practiced by players. It is a dirty activity that does put a lot of stress and tension on the body. What a great activity for practice? Getting players use to that kind of shock to the body should eliminate all the small injuries players may acquire during the game.

Stage #1

The triangles at the plate represent two single file lines. After performing a swing, the inside group is running through the base, while the outside group takes a banana turn towards second base. Since it is the first stage, players are allowed to use several of their turns working up to full speed. Players are encouraged to perform longer strides, higher knee raises, and elevated heel action during their first few runs.

After being fully warmed up, players are expected to work on the below skills. Coaches are stationed on the first base line communicating to the outside runner on making a hard turn or taking second base.

Inside Group

Fluid transition from swing

Eyes up and arm relaxed

Accelerating through the base

Quick look to the right for overthrow

Outside Group

Fluid transition from swing

Eyes up and arms relaxed

Agile footwork in banana turn

No slow down when foot hits the bag

Stage #2

The triangles represent two groups again. On the mound, the coach serves as the pitcher. He gets into the set position. He will either perform a simulated pick off or throw to the plate. Baserunners work on reading his feet to produce the best possible jump.

The group at second base performs two shuffle steps, then breaking for third. They should practice both types of slides: head first or pop up. The first base group should be performing straight steals of second base. On the steal, players should practice a hook slide trying to avoid an infielder’s tag. The following skills are needed by both groups:

Second Base Group

Pre-Pitch Foot Movement

Eyes locked on pitcher

Accelerating through the base

Quick look to the right for overthrow

First Base Group

Adequate lead off

Eyes locked on pitcher

Aggressive right elbow throw

Quick crossover step

Stage #3

The triangles represent two groups just like in drills #1 and #2. In the third base box, the coach communicates for the runner to “tag up”. Once to the base, the runner should wait for the coach to say “GO!” At that, players race home accelerating through the plate.

The runner at first should advance to third base. When going into the base, players should practice a pop-up slide. Both baserunning groups should work on getting the best possible jump. The group at third base performs a tag up before racing to the plate. On the other side, the first base group runs out a simulated single to the outfield. Each group is required to slide into the advancing base. The following are skills needed by both groups:

Third Base Group

Pre-pitch walking lead

Eyes locked on pitcher

Agile move back to bag for tag

Strong push off third base toward plate

Acceleration through home

First Base Group

Swift first step

Seamless transition across second base

Fluid slide into third base

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