Joe Janish has been coaching baseball for 20+ years, and playing for 30+. He was a D-1 ABCA All-American catcher in 1992, when he finished in the top 15 in the nation in hitting. He also coached at the D-1 level, and currently provides private instruction to serious baseball players in the NY/NJ/PA area.
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Pitching Bullpens: Plan and Focus

Have you ever seen a pitcher who has plenty of talent — live arm, sound mechanics, good movement — but can’t seem to convert it to performance in a game?

Most often, the problem is with command. He may have good velocity, but gets too much of the plate or is too high in the strike zone. The movement on his pitches may be excellent, but erratic. He may have a hard time getting into a groove for an inning or two. Perhaps he has alternating bouts of wildness and getting hit hard.

Nine times out of ten, the issues keeping an enigmatic pitcher from fulfilling his potential can be found — and corrected — in his bullpens / practice routine. In fact, how a pitcher approaches his bullpens is often a direct correlator to his perfomance in games — regardless of talent level.

Ask the pitcher with “good stuff” but a bad E.R.A. this direct question: what is your plan and focus during a bullpen session? Chances are, the answer is a blank face. He may answer something vague, such as, “to get my arm feeling good”, or, “to work on my curveball”, or, “to get my mechanics down”. Not much of a plan for success.

Even if the answer is, “to work on my control” or “to hit the catcher’s glove”, it might sound like he’s on the right track, but that’s not enough to translate into success in the game. Whenever a pitcher takes the mound — be it in a practice session, in the bullpen, warming up between innings, or in the game — he must have a specific plan, and he must focus on executing, or following through with, the plan.

For example, many pitchers spend their pre-game and between-innings warmups “getting their arm loose”. That’s not a plan for pitching in a ballgame. You get your entire body (not just your arm) warmed up and loose and THEN you get on the mound. Once you toe that rubber, you begin executing the plan.

But what is the plan? For every pitcher, it’s different. It can be complex, but it’s generally better to keep it simple. One of the easiest plans is to begin with a predetermined pitch count, then assign a specific number of pitches to several tasks. As an example, let’s say you’re going to throw a 20-pitch bullpen. You can plan to throw five sinkers on the inside corner, five sinkers on the outside corner, five change-ups on the outside corner, and five curveballs on the inside corner. How you mix them is up to you — you can go five of each at a time, or go through one cycle of all the pitches, whatever. The point is, that you’re not rearing back and firing somewhere in the vicinity of the catcher. Rather, you specify exactly where you want to put a pitch, then focus on executing the task. Re-read that last sentence, and notice that there are two parts: the plan and the focus on execution.

If you have a good plan, but go through the execution without focus — called “going through the motions” — then you won’t appreciably improve your game-time performance. In fact, the focus on the task at hand may be more important than the plan. You need a plan, of course, but a mediocre plan executed with intense concentration will be more effective toward improvement than a perfect plan that is poorly executed. What the pitcher thinks about in order to execute is again up to the individual. Some pitchers may need to think about the release point, others the timing of their leg lift and fall, still others simply focus on the catcher’s target. The key is to think about the execution, and if you fail, try to figure out why you failed, and make an immediate adjustment — right then and there, on the next pitch. Continue to tweak until you get it right. That’s what practice is all about.

A pitcher who plans his practice, and focuses on its execution, will be much better prepared come game time — and will enjoy regular improvement in his performance.

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Batting Practice: Get the Bunts Down

Bunting is a widely unappreciated, largely unpracticed skill. And it shouldn’t be that way, because a well-placed bunt can be just as important in scoring a run. Furthermore, bunting is a skill that can be easily developed and mastered by anyone who is willing to work at it. You don’t need incredible strength, fast hands, great timing, or other extraordinary skills. In fact, all you need is average hand-eye coordination — which just about every baseball player has.

In batting practice, coaches should demand that players get their bunts down BEFORE they start swinging. For example, insist that a batter execute one well-placed bunt down the third base line, and a second down the first base line, before swinging away. If the batter fails, he must continue until he either gets the job done or he exhausts his BP allotment of pitches. It’s amazing how much batters focus on getting down good bunts when the exercise is eating into their “free swinging” time; a little motivation goes a long way toward skills development.

Further, you can integrate bunting competitions into regular practice time. Place a glove or other marker in an ideal spot down the third base line, and have batters taking turns trying to bunt the ball to exactly the spot. It’s like putting in golf. The batter who hits the spot, or comes closest, receives a reward — such as extra swings in BP or excused from that day’s sprints.

Above-average runners would do well to include a number of extra drag bunts into their batting practice routine. You don’t have to have blinding speed to earn bunt hits — all it takes is good technique, perfect placement, and picking the right time to do it. Don’t believe it? Here’s a real-life example: I’m a 37-year-old, 225-lb catcher with old, slow wheels, yet even I will drop at least 3-4 bunts for hits in a season. Sure, it’s not as heroic as hitting the ball over the fence, but a timely drag bunt — such as when leading off an inning against a tough pitcher — can be exactly the kind of spark that throws the opponent off their game and gets an offense going. Sometimes all a team needs is something to throw the other pitcher’s rhythm off, and a bunt can be just the thing to jar him out of his routine.

So next time you’re in the batting cage, take the bunts seriously. You don’t have to drop down fifty bunts in practice, but you really do need to focus intently on the few that you do. Remember, perfect practice makes perfect.

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Pitching Backward

A few weeks ago, Stephen Ellis touched on the strategy of pitching backward at his great blog StevenEllis.com.

Pitching “backward” relies on the concept of “fastball counts” or “batter’s counts”– in other words, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-0. Any batter worth his salt is going to be looking for a fastball when he is ahead on the count, for two reasons: first, most pitchers are going to throw the fastball on those counts between 90-95% of the time; and secondly, a well-timed, flat fastball in a batter’s “comfort zone” is the easiest pitch to hit.

So in order to pitch backward, you as the pitcher would throw something other than a fastball in those “hitter’s counts” — the idea being that you will fool the hitter and/or throw off his timing, because he is gearing up for your fastball.

However, it’s not as simple as it sounds, and a lot of young pitchers abuse the concept of “pitching backward”, to the point where it becomes ineffective for them. For example, tou can’t pitch backward every time you fall behind on a batter — or else it’s no longer “backward”. Instead, you need to pick the right spots, against particular batters, in certain situations.

One of the keys to successfully pitching backward is throwing a good change-up. The reason I love the change-up when behind on the count is because, if you throw a good one, it’s going to look exactly like a fastball to the hitter when it comes out of your hand. You should be throwing it from the exact same release point, with almost the exact same spin, and with almost the exact same arm speed. Many pitchers mistakenly throw sliders or curveballs when behind on the count, and there are two problems with this. First, a breaking pitch spins differently, comes in at a slower speed, and is often thrown from a different arm angle or release point, than the fastball. All those factors give the batter a better chance of identifying it as a breaking ball early and laying off the pitch — after all, he’s ahead, and has the luxury of taking a strike. Second, the goal of breaking pitches — particularly the slider — is to entice the batter to swing and miss. This result doesn’t offer you the full advantage of the backward strategy.

Rather, you want the batter to swing and HIT. Seems crazy, right? But the idea is this: you’ve already fallen behind by throwing two or more balls. Trying to strike the batter out at this point is not an efficient strategy — unless your plan is to either tire your arm out earlier than necessary, or bore your fielders to tears. Therefore, you need to grasp the fact that a three-pitch groundout is just as effective as a three-pitch strikeout — both result in an out, and require the same amount of effort.

The next thing you need to know is WHEN to throw backward. As stated earlier, you don’t do it every time you fall behind on the count. How to know when is the right time depends mostly on how your changeup moves, and what hitter is at the plate.

For example, when I coached in college, I had a little lefty who threw a great change-up that died down and away from righthanded batters — almost like a screwball. Whenever he pitched against a particular team that was loaded with righthanded dead-pull hitters, he’d get as many outs on a 2-0 count as most pitchers get on 0-2. When ahead on the count, these batters were gearing up for the leftfield fence, and he’d float dying quails that started out in the middle of the plate, but then dropped just enough so that the bats caught only the top half of the ball. The batters looked like their eyes were popping out of their heads as the pitches were coming in — I swear I saw one salivating. However, their timing was thrown off just enough, and the location just right, so that the ball didn’t go over the fence — in most cases, the batter grounded meekly to the shortstop.

Now, had that same pitcher thrown that same change-up to a lefty batter on a 2-0 count, the result would be quite different. The movement of his change would float right into the lefty’s “kitchen” — down and in, and if the batter was able to adjust to the speed, he’d likely golf the ball several hundred feet down the rightfield line.

Ideally, a pitcher can throw two changeups — one that runs in, and one that runs away. In reality, few pitchers have that kind of command. But, if you are able to consistently hit both corners with a change-up, you will get more outs on 2-0, 2-1, and 3-1 counts than 95% of the pitchers in the world. Watch Tom Glavine sometime and you’ll see a prime example of how to get outs when behind on the count.

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Treating Jammed Fingers

Splint for sprained fingersIf you are a catcher, and have been catching for any significant length of time, then you know all about jammed fingers. A jammed, or sprained, finger is often the result of your bare hand being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Similarly, if you are a baseball player that plays “hard”, you’ve likely sprained a finger while sliding headfirst into a base or diving for a fly ball.

When one of your fingers gets bent backward or sideways much further than God intended, the result is what’s technically known as a sprain. It’s probably the most common of all sports injuries, and in most cases, not much to be concerned with. Assuming all you have is a minor sprain, you can usually play through it, albeit with pain.

Before you decide to play through a jammed finger, however, you need to make sure it is indeed a sprain and not a dislocation or fracture. The symptoms of a simple sprain is pain, redness, and swelling around the joint/knuckle, and limited range of motion. If the pain is in the middle of your finger bone, you may have a fracture and should get X-rays immediately. Similarly, if the pain is acute, and/or you can’t move the finger at all, and/or the finger looks abnormally twisted or disfigured, get out of the game and seek medical attention. Also, if the injury was the result of a direct blow to the tip of one of your fingers — such as from a foul tip — you will want to seek medical attention in case it is “mallet finger“, which if left untreated could cause permanent deformity.

Let’s get back to the sprain. If you’ve jammed or hyperextended one of your fingers, there is going to be some pain, and a lot of swelling. You can grit your teeth and get through the game, but immediately afterward you should ice it several times that day and during the next 3-5 days — 15 minutes on ice, at least 25 minutes off. This will reduce the swelling, as will taking some aspirin, ibuprofen, or similar anti-inflammatory.

Should the sprain be in one of your knuckle joints, and you don’t have a game the next day, you may want to splint it. It can be as simple as taping a popsicle stick to your finger to keep it straight, though it’s better to see a trainer, school nurse, or doctor and have a professional splint it for you.

If you’re a dumb, bullheaded lug like me and too tough to see professionals — and insist on playing the next day — you can “buddy tape” the injured finger to the one next to it and continue to play. Regardless of whether you’re smart and seek some medical attention or a mule such as me, try to avoid using the jammed finger as much as possible, and continue ice treatment, for several days. Once the swelling starts to go down, you should start doing easy motion exercises — such as simply turning the finger around in circles or gently bending it back and forth. As the swelling and pain continues to diminish, do the same exercises with some resistance — a few rubber bands work well and allow you to gradually build up strength. You can also squeeze a pink rubber ball or anti-stress device. Once the swelling goes down, you’ll want to get that digit moving and working sooner rather than later.

Treated properly, your jammed finger should be back to normal within a few weeks — often sooner. Remember the two key phrases when dealing with sprains: “Ice is nice, and, motion is lotion.” Ice for immediate treatment of swelling and pain, motion after the swelling and pain subsides.

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Power Hitting: Get Deep to Go Deep

Every hitter I speak to — regardless of age — wants to hit the ball farther more consistently. Singles hitters want to hit doubles, doubles hitters want to hit home runs, and homerun hitters want to hit balls further and more frequently over the fence. Often, batters think they need to change their mechanics in order to hit the ball farther. They may go so far as to spend hundreds of dollars on gadgets that promise to increase your power, or DVDs promoting “rotational hitting”, or private lessons from the local hitting “guru”.

David Wright lets the baseball get deep before hittingWhile it’s very possible that a batter’s mechanics may need some tweaking, before you go spending money on a magic elixir, try a different approach: getting deep.

Deep means two things to a hitter, and all the GREAT hitters do it. First, it means let the ball get deep. In other words, let the ball get as close to the catcher as possible before committing to your swing. Second, it means get into deep counts — such as 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, even 3-2. Learning to do these two things alone will put you in a better position to hit balls with authority — also known as, getting your pitch to hit.

Let the Ball Get Deep

The longer you wait on a pitch, the better look you get at it. While it’s true that the most direct route in hitting a homerun is to hit a ball far out in front of the plate, and pull the ball to the shortest part of the outfield fence, using that kind of strategy all the time will result in far more swings and misses, and weak grounders, than fly balls over the fence. Those kind of hitters may help the team once in a while, but overall are not very productive. Dave Kingman was one of the last “dinosaurs” who hit this way — a typical season for him was 35 homeruns and a .205 batting average. If he didn’t hit a homer, he wasn’t much use to his team.

A better approach is to let the ball get deeper, allow it to come right into your “kitchen”. Trust your hands — they’re much faster than you think — and learn to get the meat of the bat (or “sweet spot”) on the ball. It’s easier than it sounds, and requires you to learn when to throw the bat head out early (on inside pitches), and when to wait a fraction of a second longer before dropping the bat head (on outside pitches). You will hit a pitch on the inside corner out in front of the plate, and meet an outside pitch when it is on top of the plate — or even past it, depending on where you stand in the batter’s box. 90% of inexperienced hitters have no trouble hitting the ball too early, but only the best hitters are able to trust their hands and wait on those outside pitches.

There is an old school fallacy that says hitting with power to the opposite field is more difficult because it requires great strength. In fact, that’s not entirely true; if you have strength to correctly pull the ball with power, you have the strength to do the same the other way. The fallacy is based on two premises: 1. that your weight goes with the swing (out in front), so that you’re actually lunging into the ball; and 2. that your swing has more length, and therefore more momentum, when it meets the ball out in front. In the first premise, a batter gets into that predicament by being fooled on an offspeed pitch — all his weight is on his front foot, but the timing is just right to get the weight into the ball and power it over the nearest fence. In other words, more luck than skill is involved.

The second premise — momentum — has some logic behind it, but can also be dispelled. To hit a ball optimally, you want the bat to hit the ball when your hands are transferring the most torque, leverage, and speed your body can muster. That said, would you rather hit the ball when your hands are speeding up, or when they’re slowing down? Obviously, when they’re speeding up. If you hit the ball too far out in front of the plate, there’s a good chance you’ll meet the ball when your swing is slowing down. Considering that, you can understand why waiting a fraction of a second longer won’t necessarily require you to have more strength. The key is to get to the ball when your hands are moving fastest.

Another benefit of letting the ball get deep is that you get a full, long look at the action of the pitch. All pitchers worth their salt put some kind of movement on the ball (intentionally or not). In addition, few pitchers can get the ball to move more than 3-5 ways consistently. For example, a pitcher may have a fastball that tails in and down a bit, a changeup that falls away, and a curve that starts high and drops down. The longer look you get at these pitches, and their late movement or action, the better chance you have of figuring out when and where to meet the pitch with the sweet spot of your bat. A good strategy is to think this: if the pitch is middle-out, go to the opposite field. This gives you that extra fraction of a second to wait on a pitch, let the ball get deep, and then when you’ve decided to commit, throw the hands through the hitting zone. To see this approach in action, pay attention to MLB hitters Albert Pujols, David Wright, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Mike Piazza, Ryan Howard, and (usually) Carlos Delgado. All these men do a great job of letting the ball get deep, and regularly hit balls over the opposite-field fence. They also hit for high averages.

Get Into Deep Counts

Letting the ball get deep goes hand-in-hand with getting into deep counts. When you regularly wait longer on pitches, and get good looks, you tend to swing at less pitches. Because you give yourself more time before committing, you can more easily identify balls and pitches that are difficult to handle, and you let them go. While the very best pitchers will challenge hitters early in the count with strikes, most of ordinary hurlers nitpick around the zone, and try to get hitters to swing at bad pitches (it helps to study a pitcher and find out early in a game whether you’re dealing with an aggressive pitcher or a nitpicker). If you’re up against an average pitcher, and you take pitches, you’ll often find yourself in good hitting counts, such as 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1, and 3-2 (that’s right, full count is good for hitters because the pitcher has to throw a strike to get you out). When you’re ahead in the count, especially 2-0, 3-1, and 3-0, you have the advantage of looking for a pitch that you can not only handle but drive. Half of power hitting is technique, the other half is getting and swatting YOUR pitch. In addition, by getting into deep counts you are accomplishing two more things: first, you’re wearing out the pitcher; and second, you’re seeing more of his pitches. Knowledge is power, and the more you know about what a pitcher throws in certain situations, and how his pitches move, the better prepared you are to hit. As you see more and more of a hurler’s pitches, the easier it will be for you to recognize which ones you can best handle, and anticipate when they’re coming.

So, before you go wasting money or tweaking your hitting mechanics, learn to get deep. If you still can’t go deep when getting deep, THEN consider mechanical adjustments. You will lose nothing by learning the approach of great hitting, and gain dramatically when/if you do fix your mechanics.

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Losers Focus on Winning

Do you find the headline intriguing? It’s true: the biggest mental issue for losing teams is that they’re obsessed with winning.

Seems not to make much sense, but hear me out — I have firsthand experience.

In over 25 years of baseball (and four years of football) playing and coaching, I’ve been a member of dozens of teams — most ordinary, a few extraordinary, and a few too many that were hopeless, hapless losers. The extraordinary teams had a full squad of players who understood how to win. Every other team had perhaps a selection of players who knew the “secret” to winning, but were mixed in with a bunch who had no clue. As a result of my experiences, I usually know after one or two games whether a team is doomed for a losing season.

Generally speaking, losers spend most of a game obsessing over the outcome — whether or not they’ll win. They know the score, and are fearful of it, at every moment in every inning (I’m referring to the players; it’s the manager’s job to worry about the score). They might openly ridicule a teammate who has just made an error, particularly if that error led to a run. Losers will beat themselves up for striking out in the previous inning, when they’re back on the field and need to be thinking about defense. They’ll often explain that they “can’t stand losing”, or “will do anything to win.” However, they don’t really understand what winning is.

Winning was defined most succinctly and accurately by the legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi:

“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while, you do them right all the time.”

Lombardi also spoke these gems:

“Success demands singleness of purpose.”

“We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.”

Read through these three quotes several times, until you “get it”. Winning is not something that you turn off and turn on — it’s something that you always do, it’s a habit. You don’t let your mind wander all game and then suddenly concentrate when it’s the last inning; rather, you are intensely riveted on every pitch, and only that pitch, until the pitch / play is complete.

What winners know, and losers don’t, is that executing the tasks necessary to win cannot be complicated by a preoccupation with the final score of a particular game. It’s about focus; if you are thinking about whether or not your team will win the game, then your mind cannot be completely focused on the task at hand — whether it’s throwing a pitch, fielding a grounder, or laying down a bunt. Baseball is difficult enough with a clear mind; cluttering it with concerns that are out of your control makes effective execution next to impossible.

Don’t read this wrong — it’s not that you shouldn’t want to win, or that you can’t think about winning. The point is, you need to have 100% concentration on the current task in order to succeed. Your small success in execution, followed by a teammate’s success in their execution, and so on, will give your team the best chance to win the game. If your team ultimately wins a game, it is usually because your teammates converted most of their opportunities — a series of small successes or “wins”. Bobby Cox led his Atlanta Braves to 14 consecutive NL East Division Championships using this exact principle. Cox’s teams rarely relied on colorful stars or dramatic individual achievements to win games; rather, they wore teams down by throwing strikes, fielding impeccably, and executing a team hitting strategy (taking pitches, moving runners, placing bunts, hit and runs, etc.). It’s a boring recipe, but it’s successful, because each player focuses on his specific task.

To give an example of a winner’s, versus a loser’s, mindset, imagine a pitcher on the mound in the ninth inning of a 2-1 game with the bases loaded, two outs, and the opposing team’s best hitter at the plate. The “loser” will be focused on “winning the game”, or “protecting the lead”. He may also be thinking about the opposing hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and the fact that a base hit would mean a loss. The idea “I have to strike this guy out” may go through his mind. He might also think that a wild pitch will bring home the tying run — as would a walk. The loser has so many thoughts in his mind, and so much self-inflicted tension, that he forgets to focus on executing.

On the other hand, the winner toes the rubber with the same approach regardless of the situation: get the sign from the catcher, focus on the target, throw the pitch. Of course, the winner is well aware that the bases are loaded, that it’s a one-run game, and the other team’s slugger is up. However, the “pressure” of the situation motivates him to think more clearly, and execute his next pitches with more intense concentration. Rather than worrying about the score or what a wild pitch may do, he’s thinking “my catcher has called a fastball, he wants it down and away. I’m going to keep my head on the target and release the ball with my fingers on top and follow through the catcher’s glove. If it’s hit back to me, I will have plenty of time to throw to first base.” … etc.

It’s the same way for the hitter. The “loser” batter in this situation is thinking “I want to win this game so bad, I’ve got to get a hit”. The “winner” thinks, “bases loaded, there’s a lot of ways to keep this game going. I’ll take this one pitch at a time. I’m looking for a good pitch to hit, something I can hit off the sweet spot. I’ll look for ball, get my hands back, keep my head down and watch the bat hit the ball. Otherwise, I’ll let the pitch go.”

For the winner — whether it’s the pitcher or the batter — the focus is on executing. The loser is focused on the outcome of the game.

Winners understand that a series of successful executions give their team the best chance of winning, and that thinking about the final score only hampers the ability to execute. Losers are so wrapped up in whether they win the game, they may not even be aware of what is necessary to be victorious.

So remember, if you want to win, you have to win “all the time”. To win all the time, you need singleness of purpose — in other words, you need to be completely focused, and fixed on, the specific task at hand. And if, at the end of the game, your team has been outscored, remember: you’re not a loser — you just ran out of time.

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How To Break In Your Baseball Glove

LEXOL CONDITIONER 200ML 12For much of North America — particularly in the colder climates — the baseball season is right around the corner. That means it’s time to pull your baseball glove out of the closet and get it ready for the upcoming season — or buy a new one and start breaking it in.

There are at least a dozen ways to break in your baseball mitt, some of them bordering on insanity. Players have been known to soak their gloves in a bucket of water, bake them in ovens and microwaves, and drive over them with their cars. In addition, there are many opinions regarding what to use to help condition the leather; just a few prescribed substances over the years have included neatsfoot oil, mink oil, shaving cream, and saddle soap.

Today we’re going to learn the correct way to break in a glove. Correct as in the time-honored method that has been most successful in breaking in a baseball mitt for the long haul. Unfortunately, you won’t be dazzled by the process — it’s pretty simple and straightforward.

Are you sitting down? Are you ready? Here it goes:

Play catch with it.

That’s it — put the glove on your hand and play catch with it. Most of the gloves you buy today are “presoftened”; in other words, they’re made with a softer type of leather or the leather has been processed in such a way that they’re ready to use within just a few sessions of playing catch. The more you use it, the more it will form to your hand and become comfortable. Today’s presoftened gloves do not need to have any oils, creams, or other additives applied to it.

On the other hand, if you have purchased one of the “old school” mitts — meaning the type that is not presoftened — then the process is slightly different. Before you use it, you may want to treat the entire surface, most importantly the strings, to a very light coat of Lexol. No water, no shaving cream, no oils — just a bit of Lexol.

Water will dry out a leather glove. Would you go out into the rain in your leather jacket? Of course not. Would you treat leather boots with something before wearing? Yes, and you should treat a leather glove no differently — keep it away from water. The only time your glove should see water is when you are playing a game or practice, and it just happens to rain. But rainfall won’t do too much damage to your glove if you first treat it with a good conditioner such as Lexol.

Additionally, stay away from “glove oils” (such as Rawlings’ Glovolium), mineral oil, neat’s foot oil, mink oil, and all other oils. Putting oil in your glove will soften it, but it will also make your glove heavy. It will also darken the color of your glove, which may or may not be a big deal to you. Plus, if you put too much oil on your glove, it will not only become heavy but it will also get too flimsy. If you like a flimsy, heavy glove, then go ahead and oil away, but most players prefer their glove to be lighter and stiffer. Pliable is probably a better word — but pliable is stiffer than flimsy.

Although many swear by shaving cream — myself included, for many years — nearly all the shaving creams and foams you find on the market today include a good dose of alcohol, which is a definite no-no for leather. Alcohol will dry out the leather in your glove, and in time weaken the strings. Many years ago most shaving creams included lanolin, which is a nice, light grease that by itself is a good choice as a leather conditioner. However even the modern shaving creams that do include lanolin have so little of it, it doesn’t help your glove, and any amount it does have is erased by the damaging alcohol content.

Which brings us to Lexol. At this point you might be wondering if I sell the stuff, or if I own stock in the company. Well, neither is true (though if you click on the picture and end up buying a bottle from Amazon, you’ll help pay the server fees to keep this site running!). The fact is, you must look at your baseball glove as not just baseball equipment, but as an investment in leather. In other words, your mitt should be placed in the same category as a pair of fine leather shoes, leather gloves, leather hat, leather jacket, or leather bag. You want to treat all your leather belongings with a conditioner that will keep it pliable and protected, without adding too much weight. That said, it makes sense to trust a company that has invested millions of dollars researching the best conditioner of leather — and one of those companies is Lexol.

Unlike Rawlings, Lexol has nothing to do with baseball equipment. In fact, they do not sell any items made from leather. Their company exists for the express purpose of developing and selling the best treatments, softeners and conditioners for leather goods. There’s great value in a company that has such a focused, and passionate niche. Think about it — does Rawlings (or Wilson, or any other glove company, for that matter) have any motivation to sell you a product that will prolong the use of your glove? Of course not. If they had their druthers, they’d like for you to buy a brand new glove from them every year. So why would they spend much effort or money to develop a glove oil that will prevent you from buying a new glove for several years?

That’s not to say that Glovolium or other “glove oils” are purposely made to rot your glove out faster. But the fact is, glove companies are in the business of making and selling gloves — not in preserving them. So it makes more sense to buy a glove treatment from someone who is in the business of preserving leather, doesn’t it?

Believe me, Lexol isn’t the only trustworthy leather treatment company out there. But it’s the one that I know, and have used, for the last ten years. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been playing baseball for over 25 years, and yes I’ve tried shaving cream, mink oil, the water bucket, Rawlings Glovolium, olive oil, and just about every other material that you’ve heard of. Trust me on this one: the best thing for your glove is a substance made by a company focused on keeping leather looking and feeling new.

So, what you do is get the smallest bottle of Lexol you can find, because you only need to use maybe 1/8 of a cup or less at a time. They’re often sold by independent shoemakers / shoe repair stores, but if you can’t find it you can click on the image to the right of this article and get it from Amazon. Again, I’m not a salesman, so if you want to learn more about its ingredients and why Lexol is a better alternative for your glove, you can read about it here. You may notice there is a spray bottle, which I don’t recommend because you have less control of how much of the stuff is going onto the glove. You’re better off pouring a little at a time onto a clean rag and then rubbing it all over the glove and the lacing. Remember, a LIGHT coat, applied once. (You can apply it again halfway through the season or more often if you live in a hotter, drier climate.)

After you’ve applied the Lexol, go out and play catch. When you’re not playing catch, ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS store your mitt with a baseball in the pocket — otherwise your glove will take the shape of a pancake. While you’re breaking it in, you may want to keep it closed with a rubber band or something — I use a folded-up bandana and tie it around with the ball inside. Some people also put the glove under their mattress at night, but I’m not sure that does anything more than give you a backache. As long as it’s tied up with the ball inside, the pocket should take form without any compression applied.
Akadema Mitt Masher
If it’s too cold out to play catch, and/or you’re in a hurry to get your glove broken in, you can always slam a ball into the pocket, over and over. Similarly you can also buy one of these nifty devices, called a Mitt Masher. As you might guess, you simply slam the ball part of the masher into the glove to help form the pocket.

So that’s it — no ovens, car tires, water buckets, or exotic animal oils. Just a little bit of Lexol and lots of playing catch. A presoftened mitt should be ready for game use in three or four days, and an “old school” baseball glove will take about 2-3 weeks — unless it’s a catcher’s glove, which could take the bulk of a season (for that reason, a catcher should always have one “game” glove, and a newer “practice” glove that’s used for bullpens) — but more on that in a future post.

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Why Ask Why

Anyone who has, or has been around, a young child, knows what his/her favorite question is: why.

Why is the sky blue? Why does a dog bark? Why do I have to wear a hat and gloves? Etc., etc.

Asking “why?” is innate to a youngster. For adults, the persistent questions are enjoyable at first, but can eventually become draining. Little by little, as many youngsters mature, the questions come out less and less — as if they feel their parents’ impatience or maybe feel they are “too old” to be asking why.

However, you can never be too old to ask “why?”, and when it comes to learning — and teaching — baseball, you should always be asking “why?”.

When you ask “why?”, you learn something new, and you have a more complete understanding of the task at hand. (Note: the purpose of “why” is not to challenge an instructor; rather, it is to better comprehend what the coach wants you to do.) For example, a coach may tell a pitcher to land with a more open toe. If the pitcher simply plays good soldier and does as he’s told, without asking why, he’ll never understand that the purpose of landing more open is to allow his hips to rotate, add more torque to the pitch, and prevent arm injuries caused by throwing across the body. Human beings are not robots, and therefore should not take directions as if they are brainless machines. Understanding the reason you are doing something will help you succeed at the specific task, and more importantly, give you an overall picture or image of the entire action — be it throwing, catching, or hitting a baseball. Comprehensive understanding will result in faster, longer-lasting results.

Likewise, it is just as important for the coach to ask “why?”. For example, before you start telling a hitter to keep his hands inside the ball, understand exactly what that means and why it is important. If you don’t know, ASK. Anytime you pick up a catchphrase, learn a new drill, or hear about a specific mechanical action, ask what it means and why it is important to your ballplayers. This may sound obvious, but I can tell you from experience that there are plenty of baseball coaches preaching all kinds of philosophies, yet have no idea why those philosophies are important.

As a case in point, I can remember being 13 years old and my Babe Ruth League coach giving me all kinds of hitting instructions. “Get you elbow up!” “Keep the bat still!” “Don’t hitch!” were just a few of his commands. At the time, I had no idea why he was telling me these things, but to prevent from looking stupid, I never asked. I simply presumed that he knew better than me, and if I did what he said, I’d be a better hitter. As it turned out, all of his instructions were detrimental to my style of hitting, and my refusal to ask kept me in the dark as far as the hitting process went — I learned nothing in that year other than to take orders. But I didn’t find that out until years later, when I stopped worrying about looking dumb and starting asking “why” again.

Again, I’ll reiterate: the point of asking why is not to challenge, but to understand. When I got to college, my coach Bruce Sabatini instructed me to “hit down to the ball”. I asked why, and he answered, “it’s a shorter path to the ball. A short path means quicker hands, which means you have more time to decide on whether to swing.” He also asked ME WHY I kept my elbow so high. I responded, “I don’t know, someone told me to do that so I did it.” He considered this, and then suggested, “if you keep your elbow up there, it’s going to promote a long, loopy swing,” and he proceeded to show me the difference between a swing started with the elbow up and the elbow down. The light went off in my head, and finally I understood something about hitting. Had I asked when I was 13 why I must keep the elbow up, my coach might have given something to the equivalent of “because that’s the way it’s done” — in other words, he never asked why, and therefore never fully understood the mechanics of hitting a baseball.

At the same time, my Babe Ruth League might not necessarily have been wrong — there might have been a good reason to keep the elbow up. But since I never asked, I’ll never know. Maybe he thought a big kid like me would benefit from a loopy swing; after all it would enable me to get under and lift the ball — as in over the fence. But for five or six years I never knew why I was keeping my elbow up there.

The point is, if you are a coach, and you are presenting a mechanical change to a player, you should have a full understanding of why you’re doing it, for two reasons. First, because you need to know that what you’re changing is going to help that particular player. If you don’t know the reasoning behind a specific “absolute”, then you have no business applying it to a player — for all you know it might make things worse. Secondly, if you do know why, then you can explain the reason to the player, and he will 1) have a better understanding of the concept; 2) buy into the idea; and 3) trust you as an authority. All three of these factors lead to quicker progress and long-lasting, positive effect on performance.

Think about the last time you went to the doctor or dentist. He/she gave you a diagnosis of your problem and a recommended cure / solution. Then, you likely received a detailed explanation why that course of action was recommended — in some cases, a little too detailed for a weak stomach! This is a tactic to get you more comfortable with the procedure or medication being prescribed. As a result you “buy in” because there is logic behind the plan — a reason WHY. And naturally you’re going to trust a doctor who is so thorough with his analysis and recommendation. It’s a very similar situation between player and coach. You, as coach, need to have full understanding of the player’s current condition, and the proper “cure” for any malady. When both the coach and the player understand the issue, and the “why” behind the solution is easily accepted, and quickly adopted — a win-win situation for everyone.

Players, the next time a coach tells you to do something that alters the way you throw, catch, or hit, ask why — with politeness and passion to learn. Coaches, the next time you learn something from a clinic, video, or book, ask why that’s the right way. Remember, this is a kid’s game, and often it’s good to employ some of those instincts (such as asking why) you had as a kid.

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Hitting: Offseason Strength Training

Despite the MLB’s influx of muscleheads, the truth is, you don’t need to be musclebound to hit for power. This has been covered here before, so we won’t waste space.

While excellent mechanics will do more for your swing than your “max” bench press, there’s no question that strong hands, wrists, and forearms will also help your bat speed and power. Guys like Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken, and Henry Aaron were fairly slender, but had Popeye-like forearms. Combine strong, quick wrists with a good weight shift and hip rotation, and you’re on your way to hitting with gap power and homerun power — regardless of your overall size.

Luckily, expensive equipment is not necessary for building up these “bat speed” muscles. In fact, there are some very beneficial exercises that can cost nothing at all. Further, you don’t need much space; most forearm and wrist exercises can be performed while sitting in a chair — even in the passenger seat of a small car.

Oh, and these are good exercises for pitchers, too. Most of these exercises for the forearms and wrist can be helpful to your curveball, and they also build up the muscles around your elbow, which may help prevent injuries.

Another thing, your hand and wrist strength can improve dramatically over a fairly short amount of time. And, because these muscles tend to recover more quickly than larger muscles in your body, you can do these exercises every day — though 4-5 times per week will probably yield the best results.

Newspaper Crumple

Sit at a table and lay out a newspaper on a table, opened up to the middle page. Place it just barely within reach of your fingertips with your arm lying down on the table, elbow at edge. Using your fingertips, and keeping your forearm flat on the table surface, pull the newspaper into your palm, crumpling it, until you’ve pulled in the entire page. Repeat until you finish the entire section, then switch to your other hand. The only bad part about this exercise is that your hands get full of ink; luckily it will wash off easily with soap and water.

Arme Super Wrist RollerWrist Rolls

This may be the singlemost effective piece of equipment for building forearm and wrist strength for baseball and softball, as it involves all the muscles you use in your forearms to swing a bat. You can buy the equipment and see examples on Amazonand at this site. Starting with the weight on the ground and rope completely unraveled, hold the dowel / handle end with an overhand grip (knuckles up) in your fingers in front of your chest, arms straight out and parallel to the ground, elbows locked or nearly locked. Slowly ravel the rope by twisting the handle with only your wrists and hands until the weight is lifted to the very top. If you do it right, and the weight is heavy enough, you should feel tension or even a burning in your forearms and wrists. Start with 1-3 lbs. of weight and work your way up in 1-2 lb. increments when you can do three sets of ten easily.

Now, if you have access to a drill, you can save yourself quite a bit of money and build one of these gadgets yourself for about five bucks (like we did in the old days). Cut a broomstick in half or buy a dowel at the hardware store and cut it down to about 12-18 inches in length. In the middle of the dowel, drill a hole all the way through, then thread a length of rope (about 3 feet) through it. (You can steal your sister’s jump rope or get the guy at Home Depot to cut you a length of “utility rope” — just make sure it’s strong enough to hold a five-pound weight and skinny enough to fit through your hole.) Tie a good knot to secure the rope to the dowel, then on the other end, tie a small weight (you can buy loose plates at most sports stores).

Squeezes – rubber / tennis ball or grips

Next to the wrist rolls, this is one of the most effective means of building your forearm muscles. I like the Heavy Grips brand, because the handles are welded to the spring (and thus won’t start slipping around after using them a while), and they come in varying, measured resistance. If you’re in high school or older, and serious about forearm strength, get the whole set of 100 – 350 lbs. and follow the recommended exercise routine from the manufacturer (I have, and experienced good results).

Spalding Hi-Bounce Ball. (EA)If you don’t have the money for the Heavy Grips, you can still squeeze your way to success by using one of the pink rubber balls you get at the dollar store (oldtimers called them “spaldeens”), or from squeezing a tennis ball (like Ted Williams did).

Fingertip Pushups

You may already do push-ups as part of your routine, so it won’t be a big deal to mix in a set of “fingertip” pushups. It’s exactly what it sounds like — pushups done with your palms off the ground, holding up your weight with your fingertips. Try them right now, and you’ll feel the muscles in your fingers and hand helping out immediately.

Pull – Ups
(under and overhand)

Lifeline 4 in 1 Chin Up BarHanging from a bar is a great way to stretch and loosen your arms and back muscles. Going the next step and pulling yourself up to do a chin-up / pull-up works nearly all of the muscles from the waist up, front and back — including your forearms. Be sure to do both overhand and underhand pull-ups, so that you work all muscles. If you don’t have access to a good bar, there are several types available from Amazon, including some that are installed inside a doorway.

Wrist Curls (dumbbell or barbell, under and over)

If you have access to a dumbbells or barbell, this is an easy exercise to incorporate into your routine. In a sitting position, rest your forearms on your thighs (or kneel behind a bench, resting your forearms on the bench), parallel to the ground, and hold the barbell or dumbbell in your fingers, palm(s) up. Keeping your forearms flat on your thigh / bench, pull the weight up using only your wrists. After a set of ten, drop the weight a bit and reverse your forearms so that you have an overhand grip. Do another set of ten, again using only your wrists.

concentration curlDumbbell Curls

You probably are already familiar with this exercise — it’s the one that is also known as a “concentration curl” or and it makes biceps bigger. In addition to impressing the girls by flexing “your muscle”, these exercises will help build strength in your forearms as well.

Reverse Curls

If you already do “preacher curls” or simply “curls” with a barbell or curl bar, then make sure you do twice as many sets using an overhand grip — a.ka. “reverse curls”. You’ll likely need to take off some weights, as you’ll be isolating your forearm muscles and won’t get much help at all from your biceps. These don’t do much for your “muscle”, but will help your batting average.

Isometrics

isometric exercise for wristsWhen you’re just sitting around, doing nothing, and have no access to weights or grips or even a tennis ball, you can still do something: isometrics. With your right arm bent at the elbow (forearm 90-degree angle from your bicep) and palm up, push down on your right palm with your left hand. As your left hand pushes down, push back / resist with the right hand by pushing up. Push and resist for about 10-15 seconds, rest, and repeat in the opposite position (left palm up, right palm down). You can do similar exercises for your wrists by holding your fingers back and pushing against the “hold” using your hand and wrist.

Bucket of Rice or Sand

If you live near a beach, fill a bucket with sand. Plunge your hand into the bucket and squeeze the sand with your fingers into your palm. You can do the same thing with a big stockpot filled with cooked and cooled rice. Steve Carlton used to squeeze a pot of rice after every start.

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