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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Baseball Offseason: Read, Watch, Participate

For many, the baseball offseason is not only long, but dormant. While there are some areas of the USA where baseball is played year-round, the rest of us have been suffering from cabin fever since mid-November, waiting for the snow to melt and/or the weather to warm up.

However, just because you can’t get outside, doesn’t mean you have to go into total hibernation. There are several ways for both players and coaches to continue progressing. Following are a few ideas.

Read Baseball Books

There are many, many worthwhile baseball books that are focused on improving your game as a player or coach. Perhaps the most important reading for anyone involved in the game is the Official Baseball Rules 2006 Edition (Official Baseball Rules)Official Baseball Rule Book. I’m amazed every time I find out a player or coach does not own a rule book, and has never read it. If you are serious about succeeding at anything – be it a driving test, chess match, board game, or an athletic competition – you have an immediate advantage over your opponent by knowing the rules inside and out. Those who don’t believe this statement are people who have never read the rules, because you need only peruse 2-3 pages before you find something that could either win or lose a game for you. It’s also good for your case to actually know a specific rule before arguing it over with an umpire.

Further, if you compete in a league that does not abide by the MLB Official Rules (i.e., Little League, NCAA, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, men’s leagues, etc.), then by all means get a copy of your league’s rule book ASAP and read it from cover to cover. There will definitely be rules that can adversely affect the outcome of a game — for example, player substitutions, speed-up rules, and bat dimensions are just a few.

After reading your league’s rule book, you can move on to any of a number of books focused on improving your game. The first serious book ever written on hitting a baseball remains fundamental to any batter’s success: The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams. Likewise, Tom Seaver’s The Art of Pitching was one of the first of its kind and remains a classic. However, there have been dozens of valuable books published on both subjects since these timeless titles, written from different perspectives and with varying degrees of detail. Some are packed with full-color photographs demonstrating proper form, and others are more textual, delving more into philosophy than mechanics. All types are worthwhile, in my opinion — in fact any opportunity to learn is valuable toward becoming a better ballplayer or coach.

See a collection of books I recommend on Pitching, Hitting, and General Baseball.

Watch a Baseball Video

Since not everyone is a bookworm, and you can’t always learn certain things by reading and/or looking at a still photograph, a baseball video is worth passing time in the cold offseason.

Generally, I’d stay away from intensive examination of slo-mo video of MLB hitters and pitchers — an exercise that has become an obsession in the last 5-10 years among some dads and youth league coaches. Though it can be helpful to study the swing of Albert Pujols or the mechanics of Roger Clemens’ windup, for the most part it is an exercise in futility to try and impart a specific professional’s style on an amateur player. Everyone is different, and due to their physical makeup will have their own individual path to success. But more on that in another post.

Rather, try to get your hands on instructional videos from respected sources. Cal Ripken, Jr. and his brother Billy have put together three excellent videos that demonstrate the absolute fundamentals of playing the game. There are plenty of other good videos out there – all you need to do is make a quick Google or Amazon search on baseball videos, check a baseball forum for suggestions, or speak to your friends in baseball for suggestions. You’ll find some hard to locate, or prohibitively expensive, but most are affordable, many can be rented from a video store, and a surprising number can be accessed for free. For example, I watched all the Ripken Way videos on my PC for free via download from the New York Public Library website, and have watched a few other videos through my cable company’s “on-demand” free titles.

Participate

In the northern sections of the USA and in Canada, it can be next-to-impossible to get outside for any kind of baseball activity from late November through early March. However, most areas have indoor facilities of some sort — at the very least a basketball gym or fitness center. While it’s true that any available indoor facilities can be difficult to use while other sports (basketball, wrestling, gymnastics, volleyball, etc.) are in season, sometimes you can get access at an unusual hour (early in the morning or late at night) if only you ask. If not, the next best thing (and perhaps most obvious) is to follow a cardio and/or weight training program. Swimming and martial arts are also excellent activities that will keep you in shape. Finally, there is the old “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” option — by joining an in-season sport. Join the wrestling or swim team to build up your core muscles while also enjoying the rush of competition. Many schools have a “winter track” team, which in essence is a daily two-hour license to use the weight room and gym for conditioning.

In addition, the winter is usually the time (in the northeast, anyway) when baseball clinics and indoor camps are in full swing. Though not everyone can afford private lessons with an instructor, most areas have a local facility that holds weekend mini-camps and clinics. At the very least, you’ll get a few swings or throws in, and maybe learn something along the way. Not to be left out, coaches can also attend coaching clinics. If you can travel to it, a number are available at the annual baseball convention, but there are also clinics held by colleges. There are even some available online.

Some places to start looking include:

Clinics section of the Baseball Links website

America’s Baseball Camps

Baseball Corner

Baseball Tips – Resource Directory – Baseball Camps

You will also find camps and clinics by asking friends and coaches, checking your local newspaper, or searching the internet.

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Catching: How to Frame

Nearly every young catcher I meet is either proud to show me how well he can “frame” a pitch, or he wants to know how to do it.

So here I will teach all about framing, for the masses who do not have the pleasure to learn from me. However, you may be unhappy with what I have to say.

The best way to “frame” a pitch is to catch the ball where it is pitched — and don’t move!

That’s right — no turning the wrist, moving the body, or otherwise “easing” the ball into the strike zone. Just catch it and “stick it” (meaning, hold it there — “sticking” is a term stolen from gymnastics, to describe a gymnast holding his/her form at the end of an exercise).

While you may on occasion run into an umpire who will call strikes when you pull a pitch into the strike zone, the better umpires — which you will hopefully see as you reach more advanced levels — will be wise to your ways and nearly always call “ball” when they see you move your mitt.

The best thing you can do as a catcher to help your pitcher — and the umpire — is to catch the proper half of the ball (left, right, or top) with soft hands and HOLD your mitt exactly where you catch the ball. Even if it’s an inch or two out of the strike zone, just HOLD IT THERE. Give the umpire a good one- or two-second look at where the ball is. By doing this you are putting coins in the umpire�s trust bank; little by little he will trust you and where you receive the ball. Build up this trust over the course of a game, and maybe — just maybe — you will be able to ever so slightly ease a pitch an inch or two over to the left or right and into the zone.

So I lied, sort of. There is an art to framing a pitch into the strike zone, but it is an advanced skill, and one that should be used sparingly — like once or twice a game at most. And actually you “frame” more with a lateral, subtle move of your body than with the glove. The problem with learning to frame is that most young catchers (old ones too — watch Mike Piazza) will try to pull nearly every ball into the strike zone. This only irritates the umpire and causes him to eventually disregard the end of the ball’s flight.

Rather than try to force pitches into the strike zone, a better plan is to attempt to catch the ball when it passes through the strike zone. Coach Dave Weaver uses a term I like; he says “beat the ball to the spot”. Again, this isn’t something you can do on every pitch — unless you have a guy like Tom Glavine who is always around the plate. Most pitches will move a bit — to the left, right, or vertically — and sometimes you might be able to catch the ball just as it’s passing through the strike zone. At times this is early, so you need to reach out to get it, while other times you will need to keep the glove back and receive the ball deeper, after it breaks. We’re talking a matter of inches here, not feet, and your ability to decipher whether to reach or wait will come with experience — both your own and your time with a particular pitcher.

Try it next time you’re catching a pitcher in practice. Pay close attention to the movement on that pitcher’s pitches, and learn to anticipate its mild breaks. Try to figure out ahead of time where the ball is going to pass through the strike zone and “beat it” to that spot with your glove. Remember to keep soft hands, and make gradual movements — as opposed to jerking at the last second to snatch the ball. Receive the ball and hold it, so the umpire can take a picture of it. The umpire will thank you — and so will your pitcher.

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Hitting to the Opposite Field

If you have watched the NLCS between the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets, you may have noticed that a few of the Mets hitters — specifically power hitters Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Shawn Green — often hit the ball the other way. While you may expect to see “spray” hitters such as David Eckstein and Paul LoDuca hitting to all fields, you don’t expect to see the big guys hitting to the opposite field.

Historically, sluggers have been dead pull hitters, mainly because redirecting a pitch over a wall 300-325 feet away is an easier task when you’re only aiming for one wall, therefore zoning one area (inside, a foot in front of the plate), and getting full leverage of the bat to the baseball. Interestingly, there’s always been a bit of machismo involved — as it takes some muscle to power a baseball 300+ feet — yet, ironically, it takes more strength to hit the ball over the opposite-field fence (or a 400+ foot centerfield wall, for that matter).

Today, however, the sluggers such as Delgado, Wright, Ryan Howard, and Albert Pujols are both stronger and smarter than the Dave Kingmans and Harmon Killebrews of yesteryear. The modern hitter recognizes that the advantages of hitting to the opposite field far outweigh the disadvantages.

First and foremost, hitting the other way allows you to see the ball much longer — and thus makes you less susceptible to sliders, change-ups, and similar “trick” pitches that break late. Watch Shawn Green in particular, and you will know exactly when he is considering opposite-field hitting by the pitches he takes — they almost always will be sliders dropping in the dirt off the plate for a ball. Green’s big swing and reaction time has slowed down some as he’s aged, so he needs to guess more often to pull the ball for a home run. Therefore, you’ll sometimes see him swing and miss wildly at a breaking ball — that’s when he’s guessing fastball in and looking to jerk it. More and more, though, he’s been waiting on pitches, getting into good hitter’s counts (1-0, 2-0, 2-1) and dropping outside-half strikes into left field for base hits.

On the other hand, Carlos Delgado’s bat hasn’t slowed much, but he’s been hitting to left field his entire career. Remarkably, opposing defenses have often employed the “Boudreau Shift”, lining up three infielders to the right of second base. Perhaps their reasoning is that they’d rather see Delgado punch one to left than look to pull one into the rightfield seats. However, Carlos Delgado has the muscle to hit the ball over any fence, in any direction, so the shift only further motivates him to wait longer and decide whether the baseball is in a good hitting zone. He also has much larger holes to aim for.

Youngsters would do well to study the approach and swing of David Wright, who is very similar to Derek Jeter in that he tends to frequently “inside-out” pitches. That is, he pushes his hands forward through the hitting zone, but leaves the barrel head back. While this style might rob you of some power, it enables you to wait a little longer, and still get solid wood on almost any pitch. The only pitch that will be difficult to handle is a very hard sinking fastball running in on your hands — but few pitchers throw such a pitch with good velocity and success. Hitting with an “inside-out” swing, you almost always will be hitting the ball to either center or the opposite field, as a function of the bat angle. While Jeter uses this approach on nearly every swing, Wright most often employs it when he has two strikes against him. This is a good strategy for a power hitter, as the outfield will tend to play him deeper, and the inside-out swing will usually produce less powerfully hit balls that drop in front of the outfielders for hits.

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Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball in Japan

Last week (on July 4th) I watched the premiere of Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball on PBS. It is a documentary covering high school baseball in Japan, and specifically, “Koshien”.

Koshien Stadium is the home field of the Hanshin Tigers, except for two weeks in August when it hosts Japan’s national high school baseball tournament. Koshien, therefore, is the symbolic name of the tournament itself, and the mere mention of the word to a high school baseball player may very well elicit a smile, tears, or both.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who coaches or plays baseball (at any level), for several reasons. First, it’s a well-done, entertaining, and human account of the Koshien experience (and an insight into Japanese culture), from the perspective of the players, the coaches, and the fans; the director does a wonderful job of making the movie personal by capturing the emotions of each individual featured / interviewed. Secondly, the film exposes the remarkable passion exhibited by the people involved in baseball in Japan — be it a player, a coach, or a cheering squad member (yes, there are baseball cheerleaders in Japan, and they take their role VERY seriously). Unlike in the US, where the passion to win can be confused with the notion of “winning at any cost” and poor sportsmanship, the Japanese coaches and players hold a high respect for the game, playing it correctly, and honoring their opponent. How serious are the Japanese in regard to sportsmanship? As an example, at the end of one game, the losing team and their cheering squad sang a congratulatory song to the winning team.

In addition to passion and respect, there’s another virtue of Japanese baseball demonstrated in this documentary: dedication. Any US high schooler who thinks he works hard at baseball might have a different view after seeing this movie. In Kokoyakyu, there are several examples of players who have team practice for 6-8 hours per day, then practice another 2-3 hours when they get home. Now I don’t necessarily believe that 16-year-olds should be practicing baseball to those excesses, but I think this drives home the point that you will get out of baseball, what you put into it. Anyone who is trying to eschew the “instant gratification” fix plaguing many of today’s youth can point to this film and the quite opposite Japanese philosophy. While the Japanese want to win as much as anyone else, gratification comes more from the dedication, commitment, and hard work than the win itself. When a team loses (in Koshien, it is single elimination), the coach and the players commonly believe that they did not work hard enough to earn the win — as opposed to blaming a loss due to an umpire’s call, a bad day, or a “lucky” hit.

An interesting tidbit from one of the coaches: “When the team loses, it is the coach’s fault, not the players’ fault. It is the coach who prepares the players to win, and if the game is lost, the coach has failed.”

There’s nothing similar to Koshien in the USA — which is probably a good thing. The single-elimination tournament begins with about 4000 high schools throughout the country, and the final two weeks (held at Koshien Stadium) attract more attention than the Japanese professional version of the World Series � partly because the tournament has been around longer, since 1915. The only amateur series that compares in scope would be the Little League World Series; however, that corrupted travesty of a tournament has a long way to go in terms of respect and honor. The cheating and mishandling of youngsters that has gone on in the LLWS gives some idea of what could happen if the US had a countrywide high school tourney; the notion of winning here seems to operate on the philosophy of “the ends justify the means” — not at all what Koshien is about.

If you haven’t seen this documentary, keep an eye on your PBS station’s schedule; it’s a film you don’t want to miss. There is more information available on the PBS home page for Kokoyakyu .

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Establish Your Fastballs

Whenever I start working with a young pitcher – the first thing I ask is “what pitches do you throw?”. Invariably, — be he a 12-year-old Little Leaguer or a 22-year-old college hurler — the pitcher claims to throw at least three or four pitches in addition to “a fastball”.

Without going any further, let’s clear up a few issues. Just because you think you know how to throw a particular pitch, does not mean it should be part of your repertoire. Too often a pitcher tells me he throws a curve, a changeup, a splitfinger, a knuckle-curve, a sidearm curve, and a cutter, yet when that pitcher gets on a mound, he can’t throw any of these “pitches” for consistent strikes. If you’re not throwing a pitch for strikes at least 75-80% of the time in practice, then don’t bring it into the game.

Furthermore, no one who calls himself a pitcher should throw only one fastball. Unless you are a knuckleball pitcher, your fastballs are your most important weapons, and you should establish at least two or three in your repertoire.

First, of course, is the straight fastball, also known as the “four-seam” fastball or “four-seamer”. It’s thrown by loosely gripping the ball across the widest seams and releasing with a straight snap down of the wrist. This is the fastball you throw most often in practice, as you use it to get your mechanics in order. If your grip and release are correct, and your mechanics are good, you should be able to throw this pitch for strikes with your eyes closed — literally. If you can’t, then there is likely a problem with your mechanics, and it will be easy to figure out the issue by isolating a few checkpoints in your motion (more on that in another post).

The second fastball you throw should be a two-seam fastball, preferably either a “down and in” or a “down and out”. This is a fastball that rides (or “runs”) down toward the ground and either in toward a righthanded batter’s hands or away from a righthanded batter. (We use a righthanded pitcher and a righthanded batter as a standard frame of reference; thus a “down and away” fastball from a righthanded pitcher will actually move in toward a lefty hitter.)

A “down and in” or “down and away” can take anywhere from 5 minutes to half an hour to teach. However, it can take a few weeks of consistent practice to really learn. We’ll go over these fastballs in a future article; the point today is that you should learn at least one if not both of these fastballs before moving on to another pitch.

Another fastball to consider learning — after you’ve commanded at least the four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a changeup — is a rising fastball. Pitchers who throw at good velocity for their level of play (50+ MPH at Little League, 75+MPH in high school, 85+MPH in college), will find it beneficial to throw a rising fastball after they learn a change-up. Essentially, it is a four-seamer, but thrown to a higher target. With practice, you can get it to appear to rise, and makes for a good 0-2 or 1-2 pitch to hitters that like to “climb the ladder”.

Once you have established at least three fastballs in your repertoire, you can compete in a game at any level, at least for a few innings. Add a change-up to your arsenal of command, and you will have enough to dominate hitters most of the time. Understand that “establish” or “command”, means that you can locate a pitch where you want consistently — meaning at least 75% of the time.

So again, for those looking to “add another pitch”, stop looking. Instead, evaluate what you’re currently throwing, and ask yourself these questions: “do I truly command these pitches? Can I spot a fastball where I want, anytime I want, with movement? Can I throw a four-seamer for a strike with my eyes closed?” After you’ve honestly answered “yes” to all three, then consider adding another pitch to your repertoire.

Check back here in the coming weeks to learn how to throw various fastballs.

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Book Review: The Science of Hitting

Science of HittingTed Williams was the greatest hitter who ever lived … or at least, that’s what he kept telling himself. All kidding aside, the “Splendid Splinter” was probably one of the top five hitters of all-time, if not the best. This book — one of the few of its kind when it was originally published — is packed with all of Teddy Ballgame’s theories and philosophies in batting a baseball.

Compared to some of today’s ultra-intensive hitting books — some of which break down batting mechanics to specific timings, angles, and checkpoints — this thin paperback may seem vague and unscientific. At the time it was written, however, it was considered state-of-the-art, and provided the basis for nearly all other hitting theories that followed.

One of the main philosophies that Williams brings forth in this book is the strategy of understanding what areas of the strike zone you can handle, and waiting for pitches in those zones. In other words, he found a correlation between the best hitters and their focus on pitch selection. Although many coaches think Williams’ theories cause a batter to be less aggressive, there are just as many who think patience is key to a batter’s success. One needs to look no further than Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s organizational hitting philosophy to see that the preachings of Ted Williams are still followed today.

Personally, I’ve read this book from cover to cover dozens of times, and pick up something new every time. It’s not often that one of the greatest athletes — in any sport — gives away all of his secrets, and this book holds back nothing. Though some of the ideas in this book might not apply today, the majority of the teachings are timeless, and presented in an easy-to-understand format. I recommend it fully as a necessity on the shelf of baseball players of all ages. Click on the image and you can get it for about ten bucks — a marginal investment that will provide a return over and over for years to come.

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Maple Bat: Recommended

Some visitors have emailed me regarding a good choice of wooden baseball bat, specifically a maple bat.

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the maple bats; I prefer good old ash. But then I guess that goes with my “old school” ways, doesn’t it?

However, I have used several maple bats in games and practice, and most liked
this “Brett Brothers” model.Maple MB-110, 34\

I’ll admit that one of the reasons I bought it was because I consider George Brett to be one of the greatest hitters of all time, and figured that if he was putting his name on a hitting product, he’d make sure it would live up to his Hall-of-Fame character.

The main reason I like this bat is its balance; I’ve never been fond of top-heavy bats, or bats with thin handles and huge barrels. Years ago, I used the Louisville Slugger “S44?, which was very similar in size and balance. Another thing I like is the strength of the bat. I’ve used it in about 30 games and twice as many practices and it has yet to chip or splinter — something which seems common with maple bats. The price is also easy to swallow, as it’s less than $60 from Amazon by clicking on the photo.

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Catcher’s Gloves: Recommended

Through the years, I’ve used catcher’s gloves from Wilson, Rawlings, Spalding, Mizuno, and most recently, Akadema. As a youngster, and through high school, I used a glove with a double break; one break on each side of the wrist pad. It was a clumsy, heavy design, and in college switched to single-break gloves. The Rawlings gloves had a good feel in my hand, and strong, durable leather, but the leather lacing was thin and weak. Since I caught a few guys throwing over 90 MPH, the lacing around the webbing would break. So I started using Mizuno gloves, which had stronger lacing and were much lighter, thus easier to handle. I swore by the Mizuno’s until recently, when I was introduced to the Akadema “Reptilian” series.

There are a few things I love about the Akadema gloves. First, the quality of the leather (including the lacing) is top-rate. Years ago, Rawlings’ “heart of the hide” was supposedly the best leather but today’s examples don’t hold a candle to Akadema. Secondly, the unique design makes much more sense than the conventional / traditional catcher’s mitts. It is a double break, but the “second” break is way up along the top of the thumb, and actually serves to form the pocket. That design is crucial for two things: it makes it easy to catch the ball in the pocket, and it prevents thumb injuries. Conventional gloves have one long pad on the thumb side, and thumb sprains occur if you catch a hard thrower who is frequently crossing you up wild inside, or if you get a foul tip against the pad. The way these “Reptilian” gloves are designed, your thumb is in a very safe spot, away from the shock of those situations. The third thing I really like about this glove is the break-in period, which was extremely quick. In the past, I always had two catcher’s mitts: one for games, and one for practice that I’d break in. The break-in period generally took 2-3 months of catching pitchers every day. These gloves take 2-3 weeks.
This is the 32.5? catcher’s glove, suitable for younger / smaller catchers:

Akadema Praying Mantis-Catcher APM42 (32.5\'\'), Praying Mantis Series, Ball Gloves, Akadema AKA-APM42

Catchers with larger hands and frames (high school and up) will probably be more comfortable using the 33.5? glove. This is the glove that I use. It took only about two weeks to break in for game use, and is hands-down the best glove I’ve used in over 25 years of catching.

Akadema APM40 Reptilian Praying Mantis Series 33.5\

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The Slider

There are many people who believe the slider is the most deadly weapon in a pitcher’s arsenal. In fact, Ted Williams — the last Major League hitter to bat .400 and arguably the “Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived” — once told a young Sparky Lyle to throw the slider because, to quote Lyle: “Ted Williams told me the slider was the one pitch he couldn’t hit.”

Indeed, a good slider can be quite an effective pitch, and the aforementioned Lyle made an entire career — including a Cy Young Award — depending almost exclusively on that one pitch.

However, I’m going to tell you today, that if you are under the age of twenty, do not add it to your repertoire. If you are over 20 years old, and you have good command of your fastballs and a changeup, and you are having trouble with developing a curveball, then consider the slider, but use it sparingly.

The problem with the slider is that pitchers, pitching coaches, and managers fall in love with it, and want to throw it all the time, in all situations, and often want to throw it for strikes. However, the slider is not meant to be thrown for strikes, and therefore is not a pitch to be used regularly. The purpose of a slider is to convince the batter a fastball is coming, and get him to swing and miss it, or at worst allow him to get just a piece of the ball and ground out or pop up weakly to an infielder. An effective slider is all about the element of surprise, and is one of the few “trick” pitches that can induce a strikeout at a critical moment in the game.

Unfortunately, what happens is a pitcher throws a decent slider early in the game, gets a strikeout, and then continues to use the pitch over and over, to nearly every batter, throughout the course of the game. After it is thrown a few times every inning (or to every batter), it loses its element of surprise; the batters start looking out for it. Worse, if a pitcher is throwing it often, then he probably is trying to get it in the strike zone a good portion of the time. What’s wrong with that? Well, a good slider breaks very late, and breaks down and out of the strike zone.

In order to throw it for a strike, the pitcher has to release the slider a little earlier, which starts it on a higher plane, which in turn nullifies the possibility of a late break and usually eliminates the down break. In effect, he throws a flat slider (also known as a fat slider, because it is a fat pitch for the batter): it breaks sideways, on a mostly even plane. When a pitch breaks sideways, the batter has a much easier time meeting the ball with his bat, as the arc of the swing is on a similar plane of the pitch. Since a flat slider comes in on a level plane, and is by nature a few MPH slower than a fastball, a good hitter should crush the pitch for an extra-base hit.

Another major issue with throwing too many sliders is the toll it takes on the arm, particularly on the elbow. Ever wonder how it is that these days, so many college and professional pitchers need Tommy John surgery? You would think that with the advances in medicine, training, and overall knowledge of pitching mechanics, that people wouldn’t be hurting their arms. However, it seems that every pitcher above Little League is throwing sliders 30-50% of the time, and this pitch puts a tremendous strain on the tiny, fragile tendons in and around the elbow. Even if you throw the pitch with perfect mechanics, you will probably at least strain the tendons a bit. If you throw the pitch with imperfect form, you’ll put even more of a strain on the tendons and the ligaments, and eventually tear something.

If the slider is so bad for your arm, and not effective as a pitch for strikes, why are so many kids throwing it? Simple: because it is an easy pitch to learn, and a pitcher can fool enough poor hitters to be moderately successful. Look at the Major Leagues today and you will see a remarkable number of pitchers who throw the slider as their primary breaking pitch; you should also take note of the fact that 90% of these pitchers are only moderately successful, and that Major League Pitching as a whole is at the worst level of skill and performance in the history of baseball. All of these pitchers learned a slider because it was a shortcut; it was a lot easier to pick up a slider than it was to develop a good overhand curveball. Or, it was quicker to throw a mediocre slider that got a lot of weak batters to swing and miss, than it was to learn how to make a fastball move enough to jam even the best hitters. Sliders are a shortcut for ineffective, lazy pitchers.
Pitching coaches love to see batters swing and miss; too many think this is the core goal of a pitcher. And there is no doubt that even a mediocre slider will cause 60-80% of batters to swing and miss, most of the time. However, a good hitter will recognize a bad slider, and if given the opportunity, will mash it over the fence. Eventually, even the poor hitters will realize what’s coming — the good hitters will tell them about that bright red dot — and they’ll hit it too. The very best pitchers, at every level, learn that 1.) command of the fastballs and the changeup are paramount to success; 2.) being efficient with your pitches is a better strategy than trying to strike everyone out; and 3.) the overhand curveball is the best breaking pitch, because it can be thrown for strikes and it can induce ground balls.

If you must have a slider in your repertoire, use it wisely. It should be aimed at the outside corner (opposite of your throwing hand), out of the strike zone and down. In fact, the ideal target for the pitch is the catcher’s right foot (for a righthanded pitcher), with the catcher situated so that his belly-button is directly lined up with the black on the outside corner of the plate. At most, you should throw it five times a game in a nine-inning contest, and used most frequently on two-strike counts, in situations where you absolutely, positively, must get a strikeout. Used appropriately, it can be a very effective weapon in your pocket, to pull out every once in a while. Overused, it will eventually be hit hard, and put undue stress on your arm.

Before you try to throw a slider,? learn how to move your fastball in, out, and down, and develop a change-up that dives down to the right and down to the left. It’s boring, I know, but if you can truly command those pitches you’ll never need a slider to be successful — even at the Major League level.

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Balk? Or Base Hit?

Usually, when a balk is called, the pitcher stops his motion, and the umpire proceeds to call time and directs the baserunners to advance to the next base(s). However, what happens when an umpire calls a balk and the pitcher continues with the pitch?

99% of the time, everyone freezes once the balk is called, including the batter, who will let the ball fly by. According to the rulebook, it is a “no pitch”; meaning, it’s neither a strike nor a ball.

However, what if the batter doesn’t let the ball go by? What if he decides to take a hack at it?

According to the rules, if the batter hits the ball after a balk is called, and gets a base hit, the play stands as if the balk was never called at all. Unfortunately, very few umpires know this, and tend to call it a “no play” or “do over”.

I’ve seen this happen twice in my 25 years and 1000+ games played/coached, and in both cases the umpires made the wrong call.

Per the Major League Rulebook, section 8.05, referring to the balk:

“PENALTY: The ball is dead, and each runner shall advance one base without liability to be put out, unless the batter reaches first on a hit, an error, a base on balls, a hit batter, or otherwise, and all other runners advance at least one base, in which case the play proceeds without reference to the balk.”

How does this affect you? As an umpire, take note in case you’re ever in the situation. As a coach, remember this rule if your batter gets an extra-base hit and/or drives in a run on a balk call. As a fielder, be aware and play the ball as you normally would, in case the ump makes the correct call. As a hitter, take full advantage of everyone else freezing on the play and take a hack at the pitch. If you swing and miss, or hit into an out, it’s called a “no pitch” and you get to hit again. If you hit safely, you stay on your base (and there’s a good chance of that happening, as the fielders will likely assume the play is dead and not make an effort to go after a batted ball). In essence, it is your one rare chance for a free, no risk swing.

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