Mets pitcher Johan Santana suffered a setback while rehabbing his injured shoulder. It may be a long time before he can return to the mound, unless he corrects the mechanical flaw that caused his injury in the first place. [Read more...]
A baseball conversation with Fritz Peterson, former 20-game winner, All-Star, and owner of the lowest ERA in the history of the old Yankee Stadium. [Read more...]
Everyone knows that hitters can go into slumps, but did you know pitchers can as well? And unfortunately, some never find their way out of them.
This particular interview is from over a year ago, but it is a timeless / relevant piece. It is a short Q & A with Washington Nationals pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who spoke candidly to the Washingtong Post about Nats pitcher Jason Bergmann.
St. Claire offered his analysis on why Bergmann was pitching poorly in 2008, and how he had entered a vicious cycle that would inevitably lead to more bad outings — unless he changed his mindset.
A year later, Bergmann was moved out of the starting rotation and into the bullpen — where he’s continued to struggle. One must wonder if his inability to fulfill his once-promising potential has something to do with the way he deals with pitching slumps.
Being from the NY-Metro area, I’m a big Mets fan and regularly watch SNY (the Mets’ cable TV network). This evening one of their on-air personalities, Kevin Burkhardt, was reporting on the Mets’ spring training and one of his big news items was the fact that Pedro Martinez was pitching with his eyes closed.
First of all, this is not a new nor cutting-edge development. Pitchers under my supervision have used “eyes closed” drills going back to the early 1990s, and even then it wasn’t a new concept — certainly nothing I invented but rather a training method that had been handed down from previous generations of pitching “gurus”.
In any case, I’m glad the story came up, because now is a good time to apply the technique. Essentially, it is what it sounds like: you go through your entire motion and pitch with your eyes closed (this should be done in bullpens / side sessions; it should be obvious that you don’t try this in a game situation). If you have solid mechanics, and total control over your body, you should be able to throw strikes. When I coached at the D1 level, and we were working out indoors (preseason) my pitchers were not allowed to advance to breaking pitches until they could throw their fastball and changeup for strikes with their eyes closed. This may sound drastic and a little nuts, but that was my way of confirming that each pitcher’s mechanics were understood, “felt”, and repeatable.
Pitching (or doing anything athletic) with your eyes closed is tied strongly to visualization, but it is also an immediate way to “feel” what the body is doing. With the eyes open, your attention is split by all kinds of distractions — most of them visual. When you are “blind”, and expected to throw to the catcher’s glove, you absolutely, positively, must focus on controlling your body and its movements. Concentrating so narrowly on balance and movement, the mind is less susceptible to outside distractions that could cause the body to fall off course. In addition, if a particular part of your mechanics or timing doesn’t feel “right”, it is a more glaring and identifiable issue with the eyes closed. You will be amazed at how quickly you can correct mechanical issues simply by throwing a few pitches with your eyes closed.
Finally, there is the benefit of self-assurance. Prove to yourself that you can throw a strike with your eyes closed — literally — and you are suddenly armed (pardon the pun) with a supreme confidence to throw strikes at will.
By the way, this method can be applied to batting, though it’s limited to hitting off a tee.
The other day I went to a batting center that included tunnels where pitching lessons were being taught. Over and over I heard the same phrase from the instructor: “drag your back foot!”.
To me that sounded a bit perplexing, and thought perhaps the coach was teaching the change-up. After ten minutes, I realized the coach was using his “drag your back foot” instruction as a means of teaching the fastball.
A few days later I witnessed another pitcher, in another facility, consciously dragging his back foot on all pitches per the instruction of a completely different “pitching coach”.
Now I’m really befuddled.
Perhaps I’ve missed something, but what I have been taught is that you want to do anything BUT drag your back foot if you’re interested in increasing velocity on your fastball. In fact, what you should do on your fastball is push off the rubber with your back foot — much like a sprinter does off the starting blocks — and as a result the back foot should fly up in the air, high over your butt, after the stride foot lands. The back foot pushes, the front foot pulls, and if you get them working in sync, you’ll be using your legs to power the ball (now you know why pitchers do so much running!).
The only time a pitcher would drag his back foot, as mentioned earlier, is on a change-up. If your back foot — or more specifically, your toes — drags along the dirt in front of the rubber as your stride (front) foot lands, then it should help take a few MPH off the change-up. However, that is a pretty advanced technique, and should only be practiced by those who have a very solid understanding and execution of sound pitching mechanics, and whose changeup needs to be just a bit slower.
If I’m missing something with this “drag the back foot thing” — perhaps I’m misinterpreting a newfangled, cutting-edge technique — please let me know in the comments below.
Pitchers of all ages should do what they can to watch Tom Glavine pitch at least a few times this year. Glavine has been, and remains, the consummate pitcher’s pitcher — a guy who relies on guile rather than overpowering stuff to succeed.
Glavine never threw very hard — even in his youth — and now tops out around 85-87 MPH with his best fastball. Yet, he continues to get big-league hitters out on a consistent basis. More importantly, he does everything in his power to help his team win — on the mound, as a fielder, and on offense. Many more talented hurlers spend less time on the “other” aspects of pitching — i.e., holding runners on, fielding, bunting, etc. — and therefore rely solely on their ability to dominate hitters. While this approach can work, it’s a much better plan for a pitcher to work on all aspects of his game involvement. Glavine is proficient in every area of a pitcher’s responsibility, and as a result helps his team win even when his pitching is sub-par.
Here is how Tom Glavine wins games:
Simple, Repeatable Motion - There are no herky-jerky motions, or complicated hand movements, in Tom Glavine’s delivery. His mechanics are simple, easy, balanced, and as smooth as butter. Glavine uses four “checkpoints” in his delivery — certain spots in his motion that he’s aware of where his body, weight, and the ball need to be. Very little can go wrong with the simplicity of his mechanics, and as a result his delivery is easily repeatable, and not strenuous. This is the key to consistent command of your pitches and in dominating the strike zone: to repeat your mechanics. If your body moves in the exact same way every time you throw the baseball, you have a much better chance of putting the ball exactly where you want.
Pinpoint control – Glavine only throws two pitches, but has tremendous command of both. Compare that to a high school pitcher who has 4 pitches in his repertoire but can’t hit spots with any of them more than 50% of the time.
Great change-up – Glavine throws a change-up that is about 10 MPH slower than his fastball and moves. He keeps it down in the zone and on the sides of the plate, so that when it does get hit, it’s a harmless ground ball.
Changing speeds – Did I say Glavine threw “A” change-up? I meant to say he threw two. Or maybe three — it all depends on your definition of a change-up. In reality, Glavine purposely throws his fastball at two or three different speeds during a game, and matches each one with a complementing change-up. You will almost never see Glavine throw two pitches in a row at the same velocity.
Show pitch - I lied again — he doesn’t throw two pitches, he throws three. Glavine has a curveball in his arsenal, something he rarely threw until two years ago. Even today, he’ll throw it at most five times a game — sometimes not at all. It’s an “extra” pitch he’ll “show” the other team, for the explicit reason to put it in the batter’s head. He may not throw it again for the rest of the game, but the fact that he might is enough to give him an edge and keep the hitters “honest”.
Controlling the Running Game
Watching Glavine’s pickoff move, you may be disappointed that it isn’t extraordinary. After all, shouldn’t lefties have devastating moves, such as the one Andy Pettitte possesses?
It’s true — Glavine doesn’t pick off too many runners. But he also doesn’t allow too many stolen bases, either. He controls the running game by mixing up his moves, holding the ball for varied time lengths, repeatedly throwing over to first, and — most importantly — getting the ball to the plate quickly. As a result, runners do not get good jumps and Glavine gives his catcher a good opportunity to throw out would-be basestealers. Another one of those small things, but an advantage that helps win ballgames.
Tom Glavine fields position exceptionally well — if it weren’t for his former teammate Greg Maddux (another pitcher who does EVERYTHING well), Glavine might have a few Gold Glove awards. Glavine’s follow-through puts his body in position to field the ball easily, so he gobbles up ground balls hit back to him and pounces quickly on bunts. Just as important, he completes the play — properly setting his feet and making an accurate, strong throw to the intended target. It seems like a little thing, but the little things add up. Watch one of Glavine’s games and you’ll see him make at least three or four plays that most other pitchers don’t. As a pitcher, every out counts — regardless of whether it’s a strikeout, a popup, or a ground ball. If you as a pitcher can take care of five or six outs a game, it’s as good as adding those outs to your strikeout total.
There’s something else about Glavine’s defense that gets forgotten, and is largely unnoticed — he’s always backing up bases. Too often, you’ll see pitchers throw a ball, watch it get hit somewhere, then stand on the mound motionless. I see it at every level from little league to the big leagues, and don’t understand it. There is absolutely nothing a pitcher can contribute to a play by remaining on the mound after the ball is pitched. Don’t just stand there — do something! If it’s not covering first then it has to be backing up a base. Glavine knows which base needs to be backed up and hustles there immediately. It’s possible you’ll back up a base 99 times and it not make a difference, but that 100th time could mean the ballgame.
To field well, by the way, is completely up to you. You don’t need any special skills to be an excellent fielding pitcher. All it takes is hard work and plenty of repetition. You have only yourself to blame by not handling those 3-5 outs per game — not to mention making your outing that much more difficult.
In the age of the Designated Hitter, and pitchers specializing on the mound at a very early age, it’s rare to see a good-hitting pitcher at the Major League level. And although Tom Glavine has never batted .300 — heck, he usually struggles to bat .200 over the course of a season — he has won 4 Silver Slugger awards and is well-respected as a threat at the plate. Why? Mostly because he has laid down the most sacrifice bunts in MLB history — well over 200 and counting. Again, it seems like a little thing, but how often does a runner bunted to second come around to score? How often has a failed sacrifice attempt impaired a team’s ability to garner a run?
Like defense, bunting is an art that requires little skill — it’s all about using the proper technique and repeating it over and over. Kind of boring, to bunt the ball 40-50 times instead of swinging away during batting practice — but Glavine knows his skillset and the importance of execution. Any batter — be it a pitcher, infielder, or outfielder — can and should become adept at bunting.
But Glavine doesn’t only bunt, he also handles the bat fairly well for a pitcher. In his younger years, he hit in the .220-.240 range — better than some position players — and has a knack for getting the bat on the ball. As a result, his managers have been confident calling the hit-and-run when he’s at the plate, creating more scoring opportunities. Glavine also has a keen sense of the strike zone as a hitter, and forces the opposing pitcher to throw pitches. Since he’s not looking to hit the ball over the fence, Glavine will often take a strike — or two — then foul pitches off with a short, choppy swing. Again, doesn’t seem like a big deal, but every pitch he makes the opposing hurler throw is one more away from being removed from the game.
Anyone who has watched Glavine through the years can see that he carries himself as a winner. If all you do is watch his stuff — which isn’t particularly extraordinary — you might come away thinking, “how the heck did this guy win 300+ games?”. Don’t feel bad — even Albert Pujols was scratching his head after a 2006 NLCS loss, telling the press after the game, “He wasn’t good. He wasn’t good at all.” Pujols was right — if he was talking only about Glavine’s stuff. But Pujols, like many, didn’t “see the forest for the trees”, as they say. The bottom line is, Glavine knows how to win, and knows that if you do every single little thing, they all add up and can be the difference in a ballgame.
If you have an opportunity, watch Tom Glavine this year (he may be retiring). You can learn quite a bit by watching EVERYTHING he does on the field.
Learn to breathe? Who needs to “learn” how to breathe? Didn’t we figure that out about three seconds after emerging from the womb?
Well, yeah, but, not really. [Read more...]
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.
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.