Browsing Archive March, 2006

Pitching is Balance

Balance is the most important aspect of pitching. Without balance, there is no control. Without control, there are no strikes. Without strikes, there is no pitching. That said, a pitcher’s first goal — especially a beginning pitcher — should be to have balance from his first movement to his release.

Beginning the motion in balance is easy enough: stand straight up. When working from the full windup, make a small step backward and maintain your balance. This is the point where many neophytes make their first mistake, by stepping slightly (or fully) to the side, and/or by stepping too far. Either of these movements will throw your balance off. So again: step directly back and just a few inches. A good rule of thumb (or toe) is to step straight back behind the rubber, with your toe just barely brushing the back of the rubber.

The purpose of stepping back is to firmly plant your pivot/push foot. Step back just enough so that you can maneuver your pivot foot (right foot for righthanders, left foot for lefties) in a comfortable spot against the rubber. Once that foot is planted, pivot your hips and lift your opposite knee up toward your chest and above your pivot knee. Notice I stated “lift your knee” and not “lift your foot”. Lifting your foot, or “kicking” will put the wrong visual into a pitcher’s head, and possibly throw the body out of balance. Although many people might call this part of the motion the “kick”, I avoid that term because of the possibility of imbalance. Instead, call it the “knee lift”; it gives a more positive visual.

The knee should be lifted as high as you possibly can while still maintaining balance. You should be able to hold yourself in position for 5-10 seconds. If you can’t, then you need to either work on your balance or lift your knee lower. Generally speaking, the higher you can lift your knee (in balance), the more power you will generate. So, a pitcher should work on keeping his balance while getting his knee as high as he possibly can.

Luckily, this is a fairly easy action to accomplish. All it takes is standing on one leg. Do two drills: (1) lift your knee as you would in your motion and hold, and (2) standing straight with your arms crossed over you chest, lift your weak (left for righties, right for lefties) foot back behind the same knee, so that your heel is almost touching your hamstring. Do these drills with your eyes open and your eyes closed, and hold the position for as long as you can. Count as you hold, and make goals (for example, start with 5 seconds, work up to 10, then 15, then 20). You can do balance drills anywhere: at home, in an elevator, on a subway car, on a bus, wherever (a buses and trains are fantastic places for advanced drills, if you don’t mind people looking at you like you’re crazy).

Once you have accomplished great balance with your knee lift, it will be very easy to stride in balance, and thus release the ball in balance … and the result should be more strikes. In fact, a pitcher with very good balance should be able to throw strikes with his eyes closed — literally. Try it for yourself: after working on your balance for a few weeks, try, from the stretch position, pitching with your eyes closed. If you’ve achieved proper balance, you may surprise yourself by throwing perfect strikes.


Big Muscles Don’t Equal Home Runs

One element that separates the pre-1980 ballplayer and the modern baseballer is the weight training program. There is no question that lifting weights can significantly improve your strength and help you become a better ballplayer. However, many players — young and old — seem to think that a bodybuilder-type program will help their game.

Let’s use our noggins here, boys. Take a look at Hank Aaron, the all-time home run leader of the Major Leagues: listed as 6 feet tall, 180 pounds (and he was probably slightly shorter, and lighter, in his playing days). One man hit more home runs, professionally, than Aaron: Sadaharu Oh of Japan. In fact, Oh hit over 100 more than Aaron in his career, and he played at 5’11”, 175 lbs. Neither of these players would be considered musclebound, not even “big”. They were both pretty average, as far as body type, in their leagues and in their times. However, they knew what to do with their body to make the ball go over the fence.

Before you dismiss these two men as freaks of nature, consider more fairly lean home run hitters over the course of history: Willie Mays, George Foster, and Andruw Jones all hit over 50 home runs in a season, and none of them weighed over 190 pounds. Graig Nettles was a prolific homerun hitter in the mid-1970s, yet was 6’1″, 175. Two of the most feared sluggers of the 1970s and 1980s, Jim Rice and Reggie Jackson, were considered strong, but looking at them now, they’d hardly be considered “big”. In fact, at 6’2″, 210 lbs., Rice has the build of a shortstop.

We can thank Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for bringing attention back to Major League Baseball in 1998, thanks to their miraculous chase for the single-season home run record. In the aftermath, however, we can blame these two steroid-enhanced goons, as well as juiceheads such as Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez, for furthering the notion that a Schwarzenegger-like physique will make you a better hitter.

While it’s true that sheer strength can increase your bat speed, and add a few feet to a fly ball, it doesn’t mean that muscles mean home runs. The singlemost important resource we have as athletes — and human beings — is time, and faced with? the decision to spend an extra hour in the weight room? or an extra hour in the batting cage, the? decision should always be the batting cage. Technique, coupled with repetition, will help a player become a better hitter? much more than maxing out on the bench press.

Charley Lau used to say that a hitter needed to learn how to hit first, and then, eventually, somewhere down the line, he could learn to hit home runs — maybe. One of his prize pupils, George Brett, epitomized this theory. Brett was a .300 hitter before he was a 20-homer slugger. And the reason you don’t see over-the-top homerun totals when looking at his career stats is because most of the time, he wasn’t trying to hit a home run. Brett’s goal, 90% of the time, was to hit a line drive — because with that approach you have a much better chance of succeeding than if you swing for the fences. When Brett did hit a home run, he did it on purpose, believe it or not. That’s not to say he could hit a home run at will, of course; it means that he hit a home run when that was his goal, because the game situation dictated it. Once you become a great hitter, and know your body and your swing that well, and have seen enough pitches to immediately react, and the pitcher lets you, you can do the same thing. In the meantime, work on honing your swing; work on increasing bat speed; learn to pick out and turn on the inside pitch; pay attention to pitching patterns — these are the things that will help you hit a home run. And not one of those exercises involves a barbell.


Pitch Counts

One of the greatest, most illogical blasphemies occurring at all levels of baseball is the notion of limiting the pitch count.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that a pitcher’s pitches in a game should be counted, and that the count can help a manager decide whether it’s time to pull a guy out. What confounds me are two major issues: the 100-pitch limit and conditioning athletes to stay within that limit.

For the first hundred years of baseball, the term “pitch count” did not exist. Every game, a team would have their best available pitcher for the day start the game, and keep throwing until he was pooped. Starters were expected to also finish, and even the #3 and #4 men in the rotation would go at least to the seventh inning, guaranteed. (Oh, and by the way, NO ONE used a 5-man rotation until the 1970s.) Through the years, thousands of pitchers threw and threw and threw, many for 250 or 300 innnings or more in? a season. And they did it without the benefit of today’s medicine (and drugs).

In the late 1960s, Mets’ manager Gil Hodges started counting pitcher’s pitches. It was unheard of at the time, but it was a good idea. Unfortunately, somewhere between that idea and today, a whole lot of “experts” decided that no pitcher should throw more than 100 pitches in a game, and today no starting pitcher is expected to go beyond the sixth inning.

Despite the geniuses coming up with these asinine, unfounded rules, we still have pitchers injuring their arms, and to me, arm injuries seem a lot more common than before. I’m convinced it’s because pitchers don’t pitch enough.

There is no reason a healthy young man, with good mechanics, throwing fastballs the majority of the time, can’t throw 140-160 pitches per game — especially with four days’ rest between starts. However, the key is to condition the pitcher to reach that plateau. It can’t be done immediately; a sound throwing program will build up to that goal over an 8-10 week period. But, once a pitcher builds up to that level, and maintains the conditioning program throughout the season, he should breeze through 150 pitches or more during? a game, without tiring.

Check back soon, as I’ll post a typical program to reach this level.