Browsing Archive April, 2007

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.


Pitching Backward

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

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.


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.