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Saturday, April 30, 2011

Step and Throw

“Step and Throw!"  If you were/are a pitcher, how many times have you heard that phrase on a ball hit back to you?  How many times have you said it as a coach?  A wonderful friend to any pitcher is an easily fielded ball hit back to them.  This is especially “friendly” when the pitcher needs a double play.  Of course, we’ve all seen this “easy” play turn into a disaster when the pitcher throws the ball down the right field line or into center field and gets nobody out. “Stepping and throwing” is good advice on these plays for one obvious reason and another reason that isn’t so obvious but just as important nonetheless.    

Practicing the pitcher's best friend.(AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
In my opinion, most throwing errors are the result of poor footwork.  Anything a pitcher can do to gather his weight and balance, set his feet properly, step towards the target, and follow through correctly is going to result in a more accurate, powerful throw.  Saying “step and throw” is a shorter way of expressing the need to do all of the above.

But there is a second reason why “stepping and throwing” is valuable on these types of plays especially those that require the pitcher to throw to second base to start a double play.  Some pitchers are in such a hurry to turn the double play that they catch the ground ball, turn, and throw to second base very quickly.  Because second base is fairly close to the mound, it usually becomes a fairly easy throw to make.  The problem that often arises is that the pitcher does not give the shortstop enough time to get to the bag.  The “step and throw” or “crow-hop” after catching the ball and before throwing allows the shortstop enough time to reach the bag.  In this case, the pitcher’s footwork is sometimes more for the shortstop than for the pitcher.

Good footwork before the throw helps pitchers with their throws and also improves the timing of allowing their teammates to be in a better position to make the catch and make a strong, accurate throw of their own.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Point

Point to all fly balls.  You never know
when a teammate will need that help.
A simple tip for everyone in the infield that can go a long way is to point to all fly balls off the bat.  If you pay attention to MLB games, you'll see this quite a bit.  A ball is hit high and deep into the outfield and everyone in the infield points to the ball.  Even the pitcher.  Of course, this is done to help anyone who did not get a good read on the ball coming off the bat.  There are always times when a ball will get lost in the sea of white t-shirts or rally towels in the crowd.  Many fields at the amateur level do not have very good (dark) backgrounds behind the plate which would provide a good contrast to the white ball.  It could also simply be a case where a fielder just blinks at contact and doesn't see the ball come off the bat well.  


Regardless of the reason for not picking up the ball, everyone in the infield should point to fly balls in order to help their teammates find the ball more easily.  If the fielder does not see the ball, he can just look at everyone's arm and follow them right up to where the ball is.  Of course, if the fly ball is hit and a fielder has to go for the ball, he would not be expected to point to the ball as he runs.  This would slow him down.  Everyone else not involved in the play should though.


You never know when a fielder may need this kind of help so everyone in the infield should get into the habit of pointing every time.  

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pitchers: Pre-game routine (Part 2)

In the previous Pre-game routine (Part 1), I provided a pre-game schedule for starting pitchers.  The timing involved allows pitchers to properly prepare to avoid having a sluggish start to the first inning.  Today, I provide a suggested pitch-by-pitch routine when pitchers are actually on the bullpen mound practicing their pitches.  This too can be tweaked to fit the needs of individual pitchers.  Below the chart are some additional explanations of things that appear in the chart.

Chart Key:
FB = Fastball                    I   = Inside half or corner
CU = Change-up              M = Middle of the plate, low
BR = Breaking Pitch        O  = Outer half or corner
S / B = Strike or Ball

Pitch
(Wind-up)

S / B
Pitch
(Stretch)

S / B
1. FB – M

21. FB – M

2. FB – M

22. FB – I

3. FB – I

23. FB – O

4. FB – I

24. CU – M

5. FB – O

25. FB – I

6. FB – O

26. BR – M

7. CU – M

27. FB – O

8. CU – M

28. BR – O

9. FB – M

29. BR – O

10. CU – M

30. FB - M

11. FB – I



12. BR- M



13. BR – M

 Totals
 %
14. FB – I

 % Strikes

15. BR - O

 FB % strikes

16. FB – O

 BR % strikes

17. CU – M

 CU % strikes

18. FB – I

 Wind-up %

19. BR – O

 Stretch %

20. FB - M





Additional Notes:

A starting pitcher needs to be efficient
yet thorough to ensure he doesn't throw
too much or too little in the pen.
  • After the first few fast balls it is important to alternate pitches frequently.  This is what pitchers will do in a game so it's important to get used to it in the bullpen as well.  
  • Another reason for breaking up off-speed pitches with a fast ball or two is to remind your arm of the proper arm speed needed.  One of the goals of every pitcher is to get their arm speed on all off-speed pitches to look like their fast ball.  In many cases, the arm speed does more to fool the batter than the break or speed of the actual pitch.  Mixing in a fastball gives your arm the reminder it needs as to what the arm speed of the fast ball feels like.
  • You'll notice that every pitch has a targeted location.  This process has a dual purpose.  It allows the pitcher to get his arm loose and work location at the same time.  When pitchers are able to do multiple things at the same time during their bullpen sessions, they are able to save on the number of pitches thrown.  In turn, these saved pitches can be reserved for later in the game when the pitcher may need them the most.
  • BR - M refers to a "get me over" breaking pitch.  Many hitters will take a breaking pitch early in the count so a pitcher must be able to throw it and have it end up in the strike zone if the batter takes it.  BR - O refers to a breaking pitch used as an "out pitch."  Both types of pitches are extremely important come game time so a pitcher wants to get the feel of both prior to starting the game.
  • You'll notice that all the change-ups are located down the middle.  I'm a firm believer that pitchers should aim for the center of the plate with their change-ups.  You want the batter to think it's a mistake fast ball down the middle so he is encouraged to swing.  If you get a batter thinking this, he will be way out in front of the pitch.  If that is the case, the last thing I want is for him to miss it.  If he hits it, it's probably an easy out.  If he misses it, unless he strikes out he gets at least one more pitch to swing at. 
  • The last 10 pitches are from the stretch.  I am constantly amazed how many pitchers I see at the high school level that do not throw enough from the stretch prior to the game.  This is a big reason why many pitchers are very vulnerable the first time they throw from the stretch during the game.  They just did not prepare themselves for it.
  • It would be nice to have  quality pitching coach with you while you are warming up to monitor everything but it is not necessary.  The "win" or "loss" goes next to the pitcher's name so ultimately it is his responsibility to make sure he is prepared.
  • It's important for pitchers to focus on what they are doing during their pre-game bullpen session.  It's also important to NOT take the results too seriously though.  Many great games have followed a poor bullpen session where the pitcher appeared to have nothing.  Of course, many pitchers have also left the bullpen on top of the world and never made it out of the first inning.  Do your best but stay level headed regardless of how you perform in the pen.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pitchers: Pre-game routine (Part 1)

Two MLB starters.  Both have a personalized
routine that gets them fully prepared to be
100% at the first pitch of the game.
(Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Going into his fifth start of this 2011 season, Cincinnatti Reds pitcher Edinson Volquez had a 1st inning ERA of 29.25.  Prior to his latest start, the announcers talked quite a bit about what causes pitchers to have so much difficulty in the first inning.  They also mentioned that the pitching coach had been working with him on some adjustments to his pre-game routine both physically and mentally.   This problem with Volquez is actually more common among starting pitchers than a lot of fans realize.  This phenomena is especially true at the high school level mainly because many pitchers do not warm up properly.   There are a couple times during the course of a game when pitchers are at their most vulnerable.  The first inning is usually at the top of that list.  However, with a few adjustments and a little more focus during their pre-game routines, many pitchers can eliminate or at least minimize the vulnerability that comes with not being fully prepared to pitch.  Unfortunately, many losses occur because of what happens in the first couple innings of games.


Below is a pre-game schedule for a starting pitcher in a game that starts at 3:45pm (our start times).  A pitcher certainly can adjust the times to fit any game time if needed.  Below the schedule are some additional thoughts on the process.



3:05 - 3:15            
  • Jog to centerfield and back
  • Sprints – start with some short sprints (90 ft) and finish with a couple long ones (150’)
  • Dynamic stretching of the arm and legs

3:15 – 3:25           
  • Short toss – play catch to loosen the arm 
  • Long toss – Gradually move back to about 90-100 feet (all line-drive throws, no big arcs)

3:25 – 3:40           
  • 45’ toss – catcher down.  Working on location using full mechanics
  • 75’ toss – gradually work back to 75’ toss, still with catcher down, working on location, full mechanics
  • On mound –  throwing routine (this will be tomorrow's post!)

3:40 - 3:45            
  • Go to the bench, drink some water, put a jacket on, rest, and focus


Pre-Game Routine Notes:
  • The days of grabbing a ball and a catcher and throwing for 5 minutes before game time ended in Little League.  The 40 minute routine above allows a pitcher to get fully prepared both physically and mentally before starting the game.
  • Whether a pitcher is throwing short toss, long toss, or on the mound, he is always focusing on his command and throwing to a location.
  • Whenever a pitcher is using his full set of mechanics he should be throwing to a catcher who is squatting down.  Play catch (without full mechanics) with the catcher standing but when you are pitching (using mechanics) he gets down.  This gets the body used to throwing downhill in the lower part of the strike zone.  Pitching to a standing catcher promotes a pitch that is chest high which is a BALL in every high school league on Earth.
  • The routine above allows pitchers to work on multiple things at the same time which saves pitches and energy.  He is never just throwing.  When he throws he is loosening his arm, focussing on location and command, reminding his body of the proper mechanics and release point, and he is throwing downhill.  Only focusing on one of those things at a time considerably lengthens the warm-up process.
  • Finally, he wraps up his routine with NO MORE THAN 5 -10 minutes before game time.  Anything more and the pitcher's arm and body starts to cool down too much.  This is especially true if he is on the away team that bats first.  Proper timing is a must.
  • Every pitcher is different so the routine and timing above can be tweaked to fit the needs of each unique pitcher.  The key point is to develop some kind of a routine that allows you to be prepared and be at your best from the first pitch of the game.

Tomorrow:  Part 2 - Pre-game pitching routine - pitch by pitch!


Tuesday, April 26, 2011

"Puppet" or the "Puppeteer?"

One of my posts was included in a recent newsletter by the Clell Wade Coaches Directory.  Along with my article was an piece written by a former teammate of mine in the minor leagues who is now coaching at Mississippi State University.  In his article which you can access HERE, Coach Cohen mentioned that he wants his hitters to be the "puppeteer" and not the "puppet."  I thought this was a great way of putting it so that hitters can understand what a team's collective mission is on the offensive side of the ball - making the pitcher uncomfortable and getting him to change the way he pitches.


Using that general concept, I listed five specific things below that a hitter or an entire line-up can do to make a pitcher uncomfortable and get him to change things up.


Attack the first strike.  This tends to have the biggest impact on changing the way a pitcher throws.  Taking an aggressive swing on the first strike sends a clear message to the pitcher that he better be careful laying a fat one in for strike one.  When multiple hitters attack the first strike, pitchers usually begin to start hitters off with something other than a fast ball or at least attempt to throw the fast ball towards the corners on the first pitch.  At the lower levels, that usually means ball one which, of course, now makes it even better for the hitters.  


Rarely the puppet.
Jump on a mistake.  The next time you are watching MLB highlights of players hitting home runs, pay close attention to where the pitch was located when contact was made.  In almost every instance, the pitch was out over the plate and thigh to waist high.  It's rare that MLB pitchers throw it there but when they do, big league hitters do not miss them.  Whenever a hitter or a line-up attacks a mistake, it sends another message to the pitcher to not make a mistake again.  When the pitcher starts worrying about mistakes, he tends to throw more of them.


Move in.  As you get higher up in baseball, this adjustment tends to not work as much but at the high school level and below, it can be very effective in getting the pitcher to change the way he is throwing.  It's not a secret that most young pitchers have a tough time throwing strikes on the inside part of the plate for fear of hitting batters.  Most will stay on the outer half.  Moving a little closer to the plate takes that outer half away from the pitcher and baits the pitcher into doing something he is probably not comfortable doing - throwing inside.  MLB pitchers will normally eat a hitter up by pounding the inside corner if he tries this but every now and then you'll even see hitters do it at that level on certain pitchers.


Be a tough out.  Pitchers hate hitters who consistently have long at-bats.  Most would rather have a guy get a hit on the first pitch than work a walk after 8 or 10 pitches.  When asked how he pitched against Tony Gwynn, one MLB pitcher said "I throw it down the middle on the first pitch and just get the line-drive over with so I can pitch to someone else."  Being a tough out frustrates pitchers and most will change the way they pitch because of it.


Make adjustments quickly.  I wish I had a dime for every time I said to my hitters "Do not let the pitcher get you out the same way twice."  There are a number of variations to that saying but I do say them all the time.  If you swing at a curve ball in the dirt early in a game, you are going to see that same pitch again at some point.  The next time you see it you have to make the adjustment to not swing at it.  When you do, it's now the pitcher's turn to make an adjustment on how he gets you out.  It's a constant cat and mouse, back and forth game of adjustments.  Make them faster than the pitcher and your line-up is probably going to have a good day.


Being the puppeteer means pulling the pitcher's strings and making him change the way he pitches.  Do more of these things consistently and you will have a much better chance of being the puppeteer and not the puppet. 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Collisions at home plate

The following clip shows you all you need to know about the potential danger of collisions at home plate. 



I’m sure many a catcher has woken up in a cold sweat after dreaming of Bo Jackson or Prince Fielder bearing down at them at home plate.  This type of play has the potential for serious injury for a variety of reasons.  The top one being that the catcher is somewhat stationary and the runner is traveling at full speed.  In addition, the catcher’s eyes have to be on the ball/throw and can lead to a catcher being blindsided by the runner.  Because of these significant dangers, there are some very important safety tips catchers need to implement in order to protect themselves as much as possible and make the play as well.

A forearm to the face is a great
reason for keeping the mask on.
Mask on.  One of the only things working in a catchers favor is that he is covered in armor.  The catcher needs to make sure he uses it.  Some catchers have a habit of removing their mask every time the ball is hit.  This is a bad habit to get into.  A mask that remains on during a collision at the plate provides a great deal of protection to the face.  Don’t take it off!

Point your toes/knee at the runner.  When a throw is coming from the centerfield or right field area, the left side of the catcher’s body is facing the runner coming down the line.  A catcher MUST point his left foot and knee at the runner who is coming at him.  This does two things: 1) It faces the shin guard at the runner and protects his left leg should the runner’s spikes hit the leg on the slide, and more importantly, 2) the side of the catcher’s left knee does not get hit by the runner.  When the side of the catcher’s knee gets hit on this play, it has the potential to result in a major, career ending injury to the knee.  A leg that gets hit from the front may still result in an injury (hyperextension) but it normally won’t be as severe as getting hit on the side.

Give the runner some space.  When you watch a play at home plate on TV, you will see that the catcher usually provides a space or lane for the runner to get to home plate on a slide.  When a runner sees this space, he is more likely to slide.  If the catcher is totally blocking the plate, the runner is more likely to slam into him because there is nowhere else to go.  If a catcher receives the throw early enough, he can then step back to block that area from the runner and apply a tag.  Blocking the entire plate without the ball usually invites a collision.

Stay low.  Whenever possible, a catcher should stay as low to the ground as he can on a play at the plate.  Think of the biggest hits in football.  Usually they involve a player with the ball who is upright and a tackler who drops his shoulder and plows through the guy with the ball.  Catchers want to avoid this situation if they can.  A catcher can be a sitting duck on this play so staying lower than the runner prevents a runner from dropping his shoulder underneath the catcher and really drilling him.  Unfortunately, the catcher cannot control the throw he is given.  Some throws will be high and/or up the 3rd base line a bit which forces the catcher to remain upright to catch the ball.  A catcher just does what he can to stay low.

Lower than the runner, left toe and knee facing the runner, mask on,
and drops his butt to the ground on impact.
Drop.  One of the worst things a catcher can do is try to “stand up” to the runner.   By that I mean he tries to just take the hit and not allow the runner to knock him down.  Think about this.  A runner, sometimes a very large runner, is barreling down at full speed and has had at least a 90 foot start to gather momentum.  The catcher is standing still.  This is never a winning scenario for a catcher.  A catcher who tries to take the hit to somehow prove his toughness is being very dumb.  Think of how a car is engineered.  In a head-on collision, a car’s engine is designed to drop to the ground at impact so that it does not get pushed back into the driver or passengers.  A catcher should apply that same engineering on a play at the plate.  At impact, the catcher should drop his butt straight to the ground and roll backwards with the hit.  If the catcher is low enough, the runner usually flies over the catcher after impact instead of through him.

Other important tips:

Don’t assume.  At many amateur levels, a collision at the plate is an illegal play and can result in immediate ejections.  Of course, this is due to the potential for injury.  However, a catcher should NEVER assume the runner is going to slide like he is supposed to.  Sometimes a runner has every intention of sliding until the last moment when the competitive side to him comes out and he just temporarily loses his mind.  A catcher must prepare for the worst no matter what the rules say. 

Don’t get angry.  When a catcher gets “smoked” by a runner at the plate, the best thing a catcher can do is just get up and react as if nothing happened, especially if the runner is out.  Many young catchers will come up angry and go after the runner to confront him.  Very immature.  React as if it had no effect on you at all and you will earn a lot of respect from both teams and others who are watching.  Of course, if a catcher is actually hurt on the play, nobody would  expect him to just get up and carry on as normal.

Practice.  Because this play is a rare one in baseball, many catchers do not practice the fundamentals of this play very often or at all.  A catcher should practice getting throws from different parts of the field and apply tags with the correct body position.  A runner or coach can move down the line when the throw comes in and “collide” with the catcher by just shoving the catcher back with his hands.  This  “controlled collision” allows the catcher to practice all the tips listed and explained above.  

A collision at the plate is usually not a very fun play for a catcher but it certainly is part of the job description.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Games are for the players

The past couple years I have noticed something new in college baseball.  It involves players wearing wristbands that apparently have all the offensive and defensive plays written on them along with some kind of a numeric code system.  A coach calls out a sequence of numbers and the player(s) look at their wristbands to figure out what pitch to call, what play is on, or where to position themselves.  I have never tried them so it may in fact be the greatest baseball invention to date.  Of course, this is nothing new to football because quarterbacks have used them for some time now.  I had a conversation with a college baseball coach whose team uses them and he told me they work great and the players love them.  I hate them.  Let me rephrase that.  I don't dislike the wristbands.  I've never used them or the system as a player or coach so I cannot speak to how good or bad they are.  What I hate is the trend that is behind them.  Every coaching style has merit so I don't want to give the impression that the way I coach is the "right" way and that if a coach uses this system he is "wrong" to do so.  Leadership of any kind takes many forms and each style has plusses and minuses.


I am not sure who originally coined this phrase or where I heard it but it goes a long way in describing my coaching style and how I interact with players.
"Practices are for the coaches and games are for the players."
I have always felt that if I have to bark orders all game to my players about what to do and where to be, it is an indication that I did not prepare them well enough in practice.  As I've stated numerous times on this blog, baseball players must be calm and in the right mind frame to succeed in the very difficult game of baseball.  A coach who is constantly in his players ears all game is not helping in my opinion.  At the high school level, I want my players to learn the game and think for themselves instead of relying on the coaches to do all the thinking for them.  It seems hypocritical to me that a coach would control every aspect of a player's thinking and then complain that his players cannot think for themselves.


In 2009, our team won the Pennsylvania 4A State Championship.  The championship game was televised.  Our pitcher that day, now a pitcher at Winthrop University, threw very hard.  Early in the game a right handed batter on the other team smoked a line drive straight down the right field line.  A sure double and maybe a triple.  Instead, it was right at the right fielder who was literally playing 15 feet off the right field line before the pitch.  One out.  When I watched the replay of the game on TV, I laughed out loud.  The announcers were shocked and couldn't believe where the right fielder was playing as they watched the replay.  They glowingly praised the coaching staff on our "scouting report" and knowledge of the opposing hitters.  I laughed because, ironically, we did no scouting prior to the game.  We also didn't tell the outfielders to play the hitter that far the other way.  We said nothing.  What we did tell the outfielders many times in practice was to know who is pitching, to read the batters' swings, and to adjust their position accordingly.  All three outfielders communicated amongst themselves and shifted far to the opposite field completely on their own based on what they noticed during the season and during this particular game.  They knew that we trusted them enough to make that decision on the fly.  If they had relied on the coaches, they may not have shifted and a double or triple would have been the result.  A close win for the championship may have turned into a disappointing loss because of that one play alone.


Even the most knowledgeable coaches cannot possibly see everything that happens in a game.  The coach has one set of eyes and sees the game from the dugout.  The players have nine sets of eyes and see the game from all areas of the field.  Collectively, they will see more real-time things than the coach.  I say tap into that.  Show that you trust the players enough to take what they see and act on it.  Of course, the risk in all of this is that players will act incorrectly and make mistakes.  It is true.  This will happen occasionally.  But not always.


I read where a high school basketball coach got so fed up with his players lack of court awareness and failure to do what they were told that he tried something different as a way of sending a strong message to his players.  Right before the next game, he told his team that he wasn't going to say a single word during the game.  Not one word.  He was going to sit on the bench and stay completely silent from start to finish.  They had to make all the decisions from play calling to timeouts.  He thought since they were playing the best team in the league and had little chance of winning he could teach his team a lesson by allowing them to get beaten badly.  "See what happens when you try to do things on your own and don't listen?" was what he planned on saying after the game.  You can probably guess what happened.  His team played the best they had all season and won the game.  They also seemed to have a great time in the process.  What started as a lesson for the players turned into one for the coach.  Following the game, he was more than a little uncomfortable when reporters asked about "his" masterful game plan.


In my opinion, the short-term gain of having every pitch, play, and position coded on a wristband and determined by a coach is offset by the long-term problem of players not learning how to think for themselves and to react accordingly.  


A lot of coaching involves knowing what to say and how to say it.  Is also involves knowing when to just be quiet.



Saturday, April 23, 2011

Game face

(Photo by Tameisha1)
I was watching a game on TV recently between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants.  It was the top of the ninth inning with the home team Giants winning by a couple runs.  Yadier Molina was up with two outs and an 0-2 count and nobody on base.  The Giants clown - Brian Wilson - was pitching.  I'm sorry.  Did I say clown?  I meant to say closer.  Anyway, Molina worked the count to 2-2 and the TV camera zoomed in on his face after the pitch.  The look in his eyes was priceless.  I wish I had taped the game and had the ability to stop the tape and save the split second photo of his face at that moment.  The picture of Yadier Molina (above) is the closest I could find but even though he has a serious look in his eyes, it still doesn't come close to what his look was like after that 2-2 pitch.  I'm not a mind reader but I'd be willing to bet his thinking underneath that look went something like this ...


English translation: "You son (CENSORED).  There is absolutely no (CENSORED) way you are getting this (CENSORED) ball past me.  If you throw that (CENSORED) ball anywhere near this (CENSORED) plate, I'm going to smoke it right back at that stupid (CENSORED) beard of yours." 
As I said, I'm not a mind reader so the exact wording might be off.  I seriously doubt that it is off by much though.  However, I can absolutely beyond a doubt guarantee that his thinking was NOT ...
"Boy, he really has nasty stuff tonight.  I don't know if I can hit that.  I hope he makes a mistake because I really don't want strike out to end the game."
There is, of course, a world of difference between the two statements.  It doesn't take a brilliant mind to determine which set of thoughts is more likely to produce a successful outcome.  The look that accompanies the first set of thoughts may be very tough to put into words when describing it to others but you absolutely know it when you see it.  The look that accompanies the second set of thoughts is also immediately recognizable.  Just look at the picture of the deer.


The next issue becomes ... can that look and the attitude behind it be taught?  I'm not so sure.


By the way...


Yadier Molina fouled off a couple pitches and then walked.  That began a rally that tied the game and later ended in a victory for the Cardinals in extra innings.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Danger of treating every player equally

You've probably heard this before.  "My coach hates me" or "My coach plays favorites."  Common statements like those directed at coaches come from young players and their parents all the time.  It's a tricky situation for a coach because I believe a good coach does not and cannot treat all his players equally.  Every player on a team is unique.  Each has strengths and weaknesses that differ from everyone else.  Each is motivated by different things.  This requires a coach to interact with each unique player differently in order to get the most out of him.  Let's look at the graph below (I used a similar one in a previous post called Managing Emotion) and use it to explain what I mean.




It is called an Inverted-U graph and it shows the relationship between performance and arousal levels.  Arousal levels are determined by a players blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, etc.  As the graph indicates, as arousal levels increases, so does his performance.  This is why many players seek to get "psyched up" prior to a competition.  Increasing arousal levels gets the body going which prepares it for performance tasks.  However, the down side of all this is that sometimes a player's arousal levels can get too high due to nerves, anxiety, fear of failure, perfectionism, etc.  As the graph shows, too much arousal sends performance downward.  As I stated in the previous post linked above, different types of tasks require different levels of arousal.  The arousal level of a football lineman is going to be different than a starting pitcher when it comes to peak performance.


Now let's apply all this to "playing favorites."  One of the most important jobs of any leader is figuring out where his people are on the Inverted-U.  A coach needs to know the personalities of his players.  Once he does, he can tailor his interactions accordingly.  If a player is by nature a bit sluggish and to the left of the peak on the graph, the coach may need to introduce some stress for this player in order to move the player's arousal levels higher.  It might take the form of getting in a player's face and telling him he better start picking up the pace a little.  In turn, the player's performance will improve as it moves upwards towards the peak of the Inverted-U.  If a player is naturally high-strung or someone who puts a lot of pressure on himself may typically be on the right or downside of the graph.  Introducing more stress by yelling at the kid is just going to make the player's performance even worse.  This is the kid who needs a pat on the back or some words of encouragement in order to get him to relax and move back and up to the left towards his optimal level.


Of course, the problem in some peoples' minds is that the coach is not treating his players equally.  The player who needed stress introduced may say "Wait a minute.  Coach yells at me but pats him on the back when he makes mistakes.  He's playing favorites."  It is true.  The coach is not treating the two players equally.  But he is treating them fairly.  He is doing what is necessary to get the most out of each player.  Always yelling at mistakes only serves those players who are motivated by that.  Only patting them on the back may get players to call the coach a nice guy but he too is only reaching the players who respond best to a pat on the back.  


Good coaching requires a coach to be fair, not necessarily equal.  It also requires them to know the players well enough to understand where each player typically falls on the graph in order to interact with them properly.  It's not always easy but it's the reality of coaching.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

First base & Third base cutoffs

One of the important jobs for both third basemen and first basemen is to be the cutoff guy on throws to home plate from the outfield.  Below are some things both should consider and/or do to make the play more successful.


Line yourself up.  I mentioned this part in the First Base Mistakes post a while back but I'll mention it again.  A good fielder knows where he is on the field at all times.  A fielder should not have to be lined up by the catcher who yells "left!" or "right!"  Take a peek back to the catcher a couple of times if you have to when lining yourself up.  The catcher has his own set of issues to worry about.  Where you are positioned shouldn't be one of them.  In big, loud stadiums you might not even hear the catcher anyway. 


Watch the runner tag.  Whether the runner is rounding first base or third base on the play, it is the job of the first and third basemen to watch the runner tag the base on the way by.  As you are moving into position for the cutoff, take a peek at the bag and see if he touches it.  A runner may only miss a bag once all season but you definitely want to be paying attention when it happens.


Knowing who the outfielder is, how
good of an arm he has, and in what direction
he is moving all play a role in
the cutoff man's positioning.

(Photo by Icon/SMI)
Know the outfielder.  A cutoff man needs to know how strong of an arm the outfielder has prior to the play.  In large part, that will determine where he positions himself on the cutoff.  If the outfielder has a weak arm, the cutoff man should position himself a bit closer to the outfield.  If the arm is stronger, he moves back closer to home plate on the cutoff.  Other variables apply as well.  If an outfielder is standing still on the catch or moving away from the infield before the throw, the cutoff man usually will move towards the outfield because the outfielder will not be able to generate a lot of momentum on his throw.  On the other hand, if an outfielder is charging hard on a ball and comes up throwing, the cutoff man should be moving back towards the catcher and allow the outfielder to get the most out of his throw with his built up momentum.  In that case, the cutoff man's job may simply be to just redirect the throw if it is offline.


Don't rely on the catcher.  Just like a cutoff man should not rely on the catcher to properly position him when lining up the throw, the cutoff man should not always rely on the catcher to tell him what to do when the throw comes in.  Sometimes catchers will screw up and either say the wrong thing or nothing at all.  The most common mistake is when the catcher says nothing on a throw that is dying or a bit offline.  Many cutoff men will let it go because the catcher never said "cut!"  If the cutoff man sees the throw is either not going to reach home plate quickly or if he notices the ball is offline, he should not wait for the catcher to say "cut."  He should cut it off and possibly make the throw to the plate himself.  This also applies when the cutoff clearly sees that the runner trying to score will easily be safe.  The cutoff man sees the runner round third and also sees the outfielder's throw.  If he can tell by the timing of things that the runner will be safe, he should cut the throw regardless of what the catcher says and just prevent the batter or other runners from moving up another base.  Of course, this requires the cutoff man to be observant of multiple things at the same time.  Not easy, but as kids get older this becomes more of a responsibility.


Square then turn.  When the cutoff man is in the proper location, he should square his body up to the thrower with his arms raised above his head.  This gives a clear target for the outfielder to throw to.  However, when the ball is released by the outfielder, the cutoff man must try to get to the proper side of the ball so that the glove side of his body is facing home plate when he catches the ball.  This requires some quick footwork at times but it must be done.  A cutoff man who catches the throw squared up to the outfielder will waste valuable time turning around to make the throw to home plate after catching the ball.  The cutoff man who is already turned with his glove side facing home when the catch is made can just catch and throw without having to turn around first.


Be quick not strong.  On most cutoff plays, a strong throw from the cutoff man to the catcher is not needed.  What is more valuable is a quick throw.  A strong throw usually requires more steps by the thrower to generate momentum in order to get the most out of the arm.  As a result, a strong throw takes longer.  A cutoff man needs to focus on being quick in his transition from catching to throwing especially since the distance of his throw to the catcher is relatively short.  Catch the throw and get rid of it quickly.