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Friday, December 31, 2010

Base running tips for the indoor off-season

As winter kicks into gear, many players around the country are stuck indoors for much of their practice routine.  Hopefully this includes some base running as well.  Here are five tips to get the most out of your indoor running.

A base runner's off-season best friend.

  1. Run distance and sprints.  Using a stationary bike and/or treadmill can help with the distance.  A long hallway in a school is good for sprints.
  2. Master your leads.  Indoors is great for practicing your leads off each base.  All you need is one base and pretend its whatever base you need.  Get comfortable with the distance of your leads until you don't have to look at the bag as you are moving off.  A good base runner never has to look back.  He knows how far off he is and where the bag is.
  3. Master your starts.  Spend a lot of time on your jumps at first base, especially if you are a base stealer.  This can be a little tough on a slippery gym floor or hallway so you may have to improvise with your traction.  Work on your second base starts as well using a walking-lead-then-sprint technique.
  4. Read as you run.  This technique works best for longer sprints or base running on a field but it can also work in a long hallway as well.  Here is what you do.  Pick out a sign, word, symbol, number, etc. somewhere down the hall and as you are running keep your eyes on the sign.  This helps in two ways.  First, it teaches you to run with your eyes up.  Second, if your eyes are bouncing around a lot and you cannot read the sign well, your running technique needs to be smoothed out a bit - probably running on the balls of your feet more to keep your eyes still.
  5. Use game-like situations.  Incorporate the things you would have to do in a game.  A hit-and-run is an example.  After your quick start, look to your left for a second or two like you would do in a game to see what the batter did with the pitch and then continue your sprint.  Work on your technique if you deviate from your line when you look in.  To make this more challenging, pretend the ball is hit down the right field line.  After looking in at the plate, turn your head to the right for a second or two to "see" the ball down the right field line.  Then look forward as you continue to run.  Great runners should not deviate from their straight line sprint even though their eyes are not looking straight ahead for the first few seconds.

Although the weather outside may be frightful, there is much to be done indoors if you have the desire and an imagination to improvise.  Get to work!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Is the recruiting process better or worse?

Coaches and scouts
at a showcase.
A player of mine at my high school recently signed with a division I college.  I couldn't be happier for the young man, his family, and our program.  For many players and their families, finding the right college is a long and stressful process where some are recruited heavily by many schools and some not at all.  Although that fact has never changed through the years, much about the recruiting process has.  When I went to high school, you played games, college coaches or representatives began to show up, they made some offers, you made some visits, and you made a decision.  The three parties that were heavily involved on the player's side were the player, his family, and his high school coach.  Today, much of the recruiting process is done completely without the involvement of the high school coach.  Showcases, AAU travel teams, and recruiting / marketing services have changed all that.  I honestly don't know if these changes, all things considered, are good ones.  There are good arguments on both sides of that debate.  Traveling around for tournaments and showcases brings some great exposure for players and gives players a chance to compare themselves with players from all over the country.  That's a great thing.  The down side is the cost.  Amateur baseball, the way it is currently structured and run, certainly benefits players that come from families that are better off financially.  AAU teams, showcases, and marketing firms are not free.  All together, some families shell out tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a player's pre-college career.  (My guess is that many kids never get that money back in the form of scholarships but that's another matter for another day).  The point is, how can a low income kid compete with that?  It used to be that sports provided a level playing field for all kids regardless of finances.  Not any more.  On top of that, these teams, showcases, and firms work.  Most players get their scholarship offers because coaches saw them at one or more of these events.  Parents feel they have no choice but to pay the money or else their kid will not get a chance.  They are probably right to a certain extent.  Kids from lower income families probably feel they can't compete and just stop playing altogether.   The RBI program run by Major League Baseball is one of a number of programs that attempts to address this problem.

The recruiting process is not a perfect one.  Whether the system needs to be "fixed" or just accepted is in the end just a matter of opinion.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Show up, suit up, shut up, and play hard!

The motto “Show up, suit up, shut up, and play hard” is a good guide for success on and off the field.  I first saw this motto on the blackboard of my father’s high school wrestling room.  He was a longtime teacher and coached baseball and wrestling at the high school and college levels.  I used to go with him to Saturday morning wrestling practices and see that motto year after year.  It was never erased.  The more I played sports, the more I realized the true meaning of that motto.  I believe the principles behind the words give a better understanding of why people succeed in anything they do.  The following is a little bit of how I interpret each line of the motto:

Show Up: Successful people show up.  Just showing up is half the battle.  We all have many distractions that pull us in many directions but winners still show up. They also show up on time. They are on time not because they are told to but because they know it is the right thing to do for themselves and others.  They also show up ready to work.  They don’t coast or go on autopilot.  With the game on the line, winners show up and make their presence known.  They don’t shy away from the difficult or challenging.  They run toward it.

Suit Up: Winners look the part also.  They wear the uniform correctly out of respect for the game, their team, their family, and themselves. They understand that success in anything you do is in the small details, right down to how you tie your shoes or wear your hat.  They understand that wearing a uniform is an honor that won’t last forever.  They understand that how you act in your uniform is just as important as how you play in that uniform.

Shut Up:  Winners know that talk is cheap.  Sooner or later, you have to perform. They realize that if you have to tell someone how good you are, there may be a reason why they don’t already know. However, winners are not silent. They know when to speak and when to listen.  They understand that the key to learning is to do more listening than talking. They are not afraid to ruffle some feathers when someone is lacking discipline or needs to focus. They also know when a pat on the back is better suited.

Play Hard: A strong work ethic is probably the most important trait of successful people.  They don’t work hard just to get something in return. They work hard simply for the sake of working hard. It is part of who they are. They understand that hard work is a skill just like hitting or throwing a baseball is a skill. They also know where to direct their hard work and make adjustments when needed. They work and play hard because each day of small improvements eventually adds up to big things.  They understand the “termite analogy“ : “The danger of termites lie not in their size nor their intelligence. They have the time and they never stop working.”  

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What is meant by a player's "make up?"

 Ask any scout and they will tell you that a player’s “make-up” is extremely important.  So what is it and why do they care about it so much? How a scout answers the following questions will go a long way in determining a player’s “make-up.”

1.    How does he handle adversity like striking out, making an error, or an umpire’s bad call?
2.    How accepting is he of instruction and criticism?
3.    How well does he interact with his teammates?
4.    How is he in school?  Frequently late or absent? Any detentions/suspensions? Underachiever? Overachiever?
5.    Does he play like he loves the game and can’t get enough? Is baseball a passion or just a hobby?
6.    Does he hustle all the time or just when he plays well?
7.    What kind of family does he come from?
8.    Who are his “circle of friends” and what are they like?
9.    Is he respectful of how the game should be played?
10. Is he generally timid? Aggressive? Arrogant? Confident?
11.  How is his work ethic?  How well does he practice? 

     I could go on but you get the idea.  One might ask “How would a scout know all these things?”  The answer is simple. It is his job to know these things.  If organizations are going to spend large sums of money in signing bonuses and future contracts, they need to know just what and who they are getting.  Money given to a player who gets homesick and quits or who has a drug/alcohol problem or flips out on a future coach/umpire and needs to be released is money down the drain.  In the end, professional baseball is a business.  They don’t leave much to chance.     

So…if you are a player, what would a scout think of your “make-up?”

Monday, December 27, 2010

Practicing in the off-season months

Looking outside and seeing practically blizzard conditions outside of Philadelphia brings back memories of practicing baseball when I was younger.  I recognized early on that if I wanted to play professional baseball my competition was not just the kids in my neighborhood or just my school.  It was not even going to be the kids who I played against from other teams.  My competition lived many more miles away in states like California, Florida, and Texas.  They would even be in foreign places like the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela.  What all these places have in common of course is warm weather where kids can play on a field practically year round.  So how can a cold-weather kid compete with this disadvantage?  Most of the answer begins with desire.  Having the desire will force you to improvise during the off-season months when most kids lay down their glove to play basketball, indoor soccer, or hockey.  Basically, if you really want it, you'll find a way.  It helps to have access to an indoor facility but if you don't there are still ways to improve your game, even if you have to do it by yourself in a garage, basement, or other rooms.  A friend of mine who is the head coach at Mississippi State University made this video which shows one example of how it can be done.  They use a specially made screen but a wall would work as well.  Be creative and get to work!

Coach Cohen's "Wall Ball" video and website.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Off-season shoulder exercises

The following video demonstrates what are referred to as the "Jobes Arm Exercises."  These exercises target the smaller muscles in the shoulder like the rotator cuff that are the source of many injuries in baseball.  These exercises are a must for any player!  Watch the video and then read my tips in order to get the most out of the routine.

Tips for the weights:
1. Use only light weights for the various shoulder raises.  2-5 lbs. maximum.  If your weights are heavier, your larger muscles kick in which will defeat the purpose of the exercises which is to target the smaller ones used for throwing.
2. Lift the weights slowly and under control.  Do not swing them up.
3. Lift your arms to a level just above the parallel-to-the-ground mark. 
4. Count how many reps you are doing and improve by 1 or 2 each time.  Note: The first few reps will be very easy.  You should really start to feel your shoulders "burn" around the 10-15 rep mark. 
5. If you don't have weights, a heavy soup can or a tennis ball container filled with dirt/rocks works well also.  Fill the container and tape shut.
6. Perform at least 3 times a week.

Tips for the bands:
1. Bands come in different thicknesses so find one that fits.
2. Some bands come with a handle but you can make one by just tying a loop onto one end.
3. During the internal and external exercises, notice that his elbow is tight to his body and stays still.
4. Your external and internal arm movements should only be about a 90 degree turn.
5. Be sure that tension exists during the entire 90 degree movement.
6. Perform at least 3 times a week.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Bench Player Mistakes

Possibly the hardest job in baseball.
The final post in the common mistakes players make series.

Failure to accept their role.  I have never met a baseball player who was happy that they were not playing in the game.  As you move up in levels, the game gets tougher and the players get more competitive.  Telling a competitive player that he is not going to be a starter usually does not sit too well with the player.  Of course, some handle this better than others.  Many major league players and coaches say that coming off the bench and being expected to perform at a high level is one of the hardest things to do in baseball.  Many young players have a hard time mentally grasping the idea that the coach thinks someone else is better in a particular position.  This is one of the reasons why managers generally do not like having young players be bench players in the major leagues.  Usually those spots are for veteran type players that have been around for a little while, are usually more mature, and understand what is needed to be good off the bench.  Success as a bench player all starts with accepting the fact that at this time they are a role player and therefore have a different set of expectations and responsibilities.  Good bench players always try to work their way into a future starting line-up but until that happens (if ever) they make the best of their current situation by being the best they can be at whatever role the coach assigns them.
Ignoring pre-game infield-outfield.  One of the best sources of information for all players (especially bench players) comes from watching the other team take infield-outfield practice prior to the start of the game.  Major league teams don’t take a pre-game infield-outfield practice like they used to but it is still routine for high school and college teams to do so.  There is valuable information to be found if a player looks for it.  For example, a bench player may have to come off the bench late in the game and pinch run for a teammate in a close game.  If he watched and studied the opposing team’s pre-game, he already will know which fielders have good range and which have the best arm strength.  As a result, the player is more capable of making better, quicker decisions in the game.  Yesterday’s post on base running mistakes mentioned the importance of knowing lots of information before the play develops.  Paying close attention during pre-game allows a bench player to store valuable information for later.  Unfortunately, many players, once they see they are not starting that day, don’t feel the need to pay attention.  They wrongly have the attitude of “if I am not playing, why bother.”  The most valuable bench players are usually those who are constantly trying to accumulate more usable information before and during the game.
Irrelevant bench talk.  This pertains to what was just stated above about trying to accumulate information before and during the game.  It is natural that players on the bench are going to have conversations during the game that might not always pertain to baseball.  Baseball is a fairly slow moving game where the opportunity to expand conversations away from baseball exists.  That being said, it is important that bench players try to keep their conversations related to the game.  “Talking baseball” with other players is a great way to learn about the game and keep your mind on things that are relevant to the success of the team and to yourself.  If a coach overhears a conversation on the bench about what the opposing team’s signs are or how the pitcher doesn’t vary his times to the plate, he will think more highly of the players involved.  On the other hand, if the coach overhears a conversation regarding who is having a party on Saturday, that’s not going to have the same positive reaction.  It takes discipline but talking baseball on the bench can be very valuable for a role player.
Not prepared to play.  Add up the previous mistakes and the result is that when asked to perform later in games, the unprepared bench player is probably going to fail.  This of course makes it more likely the player will not get more playing time in the future as well.  As stated earlier, being a role player off the bench can be very challenging even if you are prepared.  Sitting on the bench for 5 or 6 innings (sometimes in very cold weather) can make it extremely difficult to perform successfully.  However, there are some things that can be done to increase the chances of success.  Here is one.  Anticipate playing time.  If you are a good runner, look for situations where your coach may need a runner and start to get loose beforehand.  For example, if a slow runner is leading off the inning in a close, late inning game, chances are good the coach will call for a pinch runner if the batter gets on.  Knowing this, the bench player can get his legs loose well in advance in case he is needed.  Another bench player who can hit can do the same if a weak hitter is due up in a key situation.  Taking some swings or maybe even some soft-toss an inning before can help tremendously.  The key is to think ahead and don’t just wait until the coach says he needs you to go in.  The coach may not call for you but if he does, at least you will be ready.  Know what you need to do to get ready and do it.

I hope you found the posts in this series informative and useful.  Check in daily for posts designed to help players go from good to great!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Base Runner Mistakes

The 11th of 12 posts related to common mistakes players make by position.
Playing base to base. This involves the mentality that affects many base runners especially those who do not have much running speed.  When runners know that foot speed is not their strength, they frequently fear taking any risks at all on the base paths even in situations that call for taking an extra base.  As a result, they play “base to base” and require multiple hits in order to score them.  A player who has the desire and confidence to stretch a single into a double is usually capable of scoring a run with only one additional hit.  The same runner who stops at first and plays base-to-base is going to require multiple hits to force them around the bases and score.  Obviously, every coach on Earth would rather have the first runner in their line-up.  Keep reading for tips on how to go from a “base to base” runner to a more aggressive, confident one. 
Base coaches are important but
should not be needed very much  
by great base runners
Relying too much on coaches. As stated in this post about organized ball, many runners rely too much on base coaches to tell them when to run and when to stop at a base.  For great base runners, base coaches are only needed when the ball is being thrown from behind them and therefore outside their vision.  Rounding third on a base hit is one example.  Going to third with a throw coming from center or right field is another.  In both cases, the runner has a tougher time seeing the play develop behind them and may not be able to determine whether to continue, stop, and/or slide.  However, in just about every other scenario, the runner should be able to run and watch the play develop since the play and throw is within their field of vision.  This requires the runner to run with their head up and eyes on the play.  Of course, this contradicts what many little league coaches teach runners.  They are commonly told to not watch the ball, just run, and do what the coach tells them to do.  This responsibility has to shift much more to the individual runner as they get older because the game gets faster.  At the higher levels, plays develop faster and runners do not have time to wait for instructions.  They have to just react on their own or else they will miss the opportunity.
Poor anticipation.  Ask any experienced coach about base running and they will probably say that the best base runners are often not the fastest runners.  Sometimes the fastest runners have been able to rely on their speed and have neglected the finer points of base running.  Slower runners know that in order to continue playing they have to be more selective about their aggression on the base paths.  This requires gathering information prior to the play and anticipating what is going to happen before and during the play.  Here is an example of how this could work.  A runner on base recognizes that the count is 1-2 on the batter.  He also knows beforehand that the pitcher uses a curveball in the dirt as his strikeout pitch.  In this count, it is likely the pitcher is going to throw a curveball and therefore more likely the ball will bounce in the dirt.  Knowing this, the runner anticipates the catcher having to block the next pitch and either steals on his own or at least is ready to move up on a passed ball or wild pitch.  In all these cases the runner is able to get a better jump than the runner who just reacts to what they see happen after the fact.    Great base runners are more aware of what’s going on around them and use that information better than most.  Here is one person's opinion on the best base runners since 1954.
Players take turns practicing their base running during a
batting practice session in spring training.
Lack of practice. Although running the bases should be the easiest thing a player does on a baseball field, it is often the most screwed up because it is rarely practiced at all let alone practiced at a high level by young players.  I mentioned in my center field mistakes post that the best way to practice outfield skills is during batting practice.  The same holds true for base running.  Batting practice gives runners a chance to practice their base running skills in game-like situations that require the ability to anticipate and read the ball off the bat.  A common practice for great base runners is to play mental games while practicing base running.  By that I mean runners pretend they are in common game situations and react to a batting practice hit as if they are in a real game.  For example, a runner on first during batting practice could pretend there are two outs, shuffle off on the pitch, and go on contact like they would in a game.  Another time they could pretend they got the hit-and-run sign and break on the pitch, look in at the plate like they would normally do in that situation, and react depending on what the batter does with the pitch.  This process can be done at second base and third base as well.  The point is, when practicing base running, there are so many options base runners can take but it requires diligent practice and a creative mind.
Tomorrow:   The Bench Player

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Hitting Mistakes

A wide, strong foundation
by Albert Pujols.
The 10th of 12 posts related to common mistakes players make by position.

Poor foundation. When instructing hitters, many coaches take a “ground up” approach.  This means nothing is worked on until a batter has created a good, strong foundation with his feet.  In sports, the “athletic position” is fundamental to the success of many varying types of athletes.  It involves the position the body gets into in order to maximize speed, power, quickness, lateral mobility (side to side), and vertical mobility (up and down).  Tennis players waiting for a serve get into this position.  A basketball player guards another in this position.  A soccer goalie waits for a penalty shot in this position.  A quarterback, running back, and line-backer all are in this position before the start of the play. Too many young hitters are not in this “athletic position” when they are attempting to hit.  It requires a batter to widen his feet to at least shoulder width.  There is a slight bend in the knees so the weight is more on the balls of their feet.  The waist is slightly bent and the eyes are level and still.  All the players mentioned earlier are in this position because it allows them to do anything with the most athleticism.  Starting off in a stance that does not include these basic things automatically puts the player at a disadvantage because the player has to get in this position as the ball is moving in order to hit effectively.  Many never do.  Players should help themselves by starting in this position.  It’s one less thing they have to worry about once the pitch is thrown.
Not ready to hit. There aren’t many things worse than watching a hitter take a first-pitch strike right down the middle with runners in scoring position and the game on the line.  There certainly are times when taking a pitch is warranted but this is probably not one of them.  Usually this lack of aggression is caused by the hitter not being ready to hit when he steps into the box.  As a result, he takes a pitch to get a feel for the pitcher and/or the at-bat.  Unfortunately, the pitch taken may be the only good pitch he sees that at-bat.  This problem increases as players get older because the likelihood of seeing multiple good pitches to hit in an at-bat decrease as one moves up the baseball ladder.  To fix this, a batter must know the situation he is walking into before he steps up to the plate.  This mental process must occur in the on-deck circle.  A coach would much rather see a hitter swing at a pitch over his head in that situation than take a strike.  At least the batter is showing the coach that he is ready to hit and knows that being aggressive is important in that situation.  Be ready to swing from the first pitch to the last.
Vladimir Guerrero. Nobody can accuse
him of lacking aggression or not
being ready to hit.
Too mechanical.  One of the advantages players have today over previous generations is the ability to get quality instruction.  There are many more facilities that exist that provide private and/or group instruction to players who want to get better.  This is a good thing.  However, sometimes hitters  become too mechanical because of all the attention paid to technique.  As I eluded to in a previous post, organized baseball has its downside.  Players are constantly taught by adults to hit using the proper technique but some of those players focus too much on technique in the batter’s box.  As stated in the previous hitting mistake, players need to do much of this kind of thinking in the on-deck circle and take more of a “see it and hit it” approach while in the box.  Too much focus on mechanics at the wrong time can cause hitters to lack aggressiveness and fail to “let it fly” when swinging. 

Ignoring the future.  If you read anything regarding sports psychology, you probably will quickly run across the concept of “staying in the moment.”  Basically, that means focusing on the here-and-now as opposed to worrying about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.  This is great advice for any baseball player.   That being said, when it comes to practicing and developing a player’s skills, many players choose to focus on drills and skills that will help them in the present and fail to plan for the future.  Most players who move on and play college and professional baseball were the top hitters on their high school teams and more times than not, batted in the 3rd, 4th,, or 5th spot in the batting order.  This poses a problem for many hitters after they leave high school.  Most of these hitters are rarely (if ever) asked to sacrifice bunt, squeeze bunt, hit and run, base hit bunt, or move runners over.  Those responsibilities are usually reserved for everyone else in the line-up.  Coaches want their 3, 4, and 5 hitters to swing away and drive in runs.  However, when these hitters move on to college and/or pro ball, many no longer hit in these spots in the line-up and will be required to do these “little ball” skills.  Unfortunately, many don’t have a lot of experience doing these skills and most never bothered to pay much attention to the development of them because they are never required to do them in a game.  A player who wants to succeed at the next level has to start thinking about the skills that they will need to perform at that level and begin to incorporate them into their training today. 
Tomorrow: Base Running Mistakes

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pitching Mistakes

The 9th of 12 posts related to common mistakes players make by position.

Jamie Moyer.  A long career by knowing
himself and maximizing his strengths.
 Being someone they are not. The first step for a pitcher who wants to be successful is determining what type of pitcher they are instead of focusing on what kind of pitcher they wish to be.  By this I mean that the pitcher needs to be honest with himself and realize that he has both strengths and weaknesses.  Maximizing the strengths and diminishing the weaknesses becomes essential in order to pitch effectively.  If a pitcher has poor velocity, trying to throw the ball past hitters like a power pitcher will end in disaster.  On the other hand, a pitcher who throws very hard shouldn’t be “nibbling” around the corners of the plate either.  This usually ends poorly as well.  The baseball culture is fascinated with hard throwers because there are not too many of them in the world.  Unfortunately, this inspires young pitchers to try and throw as hard as they can.  This of course is a poor game plan for a pitcher with not much velocity to begin with.  It all starts with an honest evaluation of your abilities and then creating a strategy to maximize whatever strengths you have.  

Too much time between pitches.  Is there any trend worse for baseball than the 3 ½ hour game?  Not only is it tough for fans, it is tough on players as well.  Nobody likes to play behind a pitcher who takes forever in between pitches.  Minds wonder, focus is lost, and errors are made.  Pitchers can help with this problem by doing one little thing that makes a big difference over the course of a game.  Stay on the mound!  There is no reason why a pitcher has to throw a pitch, walk halfway to the catcher, receive the throw back, and walk back to the mound.  Catchers are more than capable of throwing the ball 60 feet back to you.  After the pitch, stay on the mound, receive the throw back, and get right back on the rubber.  This accomplishes three things.  1) It conserves energy.  The pitcher does not have to waste energy walking back to and up the mound 75-100 times a game.  2) It makes the batter feel rushed which is to the pitcher’s advantage as well.   3) It keeps the fielders attentive because they do not have as much time to let their minds drift between pitches.  Less errors are usually the result.  Of course, there will be instances when a pitcher should take a little more time after a pitch to gather thoughts and make adjustments.  However, it should not become a habit.
Figure 3
Tim Lincecum
Straying from their line.  One thing many pitching coaches do to help young pitchers is to draw a line on the mound that extends from the middle of the pitching rubber down towards the catcher.  This is usually done to help the pitcher see, in relation to the line, where his foot lands when he strides towards home to throw.  For a right handed pitcher, his foot should land slightly to the right of that line.  The opposite is true for left handers.  Although this “line in the dirt” trick is a good one, there is more that can be seen by using this line.  Instead of just focusing on where his foot lands in relation to the line a player should work to keep his center of gravity on that line from start to finish.  Think of someone throwing a dart.  Good dart throwers hold the dart up, take the dart back in a straight line, take their hand forward on that same line, release, and continue moving their hand on that line for a few inches even though the dart has left their hand.  Basically, they stay on that line from start to finish.  The same holds true for accurate pitchers.  From start to finish, a pitcher’s center of gravity stays on the line.  If a pitcher strays from that line, the ball usually is thrown off that line as well.  Ball one.  From the wind-up, many young pitchers deviate from that line immediately by stepping to the side.  This shifts their weight off that line.  When they bring their knee up their weight often shifts across to the other side of that line.  The pitcher zig-zags on both sides of that line making it tougher for him to keep the thrown ball on the line.  Staying on that line as much as possible from start to finish usually means the ball stays on that line to the strike zone.
Figure 4
Third baseman Mike Lowell
Throwing like a position player. At the high school level, the majority of pitchers also play other positions.  In fact, most of the throwing they do is probably associated with a position other than that of pitcher.  This poses a big problem for many young pitchers that have not yet focused 100% of their attention on pitching like practically all pitchers in college and the professional ranks are forced to do.  The problem is that many young players do not differentiate between throwing as a position player and throwing as a pitcher.  When they step on the mound, they continue to throw like a position player.  In Figure 4, Mike Lowell throws and follows through finishing tall.  He does this because a position player has to make throws that carry over the entire infield or outfield.  They are also taught to throw around chest height for it to be easily caught.  A pitcher on the other hand only throws 60 feet and wants the ball to end up at knee level most of the time.  Therefore, a pitcher must follow through differently to get the ball down in the strike zone.  They have to get much more “extension” in their follow through and finish low like Tim Lincecum (Figure 3) in order to accomplish this.  If a pitcher throws like a position player, they generally finish too tall and the ball comes up in the strike zone making it more easily hit.  When pitchers steps on the mound, they have to remember to throw like a pitcher, not a position player.

Tomorrow:  Hitting mistakes

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Right Field Mistakes

An Oriole right fielder prepares to throw
in a spring training game.
The 8th of 12 posts explaining common mistakes made by players by position.

Relying too much on arm strength.  Most outfielders  eventually find themselves in right field because of their arm strength.  Even though all outfielders have similar distances on throws to second base and home plate, it’s the long throw to third base that separates the right fielders from the other two outfielders.  The longer throw requires a stronger arm.  However, this arm strength can pose a problem for some right fielders.  Because they have always had good arms, many of these right fielders have neglected the proper footwork needed to get to a ball and get rid of it quickly.  Click here (and scroll down a little) for two examples. Outfielders with less arm strength realize early on that they have to develop proper footwork and technique to make up for a lack of arm strength.  Right fielders on the other hand can be more interested in showing off their arms than learning the finer points of playing outfield.  Good arm strength and a desire to constantly improve on the little things is what allows right fielders to go from good to great.
Slow to read swings. Great defensive players regardless of position need to be good at anticipating where balls are going to be hit.  I addressed this point about anticipating in the posts about shortstops and  third basemen but it could apply to everyone else on defense as well.  One problem that is uniquely difficult for right fielders is that many balls hit out their way are slicing away from them and towards the foul line.   As a result, it is imperative that right fielders become great at reading swings to anticipate where batted balls are most likely to go.  This of course helps with getting better jumps on all balls hit but especially those that slice away from them.  If a right handed batter fouls off a fastball over the first base dugout, the right fielder should probably interpret  that as the batter having  slower bat speed.  This kind of swing makes it more likely the ball will be hit to right field.  The observant right fielder might decide to shift his positioning more towards the right field foul line.   A hitter that turns well on a pitch and fouls it down the left field line might signal the right fielder to shift his positioning towards the right-center gap a bit more.  The point is to study the swings of all batters to better predict where balls will be hit.

Camping under the ball. This mistake can also be a byproduct of relying too heavily on arm strength when making plays.  With runners on base, the fundamentally correct way of catching a routine fly ball is to get behind the ball a few steps and move forward (towards the infield) to catch the ball.  This allows their momentum to already be moving towards their throwing target before they catch the ball.  When outfielders “camp” under the ball, they are catching the fly ball standing still or even worse, drifting backwards towards the fence.  In this scenario, the outfielder needs to waste a lot of time stopping and then changing their momentum in order to throw back to the infield.  A player who hustles behind the ball, squares their body up to the infield, and moves forward to catch the ball can catch and complete a strong throw much quicker. Right fielders with strong arms may tend to neglect these fundamentals thinking their arm strength will carry them through instead.  This may work at the lower levels but at some point, other teams’ base runners will begin to exploit this weakness.

Making throws tough to handle.  Since many right fielders like to show off their arm, many do not focus a lot of attention on the finesse side of their throws.  This is similar to a quarterback with a canon for an arm that can easily throw 50 yard passes but not a short screen pass that requires more finesse. Right fielders sometimes forget that there is a teammate on the other end of their throw who would appreciate being given an easy throw to catch so they can apply a tag.  The easiest throws to receive as an infielder  are those that arrive at the bag in the air or the ones that arrive on a big, easy to handle hop.  To show off their arms, many right fielders will launch a throw that ends up “short-hopping” the infielder making it very difficult to catch and make a tag.  Should there be a need to one-hop a throw to 2nd base, 3rd base, or home plate, a right fielder (or any outfielder) should throw the ball so that the ball bounces at least 15 feet away from the bag.  This will almost always ensure a clean, easy-to-handle hop for the infielder or catcher.  It takes some finesse and lots of deliberate practice but your teammates will thank you.

Tomorrow:  Pitching

Monday, December 20, 2010

Center Field Mistakes

The 7th of 12 posts that show common mistakes players make by position.

The fearless Jim Edmonds
tracks it down.
Too timid. The last thing a center fielder should be is too timid.  They are playing center field for a reason. Someone thought they could cover the most ground and probably thought they had the most athleticism and speed among the three outfielders as well.  A fearless aggression is essential for a center fielder to move from good to great.  Premiere center fielders take it personally if any ball drops in their territory without being caught.  They certainly have the most territory to cover so any hesitation in their first step jumps and approaches to fly balls will prove costly.  They want the ball hit to them and they expect to track it down every time.

Grady Sizemore about to make
a great play in shallow center.
Too deep. There are coaches who probably would disagree with this but I believe many center fielders, especially at the high school level, play too deep.  Upwards of 75% of the game of baseball occurs in the infield.  Taking this into account, most balls hit to center field are going to be in front of the center fielder.  Playing more shallow allows the center fielder to be in a position to catch more line drives and bloop hits that fall into shallow center field.  A couple reasons why center fielders play deeper is because they are more comfortable moving forward on a hit ball and fear a ball will land over their head for extra bases.  This certainly will happen every once in awhile but the benefits of reaching more balls in shallow center outweigh the few balls hit over their head.  At least in my opinion.  Keep reading to see what can help a center fielder gain more confidence on balls hit over his head.

Leave the batting practice
socializing to the pitchers.
Too lazy during batting practice.  The first two mistakes so far have been playing too timid and playing too deep.  Practicing outfield work during batting practice is single handedly the best way for any center fielder (and other outfielders as well) to correct these mistakes and improve their defense.  Having coaches hit fly ball after fly ball is no replacement for reading the baseball off the bat during batting practice.  Too many players who are out in the field during batting practice use that time to socialize and hang out until it is their turn to hit.  Premiere center fielders use the time differently.  They treat it like a game where their job is to get to and catch every ball hit into center field.  By doing this, they are getting experience going every which way to get balls, they are working on their jumps, they are anticipating where balls will be hit, and to address the previous mistake, they are working on going after balls over their head.  Taking this approach to batting practice gives center fielders more confidence to attack fly balls come game time and also gives them more confidence to play a bit more shallow since they know they can go back well on balls over their head.   

Too quiet.  Like I mentioned in the post about mistakes catchers make, center fielders need to be the most vocal member of the outfielders.  They are the coach in the outfield and should be constantly reminding the other two outfielders of things they need to know.  Where batters hit the ball in previous at-bats.  Which runners can run and which ones can't.  The score.  The outs.  Any piece of information that would impact how an outfielder should play should be passed along by the center fielder.  College coaches and professional scouts notice that so a center fielder cannot afford to be silent on the field.

Tomorrow:  Right field

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Left Field Mistakes

The 6th of 12 posts that show common mistakes players make by position

Note: It is valid to say that the mistakes listed for the individual outfield positions would be true for all the outfield positions.  That being said, I believe the concepts chosen are more frequently seen in the individual position being addressed.

How left fielders handle balls hit
to this part of the field will
separate the good from great.
Allowing too many batters to get to second base. This mostly applies to balls hit down the left field line that aren't hit hard enough to reach the corner.  It's a play where the batter tries to stretch a base hit into a double.  The mistake left fielders make is being too slow in getting to these balls making it more likely the batter-runner will take the chance in going to second.  Many times the left fielder incorrectly assumes the batter will stay at first and takes his time.  Other times the batter-runner may know the left fielder's arm strength is a little short and tries to take advantage.  Either way, the left fielder must attack all balls hit to this area to get to them as quickly as possible.  A batter-runner who rounds first base and sees the left fielder in the process of throwing to second will most likely stop at first.  If he rounds first and the left fielder has not yet reached the ball, he will most likely try for second base and probably will make it there.  Left fielders need to get to the ball and get rid of it as fast as they can.

Bonds:  In his prime, one of the best
ever at keeping runners at first.
Throwing to the cut-off man.  This refers to two separate plays in which the left fielder is involved.  The first involves the play explained above where the batter-runner attempts to stretch a single into a double.  The second involves a throw to home plate to cut down a runner trying to score.  The source of the mistake involves the difference between the phrases "throwing to the cut-off man" and "throwing through the cut-off man."   When players are younger, their lack of arm strength generally prevents them from throwing from left field all the way to second base without using the shortstop as a cut-off man.  The same holds true for throws to home with the third baseman as the cut-off.  Kids are therefore taught to "hit the cut-off man" with all throws.  As stated in previous posts, the game gets faster as players get older.  As a result, the left fielder eventually must be able to reach the base they are throwing to without the need for a cut-off man.  However, many older kids with enough arm strength still have this "throw it to the cut-off man" mentality instead of the "throw it through the cut-off man" mind set. Adding a cut-off man increases the time it takes for the ball to reach its destination.  Ideally, all throws should be low enough so that the cut-off man is capable of cutting it but strong enough to reach the base on its own as well.

An aggressive Ryan Braun prepares to dive for
a shallow fly ball in left field. 
Too much respect for the shortstop and center fielder. In comparison, the left fielder is usually the less talented outfielder of the three all things considered.  Of course, there are always exceptions to this.  On the other hand, the center fielder and shortstop are frequently the two best overall defensive players on the field.  Sometimes this impacts how left fielders go after fly balls.  If the left fielder knows that the shortstop and center fielder are talented, they sometimes assume those other guys will get the ball more easily.  Therefore, the left fielder gives up on going for the ball too soon. To complicate matters further, many coaches stress that center fielders have priority if two outfielders both go after a fly ball.  Although this is true, some left fielders become too timid on all fly balls as a result.  The best left fielders know when to back off and when to attack the fly balls they are responsible for catching.

Too deep with a runner on second, two outs.  As stated above, many times the left fielder is not the best defensive outfielder of the three.  This of course may apply to arm strength as well.  Especially with two outs, many left fielders play too deep with a runner on second base.  Since there are two outs, the runner on second will start running at contact and therefore has a better chance of scoring on a hit.  This is why left fielders sometimes should play a little more shallow - especially if their arm strength is a bit short.  The obvious risk that comes with this is that balls can be more easily hit over their head.  However, with two outs, the left fielder needs to be in a better position to give himself a chance to throw out a runner at home.  The score, the inning, and who is batting also play a factor so understand that it is never as clear cut a rule as it may sound.

Tomorrow:  Center Field

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Third Base Mistakes

The 5th of 12 posts related to common mistakes players make by position.

Placido Polanco plays deep
and is able to get this shot
down the line. (AP Photo)
Playing too shallow. I suppose there may be coaches or players who would disagree with this but I believe it is too common.  Obviously, if a third baseman has a weaker arm it would be natural for him to play a little more shallow.  However, many players have enough arm strength to play deeper but do not.  A lack of range is the obvious problem with playing too shallow.  Premiere third basemen are not afraid to play farther back behind the base path and cover more ground as a result.  If you read yesterday’s post about shortstops, you learned about the importance of varying your positioning.  This certainly applies to third as well, maybe even more so because of the need to occasionally field bunts.  Look again at this visual and note how much the third basemen adjust their positioning during the game.  Also take note of how deep the third basemen play most of the time.  One result of playing deeper is the need to charge more aggressively on slower hit balls.  Keep reading below for more information about that.
Not knowing the pitch. Third base is called the “hot corner” for good reason.  Bullets hit down that way are the norm for third basemen and require quick feet and fast reactions (More reason to play deeper!).  Knowing what pitch the pitcher is throwing can give the third baseman a “heads up” as to when batted balls may be more likely to come his way.  Unfortunately for third basemen, catchers are taught to hide their pitch signals from everyone except the pitcher and the middle infielders.  The downside of this is that the third baseman cannot see the signs.  Let’s say a hard thrower is on the mound.  It makes sense that right handed batters would be much more likely to pull a ball down to third base if that pitcher throws a change-up as opposed to a fastball.  If I play third, I want to know when that pitcher is throwing a change-up.  But how do I know if I can’t see the signs?  The answer is the shortstop tells you.  When the catcher gives the sign, some shortstops will give some kind of verbal cue to the third baseman to alert him of a particular pitch.  He might say the pitcher’s number or first name when an off-speed pitch is coming and may say another word or nothing on a fastball.  There are many options that can be worked out beforehand.  (Note: this can be done by the 1st and 2nd basemen as well).  This tip might give a third baseman an extra step (there's that "better by a yard" thing again!) and/or a better sense of readiness.  Be careful and discreet though.  The other team might catch on to what you’re saying.
Scott Rolen charging.
(MLB Photo)
Too slow on choppers and slow rollers.  These are probably the toughest plays a third baseman has to make.  He has to read the speed and hops of the ball as well as the hitter’s running speed and determine whether to charge hard or wait back a little more for a good hop.  That being said, I believe too many third basemen error too much on the side of caution and do not aggressively attack light choppers and slow rollers.  Most of the time, if the third baseman hesitates or comes up short in his attack even a little, the runner is safe. To improve, it is important that third basemen practice a few of these plays every day at game speed.  The use of a stopwatch can be valuable in this process.  Have a coach roll a ground ball and start the timer as soon as the ball leaves the coach’s hand.  Stop the timer when the ball is caught by the first baseman.  Continually try to cut the time it takes to make the play.  Remember, an average major leaguer gets from home plate to first base in just over 4 seconds.  If you want to continue playing third as you get older, these are plays you have to routinely make under that time.
Greg Maddux: One of the best
ever at getting off the mound
and fielding his position.
Unaware of who is pitching.  This applies to the cooperation between the pitcher and third baseman on bunt plays with a runner on second base.  One of the more challenging responsibilities for a third baseman is reading the ball off the bat on a bunt and determining whether to charge and make the play or stay back at the bag and let the pitcher get it.  Knowing how good your pitcher is at getting off the mound on bunts is essential.  Different pitchers have different levels of foot speed and quickness.  Some hop on bunts like a cat.  Others seem to take forever to get off the mound.  Either way, the third baseman needs to know who is on the mound and how good they are at getting to bunts.  Paying close attention to how well pitchers do this in practice is important.  This can impact where the third baseman starts on the play.  If the pitcher is quick, the third baseman might play a step deeper.  If the pitcher is slow-footed or maybe falls towards the first base side after each pitch, he may have to play in on the grass a bit more.  The point is, know who is pitching.

Tomorrow:  Left Field

Friday, December 17, 2010

Shortstop Mistakes

Figure 1: Omar Vizquel: Proper
footwork and momentum.
Part 4 of 12 that takes us around the field to look at common mistakes by position. 

Charging straight at the ball. This mistake is understandable since that is what younger kids are correctly taught to do at the lower levels.  However, as kids get older the game gets faster. Eventually, charging straight at the ball creates problems with timing, footwork, balance, and momentum.  All these prevent players from keeping up with the pace of the game.  This is true for all infielders but especially for shortstops since they generally have longer throws and less time in which to do it.  The correct way is to get to the right of the ball when you charge.  Additionally, the last two steps before catching the ball should be right foot then left foot, in that order.  A fielder should not be back in front of the ball until the left foot lands.  Staying to the right allows for proper footwork and also creates momentum towards your target.  Stepping right foot then left foot puts the ball back in the center and also shifts the body’s momentum to the player’s left (towards 1st base) even before catching the ball.  This is what’s happening with Omar Vizquel in Figure 1.  Fielders can “move through the ball” and never have to stop to catch a grounder and then waste time getting started again.  Staying to the right isn’t always possible depending on where and how hard the ball is hit but the best shortstops have practiced it and are quick enough to do it more often.

Figure 2: Jeter across the bag, away from the
runner, side arm throw.  (SI Photo)
Catching the ball over the bag on a double play. As stated earlier, the game gets faster as you get older.  Turning two a little faster is one of the many little things that can take a shortstop from good to great.  Many young shortstops get to the bag on a double play and then stop to receive the feed from the second baseman.  They catch the ball right over the bag and then turn to throw to first.  Eventually, this isn’t good enough.  When the ball is hit, the shortstop should sprint to within 5 feet of the bag.  He then “sneaks up on the bag” using shorter, more choppy steps to read the throw.  If the throw is on target, he then steps across the bag with his left foot to catch the ball.  In effect, he is catching the ball about 2-4 feet on the right field side of second base.  This enables him to catch the ball 2-4 feet sooner than if he caught it over the bag.  He also has decreased the distance of his throw to first by a few feet.  As Figure 2 shows, Jeter is farther away from the base path making the play safer as well.  The most difficult part to this play is the “sneaking up on the bag” and reading the throw.  Shortstops have to be careful not to assume the throw is going to be on target and come across the bag too soon.  Slowing down (not stopping) to read the throw and then speeding up to get through the bag takes a lot of practice and timing but the better ones do it.
Only one arm angle. To be a premier shortstop, a player needs to practice and be comfortable with throwing with every possible arm angle.  From throwing right over the top all the way down to practically scraping his knuckles on the ground, different situations call for different arm angles in order to maximize the combination of quickness and arm strength.  Throwing at one arm angle all the time (side arm, ¾, over the top, etc.) limits a shortstop's ability to handle any play that comes along.  Generally speaking, when a shortstop needs a longer or stronger throw (relays or plays in the hole), an over-the-top arm angle should be used.  Short throws (like feeds to 2nd base) that require more quickness than arm strength allow for lower angles.  Turning a double play calls for a combination of arm strength and quickness so a ¾ angle or side arm works best (Figure 2).  Practice and train your arm to be comfortable with every angle.
(MLB Photo) Cal Ripken.
The master of anticipating
and "leaning."
Dropping an anchor.” Too many shortstops pick one spot where they are comfortable playing and position themselves there virtually every pitch.  That's called "dropping an anchor" because the player doesn't move from that spot.  Some may have two spots – one for a lefty hitter and one for a righty.  Premier shortstops (and other fielders as well) consider many variables and change their positioning as a result, sometimes changing every pitch.  This is especially true for a shortstop since they have a lot of ground to cover.  The movements may not be extreme but they do occur.  For a fantastic visual of this, click here.  Premiere shortstops also develop the ability to “lean” depending on who is batting,  the count, and the pitch.  Here is an example.  A right-handed pull hitter swings and misses badly on two slow curveballs in the dirt low and away.  The next pitch called for is a hard fastball on the inside corner.  99.9% of the time, that hitter will never pull that pitch in that location.  The shortstop might “lean” up the middle on the pitch to account for this.  In doing so, a shortstop can pick up an extra step or two of range if they lean correctly.  This, of course, takes practice, experience, and a good awareness of what’s going on around you.  This is what coaches and scouts mean when they say a fielder has “good instincts.”  However, it is not all “instinct.”  It can be practiced, learned, and developed like any other skill. 
Tomorrow:  Third Base