What Makes Pitchers Great

Mariano Rivera

 What made Mariano Rivera great? Major League Baseball teams have an abundance of pitchers that throw 95 to 100 mph. What separated him was his command, movement and mental toughness in game situations.

Rivera had great command of a rising fastball when he first came to the big leagues and later developed the pitch he is known for—the cut fast ball—when hitters starting laying off the riser because it was rising out off the strike zone. The brilliance of Rivera and Greg Maddux, for example, is that they knew when the ball left their hand exactly how much the ball would break. This ability is obviously superior command and makes pitching to hitters' weaknesses easier. Most pitchers HOPE that happens, Rivera and Maddux almost always knew.

Movement takes hitters down a lot easier than speed. Listening to most big league hitters, they can catch up to any pitcher's fastball. But they hate to see late action, such as a jump or hop in the ball that makes it rise, diving sinkers, Rivera's late-breaking cutter or Maddux's comeback fastball. The hitters are at pitchers' mercy when they throw those types of pitches and they know that!

Lastly, maintaining poise and mental toughness in crucial situations. All the great pitchers have those attributes, but we have seen pitchers with better stuff than Rivera and Maddux fail because they can't handle the in-game pressure or their mechanics are not game sound, which means they rely on power without technique.

Rivera and Maddux had great and simple mechanics which allowed them to repeat their deliveries and concentrate on getting hitters out without worrying about mechanics.


The Flaws of the Batting Average Statistic

The batting average has been around baseball forever, and it is a stat that we are all familiar with. Its computation is basic and easy to understand: (Total # of Hits) / (Total # of at Bats). We generally agree that a “good” batting average is somewhere around the .300 range, albeit that can depend on the strength of the competition.

However, as popular as the statistic is, it has very major flaws that I feel most coaches are already beginning to figure out, especially those around the game on an everyday basis.

How many times during a game have we noticed a player hit four rocket line drives, but all right at a defender? Is this player a poor hitter for doing so? Well, his batting average would be .000, but we all know that benching him the next game for this reason would be an atrocious decision.

On the flip side, how many times do we see a player hit a blooper into the outfield and a soft groundball, and end the day 2-3. In your eyes, is the player who hit .667 a better hitter than the one who hit .000 for the day?

The answer is absolutely not.

The first problem that we must expose about the batting average is that it can be very deceiving about a player's hitting performance, especially in a small sample. The reality is 4, 5, or even 25 at bats is hardly a large enough sample to get a good idea on where a player’s batting average will consistently rest.

In short samples, we rely on our eyes; if a hitter is killing the ball and making outs, we know that some of those batted balls will eventually start falling. We will discuss the BABIP statistic in a later article, but harder hit balls get through defenses quicker. On the flip side, those bloopers and soft ground balls are much easier to field, and over a larger sample will likely turn into outs as opposed to hits. At the end of the day, while the batting average statistic can give you some idea of a player's hitting ability, it can most certainly be deceiving. 

Luckily for us, there are much better metrics out there that we as coaches should look much more closely at. An additional flaw that we would like to point out is that the batting average assumes every hit is the same. This is actually a major problem, because we all know a double is more valuable than a single, and a homerun is more valuable than a double.

Unfortunately, the batting average does not account for this, and takes on the “a hit is a hit” philosophy. However, every coach most certainly understands that a 400 foot homerun is very different from a groundball through the 5.5 hole.

As we introduce the On-Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage statistics, we will attempt to show you much more useful (and simple) metrics in assessing a player’s on field performance. 

 

Traits of a Model Youth Sports Parent

During my many years in youth team sports I've come across a majority of parents who care only about their children and have no interest in a team concept approach to coaching. It is always a derivative of "I only care my child's progress."

But what constitutes a model parent, who cares about the program rather than an individual.

Without naming generic traits, I will talk about my dad. My dad had the most positive attitude of any parent whose kids played sports. His first piece of advice when I decided to play little league baseball was always try your hardest and respect your coaches.

He supported me and every member of whatever team I played on. He never spoke disparagingly of coaches and taught all of us to compete and respect opponents. He always said I had to earn playing time and never interfered with the process, because it was about me and not him.

And he never once cared about whether we won or lost. It was about what I learned, always! He believed that skill development and maturity were the most aspects of my sport education.

Correct life lessons. Thanks Dad!


 

Be a Good Role Model

I was with a couple of ex-players from one of my successful high school baseball teams and they were reminiscing about their glory days. What threw me during their conversation was their biggest memory of high school baseball. It wasn't a particular game or an accomplishment during a game, rather it was me having a meltdown in an indoor practice that they remembered.

It reinforced my belief that when you are a coach and players respect and look up to you, you must always act in an exemplary fashion because like or not you are in a position of a role model.

You must leave a positive impression no matter the ages of your players, because they see and hear everything that you do and say. Being physically and/or verbally abusive will make your team believe that is correct coaching behavior and it will repeat itself if they choose to coach, which would be damaging and irresponsible to the next generation of athletes.


 

How Do You Learn to Coach More Effectively? Watch Bad MLB Teams.

I was told as a young player by my coaches to watch all the good teams like the Yankees, the Cardinals and the Orioles because that's how you learned to play baseball the right way.

But as an adult and as a career coach, what I have found is even more effective is watching bad MLB teams and what they did wrong. I can then make sure at practice the next day that my high school team doesn't repeat the poor execution and mental mistakes that always seem to happen to poorly coached teams or coaches that rely on skill and athleticism and ignore baseball strategy and fundamentals.

I watched a three-game series between two non-contending teams recently and started to take notes about missed cutoff throws, poor baserunning and leads, slow coverage by infielders of bases on steals, lack of discipline at bat in RBI situations and the inability to get a batter out by pitchers ahead in the pitch count. At practice I made sure I went over everything I saw that was executed incorrectly or ignored and did it correctly in detail.

As a coach a lot of good can come from watching bad.


 

Learning the Correct Hitting Approach from Big Leaguers

I watch a lot of MLB games and really, you can't apply what they do to youth baseball players. They are so physically gifted that they can do things that youth and high school players can't do and probably never will be able to do.

However we as coaches can teach the best players in the big league's mental approach to hitting because every age hitter can do that.

I've watched so many MLB games in my life and I finally realized the best players really don't want to swing at pitches early in the count unless it is in their preferred zone, which means there is a lot of swinging with 2 strikes. Then the foul balls begin and good hitters eventually get a pitch they can handle and hit it square. It takes a lot of discipline and confidence to take that approach, which all great hitters have.

MLB rookies, below average hitters and high school and youth players take the opposite approach for the most part. They are swinging early in the count and when they down in the count are mentally beaten because they expand their strike zone and swing at any pitch close. Smart and good pitchers will never throw strikes to players in this category, and their lack of discipline and fear leads to a lot of outs.

It is up to coaches to make hitters be patient and believe in themselves so they will still hit when behind in the count and not worry or internalize about what might happen. Take pitches confidently, understand hitting situations and visualize success.


 

Three Mental and Physical Absolutes of Pitching

Last week in a radio segment Don Cooper, the pitching coach of the Chicago White Sox, talked about three keys of physical pitching fundamentals: Stay tall, stay back, and stay closed. Those who have pitched and coached have heard those terms preached and used infinitely.

We want to add three absolutes that combine the physical and mental sides of pitching:

  1. Get ahead
  2. Get them down
  3. Get them out

As coaches we want pitchers to get ahead in the count by using their best controlled pitch, which takes skill, confidence, and great mechanics. We want them to continue to attack the strike zone to put hitters in a mental and tangible hole. Then pitchers need an out pitch and the ability and confidence to throw pitches that look like strikes out of their hand but end up being balls.

Young hitters invariably will panic and swing at bad pitches just like big leaguers do. It takes a great understanding of hitters and pitching to throw balls when pitchers have been programmed to throw strikes in their entire baseball lives.

The most successful pitchers understand that good hitters hit strikes hard, so whenever possible make them swing at balls. When pitchers get ahead and get hitters down in the count, they can accomplish this.


 

The Best Defense Starts with the Core

Whenever athletes start a workout program, experienced coaches or trainers always begin with core exercises to provide a great foundation that will help make the other parts of the body stronger.

We can correlate that with building a sound baseball defensive philosophy.  

The best defenses in baseball start with great up-the-middle play. Whenever possible the best players on any baseball team should be playing the most challenging positions on the field: pitcher, catcher, shortstop, second base, and center field.

And like the core, if you are strong in the middle the other parts of the team will likely be stronger too. The best teams play championship defense.


Adjusting to Player Abilities in Basketball

In basketball, it is essential that coaches make players understand and accept their roles. Only then will players do what is necessary to be successful as a team and sustain long-term excellence.

To attain that, coaches must implement systems that best suits players' abilities. If coaches have teams that are quick and fast but small, it makes no sense to play a power post style offense. Conversely a big but slow team should not be playing an open post system which relies on ball movement and quick cutting.

On defense, if coaches have quick teams they should be pressing and trapping whenever possible while a bigger team should play defense that helps and recovers while trying to keep the ball in front of them.

Coaches that have a system without regard to player talents are doing a disservice to player development–team and individual-wise. Coaches can incorporate principles and drills that they like in practice but they must adapt to what they have. They must be conscientious and detailed enough to do what is best for his or her current team.

It will be beneficial for players in the long run and give coaches a reputation as being educators, the highest compliment, which leads to success in all areas of life.


Interpreting Pitch Counts to Accurately Measure Fatigue

In recent years, many youth baseball organizations have placed a limit on the amount of pitches a player can throw per week as a means of preventing overuse and decreasing throwing related injuries. A positive by-product of these pitch count rules is that coaches are now forced to develop more pitchers on their staff and not rely on the same two or three athletes to win games. While there is little doubt that pitch count rules protect the health and safety of youth athletes involved, it is also important for coaches and parents to understand that pitch counts are an indicator of fatigue and overuse, but not an absolute.

Due to existence of different body types and exertion thresholds, every athlete is different when it comes to fatigue and arm injuries. There is really no rule of thumb when it comes to pitch counts and proper rest. While we do look at pitch counts as high school coaches and advocate their use in youth leagues, we are also proponents of a common sense approach when it comes to interpreting what these pitch counts actually mean.

For starters, we all are aware that proper mechanics are a key determinate to arm injuries. The problem with young pitchers is their inability to consistently repeat the same delivery time after time. Parents and coaches need to monitor and correct mechanics constantly. It is a never ending process.

Young pitchers who show the ability to consistently repeat proper pitching mechanics can throw more pitches than those athletes who are still developing a feel for the mound. In other words, a pitcher with poor mechanics who throws 30 pitches can be more damaging to the arm than a pitcher with solid mechanics who throws 75 pitches.

As indicated, pitch counts can be an indicator of fatigue and overuse, but it is not an absolute determinate. We really hone in on the number of stressful pitches and measure those. For example, a pitcher who threw 45 pitches in one game, all in one inning, can do more damage to himself than another pitcher who threw 75 pitches over 5 innings. Along the same lines, 50 pitches with runners on base in a tight game may be more stressful on the arm than 75 pitches with nobody on base with a 7-10 run lead to work with.

The catch-22 in this whole ordeal is that the best way to strengthen the arm is to throw more often. Other than the obvious wincing in pain and dangling or holding of the arm, other signs of fatigue an overuse include a considerable drop in velocity, poor command (leaving the ball up or bouncing the ball to the plate), and suddenly inconsistent mechanics.

While pitch counts do have their purpose, we encourage parents and coaches to read between the lines, identify possible warning signs, and constantly communicate with their athletes to better gauge fatigue and overuse. If they are not tired, let them throw. Don’t baby them!