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.

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.


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!

Diversified Coaches Help Players Self-Correct Technique

One of the most rewarding results as a baseball coach is when players are able to self-correct during games, whether on the mound or in the course of an at-bat. This can only happen with hands-on teaching and constant reminders on what can make the player have success. When players do execute, it tells the coach that the players have listened and have tried to incorporate the techniques that the coach believes will maximize their talent.

Not every coach follows that modus operandi. There are a multitude of system or philosophy-driven coaches. If players don't fit in to a system they will usually underperform or be eliminated from the program. Only teaching one philosophy is a disservice to players, who might not fit in depending on skill and size. With coaches who know how to teach only one system, it is their way or no way.

Coaches who have taught and understand multiple methods to improve player skills are more preferred and appreciated within the coaching profession. It expands their teams' talent base and, as a byproduct, improves their team's chances of winning.

Generally coaches with the most expertise are the most successful. They have other options when some strategies don't work. On the other hand, system coaches get beat when opposing coaches figure out how to attack their system, leaving system coaches without any alternatives.

Coaches who work with each player on their team form relationships and can get players to self-correct if the coach has excelled as a communicator. For example, a pitcher has thrown two balls up and in to a hitter. The coach signals to the pitcher what he is doing incorrectly or yells to him a key from what they have been doing in bullpen sessions to get him back on track, and immediately the pitcher makes a correction. Or after a hitter fouls balls off to the opposite field. If that was perceived to be a problem and the hitter has reverted back to his previous form, one keyword or signal can activate the correct technique within the hitter. The hitter steps out, gets his head together, and executes his right swing.

Watching players adjust during games is one of the most gratifying aspects of coaching. It feels like you are getting your message across and doing your job, making players play at the best of their abilities.

How We Evolve As Youth Baseball Coaches

With the advent of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, businesses get instant feedback. At DNA Sports we have had an extraordinary amount of positive responses plus suggestions of what consumers need or are searching for. It has helped us expand into areas in which we didn't originally specialize when we created our consulting service. We are really appreciative for the public's belief in our conscientiousness. While we certainly do not profess to know everything about baseball, we do have over 30 years of coaching, teaching, and recruiting experience and our material is based on field and never-ending research. When we have questions we ask peers or mentors. We always are testing our findings for functionality and correctness.

We also do not subscribe to one particular system or program. There are several philosophies that have been successful and are proven to be very sound. But we know we are diversified and educated enough to teach the style that best fits the athlete, with the proper communication skills so the athlete understands what we are saying. Plus, we always strive to keep coaches on the path to excellence by stressing what we have found is essential in leading athletes.

Our refusal to subscribe to one particular theory of hitting or pitching is worth mentioning further. In particular, we have come into contact with several private hitting and pitching trainers who teach a one size fits all approach to every athlete they work with.

They read a book, attend a few seminars, and/or watch several training videos from so called gurus in the field and regurgitate these theories like it’s gospel. While certain fundamentals apply across all ages and ability levels, the bottom line is you cannot teach every hitter to swing a bat or pitch a ball the same way.

Like any athlete, we take great pride as coaches to always better ourselves and improve our craft. Our philosophies and teachings are consistently evolving as we seek to understand how we can best meet the unique needs and circumstances of every athlete we come into contact with.

Preparation Will Help Pitchers Maintain Velocity

After observing Justin Verlander the past several years throw harder in the last part of a game than at the start, how do youth and high school coaches teach their pitchers to maintain their velocity throughout a game? Coaches can only develop the talent pitchers were born with. It’s what we call their sports DNA. What they do have control over is maximizing velocity and command of the strike zone through preparation.

Preparation involves conditioning, core and power training, pitching strategy, and teaching pitching mechanics correctly according to the individual. This program will help pitchers control the four quadrants, and with continued diligence and repetition, pitchers can correct mechanics and increase velocity.

Youth and high school pitchers can have success if they work at these facets of pitching and continue to accept coaching, no matter the body type or talent level.

Video Can Help Youth Baseball Coaches Correct Technique

A valuable method for teaching athletes is to show them video of their techniques and then correct their flaws. Coaches can show examples of players who exhibit game-sound ability to help with the educational process. But when should coaches use video?

First, coaches must establish a foundation of teaching the correct techniques in developing skills. Those techniques have to be repeated every time skills are emphasized in practice. When players are not comprehending what the coaches are teaching, then coaches should tape the technique in question and explain to athletes not only what they are doing wrong but what their strengths are.

Today's generation of players understand visual evidence because of their internet use, and they can correlate what they see and apply it to understand and improve their skills. In several instances as a high school coach it has helped our pitchers and hitters significantly, and with their improved performance they became all-conference players and college prospects.

Pitching and Hitting are the Same: Opening Up the Front Side

Opening up the front side early as a pitcher or a hitter will spell complete disaster unless it is corrected when it is identified. When a baseball pitcher's front side opens before the front foot hits the ground, there is an inordinate amount of stress placed on the throwing shoulder because of overrotation with no protection from the front shoulder staying closed.

Performance also suffers when baseball pitchers open early. Their arm slot (whether the pitcher throws overhand, high threequarters, threequarters or sidearm) and release points will be inconsistent following poor lead arm mechanics. It leads to poor command and sub-par velocity and movement.

A baseball pitcher should never start rotating until his front foot lands. The front side will then remain closed until the back side opens it up. This technique leads to more power, better control, and a healthier arm.

Baseball hitters cannot track the ball correctly if the front foot, knee, hip or shoulder opens early. Like pitchers, a hitter should not rotate until the front foot lands. The baseball hitter will then stay on the ball and drive it with authority.

Are You a Starting Youth Baseball Pitcher or a Reliever?

How precise you are as a pitcher determines if you will be a starter or reliever. Pitchers that maintain command and velocity longer in games will be starters. They are able to repeat their deliveries which will make their pitch location and speed consistent. Starting baseball pitchers know the importance of correct baseball pitching mechanics. Baseball pitchers who eventually become relievers show explosive pitches for a short period of time. They start to lose their effectiveness as the baseball game wears on because their pitching mechanics are sub-standard. The longer they stay in games the more their mechanics will break down.

Relievers also have shorter baseball careers because they burn out and lose their stuff as a result of stress on their arm caused by bad mechanics.

There are exceptions to almost every rule. Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, possibly the best reliever in history, has an outstanding release and great mechanics. But he started his career as a starter, and was switched to the bullpen out of need, much like Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Famer.

Remember it is essential to learn and repeat the correct baseball pitching mechanics. It will maximize your pitching abilities, save your arm from injury, and give you the best chance for pitching success.

Pitching and Hitting are the Same: The Baseball Stride

The fundamentals of the stride in baseball pitching and hitting are the same. The only difference in pitching and hitting strides is the length. Consequences of understriding and overstriding The pitching delivery and swing are initiated by striding with the front foot. If the stride is too short, baseball pitchers and hitters will rotate their hips and shoulders too quickly. Pitchers will spin out and yank their pitches. Hitters will pull off pitches early causing poor or no contact.

If baseball pitchers overstride, they will be late releasing the ball to the target, will have insufficient hip and shoulder rotation, and will have too much head movement. This results in poor command, ball action, and velocity.

If baseball hitters overstride, their swings will be late and rushed, causing a poor bat plane, excessive head movement, and reduced bat speed. They will miss or not center pitches or have no authority behind their contact because of poor hip and shoulder rotation.

The correct baseball stride For a baseball pitcher the stride's length should depend on where he can best execute his hip and shoulder rotation. This will improve his command of the baseball and maximize the ball action and velocity. The stride is usually 75-100% of player's height.

Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants goes beyond that length because he kicks off the pitching rubber. He is a wonder who has repeated that delivery since he was small. Not many baseball players have his athleticism to copy that motion and be effective.

For baseball hitters the stride should be 2-4 inches. They should stay with the stride that produces the most dynamic hip and shoulder rotation without sacrificing balance and losing eye contact.

Some professional hitters choose not to stride and some overstride, but they have worked hard on their technique where they get the best results and feel comfortable.