This is an excerpt from Practice Perfect Baseball eBook by American Baseball Coaches Association.
Building the Foundation
Every fall a new team steps on campus, and it is my job to give them the foundation for success. The first official gathering of the pitching staff has nothing to do with catch-play routines, arm exercises, or bullpens. Instead, our first official meeting covers philosophy and the characteristics I look for in a good pitcher and competitor. I believe this information is just as important as the Xs and Os of pitching mechanics or throwing the curveball. In my program, the foundation for pitching success is built around the intangibles that can be realized only by a staff with the ability and the aptitude for success. In my years of coaching, I have seen plenty of talented arms, but talent never wins if it isn’t complemented by the right attitude and mentality. The following are some of the intangible aspects of pitching success.
Want the Ball
It is impossible to hide on the mound because everyone’s attention is focused on the pitcher. A player who wants to be a pitcher had better love this aspect of the game and must thrive in the spotlight. Some of the best pitchers I have been around were good because when the spotlight was on them, they elevated their game to another level—most of the time a level they couldn’t reach in practice. Give the ball to the players who want it the most because they tend to be the players with the confidence and competitiveness to succeed in games.
Pitch to Contact
From the first day we meet, I stress to pitchers that we are not going to be a staff that is scared to pitch to contact. As one of my assistant coaches likes to say, “If you are scared, buy a dog.” When a pitcher delivers a pitch with the intention of missing the barrel of the bat, he usually ends up overthinking and being too fine with the delivery. Instill the “here it comes, hit it” mentality with your pitching staff. If you instill this mentality, your staff will challenge hitters with their best stuff, rather than worry about nibbling around the strike zone or trying to get hitters out by relying too much on trick pitches.
One thing I tell my staff to give them confidence in attacking the strike zone is to watch hitters take batting practice. Even in batting practice—when the hitter knows what is coming and the coach is throwing a batting practice fastball—hitters still make outs more times than they are successful. The mind-set of believing and trusting in pitching to contact is what we like to call the “nine-on-one mentality.” This means we have a team of nine defenders against one batter. I ask my staff the following question: “If we were in a street fight and we had nine of us against one of them, would you like our chances of succeeding?” The answer is always an overwhelming yes. Take this analogy to the pitching mound. Make your staff concentrate on throwing effective strikes by pitching to contact. Just like in the street fight, the chances for success are very good.
The last area I address when dealing with pitching to contact is not changing based on the hitter. I have witnessed countless pitchers cruise through hitters they perceive to have limited ability. However, when the big cleanup hitter or All-American comes to the plate, the pitcher changes to try to miss his bat. Why? As noted earlier, pitching to miss barrels leads to a passive approach on the mound. I want my staff to be aggressive in everything they do. I can live with failure if we get beat while being aggressive, but I will not tolerate failure when the staff is being passive. Even when the best hitter in the world comes up or when King Kong steps to the on-deck circle, the pitcher should have the confidence to take the hitter out of the equation and focus on the glove. The result is a pitching staff that makes the same good pitches to the number four hitter that they make to the number nine hitter. This leads to better results. The idea is to maintain your approach no matter who is at the plate. Pitch to contact and trust your defense.
Learn to Pitch With the Fastball
Nothing frustrates me more than a pitcher trying to work on four or five different pitches without mastering the fastball. I see far too many young players come to campus thinking that having more pitches gives them a better chance of being successful. This is a myth that I believe is perpetuated by the video game era. Kids grow up playing video games featuring pitchers who are programmed to have unrealistic command of a vast array of pitches. In real baseball, this just isn’t the case. I want my guys to focus on command of the fastball until they can put the ball wherever they want—inside, outside, up, or down. At least once a year, I give my staff the advice that Coach Wally Kincaid gave me when I was a young pitcher at Cerritos Junior College. When Coach Kincaid would talk about his simple theory, he would say, “If you want to be a good pitcher, learn to throw your fastball for a strike. If you want to be a great pitcher, learn to throw your fastball for a strike low in the strike zone. If you want to be an outstanding pitcher, learn to throw your fastball for a strike low in the strike zone to both sides of the plate.” This is great advice to pass on to any young pitcher or pitching coach. Later in this chapter, I will explain how we go about developing pitchers who can execute this theory.
Establish Strike One
The last thing I say to a pitcher before he goes to the mound is simply “strike one.” This tenet of pitching philosophy falls directly in line with the previous two of pitching to contact and learning to pitch with the fastball. I try to build a staff that rallies around simple and achievable goals such as commanding strike one to jump ahead of the hitter. Trying to get all my pitchers to throw 95 miles per hour or throw harder than their natural capabilities is unrealistic and unachievable. I would be wasting my time and their time. But focusing on commanding strike one is an achievable goal with enormous dividends for a pitching staff. Any hitter will agree that hitting with an 0-1 count is much more difficult than hitting with a 1-0 count. One of the ways I monitor the success rates of pitchers who throw strike one is by using a point chart to evaluate performance, which I will discuss as we move from philosophy to implementing a practice routine.
Be a Pitcher, Not a Thrower
I want a pitching staff that is schooled in pitching, not just a group of guys who throw hard or have good arms. In all honesty, the radar gun does very little for me when I evaluate my staff, and it has absolutely no influence on whom I decide to pitch. I want my pitchers to realize this and to take their focus off the radar gun readings and put it on the much more important art of being a pitcher. This involves knowing how to put a little on at times and take a little off at times. Any good hitting coach will preach that good hitters are able to maintain good rhythm and balance in the batter’s box. As a pitching coach, I want my pitching staff to disrupt the rhythm and balance of a hitter by knowing how to throw strikes and change speeds. Again, batting practice can be used to demonstrate this point. If the coach unexpectedly takes just a little bit off the ball, it gives the hitter fits. The same is true of pitching in a game. If the pitcher follows the previous tenets and establishes strikes with the fastball, this makes it easier to change speeds and drop in a changeup or other off-speed offering to disrupt the hitter’s timing. The reverse is true as well—a pitcher with a good changeup will make his fastball seem harder and tougher to hit because the hitter is dealing with a wide range of velocities. That is why I really don’t get too concerned about radar gun readings. Instead, I focus my energy on instilling the importance of mixing it up by being able to add or subtract some velocity.
Sometimes, however, I do use radar gun readings to provide information about my pitcher. First, I see if the pitcher’s gun readings change from bullpen sessions to game time. The pitcher who wants the ball often increases his velocity at game time because of the adrenaline rushing through his body. Sometimes, though, I see a player’s velocity sharply decrease. If a guy who normally pumps it up there around 90 miles per hour goes into a game and is throwing 84 or 85 miles per hour, this tells me that he is holding back and not letting it fly; he is not trusting the work he has put in during bullpen sessions. This is a clear signal to me that we need to make his bullpen sessions more gamelike, or he may need more work on the mental side of the game to learn to control his body and mind during competition.
The second reading that is helpful for evaluating performance deals with a pitcher’s velocity when he is throwing to the inner part of the plate. If a pitcher consistently throws 90 miles per hour and then dips to 85 miles per hour when trying to pitch inside, this tells me that he is not attacking the spot and is probably afraid of hitting the batter. For these instances, I believe gun readings can be valuable, but in all other cases, I stress to my pitching staff that success comes from mastering the art of pitching and not from trying to throw the ball hard.
If you do not have access to a radar gun, focus on the pitcher’s arm speed. Does he guide the ball when trying to pitch to the inner part of the plate? It will be fairly easy to see without the luxury of a radar gun if a pitcher is losing his aggressiveness in certain situations. Identify these situations and find a strategy to attack them. In a case like this, we would use a stand-in hitter in all bullpen sessions.
Demonstrate Tempo and Mound Presence
Good pitchers work quickly and set the tone for the team. Baseball is a game of momentum, and momentum starts with a pitcher who is capable of setting a good tempo for the game. I teach my pitchers to get on the mound and attack. When a pitcher does this, he gets teams to play at the speed he wants. A well-coached team will be able to play at a fast tempo and overwhelm opponents who are not comfortable with playing quickly. When a pitcher takes the mound with tempo and attacks the strike zone, this keeps his defenders in the game and focused, which makes them more likely to make good plays in the field. Good tempo also keeps pitchers focused and in the moment because it doesn’t give them a chance to overanalyze a previous pitch or to think about mechanical flaws. Instead, they must rely on their instincts.
Mound presence and tempo are natural partners. A pitcher who can pitch with good tempo is going to be an aggressive pitcher, and an aggressive pitcher has the competitive presence on the mound that makes him stand out against the timid or passive pitcher.
These are the simple philosophies that I use to build the foundation for pitching success. Remember that developing a good pitching staff involves keeping things simple for them. Trying to do too much or throwing too much information at players is counterproductive and inhibits focus on the few important skills that are most crucial to achieving and repeating desirable outcomes.
Now that we have laid the foundation, let’s move on to implementing a practice routine that will lead to effective repetition and help build a successful pitching staff.
This is an excerpt from Practice Perfect Baseball, by American Baseball Coaches Association. Bob Bennett, Editor.