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Fastpitch Tip: Coaching To A Pitcher's Strength
Questions always arise from players, parents and coaches regarding how to develop a pitcher, questions such as, "what pitches should we learn first?" or "how many pitches should we be able to throw?"
As coaches, we first must determine what level the pitcher is at and what would be her best path to success as a pitcher. You would not want to rush a beginner into throwing five different pitches if she is unable to throw a strike. By the same token, you don't want to hold back someone who has tremendous talent. Most coaches are not fortunate enough to have elite Olympic level talent, but might be able to develop a good high school or college pitcher.
I believe all pitchers, no matter what level, must have good fundamental mechanics that will lead them to being able to throw strikes. Basic mechanics have been forgotten in favor of the number of pitches that can be thrown. I hear it all the time at camps and clinics about how these 10, 11 or 12-year-olds have mastered five different pitches. Spot pitching is a lost art and promoting a pitcher's strengths is sometimes cast aside in favor of trying to make every pitcher the same.
Here are examples of what to do with pitchers at different levels.
With beginners, I work strictly with drill work to develop a good circle, release point, wrist snap and leg drive. Teach the beginning pitcher the importance of finding the strike zone and developing her maximum speed. I say her "maximum speed" becuase not all pitchers are able to throw into the 60's. Emphasize speed first and her control will come wth repetition of the correct technique she uses in the drills.
The next step would be to teach spot pitching and to devote quite a bit of time to this. Two examples of good control pitchers are Greg Maddux in baseball and Nebraska's Jenny Voss, who won 40 games two years ago, in softball. Maddux has very average speed for a major league pitcher, but he has unbelievable control and a great change. Voss has great speed and is a master of picking at both the inside and outside corners with a variety of pitches (curve, drop, etc.). The simimarities here are that both pitchers are masters of control.
After spot pitching, I teach the change. Think of the one single pitch that can make a hitter look more foolish than any other. One of my pitchers currently averages 10 strikeouts per game against good Division I competition by spotting her 62 mph fastball and throwing a great change-up at all phases of the count on the batter. We are not afraid to throw it behind in the count or at a full count. Surprise is the key element with a change. Let the batter know early in the game that you have it and that you will be throwing it. Sometimes coaches get enamored by the drop, rise and curve and forget about how critical a change of speed can be.If a pitcher does, in fact, have the skills to master five pitches, by all means incorporate those as quickly as you can.
We as coaches have to be able to interpret when our pitchers are ready to move on to the next step in the progression. Be flexible as a pitching coach and teach to the strengths of your athletes.