Many young pitchers have difficulty with balance. One of the reasons is poor mechanics at the beginning of their windup. Many are taught to take their rocker step (the initial step behind the rubber) straight back. The reasoning for this is that you want the pitcher to take his weight straight back so that all of his weight is coming forward toward the plate when the pitch is delivered.
One problem with this advice is that the pitchers weight shift is stopped during the knee lift (thus his weight does not continue forward after stepping back). The pitchers weight should be back when the front knee is lifted and he should be able to balance on one leg. A second problem with this advice is that many young pitchers lose their balance going from a straight back rocker step to their pivot (with their other foot) inside the rubber.
Young pitchers should begin their windup by positioning themselves (if right-handed) so that their body is facing between third base and home plate (or between first base and home plate if left-handed). The rocker step should only be a few inches and angled toward first base (for righties). Importantly, the pitcher should try to keep his head and weight over his front foot. This will allow him to make a smooth and balanced pivot into the knee lift part of the windup.
Many young pitchers break their hands improperly. Although when and where a pitcher breaks his hands may not seem real important at first, the break affects arm mechanics and is a root problem with many pitchers. I have been to clinics where pitchers are taught to break during their knee lift "breaking an egg with the knee" is the mental image they teach. This should be avoided. The breaking of the hands should occur after the pitchers weight begins moving toward home plate.
A more serious problem, in my opinion, involves where the hands break. Pitchers should break their hands directly in front of their bodies, preferably up around the letters. Many young pitchers like to break their hands behind them (RH pitchers breaking by their right hip). This can create the following problems:
First, the throwing arm will often stop after the break to allow the lead arm time to catch up, ruining a smooth, continuous circle action with the ball after the break.
Second, the lead arm does not get to the bridge position soon enough, and often arcs out away from the body instead of moving directly toward the target. (The bridge here is a line between the elbows when both are lifted, pointing toward the plate.) This arcing of the arm and the time it takes to bridge can throw the lead shoulder open way too early. When the shoulder opens before the lead foot is planted, velocity is reduced and arms can be injured.
Many young pitchers fail to keep their weight back when striding toward home plate. They often start with their weight forward before their leg lift is complete and they often loop their front foot toward the plate in a way that shifts their weight forward too quickly.
Young pitchers should consider adopting an "up-down-out" movement with their lead leg. The knee comes straight up (to the point where they can balance themselves), and then goes straight down within a few inches of the ground, and then slides above the ground toward home plate until the stride is complete.
A common problem with young pitchers is the mechanics of their lead leg. When striding toward home plate, some pitchers come down on a completely stiff leg, with their knee locked. This creates a whipping motion in their delivery and will generally create arm problems at some point. In fact, a few major league pitchers having this problem had their careers cut short after a couple of years because their arms went bad.
Another problem, perhaps more common, occurs when pitchers fail to stiffen the lead leg after it comes down. This greatly reduces the velocity on the pitch.
When the stride foot lands, the knee needs to be bent. As the pitchers weight comes forward, the lead leg must stiffen up, providing resistance to the pitchers weight and thus producing more velocity on the pitch (the same principle holds true when hitting).
From the Break to the Cocked Position
After the hands break, the throwing arm should take a down, back and up path until arriving at the cocked position. Young pitchers should focus on the throwing hand. The ball should be pulled out of the bottom of the glove when the hands are breaking. The hand should stay on top of the ball (palm down) when taking the ball down and back. The action here is circular. As the arm comes up, the ball and palm of the hand turn outward (toward the short stop for a right-hander). When the elbow of the throwing arm reaches the height of the shoulder and the hand is over the biceps, the pitcher is in the "cocked" position. The palm should still be facing outward. At this point, the front leg should be planted and the non-throwing shoulder should still be pointed toward the target.
When taking the ball back, some pitchers extend too far and are not able to get the ball in the cocked position soon enough. Their front leg is planted, their body is ready to turn for the throw, but the ball is too far behind them. Throwing the ball from this position greatly reduces velocity and, more importantly, puts a great deal of stress on the shoulder. Another problem occurs when the palm turns toward the target while bringing the ball up to the cocked position. This also puts too much stress on the arm during the early acceleration of the hand.
When the arm arrives at the cocked position, the stride foot is planted and the front hip and front shoulder are at pointed at the target. As the hips and shoulders turn or open up, the throwing elbow points to the target and the palm turns from facing sideways to facing up. The acceleration of the hand (including the snapping of the wrist) determines the ball's velocity. The throwing hand proceeds past the head and the ball is released at a point where the ball and the rear foot form a line that is approximately 45 degrees. The hand then crosses the chest to a point below and outside of the knee of the stride leg. This follow-through allows the arm to decelerate. Deceleration protects the arm. Pitchers should concentrate on throwing the ball downhill. This will occur if they have their elbow up at the beginning of this sequence.
When the throwing arm arrives in the cocked position, the lead arm is bridged the lead elbow is up at shoulder height and pointing toward home plate. Simultaneous with the turning of the hips and shoulders, the lead elbow is pulled down to the side of the body. This is called the tuck and it helps to generate the speed with which the hips and shoulders turn. The glove remains in front of the elbow during the tuck and is held close to the body. After the follow-through, the lead arm should be brought back in front of the body with the glove up to protect the pitcher from hit balls. A good defensive position after the pitch is often lacking at all levels.
A problem for many young pitchers is the habit of throwing the glove behind the body during the follow-through. This is easy to spot when looking for it and can easily be corrected with practice.
I thought I should add some more detail involving the throwing arm from the cocked position to the release of the ball. As the shoulders turn (after the ball is in the cocked position), the elbow leads the hand to the release point. The forearm rotates back. The maximum rotation back should be approximately 180 degrees. In other words, the point from the throwing elbow to the wrist should be horizontal right before the ball is brought forward to the release position. At this point the pitcher's back should be arched and the forward position of the elbow should be just in front of the throwing side hip. Checking a pitcher for good arm rotation prior to release must involve film which should be shot at a right angle from the pitcher's throwing side.
Pitching from a stretch isn't easy for young players and is often required in leagues as young as 9/10. A pitcher should go from the stretch whenever there are runners on base. Even with the bases loaded or a runner on third only, the defense has a better chance of preventing a run when the pitcher uses the stretch.
Young pitchers should straddle the rubber with their feet upon obtaining the ball and quickly assess the situation. Next they should put their rear foot on the inside of the rubber and then take a large step toward the catcher (and take a sign at this point if appropriate). The ball should be held in the hand (although keeping the ball in the glove is legal) and this hand should be behind the back leg. Pitchers should not look in at the catcher (for a sign or whatever) without being on the rubberthis is a balk.
Next the lead leg is brought back to the body and the pitcher "sets," with his hands in the middle of his stomach or chest or somewhere in between. The feet should be about six inches apart kids often like to put them together and they lose their balance. The pitcher must come to a complete stop at this point before he can deliver the ball to the plate. Before the pitch is made, from the set position, the pitcher must check the baserunners to make sure they are not leading off the bag too far.
Young pitchers often have difficulty seeing a runner on the base that their back faces if they come to a set position with their shoulders pointing straight at home plate. This is particularly true for a right-hander with a man on first. Keep in mind that once a pitcher is in the set position he cannot turn his shoulders to look at a runner. Thus, young pitchers need to turn their shoulders a bit when bringing the lead leg back before actually getting in the set position. Their shoulders are then already turned a bit when they set rather than pointing straight at the catcher. This allows a right-handed pitcher to get a clear view of a runner on first base while remaining still in the set position.
Once in the set position, pitchers need to decide whether to throw to a base or throw to the plate. This sounds simple enough but all too often young pitchers do not make this decision soon enough. They will still be looking at a runner when they start their delivery home and fail to pick up the catcher's target soon enough. Kids must be taught to make the decision on where to throw the ball early. They should set, check the runners and then make a decision and live with it. I had a 14-year-old LH pitcher who made his decision after his knee was fully lifted. He had good control except when a runner was on first base. He became much better after he started making his decision to pick or pitch before he lifted his stride foot.
While we will deal with pick-off moves later, it should be noted that sometimes the decision to go to a base is made before coming to the set position. Given that a lot of kids glance back at a base while taking their second step in their lead off, a pitcher can sometimes get the runner by throwing to the base before coming up to the set position (usually a second after stepping on the rubber). Coaches with pitchers who do this should make sure their first basemen are awake and always looking at the pitcher with a runner on.
A slide step toward home involves the lead foot being lifted a few inches instead of the high knee lift when delivering a pitch from the set position. Developing a good slide step is difficult for a lot of young pitchers and probably isn't needed in the youngest leagues. If a pitcher wants to use a slide step, he must practice it along with his other motion. There is also a tendency to rush toward the plate when using the slide step and throwing the ball before the pre-release mechanics have all had a chance to take place. Besides the loss of accuracy, this can obviously injure an arm.
A slide step isn't needed on every pitch when watching a man on first. In fact, one strategy involves using a knee lift on the first pitch followed by a slide step on the second (at least early in a game). The logic is that most base runners won't steal on the first pitch and after seeing a knee lift they are more likely to go on the second pitch
The main reason for developing good pick-off moves isn't so much to get an easy out but to keep runners from stealing bases at will. These moves depend on whether a pitcher is right-handed or left-handed and the base to which he is throwing. Right-handed pitchers throwing to first base should develop at least two moves. First, the standard move should be developed which is used after the pitcher is in the set position and the base runner has a full lead. After checking the runner (or runners), begin the move after looking back to the catcher. The rear foot should come forward and toward third base a couple of inches. This serves as a pivot foot. The arms should be breaking while this foot in getting into position. The lead foot steps directly toward first base and the throw should be a bit left of first base and low (the coaches need to make sure the first-baseman is in position to catch the ball out in front of the bag).
Some young pitchers get into a habit of stepping off the back of the rubber and then throwing to first. While it is true that they do not have to complete the throw when stepping off the back of the rubber (they essentially become an infielder at this point instead of a pitcher and thus cannot balk), it takes longer to get the ball to first base. Thus, this "safe" method should be discouraged.
A second move that can be very effective is to start your move to first when the base runner is beginning the second stride of his lead off. This is especially effective for younger pitchers because many young base runners peek back at first when taking their second step. In any case, the base runner has his weight going toward second at this point which makes it more difficult to get back to first safely.
Left-handers obviously have a real advantage when holding runners on first base. We teach two basic moves for LH pitchers. First, during the knee lift, the pitcher picks up the catcher's target and steps just left of a 45 degree angle and throws to first. Simple enough. But there are two problems young pitchers tend to have when doing this. First, pitchers need to vary where they look when they pitch and pick off. Some pitchers always look home when they lift their knee and then throw to first and, conversely, they always look at first during their knee lift when they throw home. This should be varied or the base runners will know what they're doing by what they are looking at. Second, many young pitchers don't decide where they are going to throw the ball until their knee is lifted. This becomes apparent when they are striding toward home and still looking at the runner on first.
A second pick-off move involves stepping off the back of the rubber with the left foot and throwing sidearm to first without stepping in that direction. If a pitcher steps off the rubber (and thus becomes an infielder) he doesn't have to step toward a base he is throwing to. The only potential problem with this move is that a pitcher can hurt his arm if his sidearm throw wasn't practiced beforehand. Thus, a pitcher needs to include sidearm throws in his warm up before taking the mound if he plans on using this move. This move shouldn't be used by young pitchers.
Throwing a baseball hard or making a baseball curve isn't necessarily going make someone a pitcher. Control must be developed in order to pitch effectively. Control comes from practice using good mechanics (like everything else, repetition doing something the right way leads to success). This requires focus and concentration during practice, which can be difficult for the young player. The first thing young pitchers need to overcome is their inability to throw to the proper target the catcher's mitt. Instead, they generally try to throw with reference to home plate or, more often, the batter.
Two things can be done to help them overcome this problem. First, whenever a young pitcher practices or warms up before a game, the catcher should continually move the target around the strike zone (and occasionally outside the strike zone). This will increase the pitcher's attention to the mitt. Second, the pitcher needs to assess where his pitch was in relation to the mitt and set goals for success and failure for his pitches. For example, a young player new to pitching might define any pitch within eight inches of the mitt a success. As he develops, he can change this criterion to six or four inches (or whatever). This definition of success is very different from using balls and strikes (which is something under the umpire's control anyway).
A good fastball will bring more recognition to a pitcher than curveballs, change-ups and other assorted pitches. This should be the first pitch mastered. A fastball can be thrown so that when it is released, four seams rotate as the ball leaves the hand. This is called a four-seam fastball and is, in my opinion, the best one to throw for beginning pitchers. A fastball can also be thrown so that two seams rotate upon release. A four-seam fastball is usually a bit faster and easier to control than a two-seam fastball. Two-seam fastballs, on the other hand, tend to have more movement and are thus harder to hit.
Young pitchers with relatively small hands should begin by throwing a fastball with three fingers on top of the ball and across the seams. When the hand is large enough for two fingers, the pads of the index finger and middle finger should be in contact with the seams. The thumb should be under the ball close to the point where it splits the top two fingers.
While we hear a lot of controversy about young pitchers throwing curve balls, Ive seen more young players injured throwing fastballs. Pitchers (and other players for that matter) need to stretch their arms before pitching and warming up should be done gradually. Too often we see a young pitcher come in from another position in relief without warming up on the side. For a lot of kids, this can be dangerous. Ive told coaches on occasion that my son isnt allowed to pitch until he has thrown at least 25 pitches on the side. No single youth game is worth the risk of arm injury.
A fastball should also always be thrown with a sense of control. Rearing back and trying to throw as hard as possible without thinking about mechanics is throwing out of control and can lead to injury. In addition, throwing too many pitches can lead to injury. This may well be the leading cause of injury to young pitchers. With respect to soreness, pitchers at the high school level generally throw when their arms are stiff or a little sore. At younger levels, however, I wouldnt let a pitcher throw unless he is 100%. Furthermore, soreness in the shoulder is usually more serious than soreness in the elbow. If arm soreness is a continuing problem, see a doctor. Therapy (much of which can be done at home) not only can lead to fast healing but can strengthened an arm as well. One of my sons continues the shoulder exercises (which involve hand weights) for arm strength even though it has been years since he hurt his shoulder.
An aside: Dont let kids throw batting practice without an L-screen. Too many coaches let kids throw batting practice. The idea is that the hitters will get better by facing pitchers their own size. This may be true but poses a danger to the pitcher. Instead of actually pitching to the hitter, he often is told to lay it in there so the batter can hit it. Its just a matter of time before the pitcher gets hit by a shot back at him.
see photo below
Teaching or allowing young pitchers to throw curveballs is controversial. Reasons that are given for not throwing a curveball are that it will hurt a young pitcher's arm (particularly his elbow) and that it hinders the development of a good fastball. Reasons for teaching the curveball include it will not hurt the pitcher's arm if thrown correctly and that a curve ball is needed by the time they get to high school. I think that all of these reasons are legitimate and, in general, would like to see a pitcher wait until he is at least 14 before developing this pitch. And, given different types of arms and stages of development, 14 is a fairly arbitrary age.
As a general rule, the younger the pitcher, the fewer curveballs he should throw and the slower he should throw them.
If a younger pitcher has any soreness in his elbow (or any part of the arm) he should give up throwing curveballs for at least a couple of weeks (and shouldn't pitch for a while as well).
Curveballs should be thrown with just enough speed to get them to the plate during the first year or two of throwing this pitch. A hard curve or slider increases the risk of injury.
If the curveball is thrown flat (lots of horizontal spin), it is not as effective as a curveball that breaks down and sideways and it increases the risk of injury. Young players often think the curveball needs a lot of sideways spin. To achieve this, they drop their elbow below their shoulder when throwing it which is not only bad mechanically but puts too much pressure on their elbow. Getting kids to stop throwing with a dropped elbow is one good reason to teach them how to throw a curve ball correctly.
Mechanically, the curveball should be thrown like the fastball with the exception that the hand pulls down in front of the body instead of extending out toward the target and the wrist turns downward instead of snapping forward. In addition (although this varies to some extent with the pitcher), the path of the ball is a little closer to the head, the stride is a little shorter and the ball may be held a little further back in the hand.
Gripping the ball also has variations. Some of the best curveballs are thrown with the seam running along the inside of the thumb and the fingers perpendicular across two seams. The most popular grip is to put the fingers fairly close together running along a single seam.
If a young pitcher has the potential to throw 90 m.p.h. in high school, or the coach cannot be trusted to keep curves to a minimum (in a game or practice), or a pitcher tends to get a sore arm (especially at the elbow), or a pitcher has not spent a good deal of time working on a change-up, or the pitcher is overused (or throws to much on his own), I would recommend that he NOT start throwing a curveball.
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The most underused and underrated pitch in youth baseball is the change-up. A good change-up is often more difficult to hit than a curveball because it has the same spin as a fastball (and thus isn't recognized as quickly as an off-speed pitch). Throwing a change-up effectively takes hard work. It must be included during warm-ups and thrown often to keep the "feel" of the pitch if it is to be controlled and thrown with confidence.
There are several ways to throw a change-up. Each of these ways requires using the same arm speed that is used when throwing a fastball. Slowing the ball down (about 15 percent) is accomplished by using a different grip on the ball - not by throwing slower.
1. Circle change - the circle change gets its name because the thumb and index finger form a circle, which make contact with the ball on the seams. The circle is placed on the side of the ball and the seams are turned so that they are in contact with both the thumb and index finger (the circle part of the seams). The other three fingers are placed on top of the ball with the pads in contact with the seams as well (the ball must be rotated to achieve this contact). Thus, the throwing hand is turned inward when throwing this pitch.
2. Back-in-palm change - A common way of throwing a change-up is to simply push the ball back into the palm and thus eliminating contact of the finger pads on the seams.
3. Stiff-wrist change - In my opinion, one of the easier ways for a young pitcher to throw a change is to hold the ball just like a fastball and throw it without snapping the wrist. By keeping the wrist stiff and letting the ball roll off the fingertips early, various slower speeds can be achieved while maintaining the arm speed of a fast ball. This takes a lot of practice to get the feel of where the ball is going when released early.
Most young pitchers miss high when throwing a change-up. I often tell my pitchers to aim this pitch at the plate (at least until they master it). Also, make sure a young pitcher understands that we want the batter to hit the ball off balance. They shouldn't think of a change as a strike out pitch. They should also learn to come inside with their fastball after throwing a change. This may be their first lesson in setting up a hitter.
Most young pitchers do not realize the importance of both strong legs and stamina. Long distance running is a mainstay for professional pitchers. You should add long distance running to your regimen if you are truly serious about pitching (run 3-5 times a week!)
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