Little League Coaching Tips for Pitching
The pitchers are arguably the most important players on any baseball team at any level of play. At the Little League level of play the pitching position can be one that is very challenging for even the most experienced coach to manage. Identifying suitable players to fill pitching positions, developing a pitching staff, and correcting mechanical problems can all give any Little League coach nightmares. Let's try to turn those nightmares into sweet dreams by taking a look at some Little League Coaching Tips for Pitching.
#1 Identifying Players for Pitching Positions
I feel that the pitching position is the hardest position for a Little League coach to manage because there will only be a handful of players that can do it but there are many who think they can. I think with any position, but especially the pitching position, it is necessary to give those who want to try a chance. At the same time, it is also very necessary to move on from the pretenders and focus your time on legitimate pitching prospects. Some of the qualities that a good Little League pitching prospect will possess are confidence, maturity, ability, and willingness/desire to learn.
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#2 Developing a Pitching Staff
A Little League coach who is really lucky can focus in on 5 to maybe 6 players that will comprise the pitching staff. Even if the coach is not so fortunate, it will be necessary to have a minimum of 4 pitchers on the staff. The rule of thumb is that you can never have enough good pitching. The numbers are based on the average team having a minimum of two games a week but possibly three or maybe even four depending on how the league is structured. The coach will then have to decide on jobs within the staff. For example, a typical Little League pitching staff may consist of 2-3 starting pitchers and 2-3 relievers/emergency starters. A Little League coach will be tempted to only use their top 2 or 3 pitchers all the time which can be a mistake. For example, during my coaching days, I saw a coach use an exclusive two man pitching staff that consisted of we'll call them "Little Kenny" and "Little Johnny". Well, what do you think happened when "Little Kenny" went on vacation for a month and "Little Johnny" was punished for doing poorly in school? I don't have to tell you what happened. What I can tell you is that a coach needs to make sure that the entire staff is getting work and practice. When games are blowouts for either side it is commonly called "garbage time". However, these are perfect opportunities to give some work to other members of the pitching staff other than the "aces" of the staff. Also, scrimmage games within practice secessions are great times to use other pitchers on the staff or even giving someone entirely new a shot at making the staff!
#3 Mechanical Problems
The proud coach puffs out his chest because the ace pitcher on the staff is 3-0 with an ERA under 1, 15 Ks, and has only walked 4. Just two weeks later, the same coach is scratching his head as his ace is now 3-2 with an ERA over 4, 7 Ks, and has walked a mind boggling 15 batters. What happened?! In this situation, a coach needs to understand that inconsistency at the Little League level is common place. The coach should not panic and needs to calmly examine what is actually happening and why it is happening. Let's take a look at some very common mechanical problems and the causes. The first thing a coach must look at is where are the pitches missing? Are a lot of the pitches missing up high ? If the answer is yes then maybe it's a simple case of adjusting the release point or maybe it's a different mechanical problem. Are a lot of pitches missing low or being thrown into the dirt? Again, it could be the release point or some other mechanical problem. Pitches that miss to far inside or outside could also be indication of mechanical problems. Mechanical problems are usually corrected by studying a pitcher's proper mechanics and then comparing it to the form used to deliver the inconsistent pitches. After finding the problem, the coach will have to work with the pitcher on making the proper corrections. Unfortunately, mechanical problems can also be the result of fatigue or injury. A pitcher may make changes to compensate for an injury or a tired arm. It is important for a coach to monitor mechanics closely for changes and then investigate why the pitcher is making the change. Simple rest could be the remedy for this type of mechanical problem. If problems involving fatigue/injury persist then the coach may need to advise a player's parent(s) to seek medical advice/treatment. Another common mechanical problem is the pitcher's relationship with the mound and the pitching rubber. For example a pitcher may suddenly change where they locate their feet on the pitching rubber for some reason and this can sometimes cause problems. The coach must in a way be like a doctor trying to remedy what ills their pitcher.
#4 Velocity vs Accuracy
Plain and simple, accuracy is far more important than velocity. A pitcher who can put the ball wherever they want whenever they want is far more valuable than a pitcher that can throw absolute "gas" but can't hit the side of a barn. A pitcher who is accurate can develop better velocity over time but a pitcher that can throw hard does not always develop the ability to throw strikes. It is important to let an accurate pitcher properly develop velocity. A coach should not encourage over throwing that can actually lead to mechanical problems or even physical problems. The best thing a coach can do for a pitcher that is accurate but lacks velocity is to simply encourage/teach proper pitching mechanics. Good mechanics, experience through games & practice, and the natural maturation ( physical & mental) process will eventually help build a complete pitcher!
#5 Changing Speeds
Pitching is a game of deception and balance. Part of a pitcher's job is to actually deceive and keep the batter off balance by ruining their timing. A great weapon that a pitcher can use to do this is changing speeds. The key to properly changing speeds as to deceive is grip and release point. The pitcher will want to use a grip that changes the speed of their pitch without making mechanical changes that include the all important release point. Some typical change up grips are the "circle change" , "palm ball",and "three finger change". A pitcher can also experiment with different change up grips that may also work better for them. If the pitcher can throw a change up that looks like their fast ball right up until they release the pitch then that can be an extremely effective weapon.
#6 How and When To Remove a Pitcher From a Game
One of the toughest things that a Little League coach will have to do is make the decision to remove a pitcher from the game. No matter the reason, most pitchers will not want to be removed and will take the decision personal. That being said, the coach will want to be supportive and encouraging in removing the pitcher. The coach will want to say something like, " Today didn't go so well here on the mound but you're still very important to me and the team. I need you to focus on helping the team over at first base. Go get'em!" The coach must also know when it's time to remove the pitcher. A league pitch count rule will make the decision for the coach but there will be many other situations that will not be nearly as easy. Fatigue can be one that's not so easy because not all pitchers are going to say they are tired so it will be the coach's job to learn to identify fatigue. Poor mechanics, drastic decrease in velocity, and inaccuracy are all signs of fatigue. Injury can be difficult as well because a pitcher may try to hide the injury. Again, it will be the coach's job to identify injury. In the case of injury, the coach should look for the pitcher attempting to make compensations for the injured body part in addition to poor mechanics, drastic decrease in velocity, and inaccuracy. Last but not least, pulling a pitcher for strategy can be an extremely difficult decision for a coach at any level of play and including the big leagues! Bases are loaded, the team is clinging to a one run lead with 2 outs in the last inning, and the coach has his ace pitcher on the mound who has been out there the entire game. What should the coach do? The best advice that I can give in situations like this is to simply know your pitcher's strengths & weaknesses and consider other factors like pitch count, fatigue, mood, body language, and energy level. And even when a great coach considers all these factors there will be a chance that the decision they make will not work out. However, a great coach will also understand that this is the nature of sports and won't dwell on decisions that don't work out.
#7 Fielding the Position
A Little League coach must always remember that the pitching position is not just about pitching. There is no doubt that pitching is the most important function of the pitching position but there are several other areas that need attention to develop a complete pitcher. Once the ball is put into play by the batter, the pitcher becomes an infielder. The pitcher also has various assignments based on situational plays. For example, a pitcher will cover first base on a play that may draw the first baseman away from the base and will cover home on a wild pitch with a runner on third. The pitcher should practice skills such as fielding hit or bunted balls, throwing to bases, covering bases, and applying tags.The importance of these non-pitching skills should never be underestimated. Developing complete pitchers that have a command of the essential position skills will certainly increase the chances of overall team success!
#8 Pitching Outside the Strike Zone
A pitcher that has very good control can use pitching outside the strike zone as a strategy to get batters out. For example, the pitcher has the batter in the hole with a count of 1 ball and 2 strikes. The pitcher remembers that the batter took a swing at a pitch high and outside to begin the at bat. The pitcher may want to revisit that pitch and see if maybe the batter will swing again. Even if the batter has not previously offered at a bad pitch, the pitcher may still want to try throwing a pitch outside the strike zone because the pressure of having two strikes may be enough to get the batter to swing at the pitch outside the strike zone. A change up or curveball "in the dirt" can also be an effective "chase" pitch.
#9 Changing Locations
If a pitcher only throws right down the middle then it's just batting practice. A successful pitcher will learn to change the locations of their pitches effectively. For example a pitcher can start inside and then work their way to the outside of the plate and vice versa or the pitcher can "climb the ladder" by starting in the bottom of the strike zone and working their way up. No matter what strategy the pitcher uses, the important thing is changing location so that the batter can't predict what's coming next . I actually have first hand knowledge of how important it is for a pitcher to change location of pitches. I played against a pitcher when I was in Little League that was dominant in our small park league. This pitcher was one of the bigger kids in the league and was able to dominate a small league by throwing hard but without changing locations effectively-he more or less threw right down the middle. However, when we played in the district all-star tournament, this pitcher was no longer "the big fish in the small pond" and was up against some real competition. Back then as a youngster, I was shocked when this pitcher ended up with a 1-2 record in the tournament and gave up four homeruns! It wasn't until I was an adult that I was able to understand why this pitcher got hammered and it was because he did throw hard but he just did not change location of his pitches effectively.
#10 Mixing Pitches
A Little League coach should always remember that keeping the batter off balance and deception are essential to pitching success. If a pitcher always starts with a fastball down the middle or only throws their curve with an 0 and 2 or 1 and 2 count then over time these pitches may become extremely ineffective. Mixing pitches will allow a pitcher to be more unpredictable and more difficult for a batter to figure out. For example, if the pitcher uses their curveball to start against the first batter, with an 0 and 2 count against the second batter, doesn't use it against the third batter, and then throws it for strike 2 against the fourth batter then does the offense really know when the curve is going to be thrown? The answer is no and the result is a much more effective curveball. The same is true for the rest of the pitches in the pitcher's arsenal which includes located pitches. For example, a pitcher can develop a really effective high fastball but only if the batter doesn't know it's coming. If the batter knows then they will have a better chance of not chasing the pitch.
A Little League coach will want to develop complete pitchers and also develop a deep pitching staff. This is easier said then done. The coach will have to put in a lot of time and also must pay attention to detail ( especially when teaching/monitoring mechanics) when working on developing pitching. The coach must also understand that developing pitchers and a pitching staff should be ongoing throughout the season because like the saying goes- you can never have enough good pitching!