“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”
– Michael Jordan
Ahh. the wisdom of MJ. He’s always someone to look up to and listen to when it comes to competing at the highest level and what it takes to get there. I took a look at this quote of his a little while back, and I realized it was only partly true when it comes to pitching.
Yes, it’s critical that you practice good habits when playing catch, throwing bullpens, doing drill work, and pitching to hitters. It’s very easy to build bad habits while in the moment of those activities.
Yes, Michael has it right when he says that if you develop solid fundamentals, everything else will improve. This can easily apply to any sport, including baseball and throwing a baseball.
Where this quote can’t be applied to pitching, however, is the simple fact that a person just can’t physically throw a baseball for 8 hours a day. Michael Jordan can shoot free throws for 8 hours but I can pitch or play catch for 8 hours. My arm would be shot and I would never pitch again or lift my hand above my shoulder.
So with this information, it is of utmost importance that pitchers get the most out each throwing session. If we want to consistently make improvements, develop new pitches, and eliminate poor mechanics each and every time we pick up a baseball, there must be ridiculous efficiency for there to be an upward trend in development. Unfortunately, nearly all of today’s young pitchers don’t understand what that means. They simply play catch with reckless abandon and no focus. Before you know it they are done with nothing to show for their efforts or lack there of. That leads me into this post where I’ll hit on three of the biggest issues I see when kids go out to play catch, and the improvements to correct and focus their efforts, ensuring positive gains each time they pick up a ball.
1.) Kids don’t have a clear-cut goal for most or any of their throwing sessions. Each and every time we throw a baseball, it counts a throwing session. There are only so many times we will be able to pick up that ball to practice or compete, so each time is truly important. I wish I knew this when I was younger, as I only appreciated how precious those opportunities to play catch were when I was sidelined with Tommy John surgery last year. That puts it into perspective alright. Most young pitchers I know just start winging the ball around without the slightest idea on what they are working on. Playing catch isn’t just to get loose or get your arm in shape, its to develop as a pitcher or player.
Solution- Have a clear-cut goal before you touch a baseball. Whether it’s to simply work on a truer four-seam fastball or something more advanced like throwing a cutter with later and tighter spin, it doesn’t matter. Be honest with yourself and what you need to work on, and make each and every throw a dedicated effort towards that goal of improving what you set out to improve. We only have so many bullets in our arms. Make them count!!
Here’s a quote I picked up from a book called, The Big Miss, by Hank Haney, Tiger Woods’ former swing coach…..
“I never once saw Tiger Woods hit a careless shot in practice in all my years coaching him.”
2.) Pitchers tend to get off-line when playing catch. Almost every pitcher has been guilty of this at some point. We think we are in line with our throwing partner, but if we don’t have any frame of reference (see solution below), then our mind and body will compensate with poor form without even realizing.
Quick Story In 2008, at class A Rome, we as pitchers threw at our home stadium from a mound that was 3.5 inches off-line towards the first base side. It never felt right as a left-handed pitcher. I was constantly fighting my body to get to the inside part of the plate, instead leaving balls over the middle with too much regularity. Even hitting the outside corner was more difficult. All 5 of the starting pitchers that year happened to be left-handed also. They too gradually started noticing the same issues in their delivery. Once all of us got together and spoke up to the team, front office, and eventually the grounds crew, the revelation was made that we were pitching off-line as a result of a newly installed mound that went in before the season started. The statistics from home games and away games were astounding, and once fixed, everything I wanted to accomplish on the mound became much more consistent.
So why the heck do most pitchers practice off-line most of the time? Well for one, we normally play catch in outfield grass without any hash marks or anything to guide us. We aren’t in a cage anymore where we can lay down tape or something of that sort. We still must find a way to throw online each and every time. Here’s how.
Solution- First, make sure your partner puts something at his feet that will remain there for the entire throwing session. Then, walk off from there in a straight line to the established starting distance you have set. Align cones, baseballs, or anything that you have a pair of that you can set on the ground by the middle of your back foot in a straight line to the estimated landing spot of your front foot. When you want to move back, simply move the cones or objects back, and line them up again. So always..always..ALWAYS make sure every throw is done so with proper alignment toward your target.
Pro Tip- Whenever possible, throw at a football field with hash marks. This will spare the extra work in setting up cones. It will also build consistency in the delivery, because now you have visual aid to see where your stride food lands each time.
3.) Most kids are never physically prepared to throw a baseball once they pick one up. It must be over 90 percent of young baseball players that have played and continue to play catch without properly warming up their body and arm first. It absolutely is a contributing factor in injuries to young pitchers. It’s astounding to me how many kids think its ok to just come straight from the car and expect to sling the ball around with max effort right away. It doesn’t work that way my friends. Pitching is one of the most demanding movements in all of sports. Treat it that way. Prepare yourself accordingly.
Solution- I am a firm believer in getting a sweat going before you pick up a baseball with any intention of throwing it. At the very least, do some sprints and jumping jacks until you’re body temp gets up. My two priorities before I pitch or toss are………..
A.) Make sure I’m sweating and my body feels primed. Check out my favorite exercises to get ready here.
B.) Make sure I get my arm firing from exercises first, not throwing first. My go-to’s are push up variations (see vid below), shoulder stabilizations, tubing, and body blade (only for the purpose of getting loose to throw, not training).
From all the years as a kid playing baseball, I wonder sometimes how much better I would be if I know what I do now about the importance of throwing with intent, throwing online to a target, and preparing my body for the demands of pitching. It’s not a regret, it’s only a wonder and an opprotunity to share what I’ve learned through the years for the benefit of you readers.
If you’re a young baseball player reading….Make each throw with a purpose.…Throw on line every single time…and make sure you have a sweat going before you touch a ball. If you do these 3 things consistently, you’ll improve at a much higher rate than everyone else.