Monday, September 26, 2016

Jose Fernandez Showed Us How to Enjoy the Game

The death of Jose Fernandez was a shock. Not just because he was a great pitcher and a rising star in Major League Baseball. But Fernandez showed what could be great about baseball and was such a good example for young players watching. He really loved the game and enjoyed playing it. He smiled on the mound. Think about that - how many pro pitchers do you see who are so happy and comfortable in their own skin that they smile on the mound? 

I think that's how the game should be. I think the fans would prefer it. I think players perform better when they relax and enjoy it. Every pitch is a challenge, not a threat to your well-being. Fernandez was the greatest example of that perspective on the game. His death is a huge loss for many reasons. But it's particularly sad to think that a generation of kids won't see a shining star like Jose openly enjoying the game like he did.

Too many young players carry the weight of their world on their shoulders when they play. It's all or nothing. They succeed and everything is great. They fail and it's all over - tears, anger, tension. I'm sick of it. We've created a culture in youth baseball filled with pressure - as if what happens in a 12-year-old game really matters. Guys like Fernandez showed that it's okay to relax and have fun, and take it for what it is - a game. 

So I hope we never forget Jose Fernandez. He was a big kid with amazing talent who competed fiercely - but enjoyed competing fiercely. And he wasn't afraid to show it. What a sad day. But when the sadness eases, let's remember that smile. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Five Ways an Incorrect Load Leads to an Incorrect Swing

A good coach I know and respect told me after one of our clinics last year that when he works with a group of kids learning to hit, the first thing he does is spread them around the room and have them practice setting up and loading correctly. It makes sense. You start from the beginning - the stance and load - and learn a correct starting point for the swing.

It seems the more I work with young hitters, the more I see a problem in this department. It is rare that I have a kid naturally load correctly and return to the proper hitting position. So I've started doing the same thing. My hitting clinics and initial lessons usually begin with working on how to correctly set up in an athletic stance, load the hips, and then return to a hitting position with the front foot down before any shoulder rotation or forward movement of the hands takes place. Boring stuff. But vitally important to the swing. And I'm always amazed at how difficult this seemingly simple act can be for young hitters.

Here is AL Rookie of the Year, Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, doing it well:

Athletic stance, load the hips and return to a hitting (launch) position.

The batter loads to create energy. You go back to go forward. You have to do it if you want to hit the ball with any force. But so much can go wrong with young players' mechanics while loading. The head, wrists, elbows, shoulders, feet - anything - can move incorrectly during this time. It is very common with younger, physically weaker players. And it's a chain reaction. If one body part moves the wrong way during the load or return, it will likely be positioned incorrectly at contact.

As a youth instructor working with players ranging from about 7-15-years-old, I try to keep things pretty simple. Simple, meaning less moving parts, so less can go wrong and more can go right. It's very mechanical and scientific. To me, hitting is not an art. It's a science. It's physics. Force against force. I want to teach my players to have the best chance to put some direct force into the ball.

After a young hitter gets a simple, correct swing down, we dial back the mechanics talk a bit and try to loosen up and let the athleticism and energy flow. This energy is created in the load. But if the hitter has flaws in his load and doesn't return to the correct body positioning when the front heel plants, that energy won't be directed into the ball correctly. What follows will likely be a flawed swing.

Here are a few of the most common flaws I see in the load and return that will cause an incorrect swing. This assumes the player starts from an athletic stance, feet somewhat wide, hands near the back shoulder, knob pointing down at or in front of the catcher's feet...

Monday, March 30, 2015

Another Call for Pitcher Safety in Youth Baseball

I wrote this article a year and a half ago regarding player safety. It includes a video of my son nearly getting killed by a line drive.

Today, I am proud of our league, Myers Park Trinity Little League, for mandating protective head gear and chest protection for its Major League division pitchers. Each team's pitchers are using the IsoBlox Skull Cap. And many players are using the Evoshield Heart Guard. We just had our first Saturday of games using this equipment, and things went very smoothly. I've heard nothing but support. The players are adjusting quickly and the parents are happy. The only negative sentiment has been that composite bats are still allowed.

It's time for Little League International and other youth baseball organizations to step up and do the same thing that our league has done in mandating head gear and chest protection for pitchers. I believe they should also back up the mound for all player pitch divisions, ban all composite bats and mandate the use of BBCOR youth bats to limit how hard a baseball can be struck.

The game is different than it was years ago. Some of the players are huge. The composite bats they are swinging, with more mechanical training than ever before - the ones that are tested and approved by Little League (yes, the bright orange and green ones) - shoot rockets through the infield. I see it every game.

Little League, in particular, prides itself on being a leader in safety. It's time to lead. Do something.

For more on this issue, please read my previous article:
It's Time for Some Safety Upgrades in Youth Baseball

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Throwing With a Purpose

At our January youth pitching clinic, Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell discusses the importance of working on mechanics when throwing with a partner. This should be considered an essential part of the warm-up process during team practices. Developing proper throwing mechanics are a must for young players.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

MLK Day Pitching Clinic a Success

We had a big turnout and some very positive feedback at the free MLK Day Pitching Clinic at Myers Park Trinity. Dozens of young players and several eager coaches attended to talk mechanics and arm care.

Thanks so much to the great coaches who volunteered their time to join me in our efforts to teach some fundamentals to the kids. This is a special group of guys with a clear passion for the game: Jack McDowell, our headliner, who was outstanding; Mike Hennessey, varsity coach at Country Day; Josh Thomas, our strength and conditioning coach; Greg Wilcox, MP coach and former pro pitcher; and my usual crew of loyal and outstanding fellow coaches and alumni - Rich Fennell, Allen Sherman, Nick Harding, Maxwell Purdy and Gregory Purdy. Here are some pictures from a great day:

Jack McDowell discusses throwing mechanics with all age groups.

Jack McDowell works with a young pitcher in the bullpen.

Mike Hennessey talks pitching with a group of 12-year-olds.

It was a great experience to learn from one of the best.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

MLK Day Pitching Clinic

*** This clinic is now full. In order to have an effective session, we feel that we need to limit the number of registrations. Very sorry to anyone still looking for a spot. We hope to do more in the future.***

I'm excited to announce my first clinic of 2014 - a preseason youth pitching clinic for MPTLL baseball players with a Little League age of 9-12. The event will take place on Wade Field at Randolph Park on Martin Luther King Day - this Monday, January 20th from 12:00-2:00 pm.

The overall topic will be Pitching, but will include three important parts:

1. Throwing Mechanics - hand separation, ball positioning, glove tuck.
2. Pitching Mechanics - balance, stride, release point, follow through.
3. Strength and Conditioning - preseason throwing, band work, dumbbells, core strength.

The clinic is FREE, although it is requested that families consider using this time to donate any gently used baseball or softball equipment they may no longer have a use for, to be distributed by the league to children who cannot afford new equipment. Such items may include bats, gloves, gear bags, cleats, catcher equipment, batting helmets, or other equipment. We would also like to collect new baseballs to distribute. Any kid would love to be given a brand new, crisp, white baseball.

Lead instructors will include....

Brandon Merchant:
Youth Pitching and Hitting Instructor, MPTLL All-Star Pitching Coach.

Mike Hennessey
Pitching, Hitting and Fielding Instructor, CCDS Varsity Head Coach.

Josh Thomas:
Private Strength and Conditioning Coach, CCDS Middle School Head Coach.

Rich Fennell:
MPTLL All-Star Pitching Coach.

And last, but certainly not least, we are thrilled to have....

Jack McDowell:
Former MLB Pitcher, 1993 American League Cy Young Award Winner.

If your aspiring pitcher plans to attend, please let me know as soon as possible by email. Make sure to include your name and contact number, your son's name and Little League age (as of April 30, 2014). This clinic is for Myers Park Trinity baseball players with LL ages of 9 through 12. If the numbers get too large, we will have to cut it off and plan an additional clinic in the future. If you are interested in private instruction, please visit my Lessons page.

On the day of the clinic, players should bring their own water, a baseball glove and warm clothing if necessary. We encourage parents to attend and listen in from the bleachers if they are able to.

See you at the fields.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Baseball Gift Ideas For the Last Minute Shopper

Only one week left to shop, but here's what I would get a youth player that is serious about baseball, whether it's for Christmas or not....

1. Bats - More specifically a new bat that's not overpriced. I like to shop at, a discount site that sells great bats at very low prices. They are usually last year's models, which means they have a different paint job from the ones that came out recently. I like most DeMarini's, Eastons - although they tend to break after a long season - and Combats. If you want a great composite youth bat that is approved by Little League, they have a DeMarini CF5 for $140. Or if you want to spend less and get an alloy, the DeMarini Voodoo is another good option for $60. Make sure the bat you want is approved by your organization before purchasing. Here is the Little League list of approved composite barreled bats. Alloys are fine.

2. A Tee and a Net - Not the most exciting thing in the world, but having a tee and a net in the backyard is a great thing for a kid working on his swing. I have a Tanner Tee and love it. It is durable, easy to set up, and fits in a backpack. I use a small one and it extends plenty for taller players.

3. A Fielding Pad - These things are a great way to practice infield grounders. It's basically a flat glove that forces the player to use two hands and field the ball correctly. I just roll balls to my team and they get in the habit of doing it the right way. I saw them in-store at Dick's Sporting Goods, but they are obviously online too.

4. A New Glove - A quality glove takes a while to break in, so don't wait until the beginning of the season. There's nothing like a Wilson A2000, Nokona, Rawlings or other brand new glove under the tree. I also came across a custom glove company, Rico, that will make just about any color combination you want. They'll also stitch on the player's name and put an American flag on there. Pretty sweet. Make sure you get the right size and glove type for your player.

5. Lessons - Yeah, I had to put this one on here. Start the season right with a little knowledge and pre-season training.

6. Books - Speaking of knowledge, how about a book on hitting or pitching? This is probably for the older players or the coaches, but you can learn just about everything you need to know from Mike Epstein on Hitting, John Bagonzi's The Act of Pitching or any of the H.A. Dorfman books on the mental side of the game.

7. A Bat Bag - Most kids like backpack bags these days. They are easy to carry around and fit things like shoes and helmets better than the old over the shoulder long bags.

8. Coldgear - We think of baseball as a warm weather sport, but the first month is usually pretty cold. Having some Under Armour or Nike coldgear shirts or pants is key.

9. Batting Gloves - A great stocking stuffer. I like the ones with extra padding on the palm for durability and to absorb some of the vibration off the bat. I've bought three pairs of these Eastons for the kid over the years. That's from Baseball Savings - another good discount site to find a lot of the stuff mentioned above.

Good luck. Post a comment with any questions. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

It's Time For Some Safety Upgrades in Youth Baseball

We had an interesting situation over the weekend in our Little League Fall Ball game, where one of our base runners  kept losing his helmet. Whether the helmet was too big or the player's head was too small, it fell off his head while he was running to 2nd base, and then again while rounding 3rd. The umpire called time said he would eject the player, or any other player on the team, if it happened again. I was shocked that he would threaten such a severe action for something that was clearly unintentional. But it was a safety concern - and a legitimate one. Bad things can happen.
The video below shows how my son's final game on my team ended for him. In the 1st inning, he somehow hit a triple. A minute later while standing on 3rd base, he was struck in the head by a hard line drive. He was 60 feet away and the ball shot off the bat of one of our best hitters like a rocket. As you can see and hear in the video, it was almost instant. My son had just enough time to turn his face away from the ball and he was struck just in front of the left ear hole of his helmet. The impact slammed the inside of the helmet into the side of his head and cheek bone. But he was extremely lucky, by about an inch and a half. He was deemed okay by the emergency room doctors.

This video was shot by me - it was a meaningless last game, and I wanted to capture some memories of our departing 12-year-olds. I obviously don't like watching this, but I consider it a wake-up call worth sharing.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Leadership a Key Ingredient of Success

I've thought from time to time over the years about what made up the most successful teams I've coached. The great teams have of course had talent - especially on the mound and at the plate. Youth baseball is primarily about pitching and hitting. Those teams have also had good, athletic catchers, a solid shortstop and second baseman, and an aggressive center fielder who could fly. These physical talents can be impressive to see.

But there are some "intangibles" that you can't always see that are just as important to a team that wants to go far. One of these is leadership. Without leadership within the team itself, the desire to win is often not fulfilled. Every team wants success. A team with player leadership can make it happen.

As a coach I want to drive my teams to victory. I want to be the captain of the ship and steer the team in the right direction. But I've learned over the years that with a team, leadership must also come from the players themselves. There comes a point in each season when you need to let the players take the wheel and steer the ship. As I look back, the teams I've had without veteran leadership did not achieve their goals. The teams with players that held themselves and their teammates accountable for practicing hard, improving and giving their best effort at all times have been the ones that could accomplish almost anything. The ones that would take the wheel and not veer off course were the ones that stood above the rest. 

Many kids don't truly know how to be a leader. Leadership is not just telling your teammates what to do. Yes, it certainly helps to have a vocal leader that is willing to speak up when necessary. But leading by example is perhaps more valuable. 

In baseball and other sports, a veteran leader can help his team by showing younger players how to carry themselves on the field. He can show them his effort and his work ethic. He can show them his attitude and sportsmanship. He can show them when to have fun and when to be serious. And he doesn't just lead when things are going well for him personally. He leads his teammates whether or not he is having personal success at the moment.

This type of leadership means more to young players than any coach telling the team how to act or what to do. Young players will often model the behavior of older players on the team, for better or worse. They can be a positive influence and guide a team to greatness. Or they can be a negative influence and allow a team to fall apart.

So I like to look for veteran players each season that have the personality and self-confidence required to be a good leader. I encourage them to speak up to their teammates. But I mainly want them to lead by example.