Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This Day in History: Ted Williams Bats .406

It was 70 years ago today that Ted Williams went 6 for 8 in a double-header on the final day of the regular season to take his batting average to .406. That's 70 years since anyone has topped .400 in the big leagues.

Despite being widely considered the greatest hitter of all time, I've never used Williams as a reference to teach young hitters. He had a considerable hitch in his swing - cocking his hands down and up during each pitch - not seen in many of today's hitters (Jon Jay of the Cardinals comes to mind, and surely there are others). That's the way many of the great ones have swung the bat, but it takes superior strength and quickness to get away with it. A youth player with a hitch like this is often late in getting his barrel to the ball. Or he doesn't get his hands back up enough and swings under the ball. That's why most coaches teach keeping it simple and taking the hands back when loading.

But with Williams, all the key components of a great rotational swing were there - the torquing of the hips, the braced front leg, the slightly upward swing plane. And the results were incredible. Here is a NY Times article about his 1941 season. There are some amazing stats on page 2 - like the fact that he only struck out 27 times; only three of his hits were of the infield variety; and he would have had an even higher average if sacrifice flies were not counted as at-bats like today. And he didn't even win the MVP.

The Power of Positive Thinking

I like this article by Sports Psychology Consultant Justin Su'a about the effect that negative thinking has on performance. It's one of many topics that Su'a discusses on his website.

I've been telling my hitting and pitching students for years that negative thinking - thinking about what you don't want to happen - has no place when you are trying to succeed at anything. If a pitcher is going into his windup thinking "Don't throw it high," what's he going to do? Throw it high, because that's what his brain was focused on.

The only way to get that negative thought out of his head is to replace it with a positive thought - like what he does want to happen - "throw it low." He can also think about the mechanics involved in throwing a lower pitch: get the chest out, reach out for the target and follow through low. Now his brain is focused on the result he wants and he has a much better chance of getting it.

The mental side of baseball plays a huge role at the youth level, especially on the mound. A player can have the best mechanics in the world, but unless he knows how to think positively, he may not get the results he wants.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bartman Revisited

ESPN Films is back tonight at 8:00 with a new documentary on the infamous 2003 NLCS Game 6 between the Cubs and Marlins. This was the "Bartman Game," when lifelong Cubs fan Steve Bartman's interference with Moises Alou's attempt to catch a foul ball in the 8th innning preceeded a historic collapse by the Cubs and a continued painful wait to reach the World Series for the first time since 1945.

The Marlins had an impressive lineup and the Cubs' pretty much mailed it in after the play (Moises Alou even made plane reservations home before Game 7), but Bartman was the scapegoat because his hands were the ones lucky enough to reach the ball. He's basically been in hiding ever since that night. It was a sad study on human behavior.

If this is anything like ESPN Films' previous work, it should be some good TV.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Energy Drinks Losing Steam in Baseball

Much has been written about the negative effects of energy drinks on young athletes. Their generally high levels of caffeine and carbohydrates have caused many experts to steer kids away from them.

While sports drinks work to hydrate the body, energy drinks can dehydrate an athlete. This has caused several professional baseball clubs to discourage their players from using energy drinks as a way to prep themselves for play, according to this USA Today article. Energy drinks are not considered performance enhancing drugs, nor are they on MLB's banned substances list, but their dehydration effects are alarming to many teams.

Perhaps pro ballplayers should at least pair that Red Bull with a tall glass of milk  It is not only considered to be healthier, but studies indicate that milk surprisingly hydrates the youngest athletes even better than water itself.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Science Behind Mariano Rivera's Cutter

Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees became the all-time saves leader yesterday. We already knew he was the best. Now he has the career numbers to back it up. What is amazing is that he has done it largely with one pitch - his cut fastball.

Here is a good video demonstration by the NY Times on how Rivera throws his cutter and why it is so effective. And this Sport Science piece further shows why it is so difficult to hit. The break is so late, the batter must commit to swing before he knows where it's going. That late break is a product of maximum rotation and just the right finger pressure on the ball. Every pitcher's hand and delivery is different. But through experimentation, Rivera was able to find a pitch that works quite well for him.

For more on just how hard a pitch like this is to see, here's another Sport Science video about a batter's vision and timing. This is why they say hitting a 90 mph fastball is the hardest thing to do in sports. Throw in Rivera's late movement and it's nearly impossible.

A Little Leaguer will probably not be able replicate Rivera's cutter. He just doesn't have enough distance to work with in order to get that much movement on a fastball. But understanding the importance of experimenting with fastball grips and the vital role that rotation plays on movement are both valuable lessons for young pitchers today.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

In Through the Nose, Out Through the Mouth

Here's an article by sports psychotherapist and performance consultant, Dr. Keith Wilson, about performance anxiety in youth sports. Wilson says that in order to help young athletes manage the nerves and stress associated with competition, we can teach them to use certain breathing techniques that will help them relax on the field.

Nervous players add to their own stress level by taking shorter breaths. Less oxygen enters the blood stream. More carbon dioxide stays in. This leads to fatigued, tense muscles. Tension slows down movement. The end result is a breakdown of proper mechanics. The pitcher cannot throw strikes. The batter swings late - if he swings at all.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling with a purpose before the pitch is thrown will relax the player and make him more comfortable. Comfort leads to confidence. The player is quick and mechanically sound. Success is more likely and the experience is more enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Angry Coaches

The opening of Greg Covi's Mom's Team article, Why So Many Coaches Have Anger Issues, pretty much says it all:

"This is real simple to answer: because they're not as good of teachers as they think they are."

But as Covi says, there is more to it....

Thursday, September 8, 2011

More On Hand Separation and Stephen Strasburg

Here's a link to an MLB Diamond Demo by Al Leiter and John Smoltz about hand separation and the position of the elbows and hands during a pitcher's stride. This is on the heels of the Washington Nationals' Stephen Strasburg's impressive return this week from Tommy John surgery.

As I noticed myself on Tuesday night, Leiter and Smoltz say that the "inverted W" that some think may have contributed to Strasburg's UCL tear is still present in his mechanics, but the violence of his arm action has been slightly toned down.

Smoltz demonstrates in the video a drill that he performed during his own rehab period from Tommy John. This looks like a great way for young pitchers to reinforce proper hand separation at an early age, so they don't have to make major changes down the road.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Importance of Proper Hand Separation

Here's a good three minute discussion by Dan Gazaway of The Pitching Academy about one of the most fundamental parts of the throwing motion: hand separation.

At the youth level, this is one of the most often flawed parts of a player's mechanics. Many kids take the ball up and out of their glove, directly behind the ear, which leads to pushing the baseball forward. The result is a lack of power and additional stress on the shoulder.

More than half of my young pitching students spend time correcting this flaw. And throwing mechanics are not easy to correct once the bad habits are entrenched. If they can learn at about the tee ball level or even younger how to correctly separate the hands (like in the picture of Tommy Hanson above) with fingers on top, thumbs down and plams out, it would help them avoid this trouble down the road.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"They Are Not Your Players. You Are Their Coach."

The heading above is a quote from a series of articles by Doug Abrams titled Who Owns Youth Sports?  The series is posted on Rick Wolff's informative blog, Ask Coach Wolff.  In these articles, Abrams has explored the "adultification" of youth sports and reflects on the days of sandlot ball - back when kids roamed free and there was available land for their use.

Abrams acknowledges that those days are long gone in most metropolitan areas. Adult supervision is here to stay. But he urges youth coaches and leagues to consider implementing the best of both worlds - allow the kids to experience the fun of creating, managing and playing their own games while doing so in a safe environment with adult supervision and expert instruction.

Here are the articles. They are a good read.

Who Owns Youth Sports?  (Part 1)
Who Owns Youth Sports?  (Part 2)
Who Owns Youth Sports?  (Part 3)

The Kevin Williams Foundation

Below is the story of the Kevin Williams Memorial Foudation, inspired by a family's love of baseball and the New York Yankees. There are many connections between 9/11 and baseball. Baseball provided some incredible moments and lasting memories during a tragic time.