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.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Beating the Shift

I enjoyed this article today by Joe Posnanski on the value of bunting to beat a defensive shift in the big leagues. The video he references of Robinson Cano bunting down the left field line for a double is priceless. Why don't more batters learn that skill and take advantage of the opportunity to get on base for their team when the situation calls for it? Posnanski suggests one reason is that bunting is considered embarrassing for a power hitter. So the hitter's ego prevents him from doing it - as in "I hit home runs. I don't bunt." He likens a power hitter bunting against the shift to former NBA player Rick Barry lofting underhanded "granny style" free throws in order to shoot a higher percentage from the line. It would take some guts for a player to decide to do that now.

Batters must hate the shift. They can scorch a ball through the infield dirt, only to be thrown out by the second baseman from shallow right field. That must be so frustrating. But batters have the power to end the shift. Start laying down bunts occasionally, take the base hit the other team is giving you, and the shift goes away. Frustration gone. Back to regular baseball. 

Better yet - become a well-rounded hitter. Let the ball travel and stay inside it so you can hit to all fields. That's why Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter in the game. He doesn't just launch home runs to left field. Look at his spray chart for this season at Comerica Park. Dude hits it everywhere. As a result, he spreads out the defense. He has made it so that he is able to get hits all over the field. He has more square inches of grass (or seats) to work with than most guys do.

Think about why teams put the shift on in the first place. They are taking advantage of a hitter's inability to do more than one thing well. He may be able to turn on a pitch over the inner half of the plate - and he can do that really well - but that's about it. He casts his hands and gets the barrel around the outer half of the ball so often, it's a no-brainer for the pitcher to go away. If the pitcher can hit the outside corner, it's weak contact most of the time. Or they can just put the shift on because they know where the ball is most likely to go. The odds are in the defense's favor even more so than usual because the hitter's usable field is smaller.

That's why a guy like Dan Uggla, for example, is hitting .181. He has 22 home runs, but I don't know that 22 is enough to cover for a .181 average. Uggla is too one dimensional right now. He's too pull-happy. He simply cannot, or will not, stay inside the ball. He's actually a good candidate for a left side shift with no runners on. Why not? According to his spray chart for Turner Field this season, he has hit only 2 ground balls to the second baseman.

The home run is obviously still a valuable stat. And the pull side is a power zone for many hitters. But the stat geeks are spending more time praising on-base percentage. It has been statistically proven to be significantly valuable. So I expect a "shift" in the typical power hitter's approach over the next several years. I think we'll see more bunting against the shift, and more well-rounded hitters. But first, they've got to check their ego and be willing to shoot a few granny shots for the sake of the team.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

"I Miss My Guys"

I saw a tweet from LLWS Team Canada Manager, Mark Keeping, the other day that said quite simply, "I miss my guys. #summerisntlongenough." I know the feeling. When you form a special bond with a group of players, almost no matter how young, like Coach Keeping surely did, you don't want summer to end.

If you do it long enough, there are special groups for every youth coach. I think it often happens when your own kids are not on the team. You don't have the balancing act of being both a parent and a coach. It's like this second family that you spend a couple of hours with at your home away from home doing only what you love - for me, baseball. 

Compared to the "real world," it can seem almost too good to be true. Jake Wade, who has coached in our league since literally before the space race, once said of it, "In our league everybody wins. Everything is good and right as it should be. One can leave the real world and go out there and get refreshed." Jake should know, after almost six decades. When you're coaching a team of 12-year-olds, you aren't concerned with any issues waiting for you in the "real world." It's a kid world, and you just do your best to make it a positive experience for them. Jake has been there. He has his guys. 

And when you start advancing along the road to Williamsport, or wherever you are trying to go, it only gets better. You work toward a common goal with your guys and start having success, and it can be an amazing thing. The coaches become more and more a part of the team. Everyone is dreaming big together. Start traveling to tournaments and spend a few days in a hotel with your guys, for better or worse, and you're creating memories that last a lifetime. 

Coach Keeping made it all the way. I can't imagine the powerful emotions and memories he has going through his head right now. I bet he misses his guys real bad. We made it to the Southeast Regionals this summer and it was tough to say goodbye when it ended. I know our main coaches, Josh and Wish, are missing their guys. 

And I miss my guys too. I'm missing me some Mighty Joe and Babe, Mikey and the Mayor. I'm missing Sam and Fonz and Colin and Martin. The list goes on and on. We connect with so many young lives through competition and striving to reach goals together over the years. The kids and their families affect our own lives in such a positive way. It is refreshing indeed. I want that feeling over and over again. That's why I keep coming back for more. 


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

What We Can't See On TV - Swing Path

When pro ball players hit a baseball a long way on TV it often seems that the batter just threw his barrel at the ball and "caught it good." Take a look at Evan Gattis of the Atlanta Braves. He is big and strong and can crush the ball. He just throws his big ol' bat at the ball and blasts it, right? At least that's what it looks like in full speed:

But hitting a baseball in the big leagues is one of the quickest actions in all of sports. Unless analyzed in super slow motion, we can't really see the details of what happened.

I teach youth players to try to swing like what we can't see on TV - not always an easy task. That's why video analysis is so key. We use it in the cage, but we also need to do it when watching a game at home. The DVR helps - I occasionally like to rewind a great hit and enjoy it frame by frame. But YouTube helps even more. There are countless slow motion videos showing quality hitting and pitching mechanics for young players to try for themselves.

I think one of the main things we can't see on TV, because of both the camera angle and the speed of the live footage, is swing path - the path the bat takes to best get to the ball. Almost any pro ball player does it correctly, but it's often difficult to see this important aspect of the swing.

After a Dream Summer, Back to Basics

Spring was successful. Summer was a dream come true - an NC State Championship and a trip to the Little League Southeast Regional in Warner Robins, GA - albeit as a fill-in pitching coach.

Now it's time for Fall Ball, an instruction league that serves as the beginning of the youth baseball year for many players. It's a time to focus on the very basic mechanics of the game. These were my thoughts last year, and they still are. Meanwhile, back to writing new material.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Prepare for Youth Tryouts

This one is probably worth a repost this time of year. From 2-23-12....

Little League tryouts are this weekend for several youth organizations in our area. We call them "skills evaluations" because there are no cuts - everyone is placed on a team. It just might not be a Major League team.

For someone like me that has gone through the tryout and draft process as a coach for many years, this article by Chris Sullivan of Seattle's KIRO FM is a fun read. His account of the Mill Creek Little League tryouts is pretty similar to the way things are in our league.

I love tryouts. Baseball is back, and as the saying goes, hope springs eternal. But it can be a nervous time for the kids. So here are some thoughts on how to approach tryouts:
  • Shake off the rust before tryout day. If you want to do your best and show what kind of player you really are, don't let tryouts be your first day playing baseball since last season. Practice hitting and fielding especially. Work out the kinks ahead of time.
  • Dress the part. Show the coaches, many of whom don't know you, that you are a ballplayer. Wear a hat, baseball pants and baseball cleats if possible.
  • Arrive early and warm up - the legs, the arm, maybe even take a few swings in the cage. You don't want to be tight when you're trying to show how athletic you are or how strong your arm is, etc.
  • Be prepared to see coaches with clipboards in hand, sitting all over the field, watching your every move. They are scoring tryouts so they can choose players. Try to ignore them and focus on your game.
  • Coach yourself. As you wait for your turn to perform an activity, remind yourself of what you've been taught about that activity - head down, two hands, bend the knees, close your shoulder - whatever the case may be.
  • Relax. Tension prevents you from being quick, flexible and mechanically sound. Remind yourself to breathe. Shake out the tension. Remember that it's just a game. Dress warmly so you're not shivering with tension.
  • Have fun, but don't goof off. Waiting in line for your turn can be boring, but coaches notice the kids flipping hats and not paying attention. Don't be a hat-flipper. Be a ballplayer.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Baseball For Life - Free Coaches Clinic

For the local Charlotte area folks.....

If you plan to coach a youth baseball team this spring, do yourself a favor and attend the Baseball For Life FREE Coaches Clinic on February 10, 2013 from 1:00-4:00 at Weddington High School. This clinic is for youth coaches of all levels, including ages 8 & under, 9-12 and 13 & over. Topics will include practice planning, drills, arm care and how best to teach fundamentals like throwing mechanics, hitting, pitching and more. There is no cost to attend, but you must register online.

I personally know some of the coaches involved with Baseball For Life and this clinic. They are not only knowledgeable baseball coaches, but they are good men. Led by Ed Walton and Mike Hennessey of Charlotte Country Day School and Mike Shildt of the St. Louis Cardinals organization, among others, Baseball For Life is an organization committed to promoting the game. But more importantly, it is a non-profit mentoring program dedicated to enhancing the lives of young people that need it most. I will share more information regarding that aspect of the organization at a later time. I plan to be involved myself.

For now, check out the Baseball For Life website and register for the Coaches Clinic if you plan to attend. Part of being a good coach is learning. We tell our players to never be satisfied with how good they are and never stop improving. We should do the same. Whether you are a professional or a tee ball coach, the better we all get at teaching the game, the better the game will be.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Selected Reading Material 1-18-13

A Sobering Look at Why I am Barely a Partying Sports Parent by Meagan Frank, Choosing to Grow: For the Sport of It  -  Thoughts on the abundance of alcohol being openly consumed by parents on some youth sports trips. I've been there. These trips can be like mini-vacations for the parents, and therefore an excuse to party. Great post. It took guts to write this.

Do You Have the Necessary Coaching Skills? by Jack Perconte, Baseball Coaching Tips  -  Time for a little self evaluation. Not everyone should be coaching young athletes.

Encourage Your Child to Participate in Multiple Sports by Jeffrey Rhoads, Inside Youth Sports  -  The benefits of playing more than just your primary sport. I would add - just don't try to do everything in one season. Some kids are spread too thin.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Importance of the Batting Stance in Youth Baseball

I usually hesitate to change the batting stances of youth players. I figure having a little style at the plate is one of the fun parts of the game. Ball players like to maintain some of their own unique identity. Just ask this guy. And besides - what matters is that everything is in the proper position when the front heel plants. Just ask this guy.

But at some point, an incorrect batting stance can hinder a player's swing, especially a young player. Here are some basic parts of a good batting stance that will help lead to a good swing:

The Feet: I like a wide stance - several inches wider than the shoulders. This helps to eliminate any tendencies to drift forward with the upper body, lunge with the front knee, or step out. The batter can just tap the front foot for timing and stay back. There is no real stride forward. But most importantly, a wide stance gives the knees enough clearance from each other for the back knee to bend 90 degrees. This makes it more possible for the upper body and head to stay back behind the ball at contact on a line with the braced front leg. This positioning allows for a correct, slightly upward swing plane. Young players who

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Q&A: Correcting Common Swing Flaws With Youth Softball (and Baseball) Players

I got the following question from my friend, Anonymous, in the comment section of this post about muscle memory this morning. My answer got so long, I figured I would just make it a separate blog entry.

Hi Brandon. I watched a lot of your hitting swing analysis with your younger players and they all seem to have very good hip rotation and a long follow through with their swings. I coach a travel 16u fastpitch team and experience a lot of girls with: 1. hips not fully rotating, 2. leaning forward after contact, & 3. not fully finishing their swings. Any suggested drill you can recommend for each of the 3 scenarios? Thanks much.

I'm actually not that big on drills. There are a few that I use, but as you can see from the videos, I love using the tee. Hitters can work on swing mechanics and building correct muscle memory without worrying about timing or location. So we do tees at the beginning of each session, analyze videos together, and then go back to the tee to make adjustments. Those videos on my YouTube channel are mostly for the parents so that we are all on the same page. The players have already seen them plenty, so I don't upload all of them.

I also like front side short toss from behind a screen so we can put that adjusted swing to use on a moving, but easily controllable target. There is some overhand stuff, but really not that much. Once the player learns the swing, I just try to focus on one adjustment at a time, using a set of particular key words or phrases corresponding to each issue. Using tees and short-toss lets us work on specific areas over and over.

Now... finally... my thoughts on your 3 issues:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Little League Rule Changes for 2013

Little League Baseball posted it's annual rules and regulations changes over the holidays. This is a big year for the international organization, as its new Intermediate (50-70) Division will begin play in the spring. Here are some other modifications recently announced:

Regulation IV (d) - Pitching:  In the seventh year of its pitch count regulation, Little League has amended it to allow regular season and tournament ("all-star") pitchers to surpass any particular pitch count / days of rest threshold (20, 35, 50, 65 or 85 for age 14 and under) during an opponent's at-bat without incurring additional days of rest. For example, a pitcher may throw his 35th pitch to a particular batter, continue pitching to that batter until his plate appearance has ended, then be removed as a pitcher, and he will only be required to rest the standard one calendar day pertaining to the 35-pitch threshold. Prior to this rule change, pitchers were only allowed to surpass their total allowed threshold (85) in order to finish a batter. While in some extreme cases, this change could create an unhealthy situation for a pitcher's arm, overall I think it's a good decision. This will speed up games by increasing the odds that a team will finish an inning without having to stop the game for a pitching change.

Tournament Eligibility Affidavit:  Language was added requiring a minimum of 12 rostered players on tournament (all-star) teams, unless the local District Administrator deems the league to have a justifiable reason for having fewer. I think this is a good rule. Not only does it mandate that leagues provide the all-star experience to more players.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Selected Reading Material 1-7-13

The Importance of Core Strength for Young Athletes by Jodi Murphy, Outside the Lines / SportsSignup  -  A look at the importance of strengthening the core, a vital part of the kinetic chain.

Travel Teams: The Time Has Come for Some Real Reform by Rick Wolff, Ask Coach Wolff  -  "Why do we even allow travel teams for kids before they’re in middle school?"... "Hasn’t the time finally come to inject some sanity and start to eliminate some of this madness?"

10 New Year's Resolutions for Sports Parents: Time for a Fresh Start by Janis Meredith, JBM Thinks  -  Great advice for 2013. A list to remember.

If This Looks Familiar...

.... sign your kid up for a lesson.