It’s no secret that as a pitcher you want to be able to consistently throw all of your pitches in the strike zone. If you can throw the ball in the zone then you will be able to throw pitches out of the strike zone when needed as well. But simply telling a pitcher, “Hey, you need to be able to throw all of your pitches in the strike zone” is great advice, but it doesn’t help the pitcher actually do it. Coach Ron Wolforth likes to equate phrases such as that with this life advice, “You should marry a pretty, rich girl.” Great advice, but how the heck do you do that?

The best way for a pitcher to learn how to execute his pitches in the strike zone is by practicing to do just that. Yes, I am aware that every pitcher practices, whether it is throwing bullpens or flat grounds or long tossing. But, like any task you want to master, such as command of your pitches, it requires focused, deliberate practice. I can’t tell you how many bullpens I have watched where it seemed like the pitcher was throwing just to throw. It was like the pitcher was simply checking off a box on a list that he had to finish before going home. Often the purpose of these bullpens were described by the pitcher, or a coach, as “working up a lather” or “getting a feel for my pitches” or some other vague phrase, which carries absolutely no meaning. To me, when I hear athletes say things like that it indicates to me that this player has no specific goal or focus for that day’s practice. I wrote a blog a while back discussing the importance of “deliberate practice” and I encourage you to read it if you haven’t already had the chance.

But even if you have the specific intent and are “deliberately practicing” with the goal of improving the command of all your pitches, most drills do not provide the type of feedback that is most needed in order to make immediate adjustments in order to improve the quality of your practice. Take throwing a bullpen to a catcher, for example. You want to throw a fastball to the outside corner of the plate and the catcher sets up there. You deliver the pitch and the catcher catches the ball and then throws it back to you. Did your ball cross the outside corner? Was it just a few inches outside? Or down? Or up? Did it catch a little too much of the plate? It’s often difficult to tell because the way the catcher receives the ball can be deceiving. The catcher probably framed the pitch to some degree to make it look like a better pitch that it really was, or perhaps the catcher caught the ball at the end of the mitt—or in the palm of the mitt. Because of this the pitcher thought the glove was perfectly centered over the outside corner, while in reality the ball was 2 inches off the plate. You get my drift. Even if a pitcher is intently watching the ball into the catcher’s mitt it is still difficult to know exactly how it came in.

There are also some flaws when throwing to a target as opposed to a catcher. A target or pad is great to give you vivid target points to aim at in different parts of the zone and it can at times be easier to tell where the ball struck the pad than throwing to a moving catcher’s mitt, but it can sometimes still be difficult to ascertain precisely where on the target your pitch landed. Additionally, you can still hit the pad even though your ball did not land in the strike zone.

For these reasons, Oates Specialties recently began selling a product that Coach Ron Wolforth and his athletes use at the Texas Baseball Ranch in order to help pitchers specifically train throwing their pitches into the strike zone. This product, the Advanced Command Trainer, is a 17” X 17” target that is 17” off the ground, which closely resembles the size of the strike zone in a game. The Advanced Command Trainer has a target area with vinyl padding which the athlete can aim at when on the mound or simply throwing a flat ground. The Advanced Command Trainer helps a player focus on deliberate practice of his command by providing immediate feedback to each pitch.

The product gives feedback by not only letting the player see the ball hit the strike zone area, but also by hearing the ball hit the padded vinyl. This immediate sensory feedback is critical to helping a pitcher develop better command because he knows as soon as the ball travels to the plate whether he was successful in hitting the pad or not. There is no ambiguity; either the Command Trainer target area is hit or it is missed. This allows the pitcher to adjust on the very next pitch if he is missing the target and can help develop the command of each of his pitches as he has to make immediate corrections in order to try to get the pitch back into the zone.

Check out this great new product and begin to hone your command with the immediate feedback the Advanced Command Trainer will give you. Ideally, during a bullpen or other drill, you will keep track of the number of times you were able to hit the target with each of your pitches, which will allow you to objectively measure your command. You no longer need a “spotter” to tell you if you hit your target or not; instead, the Advanced Command Trainer will immediately tell you on its own.

If you have any questions about this new product please don’t hesitate to contact me.

Until next time,

Brian Oates