"Just throw strikes!" I can't tell you how many times I heard that phrase (or some version of it) yelled from coaches, teammates, parents, and fans during my playing days. As you can imagine, it was typically yelled when the pitcher (often myself) was having issues finding the strike zone. I found that phrase to be somewhere between silly and just flat out stupid. You think the pitcher is trying to throw balls out of the strike zone???
Now, let's back up for a second. Many of you know the difference between command and control, but to make sure we are all on the same page: control is the ability to throw pitches in the strike zone while command is the ability to throw pitches where you want within the strike zone. For example, a good little league pitcher may have control--he throws his fastball over the plate for a strike the majority of the time. But if you ask that little leaguer to throw it over the inside part of the plate he will not be able to intentionally execute that request. This is because he doesn't have command yet. Of course, control comes before command, and if you don't have control you certainly won't be able to train for command.
Generally speaking, elite pitchers can do two things that others can't: (1) throw their fastball harder and (2) command their pitches. Most of the time, we are focused on number 1, and for good reason. We all know that the next level is easier to reach if the velocity is there. But too often we neglect number 2.
While velocity will help you reach the next level, command is what truly separates pitchers at that next level. When I was playing, one thing that really stood out to me at Spring Training was the difference in command between minor league pitchers and major league pitchers. The MLB guys typically had command of 2-3 pitches, while the minor league guys had command of 0-1 pitches. This was more of a separating factor, in my opinion, than pure stuff.
Now back to the brilliant, "Just throw strikes," comment I mentioned previously. Telling this to a pitcher is not going to help or otherwise make that pitcher throw strikes. The real issue is that most pitchers don't train for command. For that matter, too many pitchers don't even train for control. Many of you may be scratching your head at that comment, so let me explain. Most pitchers do not specifically focus on where they want the ball to go with each throw/pitch. Too often pitchers are just throwing to throw or to just get their work in. I've heard pitchers describe the intent of bullpens as "working up a lather" or "getting a feel for my pitches" or some other generic, intent-less phrase. Instead, that pitcher should have a specific goal or focus for every throw.
I have written, as have others, about the importance of "deliberate practice," and I encourage you to read this post if you haven’t already had the chance. In a nutshell, deliberate practice is where an athlete has a specific, identifiable intent with every action. For example, during each throw--whether it is playing catch, throwing a bullpen, long tossing, etc.--the athlete focuses on the precise target he intends to hit. Then, based on the result of that throw, he changes his intent (where he is "aiming") in order to adjust for any miss. This extra focus is exhausting and takes great concentration, but all of the greats do it.
However, even if you have the specific intent and are “deliberately practicing” with the goal of improving the control or command of 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 your command. 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 receives the ball and throws it back to you. Did your ball cross the outside corner? Was it a few inches outside, was it down, was it up? It's often difficult to tell because catchers are taught to "frame" the pitch--in other words, make the pitch location look better than it really was.
With these thoughts in mind, Oates Specialties carriers two products to assist an athlete in improving their control and command, no matter where they are in their journey (e.g. Trying to learn control or specifically working on command).
The first product is called the Advanced Command Trainer. It is a 17" X 17" target that is 17" off
the ground, designed to resemble the size of the strike zone in a game.
The Advanced Command Trainer has a target area with vinyl padding that the athlete can aim at when on the mound or throwing flat ground. The beauty of the Advanced Command Trainer is that it provides immediate feedback on the accuracy of a pitcher's throw. It does that in two ways: (1)
the pitcher can clearly see if the ball hits the target (i.e. The strike zone), and (2) the pitcher can hear the ball hit the padded vinyl. The immediate sensory feedback of hearing the bang of the ball into the Advanced Command Trainer is tremendous, as it allows the pitcher to make adjustments based on the previous throw.
The second product is the Target Pad. The Target Pad consists of 10 "targets" (5 red and 5 white) that are made of vinyl and are of varying size, ranging from 4 to 20 inches. The targets attach to the Target Pad with Velcro and can be moved to any location on the Target Pad.
This allows pitchers of all capability to work on their control or command. Pitchers struggling with control can use the larger targets placed in the middle of the strike zone while advanced pitchers with a solid grasp on control can hone their command by utilizing the smaller targets placed on the edges of the strike zone. The Target Pad is a great tool because the targets give the pitcher a specific visual to focus on and the pitcher can determine whether he was successful in hitting the individual target with his pitch.
The bottom line is this: command is something that all pitchers who seriously want to play at the next level need to focus on. And the only way to achieve command is to focus on it during training sessions and to deliberate track those training results. Oates Specialties' Advanced Command Trainer and the Target Pad are two great tools that can assist pitchers in doing just that.
I encourage each of you to evaluate what you are doing to work on your control and/or command and to begin giving it as much attention as you do your velocity training.
Until next time,