Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pitching Drills For A Smarter Practice And Better Pitchers

There are literally hundreds, maybe thousands of pitching drills on the internet and in print. It's becoming a larger task sifting through all of the advertisements and "Buy our stuff!" websites than the actual job of teaching our pitchers how to get better. The fact is that a lot of these sites offer some pretty good information if you can get to it without your credit card, the problem is getting to the good stuff before your brain explodes.

Instead of writing down how to do a bunch of pitching drills, let's review a few keys that will make your practices far more useful and truly effective. If you incorporate the correct attributes into the pitching drills that you're already doing, chances are they will work perfectly to make your pitchers better. If you're lost and trying to find some ideas to use for working with your pitchers, the following article will form the foundation for the instruction.

First, let's ask the most important question:

"What am I trying to accomplish with my pitching drills?"

Slow down and think about this question. With every pitching drill that your players are doing, what is it that they are learning? In most practices pitchers will go to the bullpen and throw thirty or forty pitches and then return to practice to work on whatever it is the rest of the team is doing. What is your pitcher learning from that? Answer that question and then decide if that's enough, if that pitching drill is doing enough.

The bullpen session could be teaching the pitcher a few small mechanical corrections, perhaps it will increase accuracy slightly, and it will aid in pitch development. Other than that, a bullpen session does very little. The second question that you should ask is this:

"What skills do my pitchers need in a game?"

Think about some of the things that your pitcher needs to be good at in a game. From the example above, the three things we thought of that were improved in the bullpen session are indeed important in a game. Also important in a game are the following: The ability to focus well on the task at hand, knowing how to pitch certain situations, having good chemistry with the catcher, knowing when and how to throw out of the strike zone effectively, how to pitch certain counts, when to use certain pitches, and multiple other mental aspects of the game. How many of those do a traditional bullpen or pitching drill develop?

If the skills that your pitchers need in order to do well in a game don't match up with the things you're trying to accomplish in your pitching drills, they should. The best way to practice getting better in the games, is to practice like it is a game. Far too many coaches don't do the steps above, and wind up spending almost all of the time they have for pitching drills working on things that barely improve their pitchers. Seasons are short and practice time is shorter, pitching drills must be designed for maximum instruction in the game time skills.

Here's one example of how to make a bullpen far more effective:

Instead of a traditional bullpen, have the pitcher and catcher set up imaginary batters and situations. Have the two of them communicate with each other and the coach a specific plan of attack for each batter and each situation that they think up. Have them work through a few innings of imaginary baseball, changing and adapting to each change in the game. Use different pitches, but use them smartly based on the count and the situation, not just to throw them. Make the bullpen more like a game. Your pitcher will still throw his thirty or forty pitches that he normally would have in a typical pitching drill or bullpen, however in this drill he'll learn far more of the skills he needs to learn.

This is just one small example, but it illustrates the principles of "practice like a game" very well. There are always ways to make pitching drills more like a game, and there are numerous ways to include training in the mental realm of baseball. Knowledge of the job and mental confidence on the mound are second to none in creating a great pitcher. The only way to make your pitchers better at them is to practice them.

In summary, pitching drills are a great way to make your pitchers better, but only if you do them right. Working on three skills and expecting good results in the other dozen required during a game is a fools game. Make the pitching drills more like a game, and the game will begin to come more naturally for your pitchers.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The National League's First Shutout

April 25, 1876, was the opening day for the new National League of Professional Base Ball Professional Clubs. The Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal proclaimed the contest between the Louisville Grays and the Chicago White Stockings (now the Cubs) as the "finest game of base ball ever witnessed in Louisville." It estimated over 6,000 people were in attendance at Louisville Baseball Park and were treated to weather "of the most flattering nature." However, the Chicago Tribune said only about 2,000 people showed up.

On the mound for the White Stockings for Opening Day was Albert Goodwill Spalding. Successfully lured to Chicago in the summer of 1875 by a $2,000 contract, Spalding had won 241 games from 1871 to 1875 for the Boston Red Stockings. Louisville countered with James Devlin. A native of Philadelphia, Devlin had been an infielder with the White Stockings in the old National Association in 1874 and 1875. After the Association folded and was replaced by the National League, Devlin had been converted into a pitcher. He was believed to be the fist pitcher to throw a sinkerball.

Unlike modern-day baseball, a coin toss was held to see who would bat first in the game. The White Stockings won the toss, but Louisville was designated to bat first.

In the bottom of the second inning, Paul Hines led off for Chicago and reached first by an error made by the Grays' first baseman John Carbine. After advancing to third from a single from Spalding, Hines came home when Robert Addy hit a grounder to Carbine.

The next inning, Ross Barnes of the White Stockings got a walk and reached second after Adrian C. "Cap" Anson hit a ground ball to Carbine. Barnes scored Chicago's second run when second baseman Joe Gerhardt made a bad throw to Carbine. Spalding, Robert Addy, and Deacon led off the bottom of the fourth by smacking three consecutive singles. After Devlin started pitching to the next batter, Johnny Peters, he stopped when catcher Charles "Pop" Snyder did not look at him. To the disgust of the Louisville fans, umpire L.B. Warren called a balk, and Spalding came home. However, the White Stockings did not score any more runs in the inning.

In the bottom of the seventh, Barnes hit a single, advanced to second by an error by Jack Chapman, and scored Chicago's last run when Anson got a base hit. The reporter covering the ball game for the Louisville Courier-Journal thought Warren made a terrible call when he ruled Barnes's single was in fair territory. But he added that an umpire's job "is a sorry one to fill, and we are willing to give Mr. Warren the credit of making decisions only as he truly thought right."

In the top of the ninth, Louisville had one last chance to end the shutout. However, Chapman and George Bechtel hit weak grounders to Spalding, and Devlin hit a pop-up that was caught by Peters. Unlike today, the White Stockings batted in the bottom of the ninth even though they had already clinched the ball game, but they did not score any runs.

While the 4-0 shutout was hardly a game of great athletic merit (both teams committed nine errors, and Spalding made an embarrassing base running gaffe), it was important not just because it was the fist one in National League history. Ultimately, it proved to be a harbinger for both the White Stockings and the Grays. The White Stockings won the first National League pennant with a record of 54 victories and 14 defeats. Over the next ten years, the White Stockings would win five additional pennants.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Marketing Baseball Tournaments the Right Way: A Five Step Guide

By the year, youth baseball tournaments are becoming more and more popular. For those of us who run tournaments as a way of life, this is somewhat bitter sweet. On one hand, more tournaments means that more teams are participating in tournaments. And, if more teams are participating in tournaments...well you get the picture. On the other hand though, the fact that youth baseball tournaments have become extremely popular in recent years means that all tournament directors, even those who run established tournaments, need to fight harder to sign up teams. Part of this battle for teams consists of hosting a well run tournament year after year. But, it's hard to host a well run tournament if all the teams in the area are playing in Joe Schmoe's tournament down the road. I have compiled this marketing guide to assist both newcomers and old dogs in their own battle for teams and help even novice tournament directors build a successful and established tournament.

Step 1: Start Free and Easy

One of the biggest resources available to tournament directors when marketing a tournament is the internet. Yeah, I know this comes as no surprise to you - it's 2012 not 1999. But, just because we all know what Google is doesn't mean that every tournament director out there successfully takes advantage of the free (or extremely cheap) online tournament marketing services. In fact, this aspect of tournament marketing seems to be often overlooked.

The first online resource you should look into is the offerings available from the sanctioning body which you are running your tournament through. Almost all youth baseball sanctioning organizations will assist your marketing in some fashion. After all, they benefit from your tournament's success. USSSA, which is quickly becoming the leading youth baseball organization in the country, will post your tournament on their website and link the post to either your own website or the registration form for no cost at all. From my experience running tournaments I know that most participants find their tournaments on the sanctioning organization's website. It's a quick and easy way for coaches to find tournaments. And, it's an extremely effective and free way to market your tournament to almost every coach in the state.

Another valuable marketing service for tournament directors is Active.com. For one reason or another, Active.com is often underutilized by many tournament directors. In this case, their loss is your gain. Active.com is a website that allows users to post sporting events they are hosting. It's simple and free to create an account and it only takes a couple of minutes to post a tournament. Moreover, Active.com has teamed up with ETeamz.com, an online platform which most youth baseball teams use to create their own websites. This partnership has led to a large number of coaches using Active.com to search for baseball tournaments. And, since Active.com is a nationwide website, its services allow you to promote your tournament to teams in other states. In my experience, Active.com has been an essential tool in pulling in teams from neighboring states and serves as a valuable resource that can turn your would-be local tournament into a regional one.

Yet another free and easy online resource that is often ignored by tournament directors is email marketing companies. Every tournament director in the country sends out emails to coaches "promoting" their tournament. Every coach in the nation gets hundreds of tournament emails a year. How do your emails stand out from others? A catchy subject line and well written sales text can only get you so far. Online em`il marketing services, such as MailChimp, allow you to use HTML graphics, add pictures, link to your website, and track response from your email. Most of these services are free with a small amount of email contacts (usually under 1,000) and they definitely help your email stick out from the pack.

Step 2: Hit Early, Hit Often

This marketing step may seem a little obvious but, nonetheless, it is essential in building a strong tournament. The earlier you post your tournament online, the more likely teams are to sign up. The earlier you email blast your coach contacts, the more likely you are to pull in registrations. It's all pretty simple but rarely do I see this marketing strategy fully taken advantage of.

Your tournament's competition may have a bigger budget for promotion. They may have a more reputable name. And, they may have more connections with more coaches. But, no matter what the case may be, you can always get the upper hand when it comes to the timeliness of your marketing. Your tournament may be one of 20 state-wide tournaments on the same weekend. But, if you post and promote early, coaches will only see your tournament not the 19 others that will eventually be posted.

I suggest putting together a promotion strategy early and following it to the T until your tournament is full. My strategy? Post your tournament online a year before the start date and send out an initial email to coaches once posted. Six months prior to your tournament, send out another email to coaches and follow up with a personal phone call a week later. Then repeat this strategy every month up to your tournament. You'd be surprised at your marketing success if you diligently follow a promotion strategy.

Step 3: Build Relationships

Too many tournament directors are wary about reaching out to coaches for help in marketing their tournament. They see the director-coach relationship as nothing more than a business relationship and keep interactions short and sweet. This is a fatal mistake. You must understand that, as tournament director, you are providing a wanted and appreciated service to coaches. And, coaches come in contact with more teams on a weekly basis than you could ever reach out to.

By building relationships with youth coaches, you are gaining a marketing partner. Don't be hesitant to become friendly with coaches. Call the coaches that sign up early for your tournament and thank them. Exchange friendly emails with them on a regular basis. And, once you establish a decent relationship simply ask if they will mention your tournament to other teams in the area. It's amazing how willing coaches are to help promote your tournament to other teams if you build a relationship with them. I know of one tournament director that makes a habit of sending out Christmas cards from his organization to coaches who participate in his tournaments. The simple friendly gesture pays back tenfold when he fills up tournaments year after year.

Step 4: Go Old School

Online marketing is quick, easy, and cheap. And, often online marketing is extremely effective. But, never underestimate good old snail mail. Every tournament director in the nation promotes their tournaments by way of email. And, don't get me wrong, there are many good reasons to do this. But, do you make a habit of opening and reading every mass email you get? Or do you simply hit the delete button? Even the most successful tournament marketing emails I send out don't receive much higher than a 15% open rate. The average email in this industry is opened by approximately 6% of every contact it is sent to. If you're emailing 100 coaches, you'd be lucky if your email was read by 15 of them.

Snail mail, on the other hand, tends to be a lot more effective. After all, I personally open every letter I receive. It may seem outdated but, I suggest sending a personalized letter to every coach in your contact database and invite them to participate in your upcoming tournament. Your letter is sure to be read and appreciated. Heck, if I was a coach I would definitely sign up for a tournament that I was invited personally invited to.

Step 5: Pound the Pavement

When it comes to marketing your youth baseball tournament, other tournaments can become one of your biggest assets. Every spring and summer weekend in every city in the county there is sure to be at least one tournament being held. Youth baseball tournaments are marked by high attendance and tons of down time for teams. Take advantage of these other tournaments when marketing your own. Make a habit of spending an hour or two at other local tournaments every weekend. Hand out fliers, mingle with coaches, and promote your own tournament. First of all, by doing this you put a face and a name to your tournament. Secondly, you build relationships (see Step 3). You'll quickly find that you are going above and beyond almost all other tournament directors; an action that will surely pay off. When marketing any product, what can be better than a large amount of your target audience hanging out in one place? Use this opportunity to your advantage.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Recreational Sports in Your City

If you feel like you're not as involved in your community as you'd like to be, recreational sports are a quick and fun way to simultaneously meet people and stay in shape. Many cities offer a wide variety of sports leagues through their parks and recreation departments. Popular sports include:

Dodgeball: We all remember the great times we had playing Dodgeball during recess in elementary school. Experience nostalgia when you sign up for recreational Dodgeball at your rec department. Dodgeball is a fun sport that is often played with co-ed teams. There are some players that take this game pretty seriously, so you may want to watch a few matches before you jump right into the middle of a game!

Tennis: Did you used to be a tennis star in high school or college? Recreational tennis is a great way to maintain your skills and experience some healthy competition. While you may be used to playing on nice facilities, tennis courts at an outdoor park with simply a tennis windscreen will work just as well. Oftentimes rec centers will set up matches and mini tournaments on weeknights and weekends so all you have to do is sign up. No need to find a playing partner...unless you're playing doubles, of course!

Baseball: Whether or not you can smash a baseball past the stands, situated behind the baseball netting, and out of the park, baseball is a sport that almost anyone can enjoy. The great thing about baseball is that recreationally, it doesn't take a lot of continuous running or physical activity. Sure, you have to run the bases, providing you hit the ball, but in general, rec baseball can be fun because it gives you a chance to talk with your other teammates without feeling as though you're huffing and puffing.

If you don't feel as though you're athletic, but want to be involved with some sort of team activity, try a non-contact sport such as bowling or Ping-Pong.

While many large cities already have organized recreational sports teams that are fairly easy to join, there's a chance that your city's rec department doesn't offer any organized programs. This should not prevent you from participating! Try creating your own team with some of your friends or co-workers. Perhaps once you start a team, it'll encourage others in your community to get involved. Recreation participation promotes camaraderie and a sense of community, so whatever your athletic ability and interest may be, there's a sport for you!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Predictions

At the start of the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates showed a little bit of what they could do, but by the end of the season, it wasn't enough to garner a winning record. The team ended the season with a disappointing 72-90 record, finishing 4th in the National League Central. They ended their year with a 19-43 record, but people forget that in their first 100 games, they shared the division lead with a 53-47 record. They didn't add many players to the lineup for 2012, but they were able to add starter Erik Bedard, shortstop Clint Barmes and veteran catcher Rod Barajas. Here are the projected starting lineup, starting rotation and closer situation for the 2012 season.

Projected Lineup

Rod Barajas (Catcher) - At the age of 36, the veteran Barajas will no longer be able to provide high averages or drive in a lot of runs; what he provides the Pirates is stability behind the plate. Barajas also can offer some nice power at the bottom of the order. He hit 16 home runs and drove in 47 runs in just 98 games with the Dodgers last year.

Garrett Jones (First Base) - The Pirates were hoping they could bring back Derrek Lee, whom they traded for at midseason last year, but he wanted to play for a contender. That opened up an opportunity for Jones to get the spot. In 148 games with the Pirates last season, mostly in right field, Jones hit.243 with 16 home runs and 58 RBI.

Neil Walker (Second Base) - The year 2011 wasn't a good one for the second-year man. He hit the sophomore wall and played a bit worse than he did in his rookie season. He hit.296 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI in 110 games in 2010, but hit just.273 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI in 159 games in 2011. The hometown kid will turn just 26 in September, so he can still bounce back in 2012.

Clint Barmes (Shortstop) - Barmes' worth to the Pirates is more on the defensive end than on offense. The 32-year-old veteran hasn't hit better than.245 over the last three seasons. He did hit 23 home runs with the Rockies in 2009, but he finished with just 12 homers and 39 RBI with the Astros last year.

Pedro Alvarez (Third Base) - A pretty good rookie season in 2010, when he hit 16 home runs and drove in 64 runs in 95 games, had everyone buzzing about his potential. But an extremely disappointing 2011 sent him crashing back down to Earth. Now he needs to prove that his numbers of.191 with 4 homers and 19 RBI in 74 games last year was a fluke, or else he might just lose his job to someone more deserving.

Alex Presley (Left Field) - Pittsburgh is hoping that Presley can build off his impressive showing in 52 games last year, when he hit.298 with 4 home runs, 20 RBI and 9 stolen bases. It looks as though he will take over full time in left field, but if the 26-year-old lefty struggles, then we might see more of Nate McLouth.

Andrew McCutchen (Center Field) - McCutchen has proved that he is the franchise player for Pittsburgh after putting All-Star numbers in 2011.McCutchen hit.259 with 23 home runs, 89 RBI and 23 stolen bases. He did struggle a bit, hitting just.216 after the All-Star break. McCutchen must continue to grow into an elite player if the Pirates want to finally contend in the Central.

Jose Tabata (Right Field) - Despite his battles with the injury bug, the Pirates didn't hesitate in extending Tabata with a lucrative six-year contract. The 23-year-old has hit.284 in 193 big league games. After re-signing him, the Pirates are expecting a big jump in production after Tabata hit just 4 home runs with 21 RBI in 91 games last season.

Projected Rotation

Erik Bedard (LHP) - Bedard put up solid numbers last year after missing the entire 2010 season, but injuries are a major concern moving forward. He went just 5-9 in 24 starts, but posted a strong 3.62 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. He has what it takes to be a 15-game winner if he can make 30 starts, but hasn't been able to do so since 2006.

Charlie Morton (RHP) - Morton seems like he is finally proving his worth in Pittsburgh. His 10 wins and 3.83 ERA were both career bests, but he needs to step up and show better control. His 77 walks resulted in a high 1.53 WHIP, something that he needs to improve if he wants to keep his position at the top of the rotation.

James McDonald (RHP) - Similar to Morton, McDonald has what it takes to be a legit starter in the National League, but he needs control in order to take that next step. He went 9-9 with 4.21 ERA, but posted a 1.49 WHIP due to a whopping 78 walks.

Kevin Correia (RHP) - Correia started out the season strong, earning a spot on the All-Star team by going 10-6 to start the season. But he wilted in the second half, and his poor 6.08 ERA in July and 8.41 ERA in August have lowered some expectations going into 2012. But he is still good for at least 10 wins, as he has reached that mark in each of the past three seasons.

Jeff Karstens (RHP) - His pinpoint control is what gives him good success, as he doesn't have the arm strength to blow away hitters. He had a great 2011, posting his best season as a starter, going 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA and 1.21 WHIP in 26 starts. So long as he hits his spots, he should remain an effective starter despite not having an overpowering fastball.