In a career spanning 50 years, I would best be described as a well-rounded student of the game, who isn't afraid to think outside of the box.
As an elite player, I had the privilege of being taught by some of the world's best coaches - two of which are in the ISC Hall of Fame. Now into my coaching/mentoring days, the theme focuses on giving back! All the life lessons I learned through our wonderful sport has put me in a position to produce well rounded young players, but it's also given me a platform to turn young men and women into highly respected young adults.
Thank you softball for all you have given me...I hope a single lifetime leaves me enough time to give back, all I have learned.
Stealing an Out
Towards the end of last year’s MLB regular season, skipper Joe Maddon of the Cubs was asked how his day was going, he replied, “Man, I’ve got the world’s most boring job! I make up a lineup, change a few pitchers and look forward to the post game meal! We don’t bunt! The analytics tells us we shouldn’t hit and run and we barely ever steal!” What he didn’t talk about was the late inning heroics his defense pulled off when they stole an out by placing four fielders along the right side of the infield. For Joe, it was just another day at the office. He stole an out he shouldn’t have had!
Playing a defensive shift is not the only way to steal defensive outs. Pitching to soft-contact via off-speed pitches or changeups will also get you off the field quicker.
From old-school purists to the new generation of up and comers, coaches are creatures of habit. Rarely do they venture from their comfort zone. Most coaches are brought up to create strategy on the offensive side of the ball. They spend a lot of time and energy making up their batting order (I still don’t understand European coaches who bat their pitchers in the leadoff spot). Before the game even starts, they already know who their first pinch-hitter off the bench will be. They also know, who will be the team’s first pinch runner. In their minds, this is where they are going to make a difference!
Having been around men’s elite level fastpitch for the last 45 years, I have noticed little has changed on the defensive side. Three across in the outfield – Check! Conventional four across on the infield – Check! Yes, scouting reports tell us if we need to move our fielders a few steps right or left. The situation will also play a role in our defensive alignment. So how come fastpitch coaches are unwilling to create strategy on this side of the ball, in order to steal outs? I believe the answer lies somewhere between the fear of failure and a lack of knowledge. I am not professing that a shift be put on for most batters throughout a game.
Some games there might only have a couple of opportunities. Maybe you have singled out one opposing right-handed batter whose spray chart shows he/she is always hitting late to the right side. If this is the case, have your pitcher throw to the outside half, move your short-stop to the right side of the 2nd base bag. Move your second baseman to shallow right field. Move your center fielder to right-center, move your right fielder towards the foul line, leaving your third basemen to cover the entire left side of the infield. If you were to look at this alignment from an airplane, the players on the right side of the field would emulate a “box, with a player in the middle, almost like a five in a regular deck of playing cards.”
In other words, if a coaching staff is a well-oiled machine (makes use of statistics, spray charts &/or video), they should be able to go through each opposing hitter and find the player(s) where they can apply the shift…pull side shift, away shift, bring in an outfielder to have five infielders, etc..
Well-oiled also includes that the team spend a lot of practice time, working on the shifts and how they pertain to steals, bunts and the different scenarios for runners.
Since moving to Israel ten years ago, I have successfully used some form of a defensive shift:
- Jr Men’s World Championship against Japan - played most hitters to pull, loading up three infielders on the pull side.
- Jr Men’s European Championships – was successful on three or four late side shifts, but gave up a pull side, solo home run when a fly ball to left fell to the ground and no fielder within sight. It was actually funny watching the short-stop, third baseman & left fielder (playing in center) all sprinting for the ball.
- Men’s European Championships – playing against Czech in the playoff round, I decided to start our slowest pitcher and play every Czech batter in a pull side shift. My theory was based on, no batter in the middle of a tournament can reduce their bat speed by 40-50%, so most balls hit would be directed at our defensive strength. We didn’t win the game, but certainly came away with a moral victory. We probably stole six to seven outs during the contest. For the first time in a long while, we gave the world’s number six a real game.
If I can steal three outs in a game, I have just reduced my opponents to only 18 outs, while I’m still playing with 21!
Pitching coaches, you also have the ability to steal outs. As you are developing your pitchers and catchers, make sure the battery has a changeup &/or other effective off-speed pitches in their arsenal. There is no better pitch than the changeup. When called at the right times they will usually lead to “soft contact.” As we all know, soft contact is a pitcher’s best friend.
In my opinion, the women’s game is further advanced in throwing “off-speed junk.” In turn, prompting more batters into soft contact. The men’s game, especially in Europe, tends to rely on power pitches more often than not. Hopefully the younger generation of coaches and pitchers will see the benefits of the changeup and look to develop it.
To play a defensive shift, coach has to have confidence in his players abilities to execute and his team’s ability to analyze the oppositions tendencies. For a lot of coaches, he or she, must have the backbone to think outside the box.
This article was written by a coach who was not afraid to intentionally walk a good hitter with two outs and the bases loaded, his team already down by three. We got the next batter and went on to win the game.
Looking forward to sharing a field with you all…