By Geoff Zahn former MLB pitcher
Keys to developing good pitching control
3. location aids (pitching aids)
All players, especially pitchers, should exercise positive visualization. Pitchers should pay attention to the location of the pitches that either were swung at and missed or hit poorly or are hit where the pitcher wants the hitter to hit the ball, i.e., on the ground, up the middle, in a double play situation. If a pitcher’s power pitch is low and away he must be able to visualize that pitch going to that exact location.
Proper visualization involves such depth that your body can feel the pitch being made from your feet to the tips of the fingers of your pitching hand. You should be able to visualize in slow motion, mentally feeling the ball come off your fingertips, watching the spin and the break of the ball as it mentally moves toward the plate and seeing it hit the middle of the pocket of the catcher’s glove as the hitter swings and misses it.
Good visualization is an excellent way to practice without putting any strain on your arm. You should visualize your power pitch and all your other pitches with their break. You should mentally image different counts and all situations that you might encounter. Many times missing the strike zone is as important as hitting it.
The great thing about out visualization is that you can do it at any time and that it requires no stress on your arm. I suggest that every pitcher should take at least ten minutes every day to visualize and create situations for success. It can be done in bed at night before you go to sleep or at different break times during the day.
It is also mandatory that in the heat of a game you visualize a pitch being successful before you throw it. Before you step on the rubber for each pitch you should visualize the right pitch to throw. If the catcher gives you a sign for a different pitch then you must either shake him off and go to your pitch or if you agree with the sign visualize the pitch before you throw it.
A good catcher or even a coach, if he is calling the pitches, will think right along with you and there shouldn’t be a need to shake off very many pitches.
Concentration involves mastering the ability to hard focus or fine center your eyes on an extremely small object. Most coaches instruct their pitchers to concentrate on the catcher’s glove. I want pitchers to hard focus on one of the laces on the catcher’s mitt.
I have seen that there are two levels of concentration. If a pitcher is just methodically going through a workout he will have trouble with his control because he is only soft focusing on the target. Although he may say he is focusing on the glove he is not expending all of his energies toward focusing on the glove. This is a soft focus habit of concentration which most pitchers get into unless they are willing to push themselves to the next level.
I illustrate this principle of hard and soft focus almost daily during pitcher’s bullpen routines. During their routine I have witnessed them missing the target, too high, for up to three consecutive pitches. I will ask them if they are concentrating and they will say, ‘yes’. I will then tell them if the next pitch isn’t at the target below the knees, they owe me a lap. Most of the time they hit the target. Why? Because they move from routine to urgency in their purpose. The key is to create that urgency for every pitch. When that happens the pitcher has pushed himself to hard focus. When a pitcher is able to maintain this degree of hard focus over the course of consecutive games he is said to be in a zone. As a coach I have seen it in a pitcher’s eyes. There is a determination there that will not allow anyone or anything to break.
A pitcher becomes what he practices, so it is important that pitchers practice hard focusing every time they throw.
It is also important that as a pitcher starts to come out of his balance point, at the top of his delivery, he is hard focused on his target. Once he hard focuses nothing should be able to distract him, and he should see the ball hit the mitt.
Another key to good concentration is the ability to adjust. For instance, if you are trying to hit a low and away target and your first 2 throws go high down the middle, you must tell yourself that the next throw will either be perfect or miss low and away off the plate. You must train your brain to tell your hand to make adjustments.
A question I get asked quite often is, “how many pitches do I need to throw?” My answer is that great control comes only through much repetition. Twenty pitches in a workout won’t make it happen. I believe it is far better to have a 45-60 pitch workout at 80% velocity than a 20 pitch workout at 95 - 100% velocity.
During that workout you should practice pitches with different counts on the batter. You should practice missing the plate as much as hitting the corners.
Finally every throw should be free and loose. You should never aim the ball but always stay loose and let it fly toward the target.
Location aids (pitching aids)
There are three aids that I really endorse for helping to develop consistent location.
1. The first is what we used to have in Dodgertown spring training called the strings. Using two poles, string, and simple door springs the strike zone is outlined from the knees up. This aid is extremely beneficial because it shows the pitcher and the catcher just where the catcher actually catches the ball when it crosses the plate at the knees. Most catchers and pitchers are shocked to see how low the glove is when the ball hits the strings at the knees, especially with breaking balls.
2. The second is a net called a Porta Sock that has an area cut out with additional netting to catch and collect the balls. It is sold by Osborne Innovative Products out of Washington. It has bungie cords that form a strike zone. This is called a strike zone isolator. I like pitchers to get a bucket of balls and throw to the Porta Sock. What I like is that the pitcher’s control must be exact. There is no catcher to pull their pitches back into the strike zone. Another advantage is that a pitcher can work at his own pace by himself.
3. The last is the use of a wall with the strike zone taped or drawn onto the wall. As every pitcher is aware, there are only so many pitches in an arm before it gets tired or breaks down. I believe it can be beneficial for a pitcher to throw at a target on the wall with a tennis ball. This does not take much out of the arm while it is training the pitcher to focus and make adjustments. He can easily see the action on his pitches as well as practicing pitching to different locations.
One can develop good consistent location when he pitches but once again the key is a will to want to prepare to succeed.
When I think back on the times when I wasn't effective as a pitcher, it wasn't because I didn't have good velocity. It was because I had poor control, and I had poor location of my pitches. Your ability to throw strikes, when and where you need to throw them, is paramount to your success. So how can you work on that?
Throw consistently underneath the bat. Always concentrate on throwing your pitches from the top of the knees to the dirt. If you're a low ball pitcher, your strike zone is the 2 inch area at the knees. Throw to the corners, six inches on either side of the plate.
Consistency comes from much practice. Pitchers like Tom Glavine have proven that being able to throw consistently to one area, on and off the plate, causes hitters to go after pitches out of the strike zone. When hitters chase, you look good. You get outs.
Stay away from the area from the top of the knees to the waistline and, of course, over the heart of the plate.
Geoff Zahn, of the Master Pitching Institute, pitched 12 years in the major leagues. He also is a former head baseball coach at the University of Michigan.
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