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Zen of Softball


(c)1994 J.F. Kelley
[ Jeff's Personal Page Jeff's Professional Bio ]

This is just a brief distillation of the coaching tips I have evolved while learning the game myself. Some might call them a bit on the idiosynchratic side. It sort of takes the the perspective of what softball might seem like to someone visiting from Mars wanting to partake of some local color. Some of the observations here are peculiar to the IBM Research league and the T.J. Watson softball field in particular.

OVERVIEW

The Defensive team is arrayed out on the field. Your team is on Offense. You are standing in a box near home plate swinging the bat around trying to look mean. The Defense's pitcher throws a ball at you. His or her job is to try to get the ball to fall through your "strike" zone, which is an area about the height of your belly button and around 3 feet away from it. If s/he misses that area AND you are smart enough to avoid swinging at it, it is a "ball". (Well, of course, it's always a "ball", per se, but that's when the umpire yells "ball" at the ball.)

Your job is to wait until the pitcher gets that triumphant look on his or her face that indicates that s/he may have thrown a strike at which point you swing the bat and hit the ball as far away from all the defensive players as you can (usually hitting the ball so that it skitters along right close to the ground) and you run, quick like a bunny, to first base. The Defense will try to snag the ball and throw it to their teammate at first base before you can get there.

There are nuances and refinements which involve running from first to second base and, possibly eventually around past third base back to the home plate at which time your Offensive team gets a point and they slap various parts of your body in gleeful camaraderie.

OFFENSE:

Before each pitch, PREPARE:

  1. How confident are you that you can hit any old pitch that comes your way?
  2. What is the current count of balls and strikes?
    (you get 3 strikes then you're out; 4 balls gets you a free "base hit")

If you are usually able to hit just about anything, then it's usually a good idea to be pretty liberal in your calling of the pitch (i.e., be more likely to let it go by unless it looks really perfect); you can afford to let the strike count build up while accumulating balls. A walk is much safer than a base hit. If you are not so confident of getting a hit then you should start "playing protect" after the first strike (i.e., if you are not positive it's going to be a ball, then try a swing). It is generally NOT a good idea to swing at the first pitch; let the pitcher show you what he or she has.

Physics/Biomechanical principles:

Zen:

How confident you are that you can hit any old pitch (see 1. above) is mostly a matter of how confident you TELL yourself you are. This is also causally related to the likelihood that you actually WILL hit the ball. When you are "on deck" and are loosening up (standing in that chalked circle swinging the bat around), you should be eliminating all distractions and focussing your entire being on being relaxed and competant; don't joke with teammates, don't pay attention to anything that is not relevant to your upcoming at-bat. When you step into the batter's box, don't make jokes about your abilities to your opponents; no one will think less of you for taking seriously the business of improving your batting skill.

The INSTANT you contact the ball, switch your mental gears: drop the bat (after the follow-through swing has lost all it's kinetic energy; throwing the bat at the umpire's head is generally frowned upon) and sprint to 1st base as though your life depended on it. Run through the orange bag; don't stop on it.

The faster you LOOK like you are running, the more pressure you put on the defense to make the play. If you have a lot of work to do during the season to improve your sprinting speed, then in the meantime, mime the posture of an olympic runner: keep your hands in fists, head down; grim, determined, business-like look on your face (no giggling); eyes on the base; much stomping of the feet on the ground and swinging of the arms like a locomotive. When you walk back to the bag after running through it, pause for a second with your hands on your knees as though you were gaining lost oxygen; after 2.5 breaths (puff the cheeks), dust your hands against one another and then poise yourself to run to the next base.

Don't kick the ball as you run and don't step out of the batter's box until you strike the ball.

P.S. There's a free show just waiting for you while you're sitting there on the bench between at-bats...the opposing pitcher. He or she is out there, probably sweating bullets trying to control the pitching and throw strikes. It's the 7th inning. Fatigue is almost a palpable fog around the pitcher's mound -- almost makes you pity the poor soul. This show is not only free and poignant, but it can be educational too: if the pitcher just can't seem to get it over the plate today, ask youself: "next time I'm at-bat, should I consider swinging on the first pitch?" (Thanks to J.C.T.)

When you are on base, before each pitch PREPARE:

  1. How many outs? Always say to nearest base coach: "1 out, watch for the fly" or "2 outs run on anything" or whatever the preparation is.
  2. Are you forced to run?

If you are forced to run and it is 2 outs, then run the instant the ball strikes the bat No Matter What. If it is less than 2 outs and you are forced to run, then watch where the ball goes. If it is low (grounder) then haul butt. If it is in the air, then take a couple of steps and watch the ball: if it is a loooong fly deep into the outfield and if it looks as though it will be caught then this is a "sacrifice"; you must get back to the bag and prepare to sprint to the next base the moment it is caught. If it is a short fly then stay a few steps from the bag (just far enough that you can beat the throw back) and wait; if it is dropped, move it; if not, get back.. If you are not forced to run, then watch your base coaches. If your team is behind by just a little, they may have you run more ambitiously.

** When on base, make eye contact with 3rd base coach before the pitch. When rounding 2nd, look at 3rd base coach; If s/he holds a hand out, stop on the base -- don't run to the next base. If s/he windmills an arm, run to next base. If the base coach pushes hands down towards the ground, he is showing the confident expectation that you will heed this signal and slide (it's gonna be close). If he slaps the back of his neck, he is indicating the presence of a mosquito. Memorize all signals and official yells in Base Coach section below.

Sliding: I don't know what to tell you about sliding. Should you slide feet-first (attempting not to catch your cleats and twist an ankle)? Or should you dive face-down in the clay and reach your hands to the bag (under the baseman's cleats)? I'm the wrong person to ask; after I've actually gotten up the nerve to try it, I'll expound tediously on the subject. I will say one thing though: YOU MUST SLIDE if you are running home and the catcher has the ball. If you attempt to run to home plate upright on two hominid legs, the umpire will yell at you and call you out. This has to do with preserving the health and limbs of the catcher. It is a rule. (Though a rule more likely to be enforced if the runner is a 220-pounder with the speed of a track star and the fierce demeaner of a linebacker -- the rest of us, looking mostly clueless as we wander toward home plate are not as likely to get snagged on this rule; unless you actually DO trample and maim the catcher.)

BASE COACH:

Before each batter's first pitch, remind runners how many outs and help runner PREPARE:

  1. How many outs?
  2. Forced run or not?
  3. Current score and inning?
  4. Strength of remaining lineup?
  5. Strategy ("Run on anything", "Run part way on a fly", "Tag up on a fly and watch for sacrifice").

The signals are:

A really skillful 3rd base coach could teach himself or herself to give TWO signals to 1st AND 2nd base runners (right arm for 2nd base, left arm for 1st base runner rounding 2nd). However this will probably be totally baffling to the runners (and possibly painful to you); and besides, it's hard enough for me when I'M base coach to be alert enough to give ANY signal at all, much less the correct signal!

SCOREKEEPER:

DEFENSE:

ALL POSITIONS:

Before each pitch, PREPARE. Rehearse in your mind just what you will do if the ball comes to you (i.e., where is the most likely place that you will have to throw it) and what you will do if it does not come to you (i.e., whom you will back up). Every player should do SOMETHING whenever a ball is hit.

Batters of moderate experience will often "telegraph" where they are trying to hit the ball. Watch their feet. A right-handed batter will bring their right foot back, away from home plate and/or move their left foot forward, toward first base when he or she is trying to hit the ball to Right Field. Inexperienced batters may try to do this but will fail so often it isn't a good predictor for the Right fielder. Highly experienced batters will either disguise their intent or will intentionally send you false signals. The best, deep hitting batters are usually fourth in the lineup ("cleanup"). Reliable base-hitters who are fast runners are often first ("lead-off").

Catch A Fly:

  1. Call it by saying "I'VE GOT IT!"
  2. Hold mit and other hand up toward the ball.
  3. Trap the ball in your mit with your spare hand. (Try to position yourself well enough in advance to avoid those troublesome one-handed catches).
  4. If you drop it or miss it, STAY WITH IT. Scramble after the ball and get control of it. Do not succumb to the temptation to fall on the ground and hammer your fists and feet in a comical display of humiliation and frustration while the ball languishes in the tall grass and your opponents take snickering laps around the basepath.
  5. Immediately upon gaining control of the ball, begin running towards the infield.
  6. DECISION: Run it in or Throw it. Cardinal rule: Know Where You Are Throwing It. Don't just hurl it towards the infield. This is where the PREPARATION becomes useful. Often the shortstop or pitcher will yell where to throw it or will yell "RUN IT IN".
  7. If you are catching/fielding a ball from the outfield, it is likely that either the shortstop or the second-baseperson will have run toward you to "take the cutoff". This makes your job easy; if he or she is standing there with their mitt up, throw it to him or her. (Caveat: if you see you have a play at second or third and are confident that you can make the throw, just do it; cutoff persons, if they know their job, will know when do duck and let the throw go to its destination.)

Field a Grounder:

  1. Position yourself in front of the ball with your feet fairly close together (so the ball doesn't zoom between your legs). Move forward or backward as necessary so that you are not at the exact position where the ball is going to bounce -- try to catch it in the air after a bounce ("One Hop").
  2. Prepare to bring your mit All the Way to the Ground if necessary, with your other hand above, to trap the ball in the mit. There are few things as embarrassing and disorienting as having the ball roll under your glove between your legs while your head is whipping back and forth and you have a "where'd it go?" look on your face.
  3. As with a fly, immediately start running in and, if you throw it, throw it TO someone.

Physics of Throwing:

Throwing a ball is a lot like throwing a punch in karate. It's all action/reaction physics and everything depends on how you manage your center of gravity and your points of contact with the external environment (ball and ground). Your purpose is to exert force in two directions: as you exert force (1) on the ball to accelerate it, you exert an equal force (2) in the opposite direction into the ground through your planted foot. The structure of your body at the moment of release should be a rigid straight line extending from your hand to the planted foot on the same side. In order to accomplish this firm platform, execute the throw as follows (for right-handers, left handers should reverse everything):

  1. Take a step with left foot,
  2. Bring right foot in right behind,
  3. Begin "windup", holding the ball in mit and hand at chin level, with left elbow out, begin to bring the ball down in a great circle. At the same time as you circle the ball down and behind you with your right hand, begin extending your left hand so that your glove points in the direction you want the ball to go (action/reaction physics again). The mental image here for the throwing arm is a coiled whip. You are making a circle with the ball in order to snap it out. The upper arm makes a big circle, the ball lags behind this circle until the moment of release when it snaps the whole arm out straight. As in batting, follow-through is important. If you arm does not continue around a bit, then you were exerting a naughty opposing force at that last second and slowing down your throw. Beginning throwers must fight the tendancy to "shotput" the ball: holding it near their shoulder and Pushing it in the direction it is supposed to go, remember the great circle.
  4. Begin taking another longer step with left foot. This is like a skipping step. Your feet are getting a little ahead of you at this point and you are leaning back while your right arm swings through it's great circle.
  5. As the throwing arm comes around the top, you also lean forward and extend your platform from the straightening right leg so that at the moment of release you form a straight line from planted foot to releasing hand. Also as you lean forward and complete the circle, your left hand is drawn back behind you (action/reaction).
  6. As you become more experience, you will discover that the whip action can extend all the way to the tips of the fingers: you will learn to roll the ball off the tips of the fingers and this will give you a surprising increase in power/distance.

You can do all of this while also running toward where you are thowing thereby adding that much more momentum to the whole process.

For maximum distance, throw the ball at a 45-degree angle up. If you have more than enough strength for the distance you must throw, then lower the angle for more speed.

Be sure you know who you are throwing to before you release the ball.

Some experienced players will choose a horizontal back-and-forth, whipsnap, sidewinder-type throw as an alternative to the great circle. I imagine that this puts more stress on the shoulder joint and is, in any event, a poorer use of physics (though it is a cool looking display of strength, reminiscent of that neat sideways pistol-grip that Steven Seagal uses in all his action movies) and might help to intimidate your opponents (unless they are physicists).

Learning how to throw effectively by reading this in advance is impossible and will just confuse you. Looking this over from time to time while reflecting on how to improve your throw may be a useful thing for some (or amusing at a minimum, I hope!). Using this as a guide for analyzing/coaching other throwers is probably the most effective.

ALL INFIELD BASE/PLATE POSITIONS:

PREPARE:

  1. Will it be a force or tag play?

If a play is coming to you (i.e., the ball is not hit to you so you are free to work your assigned base), first position yourself correctly: if it is a force play stand with your foot in contact with the bag, out of the way of the runner; if it is a tag play, position yourself a foot or two back toward where the runner is coming from so you can catch the ball and crouch, pivot and touch the runner. Always try to tag the runner with the ball in your mit and your other hand holding it closed; otherwise the runner will knock the ball out of your hand/mit. As soon as you are in position, hold your mit up and make a target for the fielder to throw to. Your First Responsibility is: Catch The Ball, even if it means moving out of position. An overthrow is usually worth at least an extra base or two for the offense.

If a fly is caught and the runner was foolish enough to run too far to the next base, s/he will try to run back. You must be prepared to catch a ball thrown to you (make a target with your mitt) and have/get your foot on the bag. This will cause the runner to be out. A run-back on a caught fly ball is always a force.

If a play comes to you too late to make it you may still have a chance to tag the runner out (except when s/he is running through 1st): if the runner runs PAST the bag and changes his or her mind and tries to come back to the bag, you should tag him or her. ALWAYS be prepared to tag the runner; some basemen tag the runner even if s/he is on the bag and hold the ball/mitt gently on the runner for a second or two just in case (don't PUSH the runner off the bag; umpires don't like that).

CATCHER:

PREPARE:

  1. Is there a runner on 3rd and a possible play at the plate?
  2. Get ready to spring up and catch a pop-up. (This is your best shot at a heroic move -- it doesn't require strength or great speed, just mental preparation and people will be talking about it over beer after the game.)

If a play is coming to home, position yourself on the 1st base side of the 3rd base line (where you won't get mowed down by the runner). If it is a force play, keep your foot on the plate (unless you must move to catch ball). If it is a tag play stand a foot or 2 towards 3rd so you can sweep down and tag runner when you catch the ball.

Another opportunity for making a play is if the batter just dribbles it right in front of the plate. If the pitcher does not call it "mine", you should run the ball down and throw it to first (unless you can get back and make a play on a runner from 3rd).

The most frequent responsibility of the Catcher is to throw the ball back to the pitcher if the batter does not hit it. Pitching is tiring; try to get the ball to the pitcher in such a way that he or she doesn't have to make aggressive "fielding plays" to stop and acquire the ball. With practice, you will be able to make an accurate throw to the pitcher from the crouch you started in. Until that point, just stand up and throw it. If the Catcher is tired it's a shame; if the Pitcher is tired, it's the game.

SECOND BASE:

PREPARE:

  1. Is your play a force (i.e., is there a runner on 1st?) or a tag play?

Before each pitch, position yourself far enough away from the bag to field any grounders that the 1st baseman misses and rehearse what you are going to do when the ball is hit. If the ball is grounded to you, stay with it; field it as described above. If there is a force, you will probably lob the ball underhanded to the shortstop who will run to 2nd base to make the double play. If there is no force, you will lob the ball to the 1st baseman.

If the ball is not hit to you, run to the bag. Position yourself for force or tag and make a target with your mit (see above). If a force, catch the ball with your foot on base (or move to intercept the wild throw and rush back to get your foot on the bag) then, if you are able to throw to 1st and if you have time to do so and beat the batter, throw it to first. If you cannot make the throw to 1st, walk the ball into the infield after making the out, looking for a play at 3rd or home. If it is a tag play, tag the batter and walk the ball in.

Under certain circumstances, the shortstop will cover 2nd (and will, hopefully, yell "I'm on Two!"). If s/he does, then move to your next position:

  1. If the ball goes so deep into right field that the Right fielder is unlikely to be able to make the throw to second, then "take the cutoff": move out to a position where you are sure you can make the throw to second, catch the ball from the right fielder and throw it to the shortstop. If the Right fielder has to go way out into the woods and you know that he cannot throw very far, then you will have to move farther out to be closer to him so that the ball doesn't drop into the grass and stop 50 yards from either of you. Then you'll just have to catch it and run it back toward the diamond until you are within throwing range.
  2. If the ball goes somewhere other than deep Right and the shortstop is covering your base, then move to a position behind the shortstop to back up the catch in case s/he misses it when it is thrown to the bag.

ALTERNATE FIELDER:

PREPARE:

  1. Where is the likely play if you catch a fly? If you snag a grounder? What bases have runners on them?

If you catch a fly, deep in the outfield IT'S NOT OVER YET! Don't stop to pat yourself on the back and gather the commendations of your teammates; you must be prepared to immediately throw or run it in; a runner may tag up and run as soon as you make the catch; you must get the ball to the base s/he is running to.

The center-fielder will tell you whether to play short (i.e., midway between center fielder and 2nd base; slightly toward Right), or to play Four Around (probably between Center and Right).

See above for how to catch a fly or field a grounder and immediately begin running it in while you decide where (if anywhere) to throw it.

If the shortstop or pitcher yells "RUN IT IN", then continue running into the infield grass, always looking and prepared to throw it to a base until the umpire calls "Time!".

If the ball does not come to you, decide whom you are going to back up. If you are playing Four Around and it comes to a player next to you, run to a position behind the fielder and yell "GO FOR IT!" to let him or her know you are behind to field the ball if it is missed; this allows the fielder to be more aggressive and charge the ball. If you field it, throw it immediately (either directly to the second-baseman or shortstop or, if you cannot make that throw, lob it to the fielder you just backed up).

ADVANCED DEFENSIVE POSITIONS

CENTER FIELD

You are the outfield coach. The Alternate Fielder and, possibly, the other outfielders may benefit from your advice on where to position themselves for each batter. Sometimes swapping the Alternate Fielder and the Right Fielder may confuse the offense. Remind outfielders of the stay-behind line.

FIRST BASE

Work out with 2nd baseperson and Pitcher who will cover 1st if you go for a grounder (and what the signals are). We usually use the Pitcher for this, but a strong 2nd baseperson may be able to cover instead.

After your opportunity to make plays at 1st passes, if the pitcher is backing up throws to 3rd, go back up throws to the plate.

THIRD BASE

If you run, catch a foul and, while slowing down, happen to run past the out-of-play line, the runners will advance. It's not enough to just chuck the ball away from you toward the field to avoid this, but making a lame attempt to throw it TO someone just might work.

Practice your "bullet" throw from 3rd to 1st during warm-up. If today just isn't your day, discuss with the Shortstop the possibility of switching positions for certain batters.

SHORTSTOP

Work out signals with the second baseperson about who will take the cutoff for right field hits and who will cover 2nd. If the second baseperson has less experience, remind him or her about the different positions to take while waiting for the throw depending in whether it's a force vs. a tag play and offer feedback after each play.

PITCHER:

Breath through your eyelids (Bull Durham)

Comments welcome! Send email to kelley@musicman.net.

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