Sizing up a Competitive Pitching Staff in High School/ Summer Baseball
The remarks herein are mine alone and are based on my observations of amateur baseball with respect to high school varsity, college baseball and independent amateur baseball.
The premise here is to suggest definitions to the formation of a highly competitive pitching staff, within the boundaries that are reasonable for an amateur pitching coach. If you’re not a pitching coach by specific experience – don’t go there. ( just my suggestion)
Trying to organize and manage a pitching staff with definitions and detail is a risky thing in amateur baseball, regardless of the level. Why? Because at the amateur level you’re dealing with two different opposing environments – one is the environment of a team’s wants and needs, and the other is the environment of the player’s wants and needs. If this wasn’t enough, within those two environments there are all kinds of sub currents and agendas that’ll literally drive you nuts.
The team environment is conditional on winning – period. There’s no nice guys, no good kids, no fairness, no sportsmanship, and all that warm and fuzzy stuff. The only thing that matters is that after all the dust settles; you’ve got a win on your hands. Tomorrow, you lace up the spikes, go out there, and do it again, and I don’t mean to be nice about either. If the score is fifteen (15) to nothing in the second inning, make it thirty (30) to nothing in the fourth inning. That’s the mindset of a winning team, a winning coach, a winning organization. You don’t take the field just to score against your opponents, but to figuratively, beat their brains out. Giving a man the groundwork to be a good citizen is up to the parents, school, church, etc. You’re the other side of the coin – reality.
THE TEAM’S ENVIRONMENT
If a pitching coach with the experience is left to his/her own game plan, this destination would be a manageable journey – but it’s not. The impacts on the team’s environment can come from the administrators of the organization both local and beyond but not to be confused with the league locally and beyond. Administrators and others can dabble in coaching, advice, structural changes to the entire team’s makeup, changes to appointments, who can and cannot exercise authority with game plans, former coaches who are icons who intervene from time to time, surprises of shifting players up and down a competitive level, and so forth.
THE INDIVIDUAL PITCHER’S ENVIRONMENT
Managing the pitching staff – pitcher by pitcher can be a nightmare. Your main purpose in life as a pitching coach is to structure your staff to be dependable and follow your designs. Unfortunately, a player and his supporters will do just about everything to alter your best. Why? Whether deliberately or not, a player is looking out for number one – just like you, but from a different angle. He’s trying to get noticed by scouts, recruiters, keep dad happy with bragging rights, compete for the spot lights among his friends and peers, impress girls, feed his inner ego, banter back and forth with others his age with personality conflicts, hormone swings and attitudes, and the list goes on. One of the major problems that you may have to deal with is the coaching from other sources prior to arriving at your door – but go easy on this one. Leave enough space between you and any pitcher so that you can reason out why any pitcher(s) will not follow your instructions. Avoid the “do it my way or your gone” kind of atmosphere. In any event, fundamentally, every one of your pitchers is going in their own direction, while you’re trying to steer the entire staff. Fun stuff to be sure.
Ok, so let’s say just for the fun of it, you’ve gotten things pretty well nailed down before taking the job as a pitching coach. What stuff nailed down you ask?
This stuff for instance:
- For a roster of 15 – 18 players, you must have a dedicated pitching staff of 7 pitchers, without secondary positions.
- For a roster of 19 – 30 players, you must have a dedicated pitching staff of 10 pitchers without secondary positions.
- You’re going to select your pitchers based on tryouts that are published and depend on signups.
- You will not accept “shoe-ins” and
“guarantees” on your pitching staff. Don’t go there, don’t assume this or that, don’t bend to the persuasions of others.
- Don’t allow pitchers finishing one sport to join the staff at a later date. That reeks of favoritism and patronage – don’t go there. It’ll ruin your creditability
- Your loyalty is to your head coach, not his/her assistants, designates, of off field people.
- You will plan and manage the pitching staff – alone.
- You will select and designate the pitching staff alone.
- You will provide for a total season abstract for your head coach with respect to training progression, activation, deactivation and termination, bullpen duty, rotation schedules that every pitcher will be expected to maintain.
- You will have meetings with your pitching staff at reasonable times and places to learn “why” pitchers pitch, not just how.
- You will conduct meetings after every game to review the game – batter-by-batter, with why –n-what-for.
- You will have a PAID assistant on your staff that will keep league statistics with respect to innings pitched, pitch counts and other required information. This person will also be responsible for submitting this information, with your signature, to the appropriate authority. This person will also make a copy of every report available for your recordkeeping.
- You will not be responsible for the stewardship of any money. You will not be responsible for acting as scorekeeper. You will not be responsible for security, paying police or other such personnel.
There will other particulars I’m sure, but those are local issues that you’ll have to address as a learning curve.
Selecting of Your Pitching Staff.
There’s an old saying that goes like this: “ You’ve got to dance with the one your brought.” Every club that I’ve ever watched, I had to ask myself… “where in the name of Sam Hill did this guy get these people?” (before you ask… I have no idea who Sam Hill is…) If you’re going to staff yourself with somebody else’s pitching selection, then you deserve what somebody else gives you. So … don’t.
You’ve decided at this level of competition that a Starter, a Reliever and a Closer is the way to go. Ok, so let’s look at what you’re about to deal with personnel wise.
First – you’re going to have turnover like crazy each every year. Who you’re getting this year may be different than who was on the roster last year. So, within that population you’ll have a wide range of physical tolerance, experience, and ability. Under no circumstances should you expect or get dependability across the board. Ain’t going to happen so don’t expect it. You’ll end up with a variety of pitchers that have nothing but surprises for you, game after game. Age, maturity, physical tolerances, and last but not least ability in all forms will be in the mix all at once. So, slot your pitchers with what you have – not with what you expect.
Second -Take the youngest and least experienced first as a starting point with tryouts. Ask them to show you their best stuff. Most likely you’ll see a collection of pitchers who really aren’t pitchers but those players that can throw a baseball decently, can reach the plate at least, and have a strike % of about, oh, 40%. In addition, they’ll be awkward on the mound, little or no form to speak of, but just enough to spot promise. This group is your last gasp for air if things get bad, or, that fresh meat that you’ll toss in if things go from bad to disastrous and you don’t want to burn into your regular standard-bearers. You will end up selecting two from this group – not one, not three, but only two.
Third – Take those pitchers with two or more years of pitching experience and ask them to show you what they have. Pay particular attention to this group over all the others. These people have come along within the organization and are the litmus test to the way things were before you got there. If you’re the resident pitching coach from last year, this should be a barometer of your ability to bring along your pitching staff progressively. Take special note here on my last sentence – because, others will judge you on how these pitchers will do this year. Based on the quality of what you witness, select three pitchers from this group. Your selection must be based on quality, not just pitch selection like curveball, sinker, etc. I repeat, not pitch selection. Overall quality with each pitcher’s best stuff is the key with this group. (I’ll get into more detail later on this subject of quality and best stuff.) If a pitcher says he has four pitches, but only one or two are worth calling his best stuff – then go with that in the pool of candidates for your selection. Now here’s the tough spot. Select three pitchers from this group – no more.
Fourth – Take those pitchers from your tryouts that have a combination of the most experience inside and outside your organization. These pitchers should show you the best of what you can expect. Again, follow the same criteria as you did with all the others. Focus on quality of what you see, not pitch selection. From this group you’ll select two pitchers, no more.
At this point, you’re starting off with a pitching staff of 7 dedicated pitchers within a total roster count of 15 – 19 players. So, what you’ve done here is this in a nutshell:
-Those pitchers that you’ve selected must realize that they are the pitching staff in total. There’s no one else to go to or depend on to carry the load for the entire season.
-Every pitcher is going to be exposed to the good and bad times out there in the middle of the infield. They are the centerpiece of the club. They are the marque of the club. It is mandatory that they conduct themselves as such on and off the field.
-They are collectively the focus of every teammate’s hope for a winning season.
-Your coaching expertise and management skills depends on your pitching staff addressing every detail with preparing, training, and focusing on your instructions – period.
STARTERS – RELIEVERS – CLOSERS
There’s no room for a partial commitment or a on-again-off-again mindset to this level of competition. Your composition of your pitching staff is designed to blend experience with longevity in addition to a training ground for the next season.
This pitcher should be capable of at least a 70% strike level with his best stuff, even if he only has one pitch worth calling his best stuff. He has to be utterly dependable about following your instructions to thee letter. Your pool of the most experienced and those with at least two years of experience are your candidates here for starters. Starters will be expected to hold their own for four innings at a minimum. Five innings will be their max. With starters you’re going to give them one inning to settle in. That one inning will be the first inning, facing the top of the order. You’re going to give them four batters per inning, with each batter getting 4 pitches max. That’s a meter of 4 batters, 16 pitches max each inning for 4 to 5 innings. So, these pitchers will be expected to maintain themselves, healthy and ready, to sustain a life span of 16 to 20 batters with a total pitch count max of 80 pitches. If your starter is finishing up his 4th inning appearance with say, 75 pitches and he’s sailing nicely, then facing the bottom of the order in the 5th inning, I’d make a judgment call and stick to it. This is where your experience as a pitching coach pays off. Those people who assume the role of a pitching coach with little or no experience usually crash and burn here big time by upsetting the entire dependability factor of pitcher selection. Take a look at the graphic display below and notice the fatigue rate and the batting order cycle of a starter. Notice how in the 4th and 5th inning a starter is most likely to show signs of fatigue but faces the mid to the bottom of the batting order. Look for trouble here if a starter starts to get too fancy or gets careless. If on the other hand if he’s put three batters down in one inning, or two innings, he’s now he’s now ahead of your meter system and will be facing a different batting order. This is when starters should be there strongest, not their weakest.
RELIEVERS & CLOSERS
A reliever and a closer have no room for adjustments or fitting in. These guys must be ready to hit the ground running. Their best stuff has to be on from the get go. I would suggesting tempering these guys with only your pitching staff with two or more years’ worth of experience and who has what with respect to their best stuff for who he’s about to face. In other words, say your looking at the last three or two innings and you looking at the top and middle of the order. Ask yourself who’s up next and what have they been hitting – or not. If it’s stuff that’s down and inside all day, then go with the guy that’s really good at down and inside with a 70% effective rate. If it’s junk, then pull from the this pool of pitchers that has a 70% effective rate with junk. Do not depend on the least experience pool of your staff unless the situation warrants it. What warrants? I’ll leave that up to you.
THE LEAST EXPERIENCED STAFF
Those 2 pitchers that you have in this pool are used against teams that you play against in the beginning of the season for practice games and such. I would even suggest the first two regular season games. See how these guys react under pressure, at this level of ball. I wouldn’t subject them to more than two innings each at first. Send one in to start and see how far he goes, knowing in advance that he’s expected to go only 2 innings to hold his own. Then send in the second one and see how he fares with the same expectations up front.
As the season progresses you’re going to be tempted to go deeper and deeper into using your top 2 and then depending on your next top 3. This is where these pitchers with least experience come in and give your standard bearers a well deserved rest. Don’t let the temptation of winning override your better judgment here. Sure, winning is the name of the game but you’re not going have your game all the time. You’ll probably end up losing at least a few games, but your staff will be healthy and ready for the long-haul. That’s what a good pitching coach plans for.
STACKING UP YOUR STAFF BY “BEST STUFF”
Within each pool of pitchers you’re going to have those with varying degrees of effectiveness with fastballs, sliders and junk. Keep a careful and accurate record of your “toolbox,” as I call it. Like a toolbox, you’re going to reach in and select certain tools to do certain jobs. A pitching staff is no different. So those that have fastballs that are considered their best stuff will be used in certain games and others will not. The dependability of each pitcher’s best stuff will hinge on how effective each pitcher is on any given day. Perhaps the fastballs aren’t as dependable one day, so the selection process may change a bit to fit the needs. If you’re a “must go” with only breaking stuff and a slider here and there, so be it. Use your pitching staff to compliment this.
We as human beings are not machines that can be turned on with the flick of a switch and then be expected to perform flawlessly, time and time again, over and over again exactly the same. We’re just not built that way. So understand the humanity of those that you coach and are responsible for and with. An this by the way is why you structure your pitching staff the way I suggested. First and foremost are your standard bears with lots of experience and just enough experience to be groomed as the season progresses. Then you’ll have your up-n-coming pitchers that’ll learn by watching and doing. It’s that last group that’ll surprise you when you’re least expecting it – and for the better.
All in all, this staffing does not happen automatically nor does it function all by itself. You must be willing to show each level of your pitching staff not only how to pitch, but why, in what manner during certain game scenarios, and a host of other situations. Your bullpen sessions will be long and tedious at times, even frustrating. You’ll be constantly addressing after game meetings of what happened and why. These guys that you selected to form your pitching staff have to be willing to meet these challenges.
This kind of building and maintenance is a lot of work and risky if you and your pitching staff is not on board 100% from the get go. You must be left alone to do your thing without others affecting your decisions.
Others probably have a better plan for the amateur game at the high school and summer game, but these are my suggestions based on year of watching those with successful clubs and how they’ve addressed their staffing for pitchers. In that regard, I’ve picked from here-n-there observing what I thought worked.