What’s the purpose here, anyway? I ask this question to every pitcher before I begin working with him. I am always surprised by the variety of answers I get. Examples of responses are: throw strikes, strike everyone out, don’t walk anyone, throw hard, make the team, get outs, get drafted, get a scholarship, and on it goes. I keep asking what each one of those things allows them to do until I get the response, ‘to win’.
You may be thinking, “Well, that is understood. Everyone wants to win.” Sure everyone wants to win but very few have the ‘will to win’ which is the absolute cornerstone to any pitching strategy. The dictionary defines a cornerstone as ‘something fundamental or of primary importance, an indispensable part or basis.’ It was usually the first stone laid for a building uniting two walls at the corner. The Will to Win must be that basis or indispensable part of any pitcher’s strategy or preparation.
Curt Schilling said it well in an interview I had with him a couple of years ago. He said, “I find it hard to believe that there is anything that I shouldn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t do to make sure that I put up a win.” He wasn’t talking about illegal substances, he was talking about taking the responsibility to prepare to win.Tommy Lasorda used to joke with his pitchers that he wanted every fan to think from looking at the box score and seeing the W or L next to the pitcher of record, that his pitcher’s first names were William and not Larry.
The American baseball culture today with its parental structure and private or semi private instruction does not lend itself to the free development of a winning attitude. The emphasis for pitchers today is speed and mechanics. Velocity programs are springing up all over America , and instructors in mechanics can be found at just about every sports academy. High School players either pay their way or are invited to showcases where they can display their velocity and their mechanics. They rarely have to show their will to win because they throw a certain number of pitches and they are done. In that time scouts and college coaches clock the pitcher’s speed and check his mechanics but little else. The perception to parents and to pitchers is that if they throw hard enough with good enough mechanics, they have a chance to get drafted or to get a college scholarship.
Parents today strategize for their sons on how to get ahead. They work or pay to get their sons involved with the more prestigious travel teams and showcases. While I was coaching at Michigan I even had a couple of parents, in the recruiting process, ask me how I was going to position their son for the draft.
High school pitchers are drafted almost entirely on potential. They are drafted on potential body size, arm strength, and velocity. The bigger they are and the harder they throw, the higher they get drafted. The higher they get drafted the more money they can demand both from pro ball and from colleges offering scholarships. If they opt for college they want to know how they are going to be worth more money after three years in your program. If you couple this attitude with the fact that many of these pitchers haven’t called a pitch in their life because a coach has called their pitches, the ability to get hitters out and win games is not something they have spent a lot of time developing. They haven’t had to.
Long gone are the days when kids got together in their neighborhood and played pick-up games of baseball, stick ball, five hundred, and waffle ball by the hours in vacant lots, on the streets, or in their driveways. You were vying, not just to win, but for neighborhood supremacy. There weren’t any parents around. You had to prove yourself to your peers. No one wanted to be the last guy picked for the team and it was acknowledged that the best players picked the teams.
Jane Leavy said it so well in her book Sandy Koufax, “Spring began not with the equinox but with the annual preseason exhibition series between the Yankees and the Dodgers. Kids went to sleep in their baseball uniforms so they would be ready to play ball in the morning.
Everyone played: stickball, punchball, squareball, Gi-Gi ball. The streets and playgrounds were multicultural before there was a word for it. Diversity was a fact, not a goal.Political correctness was preached only by Mao Tse-tung. Italians were guineas. Jews were born with silver spoons in their mouths. Nobody took offense.” 1. She later quoted Frank Torre, Joe’s brother, “You grew up in the streets. If you didn’t adjust you wouldn’t survive.” 2
What young men used to learn through experience in the streets and on the playgrounds we now need to bring out of them through our organized instruction. I am teaching the young pitchers that come to me some things that I didn’t learn till I was in the big leagues, but as I teach I am trying to impart that spirit of the Will to Win.
I had the honor to play with some great players. Reggie Jackson had an uncanny capacity to rise to occasions and always seemed to be a central figure in winning whether he did it with a home run, a single, a throw from the outfield, or breaking up a key double play. Don Baylor was so intent on beating you that if he could get a hit using his forearm he would do it. Rod Carew had such tremendous concentration day in and day out that woe to the pitcher that tried to intimidate him. He usually followed a knockdown with a hit up the middle. Today I love watching Derek Jeter. If you watch his eyes and follow his mannerisms he is constantly searching for ways to help the Yankees win day in and day out whether it is leading off an inning with a hit, driving in a key run, or making a great play to end an inning. He wants to be where the action is and involved in the win.
Every pitcher should know that if he is going to win he has to be one step ahead of all these hitters that have that extreme desire to win. He must develop his repertoire of pitches and abilities to have one more weapon in his arsenal than the hitter has in his. The pitcher has the advantage because he is the initiator of the action. He must stay ahead of the hitter in both preparation and execution. Curt Schilling said, “It comes down to taking responsibility. One of the things with preparation is, when guys prepare and people understand that they are putting time and effort into it, it sets them up for failure, and there are no excuses. If you put time and effort into a game and you go out and lose, now you can’t blame anybody else. A lot of people like to have that cushion; well, I didn’t know, or I didn’t know he could do this, blah, blah, blah.”
Strategizing to win leaves you with no excuses. When you take responsibility for your actions and preparation you will not rationalize and make excuses for being mediocre. You will be demonstrating courage to walk out on that limb past your comfort zone and take responsibility for your failures as well as your successes. During bullpens or video or analyzing charts you are always preparing to succeed in every situation.
In games, a Will to Win keeps you constantly looking ahead. You don’t have time to feel sorry for yourself because your shortstop booted a perfect ground ball. You are already figuring out how to get a ground ball for a double play and establishing who is going to cover in case that ground ball is hit back to you. Your concentration is on getting this hitter out and on getting three outs before the other team scores. Do that for every inning you are in the game and you have a great chance to win.
Pitching Strategy has many components; posture and cockiness, video analysis, charting hitters’ tendencies, knowing the umpire, ballpark and conditions, location of your pitches, complimentary and antagonistic pitches, the different pitches themselves, the speed of the pitches, pitching to zones, establishing your repertoire and strength, and on it goes. Pitchers can work on all these facets but if they aren’t driven by an extreme Will to Win they will not achieve all they can be.
1&2 Sandy Koufax A Lefty’s Legacy by Jane Leavy: Copyright 2002 Pages 30 and 36
By Geoff Zahn
Former Head Baseball Coach University of Michigan and 12 Year Major League Veteran Pitcher

October 14, 2014 | Featured, Strategy | 0

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