Saturday morning about 300 little league coaches from local leagues were invited to Nationals Park to attend the Nats first ever “Coaches Clinic”. This was one heck of a fun morning, a million thanks to the Nats staff and coaches for inviting us.
The Nats divided us up into four groups to get some professional insight into how to coach catching, pitching, hitting, and general motivation. That was followed by lunch and a presentation by Inova Sports Medicine on how to lower the chances of injuries to young pitchers.
Nats bullpen coach Dan Firova was by far the best prepared. He had a long list of notes on what he wanted to cover. Firova had so much information that he ran over his 20 minutes he was allotted for his session. Very matter of fact, very informative, and a really terrific session with Firova.
Firova showed us that there are a number of different stances, that it is up to the individual catcher to pick the position that is most comfortable for them. With a few constants, 1) you want to keep the elbow on your catching arm higher than your knee so that movement is not restricted, 2) you want to keep your throwing hand in a fist to prevent injury from foul balls (or hold it behind your back if no one is on), 3) with no men on you can crouch low and get comfortable, with men on you want to be higher so that you are up and ready to make a throw, and 4) you should hold the glove with your hand in an L shape, keeping the L upright regardless of pitch placement. He mentioned that it rarely works for a coach to insist on a change in technique because the players have to buy in.
Firova showed us how to have the catchers throw the ball with a half cocked arm position, this saves time from cocking the ball all the way back. That a catcher with a strong arm can throw without a pivot but that most catchers need a pivot step to get a hard throw into the base. The catcher should aim for the base itself. Much of this seemed like good advice for any infield position.
Firova showed us how he teaches catchers to take their position back just far enough behind the batter so that their extended glove arm can just barely touch the hitters back knee (assuming both are right handed). This gets the catcher as close as possible behind the batter without risking getting hit with the bat. Firova didn’t put much stock in framing pitches. He said that the catcher should avoid holding the ball too long, this is a major trigger for the umps. Also never turn around to argue as umps do hold grudges, although some umps will admit bad calls.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux was inside the press conference room with the AC, he is a really funny guy. The first tip he gave was that over his career on many teams he learned that you get a lot of good advice and you get a lot of bad advice, you often have to learn the hard way which is which.
Maddux gave his three keys to pitching: balance, power, and follow-through. He stood on one foot, stating that a pitcher is in this position for only a short moment during the wind-up, but that it is critical to have balance in order to be under control. Power is gained by having your throwing arm at the furthest point back behind your head at the same instant as your front foot is planted. Follow-through includes jerking your elbow on your non-pitching arm back very very hard, this forces you to use your entire body rather than relying on just your arm. Kids don’t have the core strength to do this right, they just need to work on their technique. Some kids can rely on their arms to throw hard, but at a high risk of injury, they need to be taught to use the full body.
Maddux recommended throwing a wiffle ball as a great way to learn control without tiring out your arm, it worked for him and his brother. If you can consistently throw a wiffle ball straight you will be able to control a baseball. The official word on throwing breaking balls is to wait until the kids is shaving, but Maddux said that he was throwing them at age nine. The trick is to use your wrist in a downwards motion and to never twist your wrist, another fast track to injury. He recommended having the kids throw empty plastic water bottles, to get them to go end over end to get the technique down. The ball should break in the direction of your arm motion, a true overhand pitcher will have the ball drop, a 3/4 arm slot will have the ball go at a corresponding angle. Maddux then showed several ways to throw the change-up, multiple fingers, middle fingers only, and palming the ball.
Maddux is a big fan of pitchers throwing strikes. He made several references to telling pitchers to rely on their fielders rather than risking walks by going for the strike outs. He told a story about how strike outs are boring for the rest of the team, his younger brother at age 12 threw 17 Ks in six innings and wasn’t allowed to pitch again, it was no fun for anyone else.
Jacque Jones and Ali Modami did a Q&A session rather than a presentation. But the funniest parts for those guys was during the introductions. The Nats staff member who was hosting the event was reading off each of the coach’s playing and coaching histories, he noted that Jones had a .227 lifetime batting average, Jacque politely waited until the end and then stepped forward to correct his record, noting that he had a more appropriate for a hitting coach .277 BA. Batting practice pitcher Modami wasn’t as much of a talker so Henley called him out to tell the story from his playing days. Modami is known for having a better glove fielding first base than even the players, he is so sure handed that Henley once asked him if he ever made an error, turns out there was just one, he was going for a pop fly when he tripped over first and had the ball land on his butt.
Jones did most of the talking for their session. He highly recommended using a tee to warm up, a great way to work on your mechanics, including if you set the tee further back to force a direct downwards motion with the bat like swinging a sword. He has the players aim for the top half of the ball off the tee.
Jones is a proponent of the 60/40 weight distribution (60% on your back leg). He is not a fan of the Mark McGwire move of letting go of the bat with one hand during the follow-through. A big thing to look for is players swinging too hard (he mentioned a National as an example of this, probably most fans could get this in two guesses), swinging too hard is a sign of frustration, hitters need to have a controlled swing in order to make contact. He passed on a recommendation from Dusty Baker that players aim for the “mouth” of the baseball, the lower half.
Jones emphasized the importance of staying loose in the batters box. Stating that players usually listen to music while in the cage and have a rhythm in their heads while preparing to swing, helping to avoid tensing up. He showed how moving his hips is basically dancing while waiting to swing. Unfortunately nobody asked for the best method for coaching players how to hit while battling a sore neck.
Don’t mess with third base coach Bob Henley, the Nats staff learned that by asking him to wrap it up before he was finished, he sent them on their way. The younger staff member had to get one of the more senior staff members to come over and let him know he was over the allotted time.
Henley appeared to be a big part of putting the event together, he was very enthusiastic, with a loud booming voice and a commanding presence. Although much of his presentation would not translate well to the little league level as he covered how the Nats coaching staff analyzes advanced scouting.
Henley spoke mostly about how they rate outfielders. The Nats use an 80 point scale to assess opposing players, grading their arm accuracy and power, with 50 points being major league normal (Turner is an 80 for speed). He showed us the film room where they can pull up every play made by their opposition for the night. He wants to see recent trends, as opposed to how the guy played last year, and he wants to see major league level plays, not minor league. Older players will often take longer to field the ball in order to make sure they don’t muff the catch, younger players are much more aggressive but will throw over the cut-off man. He’s also looking to see how much the player peeks at the bases before throwing, is he blindly throwing home or taking extra time to look around. All of this information is processed against how many steps each Nats player can make per “click” when deciding whether to send them home.
The second part of Henley’s presentation was in the Nats dugout. He talked about motivating players, positive re-enforcement (something Maddux was big on as well), yelling at players is usually not helpful at either a minor league or major league level. He recommended giving players 2-3 goals per game and giving teams 2-3 goals per season, something to work towards without being overwhelming. Henley recommended against over instructing little league players while the ball is in play, suggesting that too much direction from the coaches leads to the players not developing the proper instincts for the game.
Walking through the clubhouse was really a great experience, I’d been there before but never on a game day with everything ready to go. I immediately walked around the room and looked for the #58 jersey but it wasn’t there, leading me to check Twitter and learn the sad fact that Mike Rizzo had allowed Jonathan Papelbon to walk.
We were instructed not to take photos, but I couldn’t help it in the one case shown here (sorry Nationals, it was too cool). He’s hard to see in this picture but sitting between Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy‘s lockers is the Nats own version of Jobu.
Maybe even cooler was the ball in Max Scherzer‘s locker labeled that it was the one that he threw for his 20th strike out. Tanner Roark had a ball in his locker with the words “SUCK IT” written on it, I’m sure there is a great story there.
Seth Blee from Inova Sports Medicine gave an in depth presentation on how to prevent injuries to young pitchers, highly relevant to most of the attendees. He had about 20 slides with various facts and stats on how to minimize the chances of over use of their arms (this included a slide of President Obama with captions for “how to not throw a baseball”). Many kids are playing on multiple teams, and often they are playing shortstop or catcher when not pitching, leading to heavy strains at a young age. They are also playing winter, spring, summer, and fall; Blee recommends that all pitchers take three months off every year. One of the little league coaches noted that a lot of early teen pitchers are exceeding the pitch counts enforced for young pros, an assertion that Blee agreed with, that coaches want to win and kids want to play so the guidelines are often ignored.
One thing I found interesting is that Blee said that studies have shown that quantity of pitches leads to more injuries than types of pitches. He recommended that players wait until they are shaving to throw breaking balls but admitted that the curve balls aren’t what is driving the high rate of arm injuries. He showed a slide for softball pitchers and noted that girls have fewer arm injuries but more leg injuries and the scariest stat is that the girls have twice as many concussions due to the smaller playing field.
Blee recommended resistance bands for young players rather than weights, along with a lot of lunges and squats, and plenty of running. Kids need to warm up before throwing rather than throwing to warm up.
Thanks again to the Nats, their coaching staff, and Inova for hosting the Coaches Clinic, I’ll really use a lot of this info over the next few seasons, plus it was just a whole lot of fun being there. Thanks too for the hat, the game tickets, the lunch, and most of all for the sweet clipboard I’ve been needing.
Not related to the Coaching Clinic, but relevant to the Nats and their support of local little league baseball, a big announcement went a bit under-reported this week. The Nats and the Dream Foundation have selected Mason District Little League in Fairfax County, Virginia to get a state of the art ballpark built for the kids to use. The plan is for the team to build a number of these fields around the area. Can’t wait to see it. See this article for the details: Mason District Little League Gets New Field