Article Provided By: The National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA)
Article by: Bill Edwards, Head Coach at Hofstra
Bill Edwards' belief in the "game within a game" philosophy is one of the biggest tools in his coaching arsenal. This two-part series detailing this philosophy began last month with "You Never Stop Scouting Your Opponent" and concludes this month with "Defensive Game Planning."
Last time, we talked at length about the "game within the game" and the importance of scouting from the time we get our schedule until the last out of the game. This time, we will continue to look at the importance of in-game adjustments.
We have all heard of the old adage, "pitching and defense wins championships." In fact, I am sure there are some of us out there who roll our eyes whenever we hear some in-studio analyst say this phrase. But regardless of how much it is used, or maybe in this case overused, the bottom line is that people keep saying it because it's true.
In our sport, when we talk about defense, the biggest aspect is pitching. Is it fair that games, championships, and sometimes entire seasons ride on one pitch or one ground ball? Probably not, but that is one of the things that makes our game so great. With that being said, it is our job as coaches to prepare our team to the best of our abilities, and at least put them in a position to win every game.
When making a defensive game plan for our team, the first thing we should do is answer the question, "Who is not going to beat me?" We start this process by identifying our opponent's most dangerous hitter and then asking ourselves the question, "How will our pitching staff pitch to her?" We also need to look at who is hitting in front of her and behind her in the batting order. This will help answer the question of when, and in what situations, we may consider the intentional walk.
After answering those questions, we still have several options available to us in the form of special defenses we may be able to use against her. We can use four outfielders (a defense I used many times in high school on open fields), five infielders, the inverted martini glass defense (the over-shifted infield, with three infielders on the right or left side of second base), or an inverted infield to the left, right or both sides. Whatever you decide, don't ever let their best and most dominant player beat you. Always look for pitcher/hitter mismatches on both sides of the line-up card. You should project your line-up and that of your opponent and then anticipate that mismatch with a pinch hitter or a pitching change.
After we have figured out who our opponent's best hitter is, we can then get to work on developing a plan for pitching to each individual hitter. There are certain things we need to look for in each batter in order to help us develop their personality profile.
One of the first things we need to look at is on what pitches and locations they are aggressive or confident, and on which ones they are defensive. If we find a hitter is protecting a location, we then need to know if she will hit that pitch or location if she is keyed by her team.
We also need to know how the batter handles off-speed pitches. Do we throw them early in the count to set up other pitches? Or late in the count when she is looking for another pitch?
While looking at the hitter, we must figure out if she has an approach, and if so what it is. Is this batter the type of player that will change her approach from at-bat to at-bat, or is she the type that will sit on her pitch or location until she has two strikes? We always want to disrupt the hitter's timing and rhythm, and get her out in front of the soft stuff, and late on the hard stuff. Once you have accomplished this, you are now dictating the outcome of her at-bat.
While we are always looking for ways to get players out, sometimes they do all the work for us by being too anxious or too aggressive in a particular area of the strike zone. It is our job to pick up on these signals and pitch them accordingly. These type of hitters will swing at pitches that are higher than high, tighter than tight or wider than wide. There is no need to throw strikes to these types of hitters, because many times they will get themselves out by swinging at pitches out of the zone.
When putting together the personality profile, we also need to be mindful of any changes in the batter's stance. Examples of this might be switching from an open stance to a closed stance (or vice versa), moving the hands up or down, or adjusting shoulder tilt, from an up to a down position, or an in to an out position. Hitters do this to protect the area of the strike zone that they struggle with.
We also need to look at the batter's position in the batter's box. This responsibility should fall to your catcher during a game. She can communicate to you whether they are forward or back in the box, and if they are positioned on or off the plate. We as coaches can usually see forward and back, but the catcher must be aware of any hitter pinching the plate to reach the outside pitch. The catcher must also watch the hitter's eyes and head to make they sure that they are not peeking back for signs or location (in baseball, a peeker is usually plunked on the next pitch).
As we discussed last time, and have touched on a little this time, during a game is not a time to stop scouting our opponents. If we are constantly in a scouting frame of mind, there are several things that a batter's physical mechanics can tell us, and there are adjustments we can make accordingly.
The first thing we should be evaluating for each hitter is whether her timing is early, late, or on time. There are other things we can be looking for as well. Does her head pull off? Do her shoulders fly open? Does her front knee cave in when pitching inside or off-speed? Does her front side stay closed?
There are a few more "tells" a batter can give us. Is she working underneath the ball or on top of the ball? Is she diving in? Does she have poor balance? Does she jump away when we pitch inside? Is she looking to pull the ball or drive the ball? Is she aggressive early in the count, or is she working the count? Picking up on a batter's weaknesses by evaluating simple mechanics is one of the easiest ways we can gain an advantage over opposing hitters.
Another thing to look at is if there are any specific hitters or runners that steal, hit, bunt or run on specific counts or situations with great frequency. Once we identify these individuals, we need to look especially for the bunt, the hit-and-run, the bunt-and-run or the steal in certain situations. Are they a first pitch team? Or will they wait for one of the two action counts, 2-1 and 3-1, to put runners in motion? Don't ever be afraid to use a pitchout in those situations (except 3-1, obviously). Another common occurrence is for a team to steal with two strikes and two outs with one of their best hitters at the plate. This creates either a runner in scoring position with their best hitter up, or allows her a fresh count to start the next inning.
Once the game begins, we then need to turn our attention towards making adjustments in real time, and understanding that every pitch we throw and that our opponents throw is telling a story. However, it is the course of action, or inaction, that we take that many times determines the outcome of the game.
During a game the first and most important thing we should do is to constantly take notes on each hitter. We need to understand that while we may have scouted a hitter we faced last season, hitters change from year to year.
Hitters also work on their weaknesses and figure out how to correct them during the off-season, and that is why in-game adjustments are so important. Not only do hitters change from season to season, but they also may make adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. A hitter may be looking to pull an inside pitch the first time around, then look to drive the outside pitch the second time around. The next thing we should remember is that we are not the only ones scouting, so we need to make sure we adjust our game plan accordingly to what our opponents are doing.
When needed, we must evaluate and adjust our pitch sequence. We need to be constantly checking on this, and trying not to fall into pitching patterns. Even with our waste pitches, we need to constantly check our pitch sequence, because if we miss, more often than not, we may not be "getting the same ball back." Knowing where to throw strikes (a hitter's dead zone) and where to throw balls (a hitter's hot zone) is another key to successful game planning.
In addition to knowing where we are throwing our pitches, we also need to know what we are trying to make the hitter do. It may sound like a no-brainer, but a lot of times we get caught up in just pitching and forget there should be one definitive thing we are trying to make each hitter do. Our aim should be to get each hitter to hit our pitcher's pitch, and hit a ground ball or fly ball into our defense at the most critical times.
There are also certain situations in each game that we have to be mindful of when the batter is trying to accomplish something specific (situational hitting). One obvious example is a runner on third with less than two outs, where the batter is trying to hit a fly ball to drive the runner in (or a runner on second base with no outs where the batter is trying to hit the ball to the right side). We need to watch what adjustments the hitters are making in the batter's box to accomplish their goal, and when perhaps they are adjusting to hit the pitcher's pitch.
Two quick reminders, we should always know how we are going to shade and position our defense for each hitter we face, and we should always know when to pitch to, and when to walk, a hitter. The speed and power of hitters are two of the biggest variables to consider when making in-game adjustments to our pitching plan. The main thing we need to determine when regarding these two elements is how we will defend against them.
The first thing to determine is how fast are their slappers and/or pinch-runners. You should develop some type of signal so that you can communicate their speed to your team. We then need to establish if they are a "full-plate" slapper or not. As we talked about last time, a "full-plate" slapper is one that can do it all. If the batter is not "full-plate," we then need to determine her approach. Is she just a bunter or can she hit away with power? Does she hard tap, soft tap or both? These are questions that can help us determine what defense to use in each situation and where to position our outfield.
When finishing a scouting report on our opponent, there are a few other items to consider. We should always be looking for players who can be picked off on the basepaths. They are likely the most aggressive baserunners on the team, but not always. Other prime situations to look for pick-off opportunities are after a missed bunt and after a third strike. We can also evaluate what trick plays we have in our playbook that may work against a specific team or a specific baserunner. Coaches sometimes look at trick plays as gimmicks or almost unsportsmanlike, but why not use them if opponents are putting themselves in that position?
American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is credited with writing the "Serenity Prayer" that asks God for the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what can't be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. While Niebuhr meant this prayer to be applied to life in general, we can apply the same basic principles to softball when talking about outside elements.
The facility, especially one that is not ours, is important to scout as well. A few of the things to look at include how close is the backstop to home plate (and its composition), where are the dead ball areas, is there a tarp on the field, where will the sun be at game time, how high is the fence (and what kind of fence is it)? These are only a few of the many ways that the facility can affect the game.
The weather and umpires are also elements that we just cannot change, try as we may, but we must adjust and prepare for them as well. Failing to do so brings to mind what is often called "The 5 P's" – Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Whether it's a game where the wind is blowing straight out or an umpire who will not call the corners, having a contingency plan for these types of situations can prevent big headaches in the long run.
Really as a whole, "The 5 P's" are what we have been talking about all along. Having a game plan, adjusting it throughout the game and reacting rationally, are all simple things we can do to give ourselves the best chance to win every game we play. Will we win every game we play? Most likely we will not. However, by not planning, we are doing our players and ourselves a terrible disservice. The old saying goes that "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." I would argue that in softball it is more like, "If you fail to plan, you should plan on staying home during the postseason." Planning is simple and easy, and while it may take some time to do, the payoff is so much larger than the amount of work we put into it.