Sometimes a pitcher will tell me she had a bad day. Did she have a bad day or did the hitters have a good day? There is a vast difference.
Often a pitcher has her best stuff and gets beaten because she, her coach, and her catcher were totally unprepared for, and unaware of, things going on all around them. They have a fantasy that, as long as this pitcher does what she has always done, she will be successful. Softball is not a climate-controlled laboratory. Conditions always change and nobody has more control over the conditions than the opponent.
I have coached at every level before moving into pitching instruction full-time. As a head coach who knew about pitching, I taught my hitters to help the pitcher have a bad day. If she were a dropball pitcher, we might move to the back of the box and lay off the pitch until she brought the pitch a little higher. Without warning we would move all of the way to the front of the box and hit it before it broke. If she were a curve pitcher and right-handed, our righties went to the front of the box and squeezed the plate, making the pitch fat and tasty. If it was rightie against a lefty curve, depending on the break, we may go to the back of the box and squeeze the plate, daring her to hit the batter, and suddenly move up on the next pitch to take advantage of her trying to “leave it out there” a little longer.
There are a thousand tricks and many pitchers are oblivious. A coach will keep calling her best pitch and then get upset at the pitcher because she is getting hammered. Everyone just thinks she had a bad day.
In addition, think about the umpire’s preference. This will shock you, but some of them are simply terrible. They have the nerve to tell you that their strike zone is from “here to here” as if they have their own rule book. If that zone is wide and low, a riseball pitcher can struggle. I have seen several umpires who love one corner of the plate but absolutely will not give you a strike on the other half of the plate. If you are a screwball-curve pitcher and the umpire has no corners, you are in trouble.
The pitcher has to know everything. If she depends on the coach or the catcher to know these things, she is done. If she relies on a favorite pitch, she will find a team that has prepared for it. Yes, on the travel ball level, few people know how to adapt, they have no video or scouting reports, so she can get away with some things. Suddenly she gets to the national tournament and very experienced coaches are scouting her before their games, making adjustments within the games, and doing everything possible to break her rhythm and focus. She had a bad game and had no idea that the other team was totally responsible. Or, this kid gets to college and soon everyone is hammering her pitches. College coaches trade incredibly detailed scouting reports that tell you how to beat a pitcher. If she has no background in adjusting, she is destined to sit on the bench and watch a crafty teammate get all of the innings.
If coaches are going to call pitches, their first responsibility is to help you grow as a pitcher. That person must teach the pitcher why certain things are being called, must recognize and adjust to the umpire’s zone, must recognize hitter adjustments before they hurt the pitcher, and must know if a certain pitch is not working that day so they can forget it or send you to the bullpen between innings to fix it. This person must know your strengths and work within them, not calling a certain pitch simply this coach once threw it or had a pitcher that was dominant with it. This person must be willing to accept feedback from you and the catcher between innings. If this person isn’t doing these things, I am looking for a new coach. This person is stifling your growth.
If the catcher is calling your pitches, you must work as a team. She needs to be incredibly smart about the things we have already covered. You, as pitcher, must be able to help her with these things. She must be giving you feedback about location, timing of your break, and adjustments that she sees hitters making.
What sort of adjustments can you make? If the hitter is squeezing the plate, the first thought is to “put it on their hands”. She may have difficulty hitting the outside pitch and is trying to extend her reach by crowding the plate. However, she may be one of those who steps out slightly and is “baiting you” to throw inside. If you don’t know the difference it can be a long day. If she suddenly changes her location in the box, it can indicate bunt, slap, hit, or she is trying to adjust to your strengths. Each requires a different strategy. The one who is a step ahead usually wins.
The casual observer, watching an elite college team, has no idea that all of these things are happening. Does that mean we quit throwing our favorite pitch because the hitters are adjusting to it? Not at all. We set it up with others. If she is squeezing the plate to take away the curve, come with the screwball or inside riseball until she rocks back on the heels to deal with those pitches, then the curve is better than ever.
We could write a book on adjustments and strategies, but if a pitcher is a student of the game, these things become natural and she grows into the game. It should not be threatening. It is a chess game. It is fun. It keeps the game interesting. Soon she is adapting so naturally and comfortably that she doesn’t even have to think about it. It becomes instinct.
As she learns a new pitch, I want to teach her how to use it, when to use it, how to set it up with other pitches, and situations where she might want to avoid it. The greatest skills in the world are only going to take her so far. It is her ability to manage, exploit, and maximize those skills that will help her reach her true potential.