We were playing a tight game against Carolina, our toughest ACC foe, during my freshman year. Ahead by a run or two with runners at second and third, Coach Alameda called a curveball. I felt slightly hesitant. There was this inherent feeling that a curveball wasn’t the pitch I should throw, but I threw it anyway. I left the pitch right over the heart of the plate, the hitter doubled to right-center. I’m not positive, but I’m pretty sure we lost that game. What I do remember is coming into the dugout and saying that I didn’t want to throw that pitch. Coach Wilson responded with a quick “Then don’t throw it!”
I wish I could say I learned my lesson about shaking pitches that very day, but it took me a while longer. With Coach Alameda, shaking pitches was encouraged. Coacha (as we so affectionately call her) understood that shaking a pitch didn’t show distrust in her; instead, it showed growth in her pitchers’ ability to take control of every pitch. Failure is never a bad thing as long as you learn from it, and the lesson I started learning against UNC stuck with me through the remainder of my playing career and now as a coach. To throw an effective pitch, you have to trust it, one hundred percent.
Trusting a pitch is the biggest weapon you have in the circle. Each time that trust is compromised, the likelihood of a positive result drops drastically. During the off-season, in practice, and in scrimmages are times to work on pitches that are sub-par. Yes, there may be times in a game you can throw a pitch that's in the works, but when the game is on the line and the moment is big, you have to trust your best stuff. Your "best stuff" might be one pitch or it could be two to three pitches that you can constantly rely on. Some of the best collegiate pitching coaches in the country encourage their pitchers to shake.
You will absolutely have times that the pitcher, catcher, and coach are all on the same page. The sign comes in, you smirk a little because that's exactly what you wanted to throw, a big swing and miss results in a strikeout. I hope you experience those situations repeatedly throughout your career, as you will cherish them later on.
You'll also have times where you receive the sign and you feel a little weary, a little unsure, these are potential moments of BIG TIME GROWTH. This is where you get to decide your fate. Do you shake the pitch, or do you convince yourself that it's the right pitch to throw? I hope you shake the pitch. It will be difficult at first, but you'll be glad you did. Small windows of doubt can result in big misses, so trust your pitch and have the courage to shake until you get what you want. You have the best view on the field, take advantage of the knowledge you gain from each swing the hitter takes.
Pitchers are supposed to win. You're put on the field to excel and pump energy into your team. You are the only player that gets a win or a loss next to your name on the stat sheet. Take ownership of that! In the circle, you have a unique responsibility that others may not understand, but it's your job, so you take care of business, no questions asked. Typically, you desire an environment where you feel in control.
So, what happens when the control that a pitcher typically thrives on is taken away? What happens when a coach exercises their need for dominance by forcing a pitcher to throw the pitch they're told instead of teaching them to trust their instincts? Homeruns walks, hard hits, melt-downs, these are potential consequences when a pitcher throws a pitch they don't believe in. Pitchers, stand up for yourselves, have the courage to have a conversation about pitch calling. You won't fully trust your pitches until you understand why you're throwing them.
A few years ago while working at a camp, I started up a conversation with a player about situational pitching. I questioned her about her favorite pitches to throw and her routine. We stumbled upon the topic of shaking pitches, and she mentioned that her travel ball coach made her run if she ever shook a pitch during a game. I was mind-blown, frustrated, disappointed but most of all saddened that a coach whose purpose is to teach would instead prioritize his ego rather than the growth of his player. Unfortunately, I’ve heard similar stories more than once. Coaches, let your pitchers grow, let them fail, let them learn. You are not doing your job unless you're equipping them with life skills, and decision making is one of those skills.
As a coach you’re called to teach, to develop, to inspire personal growth in your players. You coach because you have a passion for your sport and a passion for people. If you emphasize your importance as a coach over your player's growth, then you’ve stopped coaching all-together. It's not about feeling validation or a need for control, it's about developing players and helping them understand the sport and themselves at a higher level. If the situation in the section above sounds all too familiar, it may be time to look in the mirror and ask yourself what you’re really teaching your players. Are you developing people or are you creating robots?
We all want the same thing. Winning is at the cornerstone of sports, but it's important to understand the processes that lead to wins. Pitchers are in a position of control on the field. Whenever they're feeling self-doubt or frustration they relinquish a little bit of that control and give it to the other team. This is where the coach comes in.
Great coaches encourage players to learn from failure. If a pitcher is afraid to fail due to the consequences placed on them by their coach, their parents or anyone else, they surrender their ability to learn and grow.
Growth through shaking pitches will only happen if the coaches, pitchers, and catchers are on the same page in terms of development. You must all work together to enable personal growth for all parties. It starts with communication. Talk through everything, and get to know each other. The more capable you are of communicating effectively, the easier and faster you'll get on the same page. Trust between a coach and a player goes a long way, and that only happens by encouraging failure to promote growth.