Pitching Drill Progression
By Darren Fenster
Drills are the lifeblood of skill development. Whether it be for Major Leaguers as a part of their daily routine, or youth players as their means of learning the basic skills of the game, it’s in the batting cages and backyards where ability is truly cultivated. Drills allow you to isolate a specific part of a specific skill that, when put together, help develop the overall talent of the individual player.
Within each skill of the game lies a natural progression straight out of the “crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run” school of thought. For instance, hitters can’t focus on putting the ball out of the ballpark without mastering the skill of putting the ball in play, while pitchers can’t concern themselves with throwing ten different pitches until they’ve actually figured out how to consistently throw one for a strike. By following a simple step-by-step, building block approach with each specific skill of the game, players will not only find a comfortable routine that will build consistency in their daily work, but will also reap the benefits in their entire ability.
When it comes to pitchers, their success on the mound begins and ends with their ability to throw the ball over the plate for strikes. Without that skill, velocity doesn’t matter. Deception doesn’t matter. The break on the curveball doesn’t matter. So, the proper way to build a pitcher has to revolve around the goal of them learning how to throw the ball exactly where they want to. The following drill progression is organized with that very skill in mind.
Walk into most professional stadiums some three or four hours prior to first pitch, and you’ll likely notice a strange sight if you’ve never seen it before: pitchers on the bullpen mounds, seemingly throwing…without a ball. These are the dry drills that just about every pitcher goes through as a part of his daily preparation. They are called “dry” because there is not actually ball to being thrown, and with that fact, dry work is 100% about feel for the delivery and what the body is doing, both important parts of a pitcher knowing himself and his ability.
There are a number of different focal points that can be emphasized during dry drills, which take just a minute or two to do, as many professionals pick two or three per day before they even pick up a ball. Almost all at one point or another will go through their normal delivery, both from the windup and the stretch, but do so with a controlled tempo that they want to take into the game. They have checkpoints in their delivery such as their balance point, stride length, glove/hand separation, arm swing, weight transfer, front side direction to the plate, and the finish that they consciously work to sync up together, or separately as their own isolated dry drill.
It’s not getting loose. It’s not warming up. Throwing, for all players, must be looked at as a daily drill that will translate directly into games, but especially for pitchers who control everything that happens in the game from the mound. In its simplest form, all pitching is, is playing catch. So, pitching in a game, on a mound, with a hitter in the box is no more than an extension of our daily throwing program. If you can’t play catch, chances are you can’t play. And that absolutely rings true to pitchers.
Throwing programs should be designed with a number of different points of emphasis in mind. A concentration on the basic mechanics of throwing the baseball should always be at its fundamental base, with things like release point, arm action, effort level (under control), and lower half use all coming into play. A great way to create good mechanics without specifically talking about mechanics is approaching a daily throwing program like target practice. Partners give one another a target at all times or they are working to pound throws to the waist area. The increased focus on accuracy forces much of the throwing motion to fall into place.
Extended distances (known as long toss) can help build arm strength, but must be stretched out with consistent throwing mechanics, meaning if a pitcher can’t throw the ball 150 feet under control, and on a low arc (not a high fly ball), then back it down to 125 feet and move from there. Shorter distances for longer periods of time can help maintain the arm, but each pitcher has to have a good understanding of themselves to know when and how far is enough.
The best throwing programs are not black and white, but rather put together in a manner that will best benefit each specific pitcher’s needs. Younger players need the organization of specific times at specific distances as they first learn exactly what a true throwing program entails, while more experienced players can be given the flexibility to use theirs tailored to exactly what their individual needs are when it comes to duration and long toss.
A great way to end a pitchers’ throwing program every day is with flat ground work. Partnered up, at 60-feet away, one guy becomes the catcher - complete in a squatted stance - with the other throwing from his game delivery, both from the stretch and the windup. This is literally pitching without the mound. Effort level should be at 60-70% of maximum effort, with a focus on things like feel of delivery, balance, body control, release point, command, and spin.
Since it’s not on a mound, working on a flat ground is less taxing on the arm which allows for this drill to be done just about every day for steady development throughout the course of the season. For younger players, a flat ground might consist of just throwing the ball in that big box that we call the strike zone. For those more advanced, their flat ground work could include throwing to smaller boxes within the big box to perfect their command of the zone. Flat grounds can be whatever the coach and pitcher want them to be from a focus standpoint, so put the time in to make them individualized.
Obviously, there must be significant time dedicated to working off of the mound since that’s where pitchers will be when the lights are on. Every pitcher is different, so their routines off the mound should reflect their own individuality. Starting pitchers can have a regular routine in between starts, since they know what the schedule is as to when they will pitch. Relievers are a different animal. Because of their unknown status, they can’t get into that same consistent routine as starters, they still need to find a way to get on the mound to get their work in. Sometimes that might mean throwing five pitches. Other times they may need 20.
In the professional ranks as well as on the collegiate level, pitchers will throw a regular side session in the bullpen usually just once in between outings. This is their “game” when they are not in the game, thrown with an 85-90% intensity and effort. Many times, these bullpens are scripted, 20-30 pitches total with sequences to use all of the pitchers in the pitcher’s repertoire, both from the stretch and the windup. Sometimes if a pitcher is struggling with one particular pitch or location, that can be a focus for that particular side session, essentially creating a new script. Give pitchers the routine of time in the bullpen, but the flexibility within that routine to work on different things at different times.
A light side session, also referred to as a touch and feel, can be done once or twice in between game outings, as the intensity and effort level are lighter than a regular side, as many pitchers use these merely to get a feel for the mound. Scripted or not, a light side might last only 10-20 pitches. Sometimes they will be thrown with the catcher set up in front of plate to put an emphasis on being down. With breaking balls, it offers an actual target to throw that chase ball in the dirt that every pitcher hopes to lure a swing out of a hitter. For many pitchers, these touch and feels are the equivalent to a hitter working on a tee, just to get their delivery where it needs to be for them.
Adding pressure to each bullpen sessions adds just yet another element that well help in a pitcher’s overall development. Pressure might mean keeping score of how many spots hit perfectly in a scripted side session, or it might look like putting the pitcher in a specific game situation for each pitch, forcing quality execution. By practicing with pressure, playing with pressure becomes easier.
The game is the reward for the pitcher who dedicates himself to all of the work put in when NOT on the mound. While every guy on a pitching staff is different, they all need to hone their craft just like any other player. Pitchers don’t have the same affordability as hitters do to hit every single day just because their arms only have so many bullets, but there IS plenty for them to do on a daily basis that will make those bullets even better. By introducing, and staying consistent with, a drill progression for pitchers, they will undoubtedly enjoy the fruits of their labor when the lights are on and they are standing ten inches above everyone else on the field.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.