BY Matt Schissell (@shizzpeace13)
It’s that time of year again– the end of summer. Kids are going back to school and summer baseball seasons are over except for those lucky enough to play in the Little League World Series. The Little League World Series (LLWS) is fantastic. It promotes the game of baseball to a younger crowd and gives participants some memories they’ll never forget. One of the biggest issues with youth baseball today, including the LLWS, is pitching. It may be an old-school thought process, but 11-13 year old kids should not be spinning off curve balls every third pitch even if it leads to a ridiculous 16 strikeouts. While it may seem harmless at the time to the people who don’t understand baseball, kids’ arms aren’t fully developed. Their bodies aren’t made for that kind of use. This isn’t the player’s fault, and coaches and parents often just don’t know any better. Throwing curveballs and sliders with undeveloped muscles creates bad throwing habits and can lead to injuries later on in a player’s career. At this age the only off-speed pitch that should be thrown is a changeup. Developing a quality fastball with proper mechanics and a good changeup can carry a young pitcher all the way to college, and allow them to dominate younger competition. Instead of focusing on quality off-speed pitches, little leaguers should focus on the intent of their pitches (mainly fastballs), putting their whole body into every pitch, and creating momentum towards the plate. At the end of the day, an undeveloped body is unable to properly execute a curveball without creating bad mechanics, bad habits, or even injury.
However, all young men develop differently and at different ages. Some kids hit their growth spurt at 17, while others (like myself) are done growing before their freshman year of high school. This is the time when developing a curveball is most important. Learning how to throw a quality breaking ball requires a great deal of time and effort. Clayton Kershaw didn’t just wake up one day and spin off his unbelievable curve ball. It took years of practice. The pitchers that throw great curveballs and sliders have a lot more than just a good breaking ball. As a player gets older and the competition gets tougher, a good hitter can hit any pitch; especially if they know it’s coming. Developing good off-speed pitches depend a lot on what you’re already working with as a pitcher. Your velocity, mechanics, and understanding of the game all carry a lot of impact on how effective your breaking pitches will be in game situations.
The first key to developing quality breaking pitches is finding a grip that works for YOU. Unfortunately, there is no cookie cutter grip that will help everyone throw tremendous breaking balls. The only way to really find one that works well is to just throw it. Playing catch with different grips (grip catch) and working on all your off speed pitches is important for pitchers of all ages. Some guys have multiple off-speed pitches; which is also good. The goal of these pitches is to keep the hitter off balanced and get outs. The greater the change in velocity between pitches, the better off you’ll be as a pitcher. Howver, your new breaking ball grip should not change your mechanics. You should throw breaking balls just like fastballs and let the grip and wrist movement do the work; not your elbow.
Mechanics are an important part of successful breaking balls. If your mechanics vary from fastball, to changeup, to breaking ball hitters and opposing coaches will catch on, and when hitters know what pitches are coming, it’s never a fun day on the mound. The easiest and most effective way to check on this is filming your bullpens from different angles and comparing your mechanics on all your different pitches. Another key for quality breaking pitches is focusing on your intent. How well you transfer the energy from your body through the ball is important. While throwing a fastball, most people have decent intent simply because they want to throw the ball as hard as they can. Keeping this same principle for breaking balls is also very important. The harder you throw a breaking ball the more times it spins in the air and essentially the more break the pitch will have.
To close, remember to find a good grip that works and feels comfortable for you and your mechanics. Also, don’t alter your mechanics to throw a new pitch. That’s how injuries can happen. And lastly practice throwing it. Whether it be in a bullpen, playing catch, or spinning it into a net, practicing off speed pitches with proper mechanics and good intent are what’s going to make it good.
“Grip is for comfort, wrist action is for break.” –Unknown