Offseason Lessons: from the USA Baseball trip, Jamar Hill and just watching our kids play
Now that the winter program is starting up again, I wanted to share some of the lessons I have learned over the past season, and some of the adjustments to my approach to coaching in the off season. This past year I had the opportunity to travel with a group of talented players from Sitka to the USA Baseball National Team Selection Tournament in Phoenix with Jamar Hill’s Alaska Gamers team. We traveled with great players from all over Alaska and learned a lot seeing our kids struggle at times, and compete well at other times against some of the best competition in the country.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned is the importance of putting a larger emphasis on strength and conditioning in the off season especially for the rising Freshman (13-18) year old age group. Kids in this age group are all at different stages of development and one of the singular most important separators is physical strength and speed. Both of which can be improved with a proper strength and conditioning / agility training program. Fortunately, here in Sitka, we have Jared Rivera, who got his degree at Oregon State University in this specific area, and who played for the Wolves Baseball team in highschool, and even got to work with the OSU baseball team when he was getting his degree.
At SBC, we will be incorporating our own strength routine into our cage sessions, but will be encouraging parents to get their kids enrolled with Jared’s Sitka Grind Fitness center this winter.
One of the other important lessons from last year was how important live reps and live at bats are in developing a successful hitter (and the successful pitcher for that matter). I truly gained an appreciation for the importance of live at bats in helping a hitter gain the necessary confidence for consistent success. I don’t mean live BP from an L screen. I mean a kid facing a live arm (both lefty and righty) at regulation distance in the cage much like you see in the Driveline youtube videos where younger players face off against one of the best pitchers in baseball Trevor Bauer, or (better yet) in sandlot style scrimmages as often as you can muster it. This may seem obvious, but, with all of the cage work kids do these days, I have just seen some pretty talented kids struggle to make the transition from the cage to the playing field in game/tournament settings–and I think more live, competitive reps would help.
Obviously, a progression is still key. A progression that begins with tee work, and soft toss, to front toss, and toward velocity training on machines and live arms, is still essential. With more advanced hitters, though, (varsity or advanced JV players) the progression simply can’t be thrust on a player in a vacuum. The first step is building a relationship with the player, watching, listening, and hearing what they “feel” and want to work on, to help with buy in. Then, video analysis of their swing mechanics. Getting a baseline of their measurables (exit velo on tee / on BP pitching). Then, we develop a plan and routine for each player, with a goal of achieving measurable results.
Our goal at SBC this year will be to help the kids each increase their exit velocity over the next 3 months by at least 5 MPH, and to increase the consistency of their line drive target performance by at least 10%. If we can achieve these performance goals it will confirm our process oriented focus will have succeeded. We will use a combination of strength conditioning, weighted bat training, and skills training (that we call “target practice”) to achieve these results.
“Target practice” = with tee work and front toss, hitting the upper corner of the end of the cage, on a line, where the pitch is pitched. We think of tee work as “sighting in our rifles” and the time in between our sessions as opportunity for our scopes to get bumped or out of whack. On an inside pitch (or tee location) to a right hander, this means hitting the upper left corner “gap shot”. And on an outside pitch (or tee location) to a right hander, it means hitting the upper right corner “gap shot”. Our rough goal is 10-20% launch angle for the kids below 80 mph exit velocity (which is most of the kids). For those who are over 80 mph exit velo, they can start working on hitting the ball in the air a bit more.
Another huge reservoir of insight for me has been the ABCA podcasts and Inside Pitch Magazine. To me, any coach who is not a member taking advantage of these resources is doing themselves and their players a disservice. One of the best nuggets I found this off season was learning about Rob Friedman’s “flat ground app” and his insights more generally on pitching. Rob is a fellow lawyer, who I can relate with on a number of levels who has a ton to offer coaches and players (MLB players are constantly in touch with him) wanting to get better. He create his flat ground app to help get players who were falling through the cracks more exposure without all of the expense.