My mission is to inspire softball girls to DREAM bigger, WORK harder, and SMILE more often. I look to not only help to improve their physical softball skills, but also show them the importance of confidence on AND off the field. Through my website you will find information on all things softball—motivation, inspiration, blogs, quotes, videos, tips, preparation, etc. The options are endless for us to explore…

Understanding The Strike Zone – As a Hitter

A discrepancy that comes up in about 90% of all games is the umpire’s strike zone.  Pitchers complain about it.  Hitters shake their heads in the box about it.  Coaches whine about it.  And parents in the stands let the umpire know exactly what they think about the zone.

An umpire’s strike zone should NEVER be used as an excuse of not performing well.

Can you control the umpire’s zone? No. What can you control? Keeping your emotions in check to be able to adjust to his/her zone.  What are you going to choose to do about it DURING the game? An umpire should establish his/her zone within the first two innings.  All you can ask of that umpire is to be consistent with what he is calling, and as a player, it’s your job to pay attention to his/her zone.  You can actually use an umpire’s strike zone to your advantage if you look at it as an opportunity instead of disadvantage…

As a hitter..

Recognize if the umpire has a wide zone (calls a lot of strikes) or small zone (doesn’t call a lot of strikes).  You can recognize this by paying attention to the first couple of innings when you are in the dugout or out in the field.  Even when you are not up to bat, you always need to be paying attention to your surroundings.  If you do not hit at the top of the order, or if you are a hitter who did not start the game, your job is to pay attention to your teammates at-bats and recognize where exactly the umpire is calling strikes, and where he is not. Sometimes one side of the plate might be wider than the other side.  Sometimes he may be an umpire that has a lower strike zone.

Small zone

A game should be controlled by the offenses when there is a small strike zone.  Games with small zones usually lead to higher scoring games.  When there is a small zone being presented, it’s your job as a hitter to have patience at the plate.  With a smaller zone, you change your game plan and approach to not be as aggressive, especially in an important situation.  You want to challenge the pitcher to throw strikes.  Don’t help her out until she proves that she can find the umpire’s strike zone consistently. With a smaller strike zone, comes more walks.  It’s important to pay attention to the hitter in front of you.  Did the pitcher just walk that hitter on 4 straight pitches?  If she did, then you probably should not swing at the first pitch of your at bat, since clearly that pitcher is struggling to find the strike zone.

Finding a way on base is critical in our game.  Realize that a walk is just as valuable as a hit.  It may not seem the same to you as a hitter statistics wise, but taking that walk puts you 60 feet closer to scoring than you were before you started your at bat.  Have patience at the plate, and definitely challenge yourself not to swing out of the zone.

When you’re up to bat, look for a mistake in your at bat.  With a smaller strike zone comes more added pressure to the pitcher, not the hitter.  With added pressure, a pitcher is more likely to be more tense and frustrated.  She will probably start aiming the ball a little bit more trying to find the strike zone, and she is going to be more likely to come over the heart of the plate.  LOOK FOR THIS MISTAKE.  Don’t fall asleep at the plate just because a pitcher is throwing more balls than strikes.  Be ready to hit.

In the dugout, be paying attention to the pitcher’s body language.  If she is getting down on herself and showing that she is not confident with what she is throwing, then it’s even more important to not help her out in your at bat.  Don’t give a pitcher any confidence when she is struggling to find the zone by helping her out and swinging at a pitch that is not a strike.  That gives her a little bit of positive energy and could be exactly what she needs to get back into her groove. When a pitcher is struggling, offensively, it’s your job to keep her struggling.

Wide zone

A wide strike zone can be a hitter’s worse nightmare.  If the umpire is going to have a wider zone, you can be a little bit more aggressive.  You still never want to get out of your true strike zone.  If an umpire strikes you out on a pitch that was clearly not a strike, don’t get discouraged or consider it a failure.  Don’t let that at bat take you out of your next at bat, and more importantly, don’t let the wide strike zone carry over into the next game and get you out of your zone.

When I was playing and there was an umpire with a wide zone, I made it my goal to get not get 2 strikes.  I wanted to hit a strike early in the count so that the umpire didn’t even have a chance to strike me out! YOU can control hitting early in the count. You CAN’T control the umpire calling you out on a pitch that is out of the zone.  So be aggressive early in the count so that you get a better pitch to hit, and you don’t stand a chance of getting struck out on a pitch that is out of your zone.

Also, if an umpire has a wider zone, DON’T SHOW EMOTION.  Players show emotion at the plate when they get strikes called against them just to make sure everyone else knows who’s watching that they didn’t think it was a strike.  Control your emotions.  Don’t let your opponent know that something is wrong with you – that fuels them and let’s them think they have you right where they want you.  If you’re showing body language (i.e. rolling eyes, shaking head) after a certain pitch, and I am pitching against you, I am probably going to throw you that exact same pitch again, since you just clearly showed me disgust after the umpire called that strike against you. Why would I throw you anything else? Clearly you are not looking to hit that pitch that you were just shaking your head about…

Understand which part of the plate the umpire is being “wide” on.  For example: Is it the outside pitch to a right handed hitter that he’s calling way off the plate? If this is the case you have 2 options: 1) Go up looking for an INSIDE pitch, if the pitcher is still showing you that she is working on that side of the plate. 2) If the pitcher is controlling the outside corner because that of where the umpire keeps calling it, crowd the plate the very most you can, and take away that outside pitch so that it doesn’t seem as far outside to you.  The same can be applied for the inside corner by backing way off the plate and looking for that pitch.  If an umpire has a higher strike zone, it’s important to not swing at pitches that are too far high and out of your zone.  Something I did when facing a pitcher who threw higher pitches in the zone was to hold my hands a little bit higher when I was in my stance before the pitch was thrown; this adjustment helped me keep my hands on top the ball so that I was not as likely to pop up.  This was a small adjustment on my part to be able to able to win the “battle.” Your job is to win the battle and do whatever it takes to come out on top – no excuses necessary.

The best players are going to be able to adjust during the game, no matter what is thrown at them!  Softball is a game of adjustments.

Instead of complaining about a wide zone, be proactive in practicing during the week about the approach you will take as a hitter or as a team if you come up against an umpire with a wide strike zone.  It’s going to happen, it’s just a matter of time.  By practicing this, you’re turning what some think as a disadvantage, into something you can feel more confident about at bat when it happens in a game.  Have the discussion before it happens about how your approach changes at the plate when facing different umpires.  An umpire is never the one who comes away with a win in the win column at the end of the game.  By letting the umpire beat you, you indirectly are letting the other team beat you.  Quit the excuses, and use an umpire to your advantage when you’re up at the plate by adjusting how YOU approach YOUR at bat.

 

For Love of The Game…

Throwback Thursday.  Freshman Year in 2005. Pitching with a helmet on.  Why? Because….

When you love the game, you’ll do ANYTHING to be able to play.

My freshman year, I had an injury at the end of the season.  On May 9, the day before our team was to leave to go drive to Big 12 Tournament, I got hit in the head with a line drive at practice.  I was playing first base (when I didn’t pitch, I always played 1B).  At practice, our pitchers would always throw live to our hitters to give them at bats.  But like I said, I wasn’t pitching, I was playing in the field and a left handed hitter was up to bat with a runner at 1B.  Because it was a bunt situation, I was expecting bunt, but instead, I had a line drive hit at me from an upperclassman who pulled the ball down the line.  This ball was crushed.  I had no time to react and get my glove up to protect myself.  It didn’t hit any part of my glove, it hit me on the side of my head.

They allowed me to go back to the dorm room for the night, but when me and my fellow freshmen classmates were at the dorm room, I couldn’t eat anything without throwing it up, not even tylenol would stay down, which is the sign of a concussion.  That night, I went to the Emergency Room..and from there it’s all a little blurry of what happened when.  Somewhere along the way I got a CT Scan where they found that my brain was bleeding a little where I got hit, and I had a small fracture in my skull.  I stayed in the hospital over night, and the next day, May 10,  the team left to go to Oklahoma City without me.  I was so bummed, I wanted to go so bad.  The Big 12 Tournament signified the official started of the post season in our minds.  On top of that, the Big 12 Tournament was played at Hall of Fame Stadium, where the WCWS is played.

May 10 is also my birthday. Double bummer to be stuck in a hospital.  When the team got to Oklahoma City, they didn’t start games the first day, they attended the Big 12 Banquet.  A banquet where all of the teams attend, and they announce the Big 12 Awards (Player of the Year, First Team, Second Team, Academic Awards, etc).  On that day, after the banquet, I remember laying in the hospital bed, and I got a call from Coach Evans.  She wanted to let me know that at the Big 12 Banquet I had been named Big 12 Freshman of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Year.  I was the only person in Big 12 history to achieve this.

After about a day, they were able to release me from the hospital because I was actually able to keep food down.  I went home with my parents while my team was in Oklahoma City, as no one really wanted me to do anything.  I didn’t understand.  Yes my brain was bleeding, but all I wanted to do was be with my teammates at the field! Why couldn’t I go?  I remember being at my parent’s house in Magnolia and listening to my teammates on the radio broadcast in our computer room play Oklahoma State (I think it was).  It was SO WEIRD to listen to them on the radio without me being there.  BUT…I talked my parents into driving me to Oklahoma City if we won that game.  Well…..we won! So guess what…we drove to Oklahoma City!!!

I remember being so happy to get to be with the team.  Our semi final game against Baylor was on Fox Sports, and since I couldn’t play, they invited me into the broadcast booth for a half inning.  Maybe you could call this my big break into TV?! We ended up losing that game and I drove home with my parents while my teammates rode home on the bus to start practicing for the post season, as NCAA Regionals would be that next week.

We hosted Regionals in College Station, as that year we were at Top 8 National Seed.  I did not get to play…apparently this whole brain bleeding and fractured skull thing was a big deal.  Who knew!!  We won that Regional, and the next week we were to face Alabama in Super Regionals, hosting them in College Station.

Amanda Scarborough Sharonda MCDonald

What we called “Club 190.” In between innings, the players who were not playing out in the field would run down to left field to keep legs fresh. It was always a time where we had fun, stayed loose and made some smiles. You see Sharonda McDonald and I in tennis shoes. We were both injured and unable to play.

The week going into Super Regionals, it had been about 2 weeks since I had gotten hit, and the doctors, trainers and my parents said I could play in Super Regionals BUT I would have to wear a mask when I hit, and if I pitched, I would have to pitch withs something protecting my head.  Me, Jamie Hinshaw, Jami Lobpries and our trainer, Leah, made a trip to Academy to figure out something I could put over my head.  We tried soccer headgear, wrestling headgear, and none of it was satisfactory.  I couldn’t pitch if we didn’t figure something out.  So…..we decided I would have to pitch with a batting helmet on if I wanted to play.  In order to get a little breeze, they cut a whole in the back of the helmet where my hair bun could go through, and a little air could circulate through.

I practiced 1 or 2 days before Super Regionals started, and Coach Evans wanted me to throw to some hitters with the helmet on to see if I could do it and how it felt– a trial run for what was to come in the actual game.  The first hitter I pitched to was Jamie Hinshaw, a fellow freshman teammate, left handed hitter.  She came up and in her first at bat against me at practice, ironically, I hit her in the head!  We laughed about it and one of the local reporters was there, and he ended up writing about it.  Good times.

Super Regionals started as Pat Murphy and Alabama came in to College Station.  We lost the 1st game of the Super regional, I pitched the second game of the series the following day.  It was May in Texas and it was SO HOT.  In between innings for my warm up pitches, I wouldn’t pitch with the helmet on, I would leave it off in the circle, and then I would put it on when it came game time.  Yes, it was a little embarrassing, but I just wanted to play, and I would have done anything to play because I loved it.  I’ve never seen anyone do this before…maybe no one has had to.  But we had to be creative, even if it meant pitching with a BATTING HELMET on my head against University of Alabama.

Amanda Scarborough Amanda Scarborough

Amanda Scarborough

Amanda Scarborough Pitch with Helmet on

We ended up losing that Super Regional, falling short of the Women’s College World Series. We were seeded higher than Alabama, and had SUCH a good team.  We had won the Big 12 Conference that year, and had such high hopes of this team in 2005 making it to Oklahoma City.  Unfortunately, in the last conference series of the year, our amazing center fielder and lead off hitter, Sharonda McDonald had tore her ACL sliding into home when we were in Columbia playing Missouri.  And then a week later, I got hurt.  These were 2 major blows to a team, terrible timing for injuries, especially to 2 starters.

What I did my freshman year to pitch with a helmet on, I would do again.  I didn’t know any better.  If there was a way that I could play, I would figure it out.  If you love the game, you’ll do ANYTHING to be able to compete at the sport you love.

Why Does Accuracy Matter?

Accuracy, movement & velocity.  Those are the three core items we talk about that go into being a great pitcher.

To me, the most important one is accuracy.

Yes, speed and movement play a part in being a solid, successful pitcher!  But, speed and movement should enhance accuracy.  In my mind, accuracy should come first. At the end of the day (especially at the higher levels of play), it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or how much movement you have if you are unable to hit your spots.  Being able to throw hard and not know where the ball is going will lead to you throwing 2 innings per game in college.  Being able to throw hard and know where the ball is going will lead you to throw a complete game in college.

At the simplest form, our job as a pitcher is to get outs.  No matter how those outs come – strike outs, fly balls or ground outs, it’s our job.  You get outs by hitting spots accurately, consistently and with precision.

At any level, if you throw the ball over the middle of the plate, it’s going to get hit.  We keep the ball on the corners because it’s a much harder pitch to hit, and a hitter has less chance of having success. The older you get, the further hitters hit mistakes.  The harder you throw, the further the mistake is hit.

Why accuracy matters

Less accuracy can lead to more walks…

Every coaches nightmare is to see his pitchers give up walks (especially leadoff walks and walks to the 9 hole). No matter what level, 4 balls always equals a walk.  It doesn’t matter if you throw those 4 balls at 75mph or 42 mph, a ball is a ball.  Even if the pitch breaks a foot and has the best movement ever, if it doesn’t cross through the strike zone, then a ball is a ball.

If you cannot find the strike zone, or a hitter is not chasing your pitches, it’s going to lead to walks.  This past year, even in the college game, I saw more runs walked in than ever before.  You can’t defend a walk. Your defense can’t help you when you are giving away free passes and putting people on board because you as a pitcher cannot throw strikes.  What did I say our number 1 job as pitcher is? To get outs.  Our defense can’t make plays behind us if we do not have accuracy and are not able to find the strike zone.  Walks are the death of pitchers and walks lead to runs.   The more accurate you are, the less walks you give up.  Hitters have to earn their way on base. Bottom line – If you don’t throw strikes (accuracy), then it’s going to be really difficult to win.

Less accuracy makes it harder for someone to call pitches…

Nothing is better than calling pitches for your pitcher and knowing exactly what you are going to get. (If you are a pitch caller, you know exactly what I mean). Nothing is worse than calling pitches for a pitcher and having no clue where the ball is going to go.  It almost makes it impossible and completely a guessing game.  I tell our pitchers that if they put the ball to the spot I am telling them, there’s probably a 95% chance we are going to get that hitter out.  To be honest, it doesn’t even matter WHICH pitch they throw to the spot I am calling, all they have to do is hit one spot, some way, somehow.  That’s it.  That’s their job.  It’s all about hitting spots consistently and being able to move the ball in and out without a high risk of throwing the ball over the heart of the plate.

You’ve got to be able to know exactly where the ball is going so you can set a hitter up to get her out.  The older you get, the more important pitch calling gets with setting hitters up, finding their weaknesses, and having scouting reports based off of what hitters can and cannot hit.  Good hitters are going to hit mistakes and hit them hard.  Even if a ball breaks 6 inches and it breaks right to the middle of the plate, it’s going to get hit.  I promise.  I’ve been there and done it and see it with my own two eyes.

Less accuracy makes it harder to adjust to an umpire’s zone…

As pitchers, we are going to have umpires we come across who have a small strike zone.  Pitchers who have the best accuracy and can put the ball exactly where they want to will not have nearly as much trouble with these umpires.  When you face an umpire with a small zone, it’s important to work inches and move the ball in a little bit more at a time to be able to find that umpires strike zone.  Pitchers who do not have great accuracy end up making TOO BIG of adjustments and putting the ball right over the middle of the plate when they are trying to find the zone.  They are the pitches who are more likely to get hit hard when facing an umpire with a smaller strike zone.  The key to umpires with small strike zones is making small, tiny adjustments to try to find exactly where that umpire is going to call it. The more accurate you are and trust in hitting your spots, the easier it’s going to be for you to find strikes in a challenging strike zone.

Now…I will be honest with you, the harder you throw and the more movement you have, the more mistakes you are able to get away with, especially at the younger ages.  This is why the pitchers who are younger and throw hard really stick out (if you are in 12U and even 14U, you know what I am talking about).  And, at a younger age, these pitches can get away with throwing it over the middle of the plate and not get hurt.  But, let me tell you, these pitchers aren’t learning anything other than throwing it down the middle works for them.  It’s positive reinforcement to these pitchers to throw the ball right down the middle because hitters will swing and miss and they will get away with it.  This method absolutely will not work for long as you get older and hitters get better.

Pitchers who just throw hard and throw it over the middle of the plate are just learning to be throwers and not pitchers.

(There is a huge difference, and I will save the comparison for another blog in a different day.)  Now, these pitchers, as they get older and start facing better hitters, will soon learn that accuracy is the most important thing they could have learned at a young age.

The pitchers who don’t throw as hard have to learn to be more precise at a very young age because they will get hit if they don’t hit a precise spot since the hitter has a longer time to see the ball coming out of the hand.  They learn from failure.  I pitch it here and it gets hit here.  They are learning where they can and cannot throw pitches in order to have success.  They learn from their failures.  They are learning from instant feedback on their mistakes about where not to throw the pitch.  If these type of pitchers have the courage and passion to stick with pitching and work their tails off on being AWESOME a hitting their spots, then they will have a high chance of success.  However, it is at this age that coaches are telling them that to be a great pitcher you have to throw hard and have 6+ different pitches.  This is just not true.  If these pitchers can work past all of the people who tell them that they aren’t a good pitcher just because they don’t throw hard, I believe they have a high chance of playing in college because they are learning from a young age to be pitchers who pitch with high accuracy and can put the ball where they want to in order to get outs.    

I PROMISE you, from my own past experience, and currently watching hundreds of game every year, if you put the ball over the middle of the plate, no matter how hard you throw or how much movement you have, it has a very high chance of getting hit, and getting hit hard.  It’s not all about speed and it’s not all about movement.  Strive for accuracy and command, and be working on this continually at practice.  It is not just about how hard you throw I PROMISE.

In a perfect world, you would have the best of all 3 – accuracy, speed and movement.

Someone who can hit her spots 95% of the time, throwing 70mph and every pitch she throws moves 6 inches.  This is unrealistic.  If you find a person who can do this, you will be showing me someone who is well on her way to be a National Player of the Year once she gets to college, so long as she has the mental toughness to go along with it.  Learning accuracy at a young age is critical and not to be overlooked, as it becomes the most important part of pitching, especially when you get to the Gold and collegiate levels of play.  When you’re pitching at a young age, learn good work habits and focus habits, thinking of accuracy and precision with your pitching on a daily basis.  Even though you may be able to get away with pitches over the middle of the plate in the 12U-16U levels, think about how you want to play long term and play at the highest level you are capable of.  Think towards big goals and the kind of pitcher that can get out the best hitters in the country.  That pitcher will be a pitcher who pitches with such great accuracy on both sides of the plate, rarely gives up walks, and can make in-game adjustments to adjust to the hitter and to the umpire.

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