You've been dominating with your fastball and change-up, and maybe you've even added an additional pitch or two by now. At this point, you've dedicated countless hours and weekends to softball. Your passion for pitching that keeps you asking "what can I do to make it to the next level?". Rather than jumping right into bullpen structure, I want to talk about what makes you elite. And I am talking just to you, the one who's reading this article right now. What makes you special?
Before you focus on how you can improve, it's important to understand what you do well. Most people will tell you that it's important to improve upon your weaknesses, but I'm telling you to recognize your strengths and continue to make them stronger. For example, how many pitchers are known for having a great curveball, a knee-buckling change-up, a riseball that makes every batter chase, and a drop ball that falls off the table? I'll be honest with you, I have played with and against a lot of great pitchers, and most of them have two or three pitches that define them. Recognize your strengths, continue to train them, and be the best version of you.
So, what defines you? What are your best two or three pitches? How do you get batters out? Take a minute to identify if you're a pitcher that produces weak ground balls or pop-ups. Think about how often you generate swings and misses.
Now that you've identified what you do well in games, start to ask yourself how you do it. If you get a lot of groundballs, you probably throw an exceptional drop ball or a fastball with great topspin. If you typically generate pop-ups and swings and misses, maybe you have a great riseball. Whatever it is that you do well, keep that in mind as you read through the rest of this article.
If you're looking for more concrete evidence concerning the movement of your pitches, it can be helpful to implement new technologies. At Softball Rebellion, I use Rapsodo to help our pitchers understand how their pitches spin and move. Below is an example of a Fastball thrown on the Rapsodo a few days ago.
Based on the spin direction of 06:18 and the vertical break of (-11.1") I can determine that this pitcher throws a fastball with a significant amount of downward movement or what many would refer to as a dropball. This reading along with readings from her other movement pitches provides me with concrete information that I can use to determine what this pitcher excels at.
Now that I have the right information, I can develop a concrete plan for this pitcher that will focus on improving her strengths. Rapsodo also gives me a better understanding of what other pitches she can utilize in conjunction with her best pitch.
You should always continue to master the correct movements of pitching. For a refresher on mechanics check out my article on intermediate bullpen structure. After normal maintenance work, there are a few concepts that will continue to set you apart from the rest of the pack.
Arm care is one of the most overlooked and undertaught aspects of improving the quality of your pitching as well as your arm's health. In a tournament, you may play six or more games in one weekend. If you are not taking proper care of your arm, you most likely will feel the effects of it later in your playing career. Your first step moving forward should be implementing a proper warm-up routine with band work. I recommend using Jaeger Bands. Below, I demonstrate the arm care routine that I take my pitchers through. I started utilizing this routine after working with the Velolab.
After learning to command your fastball and change-up, creating more movement with your pitches should be your main focus. In addition to the movement itself, you also want to throw pitches that look similar as they are on the path towards home plate. This is known as pitch tunneling. Below I have added two of my favorite drills to emphasize movement and pitch tunneling.
The double strings allow you to see if your pitch is moving properly. The placement of the strings above works well for throwing fastballs, dropballs, and change-ups. You can also reverse the strings, keeping the string closest to the pitcher at a lower height than the string closest to the plate. This set-up along with raising the height of the strings will allow you to work on maintaining an upward trajectory with your riseball.
I like to set up the first string about eight feet from home plate. The second string should be placed a few inches in front of the plate. You can adjust the heights of each string according to what you're trying to accomplish. For example, if you want to work on throwing a dropball in an 0-2 count, drop the first string down just below the knee and place the second string at ankle height.
When utilizing the mid-distance string, you want to try and throw each pitch through the rope. It's not realistic to think that you can hit the rope in the exact same spot and throw a well-located riseball and a dropball, but the closer together they can be during ball flight, the better. Remain focused on the height you're trying to achieve with your pitches while and continue working through your tunnel as best as possible. If you're throwing more similar pitches like a drop and a curve, you should be able to throw both pitches close to the string.
Developing a third speed will separate you from the vast majority of pitchers. By third speed, I do not mean a pitch that is 2-3 miles per hour slower than your fastball. For a true offspeed, the pitch speed should sit in between your fastball and change-up. This may not be achievable for everyone, and it will take time to develop, but having a third speed is valuable at the college level.
Now that you have an idea of what to focus on, let's talk about how to put your focus into action. Start by increasing the effectiveness of your warm-up routine. Add in the band work that I mentioned above and remain focused through each repetition.
Everything else is up to you! That's probably not what you were expecting to read, but you will truly start to advance when you begin to control your bullpens. Own your best pitches and perfect them. If you continue to get beat the same way in games, identify the problem, and work on it. Set small goals for yourself before you begin each bullpen, and set big goals for the next few months.
You control what you're able to achieve. Start taking ownership of your practices today and you'll be well on your way to becoming an elite pitcher.