Free Throws and Strikes
When I was growing up, I had no idea that someday baseball would eventually become my passion as an adult. As a young kid and teenager, I spent countless hours playing golf, football, baseball, and basketball; and am forever grateful for the lessons that I learned from each of these sports. Ironically, the sport that I feel helped me the most with my command and throwing strikes as a pitcher was not baseball, it was actually basketball.
Growing up in a small rural town with only three stop lights, there was not a whole lot of things to do and therefore, I spent a ton of time in my driveway playing basketball. I absolutely loved the game and like many kids that grew up in the 90’s, we idealized Michael Jordan. My dad and I played nightly one-on-one games when he came home from work and I probably carried the world’s longest losing streak because my dad would never “take it easy” on me. With him, I had to earn my wins. I would practice for hours each day until he got home from work; hoping that I could finally earn a win and take him down. That first victory came when I was in the 8th grade, and at the time it was the greatest thing that I had ever experienced. Maybe it was due to the fact that I finally was tall enough to get a few rebounds, or maybe it was because I practiced enough to turn myself into a decent player. Either way, the invaluable lesson that I learned from these father/son games was that if you want to get the results you desire, you must put in the work.
Mental toughness from basketball
Out of all the sports I played where my dad helped coach me, basketball was probably the sport that he had the least amount of knowledge in. He always told me that his biggest “pet peeve” with basketball was when players missed their free throw shots. He never understood how players missed them all the time. My old man had a pretty sweet stroke from one spot at the top of the key and from the free throw line. He taught me how to get into a routine at the foul line and repeat it over, and over and over again: dribble three times, grip the ball in the same spot, sink down into your legs, take a deep breath, take the shot and have the ball roll off your fingers perfectly every single time. The rule in our house growing up was that I was not allowed to come inside until I had made ten free throw shots in a row. It doesn’t sound hard, but the pressure would build up quickly when I had been out there for a while with the sun slowly going down, I would get all the way to making nine shots in a row, and then miss the tenth shot. It was a deflating feeling and after many hours of practice, I finally became really good at shooting free throws.
Looking back now as a pitching coach, I firmly believe repeating a free throw stroke and a pitching delivery are very similar: get your sign, grip the baseball, take a deep breath, and deliver the baseball with it rolling perfectly off your fingertips every single time. Finding a repeatable delivery is key to commanding the strike zone. I truly feel that if pitchers worked on their delivery every single day they will become better strike throwers.
One of my favorite sequences while my pitchers are doing their delivery drills is making them throw ten “down and away”. This drill is a throwback to my dad and I on our driveway playing basketball, and it reinforces great mechanics and gets them to learn what it is supposed to feel like to throw that perfect pitch. In my opinion, “down and away” is the hardest pitch for an amateur player to master so we work on it more than anything else. Can you remember a time in the entire history of your pitching career that you located perfectly “down and away” and it got hit hard? Maybe a base hit here and there, but I’d imagine none of these perfectly placed pitches have been hit over causing serious damage. In order for you to take your pitching to the next level, you must work your tail off and master this essential pitch.
I am a firm believer that if you want something, you must go above and beyond and put in the necessary work to achieve it. One of my favorite quotes is “confidence comes from skill acquisition”. My challenge to you is to take the time to acquire the skill that you want and if you do, you will have it for the rest of your life. I assure you I am living proof that even though I have not played a single game of competitive basketball since the 8thgrade, I would be willing to bet just about anything that I could go outside right now and make ten free throws in a row. To this day, I have not forgotten that perfect stroke; it is forever engrained in my mind. Once you find that stroke, it’s all about repeating it. Thanks Pops.