So much great information for youth coaches in this edition of Something Worth Catching. Jack Perconte and Sam Zagorac, owner and head instructor at the Diamond Edge Academy in Willowbrook welcome two coaching experts. Marty Kobernus, now the head pitching instructor at the Diamond Edge Academy, has been coaching pitching for over twenty-five years and Sean Osborne is great catching coach since finishing his catching career at Indiana State University.
This and our next podcast are roundtable discussions that answer many of the most important issues for youth baseball coaches, players and parents.
Jack Perconte has dedicated his post-major league baseball career to helping youth. He has taught baseball and softball for the past 27 years. His playing, coaching and parenting stories create better experiences for athletes and parents. Jack has written over a thousand articles on coaching baseball and youth sports. Jack is the author of “The Making of a Hitter” now $5 and “Raising an Athlete.” His third book “Creating a Season to Remember” is in the works. Jack is a featured writer for Baseball the Magazine. You can also find Jack Perconte on YouTube with over 80 fun and innovative baseball instructional videos.
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Youth Pitching and Catching
We have a special episode, a couple of them, where we have a pitching expert and a catching expert also. Along with Sam and I’s experience, we have Marty Kobernus, a long-time friend and a pitching instructor that I’ve worked with for many years. Also we have Sean Osborne, a great young coach that is a catching and hitting specialist. We are going to have an open forum where everybody can just chime in, and we’re looking forward to this discussion. We have one question that we ask everybody that we’re going to have on. I’ll start with Marty Kobernus. Marty, if you had your career to do over again, what are the one or two things you would do differently?
I don’t know if it’s so much do different, it’s just that I never had the chance to have good formal instruction. I didn’t have anybody that could teach me. I would search through books and information, and at that time there wasn’t internet. I had basically two books on pitching. I had to believe whatever was written even if it was wrong and that was it. I searched everywhere. That’s the only thing different. I tried everything I could. I did the best I could with the information that they had.
Times have changed quite a bit since back when we played. Sean, same question.
As a catcher, my body fell apart on me pretty early. Growing up, that’s all I did. I caught every inning of every game and that made me a good catcher, but it also was the end of my playing career. I almost wish I would have tried to play a few more positions as I was growing up so that I could rest my body but I could still have that catching skill as a technique. Other than that, from a hitting standpoint, I tried to switch it early on and I just didn’t have anybody pushing me hard to do it. I didn’t know how that would benefit me. I wish I would have put a little more time into that. That would have helped my hitting career a little bit being able to hit from both sides of the plate.
People can learn a lot from those. Sam and I’s response to those in the past have been similar type things. Sean, I have seen you throw both right-handed and left-handed. Do you wish you would have maybe pursued that a little bit further?
Yeah. That’s another thing I wish I would have done, is be able to pitch a little bit more. I never pitched because I caught all the time. The whole lefty thing, that just came about from what I said. My arm was always not in the best shape. I was always injured, going to physical therapy doing all sorts of strengthening stuff. That’s why I started throwing lefties. I was doing all these lessons and just trying to find a new way to challenge myself. That’s half the battle with baseball and softball. You’ve got to find a way to challenge yourself if you want to make it in this game. It’s just something fun for me and something different. It’s awesome seeing people’s reactions when they see me do it for the first time. Sometimes it takes people almost a few weeks before they realize, and they look at me like, “Are you throwing with both arms?” “Yeah, I am.” They just think it’s hilarious.
One of our questions on our last show was, “What will we see next? Another knuckleballer or somebody who throws from both sides?” We’ll see more kids throwing from both sides than we will see a knuckleballer.
Sam, I’ll throw this at you, then Marty and Sean can chime in after. How do you handle the player on your team that’s a pitcher and a catcher? I always thought that was a really tough combination. How do you handle that? Do you have that instance on your team and how do you handle it?
At the youth level, Sean has already touched on. He’s trying to get kids to play other positions. If they’re pitching on a Monday, then we’re not going to catch them on a Tuesday. We try not to catch them in the same game, if possible. We’re very aware of pitch counts and making sure that we’re not putting any additional stresses on their arms. I do think it’s important to have kids be able to play other positions and rotate them throughout the game as well. Unfortunately, as you get older and you get into the high school level, your catchers are primarily your catchers and if they do pitch, they usually are a closer. Their pitch count, if they do pitch, it’s one inning and maybe one inning during the week, but you start to get into the more specialized position training when you get into freshman or sophomore year at high school.
Marty, what about the throwing action though? It is different a lot of times for a catcher and a pitcher. Does that concern you at all or not?
Not the mechanics so much. A maximum effort isn’t quite the same for a catcher, but the fact that you’ll monitor a pitcher’s pitch count and take him out when he’s had enough and bring in two or three more pitchers, nobody ever concerns themselves that the catcher has thrown just as much, if not more, than the other pitchers. When I coached at Benedictine, I always made sure that I was in charge of the pitchers and the catchers because I monitor their throwing too. Throwing off the flat ground is a little safer but still there’s a total amount of pitches. The big difference is no mound work and the flat ground work but still there’s a lot of repetition.
Sean, what do you feel?
I know with my 12U Team that I coach, I’m lucky that I have two really good catchers. One of them is also my best pitcher. Luckily, I can catch whoever I want and give the pitcher a rest when he needs a rest. I would say the best advice that I would have for that would be to make sure you have three guys that can catch. From my personal standpoint, you’re not just wearing the one or two catchers out all year. You can rotate three guys behind the plate all year. You can manage when that pitcher is pitching and when he’s catching a little bit better if you have those three go-to guys behind the plate. On top of that, if one of those guys gets hurt or one of those catchers gets hurt, at least you still have two guys instead of just one backup catcher. That’s the way I would handle that situation.
I would echo that thought very much because your pitcher throws three or four innings a game, and then you have a double-header and you have long tournaments over the weekend, you need him to catch. To bring him back after throwing too much can put a lot of strain on. Even though a catcher is throwing the ball back to the pitcher, every throw, all of a sudden he has to cut loose and fire to second base, and he threw 50 to 60 pitches the day before that takes a toll. The more catchers and the more pitchers you can have on your team, you can’t have enough at the Travel Ball level. There’s a new high school rule for pitchers. Marty, I’m sure you’re aware of that. What are your thoughts about that role as far as pitch count? Is that right, Sam?
Yeah, it is pitch count. They’re trying to limit the amount of pitches that they throw during the course of a week and equal it up with days off. It’s a great rule. There are a lot of coaches out there that are very good about it. There’s a handful of coaches who probably take advantage of pitchers and that’s where it’s coming from. There is that high school kid from the Northwest suburbs last year who threw 167 pitches or something and I don’t understand that. Trying to control that is an important piece. Kids are bigger and stronger nowadays but mechanically, they’re maybe not as clean. They’re throwing with all body now. Their arm, one pitch is up here and the next pitch is down there, their slot changes and they beat up their body a little bit. Especially with the younger ages, you see sophomore and freshman high school that are pitching every third day and are throwing 65 to 70 pitches every day. It needs to be regulated and I agree with what the state has done.
The pitch count is fine but I still think that’s a Band-Aid as it doesn’t cure what’s going on. It’s about the stuff you do between the games. It’s the recovery. I can monitor pitch counts but it’s not preparing for the next game, building that muscle up that you just tore down. If I don’t do anything to prepare for the next one strength-wise, it accumulates. I definitely agree with pitch counts. The average major league pitch count per inning is fifteen. They have found out that any pitch over that fifteen is equal to two or three extra pitches’ worth of strain on your arm. If you threw twenty pitches, it doesn’t seem so bad, but that extra five might be the equivalent of fifteen extra pitches per inning. It’s not so much pitch count per game, it is pitch count per inning. When I was coaching at Benedictine, if a kid hit 30 pitches in an inning, he was done, because that was another additional fifteen times that three, that was a whole lot of pitches. It’s not so much pitch count, it’s pitch count per inning. Then it’s the recovery and the rebuilding between the starts. That’s the real solution.
[Tweet “It’s not so much pitch count per game. It’s pitch count per inning. “]
Better education of the coaches too.
The recovery part is hard because you would play on Monday and you would play on Tuesday but your starting pitcher is also your shortstop or your pitcher is a second baseman or middle infield who is throwing the ball a lot. High school coaches don’t have the time to do it properly or they don’t even know. That’s probably the biggest part.
My son was pitching as a freshman. I never had the complaint that he wasn’t getting enough playing time. My complaint was he was playing too much. He was pitching way too much like two pitchers. The only time I ever stepped in is when I told the coach, “The kid needs to prepare for the next game. He needs to recover.” They did adhere to that a little bit better.
Sean, what are your thoughts?
The one thing that I would ask most high school coaches is do they have a regimen in place for after a starts or before starts. In college, all of our pitchers have their band routines. That would be something that’s important for a high school coach to make sure they implement, to make sure that they are being prepared between starts or between times that they pitch. The other thing that we might be seeing a little more of are specialized positions. My high school team, my senior year, we had four pitchers only that rotated and that was that. We didn’t have the problem of, “This pitcher was going to play shortstop the next day or he was going to play right field the next day.” I don’t know if there’s going to be a trend that that’s going to happen a lot more. That’s going to obviously be a case-by-case scenario. Along those lines, each kid is different. One kid might be stronger than the next. That 60 pitch count might be one kid’s limit where 40 pitch count might be another kid’s limit and that’s just his body at the time. Coaches need to make sure they know their players from that aspect.
One of the hardest things for coaches at any level, even the Major League level, and here’s a tough question, is “How can you tell when that pitcher is tiring?” Obviously, the high pitches in the zone might be a good indicator but is there anything else that you watch for to see when the pitcher tires? If we had the answer to this, we probably wouldn’t be right here. Sam, what do you think on that?
Body actions and the way he moves around the mound. If he seems a little more sluggish, he may be a little worn down. If you have a pitcher who usually works quickly and starts to slow down, that’s a sign. I’m far from being the pitching expert. We had incident, a high school kid who’s pitching at a local high school who was cruising along five innings. His pitch count was down, then he had a half-hour break between the fifth and sixth inning because their team was scoring some runs at the beginning, and he cramped up and had a terrible sixth inning. I immediately sent him to talk to Marty. Body language is probably the biggest thing that I look for.
There are a lot of tells: a kid shaking his arm and that type of stuff, body language, a little bit. If velocity goes down, speed goes down, then it’s a shoulder issue and that is usually fatigue. If they start missing their spots and not one spot consistently but all over the place, they’ve run into an elbow issue whether it’s a pain or fatigue. A lot of times, what’s happening at the plate makes a difference; speed and control too.
Me being a catcher is unfair to you, but I rely on my catchers a lot for that stuff. I’ll have a sign with them. I’m lucky I have two really good catchers on the team I coach, so they get it and they understand it. I know when I was playing and I was catching, I would always be able to just tell my coach from the field, “This guy has had it after those pitches,” and get somebody going. That’s one big telltale thing for me just looking at my catcher for advice.
Are you judging that on velocity or just location or a little of everything?
A little bit of everything and you can tell. If the catcher is on the field with that guy, he’s going to have a better feel for where exactly these pitchers are coming across and exactly how hard they’re coming in. I’m looking to that catcher to give me the feedback if that guy can keep going or not.
It does lead into the point that I talked about and I had asked Marty to speak with that player. What is your thought process or recommendation to a pitcher who has a long break in between innings? Are they drinking more fluids? Are they eating a snack? Are they up and moving around? Do they go play, catch a little bit? What was your conversation with him like?
I thought it was chemical for one. When you start getting cramps, that’s an electrolyte issue. Whether he was feeling properly beforehand, I found out throughout the whole high school college career of my own son, it’s staying fueled. That means a little something between innings, a bite of a banana, a bite of one of these protein bars or something to constantly stay fueled and chemically get my electrolytes in me. That was one. Staying warm. Kids don’t like to stay warm between innings. I really believe that’s something that’s got to be done and realize what’s going on. Get up move and move around a little bit. I thought it was more chemical than anything else.
The last thing, especially when you start to get into the older ages, is to make it a point to tell your pitchers to communicate with you also as a coach and say, “If you feel like you’re losing it or you feel gassed yourself, your arm doesn’t feel the same, please tell me so I’ll get you out of there.” Often, there’s a stigma against players saying, “I can’t keep going.” The worst thing probably for them is they pitch right through sore arms and injuries and the next thing you know, it’s a major injury. It’s important that you have an open communication with your pitchers to say, “If you don’t feel right, you let me know and we’ll get you out of there.” Moving on, Sam and I have answered these questions a little in the past but I want to ask Marty and Sean. Marty, who is the pitcher or two that you most enjoy watching at the Major League level right now?
I don’t enjoy it nearly as much as I used to only because they don’t specialize so much. Everything is so much about velocity. As much as I appreciate Kyle Hendricks from the Cubs because of what he can do with what he’s got, I like Arrieta’s work ethic. That’s not just to pick out the Cubs, it’s just that those are the guys you see and hear a lot of. As far as picking out the hidden spots, it doesn’t seem to be the same. It’s just like, “Here it is. Try to hit it or throw it as hard as you can.” I’ve had my favorites from the Madduxes and the other guys but it’s not so much the same.
Sean, who’s a catcher or two that you most like?
If I had to pick two, it would be Molina and Perez. Just watching those two guys, when they’re on the field and you see them on TV, they just seem like they’re in charge. They have everything under control. Not to mention the way they throw and block and receive and all that stuff. Perez is a huge dude and he’s buying low strikes all day just because of the way he receives those pitches. Just their overall demeanor and the way they control the game, it impresses me and that’s what I like to see out of my catchers.
Staying with the catching end, Sean, give people a drill or two they may not know that can help young catchers just become better.
I had to practice with my guys outside and just having them on the field and putting balls in certain spots on the field so that catcher can see what’s going on and where each player should be. When I run my practices, that’s how I do it. I try to put guys in each position and make it as game-like as possible. I went from Mesa Community College to Indiana State, and one of the things I struggled with at Indiana State, and my coach would harp me on it, was double cuts and relays home and where the ball should be directed. At my junior college, we didn’t focus on that whatsoever. My teammates were just supposed to know where the ball was going and that was that. I didn’t have to direct traffic. I get to Indiana State, I don’t know how to direct traffic. My coach wasn’t too happy with me the first couple of weeks because I didn’t know. I was a mute. Especially with the kids today and how they’re always on their phones and that’s how they communicate, through text and emails and that’s it, it’s just being able to get them on the field. Going through live situations like that will benefit them more in the future than anything else.
Your catchers have to be the leaders out there and they have everything in front of them. You want those guys to take charge. Marty, what about pitching? What’s one or two things you would recommend to parents for helping young pitchers?
I like pitching real specific drills, things that really mimic the stuff that you’re going to do on the field. I’m not into gimmicks at all. It’s worked for me for all these years and I have a lot of success with pitching to throw strikes, building up their strength through proper training. If it was just drill-wise, I like proprioception drills and body awareness drills. I like the towel drills because they can think about how their body moves as opposed to how fast it goes or where it goes, and help them concentrate from foot to fingertip a little bit more. Body awareness stuff more than anything else.
Sam, do you have anything on the pitching or catching end you’d like to do with your kids?
The pitching side, I’m starting to learn a little bit more about. I ask a lot of questions. My oldest son is headed down that path. I saw him always picking Marty’s brain or challenging him with a question to see what his thoughts are. The world of velocity is important but it’s starting to get a little crazy. You’ve got guys who are throwing as hard as they can and not throwing strikes. How good is that if you’re walking, the base is loaded and you can’t throw it to the catcher’s glove? Putting the ball in play and a ball being hit to an infielder or outfielder is more likely to happen than them to find a gap or get a base hit. Forcing them to put the ball in play and pitching to contact is something that is being lost too. It’s great to strike somebody out and if you could throw the ball hard because you’re doing things the right way, great. If you’re throwing the ball as hard as you can, your body is going all over the place and if you can’t throw strikes, I just don’t see your future in the game.
I’d like to hear your take on this, Marty. I know at Indiana State, our coach would call pitches. I ask catchers and pitchers this all the time, especially the college guys that I work with. I go, “What percentage of pitches do you think were called for right down the middle?” These kids would all say, “0%, 5%, 10%.” I’m like, “No, it was probably closer to about 50%.” This is a Division-I school and a good conference and my coach is calling for pitches to be thrown right down the middle. That goes off of what you said about pitching to contact. I don’t know if that’s something that you would be for or against. I just want to hear your thoughts on that.
I’m very opinionated about that. I like starting balls down the middle. I don’t like them to finish down the middle.
That was my coach’s whole philosophy with that. This guy has a lot of movement on that ball, so if we start it down the middle, it’s going to taper off and go left or right. How many times do our pitchers actually put the ball right where you want it?
I’ve had that discussion with some pitchers, who their fathers or the coaches have said, “They got to hit. The ball is right down the middle.” I questioned the pitcher, “Where’s the catcher setting up?” “Right down the middle.” I said, “Is that where you wanted to throw it?” “No, not really.” My opinion on that is don’t let the catcher dictate the outcome of the game if you just don’t think that’s right. If you don’t have confidence in that spot or that pitch, you should change it, unless you have no choice and the coach tells you have to do it. Commit 100% to that pitch but if that catcher is setting up down the middle and you think you need to hit a corner, aim for a knee, aim between his eyes, aim for his shoulder, hit a spot. I’m not going to aim for that glove. I want the pitcher to throw with 100% confidence as opposed to walking away from a game, losing it on one or two pitches and saying, “I didn’t want to throw that pitch.”
[Tweet “Don’t let the catcher dictate the outcome of the game if you just don’t think that’s right. “]
I like what you said there too about throwing to the knees, throwing to the shoulders because that’s something that I try to get my catchers to do. It’s so hard for the younger kids just because their legs aren’t strong enough. I try to get them to sit big for that reason. A guy is throwing his curveball; he might not want to throw it, aim for the glove. He might be aiming for one of the shoulders or one of the knees. If that catcher is hunched over, what target does he have to throw at?
When you work with your catchers, do they move the body or do they move the glove when they set them up?
I’m telling them to basically line their cup up with wherever they want that to be.
In practice, I like the catcher to emphasize that corner to be real specific where the glove is. I know that’s not what you want to do in the game. It helps them focus.
We all would agree and everybody who knows baseball would agree that the best pitch in baseball is first-pitch strike. It’s what you’re saying there, Sean. At any level, I don’t mind my pitcher throwing that ball down the middle. If hitters are going to swing, they’re going to swing but getting ahead in the count is crucial at every level to get ahead. Then you can dictate the whole at-bat. Especially at the higher levels now, it seems like they want to work the count so much that your advantage is put the ball over the plate and if they want to swing, then we’ll let them and we got a defense still. If I can get the hole-in-one, it sets up everything.
It’s funny how conversations backtrack a little bit, but I was talking with Marty about the stat I saw about Greg Maddux, and it’s pretty impressive when you look at the amount of numbers. Greg Maddux faced 20,421 batters during his career, only 310 saw a 3-0 count. Of the 310, 177 were intentional walks. When you start to subtract that number off from 20,000, and I’m not really good at math, but that’s almost 1% of the 20,000-plus hitters he’s faced ever got to a 3-0 count. It’s pretty impressive. It’s pound the strike zone and get ahead. It gets back to Marty saying I was one of the guys he enjoyed watching and that was part of it. I think Chicago Cubs fans are a little bit lucky. The baseball world realized just how good how Kyle Hendricks is, watching him in his playoff run as well.
It certainly helps that the Cubs have an unbelievable defense behind those guys too. That makes me a better pitcher right away. At the youth level, too many balls get put in play and sometimes it’s a circus out there. It’s a little tough to tell a young player, “Don’t strike the kid out. Let him put it in play,” but then he knows what the result may be if the ball is in place.
You learn early that you can only control what you can control and make a pitch and whatever happens after that, happens.
That’s a good point but I’m not sure too many kids believe that. When they’re the ones seeing the numbers go up in the scoreboard and you’re the pitcher, it’s not easy. It was a great session. We’re planning on having another one here. I’m going to let each coach say a little something about themselves and where they can be reached. Sam, I’ll let you start with yourself on how things are going here at the Diamond Edge Academy and how people can reach you.
Things are going well. We’re getting into the season and the high school season is well underway and now the Little Leagues, T-Balls and Coach Pitch Leagues are starting so we’re starting to see more of the younger players come in. You can always find us here at Diamond Edge Academy. The website is DiamondEdgeAcademy.com. Visit the website, give us a call at 630-601-7171. We’ve got a great number of quality instructors including Marty and Sean. We’re here to help and help players of any age and ability.
Marty, you’re the head pitching instructor here, and now softball.
I’m having a blast. I’m here all the time, every day.
You can reach Marty at the Diamond Edge Academy. Sean, I know you and me both work at a few different places but how can they reach you? If you want to say a little something about Dupage Hounds, go ahead.
I have the Dupage Hounds. I run that organization. I have six youth teams and I also run two college teams. One of my favorite things to do with athletes and with the players and especially the high school level guys is give them advice as to how to go about getting to college and getting to the proper school. Because I do run these college teams, I do have a lot of connections with the local universities and even universities around the country. If anybody even wanted to talk about that, feel free to contact me.
I would like to remind people of the book I have called Creating a Season to Remember. I can be reached at BaseballCoachingTips.net. We’re grateful for everybody. Tell a friend about us. As always, we have a little story at the end of our podcast to relay to your coaches and friends and family. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next time.
We always appreciate people listening to our podcast. This story falls right in line with our pitching and catching roundtable discussion. It involves me when I was fourteen years old. I had a very strong arm when I was young and I was a pitcher. When I was fourteen, I struck out 20 out of 21 batters in a PONY League baseball game. The following game, I struck out 15 out of 21 batters. This is Joliet, Illinois baseball where it is very serious. It wasn’t like this wasn’t good baseball. Many Major Leaguers, including myself, have come from Joliet, at least ten or eleven from my recollection. Anyway, after those two games, I never pitched another baseball game in my life. I went from being a dominating pitcher to a weak-armed second baseman. That was that for the rest of my career. The reason for my arm blowout, I’m sure, looking back on it, was just way too many pitches in order to get all those strikeouts and probably too many curveballs. The problem with curveballs is that kids usually cannot hit them, so when pitcher’s arms tire, they go to more and more curveballs. I’m not saying a curveball itself is the problem but it’s throwing too many and relying on it when the arm gets tired. When my arm is tired, I would go get a curveball and pretty soon I’m sure I was throwing way too many of them and that was the result of my weak arm the rest of my career.
It’s a good message for coaches that pitch counts and especially the number of pitches in an inning and their overall number of innings is very important along with rest days so players’ arms have time to recover. If I would have been able to keep up my arm’s strength when I was young into my older ages, I could have been a utility infielder as well as a second baseman. I was pretty much stuck as being just a second baseman. The Los Angeles Dodgers told me when I was drafted that I was the only player ever drafted as a second baseman up until that point. Most players come from other positions and they move them to second base so they have much stronger arms, but I was pretty much relegated to just second base. Thanks for listening to our podcast and our story. We look forward to seeing you again in the future. Tell your friends about us. Thank you.