From my experience as a head softball coach, a pitch caller, and from giving instruction to catchers over the years, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on a few things in the game of fastpitch softball that I’ve noticed can make a great pitcher—one that has worked hard over many years to become great—look not so great, even just plain bad at times. And on the other hand, when these 3 ‘planets’ align with the great pitcher, championships are coming!
Take, for example, the softball pitcher Giselle “G” Juarez. When I saw her pitch a couple of years ago at Arizona State University, I quickly noticed she had great, late-breaking spin on her pitches, some of the best I’ve seen around the college game at the time, but then I didn’t hear much more about her in the news or highlights for the rest of the year, so I forgot about her. I didn’t hear about her breaking any records. I didn’t see her go far into the end of the season, the playoffs, the World Series, etc., etc.
Fast forward to 2019 after she joined Oklahoma, and you can see quickly the difference a great coach, a great pitching coach/pitch caller — Jennifer Rocha (who just left Florida, ouch Tim!), and a great catcher can make for the same pitcher. It doesn’t surprise me that when she joined Patty Gasso’s posse that she really started to shine and show her potential to the world, making it all the way to the College World Series and throwing almost every game against SERIOUSLY good competition. Gasso is one of the greatest softball coaches of all time. Imagine… if “G” didn’t make the move to OU. Would she have stood out so strongly? Would she have gotten all that fantastic circle experience, game after game? Would she be in such a great position to play after college, in the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) League? I argue not. And this is just a high-level example of how a different situation really helped a great pitcher look great to her potential.
3 things that a great pitcher needs to look great as she can be[.]
- The head coach. Since the head coach has control over the pitch calling and the catcher, that will lead into my next two items… but at the very top level a good coach that keeps their cool and gives great advice and enables great bullpen practices makes a huge difference on the queen of the circle, whereas a bad coach can cast a shadow over a great pitcher and cause continual misery and frustration. Mediocre head coaches can make a great pitcher look bad.
- The pitch caller. I can’t overstate how important great pitch calling is, especially when you get into the late-season where hitters become really, really strong. Pitchers need to keep hitters off balance, getting them to swing at balls and watch strikes. Obviously, a pitch caller that’s not strong will not be able to discover a hitter’s weakness quickly and exploit that weakness. Conversely (s)he will accidentally throw to their strengths (typically at the wrong, key points in a game, LOL), just guessing what to call; because they didn’t do their job by building good scouting reports. Poor pitch calling can make a great pitcher look bad.
- The catcher. A great catcher will frame spin pitches at the right moments, which can be an advantage for a pitcher in a tight game. But that’s not the biggest reason a great catcher can team up with a great pitcher for really great results. What about becoming a dynamic duo? From my experience, I’ve seen catchers that just did not get along with the pitcher — at times really disliking each other! It’s a fact not everyone on a team gets along, but these catchers would do things to undermine the pitcher because of either jealousy or personality conflicts, and the bottom-line of whatever the differences may be, the pitcher-catcher relationship cadence could never be strong, so the team suffered, and the pitcher looked bad because of this.
Furthermore, good catchers will fight for their pitchers. For example, when a pitcher hits the mark and pitch is a strike, again and again, but the umpire calls it a ball, the catcher needs to be able to be vocal enough to turn to the umpire and say “hey, where did that miss?”.
Great catchers are smart too. If pitchers and catchers aren’t wearing armbands, then the catcher needs to relay the signs. And if the pitcher isn’t comfortable with the pitch called the catcher and pitch caller need to flex, and quickly. These signs need to be relayed correctly and quickly, without getting stolen so that the pitcher can keep her rhythm. A poor catcher can make a great pitcher look bad.
Also, with a pitch caller (and the catcher somewhat), signs need to be protected. Whether a coach at third base or girls in the opposite dugout or even a runner that’s on second base is able to pick signs, especially the change-up it defeats the pitcher and all her hard work that she has put in, and it’s just not good. Protecting signs does matter, and any coach that says it doesn’t is a rookie, at best.
So, in summary, I can tell you that when you see a great pitcher in the championship game, I want you to look around at the head coach… I want you to look at the pitch caller (most likely it’s not the catcher; usually, none of these three are the same person at this level of success), and I want you to look at the catcher… I guarantee that you will see all three of those are supportive to the pitcher, and none are a detriment to the pitcher, at least two out of three in any case.