SHERIDAN — Almost every good high school pitcher has a quality fastball. The key to becoming a great pitcher is developing off-speed pitches to go along with the heater.
Fastball is usually the easiest pitch to learn. The technique is straight forward: grip it and rip it. Off-speed pitches can take a lot more time and effort to master, especially because different pitches require different grips, styles and arm angles.
“At this level, as long as they have two (pitches) and then we’re working on three by the time they’re juniors and seniors, then that’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Sheridan Troopers head coach Ben Phillips said.
Most high school pitchers throw some combination of four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curveball. Usually somewhere between the ages of 11 and 14, pitchers start developing their breaking ball pitches. They may pick up one pitch fairly quickly, while others can take years of practice to hone.
Take Jacob Boint, for example. The Troopers’ ace relies on his four-seamer and mixes in a curveball and slider. Boint quickly added the slider last year after trying it out and practicing in a few bullpen practice sessions.
However, Boint has been trying to implement a changeup for a while, but the pitch is still a work in progress.
“I’ve tried just about every grip and style that I can find,” Boint said.
Boint’s struggles are fairly common. Phillips said changeup is the toughest pitch to learn because it entails using one’s ring finger and pinkie finger, while most other pitches only use the thumb, index finger and middle finger.
“It’s a totally different throwing action,” Phillips said. “You’re actually throwing it more like a football than a baseball … To control that different throwing action and use those fingers that we’re not used to using as much makes it difficult for young kids to control.”
Ayden Roush has a solid changeup that he has developed over several years, with many tweaks along the way.
“I throw a circle change and it’s really got that downward, away action, but it did take me a while just to find a grip for it,” Roush said.
Roush throws a four-seam fastball, changeup and curveball, a pitch that also took time to pin down.
“I had the grip; I knew how to throw it, but it took me a while to actually get some spin on it,” Roush said of his curveball.
To develop pitchers like Boint and Roush, Phillips has them begin the baseball season working on proper grips before moving onto different release points and wrist actions. Curveball and slider are the toughest pitches to physically throw because of the torque required on the arm and elbow.
The players said they have learned a lot from Phillips, who pitched in Double A for the New York Yankees organization and threw a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider and changeup.
“He’s a really good resource to bounce ideas off,” Boint said.
Phillips took lessons from all his pitching coaches throughout his career, so the transition from player to coach wasn’t too difficult.
“You learn a lot and take all that feedback that you’ve learned and you can give it back out to the kids that you’re coaching,” Phillips said.
“You can try different things for different kids, rather than just giving them one opportunity. If they don’t understand one way, you need to have two or three different ways to explain something so that maybe they’ll learn it a little bit differently and be more successful.”
One of the techniques Phillips uses is taking a video with his phone of a player pitching in practice. They will then look at the video together, and Phillips will point out specific areas that are working well or not.
Throwing from the full windup versus the stretch is different as well.
“When you’re in the windup, you have more time,” Boint said. “In the stretch, when you’re throwing off-speed, coach really stresses getting [the ball] out of your mitt earlier so you can still get the same release point in your full windup. If you don’t, you’ll start to lag behind and then you won’t get the same break that you normally would get.”
In games, Boint usually throws fastballs around 65 to 70 percent of the time.
“It definitely depends on the day,” he said. “Sometimes I’m really feeling my fastball and I can locate it really well. Other days I’m not feeling it, so I go more toward my off-speed.”
Roush usually throws his fastball about 70 percent of the time, but if his changeup is working, he will throw that more often.
As a batter, Roush also said a good changeup is the toughest to hit, especially if the pitcher has a fastball with velocity.
“It’s the hardest one to throw strikes consistently, but if you have a good changeup, it’s the best pitch you can get,” Phillips said.
Various pitches take time to learn, and for players like Boint and Roush, becoming comfortable with one or two off-speed pitches can make a world of difference.