One of the things I love about playoff baseball is getting to see great pitching and guys rising to the occasion on the biggest stage possible. If you didn’t get a chance to see Barry Zito pitch Friday night in game of the NLCS you missed a gem. With his team facing elimination with their backs against the wall, Zito stepped up with one of the biggest performances of his career.

What stood out from Zito’s performance was just how he was able to be so dominant, making big league hitters look silly without possessing what most would consider dominant “stuff.” Too many young pitchers think it’s all about velocity and being able to throw the ball by the hitter. But performances like the one Zito had in game 5 prove there’s much more to pitching than just throwing hard. So here is a short list of things every pitcher can learn Zito’s game 5 performance.

[h4]1. Locating and changing speeds is more important than a 90+ fastball[/h4] Watching the way Zito moved the ball around the plate and kept hitters guessing was truly a sight to see. Very rarely do you see a guy with mid 80’s velocity blow a fastball by a big league hitter up in the zone, but Zito was able to do it regularly. Here’s what Art Wellersdick wrote in his article on

“Last night was a clinic in changing speeds and location. He had several swinging strikeouts on high fastballs, something a pitcher with an 84mph fastball only gets away with if he’s dominating the bottom half of the zone with every pitch and every speed he can feature.”

[h4]2. The art of pitching is upsetting hitter’s timing[/h4] Despite an 85 MPH fastball, Zito kept hitters off-balance all night. Velocity is impressive, but too many pitchers think it’s the only thing that matters. I remember one pitcher in the minors who, after having a rough year, said, “Well if they were hitting my 93 MPH fastball I guess I gotta come back next year throwing 97.” Yeah, maybe that would help… but I wanted to shake him, “you throw 93! That’s enough, what you need to do is work on pitching – that means locating and changing speeds!”

Here’s what Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny had to say about Zito’s game 5 performance:
“That’s what pitching is,” said. “You don’t have to have 99 [mph] on your fastball if you can locate and keep hitters off-balance.” – source: Barry Svrluga – Washington Post

[h4]3. Force contact – Make them hit your pitch[/h4] A big part of the art of pitching is keeping the ball off the fat part of the bat. This doesn’t mean nibbling and being afraid to throw the ball over the plate. Instead it means pounding the strike zone, being aggressive and getting ahead in the count. When you work ahead and move the ball around the plate, you’ll get hitters to hit the pitch you want – Zito forced the Cardinals into 10 ground outs and 12 fly balls Friday night.

Work ahead, keep hitters off balance, force contact.

[h4]4. Never quit on yourself[/h4] Barry Zito has a caught a lot of flack over the last few years. After his years as a rising star with the A’,s the Giants signed him to a huge $126 million contract in 2007, with the years to follow being what can only be characterized as a colossal disappointment. In 2010, things got so bad the Giants even left their high paid starter off the playoff roster.
It would have been easy to cave under the weight of all the criticism, hang his head, give up and stop giving it everything he had. Instead, he rededicated himself.

Here’s what his catcher Buster Posey had to say about him after game 5:
“I see how hard he works, no matter if he’s struggling or doing well. He puts in the time off the field. His preparation is second to none,” – source: Larry Fine, Reuters

Keep working hard, be prepared, and when your time comes, good things will happen.

[h4]5. Commit to getting better in the off-season[/h4] Take a look in the mirror, assess your weaknesses, and work to eliminate them in the offseason. Speaking about getting left off the playoff roster in 2010, Zito said, “Well, you know, it was certainly a huge blow just personally to be left off that roster. …But you’ve got to be professional, you can’t pout… I worked on a lot of things that off-season, came back stronger for it, I think.” – source:

If you’re looking to get the most out of your off-season training, start by thinking about what you can do to become a more complete pitcher. Velocity is important, but so is changing speeds and locating your pitches. Examine yourself, set clear goals, and come up with a plan. One of the first things you should do this off-season is assess your weaknesses.

If you live in the CT/NY area, strength coach Josh Heenan and I will be conducting full Pitching Mechanics, Strength & Flexibility Assessments this off-season.

If you’re not in the area, you can easily submit a video for motion analysis, and I would highly recommend checking out the Assess & Correct program. Stay hungry.

title photo source:

[h5]The First Thing Every Pitcher Should Do Before Their Off-Season Workouts[/h5]

This is one of my favorite times of year here in the northeast. Leaves are changing color, there’s a cool bite in the air, and major league playoffs are in full gear. If you’re a young pitcher, your summer league is a distant memory, and while a lot of kids play fall baseball, that too is coming to a close. And after that last pitch is thrown and you put the spikes away for the winter, you’ve officially entered into one of the most critical times of year for any pitcher… the Off-Season.

As a former minor league pitcher, I can tell you what you do in the months that follow can make or break your career. And that’s because real gains are made in the off-season. During the season, your focus is on performing at your best and doing everything you can to maintain your strength and stay healthy. Making meaningful strength and velocity gains means pushing yourself to the limit, and that’s tough to do when your body’s already dealing with fatigue and the demands of pitching week in, week out.

But before you dive into plans for your off-season training, let me make some recommendations:

  • Give your arm a rest.  Overuse is one of the biggest contributors to injury, and studies confirm that kids who pitch year round without a break have much higher rate of arm injury. According to one 2006 study, leading researchers found, “Adolescent throwers who pitched more than eight months per year were five times more likely to be injured compared to those who pitched less.”
    -Olsen SJ, Fleisig GS, Dun S, Loftice J, Andrews JR. “Risk factors for shoulder and elbow injuries in adolescent baseball pitchers” – Am J Sports Med. 2006
  • Spend some time playing another sport or working on strength and agility. Don’t be fooled into thinking you have to stick to throwing off the mound 365 days a year. Becoming a better athlete will make you a better pitcher.

Generally speaking, a month or two away from throwing a baseball will do your arm some good and allow you to come back to pitching recharged and ready to go. And there plenty of ways you can improve as a pitcher that don’t require throwing a baseball.

Now before getting all Gung-Ho about your winter conditioning, I want you to think about the # 1 thing every pitcher should do before beginning their off-season training:
[h4]Get to Know Your Weakest Link![/h4]
You’re only as strong as your weakest link. You’ve probably heard it a million times, but as with most clichés there’s some real truth to it. You can apply that phrase to just about any aspect of pitching. Every pitcher has weaknesses, things they could do better. Maybe you have trouble locating your fastball or getting your breaking ball over for a strike consistently. Maybe you could work on your mental approach and maintaining a positive pitching mindset when things are going against you. Maybe you have a flaw in your pitching mechanics that could be hurting your velocity and control.

It applies to your mechanics: The pitching delivery is a total body movement involving your entire kinetic chain. When you consider the speed of the movement (from the height of your leg lift to ball release takes less than second!), it’s easy to understand how a breakdown or inefficiency at any point in that chain can wreck the whole thing.

It applies to your conditioning: Good mechanics alone can’t eliminate the risk of injury. In fact, since good mechanics allow you get generate more force and velocity, the hardest throwers put the most stress on their arms. The only way to handle those stresses is through a well designed strength and conditioning routine.

Eric Cressey had a great post on his site recently, definitely worth checking out: Pitching Injuries and Performance: Understanding Stride Foot Contact and Full External Rotation

[h5]What do Michael Jordan, Greg Maddux, and Mariano Rivera have in common?[/h5]

…Well, I mean aside from being among the greatest to ever play their respective sports/positions. Like all great athletes, they each understood the importance of addressing their weaknesses, facing them head on and turning them into strengths.

Michael Jordan: When Jordan came into the league he was considered a one dimensional player – a great scorer and dunker, but he couldn’t play defense or threaten with his outside shot. He committed to becoming the best defender he could be, and in his fourth season was named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. Did he stop there? No, he kept looking for weaknesses, areas he could improve, and developed his signature fade-away jump shot. He looked at what people considered his weaknesses and worked like crazy to turn them into strengths.

Mariano Rivera: It’s easy to forget, but when Mo first came up, he was a strikeout machine who relied an explosive four seam fastball. The ball jumped on the hitter at the last second, nobody could touch it. It was amazing to watch. But he soon realized that all those swinging strikes meant more pitches and more stress on his arm. If he wanted to be available to pitch every day, year in year out, he’d be better off forcing contact and getting outs on fewer pitches. So he developed that filthy cutter and became the most dominant closer in the history of baseball. But he didn’t stop there. Eventually, hitters started to cheat on the cutter. So late in his career he developed a new pitch, a hard sinking/tailing two seamer he could throw to keep hitters honest.

Greg Maddux: Considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of his era, Maddux was a master at commanding his fastball and changing speeds to keep hitters off balance. But success didn’t come overnight. A few years into his career, after experiencing some success, he realized something was holding him back from achieving pitching to his full potential: negative thoughts and self doubt. So what did he do? He sought out sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman and worked on strengthening his mental approach. The result? During the four year span from 1992-1995 Maddux won 4 consecutive Cy Youngs while posting a 75-29 record with a 1.98 ERA.

(watch 3:20 minutes in where he starts talking about his mental approach)

My point is, the greatest athletes in the world didn’t get that way by accident. Talent helps, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle. The world is full of talented failures. The great ones set themselves apart through a commitment to excellence and a burning desire to be the best they can be. They take the time to know their weaknesses, and tackle them head on.
[h4]So how do you get to know your weakest link?[/h4]
It begins with Self-Assessment. Take some time to step back and reflect on your season. What could you have done better, what could you work on this winter to become a more complete pitcher next season? Assess all areas of your game, your mechanics, your mental approach, your control and command of your pitches.

And part of the process should include assessing your overall strength and flexibility. Something I see all the time with the kids I work with is a lack of the overall strength and mobility needed to perform a powerful pitching delivery. Now is the time to examine yourself, determine what you need to work on. That way you can come up with a plan to get the most out of your training this off-season.

This off-season, I’m partnering with Strength & Conditioning Coach Josh Heenan to offer complete Pitching, Strength & Flexibility Assessments for all of my pitchers here in CT. You can learn more about Josh here. If you’re interested in getting your own Full Pitching Assessment send me an email:

If you don’t live in the NY/CT area but think you could benefit from this kind of assessment, you can send me a video for a full Pitching Motion Analysis. Also, If you don’t have access to a strength coach like Josh, who really knows his stuff, I highly recommend checking out the Assess & Correct program.

[h5]The Towel Drill: A great drill for killing rotational power[/h5]

I almost included the towel drill in my list of least favorite pitching drills, but decided this one needed it’s own separate article. The most common version of the towel drill involves performing your motion with a towel in your throwing hand with the intention of hitting a target that somebody holds out in front of your landing foot. The idea is in order to consistently hit the target, you need to demonstrate good extension, balance and posture. Unfortunately, it can also lead to some very bad habits if you’re not careful.

In my opinion, the towel drill, at best, can be a useful tool for teaching proper sequencing in your delivery… at worst, it can create awful mechanics that actually rob you of power and velocity. If not taught or practiced properly, it trains the pitcher to “reach out” or stride farther, which tends to cause them to open early and lose rotational velocity (hip and trunk rotation are two of the biggest contributors to velocity). As I discussed in a previous article, a long stride does you no good if you open early with your hips. If you want to maximize power and velocity, you need rotational power.

[h5]Focusing on hitting a target out in front of your foot doesn’t make much sense when you consider a pitcher’s actual release point![/h5]


Despite lumping the towel drill in the “drills I don’t like” category, I do see some value to working with a towel. Developing a powerful pitching delivery that you can repeat consistently takes work – it can take over 1,000 repetitions to really ingrain new movement patterns. Throwing drills and pitching off the mound should make up a good part of that work, but sometimes it’s helpful to work on your pitching mechanics without a ball.

Working without a ball saves wear and tear on your arm, and also makes it easier to focus on your mechanics since you’re not worried about where the ball is going. Using the towel can be helpful because sometimes when you perform full speed reps with nothing in your hand it can feel like your arm’s going to fly off.

So I’m not against working with the towel, it’s really just the intention of the drill I have an issue with. Here is a great video of major league pitcher George Kontos (fellow Northwestern grad, incidentally) using the towel to work on his delivery. You’ll see there is nobody standing in front of him holding out a target for him to smack.

Notice his late trunk rotation! He is basically just working on his mechanics with a towel in his hand. When I was in the minors, a lot of guys would use a towel to work on their mechanics before the game. But the goal was always performing quality reps of their motion, not smacking a target in front of their foot. Bottom line, I’m not a big fan of it, but if you’re going to do the towel drill at all, do it this way.

Check out the Ballistic Pitching Blueprint if you want to learn more about drills for developing a powerful pitching delivery

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