Coaching

Secrets Of Great Infield Play Answered

Secrets Of Great Infield Play Answered

UCLA's T.J. BruceBy LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball
(From the Sept. 6, 2013 Edition)

UCLA’s defense the last three years has been extraordinary.

In 2013, the Bruins recorded a .980 fielding percentage, the best in school history, as UCLA committed only 52 errors in 2,624 chances.

The previous two years, the Bruins posted .976 fielding percentages which ranked second in school history both seasons.

It is no coincidence that UCLA’s fielding success has happened under Bruin Infield Coach T.J. Bruce who has been with the Bruins the last three seasons.

He is without a doubt one of the top infield coaches in all of baseball and utilizes many progressive concepts that allow infielders to have soft hands and make play after play with precision.

UCLA won the College World Series last season for the first time in history with great pitching and defense. But not until now has an in-depth story been written about how defense is taught at UCLA.

In posting a 5-0 record during the College World Series, UCLA’s infielders only committed 2 errors, and turned 4 double plays.

There were a number of outstanding defensive plays that contributed to 10 consecutive wins during the entire NCAA tournament.

Infielders only committed four errors in those 10 pressure packed playoff games.

“You don’t ever want to see your infielders lose their athleticism. That’s been the biggest key for us the last three years at UCLA.

“Teaching them that every play is different is also important. We had 769 assists during the past season in 66 games, and every ball that was hit to our infielders was different. And the key to our success is having the players have a solid foundation.

“I also believe that the earlier the separation of the hands, the earlier your feet must get into motion. No one ever thinks that way. As soon as you break your hands, your feet must do something. They have to move. I always tell my infielders that if they have bad feet, they will go and play in the outfield.

“That’s no knock on our outfielders who do a great job. But infield play is done with your feet. Nobody stresses that. And I feel it is crucial. In fact, I utilize a drill where I have them about 40 feet away from me and have their hands tied behind their back or have their hands in their back pockets.

“Then I roll balls to them and have them simply stop balls with their feet. This really helps them move their feet and makes them realize how crucial footwork is. It doesn’t matter which foot touches the ball. I just want it instilled in their mind that they need to touch the ball with one of their feet.

“If one of my guys can touch a ball with their feet, they will throw you out. That’s always been my theory. I want them to expand their minds on infield play because it can be tedious working on infield play with thousands of balls they will receive during a typical year in practice.”

For the rest of the in-depth story (first of a 2-part series) on how T.J. Bruce teaches infield play at UCLA, purchase the Sept. 6 issue of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe by CLICKING HERE.  Bruce explains his system for consistent improvement with infielders, working on different hops, and the notorious 4-ball drill for third baseman and other infielders.

Summer Instruction Series: Art Of Bunting 2

Summer Instruction Series: Art Of Bunting 2

Bunting IncorrectlyBy LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball

Three head coaches who have long been advocates of the bunting game, Mike Gillespie of U.C. Irvine, George Horton of Oregon and Jim Morris of Miami (Fla.), share their thoughts on this specialized skill.

The interview with these three coaches originally appeared in the Oct. 11, 2002 edition of Collegiate Baseball.

“We want all of our players to be complete in the offensive phase of baseball,” said Gillespie, who also coached at Southern California prior to moving to U.C. Irvine.

“Bunting is a big part of offense for us. As far as the sacrifice bunt, we have our batters cheat up in the box. We want to get better plate coverage and be up in the box to take advantage of the full 90 degrees of the base angles instead of having someone attempt to bunt in the middle or back of the box where a bunt would have to roll across the foul line to be fair.

“Something we do which may be a bit different than other programs is that for a sacrifice bunt, we have our hitters show early. They then spin on both feet and have the feet facing the pitcher as the pitcher comes to the set position. Virtually all pro teams and most college teams don’t show until after the pitcher comes to the set position, lifts his leg and breaks his hands. That is when hitters usually commit to a bunt.

“But on sacrifice bunts, we do it early. And we do it for a couple of reasons. When we sacrifice, there is no surprise element involved. Just about everybody in the world knows it is a slam dunk bunt.

“The next thing we do is have our hitters drop their front foot open just a little bit for balance. Then they go into an exaggerated knee flex so they minimize the barrel from dropping.

“Another point to make is that our bunters choke up on the bat about 3-4 inches off the knob with the bottom hand. We want the hands split with the top hand around the label. He cradles the top of the bat in his hand.

“We also pre-angle the bat to whatever direction we want the ball to go making sure the barrel is above the knob. It also is important to hold the hands with the bat at the top of the strike zone or even a little higher. We never want our hitters to lift their hands to adjust to a pitch. There is too much risk in that as pop ups result batters will get outs.

“No matter what technique someone prefers in bunting, you must have a comfortable flex with the elbows if you are doing a sacrifice bunt or trying to bunt for a base hit.

“The single most common error is running too quickly before the ball is struck with the bat. We keep hammering and hammering away at our bunters to not run until they see a downward angle of the ball just coming off the bat.

“Once they see that downward angle of the ball off the bat, run like hell to first base…but not before seeing this downward angle of the ball.”

Gillespie said he becomes incredibly frustrated when his bunters run too soon before striking the ball.

“We attach all sorts of penalties in good fun to running too fast before a bunt is struck properly.

“We spend a significant amount of time on it. We are a little unusual in that the first pitch of batting practice is bunted by our hitters. But also the last pitch the hitter goes after must be a bunt as well. We do that because he is running on the pitch, and we want him to be comfortable with running hard to first or whatever the round calls for. This way we can check to see they are being mechanically sound.”

Gillespie said minimizing movement by hitters with the drag, push and other bunts is critical to the success of batters.

“We have our guys use more of a sacrifice technique in bunting than you see with other teams which use the traditional drag or push techniques because frankly players can get too cute with fancy techniques. We try to convey to our hitters to always be on the lookout for opportunities to drag or push bunt…but only do this when the defense allows you to take it. You don’t have to be extremely foxy. If a corner guy is way back, that is a great time to do it.

“So we have a modified sacrifice bunt technique which our guys use for these techniques. We are much more interested in placement of balls than about exact timing. If we place the bunt well, we will be safe.”

Gillespie said he is convinced you don’t have to have players with great speed to have a great bunting team.

“I honestly believe you don’t have to be a great runner to be a successful bunter. It has been our experience that opportunities are there for big, slow guys to bunt. If you develop their techniques, they will be safe because defensive players will play back on them.

“Over the years, I have had maybe one or two players with incredible speed. Damon Buford (USC player) comes to mind. We just have not been successful in our recruiting to get that type of player with incredible speed. But we have still been pretty successful with the bunting game.

“We had a player named Casey Burrell, a 6-foot-3, 230 pound guy (USC) who was basically a base clogger. As a sophomore he hit 7th in the lineup. But the following year he was the 3-4 hole hitter and had plenty of power. But people didn’t realize he had 17 drag bunt base hits as a sophomore. He never had a push bunt base hit. But he had the perfect technique to drag. Third basemen almost always played him back. But he had the ability to bunt a tick firm so the pitcher couldn’t make a play.

“You normally want a bunt to die about 12 feet from the plate near the line like a wedge shot. He was contrary to this formula. He had to make the third baseman field the ball.”

Bunting With Slow Runners
Gillespie said Hall of Fame Coach Wally Kincaid from Cerritos College always had a few big, slow guys who could drag bunt.

“If the opposition had its third baseman back with two outs and Coach Kincaid had a runner on third with a big, slow guy batting, many times that batter would drag bunt to third. It was amazing how many times that play worked. We copied that idea because it works.”

Gillespie said his teams work on bunting in several different ways.

“One way we practice bunting is by placing a cone where we want the balls to go or make a small alley lined with bats from home plate to the area the ball must travel or even throw a hat out there. Then we will pick our best two bunters and have them choose teams. Team X will bunt five to 10 drags or pushes and keep score. Then the other team will follow. The winners might get a Popsicle while the losers might pick up gear. Or the winners might be excused from running at the end of practice. We make it fun for the guys.

“We bunt every day, and typically bunting is among the first two things we do after stretching.

“Another thing we have done is establish groups of three and fan them out foul pole to foul pole. In those groups you have a bunter, thrower and shagger. One day we may have 15 drags or 5 drags, 5 push bunts or 5 squeezes…whatever. We devote 15 minutes to it. We have the hitters back up to the warning track and have the thrower pitch to him. The problem we have encountered is that the pitcher usually doesn’t throw hard enough from 50 to 60 feet away. We are always on them to throw hard to make it game-like. Bunting against soft pitching just doesn’t work.

“Then, as I said earlier, we have hitters in batting practice bunt the first and last pitch.”

Close Monitoring Needed
Gillespie said the one problem he has had with players fanning out across the warning track foul pole to foul pole in groups of three is that coaches can’t monitor every group with every pitch.

“I don’t care what skill it is. If it is not monitored, they are not working hard at it. In our case, we only have three coaches at practice every day. I think we may change one aspect of bunting this year. If we have a group taking batting practice, the others might be placed in groups of two on the sides of the aprons in front of the dugouts where I can see all of them. On one side of the infield, one group may practice drag bunting while the other side may be working on push bunting.”

Gillespie said no matter how much emphasis or how hard his teams work on all phases of bunting, in reality there are only a few guys who are extremely skilled at this craft.

“Not everybody develops the ability to bunt well in games. And that’s frustrating because we really believe in it. There is a significant place for it in baseball. I have found that there usually are two or three guys on any one team who can drag and two or three guys who can push bunt.

“Wes Rachels was the absolute best offensive player in all phases of the game I have ever seen in 36 years of coaching. He was a grand master at executing all the skills of offense such as the drag, push, sacrifice, squeeze, hit and run, slash…you name it.

“I’ll never forget the 1998 College World Series where he was named MVP. Many people don’t realize that from the first day of the College World Series to the last, Wes did everything offensively you can do. He got a squeeze down, drag bunt, slashed twice, hit and run, moved a runner over, hit two doubles and a home run.”

Executing The Slug Bunt
Gillespie said Jerry Weinstein’s teams at Sacramento City College were noted for executing the slug bunt.

“He would have a left-handed hitter up at the plate and come around to bunt. The third baseman and first baseman from the opposing team would run in toward the plate. But usually there would be a huge hole between the third baseman and pitcher with the shortstop playing back. It seemed like every year he had a guy who could hit the ball to the right of the third baseman toward the shortstop which would be an easy single if hit with the right amount of touch. But this takes a tremendous amount of skill to do.”

Other Philosophies On Bunting
Oregon’s Horton (who also has coached at Cal State Fullerton for many seasons) said bunting is one of the key components of their offense.

“Bunting is one of the first lessons our new players learn,” said Horton.

“We want kids to buy into it early in our program. I am not a gadget type of guy with different bunting gimmicks which might be on the market. We teach the fundamentals from the get-go. Batters must have the proper angle of the bat aimed toward the target they wish to hit. The barrel of the bat should be slightly higher than the knob.

“The term we use a lot is catch the ball with the bat. We want pace to be taken off the ball on a sacrifice bunt. Most hitters naturally stab at the ball with their bat. I have found that how firm a batter grips the bat with his top hand is important. Through repetition, hitters can become superb bunters.

“Sometimes a JC or high school guy will come into the program as a great bunter. We don’t touch those guys…only add to their skills if we can.

“I like our bunters to have their bottom hand about three inches from the knob. The top hand slides up to control the position of the barrel. A good visual cue is to tell the batter to place his top hand on the barrel of the bat so that it is almost like a chair with the thumb serving as the back support of the chair. You pinch the bat with a bent index finger and the thumb with all other fingers tucked safely away.

“Sliding the top hand to the barrel must be done quickly so the bat can be turned at the correct angle toward the target. The bat is placed at the top of the strike zone as an aiming device. Any pitch above the bat is a ball, so bring the bat back. Anything below should be bunted as long as it is a strike. It is crucial to bunt only strikes.

“We are committed to the bunt and put aside enough practice time to be successful. We tell all of our guys as a motivation tool that if player A and B are equal in every respect (power, running, defense, etc.) then often times the bunting game will give one player the edge over another. They get the message right away how much we value good bunters. When we scrimmage, everyone is asked to bunt. That translates into a commitment to work harder in practice.”

Horton said he uses orange cones to designate where hitters must bunt the ball.

“We have several drills with the bunting game we work on. We want hitters bunting and pitchers fielding to have a game-like atmosphere. We also have different bunting stations which help their skills as well.”

Success At Miami
Miami’s Morris said the bunting game became an important weapon for his team after the loss of so much power off his 1998 team which hit 139 homers in 63 games to rank No. 1 in Hurricane history.

“Even though we still hit over 100 home runs last season (2001), we went back to the old Ron Fraser style of game at Miami with great bunting and a solid running game.

Morris said his players must be committed to the bunting game.

“They must understand bunting is an important facet of offense. Often times you will have too many guys who won’t give a good effort when you practice bunting and don’t understand its importance to winning baseball. It is more than a technique. It is an extremely important part of offense.

“As a coach, you must set aside time every week in practice to work on it. People will find it interesting last season that we never had traditional batting practices on Thursdays prior to a three-game weekend series. We really concentrated on the bunting game every Thursday.

“Our practices on Thursdays consisted of having 16 hitters break into two groups of eight each. In 20 minute segments, one group would work on the field while the other would work in the cages. Then they would flip flop. All of the hitters would work on sacrifice, drag and push bunts in both the field and cage setting and strive to be mechanically sound by doing things the right way.

“By spending this amount of time on bunting in practice, it shows the hitters right away the importance you place on bunting.

“We also work on sacrifice bunts with runners on first and second and strategies such as this. We have found that our Thursday bunt sessions have allowed our hitters to have better hand-eye coordination. So there have been other hidden benefits as well.”

Morris said his players work hard at making precision bunts.

“With runners on first and second and an obvious sacrifice bunt is called for, our hitter is taught to bunt the ball a little more firmly so the third baseman handles the ball. With nobody on and our guy dragging a bunt, we want the ball to be deadened and stopped, if possible, near the foul line.

“We move our batters up in the batter’s box and square their feet by spinning them so they point toward the pitcher.”

Morris said the more actual game experience players get as far as laying down bunts in game situations the better.

To obtain a copy of the Oct. 11, 2002 issue of Collegiate Baseball or subscribe, CLICK HERE.

Summer Instruction Series: Throwing Drills

Summer Instruction Series: Throwing Drills

Throwing Game-LikeBy CHARLIE GREENE
Special To Collegiate Baseball

MIAMI, Fla. — Practicing to throw in game-like drills has long been needed in baseball to allow players to maximize their throwing skills.

The typical practice routine involves two players throwing the ball back and forth in order to build up arm strength and develop some degree of accuracy and quickness. However, the game requires wide variety of throws, few of which are found in just playing catch.

At the Major League level, teams rarely take “infield” anymore, and as one longtime Major League coach confided in me, “I can’t find four guys who want to.”

This has led to a decreased level of throwing skill. It is my opinion that players do not want to re-warm their arms when batting practice has been completed for both teams, and therefore are inclined to skip infield drill.

Starting in the early ‘80s our teams started to take infield immediately after warming up, and before batting practice at home games.

The advantages of having a freshly maintained field and the players properly warmed up were obvious.

No longer did the players have to be alerted to prepare for “infield in a few minutes” and rush to warm up their arms, sometimes insufficiently. Injured arms were often the result.

I would like to propose a series of throwing drills that involve the use of a various sized square formations, each providing a chance to practice game-related options. Groups of four in square formation can be set up near each foul line.

Getting sufficient repetitions is the basis for all acquired skills and throwing is no exception. Start out slow before picking up the tempo. Insist on proper footwork and arm action.

20-Foot Square
Four players form the corners of a square 20 feet apart and execute short throws in a clockwise, counter clockwise and diagonal direction.

The two types of throws are the underhand toss and the arm side “flip” where the player extends his arm while pronating (thumb down).

The coach can call out clockwise, counter clockwise, diagonal or allow player options.

Reminders: The underhand toss should be executed with a firm wrist extended directly at the receiver’s chest.

The arm side extension is best executed when the fingers also extend to the receiver’s chest. Both types of throws should be completed with a walking follow through.

60-Foot Square
Four players form the corners of a square 60 feet apart and execute overhand throws, also in a clockwise, counter clockwise, diagonal and player optional direction.

The emphasis at this distance is quickness.

Proper footwork will almost automatically occur, something that is missing in just “playing catch.”

Catch ball close to body. Don’t get quick until you secure the catch.

120-Foot Square
The enlarged square give the players a chance to stretch out their arms in the same directions as the smaller squares and will make the 90-foot infield dimensions seem easier.

90-Foot Square
This regulation distance is a test for the effectiveness of the other drills.

Coaches may want to use a stopwatch to objectively measure how much improvement is taking place.

Summary
Drills afford increased opportunities for needed repetitions. Footwork will come naturally with an occasional reminder from the coach.

Use all four drills each day or place emphasis on one or more. Skills are difficult to store and should be reviewed often.

The square formations provide an efficient method to duplicate game-like throwing challenges.

They are particularly effective for infielders and catchers, but pitchers and outfielders can also benefit.

(This story is part of an ongoing Summer Instructional Series Collegiate Baseball newspaper will be running in July and August. Please check back for more great ideas on playing baseball from top coaches and players. To subscribe to Collegiate Baseball, CLICK HERE.)

John Scolinos Taught With Amazing Passion

John Scolinos Taught With Amazing Passion

John ScolinosBy LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball
© 2013 Collegiate Baseball

CLAREMONT, Calif. — I really miss John Scolinos.

He was possibly the greatest human being ever involved in college baseball and passed away at the age of 91 in 2009. 

He led Cal Poly Pomona to three national championships (1976, 1980 and 1983) in 30 years and retired in 1991 as the winningest coach in NCAA Division II history.

Scolinos was named NCAA Division II Coach of the Century by Collegiate Baseball for not only his coaching ability but the influence he had on thousands of baseball coaches across the nation and athletes who played for him.

Prior to becoming Pomona’s head coach, he spent 14 seasons at Pepperdine University where his teams went 376-213. His all-time record in 44 years of coaching was 1,198-949.

Scolinos’ overall record is highly misleading since his teams always played the best teams in Southern California and Arizona, including all the top NCAA Division I teams.

This giant in the profession influenced more coaches than possibly any skipper has in the history of the game with the way he broke down the game during clinic sessions — often in front of standing room only crowds at American Baseball Coaches Association conventions with audiences approaching 4,000.

And after almost every presentation, he would be given a standing ovation from the crowd.

Here are some of those priceless lessons coaches learned from Scolinos through the years that Collegiate Baseball has collected.

“On days when nothing goes right, I call them ‘jock games,’ ” said Scolinos.

“That’s when all the defense does is throw their jocks out there, the hitters get faked out of their jocks, and the pitchers get their jocks knocked off.

“If a team gets in a jock contest, they don’t have a chance.”

About the type of ball players there are in the game:

“There are a lot of puppy dogs and hot dogs with a few bull dogs scattered among the group. We want the bulldogs.”

Possibly the greatest moment I have of Coach Scolinos was as at the 1990 American Baseball Coaches Association Convention in New Orleans where he gave a clinic in front of thousands of coaches discussing the finer points of hitting. He sternly told coaches in attendance they should never allow players to have their heads in their jocks.

To demonstrate the point, he quickly pulled a jock strap over his forehead. Every coach in attendance howled with laughter. But Coach Scolinos made his point.

This legendary skipper has always been a fascinating person to study at baseball clinics. Most coaches over the age of 50 have a set system for teaching all aspects of baseball and rarely change. But every clinic I ever saw Coach Scolinos at, he was always sitting in the first row gleaning information from hundreds of clinicians over the years. Even at the age of 72 during the 1990 convention in New Orleans, he was learning from others in the game.

Years ago, I interviewed former Cal. Poly Pomona assistant coach Steve Osaki who explained in detail Scolinos’ other legendary clinic sessions.

“At clinics, he was well known for giving his talk on handshakes to demonstrate fielding mistakes,” said Osaki.

“The first one was the halitosis handshake. Coach Scolinos and another coach would each shake hands but turn their heads away to demonstrate how a fielder turns his head away from the ball. The next one was the political handshake. Coach Scolinos would walk up to another coach on stage and extend his hand.

“Just prior to a handshake taking place between the two, Coach Scolinos would slip his hand back and flip his glove.

“The third demonstration was the mafia handshake. Two people were shoulder to shoulder embracing each other in a handshake as Coach Scolinos says, ‘Let’s make a deal.’

“Then comes the Japanese handshake. Two people walk up and bow to each other signifying the player who lets the ball roll through his legs.

“The final one was the best way to field called the American handshake. You look your opponent right in the eye with arms not locked and shake.”

To read more about the amazing John Scolinos, purchase the May 17, 2013 issue of Collegiate Baseball by clicking here. A detailed rundown on his favorite clinic moments are explained.

Ray Birmingham Explains Amazing System

Ray Birmingham Explains Amazing System

Ray BirminghamBy LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball
© 2013 Collegiate Baseball

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — One of the premiere baseball coaches in the USA is Ray Birmingham of the University of New Mexico. The head coach of the Lobos recently celebrated his 1,000th coaching victory with a 19-5 win over Air Force and has been a collegiate head coach for 26 years.

His teams are tougher than boot leather and endure “Marine Day” training sessions at 4 a.m. through the fall to allow the team to bond together. He has been a passionate student of the game every step of the way and has utilized information from such great Hall of Fame coaches as Ed Cheff (Lewis-Clark St.), Lloyd Simmons (Seminole St. J.C., Okla.), Gary Ward (Oklahoma St., New Mexico St.), Tony Gwynn (San Diego Padres, San Diego St.), Andy Lopez (Arizona), Cliff Gustafson (Texas), Ron Polk (Mississippi St.),  Augie Garrido (Texas), Mark Johnson (Texas A&M), Wayne Graham (Rice), and Mark Marquess (Stanford) to name just a few.

From this vast knowledge base, he has come up with a coaching system that is one of the best in the business. He began his coaching career at College of The Southwest and won 53 games in two years before leading New Mexico Junior College to a 765-255-2 record in 18 years and won the 2005 NJCAA national championship.

He has been at the University of New Mexico since 2008 and has led the Lobos to three straight NCAA regionals after UNM had not been to one in 48 years.

Weather, Scheduling Issues
New Mexico always seems to struggle early in the season because of frigid weather in Albuquerque and the talented teams they play. But this toughens them up for conference games and the playoffs following that. As a result, the Lobos usually have a marginal record through 15-20 games prior to conference games starting.

But then New Mexico begins to win and keeps winning through the rest of the season.

“Baseball is a journey to me, and many people get caught in the records of teams, especially early in the season,” said Birmingham.

“But records mean nothing to me at that time because we are focusing on playing the toughest teams we can early because baseball is all about the last man standing.

“And then your ball club will either get tough or die. I want to play Stanford, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Arizona, Arizona St. and teams like that. If your team doesn’t learn to play against the best teams, how will they compete when the post-season arrives?

“I was inspired by what Stony Brook did last year and what Fresno St. did a few years ago when they won the national championship. We don’t need sunshine. All we need is an opportunity.”

Birmingham acknowledged that generating a great Rating Percentage Index score is tough for New Mexico.

“We usually are a victim of the RPI because we play such a tough schedule early which is very demanding and might not come with a lot of wins. In my first year at New Mexico, we opened up with a 10-game winning streak but didn’t play great teams like we do now early in the season. We scheduled teams that had RPIs in the upper 100s and even into the 200s. I decided after that we needed to play the toughest teams possible which would help our team improve. And it has helped us tremendously.”

Birmingham said the improvement his teams show as the season progresses is the result of other factors as well.

“I am a big believer in team building. We are all teammates and are pushing the rock in the right direction. I will bark at the players if they don’t play it the right way, but I am always pulling for every kid on the squad. I have a real problem with kids who don’t hustle down the line to first or think double on a single. I don’t want our hitters to take a pitch off.

“It is mandatory that we can’t lower the bar when you are striving for excellence. That is the way the game must be played to achieve success. Too many kids arrive in college baseball programs at the age of 17 or 18 and have been told over and over again they are the best at what they do.

“But we have a blue collar approach at New Mexico. We demand hard work from every player on the squad.”

Towel Wrestling, Marine Day

When Birmingham was at New Mexico Junior College, he was legendary for the tough team bonding activities he had his squads perform.

“Kids would run 4-5 miles in the mornings and not just jog. They had to do sprints and run miles. Then in the afternoon, we had the players pair off and did towel wrestling. Both players are on a mat, and one guy grabs one end of the towel and the other player the other end. Then they fight to get the entire towel. It made for some interesting team bonding drills.”

Birmingham said he doesn’t do that at the University of New Mexico because of time constraints with NCAA Division I rules.

“But we do have them run sand hills and do strength and conditioning at 5:30 a.m. We also have ‘Marine Days’ through the fall. Players never know when they are coming. Our guys will get a text message early in the evening the day before that tells them we will have ‘Marine Day’ at the indoor football practice facility the next morning at 4 a.m. And don’t be late!

“Kids are absolutely terrified at first. We have different stations within the indoor facility set up which includes blocking dummies, blocking sleds, harness pulls with heavy weights and others. I show up in battle fatigues. And for the next two hours, our players go through a gut check with an array of calisthenics and exercises. Kids will do 50 yard sprints, pushups, situps, jumping jacks in cadence. If they are not all in unison, they start over.

“The point of all this is that we are counting on everybody to work together. Everybody must do it right or we won’t be successful. And when we face those tough teams early in the schedule and might not do as well as we want, we tend to bounce back and learn from our mistakes as players improve with our great work ethic.”

Birmingham said something wonderful transpires as the kids go through this team building activity.

“Because of how tough this is, they all begin to pull for each other and transform into a team. It is fantastic to watch. I was influenced into doing this as I studied the team building concepts of Ed Cheff at Lewis-Clark St. and Lloyd Simmons at Seminole J.C., Okla. Both are 1,000 game winners, and they are two of the best coaches of all time.”

Birmingham said that he is constantly learning as a coach.

“I am a product of many coaches who I have learned from. I am still learning concepts to help my players. Beyond baseball, you want your kids to do well in the classroom. Our kids always have a grade point average over 3.00. So academically they do well. We want our kids to do well socially and have a great life after baseball.

“When you see kids 20 years after they graduate, it is such a warm feeling when you realize they are good fathers and a leaders in their communities.”

Hitting Philosophy

Birmingham is one of the elite hitting coaches in baseball and has studied the concepts taught by Ward, Gwynn, Charlie Lau and George Brett, to name a few.

When he was at New Mexico Junior College, six players led the nation in batting and six teams hit over .400. The Thunderbirds hit .416 as a team in 2007. The 2005 NMJC national championship team hit .411 during the regular season and .400 in post-season play.

In 2001, the Thunderbirds hit .438 as the team led the country. And in 1998, NMJC led the nation with 122 home runs.

“My philosophy on hitting is the culmination of instruction learned from many people in the game of baseball. In its simplest form, you want the hitter to let the ball travel as far as possible and square up the ball. You want hitters to have proper hitting vision, great hand coordination, utilize the lower half properly, and have a short stroke with the proper bat path. All of these things are vital.

“Drills in our program are used for the players to understand a concept and feel what should be done. We utilize angles a great deal in hitting, and that is a big concept for me. Our hitters use the whole field, and plate discipline is crucial. If you look at our stats, our players walk a lot and don’t strike out much.

“Overswinging is a problem with many hitters. We have had success taking bat speed away from hitters to teach the proper mechanics of the swing. It is surprising how far players can hit the ball by accomplishing this simple concept. They can always speed up their swing later.”

 Birmingham also is big on slowing the game down for his hitters.

“We work very hard at this concept and making the game as simple as it can be. We also work hard at making adjustments with different pitchers such as soft lefties, hard throwers, hurlers who throw in and away. We want our hitters to know what to do in certain counts and make positive outs.

“There is so much to what we teach. In fact, I have a checklist of 250 things I look at for each hitter. We don’t go over all of them at once. Kids are given little pieces of this checklist over time so they can be successful and master concepts.”

Adjustment Interesting

When new players come to New Mexico, whether they be from high schools or junior colleges, they have usually dominated competition at their former school.

“Every hitter wants to be a table cleaner when they come into the program, and that simply isn’t going to happen. We determine who are the table setters and table cleaners. They are told what their role will be, and then through a lot of work, they make it happen.”

Birmingham said that he learned from long time Texas Head Coach Cliff Gustafson that letting hitters fail right off the bat is important when they come into the program. So Birmingham puts them in a situation which will cause failure.

“I tell the kids that to be in pro baseball, they must be able to handle fastballs near 100 mph. That is what they will see in pro ball. So I have a Ponza Hummer pitching machine that is set for the upper 90s and is aimed at the same spot for batters. As they get ready to hit, they know the pitch will be a fastball, and they must catch up to the speed. And this trips them up every time.

“Virtually every kid has a long swing and doesn’t realize it or has a hole that he doesn’t know about. So when they struggle initially, they are now open to suggestions on refining their swing so that it is short and productive. Each hitter has their own style. We don’t want them to dramatically change. But every hitter must do certain basic things. Not everybody has great hand speed who can knock home runs out of the park. But they can be a productive part of the lineup.

“And when suggestions are offered, not every player agrees with what I say. And that’s fine. But over time, we come to an agreement on what should be done to get the most out of our hitters.

“Our hitters are taught physically and mentally because both are crucial. And it is absolutely crucial that they never take a pitch off when batting. Hitting is not always about getting a hit or having great batting averages. For us, we closely observe a player’s on-base percentage. Making productive outs and moving runners over is the right approach for us. It is a team game. But you have individuals playing it.”

Birmingham said that hitters must be able to adjust to different ball parks as well.

“If you play at Arkansas and TCU, those parks were made for pitching. When the wind blows straight in, you can square a pitch up and will almost always make a fly ball out. So hitting is not only pitcher to pitcher adjustments and adjustments in at-bats, we have a strategy for different parks we play in.

“I have always been very passionate about hitting. And listening to the great coaches and hitters of all time which deal with hitting has been a revelation.”

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The Woodlands’ Eastman Builds Powerhouse

The Woodlands’ Eastman Builds Powerhouse

Ron EastmanBy LOU PAVLOVICH, JR.
Editor/Collegiate Baseball
(April 19, 2013 Edition)

THE WOODLANDS, Tex. — One of most progressive and successful high school coaches in the nation is Ron Eastman of The Woodlands (Tex.).

He has led the Highlanders to a superb 317-88 record over the last 13 years.

This season, The Woodlands is 21-2 and were ranked No. 1 in the nation by Collegiate Baseball after rolling to an 18-0 record.

Eastman led the Highlanders to the 2006 national high school title, as determined by Collegiate Baseball, after posting a 38-1 record and finishing with 31 consecutive wins to capture the 5A Texas state championship.

The Woodlands has won two Texas state 5A championships in 2000 and 2006 under the guidance of Eastman. Previously he was the head coach at Lamar High School for eight years. In 21 years as a head coach, his record is 450-188. Few coaches in the nation have utilized the mental game as Eastman has to give his teams an edge.

“There is a lot of failure in baseball,” said Eastman.

“Anybody who knows anything about the game is well aware of that. There will be adversity during games. When it hits the fan, your players must have something to go to. So we try to impress upon our players that life is like that as well. It’s not always going to be what we call ‘green lights.’ Not everything will go well for you. There will be adversity in life, whether it is with the family, your job, or children.

“We try to help them develop some mental toughness tools which allow our kids to deal with adversity.”

Sports psychologist Brian Cain has worked with The Woodlands to incorporate his techniques to make them more mentally tough.

“Brian has taught us many little things that work. We also have utilized the work of Ken Ravizza who wrote Heads Up Baseball (along with Tom Hanson). Just like we try to get them to be better hitters, pitchers, base runners and defensive players, we try to be stronger in the mental aspects of the game.”

Eastman was asked what specifically his teams do to be mentally tougher.

“Our ultimate goal and one of our mantras is ‘Win The Pitch.’ We try to focus on what you can control. You have total command over your effort and attitude. We work very hard on effort in practice. We set a very fast tempo in our practices just like a lot of major colleges have gone to the last few years.

“We really focus on players’ attitudes. We have the letter W (initial for Woodlands) in a Superman symbol on the locker room door. When the young men show up at the ball park and go into the locker room, they are taking their school clothes off and leaving their academics, girlfriends and families there and totally focusing on baseball. We want them to understand when they are putting on their practice or game uniform, it is all about baseball for the next 2-2 ½ hours.

“Then when they go back to the locker room, they leave baseball back on the diamond and focus on the present moment. From the outset, we have our players strive to have a proper mental focus in practice.

“We have utilized concentration grids prior to practice that Brian introduced to us. It allows players have sharper focus in practice. This grid has a series of numbers on paper. You must sequence them in numerical order and find those numbers as quickly as possible. It is a way of focusing your brain and mind on those numbers so that you are able to concentrate.

“In today’s world, the attention span of kids is extremely short because of everything they do. We have to work in short bursts with them. And that’s the way baseball is designed as well. You have a pitch, rest, then have another pitch and so on. The concentration grids help us focus before practice. We don’t use them every day. But we do use them regularly for all our players.”

To read the entire in-depth story about Ron Eastman and The Woodlands’ baseball program, purchase the April 19 edition of Collegiate Baseball by clicking here.