Teaching and learning via @FlatgroundApp

When I was a kid, if you wanted to learn from watching someone pitch, you had to sit close to the TV and hope you could pick up what they were doing from the centerfield bleachers. If your coach wanted to demonstrate, he needed one of the kids to go through his motion live, in front of the rest of the team. If someone wanted to be noticed, they had to pitch in front of a scout who wanted to pay attention. We don’t have to do it that way in the 21st century.

I’ve become a twitter addict in the last year. I’d started on twitter a few years ago to promote my software blogging and speaking, then, I decided I wanted to blog and tweet about horse racing. I have separate blogs on software development, military history, horseracing and this one, on baseball. So, as the writing on each topic got more extensive and my desire for interaction got higher, I added a new twitter handle for each: @LostInXPages, @WereNotLost, @PunterNavarre and @OldMensBaseball. Each has a separate focus and mostly separate community (some of my blog posts or interests bleed across them, but I try to keep them focused).

Now that we’re in the 21st century, I can watch 50 different guys at different stages of development. Each does some things right, some things wrong. Even if the only thing you do is watch these videos and read the comments on @FlatgroundApp, you’ll learn a lot.

Sample Pocket radar
Sophomore Julien Hernandez in the middle of his delivery on an 81 mph pitch

Flatground is the brilliant idea of the @PitchingNinja, Rob Friedman, to get exposure and advice for high school, junior college, college and free agent pitchers who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Not everyone can afford to attend showcases. Not everyone has a scout attend their game and pay attention to them. With the time and money squeezes everywhere, Rob set up @FlatgroundApp for those players to submit their videos to get noticed.

I use Flatground for two purposes – to learn how to pitch better and to teach others to pitch better.

I’ve put in a lot of study over the last few years trying to learn to pitch. I’ve hired a pitching coach. I’ve bought books. I’ve watched a bunch of YouTube videos. I’ve gotten lessons from Rick Knapp during our Ponce de Leon spring training. (Any failures in my mechanics are entirely my fault, not those of any who’ve tried teaching this old dog new tricks.) Getting Knappy’s advice has always provided the most gain, but I only get to see him once a year and he’s dealing with 30 or 40 guys who also want to learn. Flatground has tied in nicely with the books I’ve been reading, allowing me to see, in slow motion and stop-motion 50 different guys pitching. Watching guys open that lead shoulder too soon, or not scap loading, or striding inefficiently really helps one identify their own flaws.

So, when watching those videos, I’ve apply my experience coaching (negligible), my book learnin’ (useful foundation), the coaching I’ve gotten and my limited experience with pitching. Sometimes, I can see the flaws in someone’s delivery. When it’s unclear, I can simply compare videos of two different pitchers and point out to the one who needs help what the other guy is doing better — and point them to the video for help. I’m basic and I can only help with the worst flaws, but it’s going to help me in my live, in-person coaching.

I put in my order this morning for my Pocket Radar to use with the Smart Coach app so that I can start doing some scouting for Flatground. It might help some kids get noticed, but it will certainly get me an opportunity to see more guys pitching.

So, if you’re in the DC metro area and want a video to get onto @FlatgroundApp, let me know. I’ll be reaching out to some coaches once I get the technology figured out. I’ll even be taking it with me when I go on vacation in Asheville, NC in April (UNC-A, here I come!), since I’ll have some downtime while Melissa is taking a French cooking class.

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The morning struggles continue

Before the morning game, Rick asked if I still wanted to pitch. I said “As long as I’m not tired from catching.” So he had me pitch the first inning.

The progress I’ve made over the last year showed. I was always around the plate, though usually at the upper end of the strike zone. No walks, but two wild pitches. I ended up giving up 3 runs, but via some hits. I’m happy with the result. I threw strikes and that’s all you need to do for now.

I caught the next two innings for Rick Power. One inning was scoreless and the other was a max (3 runs).

We were making contact, but not getting hits out of it. They held us scoreless through 5 innings.

In the bottom of the 5th, Mike went to catch, so I slid over to short. Chandler took third. With a runner on first and a lefty up, I positioned myself close to second. The ball was hit right to me on a manageable hop…

Last year, during the ‘specialties’, I went with the infielders. Darren Garner was giving the instruction and among the many pieces of wisdom be passed on was that if you dropped the ball, you should just remain calm. Panic might cause you make a second error or more. Remain calm and pick up the ball.

I’d done that at third earlier in the game, remaining calm and making the throw. So when that grounder up the middle bounced off my glove, I just told myself to pick up the ball and get the lead out. There was time still – after all, the average age here is 62 – and I completed another double play to get us off the field.

In the top of the 6th, down 7-0, we needed to at least get on the board. Chandler got single, stole second and advanced to third on Evan’s single. Normally, I’d take that first pitch, but it was perfect. I hit a nice liner between 2nd and 3rd to get us on the board. We couldn’t get another hit, but we weren’t held scoreless.

We’re 2-3, but still competitive. I added another hit and RBI, so the bat is alive. Most importantly, it’s all a lot of fun.

Evening it up

Steve Liddle, who runs the camp, but is the bench coach for the Tigers during the season, always says that you see things at Ponce that you never see anywhere else. Our umpire in the second game (played in the stadium at Terry Park) got to see something he’d never seen. Teams are limited to 3 runs an inning in our spring training, but he’d never umpired an entire inning without recording a single out.

20190128_090151[1]
Steve Liddle laying some wisdom down on the Ponce players as he gives the schedule for the day. Coaches Rick Knapp and both Stan and Stu Cliburn in the background.
The fortunate thing for us is that while we continued to max out every inning, we slowed the bleeding by only allowing a single run in the third and one other along the way. So, our margin of victory was quite pleasant.

My patience with my productivity at the plate paid off. I’ve shrugged the lack of hits off because I knew I was contributing defensively and in those not-in-the-stats kind of ways that players giving 100% do. After a walk in the second, it was nice to come up with runners in scoring position in later innings and… ground a couple of single through the infield. I think that I’ve been thinking a bit too much about hitting the other way, but those happened to work. I’m going to go back to just hitting the ball hard and seeing what happens.

As noted previously, we have a father-son combo on our team. Rich has pitched well for us and gotten the chance to pitch to his son, Mike, a couple of times now. If you think back to all those times having a catch with your Dad and son, could you be any happier than having the chance to be a battery mate with them? Fred Jaffke and his son, Andrew, did that one our team a couple of years ago and it was great to see. Today, Rich and Mike achieved a different milestone, both cranking the ball deep for extra base hits.

Dan Bechard took over for me behind the plate after Rich and I couldn’t stop the max-score innings early on. Dan hasn’t caught in about 5 years and worried that doing so again wasn’t a good idea. He was completely wrong. With Dan’s fans in the stands, he moved behind home plate and called a game that basically shut the opposition down. It’s like falling off a horse – once you do it, you never forget how.

I noticed long ago in team sports that are very “recreational”, it matters far more how much players improve than whether your good players play well. So, when I play coed softball down on the Mall, I’m always working with the folks who don’t play particularly well. Typically, no one has ever taught them anything about playing.

Now, this isn’t meant to ride “Big Game” Al Ferlo down, but last year, he struggled. Rick Knapp likes to joke that Al is the only playing who’s ever missed every pitch in a batting cage session. Well, that was last year. In today’s afternoon game, Al’s improvement really shone through. In his first at bat, he singled to drive in the third run. His second time at the plate resulted in another single. While at bat in his third plate appearance, he missed a pitch and turned to the bench to complain that “it’s not my bat”. None of us were quick enough on the uptake to realize Al had grabbed the wrong bat when he went up. Either Al or those of us on the bench should have called time and gotten the right bat into his hands. He ended the game 2 for 3 because he didn’t take his own bat up the third time.

We faced poor Joe Facenda, whose batting average I devastated last year (he hit it to me for an hour on every play I was on the field for, regardless of what position I was playing). Well, Joe came up to bat and was thinking about shading another step to my left off third. I didn’t move because it was too late, but he hit it right there. It was close enough that I stopped it, but too far for me to make a decent throw to first. So, perhaps Joe has broken the curse now, but perhaps not….

I believe I finished 3 for 4 on the day, with two walks and a few runs. There were likely some RBIs in there, but I’ll want to check the scoresheet on those. Better offensive day for a day when I struggled a bit behind the plate. With the win in the afternoon game, we moved to 2-2 for the week. It sound like there are 4 teams in the middle at 2-2, with one at 3-1 and the other at 1-3. So, we’re on track to challenge for the championship again.

Extra inning heartache

In prior years, Mike Golden commented that it’s easier to write when you’re playing well. As noted previously, my bat hasn’t been all that hot. I did manage a Ponce single – pop-up to 2nd that dropped. I almost had another on a grounder to the right side, but it didn’t have enough juice to get through. Nonetheless, I’m having fun and glad to write about it.

We dropped the game this morning in extra innings. It was a hard fought game, but we just couldn’t get a run across in extra innings.

More on this game later…

Behind the dish for the first time since 1978

I have very vague memories of putting on the catching gear once in 1978. I was the best player on a terrible team and the coach thought it was worth a try. I’m guessing it didn’t go well because I don’t remember doing it a second time.

The first day of Ponce de Leon Spring Training 2019 was, however, quite a different experience. In our pre-game meeting, I mentioned to Rick Knapp that I’d like to try catching. Camp is a little short on both pitchers and catchers this year, so we only had one player who identified as a catcher. We all figured this meant several of us needed to put on the gear to ensure that he didn’t have to catch every inning and didn’t exhaust himself.

Chandler and I tried to convince all of the Team M players and anyone else we met, to come down for spring training. It’s always a lot of fun and I always get better as a result. Having coaches who coached in the majors and minors gives you access to so much knowledge if you just keep your ears open.

One example was related several times by our left fielder in the first game, Tom Sharkey. With a runner on third, I had been playing close to the bag, foolishly thinking that the catcher might be able to throw a back-pick. From Tom’s perspective, he had a great angle in to the batter, with no obstructions. Then, for no apparent reason, I moved off third base and right into his line of sight. When the ball was hit, it bounced right into my glove for an easy play at first. He thought it was my genius in positioning. Of course, it was not. Knappy saw where I was playing and moved me off the bag, into the perfect position.

It didn’t make a difference in that game, which we lost 3-1. In Ponce, if you hold the other team to 3 runs, you ought to win! Most of us were hitless, so we didn’t have many runners to drive in. In my first at bat, I walked and sprinted out of the box, just out of habit. When I got to first, I was waved to keep going. The ball had gone past the catcher and he lollygagged after it. So, I got a two-base walk. I advanced on Rick Powers sacrifice to the right side and scored when Tom hit a nice line drive to left.

I caught with Evan Katz on the mound in the third and fourth innings. It was a great experience. As a catcher, you’re involved in every play. I loved that about pitching in softball. Warming Evan up down in the bullpen, I was nervous. A few of his low pitches skipped right past me. That didn’t prove to be a problem in the game. I did let a few by early, when no one was on – and I think I did let one go with a runner on. While I didn’t get a chance to throw anyone out, when the bases were loaded, they hit a grounder to Evan which he tosses to me and I forwarded it to Chandler over the head of the batter. That got us out of the inning.

Our bats were far more lively in the second game. We scored the max (3) in the first two innings, giving us a cushion to work with.

I started the game catching, with Richard Brouillette on the mound. Rich brought his son, Michael down. Mike’s only 30 and is our one declared catcher. Rich told me he only throws fastballs and to just put my glove where I wanted it. He usually hit it, with occasional variations that worked out for us anyway. We were facing one of their better hitters and he’d battled, pushing the fastballs foul. With his quick swing and the fact that Rich had only thrown heat so far, I waggled three fingers down to call for a changeup, in case he might see it and throw it. He did and we got a nice infield fly out of it. Unfortunately, in Ponce, there are no routine flyballs, so it dropped just out of reach of the second baseman. Nonetheless, it worked and gave him confidence in that changeup. We’ll probably see that again this week.

Rich wears number 4 and we joked after that game that he lived up to his number by pitching 4 innings. With the shortage of pitchers, they extended the number of innings that they could throw to 4 for the starter, with a maximum of 7 innings a day.

I’ve been playing third the last few years and headed over there after my three innings behind the plate. I was hitless on the day, though I had a great drive to center that Craig Tasens ran under. It was frustrating to hit the ball so well finally, but watching him catch that on the run was a true joy. I love seeing a good play, even if it’s the other team.

Evan was bringing the heat again in the second game. The strike zone wasn’t always to his liking and our lead had narrowed to 7-4. After we got the first out, Evan walked a batter and Craig Tasens reached first on catcher’s interference. The ball had been dribbling down the third base line and I wondered why Craig hadn’t left the box. So I scooped it up and they called the play dead.

So, with runners on first and second, our reliable catcher from last year, Shaun Quill, stepped into the batter’s box. Somehow, his line drive moved in slow motion into my glove. It had me moving toward second, surprising the lead runner, who assumed (like everyone else) that the ball was going through and he was going to score. I realized after a step that I was way faster than him and throwing was a risk. So, I ran him down – nearly back to second – to close out the game.

After the game, I was told that it changed the week and that it made Evan’s night. Finishing the day 1-1 beats the heck out of losing two. We also woke up our bats and played some good defense. We’ve got a coach that has taken his team to the championship 4 times in a row, so I like our odds.

My batting stats aren’t good, but I understand how it can affect catchers. I was tired when I stepping into the box a few times. So, 0-4 with a walk and a run scored. I think taking second on that walk counts as a steal.

On defense, 5 innings catching and two double plays (one at third, one catching). There was a nice throw to the plate that made for an easy out in the second game. Two passed balls, since the ones with no one on don’t count.

Photos and scorecards will be added here later.

42 is the key

Heading into the afternoon matchups, three teams had a shot at two championship game. One team sported a 6-1 record and the other two carried 5-2 records. With the 6-1 team playing the other 5-2 team, all three teams COULD finish with the same record. That would mean we’d check the head-to-head records. Interestingly, each head-to-head matchup had resulted in a win and a loss for three teams. So, the next tie-breaker would be total runs allowed.

2018 Game 8
Bad photo of the scorecard…

We didn’t worry about any of that, since none of it mattered unless we won. We faced Mitch, who is one of the harder throwers in the league. Since they’d allowed all pitchers to go 4 innings on Thursday instead of the normal max of 3 innings, we had a tough row to hoe. The bottom half of our order would face him to start the game. They set the tone for the game by hitting him hard, with Bill, Richard and Russ all scoring to get max runs for the inning. “Game Time Al” Ferlo drove in two runs with a timely single to right. Al didn’t have a lot of hits during the week, but this was incredibly timely!

Ric Power headed out for bottom of the inning and shut them down. One of the keys to our success has been good pitching, backed by solid defense. Ric held them scoreless in the first, gave up 3 to allow a tie in the second, but landed wrong on a pitch in the third. JT stepped up to the mound and their scoring was over.

I didn’t have much success against Mitch, but it didn’t matter, as most of our team did. I put the ball in play the second time around and we maxed out that inning as well. Evan, who had pitched 4 innings in the morning came on in the 5th, stymieing our bats. So, we entered the top of the 6th ahead 6-3.

I’d hit him really well last year, so I was being my usual positive verbal influence on the team, telling them we could hit him. We also had fans for the first time, with Craig’s family showing up to cheer on old #51. Evan must have been tired, but I think that our fans and my encouraging words helped.

Craig's FansWhatever the reason, we just kept getting on base, piling on the runs. I put one in a challenging spot in the infield (only challenging in Ponce!) and reached on a 75-foot, weak liner. We racked up 8 runs, giving us 14 for the game. I think everyone scored, but this was my one really bad photo of the scoresheet.

The other game resulted in all three teams finishing with 6-2 records, and 1-1 records against each other. When they totaled the runs given up, we had 42, Team F had 44 and JR’s Team A had 46. So, we made the championship game!

Age is just a number

In our morning game, our starting battery was 139 years old. Richard Toikka was consistently throwing strikes at 73 years old, while catcher, Bill Arnold, is a spry 66 years old. When Dave Wheeler stepped to the plate at 79 years old, we were watching 218 years of experience.

Rich pitched three fantastic innings and JT finished it off. We had some great defense by Russ Ryan and Craig Tasens among others. With double plays and deft catches on shallow flies, we tightened up our defense.Richard throwing bullets

I also got to see my favorite part of an outfielder’s uniform – the back! My second at bat forced him to turn and run for the ball, giving me my second double. I’m at 9 for 18 now!

Russ Ryan smashed a pair of doubles and really had a fantastic game. The whole team is contributing and the potential for a championship remains.