Which coaching conference suits you?

Looking at the various emails, links and ads that I’ve seen over the last few months, I’m trying to sort out where I’ll go for a coaching conference this off-season.

Who Am I?

I’m just a beginning coach. I coach at nearly the lowest level of youth baseball and I’ve only been doing it a year.

The highest level I played regularly at was the “F minor” in 1979, which was the city rec league – no tryouts required. I sat at the end of the bench as an 8th grader the next spring on our school team. Once I got to college, I started a string of 35 years playing on as many adult softball teams as I could. I settled on a men’s “C” league team for 25 years, plus a few Congressional “beer league” coed teams.

When I bought Dusty Baker’s You Can Teach Hitting, I went from a mediocre hitter to a very good one. It didn’t last because I got older and the league continued to have a supply of guys in their 20s. However, I had become a student of hitting.

About five years ago, I got invited to play in a 48+ men’s baseball league. Again, I started as a mediocre player. I’ve been down to Florida 3 times for our league’s “spring training”. I got coaching from the Twins’ Jeff Smith the first year. The next two years, Rick Knapp lead my team — Rick’s most recent post is as the pitching coach for the Durham Bulls. I’m an extremely coachable player, so my hitting got better and…. I finally learned how to pitch.

I think of myself as demonstration that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks.

I feel that this learning process I’ve gone through to get myself back on the field and onto the mound gives me a lot of insight that most youth coaches don’t have. I’m facing challenges, overcoming hurdles and trying to improve my play every day. I think this puts me ahead of guys for whom the game came easy and ahead of guys who haven’t played in 30 years.

Nonetheless, as a coach, I’m nearly a complete neophyte.

What kinds of options are there?

I joined the ABCA a year ago on recommendation of our league President, hoping I could learn coaching. They have a coaching conference every January. I also started seeing ads for pitching conferences and a catcher conference. In addition, some organizations are starting certification programs, in which you do a lot of learning off-site, but come on-site with a number of other coaches for a final program. So, there are some general options and some specific ones. Size of conference also varies, from those small on-site sessions that might have 25, to groups of 100 or 150, all the way up to the ABCA conference at over 7000 participants.

ABCA Annual Conference

2-5 January 2020 in Nashville, TN at a cost of $120 ($80 for early, $100 for advanced and $150 for late registration)

This is the big production – clinics, trade shows, and banquets. They’re accepting up to 7100 attendees. There’s even a special Youth Coaches session on the 3rd and 4th. The 2021 convention will be a few miles from my house at the Gaylord National Harbor,  so I’m going to defer on the 2020 conference for a “no travel required” 2021 option.

Baseball Skill Acquisition Summit

12-13 October 2019 in Lakeland, FL at the Florida Baseball Ranch at a cost of $999

This is the second edition of the Summit, which is focused on “motor learning and skill acquisition conference targeted specifically for baseball.” After the initial 2018 Summit, 3 of the presenters were hired by MLB teams as consultants. The attendees included 53 representatives of MLB teams, so the value of this conference is understood at the highest level. As a beginning coach, I’d be way over my head.

Ultimate Pitching Coaches Bootcamp

6-8 December 2019 in Montgomery, TX at the Texas Baseball Ranch at a cost of $449

In it’s 20th iteration, the Ultimate Pitching Coaches Bootcamp has 3 intense days of pitching coach sessions that can be supplemented for another $99 with the Bonus Session on the 5th of December to learn the techniques and tools used by the Texas Baseball Ranch. This is limited to 150 coaches, so the ratio of coaches to speakers is probably 10:1 or so. This is intriguing because of the focus and the ratio.

Pitchapalooza

6-9 December 2019 in Franklin, TN which cost $349 in 2018

If you’re a pitching nerd like I am, trying to learn from folks using all the latest tools and scientific analyses, Pitch-a-Palooza is probably right up your alley. Last year they had Kyle Boddy, Dr Stephen Osterer, Eugene Bleecker, and Nunzio Signore among the speakers. I only know them from their writings and tweets, but they’re impressive. The rest of the speakers also have meaningful backgrounds, but those jumped out at me. This is a 300-coach conference, with representatives from 23 MLB teams in attendance last year. (What were the other 7 teams thinking?) Those headliners and the scientific approach catch my eye. It’s possible that I’d also get to visit the Civil War battlefield there….

CatcherCON

December 2019 in Nashville, TN

Every detail you want to learn about catching and coaching catchers is fair game at CatcherCon. When you search videos from the conference, you get great stuff like Xan Barksdale’s 2017 talk on drills for recovering blocked balls more quickly or Jerry Weinstein of the Rockies talking about Building Arm Strength in 2018. I started catching in January because I hadn’t tried it since 1978 and there are never enough catchers in men’s leagues. This, however, is also likely going to sail over my head.

Driveline Foundations of Pitching Certification

32 online courses with a live, in-person seminar to complete certification at a cost of $699

Deep dive, on your own schedule, into everything about pitching by Driveline’s experts. I think that the in-person sessions are currently all in Seattle, but that they plan on more sessions at other locations in the future. One of the nice things here is that you go at your own pace, on your own time. Of course, that can also be a hurdle if you find yourself too busy — being away a conference can give one an ability to focus. It has the added benefit of a certification at the end, which is likely going to helpful for those starting a career. I think I’m going to wait on this, while I see how much I might be over my head elsewhere.

Tentative thoughts

I’ve only been thinking about this for a few weeks, so I doubt that I even have half of the options available. So, right now, I’m thinking that I’ll go to one of the pitching conferences. I study and teach pitching a lot, so it would be good to get a deeper dive. There might be other options that I haven’t considered, so I’m eager to hear from you if you’ve done or are doing something else.

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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.

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.

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.

Easy afternoon victory

Our afternoon game stated very competitively, with us edging to a 3-2 lead that we extended to 4-2. Our pitching and defense got very solid after that and our hitting didn’t stop. So we ended up cruising to a 13-2 win.

My first at bat, I just failed to back away from the plate and took a soft pitch to my back leg. (Update on the following Monday: still bruised.)

Our coach, Rick Knapp, had rearranged our lineup from alphabetical to on be a little more strategic. So, I was hitting 4th. I’m sure it wasn’t that I had shown power, as all three guys hitting on front of me hit the ball just as hard, but I’ll take it. The lineup rolls continually after this game, so the leadoff hitter won’t be leading off the game after this.

20180201_163143Craig Tasens led off with a hit, and stole second easily. Jonathan Taylor singled to send Craig to third. When JT stole second they threw to second but Craig was caught flat-footed and didn’t advance. A passed ball while Shaun Quill was batting bright him on anyway. Shaun singled to plate JT. I was watching the first pitch to give Shaun a chance to steal, but it just kept coming further inside and hit me. I missed seeing Shaun break for third, so we didn’t double steal. I did go on the next pitch, though. When Shaun scored on Ed Confino’s single, we’d made our limit of three for the inning.

We turned to Richard Toikka for the third inning. It’s not often that you send out a 73-year-old pitcher, but Richard posted his first shutout inning of the week. After our morning game, Rick was talking to all of us, working on some tips for JT about pitching. Balance is such a key in pitching and Rick was focusing on the alignment of a pitcher’s hips in that balance and movement. It also applies in batting, so this lesson would be repeated in various ways throughout the week. As I mentioned last year, you actually can teach an old dog new tricks. The progress of specific players from how they played before lunch on this firsy day and how they played by the end of the week is truly due to great instruction.

My next at bat came with runners on 2nd and 3rd. My fly ball landed inches inside the left field line and stopped. That pushed in the third run that inning.

In the fourth, Russ Ryan began showing the power that would make him so critical to our success during the week. His double drove in two runs and he scored to give us another max inning.

Chandler Fox led off the 5th with a strikeout on which the ball skipped past the catcher, allowing him to reach first safely. He scored to tack on another run. My final at bat came when we were already up by a lot. As such, no need to take a pitch to let Shaun steal. I hit a solid line drive to shallow center that made the play at second close.

So, 3-5 on the day, with a double, 2 RBI and a run scored. I did overthrow first (Chandler Fox is tall, but not THAT tall!), but dutifully covered second to get the next out.

We’re 2-0 with wins of 5-4 and 13-2. I know at least one other team is 2-0, but I like our chances!

Starting with bang

First pitch that I saw from JR, I smacked to left center. When I saw the left fielder turn his back to chase it, I knew I had my goal of getting an extra base hit.

It’s great to be playing baseball. We’ve got a very good team. We beat JRs guys 5-4 in the bottom of the 6th. I contributed on both offense and defense.

One inning in right with a good catch and a good backup on a throw to first. Then multiple innings at third with a few plays. So, reasonable defense.

Had a double, scored a run and drove another in. On that double, I had to stay on a line drive just out of the shortstop’s reach. Then on the next hitter, I went to steal after 4 pitches and Shaun Quill hit a grounder behind me. I headed right home in case they had a double play. They only got the lead runner.

We were using a default lineup – just having everyone hit in alphabetical order while our coach, Rick Knapp, figured everything out.

Rick’s a lifetime baseball man, having served as a pitching coach for the Tigers and coordinated minor league pitching for the Twins, Royals and Dodgers. His last job was as the coordinator/consultant for MLB International, which had him trotting the globe to develop pitching worldwide. There’s a great interview with Rick about that job on Krush Performance. The entire coaching staff for the week is made up guys like Rick. Major league experience in managing, coaching and playing, while still loving the game enough to spare a week for a bunch of Old Men Playing Baseball.

20180201_163136In the third, our alphabetical lineup produced again. Jonathan “JT” Taylor led off the inning with a double and was driven in by Ed Confino after a walk to Bill Arnold. Al Ferlo, who struggled in the batting cage, drove in a run by hitting the ball hard. It may have been scored an error, but that run was important. My own hard-hit ball drove in the third run on an error.

So, we got to the 4th all tied up. JT came in to pitch and kept them off the board for the final two innings. A couple of hard hit balls and some good base running allowed Shaun Quill to score with Craig Tasens picking up the game-winning RBI.

Great start for the week.