BY STEVE KRAH
As Chuck Ristano sees it, delivering a baseball from 60 feet, 6 inches is not passive.
That’s why the pitching coach in his 10th year at the University of Notre Dame takes an active approach with his young athletes.
Ristano uses an assessment with his ND arms he calls MMA — Mechanics, Metrics, Arm.
Ristano’s priorities for mechanics:
Establish an efficient/repeatable delivery.
“If you can repeat in an efficient manner we can, hopefully, keep you healthy and put the baseball where you want it,” says Ristano. “There’s not a lot of starts and stops. Once we start, we go.”
“To me, it lacks pauses and slow deliberate actions. Speeding the delivery up is usually one of the adjustments we make before we talk about arm path, hip and shoulder separation and what we look like at foot strike.”
Ristano uses the analogy of riding a bike to talk about funneling energy to home plate.
“I want the energy to go forward,” says Ristano. “If I ride slow and deliberate, I wobble.
“If I ride that line with some pace and stay in control, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to stay on a straight line.”
• Establish dynamic balance.
• Pitch athletically.
“You don’t want to take the venom out of the snake,” says Ristano. “You’re a good athlete and you need to pitch that way.
“The worst label you can get as an amateur or a high school player is the P.O. (pitcher only). It’s the most disgusting verbiage you can have for a pitching coach.
“The game doesn’t go until (the pitcher) decides it does. You start to label yourself into the P.O. mentality, you limit your athleticism.
“We want guys to behave and move athletically and pitch accordingly.”
• Glove in front of chest at release (proper blocking technique).
“We think about breaking the body in half,” says Ristano. “The front side is the steering wheel. The back side is the accelerator.”
Ristano teaches a “shadow sequence” where the delivery is broken down into six phases:
• Low balance. It’s the beginning of the leg lift.
• Dynamic balance. It comes at the peak.
• Hand separation. When the pitcher starts to come down toward the belt buckle.
• Power position/foot strike. Achieve symmetry with the lead and throwing arms.
• Release. Tension on the back side become energy on the front side.
• Finish. This is where the blocking technique comes in. The back foot comes off the ground and front side is firmed up.
In practice, pitchers of drills were they get to each of the phases to test their strengths and weaknesses and gain a feel for their delivery.
“If you want to find where the inefficiency in the delivery is, do it backward (finish to release to power position/foot strike to hand separation to dynamic balance to low balance),” says Ristano. “It’s a little weird. We call it ‘back shaping.’
“Some of these are monotonous, but they can really help if you do it right.”
Ristano also has his hurlers do three core drills:
• 3-pump balance. The quad is lifted three times before a throw is made. It helps to hit delivery check points. Energy is collected. The front foot comes off the ground. It is done at the pace of the delivery.
• Trace/retrace. There is a toe tap, the ball is brought back to the middle and then the throw is made. A trace is made from balance to power to balance. The energy stays over the back quad at landing. At toe tap, the throwing arm should be at peak height to be one time in the release zone.
• Kershaw’s/Houston’s. Based on social media visuals, including those of Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw, pitchers doing this drill get to the lowest point in their delivery and pause before they go forward. After that, the front hip goes and the sequencing toward home plate begins. The cues are: Hip, heel, toe, knee.
There’s also a drill that Ristano has called “El Duque’s” based on the delivery of former big league pitcher Orlando Hernandez.
“We throw from the ground up,” says Ristano. “We use the ground to go forward.
How quickly can I get that lower body going and force my upper body to catch up.”
Additional throwing drills (with purpose):
• One-hop drill (extension, release point and athleticism).
• Softball catch (extension and manipulation of spin).
• Maestro (Scap load, hand speed and opposite/equal).
• Weighted glove (stable front side and back side).
• Figure-8’s (hand speed).
Ristano says he has become a real believer in mechanical development via strength and share some statistics.
Reading an MLB.com article from two years ago, Ristano saw that the average height of an American male was 5-foot-10, yet 14 MLB teams didn’t have a pitcher under 6 feet tall.
The New York Yankees had one pitcher under 6-2 and boast five pitchers at least 6-7. The St. Louis Cardinals had eight pitchers 6-4 or taller. The Kansas City Royals were the only team in baseball with five pitchers 6 feet or under.
Of the top 50 pitchers of the last decade, less than five were 200 pounds or less.
“I know you can’t do much to manipulate your height,” says Ristano. “What’s my actionable data?
“I show this to my guys not because ‘mass equals gas.’ But pitchers today are men.
“As you develop, it’s important what training values you choose.
“(Strength and conditioning) is your new modality to get better. Sometimes when you’re having trouble throwing strikes, the key sometimes is not some wild mechanical adjustment. Sometimes it’s just that you lack the strength to be able to execute the highest angular velocity movements — the pitching delivery — that the world knows 100 times in a game and repeat it and repeat it and repeat it.
“You’ll be shocked once you start to hammer the strength and conditioning component, how well your body begins to align even when you’re not thinking about mechanics.
“It works for us.”
Kyle Jean is the strength and conditioning coach for the Irish.
Ristano says that developing the entire kinetic chain is taught at Notre Dame.
A native of Valley Stream, N.Y., and left-hander who pitched at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., certain workouts were not done when Ristano was in college.
“We didn’t touch the upper body,” says Ristano. “We pulled more than we pushed.
“There’s some validity to that to this day still, but we build guys who are big, tough and capable of withstanding 14, 15 or 16 starts if we’re going to pitch in Omaha (at the College World Series.”
Ristano says the earlier a pitcher can adopt this routine, the easier is will be for them.
ND pitchers use many tools including MediBall medicine balls.
Ristano makes these points regarding the value of metrics:
• Quantify what the eye sees.
• Validation of what we already know.
• Seeing some of what we don’t know.
ND’s director of baseball operations, who is now Steven Rosen, gives reports to the coaches after every outing and the data is shared with the players.
“What I look at immediately if I’m evaluating metrics is pitch movements (what are my pitches doing?),” says Ristano. This involves vertical and horizontal break plus spin efficiency rates and velocity. “You don’t just track it in singular entities. You have to track it over time to maximize the effectiveness of it.”
As for the arm, Ristano says conditioning is key and that the kinetic chain can break anywhere.
“If you don’t train your body holistically, you’re not conditioning yourself to be today’s pitcher,” says Ristano, who adds a caution. “When you get the benefit of throwing harder, you absorb the risk that angular velocities increase and you become more susceptible, unfortunately, to injury. How many guys throw 100 (mph) now vs. 10 years ago?
“You’ve got to be willing to adapt your training modalities and condition the entire body if you’re going to accept the gift of throwing harder.”
Ristano says low-intensity throwing can build feel for a pitcher.
The coach likes his hurlers to be able to spin the baseball at a low intensity and distance.
“You want to develop secondary stuff,” says Ristano. “Can I pronate from me to you (when playing catch) and still put the ball in your center of mass?”
Ristano says the bottom line is getting people out. That’s the job function.
“You need to learn how to build feel,” says Ristano. “The feel is the deal.”
There must be a time off from throwing.
“A rest period is worthless if you don’t get four weeks off at a time,” says Ristano, noting that time off from throwing doesn’t mean time off from training.
Most ND pitchers stopped throwing two weeks ago and won’t begin again until the second or third week of December. The Irish open the 2020 season on Feb. 14.
Ristano says the Irish long toss and it looks different depending on whether it’s in-season or out-of-season.
In-season, the pitcher is building to his next outing. Out-of-season, they can let it fly. Some throw 300 feet or more.
It’s a two-part phase in long toss — stretching out (aggressive with the lower half and easy with the arm).
Once at peak distance (which varies from day to day), Ristano says his pitchers spend as much time coming in as they do going out.
“I go from aggressive lower half and easy arm to aggressive lower half and aggressive arm,” says Ristano. “I keep those throws at eye level.
“That’s how you build arm strength with the long toss.”
Ristano talked about the progression of Notre Dame pitchers from preseason to season:
• Arm regeneration phase (late October to early December).
• End-of-semester throwing packet.
• Return to campus ready to hit the mound.
• Separation of roles (build up pitch count and get comfortable pitching in relief roles).
A sample week for an ND’s Friday night starter looks like this:
• Friday (pitch live with postgame flush cardio and recovery bands).
• Satruday (optional throwing with sprints, post game charts and lower body work).
• Sunday (long toss and MediBall circuit).
• Monday (short bullpen, intermediate cardio, postgame video review and total body work).
• Tuesday (drills, sprints and MediBall circuit).
• Wednesday (bullpen and intermediate cardio).
• Thursday (optional throwing).
This past fall, the first new Notre Dame head coach Link Jarrett, pitchers did not go above 50 pitches per outing. Appearances were prioritized over building up pitches and innings.
“What are we building up to?,” says Ristano. “We don’t need a guy to throw six innings in October.”
After the season, Irish pitchers receive the following:
• Full assessment of performance (see season summary).
• Clear directives on what needs to improve.
• Determination of what is best for your summer (continue pitching, rest, strengthening etc.).
Rest the arm is key for collegians and high schoolers alike.
“Be confident enough in who you are to take some time off,” says Ristano. “The bullets you fire at 15, 16, 17 years old, you don’t know the damage it potentially does until that kid’s 20 years old and he’s becoming a man.
“I’m not laying the arm injuries on the high school coaches because we are just as responsible. We bring guys back on short rest. We try to go to the College World Series. Big league baseball has its starters pitching the bullpen.
“When you’re 16, you don’t need to start Friday, pitch in relief Tuesday and start Friday again.”
Notre Dame emphasizes and charts getting ahead in the count and being efficient.
“We want to get the at-bat over in three pitches or less (A3P),” says Ristano. “We’ve tracked this for four years. We know that with a first-pitch strike, 72 percent of the time we get a positive outcome. When we executive an A3P, 75 percent of the time it results in a positive outcome.”
Ristano offers a final “M” — Mentality:
• Identity (what we want to be, how we want to be viewed).
• Culture (how we go about our business).
“How do we handle our business?,” says Ristano. “From the outside looking in, what would you take away from watching the Notre Dame pitching staff.
“We embrace each guy’s individuality. But we have to respect the standards of the group.”
Ristano says there are three parts to pitching the “Notre Dame Way.”
“We want to work fast, pitch offensively and project confidence,” says Ristano. “It’s very simple. It has nothing to do with our velocity.”
The Irish play in the very competitive Atlantic Coast Conference with a top-notch non-conference schedule.
“You do not out-think hitters in the ACC,” says Ristano. “You do not out-think hitters in most of college baseball.
“What do you do? You out-execute hitters. At this level, we prioritize pitch execution over selection. You throw the pitch you want to throw. I call pitches and let our guys shake (off the sign). But, at the end of the day, the well-executed pitch that was wrong is better than the poorly-executed pitch that was correct.”
It’s about developing young men who attack their work with ferocity.
“If you’re ready to go, suffocate the opposition,” says Ristano. “Press. Press. Press.
“It keeps the defense engaged. It’s a thing of beauty when you have a guy who’s throwing strikes. It’s disgusting when you have a guy who is not.”
Ristano says he is proud of be part of the state’s baseball community.
“I get that our locker room is populated by kids from 17 different states,” says Ristano. “But, yes, we have to do a really, really good job in the state of Indiana
“(Notre Dame is) a unique place that has unique standards aside from whether or not you can play.”
Ristano encourages coaches to “be a thief.”
“Learn something from everybody,” says Ristano, who still repeats ideas he heard at his first coaches clinic from Oklahoma City University head coach Denney Crabaugh. “Be willing to share and ask questions. Ego is the enemy.
“Be confident in what you do. We’re not all right and we’re not all wrong. What we do works for us.
“If you’re not comfortable teaching it, it makes it really hard to get buy-in from your players.”
Ristano says great pitchers think:
• 9 vs. 1 mentality.
“The deck is stacked in your favor as a pitcher,” says Ristano.
• Focus on what they can control.
• Embrace pressure situations.
• One pitch at a time mentality.
• Focus on solutions over problems.
• Embrace competition and don’t use how they feel/mechanics as a crutch.
These are the conduct standards at Notre Dame:
• Best effort in everything that you do.
• Bring energy. Also be vigilant against those who suck the energy out of us (gravity vs. energy).
“We don’t want the gravity to pull us down, we want the energy to pull us up,” says Ristano. “Are you a fountain or a drain?”
• Expect the best, don’t hope for it.
• Value what you project to the world (body language).
“Have some energy,” says Ristano. “If you don’t have it, fake it. It really matters. Somebody’s always watching.”
• Take advantage of additional development opportunities.
You want to be great? Do stuff that’s pitching-related but doesn’t actually consist of the actual throwing mechanics — MediBall stuff, video review, low-intensity throwing.
• Honest/constructive dialogue between teammates (as well as players and coaches).
“Spoiler alert: Your parents don’t give you honest/construct dialogue,” says Ristano. “At the end of the day, talk your coach. He’s there for a reason.
“What do I need to do to be better. There has to be an element of trust in your circle.”
Chuck Ristano enters his 10th season as pitching coach for the University of Notre Dame baseball team in 2020. (University of Notre Dame Photo)
Chuck Ristano, the baseball pitching coach at the University of Notre Dame, takes an aggressive approach with his staff. He wants them to train and execute with ferocity. (University of Notre Dame Photo)
Chuck Ristano is entering his 10th season as baseball pitching coach at the University of Notre Dame. He is now working with new head coach Link Jarrett. (University of Notre Dame Photo)