Tag Archives: Quality At-Bat

Indiana’s Mercer talks about offensive progression

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Jeff Mercer spoke at the Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in Indianapolis for the first time as head coach at Indiana University.

His presentation was “An 8-Week Offensive Progression.”

Mercer, a Franklin (Ind.) Community High School graduate, addressed the group a few times when he was coaching at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

“I was raised by many of the people in this room,” said Mercer. “We are in essence as young people as we grow, we are the product of our environment. We truly are. I’m the product of this environment.”

The coach emphasizes individual development at IU and does not attack anything without a plan.

“I’m a firm believer in systems and processes,” said Mercer. “When we got to Wright State we implemented a system on everything.

“From an offensive standpoint, there has to be an identity in the way we develop and coach our players.”

Mercer was proud to announce that 10 of the 14 everyday position players at Wright State the past three seasons are either in professional baseball or will be at the end of the coming season.

In his system, baseline testing is done at the beginning.

“I let a guy show me what he can do,” said Mercer. “We start start at the most basic concepts. We don’t want to leave guys behind.”

Mercer called The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle the “most important book I’ve ever read.”

One of the concepts in the book: Whatever you’re practicing, chunk it up into the smallest, possible units.

“We’re going chunk it, repeat it and understand what we’re learning,” said Mercer. “We’re going chunk it and repeat it over and over.

“We need to chunk it and blend it and take it into the next phase very slowly.”

In Week 1, Mercer introduces drills for players to feel tempo, pace and sequence of their swing.

“I want to work up from the ground,” said Mercer. “I want the legs to work first, the hands to work second and the lower half to turn the barrel (of the bat).

“I don’t want the hands to pull the barrel across the body. I don’t want that disconnection.”

The base stealing system will be implemented in Week 1.

“We’ll be very uptempo, very aggressive,” says Mercer.

IU volunteer coach Casey Dykes comes from Virginia Military Institute, a program that was among the nation’s leaders in stolen bases (The Keydets swiped 95 in 117 attempts in 2018).

“We will run a lot of bases,” said Mercer. “From the very beginning, we don’t necessarily do conditioning, we do base running.

“If you want to run bases, you’ve got to run bases. If you want to run fast, you’ve got to sprint.”

Mercer wants his hitters to have a feel for the entire strike zone, including depth and width. To do this, they need to have constant feedback. This is done in Week 2 by using numbered plates (going from 1-6).

Movement and flexibility assessments are done.

“If guys are rigid in their hips, it’s going to be difficult for those guys to drive the ball the other way,” said Mercer. “It’s the way God made them. We have to work that into their approaches.”

Mercer said it is important for players to begin seeing fastballs of 90 mph off the machine in Week 2. He doesn’t want the first time they see them be at game time.

“The machine punishes guys who are long and steep,” said Mercer. “I’m not a big believer in abusing guys. I don’t want to hurt their ego. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. I want them to punish the machine unless they’re doing something really wrong and the machine gets them.

“Find a velocity that works for you.”

Week 3 brings the team offense.

“It’s really important how we handle a stolen base during an at-bat if we’re going to be a team that steals bases,” said Mercer. “If you get a good jump and your batter is swinging every time you get a 1-0 count off a breaking ball, you’ve got a problem.

“We’re one offensive unit. We have to work together as such. Are identity has to come together.”

Mercer wants his players to know what to do in given situations and how to adjust if there is a chance in game plan.

Game approaches are emphasized in Week 4.

It’s all about getting an advantage on the man delivering the baseball.

“If Plan B was as good as Plan A, it would be Plan A. Every pitcher has a Plan A, even if it’s no good,” said Mercer. “Our job (as the offense) is to put together an approach and a system as a offensive unit that’s a virus that attacks  that guy and gets him off Plan A and on to Plan B. Nobody has Plan C.”

Mercer said if his team wants to put up a “crooked number” — two our more runs in an inning, it takes five quality at-bats in a row unless there is a two-run home run in the mix.

In Mercer’s system, ways to beat a pitcher include elevating the pitch count and “beat his brains in.”

“We’re going to hunt pitches early and knock him out in the first couple of innings,” said Mercer.

How about timing pitches?

“I always want to be on fastball timing and adjust down to breaking ball,” said Mercer. “Know the height of the pitch you’re going to face. Is it going to be a 12-to-6 curveball? We have to do our scouting reports and do our due diligence.

“If I’m on fastball timing, it has to cross the middle 8 to 10 inches of the plate. It’s a pitch I think I can drive (right on right or left on left). I’m going to chase the inside bottom of the ball with my eyes. I’m not going to change my swing.”

Mercer said repetition is the key in recognizing and hitting breaking balls. This can be done off the machines or live.

Running a program based on development, Mercer has always gone with weeks of individual work first then adds the team element in his time as a head coach.

In the progression, team practice begins in Week 5.

“We’re going to have a defensive emphasis,” said Mercer. “As good as you want to be offensively, it comes and it goes. If we can’t play defensively, we’re going to lose anyway.”

Mercer will begin increasing the degree of difficulty with pitch distances, speeds and locations.

“The hardest part for young hitters is they don’t have a sense of timing,” said Mercer. “They don’t know when to start. They don’t know how to be malleable in that regard.”

Mercer said knowing how to take batting practice is incredibly important. There is drill work followed by four or five rounds in the cage.

“We have to ramp up to be able to compete everyday,” said Mercer. “We structure it everyday so they get the same routine.”

Full-game setting with scouting reports and live scrimmages come in Week 6 of the progression.

Coach-pitch scrimmages help address weaknesses.

“All teams struggle with first and second and less than two outs,” said Mercer. “We’re going to get used to it.”

Wright State (3.12) was the No. 1 offense in the country scoring in the first three innings in 2018. The Raiders did this through buying into an approach based on a scouting report on the starting pitcher.

Tempo/rhythm drills are incorporated in Week 7.

Mercer said hitting needs to go at a quick pace.

“It’s unfair to ask a group of guys to do something they have not been explicitly prepared to do,” said Mercer. “We’re always growing and trying learn (as coaches). At the end of the day, these guys only get one career.”

In Week 8, coaches set game situations to practice weaknesses. Videotaping will reveal these things.

“It’s not about trying to show guys up, it’s about trying to get guys better,” said Mercer. “Our criticisms matter. We have to build them up.”

Mercer wants to be sure he prepares his players. So it goes back to repeating the message.

“I’m going to beat a dead horse,” said Mercer. “I’m going to be super redundant. You’re going to look at me and go, ‘would you please stop talking about that?’ I don’t care.

“My greatest fear as a coach is a guy looks at me from the batter’s box and they give me a look that tells me ‘you didn’t get me ready for this.’ That’s a terrible feeling as a coach.”

Mercer said that if his team is going to be able to consistently put up crooked numbers, hitters have to be able to hit with men on base.

“We have to be able to apply approaches and data and streamline,” said Mercer. “I’m an analytics guy. But only in the way it applies to winning baseball games. If we can’t be builders and confidence growers, we’re missing the boat in my opinion.”

Fall practice at the NCAA D-I level typically takes 12 to 13 weeks. After the eight-week progression, Mercer’s team will chunk it, repeat and learn it.

AN 8-WEEK OFFENSIVE PROGRESSION

Jeff Mercer, Indiana University

Week 1: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Video initial swings, swing measurements.

• Discuss basic movement patterns.

— Feet Crossover drill series, short bat hand load series.

• Base stealing system begins.

Week 2: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Introduce numbered plate.

— Short bat with numbered plate front toss.

• Outline specific drill work for personal swing issues.

• Introduce pitching matches.

— 78-80 mph from 52 feet, use as BP.

• Introduce small ball: bunt technique, hit/run, slash.

Week 3: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Role of team offense – handle stolen base during AB.

• Introduce 3 approaches and 2-strike approach.

• Breaking ball breakdown – off machines.

Week 4: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Game approaches – how they apply to situations and role in team offense.

• Breaking ball variances.

— Begin changing velo and variations.

• Introduce offensive signs.

Week 5: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Team practice begins.

— Early work offensive routines, team practice = defense.

• Increase difficulty as identity takes shape – machines 82-85 from 52 feet.

• How to take BP, rounds etc.

Week 6: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Live game scrimmages begin, still use coach pitch scrimmage to address weaknesses.

— Short scrimmages during week daily, long on weekends.

• Introduce scouting reports and how to use information.

Week 7: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Tempo/rhythm short drills.

— Drills focused on movement feel more than mechanical breakdown.

• Machine work variations.

– 3 plate fastballs, 2 plate breaking balls, off set machines, extended legs etc.

Week 8: Offensive Points of Emphasis

• Set game situations to practice weaknesses.

— Base stealing emphasized; start every inning with runner on base.

• RBI situations are priority; preset situations often and emphasize approach.

jeffmercerihsbca

Indiana University head coach Jeff Mercer talks about “An 8-Week Offensive Progression” at the 2019 Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in Indianapolis. (Steve Krah Photo)

JEFFMERCERIU

Jeff Mercer is entering his first season as head baseball coach at Indiana University in 2019 after achieving success at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. (Indiana University Photo)

 

 

Risedorph has NorthWood Panthers playing baseball with accountability, confidence, toughness

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

If it seems like NorthWood High School baseball players are jacked up all the time, there’s a reason for that.

First-year Panthers head coach A.J. Risedorph asked his players at the Elkhart County school and that’s the way they want to attack the 2018 season.

Several players, including seniors Payton Bear and Brant Mast (a Spring Arbor University signee) and juniors Matt Dutkowski and Alec Holcomb, return from a 2017 squad went 26-2 overall and 14-0 in the Northern Lakes Conference and won IHSAA Class 3A NorthWood Sectional and Bellmont Regional titles with Jay Sheets at the helm.

“We want to be high energy the entire game,” says Risedorph, a former NorthWood assistant baseball coach who returns as the leader of the program after a season away from the diamond. “We celebrate everything — regardless of outcome.”

A batter might see six pitches then fly out to center field.

But it’s a “quality at-bat.”

“We put a positive spin on something they would normally look at as failure,” says Risedorph. “Positive reinforcement is huge.”

In the Panthers’ first two games of the campaign (a 13-0 win against Westview and 9-8 triumph against Mishawaka), Risedorph has noticed Dutkowski coming up to his teammates and lending encouragement and that’s the kind of culture the NorthWood social studies teacher and student council sponsor is trying to build.

Risedorph wants his club to react well to adversity, something the Panthers did when down 8-7 in the seventh inning against Mishawaka.

“We don’t win that game is our guys panic,” says Risedorph. “I’m real happy with the group that we have. They are level-headed. They have ice in their veins.”

A graduate of East Noble High School (2006) and Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne (2011), former right-handed pitcher, shortstop and third baseman Risedorph has drawn some of his coaching philosophies and methods from his high school and college coaches and one current mentor.

“I’ve been blessed to be around a lot of leaders,” says Risedorph.

Kevin Irons was his head baseball coach at East Noble as the Knights competed in the old Northeast Hoosier Conference (along with Bellmont, Columbia City, DeKalb, Huntington North, Leo, New Haven and Norwell).

Billy Gernon and then Bobby Pierce led the way at IPFW. Mastodons pitching coach Grant Birely also played a big role.

Irons brought Risedorph up to the varsity midway through his freshmen season and taught him plenty about the game.

Risedorph recalls the intensity of a Gernon-led practice.

“He really set a standard for that,” says Risedorph. “He made sure guys were going to buy into the program.”

Pierce took over the Mastodons after Gernon left to become head coach at Western Michigan University. Risedorph constantly picked the brains of Pierce and Birely while playing and also while serving as a first base coach during rehabilitation. Injury took away Risedorph’s 2007 and 2010 seasons.

“(Pierce) runs a very pro-style program,” says Risedorph. “He wants you to be you. He wanted players to represent themselves the right way. He didn’t want you to be something you weren’t and he was very big on the mental side.

“(Pierce and Birely) were able to get the best out of us.”

There were no radical changes in batting stances or arm slots. Players were allowed to work within their own approach.

Risedorph lets his players be themselves within a framework.

“They need structure,” says Risedorph. “They do better when they have it.”

Since 2012-13, Risedorph has been a varsity assistant NorthWood head boys basketball coach Aaron Wolfe and the Panthers have gone 123-25 with four sectional crowns during that span.

“He showed me that you can have meaningful professional relationships with student-athletes,” says Risedorph of Wolfe.

Attending his first Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association State Clinic in January, Risedorph picked up some pointers about practice structure from Notre Dame head coach Mik Aoki and outfield play from Indiana University Kokomo head coach Matt Howard.

Risedorph, who counts Matt Cox and Kevin Roberts as varsity assistants and Greg Estepp and Aaron Arnold as junior varsity coaches guiding a group of 32 players, has his practices broken down into individualized instruction, group skills and team skills.

While “Embrace the Pace” means one thing to the Nappanee Chamber of Commerce, it’s another kind of progression for the Panthers.

“There’s no down time,” says Risedorph. “There has to be a pace to our practice.

“We try to put ourselves in stressful situations. It’s so hard to simulate that stuff in practice. It comes from our pace.

“Yet we want to be calm when we do it. You cannot perform when you’re not loose.”

Risedorph says Birely used to say, “Know your numbers” — as in the stress scale.

“Sometimes you need to step back, breathe and slow your heart rate,” says Risedorph. “(The mentality is) Next Pitch. You don’t let the momentum get the best of you — good or bad.”

NorthWood players are also expected to embrace the concepts of being accountable, confident and tough.

Accountability means doing the right thing, at the right time, all the time.

Confidence entails the beliefs and behaviors that result from a passion to make oneself better.

Toughness is part of being ready, relentless and responsive.

The 2017 sectional title marked the 11th in NorthWood history and sixth since 2011. The regional championship was the program’s first since 1983.

In 2018, the Panthers are in a 3A sectional group with Angola, Fairfield, Lakeland, Tippecanoe Valley, Wawasee and West Noble.

Besides NorthWood, the NLC features Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, Plymouth, Warsaw and Wawasee.

Many NorthWood players are part of travel baseball organizations, including the Michiana Scrappers and Indiana Chargers.

Estepp coaches the NorthWood 14U team in the summer.

“We are not short of quality coaches in this area,” says Risedorph. “It’s nice they care about the kids’ future.

“We’re very fortunate so many of these kids are putting in work.”

Risedorph says he is looking to get more involved with Nappanee Youth Baseball League and Wakarusa Baseball/Softball League.

Before landing at NorthWood, a part of Wa-Nee Community Schools and where former Bremen baseball coach Norm Sellers is athletic director, Risedorph taught for one year at East Noble Middle School and was a baseball assistant to Irons. Risedorph did his student teaching at Fort Wayne Snider High School.

A.J. and Jenna Risedorph have two daughters — Quinlynn (4) and Reagan (1). A.J. is the son of Randy and Iolet Risedorph and has three brothers — Ryan, Eric and Brayden.

NorthWood graduate Blake Cleveland is now playing baseball at Central Michigan University.

NORTHWOODPANTHERS

AJRISEDORPH

A.J. Risedorph is in his first season as NorthWood High School head baseball coach. The East Noble High School and Indiana University Purdue University-Fort Wayne graduate is back with the program after a year away. (Steve Krah Photo)

 

Plymouth’s Wolfe looks for players who are competitive, confident, comfortable

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By STEVE KRAH

http://www.IndianaRBI.com

Ryan Wolfe was fiery as a player. He got hot at the beginning of his coaching career.

The flame still flickers to the surface on occasion.

But the Plymouth High School head baseball coach has learned to control the flames a bit with time and experience.

Wolfe graduated from Hamilton High School in northeast Indiana in 2001. He was a four-year varsity player for the Marines, which won the IHSAA Class 1A Bethany Christian Sectional in 2000. He was an Indiana High School Baseball Coaches Association all-star as senior.

Jim Sanxter was the coach.

A pitcher, Wolfe went on to Manchester College (now Manchester University) and played three seasons for Rick Espeset. The Spartans placed seventh in the 2004 NCAA Division III World Series.

“They had two totally different styles of coaching and both were effective,” says Wolfe of Sanxter and Espeset. “(Sanxter) had a huge influence on me. He was tough. He definitely didn’t go for excuses. He would challenge you and push you and he was very sincere. The more I coach, the more I understand some of the things he did.”

Wolfe came to see in Sanxter a passion and purpose for coaching. Not a teacher, the it was a selflessness that drove the man who coached 30 years, including 18 with Hamilton baseball and passed away in 2014.

“It was how he said things, when he said things and how he reacted to things,” says Wolfe. “I’m humbled to realize I learned from somebody like that.”

A calm demeanor is what Wolfe saw when he observed Espeset, who has led the Manchester program since the 1997 season.

“He had a way of staying even-keeled,” says Wolfe. “I never saw Coach Espeset really get upset.

“You knew he meant business, but he didn’t say it in a brash way. It’s not always what you say, but how you say it.”

Espeset helped his players understand the intricacies of the game and also gave them freedom.

“He let us learn from failure,” says Wolfe. “That’s what I try to do here. We’re not going to win every ball game.”

Wolfe’s post-game remarks after a Pilgrims loss is very minimal. He doesn’t want to harp on the negative.

“We want to get the kids to understand that baseball is much bigger than wins and losses,” says Wolfe, whose first season at Plymouth was 2013 (he was an assistant to Brian Hooker at Rochester High School in 2012 and head coach at West Central High School 2006-11). “We want competitors.”

Even Pilgrims practices — which generally include all 35 to 40 players in the program — have a competitive component. Players must earn a chance to take batting practice on Bill Nixon Field.

“It’s been phenomenal,” says Wolfe, who began combining squads for practice in 2015. “It brings a sense of unity. Our whole purpose is the same — to develop great young men through the game of baseball.”

Practices are broken into stations and one is devoted to work on routines. That’s how important it is to the Pilgrims.

Taking the teaches of mental conditioning and sports psychology expert Brian Cain, Wolfe and his assistant coaches (Brent Corbett, Kevin Garrity, Brian Schuler and Mitch Bowers) tell the players to “get back to green.”

There are green dots on the bats — a visual device that helps them relax and focus.

“We talk about breathing a lot and keeping our heart rate down,” says Wolfe. “We’re constantly talking about confidence.

“We want them to know their routine because a routine breeds confidence because it makes you comfortable.”

While his assistants hone in on hitting, pitching and fielding skills, Wolfe sees his role to develop his players’ mental sides.

“It’s an aspect of the game that’s left out,” says Wolfe. “We take time out of our day and do that.”

“It’s taken awhile for our kids to understand it’s a part of baseball. They’re high school kids. They don’t know how to handle failure. Are we perfect at it? No way.”

Wolfe and his staff are not trying to cram every player into the same mold.

“We are not cookie cutter,” says Wolfe. “We don’t have every kid hit the same or pitch the same. It’s about learning who you are as a player and what works for you.

“We’re trying to get the kids to take ownership.”

Like many coaches, Wolfe has taken concepts he has learned at clinics and American Baseball Coaches Association conventions and adopted them to the needs of his program.

Justin Dehmer has won multiple state titles in Iowa and has shared his knowledge through his line of 1 Pitch Warrior materials. Plymouth tracks B.A.S.E.2 (Big Inning, Answer Back, Score First, Extend the Lead, Score with 2 Outs, Quality At-Bat System). Wolfe knows that doing three of the five things on the chart often leads to victory.

The Pilgrims are looking for a K.O. — knocking the starting pitcher out by the fourth inning.

Other incentives are the Hit Stick (one each for varsity and junior varsity) and MVP jersey, which players can earn from game to game following a victory. Get the jersey the most times during the season — as voted on by the team — and that player is the season MVP.

“We’ve got to win to get anything,” says Wofle. “There’s nothing if we lose.”

Wolfe and his staff have crunched the numbers and witness enough success to be believers in their methods.

“This stuff does work,” says Wolfe.

Plymouth plays a double round robin in the Northern Lakes Conference (which also includes Concord, Elkhart Memorial, Goshen, Northridge, NorthWood, Warsaw and Wawasee) with games played Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

NorthWood went 14-0 in 2017, taking a pair of 1-0 wins against the Pilgrims. The game at Plymouth pitted NWHS senior Drake Gongwer against PHS sophomore Cam Dennie and was a classic.

“That’s one of the best high school baseball games I’ve ever seen,” says Wofle. “(The NLC) is very competitive. I like the format. In my five years, I have not seem the same pitcher start both games very often.”

Dennie is already verbally committed to Arizona State University, something he did before the 2017 season after showing well in Prep Baseball Report underclassmen games.

Wolfe sees it as his responsibility to engage in the recruiting process.

“I try to make as many connections as I can with college coaches around the area,” says Wolfe. “But I’m going to be honest with (players, parents and college coaches).

“I teach kids there’s a lot of levels of college baseball. You’ve got to show initiative and work hard in the class room also.”

Indiana alone has 38 programs — nine in NCAA Division I, three in NCAA Division II, nine in NCAA Division III, 14 in NAIA and three in junior college.

Wolfe, who also teaches social studies at PHS, lets his players and coaches know what is being sought by college coaches. He wants them to closely assess their situation and pay attention to the intangibles. On-base percentage and pitching velocity are easy to gauge.

But can they handle the grind of college baseball?

What kind if student are they?

What kind of teammate are they?

“These are the kinds of things we want here,” says Wolfe. “I have some of the longest parent meetings of all-time. But I try to be upfront.

“I don’t want to discourage kids from having those aspirations. I want them to reach their own potential and not compare themselves to other kids. You are who you are. It goes back to taking ownership of what you can do to reach that potential.”

Money has been raised to upgrade the playing surface at Bill Nixon Field, a facility named for the IHSBCA Hall of Fame coach. Wolfe says that project is to go forward after the 2018 season.

Tyler Wolfe — Ryan’s brother — really excelled at D-III Manchester and holds school pitching records for career wins, strikeouts, innings pitched and complete games.

Ryan and wife Tara Wolfe have two boys — fifth grader Preston and fourth grader Parker.

RYANWOLFE

Ryan Wolfe, a graduate of Hamilton High School and Manchester University, is entering his sixth season as head baseball coach at Plymouth High School.