Harper, who is the head instructor at Pitching Solutions in Aledo, Texas, makes sure his guys take three months off from throwing to rest their arms before coming back to him around early October. For the next 12 weeks or so leading up to Christmas, Harper has the pitchers go through his command program during private lessons. The players, who are generally in high school or in their first year of college baseball, will go through two sessions per week.
Instead of throwing to a catcher, Harper sets up a target that’s blacked out except for the four corners where there are openings. Harper has the players throw at the corners and not hit the black, restricted areas, which are in the strike zone.
“That covers up everything but the four corners – at the knees and up under the hands,” Harper said. “I just drill them. Normal lessons are 30 minutes, but we spend 45 minutes when we do this (drill). I just drill them and drill them and drill them.”
Harper’s pitchers will start at 40 feet, move up to 50 feet, and then ultimately to 60 feet, 6 inches. The pitchers throw at 50-60 percent of their speed in early October so it’s not labor intensive.
“My theory is, it doesn’t matter how you get there, but everyone gets there with their hand extended, they’re releasing the ball, and they’re staring at a target,” Harper said. “We’re building that map in our brain that we’re staring at this target and we’re releasing this object in our hand and we’re hitting that spot.”
Harper has a bucket of about 60-70 balls and the pitchers throw three or four buckets in their 45-minute time frame.
“Depending on the kid and where they need help, some kids need getting that lower outside corner and some of them have trouble coming up under the hands,” Harper said. “So just depending on the kid, we’ll spend more time where they need.”
The primary focus of the command program is on fastballs. The pitchers will throw two-seam fastballs, about 40 balls in each corner.
“If someone’s throwing to a right-handed batter, they try to pepper that knee-high outside corner fastball,” Harper said. “But if you just stay out there, stay out there, stay out there, then the hitters are going to start leaning and you’ve got to be able to stand them up and be able to come up under their hands. Then you can come back outside with anything you want to throw.”
Harper stands near the pitchers when they’re throwing and makes sure mechanics are correct. He reminds them of the balance point and makes sure that they aren’t falling off toward first base and are finishing where they’re supposed to.
After throwing plenty of fastballs, Harper has his pitchers work on balls high in the strike zone. The last bucket of balls is designated for throwing changeups. All of Harper’s pitchers have a changeup as a second pitch, even his 9-year-olds. Harper tells his guys that they’re only allowed to throw strikes with their changeup.
Near the end of October after three weeks or so of going through the command program, Harper has his pitchers crank up velocity slightly to 60 percent and then 70 percent. He wants his guys to gradually build up to game speed. The command program ends at Christmas, since in Texas the high school season starts up at the end of January. Harper’s pitchers are primed for early-season ball — and they can see vast improvement — after going through all the command work.
Harper hears feedback quite a bit from his pitchers that throwing at a target helps them concentrate a lot better, as opposed to just throwing to a catcher’s glove.
“The kids really love it, because they can see after they’ve done this twice a week for about three weeks there’s not a bunch of balls on the ground,” Harper said. “When we get the bucket to pick them up, there’s a whole bunch of them in those mitts.”
From GameChanger and Greg Bates.