Every single day, the pitchers on Kenny Wilkinson’s North Charleston (South Carolina) Dixie Majors baseball team go through drill work.
The drills have become the bread and butter of the program’s success. North Charleston has captured five World Series titles — including the last two — under Wilkinson’s tutelage, the most of any Dixie team in the country.
“I think the drill work gives them the opportunity to get better,” said Wilkinson, who has coached for 45 years and is in the Dixie Baseball Hall of Fame. “Each one of the guys is only going to be able to do what their potential allows them to do, but by being fundamentally sound — especially with proper mechanics — it’s going to allow them to be the best that they possibly can be.”
Along with being the North Charleston all-star team’s coach, working with players 17 to 19 years old, Wilkinson is one of the primary guys who works with the pitching staff.
During early-season practices, Wilkinson and his coaches individualize the pitchers and figure out what each thrower needs to work on.
“It’s the mechanics and the things they’re doing wrong in this drill work versus the time it takes to get them in a bullpen and see them in the bullpen, because a lot of times in the bullpen it’s going full speed and you don’t catch everything,” Wilkinson said. “The drill work is slowed down a little bit and as a coach you can pick up on a lot of flaws a lot better.”
Prior to each full team practice, pitchers and catchers report 45 minutes early to work on drills.
"The idea of it in drill work is to make each one of those pitches get muscle memory,” Wilkinson said. “When it becomes muscle memory, when we call a pitch in the game, it clicks in (with) the mechanics they need to do because they’ve done it so many times in drill work.”
The pitchers will pair up with fellow pitchers and line up 15 feet apart. The players work for about 10 minutes per pitcher on grips, mechanics, follow-through and finish.
The pitchers work on sets of five throws for each pitch (two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, changeup, curveball and slider) from the windup and the stretch.
“We’re really walking through with them as coaches and making sure they’re really working on their grips, they're working hard on their mechanics, they’ve got good balance points, good finish, and good follow-through,” Wilkinson said. “Some of the guys have a tendency to get a little more velocity on the ball from the 15-foot range, which is kind of natural, but what we really want them to work on is getting a feel for the grip and a good feel for the mechanics.”
One important aspect of drill work is for a pitcher to hit his spots, especially with a fastball.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 83 or 93 — because we’ve got guys that throw 83, guys that throw 88, guys that throw 92,” Wilkinson said. “If you can throw your fastball and make it go where you want it to go, you’re going to be successful.”
Wilkinson wants his pitchers to take positives from the drill work and bring those into a bullpen session.
“If you can’t do it through drill work and you can’t get it done in your bullpen, you’re not going to get it done in the game,” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson doesn’t have his players throw bullpen every day; they are on a rotation. The practices in which a pitcher doesn’t work in the bullpen, a player will do PFP (Pitcher's Fielding Practice). Defense for pitchers is also a key aspect of Wilkinson’s training. He works his players hard on what to do on comebackers, turning different combinations of double plays, 1-6-3 and 1-4-3, bunt coverages, and pickoffs.
Working on mechanics and drill work isn’t just set aside for non-game days. Wilkinson even has his pitchers going through drills on the days they pitch. He has them conduct short sets, then get loose and go into the bullpen.
“It kind of gives their mind that refresher from a mechanical standpoint of where they need to be,” Wilkinson said.