Baseball’s Balancing Act

Posted: July 12, 2013

Bridgewater College coach Curt Kendall instructs Austin Engle, a rising sophomore from Harrisonburg High School. (Photo by NIkki Fox / DN-R)
BRIDGEWATER – What do LeBron James, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Willis have in common? According to Bridgewater College baseball coach Curt Kendall, all three have great balance.

Balance was the main point of Kendall’s advanced pitching camp for boys ages 12-17 Thursday morning. Without it, most athletes are lost. Not a good thing – especially if you want to play college ball.

Call it Recruiting 101. To enhance your chances of getting a roster spot, you’d better get your mechanics in order.

“Athletes in an athletic position got to have balance in all directions,” Kendall said inside Bridgewater’s Funkhouser Center gym. “It allows you to control your body parts.

“Pitching, you got to control what your body does so you can have accuracy, so you can get to the end of your pitching motion with good balance extension and you get the most out of your pitches.”

Alongside assistant coach Scott Hearn, Kendall instructed seven campers using mainly flat ground drills. Each point of the delivery – the step back, the turn, leg lift, stride and release point – were watched with a critical eye.

 “Breaking it down at least lets them understand what it’s to be like,” said Kendall, who will enter his 29th season with the Eagles next year. “When they go live, their bodies won’t do all those things; they’ll do something wrong in the process and lose their balance. They stand up, which causes their balance to be off. They step off the drive line, which drives them out of whack.”

This wasn’t an academic discussion for the teenagers at Thursday’s camp, assuming they want to play college baseball. Balance — essentially the ability to keep your body under control — is among the major traits Kendall seeks in pitchers when recruiting players to his Division III program.

Kendall, who hit the 600-win milestone in 2012, guided Bridgewater to a 34-13 record and NCAA playoff appearance last spring — with the Eagles leading the conference in strikeouts (291).

Balance, of course, isn’t the only thing Kendall seeks when recruiting pitchers. He said he wants a player to have three pitches and wants that player to have command of at least two of those pitches, along with possessing adequate fundamentals.

“You don’t want a guy that’s totally out of whack mechanically,” Kendall said.

When pitchers reach the college level, habits are hard to break. Correcting balance issues becomes a challenge for the coaching staff.

“You look at guys and say, ‘Gosh, if you could get him to do the things with his athletic ability, think about how good he could be,’” Hearn said. “A lot of guys come in with talent, and either they don’t know or don’t understand how to be balanced. Once they figure it out, they become really good players.”

One pitcher Kendall cites as a success story in terms of mechanics is Kevin Chandler. A former Harrisonburg High School and BC standout, Chandler served as the pitching coach for Turner Ashby High during the 2012 season and will move into the same role at Eastern Mennonite University in 2013.

At 6-foot-6, Chandler, like most young pitchers, did not have flawless balance from the outset. Before he could become the ODAC Pitcher of the Year, he cleaned up his mechanics, meaning he’s in a good position to judge others. Chandler, who has been working at BC’s camps, pointed to one common problem with balance during delivery.

“You see it when the pitcher starts to bring the leg down,” Chandler said. “Striding down and coming out and the weight is going forward and not staying back. It’s tough to get them to feel the weight staying back.”

When coaches and players can’t get on the same page, Kendall turns to technology to get his point across. Among the tools: the Coach’s Eye smartphone app. The app allows the user to slow down, rewind, pause and draw on the screen.

Kendall videotaped pitchers Thursday, with campers throwing off an artificial mound into a net. It’s only a three-hour session, but — if all goes well — it will pay off in the future.

“Be patient,” Chandler said. “It’s a process. You’re not going to become [Justin] Verlander overnight. Over time, it becomes pretty easy. Your mechanics and tweaking them becomes easier.”

And, perhaps, makes you more recruitable.