Wellesley ex-baseball pro makes his pitch

With Little League season around the corner, you could learn a few things from Wellesley’s Steven Ellis, a former baseball professional who runs a website on pitching and has written a number of books on the topic. Ellis says he doesn’t have much time to give individual lessons these days but that his website is regularly updated with content from coaches, parents and players.

We tossed a few softballs his way about professional and amateur baseball:

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Where are you from and how did you wind up in Wellesley?

My wife, Devon, is a foreign language teacher at Wellesley High School.

I grew up in the small town of New Hartford, N.Y., just outside Utica, but went to a private boarding school in St. Louis my junior and senior years of high school. After that I attended Division 1 Bradley University (Peoria, Ill.) of the Missouri Valley Conference on a full baseball scholarship. At Bradley, I majored in Journalism (and baseball, of course). I was selected by the Oakland A’s in the 12th round of the 2000 MLB draft, my junior year, but did not sign. I was the Chicago Cubs’ 18th pick in 2001.

After a shoulder injury ended my pitching career, I turned to journalism and worked for a couple of suburban St. Louis newspapers before joining the Christian Science Monitor in Boston as a writer and an editor. I currently work for the French insurer AXA Equitable and run the baseball pitching website, The Complete Pitcher.

Name a few career highlights. Faced any big names? Pitched at Wrigley or other famous parks?

I never pitched at Wrigley, but certainly played with and against many current big leaguers, including Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Dontrelle Willis. Believe it or not, Howard was actually a pretty easy out in college, where we played against each other for four years. You could pitch him up with the fastball if you had a little pop on it and put him away with a breaking ball at the knees or a change up away. He’s certainly a tougher out these days.

Chase Utley, however, was a different story. He was a tough out back then, just as he is today, because he had a great bat and good speed. Like Howard, I pitched against Utley in college, when he was at UCLA.  In his first at-bat against me, he ripped a line drive up the middle for a single. But he wasn’t sticking around first base for long; on the very next pitch he stole second base — and then he stole third base on the pitch after that. So in three pitches, I went from facing him at the plate to having him standing on third base. He went 3-3 against me that day. He’s an excellent player.

My favorite player, though, was Dontrelle Willis. He and I pitched together in the Cubs organization, before he was traded to the Florida Marlins, and then to the Detroit Tigers. He was a super nice guy who worked very hard. But the best part was coming in as a closer after he started and pitched the first 7 or 8 innings of a game. With Willis, the opposing hitters got a lefty with a funky motion throwing low 90s. He was tough. But then in came me, a right-handed closer with a more traditional mid-90s fastball. The hitters couldn’t adjust quick enough to the difference in pitching deliveries. That was fun, and we won a lot of ball games that summer and I notched quite a few saves.

The story of pitchers and steroids still seems way under reported to me. We’ve seen a few no name middle relievers get nailed, and of course there’s all the Roger Clemens speculation, but what’s your take on whether the pitchers have gotten off easy in terms of steroids scrutiny?

For me, the steroids issue hits close to home because my good friend and pitcher Sergio Mitre is currently serving a 50-day suspension for violating MLB’s performance-enhancing substances rule. MLB is certainly testing more than when I played, and the penalties are steep: Mitre’s suspension is without pay. That hurts. It also sends a message. I think it’s a good step.

There was a lot of discussion around here over the winter of just how valuable Jason Varitek of the Red Sox is now that his hitting has fallen off. What’s your take on how important a catcher is to calling a game?

The catcher-pitcher relationship is totally important. My best games on the mound were those in which I didn’t have to shake off my catcher’s signals. I’d be thinking, “OK, let’s go fastball outside,” and my catcher would signal for a fastball outside. That’s what it means to be on the same page. That’s what Varitek brings to the Sox, and I’d certainly want him behind the plate if I were pitching.

What’s your latest book and do you have anything new in the works?

My most popular book is the “TUFFCUFF Strength and Conditioning Manual for Baseball Pitchers” (The Complete Pitcher, Inc.; 2007; $64.95). It’s a complete 52-week step-by-step workout program that’s based on the same workouts used by big league pitchers.

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My most recent book is the “Ultimate Guide to Advanced Pitching” (The Complete Pitcher, Inc.; 2009; $37), which focuses on baseball pitching mechanics, grips, drills and strategy.

Both are available at advancedpitching.com or Amazon.com.

Speaking of which, Little League is about to get going. What are a few things parents can do to get their young pitchers prepped?

The key to having a successful and healthy Little League season is getting that arm in shape. The sooner you can get outside and start throwing, the better.  Playing catch with a parent at 45 to 60 feet is pretty safe and will go a long way in strengthening a young arm. Besides, it’s a lot of fun!

It’s also important to do a little conditioning. Youngsters under 12 years of age should not be “pumping iron.” Yet, doing push ups, sit-ups and simple shoulder exercises with a pair of very light dumbbells (under 3 lbs.) can be very helpful. But make sure you can do at least 10 reps and limit it to 2 to 3 sets. Do 4 to 6 exercises at most. Don’t go bonkers — a 20-minute conditioning program is plenty at this age. Also do some running (like a couple laps around the baseball field), stretching, etc. Always be careful and think about “growth plates.” We don’t want to cause damage to young players developing muscular and skeletal structures.

At what age should kids be starting to advance from just throwing to pitching?

In Little League, coaches and parents should really keep the focus on creating an environment that’s safe, positive and fun. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t focus on the fundamentals or teaching good habits. But I generally think some of the more advanced concepts should be introduced when a player turns 13 and moves up to the regulation baseball field.

What’s the worst advice young pitchers commonly get?

Whether a kid should be throwing curve balls is always a hot topic. You can find more information about that at my website.

Seems like it’s been a while since a new pitch emerged (there was lot of talk around here about Dice-K’s gyroball). Anything new emerging?

The gyroball certainly made a splash, thanks to Dice-K. But I don’t think it really caught on. In my opinion, all a young pitcher really needs is a good fastball and a good off-speed pitch, like a change up. Those two pitches will allow you to be successful at just about every level of the game. They were for me!