Learning Lefty

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.7, September 2006, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1407/bblefty.htm

Watching Tyler Oliver’s slick play at first base, you would never guess the Lexington (Ky.) Christian Academy junior only recently learned how to catch with his right hand and throw with his left. After battling nagging injuries to his right (throwing) elbow since he was 13 and undergoing two surgeries—one before his freshman year that involved drilling a hole in his elbow to correct a bone defect, and the latest coming after his sophomore season—Oliver decided it was time to remake himself into a southpaw.

A varsity starter since eighth grade, the 6’1”, 215-pound NCAA Division I prospect led his team to the 2005 Kentucky state championship as a sophomore, batting third and playing a very solid first base as a righthander. That summer, while attending a baseball camp at Florida State University, Oliver’s arm began to bother him. A bone chip was discovered and subsequently removed in a minor surgical procedure.

After the surgery, multiple doctors—including Cincinnati Reds Team Physician Dr. Timothy Kremchek—told Oliver he would likely experience pain during the rest of his high school career and that his collegiate future could be in jeopardy. The news hit Oliver hard, but rather than accepting the doctors’ prognoses, he began exploring other options. “After the surgery, I started throwing a tennis ball left-handed against my bedroom wall and realized I was pretty good at it,” says Oliver.

After a little more practice, Oliver wondered if he could train himself to be a left-handed thrower—permanently. “I pitched the idea to my doctors and they said, ‘That would be better for your arm, but… well, good luck.’ Nobody really took me seriously,” he says.

But their uncertainty didn’t dissuade Oliver, and he committed himself to learning to throw lefty. After a month working on his own, Oliver met up with former Georgetown University coach Jim Hinerman, who has worked with him in the past. “We met for 30 minutes three times a week during the winter until the season started,” says Oliver. “At first my form was really bad, but after working with Coach Hinerman, it got better.”

To hone his throwing motion, Hinerman had Oliver do a lot of pitching drills. “The biggest problem was my fingertip control—I had none and was throwing balls 20 feet over his head,” says Oliver, who countered his initial lack of control by doing more everyday tasks with his left hand. “I did anything I could left-handed—open doors, pick things up, eat—and eventually my fingertip control got a lot better. By January I could throw much more accurately, and by March my arm strength improved to where I could throw to a base.”

When the season started, Oliver worked extensively with LCA Assistant Coach Joe Modica to refine his skills around the bag. It didn’t take long for Oliver to perfect his foot and glove work. “It was really hard because I wasn’t used to catching with my right hand. I would get nervous and move out of the way because I didn’t trust myself to catch the ball,” says Oliver, who remains a right-handed batter. “But it didn’t take me long to get over that. And I only made a couple of throwing errors all year—I could throw from first to third and make all the relay throws from the outfield.”

LCA Head Coach Keith Galloway says Oliver was the top defensive first baseman in the league prior to his surgery. But because opposing coaches knew that he had recently made the change, they naturally wanted to see if he still had the same skills. “Certain teams tested him by having runners leave early and forcing him to throw on a pickoff play, and some bunted on him,” says Galloway. “But he’s a gamer, and when it came time to make plays, he did.”

Oliver estimates his left arm is about 85 percent as strong as his right and that he registers 75 mph on a radar gun. “I still don’t have that strong of an arm, but at least I have a chance of throwing without feeling like it’s falling off,” says Oliver, who attributes his injuries as a youngster to throwing hard and often with less-than-stellar form when he pitched. “I probably have better mechanics left-handed than I did right-handed,” he says.

Mechanics and skills aside, Galloway says the switch had a very positive effect on Oliver’s teammates.“ They saw his determination and it really inspired them, as well as other kids around the league,” says Galloway. “It speaks volumes about Tyler’s work ethic and passion for the game.”

With another year of high school eligibility remaining, Oliver is working hard to make sure he remains on the Division I radar. “He definitely has a college future ahead of him,” says Galloway. “And the Division I schools I’ve talked to are impressed with the progress he’s made to this point.”