Our fielding roundtable discussion was built around the theme of mastering catch and throw. If you cannot execute the basics of catch and throw from your position, you will not play this game at a high level. Carmen talked about how one of the first things college coaches ask him when talking about prospective student athletes is if they can field their position. It’s very easy to get caught up in the swing and trying to launch balls into outer space, but nothing can replace catching and throwing exceptionally well. More games are lost rather than won. Teams who play great defense don’t beat themselves.
Mastering the Basics
Before grabbing the fungos, coaches must learn how to police catch play. We go into great detail about this in our blog article “Summer Camp Recap – Teaching Catch Play.” Carmen cannot emphasize enough that the time you play catch for is the most important part of your practice. If kids can’t make throws from 120 feet in catch play, don’t expect them to throw the ball across the diamond with precision. If you police it, it will improve with time.
A visual of the sweet spot of the glove, from Frawley/Correa ABCA Presentation
An important concept to emphasize early on with catch play is creating feel for the sweet spot in the glove. Just the way your bat has a sweet spot, your glove also has a sweet spot located between your thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger. You know if you’ve got one in the sweet spot if you hear a nice crisp pop on the catch. If you don’t hear this pop, you’ve missed the sweet spot. To create the proper sound, players should try to “stick” the ball out in front of their eyes. The ball shouldn’t take you back on the catch. If the ball takes you to your left or right, move your feet and catch it out front. Catch with your feet, throw with your feet.
All infielders should get into this position as the ball enters the hitting zone
When you start your ground ball work, it is important you put a premium on the set up/ready position. This should mirror the athletic position – knees bent, feet slightly wider than shoulder width, head over center of mass, arms slightly bent outside of hips. A lot of kids will start with their hands inside their hips almost pre-set in a catch position. This puts the athlete in a disadvantageous position and can inhibit range. Players must be able to get into this position every single pitch. Just like hitting, a poor set up position can throw off the events that follow.
Along with this, infielders must understand how to create pre-pitch movement. Through years in professional baseball, Carmen has learned that the most range is lost from this position. Kids with stagnant feet as the ball enters the hitting circle struggle to get good reads off the bat. Just as a football defensive end depends on his first two steps, infielders need their first two steps to be crisp. Your ability to do this largely depends on your pre pitch move.
Teaching a tennis style “hop” is a great move for infielders learning pre-pitch movement
We like to teach a tennis styled “hop” for infielders just learning the pre-pitch move. This helps get athletes on the balls of their feet as opposed to being flat on their heels. The timing of the move should happen right around where the ball meets the dirt/grass cutout. Athletes can hop from a narrow or wider base depending on what feels most comfortable. The right/left footwork prior to the hop should depend on which side of the field the athlete is covering. For example, third basemen should go right/left because they have the line covered to their right. First basemen should go left/right because they have the line covered to their left.
Jaden utilizing a split hop pre-pitch move
With this, the hop is not the only move you can make. You can step into it, sway into it, or even step back based on the position and type of athlete. The timing for the move remains the same. If you’re working with kids just getting a feel for the infield, a simple right/left step “into the circle” is a great place to start.
We have put a premium on this move in our team practices. Below are a few before and after examples of pre pitch moved with a few of our high school kids.
From here, we turn the emphasis to good catch positions. Some of the things we look for are a triangular position where the athlete gets a wide base and their head is over their center of mass. The right foot should be in the ground and the left toe should be up. The head, ball, and glove should be in line with the glove creating a ramp. The glove should be presented out in front of the athlete’s eyes as opposed to closer to their belly button. The glutes should be pushed out in a hinge position where the athlete’s back is tabletopped. The feet should be slightly staggered with the left foot slightly in front of the right (from right/left footwork).
Jeter showing a quality catch position
A good question we received was whether you should teach kids to funnel with two hands or play through with one. We think both are great options and the style is up to the individual. For kids just starting out, we find a lot of value in teaching kids how to catch one handed. Most coaches are going to teach kids to use two hands and get in front of everything, so reinforcing a position where the athlete is forced to use one hand can free up a lot of athleticism. Kids who funnel can also have a tendency to lose the fingers and funnel the ball too quickly towards the belly button. On the flip side, make sure kids keep a relaxed arm when playing with one hand. A straightened arm creates tension that limits freedom, quickness, and adjustability.
Progressions to a Moving Ball
After creating a feel for good catch positions, we like to incorporate the footwork by introducing right-lefting the ball. When the ball comes off the bat, infielders must be able to get to the right of the ball to read the incoming hop. To understand this, see the visual below. You don’t see the shape of the object until you’re able to tilt it slightly to the right. In the infield, you won’t be able to get an accurate read on the hops until you can get an angle on the batted ball. As a result, right-lefting the ball has a huge impact on hop selection.
You can’t see the shape of the object until you create a slight angle (get to the right of it)
You can teach this move to athletes using some basic constraint work. Place an object in front of the athlete and roll/hit fungos directly at the object. The constraint of the object forces the athlete to work to the right of the ball without taking a large “banana” route to the ball. Below is a video of one of our athletes practicing this move using a bucket as his constraint.
Utilizing a bucket constraint can help kids get a feel for right-lefting the ball
Right-lefting the catch is also an important move to create good catch positions and direction towards the target. As Carmen says best, the ball always wants to gain ground. Being able to right/left the catch helps the athlete redirect energy as opposed to catching, stopping, and then starting back up again. It also helps athletes learn how to time up their glove presentation as their right foot plants. Just the way you walk, your left arm wants to work in tangent with your right leg. As the right leg plants, the glove should start to present and create a ramp for the ball. As the left leg lands, the heel drops first and the toe drops left. We call this a heel-toe move (see Lindor). It gives the infielder adjustability and helps them stay grounded in their right foot as opposed to leaking out.
Two drills that help teach the right/left footwork are toe up and leg up. The toe up drill helps create a feel for the heel-toe move with the left leg at catch. The athlete should plant the heel as they catch the ball and replace feet using a 2 step approach. Coaches can roll huggers and short hops to the athlete. See the video below from Tucker Frawley and Kainoa Correa’s 2019 ABCA Presentation for what this should look like.
The leg up drill is a progression off the toe up drill which reinforces the same right-left principles from a more dynamic position. The left leg should be back with the glove hand forward and the right leg planted in the ground. As the ball is rolled, the athlete begins to take his glove and left foot to the ground using the heel-toe technique. See video below from the Frawley and Correa presentation for what this should look like.
Teaching athletes how to cut down distance and play on an “x” are important concepts when infielders start to react to a moving ball. A drill you can use to teach cutting down distance is the line and circle drill. Draw a straight line from the athlete’s starting position and extend it anywhere from 5-8’ depending on the distance from the fungo hitter. At the end of the line, trace out a circle big enough that the athlete can get into a good catch position inside of it. Hit ground balls on the line at the athlete and try to get them to catch the ball inside the circle using good right/left footwork. If the athlete can’t catch the ball in the circle, they haven’t cut down enough distance. You can also use the line as a visual for athletes to get to the right of the ball.
When moving left and right, infielders should strive to play the ball and cut down angles on a “x” as opposed to a “t”. Playing on an x (see Bregman interview with A-Rod) forces athletes to take more direct routes to the ball as opposed to working predominantly east and west. This helps cut down distance and gives infielders more time to make throws. Certain types of batted balls will require different angles. Carmen says best: “The ball will dictate the play.” Get your kids to learn how to play balls on as many different angles as possible. No one has ever gotten the same exact ground ball in a game twice. Your practices should mirror that unpredictability (see our previous blog post for more on variable practice).
As Bregman alluded to in the interview, certain positions are going to have different concentrations of batted balls. Below is a heat map from Frawley and Correa’s ABCA Presentation showing the ground ball distribution between Andrelton Simmons and Nolan Arenado.
As a coach, the fungos you hit in practice should reflect the heat map above. Middle infielders should learn how to be comfortable catching and throwing when moving far to their left and right. Corner infielders should be able to catch and throw moving in and moving back. Some balls are going to require infielders to retreat so they can catch the big hop. See Anthony Rizzo for an example of this.
Catching and throwing on the run is an important skill for both types of infielders. To help athletes get a feel for this, start by rolling kids huggers/tossing short hops from 8-10’ away. Get kids to learn how to get to the right of the ball, catch off their glove foot, and throw off their post (right) foot. The post foot should be angled so the middle of the shoe is facing their target – also known as a toe in move. The shoulders should be angled so the athlete can transfer and deliver the ball from a lower slot. This move is similar to the action a hitter takes when they try to match the plane for a pitch down in the zone. Fielders cannot throw from just one angle – they need to be able to utilize a variety of angles to be most effective.
Infielders must be able to use a wide range of arm slots
When you can get kids to understand a variety of plays, teach them when to utilize each one using the four second pace. In 2019 at the MLB level, more than half the league got from home to first between 3.93 and 4.40 seconds. As an infielder, you need to be able to make plays within this time constraint. Building this internal clock is going to determine whether you take a four step pattern, two step, get rid of it right away, or play it on the run. The best way to get a feel for this is to us a stopwatch or live baserunners. If guys can’t consistently make plays within this time constraint, it’s worth examining their routes to the ball, footwork after the catch, or repositioning them to adjust for their arm/range.
Double plays are a great progression off basic infield work to teach various moves, feeds, and footwork. We work on these consistently at our team practices. Just like ground balls, different double play feeds are going to depend on the feed. At second base, you’re going to have three basic moves: step back, step across, and step behind. On all three feeds, the second baseman is going to take their left foot to the bag and their right foot to the ball (on the catch). Carmen also brought up second basemen should also try to finish their feed with their knees facing towards first base to help protect against awkward side collisions.
The step back is going to be your basic move on a good feed without any significant time constraints. The second baseman is simply going to step back to clear the base path and make the feed. The step behind is going to be for the feed that misses the second baseman arm side. On the throw, the second baseman should adjust and step behind the bag to make the feed. Infielders are protected behind the bag just the way they are protected outside the sliding lane. The step across feed is for the ball that takes the shortstop or third baseman away from the bag. By stepping across, second basemen are able to cut down distance and shorten the time for their feed given the time constraint of the batted ball. See our instagram post from the past to get a feel for what these should look like. Also see Jose Altuve for the step back/across moves in a game situation.
On plays where turning two isn’t likely, second baseman should turn into a first baseman and sell out to get the lead runner. In doing this, defenses are able to keep a runner out of scoring position and keep the double play in tact. If the infielder taking the ground ball bobbles a potential double play feed, the play should automatically go to one. Outs are a premium as a defense. Don’t give one away because you tried to rush a double play feed when you had a chance to get the guy at first.
At shortstop, it’s important to play behind the bag when receiving double play feeds. You don’t want to cheat towards the glove side part of the bag and get beat arm side on an errant throw. We always want to secure the out at second base (see Gleyber Torres secure the catch before making a feed to first). When turning double plays as a shortstop, the footwork is flipped. The left foot goes to the ball and the right foot swipes across the back of the bag. Footwork should be aligned as close to first base without impeding in the baseline. If the throw takes the shortstop far to their glove side, you can utilize a spin to get momentum back towards first base. If the ball misses arm side, have the athlete take their left foot to the back and right to the ball – just like a second baseman. See our previous instagram video for what these should look like.
Both middle infielders should learn how to deflect when receiving good feeds on double plays. Deflecting happens when the person catching transfers from glove to hand without closing their glove (see Altuve). This makes for a quicker transition that is necessary to make plays within a four second pace. Athletes should deflect on feeds that are within the framework of their body – chin to belt, shoulder width. If feeds take athletes outside of this framework, the athlete should catch one handed and transfer in the middle of their body. Taking two hands on a bad feed can limit range and create poor throw positions by taking the athlete away from their target.
Make the Exceptional Play
On a final note, too much of infield instruction is monotonous. Ground balls are hit right at kids and two hands need to be used for everything. This is simply not how the game is played. While mastering the basics is crucial, athletes need to learn how to make the exceptional play. They need to be able to dive and snag a ball heading down the left field line. They need to be able to make the spin six up the middle as a shortstop. They need to be able to make that Jeter play deep in the hole and cut down the lead runner at second.
If you don’t give kids the freedom to play with athleticism and make a variety of plays, you’ll never be able to do them in games. Your practices will either free your kids to be themselves or constrain them into a mold driven by fear. Keep things fun and make the extraordinary play.