When we talk about blocking and our initial instruction of the skill, we can separate the reasoning for why this particular skill is so difficult into two different areas. The consistency of the mechanics used to block a pitch in the dirt and the ability to read the ball in the dirt versus one we need to receive. As we get older and start catching pitches with significantly more movement than we see at the younger levels, we need to fully understand the sequence of the block for every possible circumstance and situation.
Why it's different
In blocking a fastball with minimal movement, my goal needs to be to get to the ground as quickly as possible, while positioning my body in a way that keeps the ball as close to me as I can, preferably directly behind home plate. I am less concerned with the ball's direction after contact with the ground, because in most cases the ball will skip off the ground and follow the same directional course it was previously on. It's one of the biggest reasons we never need to, nor want to, gain ground on a fastball in the dirt. More often than not, I'll be late to the ground and will push the ball further away from me upon contact. A curveball, however, adds a couple variables to the equation. Spin and degree of downward movement. The rotation of that particular pitch can cause the ball to kick back in the opposite direction from where it came and the degree of downward movement is significantly steeper than that of a fastball and it will create a bounce upward after hitting the ground.
Look at this clip of Detroit Tigers' catcher Alex Avila on a Justin Verlander curveball. Avila attempts to get to the ground by replacing his feet with his knees. He lines up his hands with the ball and thus the middle of his body with his hands. Theoretically, he should be in a half-way decent position to make a good block on this ball. There is one problem, however. The ball does not skip straight into Avila. The downward direction of the ball forces a bounce and the spin of the ball forces it to carom off the left side of his chest protector instead of the direction it's momentum was carrying it prior to hitting the ground. The ball will almost always bounce in the opposite direction from where it's initial flight path may have suggested.
What's our new approach?
When blocking a curveball we need to cut down the distance between us and the ball before it makes contact with the ground and eventually our body. We also need to anticipate the direction of the bounce to position our body accordingly. In doing this, we minimize the chance that the ball will bounce over us or bounce off of the side of our chest protector when attempting the block. There are a few things we need to address before we attack the ball with our body.
One, we still need to lead the block with the fastest moving part of our body, our hands. This will continue to ensure that the middle of our body is lined up with the ball. Because we are cutting down the distance that the ball has an opportunity to travel, we've lessened the chance the ball will kick off to one side or another.
Secondly, we need to ensure that we follow our hands with our hips; not our knees. If only our knees follow our hands to the ground and as a result our hips sink back, it will force our chest to straighten up and give the ball an opportunity to kick off our body to the side. We need to keep the "roof" on top of the ball throughout the block to force the ball to the ground after it hits us. This will give us the ability to keep the ball close enough to make a play on it should a runner take off.
Lastly, we need to continue to realize that there is a reason we don't attack a fastball with our body like we will a curveball. We don't have time and the trajectory of the ball is significantly more predictable. Having said that, regardless of the pitch type, our chief concern should be getting to the ground in a proper blocking position as quick as we can. There is a drop in velocity from a fastball to a curveball, but it doesn't mean we have more time to read the pitch in the dirt. Because a block of a curveball takes more time with the aggressive move forward, we still need to recognize the pitch in the dirt early enough to get our body in the correct position to stop it. If we wait on an off-speed pitch, we will still be moving when the ball hits us, and that is never conducive to keeping a ball close to our body.
What does it look like when it's done right?
Below is a clip of Francisco Cervelli of the New York Yankees executing a very sound block of a left-handed curveball. His hips follow his hands, he gets around the ball to prepare for its eventual kick back off the ground and he keeps his upper-body over top of the ball throughout the entire block.
As we go through blocking drills it is important that we continue to build muscle memory for a proper block of each of the pitches we might see behind home plate. Because the approach to blocking curveballs differs from that of a fastball, we need to make sure we spend an ample amount of time on each, reinforcing the solid mechanics of this particular skill. I never want to fire a "fastball block" on a curveball and I certainly never want to send a "curveball block" on a fastball. So we need to do all that we can to build each blocking technique as a separate skill. Once we can get our body to react properly to each pitch-type in the dirt, the only thing left to do is make the correct read of the pitch and either receive or block it with the appropriate set of mechanics.
Note: Ladies, this blog entry absolutely pertains to you too. The mechanics of this block in softball are the same as those in baseball. Though, we may be talking more about a drop ball or a change-up than a curveball in your case. A curveball in the dirt in the fastpitch world is not going to come in along the same trajectory as a curveball in the game of baseball. Very different angle and flight path. Because of the underhand windmill and the fact that there is no elevated mound in softball, there isn't nearly as steep of a downward drop on a curveball. However, we still need to make sure that we cut the distance down on any pitch that will bounce upwards once it hits the ground.
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