Bunts

I explain to my students that the fielding of bunts requires the same skills that fielding a blocked ball does. When you master the skills you will be making yourself ready to make the play in either situation. The obvious difference in technique being you start from your crouch for bunts and you start from the ground for blocks. The proper fielding of a ball on the ground begins with the understanding of 3 main premises.

  1. I will never make a better, more accurate throw then one made when I am balanced, under control, and have my momentum going towards my target.
  2. I will approach the ball and get my feet set and my left hip towards the target before I pick up the ball.
  3. Until my front foot is set my hands never go below my knees.

Before discussing what I believe is a good way to field these balls I want to remind us of what happens when bad technique is used. I believe one of the main reasons for bad throws by catchers after fielding is that the catchers pick up the ball before being set up and aligned properly for the throw. Then, when they have picked up the ball the brain kicks into “throwing mode” and they make the throw regardless of how they are aligned to the target. Or maybe they try to align themselves as they are throwing. However it is done, the throw is usually off target, and an out is lost.

I break the skill into 2 distinct parts.

  • a. Approach and setup
  • b. Pick up and throw

A. Approach and set up

The basic concept here is that in the first part of the skill we are approaching the ball as quickly as we can, and getting ourselves set up over the ball aligned towards the target.

The first description will be for the bunt out in front of the plate.

We come out from behind the plate and take a route that follows a curved path to the ball. I tell the players that the path is a banana shaped route that starts out going to the left of home plate and curves back around to the right so we end up coming into the left side of the ball with our left hip towards 2nd.

As we approach the ball we set our back foot first, then set our left foot so we are positioned directly over the ball, our left hip towards the target. Our hands are out from our sides to keep them clear from our view, and to help keep them from going to the ball too soon.

We are over the ball, balanced and in control, our weight evenly distributed across the bottoms of our feet. As I said in my original premise only now that the front foot is set can my hands go down to the ball.

B. Pick up and Throw

At this time both of my hands head towards the ball. I “rake” the ball into the throwing hand using the glove and throwing hand.. At this time I begin to raise up, exchange the ball into throwing hand, hands and arms separate, and I make a strong, balanced, controlled throw to 2nd. Since my hips were already set towards the target as soon as I pick up the ball I can put all my effort into make a good strong throw, knowing I am properly aligned.

Whether a bunt or blocked ball, I use this technique when the ball is out in front of the plate. If the throw would be to first then I would adjust my approach to swing slightly wider so I come into the ball so my left hip is pointed towards 1st.

For a bunt right down the first baseline the technique has some variations. I’ll describe when the throw is to first base.

A. Approach and setup

When the bunt goes down the first base line we must still take a curved path to the ball when the play is at first. We again swing slightly wide again as we approach the ball. We set the right foot first then the left foot, with our hips pointed up the line to 1st.

B. Pickup and throw

Just as before we now bend down and rake the ball into our glove and come up with hands still together. We now have the problem of having the runner directly in our throwing path to first.

To compensate, we take a drop step backwards with our right foot. It is important that this foot go straight back, not up the line at all. The straighter back that step goes, the greater the throwing angle we will create for ourselves. If we make a slide step up the line so our right toe passes directly behind our left heel we will not get off the base line far, and will not create much of a throwing angle to first. At this point we are ready to make the throw. We begin by driving off the right leg towards 1st, hands separate at same time, and we make a strong throw to 1st.

Common mistake in this play is to use a slide step up the line instead of a drop step and not get enough of an angle to first base.

Signs

One of the most common skills that catchers are never taught much about is proper sign giving technique. What are supposed to be private conversations between a catcher and the pitcher are many times broadcasted for all to see. With a few subtle modifications in technique the process can be kept hidden from baseline coaches.

Here are a few guidelines.

  1. The sign giving position is the only receiving position where the catcher is up on the balls of his feet. When giving signs the catcher’s knees should never be more then 2-hands widths apart. Most young catchers have their knees spread way too far apart. Be sure that before the catcher gets down into his sign giving position the outside of his feet are no wider then his hips. As he lowers himself down his knees should stay pointed right at the pitcher, not flair wide open up the baselines.
  2. Many catchers do not have their right hand deep enough when they give the sign. Tell them the middle knuckle of the right thumb should rest against the inseam of their pants. Their thumb should then press back against their cup. This keeps it deep and behind their thigh.
  3. Their right forearm should rest comfortably on their upper thigh. Only their fingers should move. When a catcher is trying to signal location many do so by moving their entire hand against the inner thigh. A sharp coach will watch the catchers right elbow and will clearly see if the pitch is to be to the right or left. Direction should be signaled with fingers only. Fastball away to right handed batter should be: index finger down to signify fastball, then baby finger points to right inner thigh. No clue has been given that a 1 st base coach can see.
  4. This is one more area that a catcher needs to learn to be “quiet” No extra motion with the forearm that may give away the pitch or location.

Receiving

Don't Ever Teach Your Catchers to Frame a Pitch! 

People are surprised to see an article written by a catching coach with this title. I am actually not opposed to framing when done correctly. I avoid using the term when instructing my students due to the misinformation out there about what it actually is. I advocate using techniques that keep strikes looking like strikes. I see so many students come for instruction with the idea that “Framing” is a technique that will fool an umpire into thinking a pitch that is a ball is really a strike. I ask all new students what they believe framing does, and that is almost always their answer, regardless of the age of the catcher.

This technique is widely used and I believe actually contribute to close strikes being called as balls.

I will explain my position on “Framing” by explaining the 4 Laws of Good Receiving that I teach all my students.

I explain to my students that they need to go behind the plate with these 4 laws firmly imbedded in their technique to be the best receivers they can be.

Law #1 “The Catcher Must View Each Pitch Through the Umpire’s Eyes”

For a catcher to excel behind the plate he must view each pitch as the umpire sees it. I teach my students to have a 2nd view on the game in their minds eye. The first is of course the view of the whole field. The 2nd is the view that the umpire sees when he looks down toward home plate to make the call. He sees the back of the catcher as well as the ball, plate, and batter.

When a catcher develops this view of the game, he will realize how much he can affect the “look” the umpire gets at the pitch as it crosses the plate. He will understand how he can make a tight, good strike look like a pitch that is off the plate and not worthy of being called a strike.

A catcher needs to learn that there is a short period of time that while the umpire is tracking the ball with his eyes that the catcher is out of his direct line of sight. This occurs when the umpires has his eyes focused on the ball leaving the pitchers hands and continues tracking it until just in front of the plate. For that brief moment the catcher is below the umpire’s direct line of sight. It is during this short time that the catcher needs to get properly positioned to receive the pitch.

Law #2 “ It’s a Catcher’s Job to Keep Strikes Looking like Strikes"

This is where my teaching tends to go against the flow a little. I do not want to see my catchers catching a pitch that clearly is a ball and pulling, pushing, or somehow moving the glove to try and reposition the pitch at a spot they feel will get them a strike call. I don’t want them trying to “Make a ball look like a strike”. The best way to keep a strike looking like a strike is to never do anything that would make it look like a ball. The next 2 Laws discuss ways to accomplish that.

Law # 3 “Beat the Ball to The Spot”

My goal for my catchers is that their movements behind the plate when they receive are smooth, “quiet”, quick but not hurried.

They set the target with their glove in the middle of their body. The goal is to have adjusted their position so that their glove is in position to catch the ball before the ball gets there. They want their glove to “Beat the Ball to the Spot.”

This is accomplished as follows.

  • Their feet are turned up the lines.
  • Their heels are in contact with the ground as well as the balls of their feet.

This makes it easy for them to receive any pitch that catches even the edge of the plate by shifting their weight that direction. They still keep the glove in the middle of their body. They can avoid “reaching” for pitches using this technique. When shifting their weight toward the ball they are able to keep their shoulders level at all times. The look they present to the umpire is one of control, and one that says that this pitch is being caught on the catcher’s midline, it must be a strike.

Often times a catcher doesn’t shift his weight and reaches for the ball on the outside of the plate, even though it may be a close strike, by reaching at the last minute the message sent is that this pitch is not where the catcher wanted it and you may lose the strike call. Have the catcher get the glove to the contact point ahead of the ball. If a catchers glove shoots out and meets a fastball while both objects are moving the ball will usually win the battle and pull the glove off the plate.

This technique is done in addition to proper handling of the glove to assure that all parts of the glove are in the strike zone when the ball is caught.

Imagine a catcher catches a ball on the inside edge to a right-hander, and has his thumb in the 6-o'clock position when the ball hits it. To make that catch he will have to allow his left elbow to go to the left to get the glove in position. His elbow will now be nearly a foot left of the edge of the strike zone. Also, over half of the glove will be to the left of the strike zone. So even if the ball is cleanly a strike, all kinds of signals are being sent that this pitch is too far inside.

If the catcher makes a few subtle changes he will ensure that he isn’t doing anything to make this strike look like a ball.

First he sets up with his thumb set at 3-o'clock. This positions his elbow to bend down, not out to the left. He shifts his weight to the left, and positions his glove to catch the left half of the ball. His hand rotates slightly so his thumb is between 12 and 1 o'clock. The ball flies past the front edge of the glove and is caught in the back half of the pocket. The back edge of the glove is vertical, so no part of the glove is out of the strike zone. Since the elbow bent down, no part of the left arm is out of the strike zone. We have caught a close strike and did nothing to make it look like a ball.

Law#4 “The Glove Never Moves After the Ball Hits It”

One of the main techniques that many players think is part of good receiving is moving the glove after the ball hits it to a spot that will more likely get them the strike call. I have always felt that most of the technique is insulting to the umpire. He can hear the ball hit the glove, so what’s the point to drag or pull the ball somewhere it wasn’t. I teach that if the technique I have described above is employed then you will maximize your strike calls and build a better relationship with the umpire by not trying to move a pitch after it hits the glove.

In Conclusion: I don’t teach framing. I teach good sound receiving. Just be concerned with keeping strikes looking like strikes and you will succeed as a catcher.

Blocks

blocking

I am often asked how we are able to get players as young as 8 yrs old to block balls in the dirt so successfully. I believe that much of it is that we teach blocking as a progression of learned skills.

First two premises that we share with players.

  1. The purpose of blocking is NOT to catch the ball with their glove. While some balls may very well go directly into their gloves their goal should be to use the glove to block the ball from going between their legs. Any balls that would be higher then that should be allowed to hit them and be blocked to the ground.
  2. The technique we teach first is for fastballs or any pitch thrown that travels relatively straight back after hitting the ground. This block involves technique that keeps the block very deep in the catcher’s box instead of blocking forward. We want to block in a way that draws the energy out of a pitch and causes it to drop directly in front of the catcher, rather then blocking forward into a pitch and adding energy to the ball. This will cause it to bounce much farther away from the catcher.

We begin the instruction by teaching the correct blocking position first.

We will teach how to get into this position after we are sure the player knows what position he is trying to end up in after he executes the block.

We draw a line on the ground. Or already having a line taped on the floor. We have the player get down on their knees, knees up to the line and get into the blocking position. They spread their knees apart so the glove can be set between their knees, pocket facing the pitcher. The throwing hand is behind the glove being protected. I like the throwing hand in a fist with the thumb inside the fist. The glove and throwing hand should be pulled back as deep between the legs as possible. The tip of the glove should just be touching the ground. Do not squash the glove into the ground.

It is at this point I really stress that the glove must stay between the legs and is no longer used to catch the ball.

The legs are positioned in such a way the player is sitting on their calves. Their feet should be almost touching behind them. This will keep any ball the does manage to get between the legs from going on through. Many players position their calves outside their legs and sit down between their legs. This has their legs in what I call the “W” sit position. While this position allows the legs to be wider and cover more ground it is much slower to get up from and traps the player on the ground.

The upper body is leaning so the chin is out over the glove and knees. The back is rounded. Their arms have an elbow bend that makes the arms flare out to the side. Many players keep their arms straight when they block. This causes much more wear and tear on the forearms then necessary. With the arms flared the chest protector will take more of the hits. The chin is down, but the eyes are up to watch the ball.

We then teach what to do when the ball hits them.

When the ball hits a few things all happen at once. We exhale hard, suck in the abs, and roll the shoulders in. All of these are designed to further cushion the impact and pull the energy out of the pitch. Our goal is to have the ball stay between us and the back of the plate. Once the player is able to get up and down and return to this position we begin the drills.

The first drill is a No-Flinch drill.

In this drill the player assumes the blocking position but looks up and straight at the coach who is kneeling 3-4ft in front of them. The coach then throws balls directly at the facemask of the player. The player must take the hit without any flinching other then eye blink. For players who turn their heads or flinch backwards this drill should be a regular event until they have learned to relax and take the hit without flinching.

The next drill is called Sit-n-Hit.

In this drill the player assumes the blocking position and the coach get 8-10 feet in front of them and throws balls directly at the ground in front of them. Varying the impact point to have some hit low on the catcher and some to bounce hi and hit the chest protector. Again we are using this drill to get the player used to getting hit and not flinching.

Many of the poor blocks I see are a result of the player blending correct blocking movements with ill-timed survival flinches. Get rid of the flinches and the effectiveness of the blocks improve.

Next we teach how to get from our receiving position to this blocking position.

We have the player get in their receiving position with runners on base, their toes on the line on the ground. The move to the ground is explosive. The first thing that moves is the throwing hand then the glove. The throwing hand moves downward and back first to ensure that it will end up behind the glove. The glove follows right after. I have a number of pictures where the glove is on the ground blocking the opening between the legs and the knees haven’t hit the ground yet.

Right after the hands move the legs will also move. I teach a method where the player will have their knees replace their feet. Their feet will explode backwards and come together behind them. Their knees will end up right on the line where their toes were. Remember our goal is to not add energy to the ball. This is why we block deep, staying back. If we fall forward onto our knees we will be adding energy to the ball when it hits us and cause a longer bounce away from us.

I have the player’s practice this block with me throwing an invisible ball to them.

After they make the block they need to hold their position and make any corrections to their position needed. They do not get up until the position is correct. Then they get back up into their receiving position and repeat. I never begin using real balls until they are correctly executing the blocking maneuver correctly.

Once they can do this correctly I begin to throw real balls at them.

I slowly get them used to taking the hit, and more importantly NOT trying to catch the ball.

Once this skill is correct I begin to work up with the pitches coming in faster

The next step is to begin working on blocks to the side. Since they are set up with their toes pointed up the lines it is very easy for them to block to either side by shifting weight over that foot, but the order that their hands and knees hit the ground is of the utmost importance.

I teach a three-step approach where we ask the student to get into their runner's-on stance. I then ask the catcher to send their hands to the ground behind the ball that is placed off to the side of their body on the ground, noting that only the tip of the glove will actually touch the ground, with the throwing hand resting safely in a fist behind the glove right next to the glove hand.

The next movement is to allow the "inside knee" (if we block left our right knee is our "inside knee") to drop to the ground along the same line that the feet started on. This is to make sure that the body doesn't move up into the batter or risk pushing the ball away from our body. Our chest must remain square to our pitcher through this step in the block, otherwise we are turning our hips and chest away from the ball and towards foul territory. Since we are attempting to control the ball, funneling it back towards the infield, this is something we want to avoid. By keeping our chest square as we drop the "inside knee", this allows us to get turned simply by completing the third step of the block by driving the "outside knee" forward. This will turn our body and allow us to direct the ball back to the middle of the field where we can retrieve the ball and possibly make a play.

If the "outside knee" drops first - we call this dropping anchor - we are unable to make adjustments on our way to the ground and our chest is most likely going to be pointed into foul territory.

The key is to have each of these three movements overlap, one movement leaking into the next, so that this skill is completed smoothly but quickly.

This is an explanation for the kids that are just learning to block as well as for older players that are not blocking effectively. Regardless of the age or skill level of the player I put all players through the same progression to ensure that all the basic skills are adopted. .

Blocking Is The Easy Part

It is common knowledge among youth baseball and softball coaches that the one play most responsible for scoring runs is not the blast over the fence or the shot in the gap; it’s the passed ball. As coaches we often find ourselves asking why is it so difficult for our young catchers to keep the ball in front of them. Why do so many balls get by and allow runners to advance and ultimately score?

To understand the problem lets divide passed balls into 2 groups. The first group is those wild pitches that are so far over a catcher’s head, or thrown so far to their sides that even skilled catchers are unable stop them. These types of pitches will diminish as the pitchers get older and become more skilled. If the pitcher does not get more accurate as he/she ages he/she will no longer be selected to pitch, and the wild-pitch problem goes away by itself.

The second group is the group that causes the most problems for youth coaches. These are pitches in the dirt within the catcher’s reach just to their left or right, or even worse, right between their legs. Why can’t the catchers stop them? Why can’t the catchers block them? From our point of view sitting in the dugout it sure seems obvious that the ball is going in the dirt. Why is it these young catchers can’t see where the ball is going and make the proper play? Is blocking the ball really that difficult? Well my answer may surprise you. After more than 15 years of working with catchers I have come to the conclusion that blocking is really the easy part. If you have my DVD and have applied the blocking techniques suggested you could attest to the fact that nine-year-old catchers can be taught to block as well as high school starting catchers. That’s right, blocking the ball is the easy part!!

Well then, why all the pass balls? Why all the scored runs, if blocking the ball is the easy part? For years I have seen catchers as young as seven years old perfectly execute a block in a drill environment with me tossing balls at game speed. The problem is not whether they know how to block or not block, the problem is they do not know when to block. Read that again. The problem is not whether they know how to block or not block, the problem is they do not know when to block.

Their skill deficiency is not blocking but something much more difficult to learn. It’s a skill that can take years behind the plate for a catcher to develop. The skill? Pitch recognition.

So we ask, what can be so hard about recognizing that a pitch needs to be blocked? We as coaches can clearly see from the dugout that a pitch is going in the dirt, but we see the pitch from the dugout, from the side, not from the most difficult angle, the catcher’s view. Recognizing the trajectory of a ball going into the dirt through the catcher’s eyes is much more difficult. Most often by the time the catcher recognizes a ball is going in the dirt it is too late for them to block the ball and the only reaction that remains is to stand up and run to the backstop to retrieve it.

The Math

If pitch recognition is the problem, just how much time does a catcher have to recognize the ball is on a flight path that will require him/her her to block it? Here is some simple math to ponder.

For youth baseball I will use 45 feet as a common home to mound distance. If we assume the pitcher actually releases the ball four feet in front of the mound then the actual distance the ball is thrown is 41 feet. Conversely, since the catcher sets up approximately four feet behind the plate the actual travel distance to the catcher is back to 45 feet.

Using 50-MPH as a reasonable speed for twelve-years-old and under we find that speed over that distance equates to 73 feet per second. So a ball traveling from the pitcher’s release point to the catcher’s glove 45 feet away will take approximately .6 seconds. Yes six whole tenths of a second to find the ball after release, get a fix on its flight path, make the decision to block, and then to muster the technical expertise to actually block the ball properly!

For the girl’s game the numbers are similar; a 45-MPH pitch thrown from 40 feet away travels at 58 feet per second. So from release point to the catcher’s glove 40 feet away the time to react is also .6 seconds.

The point of the math lesson is to help coaches realize just how little time these 12 and under catchers have to figure out they need to block the ball, let alone actually execute proper blocking techniques. Remember this math the next time you yell at a catcher for not getting down to a ball in the dirt fast enough.

Receiving Stance

Before I explain how to train catchers in pitch recognition let me share something else that significantly handicaps most youth catchers when they try to block. I find that a key reason why players struggle to get to the ground quickly and block balls properly is improper receiving stance.

Catchers must be in a stance that allows their first move to be down, rather than up when they begin to execute the block. The easiest way to accomplish this is to insure that their feet are far enough apart so their heel are in contact with the ground, toes are pointed up the baselines and their thighs are parallel to the ground. If they are in a deep crouch, like they should be with no runners on, then their hips will have to go up before they can begin to move towards the ground. A deep crouch will only add to the amount of time it takes to block a ball by making the athlete travel upward before they are able to drive to the ground.

Pitch Recognition Training Process

First and foremost realize that this is a process, a process that will take time. It may take hundreds if not thousands of pitches to reach a consistent level of performance. Coaches must realize that a ten-year-old who can learn the mechanics of blocking in few short lessons may take three or more seasons before he/she is proficient in consistently reading pitches.

  • When beginning this drill have the catcher get in their runners on base stance.
  • Remind them they need to block all balls in the dirt and receive properly all pitches that do not require blocking.
  • Inform them the situation is bottom of the last inning, you are up by one run and the tying run is on third.
  • Position yourself half the normal distance between home and the mound. This allows the coach to throw the ball more accurately each time.
  • Throw the first two pitches at least one foot over the catcher’s head. They will obviously not try to block these two pitches.
  • Throw the next two pitches in the dirt three feet before the plate. The catcher should immediately recognize these balls are in the dirt and immediately move to block.
  • Mix the next few pitches so they are thrown very high, and very low. Observe if the catcher successfully identifies and reacts properly to each pitch. During this particular part of the drill sequence what is most important is the catcher’s reaction. We are looking to see if the catcher CLEARLY demonstrates the ability to read the pitch location and responded accordingly. It is less important if the block is technically correct.
  • Once the catcher masters the above move the pitches such that high pitches are lower and more in the catcher’s range, and the low pitches bounce closer to the catcher. See if he/she begins to balk and gets caught in that nasty place between blocking and receiving.
  • You may find that the catcher will start to read the low pitches incorrectly as soon as the ball hits the ground just past the back point of the plate.
  • As you begin to throw more pitches that are in the strike zone you will begin to see the hesitation appear as the catcher is struggling to read the pitches destination. When you throw a pitch at the knees you may find the catcher actually drops to block and gets hit in the mask. Likewise a pitch low and away that clearly should be blocked you may see them jab their glove out at it at the last second and try to catch it. The goal is to find that upper and lower limit when he/she seems to start having trouble reading whether to block or receive and drill in thatrange.
  • When you see their proficiency growing increasethe velocity in small increments to keep them challenged.

For catchers twelve and under, a good benchmark in a game situation is having your catcher read the pitch correctly to block 50% of the time when the ball is going into the dirt, and then execute proper blocking techniques 10% of the time. In the beginning be satisfied that they were able to correctly determine where the pitch was headed and began to execute the correct skill. The ball will still get by them since they are still using too much of the .6 of a second to read the pitch, not allowing enough time to actually execute the block.

Blocking the "Out-Pitch"

After an afternoon of watching playoff baseball -- Go Phillies! -- I figured this would be a great time to add the first catching-related post to our blog. Obviously, if we are talking about the ability to block the "out-pitch", we must assume the pitcher actually has an "out-pitch" and that likely reserves this blog entry to coaches of catchers who are at least over the age of 14. This doesn't mean this blog cannot be entertaining and a valuable source of information for everyone else, so please keep reading. I will stay away from breaking down the block itself. This instruction is available all over our website. This will reflect more on the importance of the skill.

One of the most important things we try to stress to our students is that the ability to recognize a ball in the dirt and execute the proper block is as valuable a skill as there is in the game of baseball or softball. Sure the ability to hit a home run every 8.9 at-bats is great, but a sound defensive skill-set can carry a team through the eventual rough patches that all young, or old for that matter, pitchers will run into.

As I was watching Brad Lidge close out the victory for my beloved Philadelphia Phillies, something stood out to me. Lidge's ability to throw his slider for strikes was a huge weapon. Let's face it, at 86 mph, any pitch diving 8 inches back into the bottom of the strike zone right before the plate is bound to have a positive result. But an even bigger attribute was his ability to bury it a foot in front of home plate and not worry about whether the runner on third base is coming home.

Many who know me, know of my affinity for the Phillies, but a lot of you may not know about my apprehension about putting Carlos Ruiz behind the plate on a regular basis last season. I think his receiving ability has improved, but in my opinion is still questionable, and his throw to second could be so much quicker if he would just keep himself on the ground through the throw....but I digress. One thing he does very well is block anything in the dirt, especially the 86 mph slider that comes up a foot short.

Coaches do me a favor and picture this...bottom of the 6th, 7th, 9th -- whatever the final inning would be for the age level you are coaching -- 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd, a hitter who knows how to handle a bat is the go-ahead run at the plate -- now I want all of you to picture the look on your pitcher's face when you tell them to throw the ball a foot in front of home plate. Better yet, look at the face of your catcher when you tell your pitcher he's not to even touch the bottom of the strikezone with this pitch. Don't worry, I promise you, their eyes aren't actually going to pop out of their head.

Truth be told, if you are dealing with kids under the age of 16, this can be a chore, and may not exactly be a situation you look forward to as a coach. If you are one of the "lucky ones" and have a catcher who can be relied on to keep every out-pitch headed for the dirt in the general vicinity of home plate, congratulations. For this very reason you have probably stayed competitive for most of the season. However, if you are of the majority, then welcome to the club.

In order to understand our goal regarding the "out-pitch" we must first understand what we are referring to. We are talking about that off-speed pitch that should be killing worms. The pitch that looks like it has a shot to end up in the strikezone, but the laws of this universe will just not allow it to. The hitter has less time to figure out whether or not to swing than the catcher has to figure out whether to block. This is why these pitches can be effective if you have a catcher who can block. Keep in mind that this pitch does not have to be used to strike out a batter, just get a strike when it is desperately needed.

One of the most powerful tools a pitcher has is the ability to throw any one of his pitches in a spot where the hitter has no chance to put it in play and still have the ability to get them to swing (Think Jonathan Papelbon 96 mph fastball at the letters, a 94 mph Mariano Rivera cutter two inches off the inside part of home plate  or a Jennie Finch drop-pitch that just drops off the table). But the ability to throw a pitch in the dirt (a place where only Ichiro has historically been able to make consistent contact) and not worry about that pitch costing your team a run, is by far the ultimate "out-pitch." However, the only way that pitch is effective is if your pitcher has the confidence to throw it there, knowing their catcher will keep it in front...somehow, someway.

Back to the NLDS game between the Phillies and Brewers....bottom of the 9th, 2 outs, runners on 2nd and 3rd and Corey Hart (20 HRs in 2008) up to the plate. Lidge was able to get ahead of a Hart without risking the ball being put in play because he had confidence in Carlos Ruiz to block whatever pitch he bounced to the plate. Now back to that slider that dives 8 inches back down to the bottom of the strikezone. Strike Three! Game Over!

Thanks for reading, feel free to e-mail me with any comments at Jay at catchingcamp.com.

From behind the mask,

Passed Balls

It is certain that no matter how good a catcher is, balls will get past him and roll to the backstop. You can call them wild pitches or passed balls, but it doesn't make any difference at the time of the play. The important thing is that the catcher knows how to make the play correctly and how to minimize the damage. There are two different game scenarios for a passed ball situation: (1) a lone runner on first or second, and (2) a runner on 3rd base. Both use the same technique for going to the ball. The difference is in what the catcher does as he approaches the ball.

The Approach

Right handed throwing catchers should always turn to their left as they head back to the ball as shown in the below illustration. This means that the catcher will approach the ball from the right side regardless of where the ball is located.

Picking up the ball correctly is very important. Failure to do so may result in high throws to a fielder. A catcher should NOT just bend over, grab the ball, and throw it to make a play at second or third base, all in one motion. This often results in a high throw because the catcher bent over and then stood up straight as he was turning back to the field. All of his weight was on his back leg and his release point never moves forward as it should.

passballs

Getting The Ball

As the catcher gets close to the ball , he should drop to his knees and slide to the ball. The catcher is now in a better position to make a throw to the plate or a base and this technique permits him to attack more aggressively especially if the ball is up against the backstop. A catcher's shinguards and chest protector will take the impact if there is one rather than his body. It also lets the catcher approach the ball without slowing up as he nears the backstop, which save precious seconds.

A Runner On First or Second Base.

Because this situation will seldom result in a play at home, the catcher should concentrate on the lone runner. As he gets to the ball he should rake it into his throwing hand with his glove and NOT grasp it with the glove. The catcher will then popup into his throwing ready position and quickly determine if there is a play to be made. If so, then the catcher should make his regular throw to second or third base in order to nab the runner.

A Runner On Third Base.

As the catcher gets to the ball he should rake it into his throwing hand with his glove and NOT grasp it with the glove. Instead of poppping-up, the catcher remains on his right knee and lifts his left leg up so that his left foot is flat to the ground with his thigh parallel to the ground. The catcher then makes a hard crisp throw to the pitcher's glove. It is important that the catcher throw to the GLOVE even if the pitcher has his glove too high for a good tag. Too often a catcher will make the hard throw (from twenty feet away) to where the tag should be made and the ball just sails past the pitcher's knees because he cannot react quickly enough to the throw. It is far better to hit a chest high glove and miss the tag than let an errant ball travel through the infield. Practice between catchers and pitchers with both getting into the proper position (catcher on his right knee and the pitcher down low with his glove 18" off the plate) will greatly reduce errors and increase tags at home on passed balls and wild pitches.

Pre-Game Routine.

Catchers should have a pre-game routine, especially on away games. They should practice sliding in a few locations behind the plate and up against the backstop. They should walk along the grass or dirt line along the backstop looking for debris or things like sprinkler heads. They should search for anything that will interfere with their game play. This also means looking at the bottom of the fence for holes and poorly maintained fencing that may pose a danger to them. A few moments spent in pre-game assessing the territory (sliding around and examining) will make a big difference during the game.

Throw to 2nd

Proper Stance:

  1. Secondary receiving position (runners on base) has feet slightly wider then primary (no runners on).
  2. Heals are on the ground, toes pointed up the lines
  3. Throwing hand is behind glove.
    1. Proper position for throwing hand is as follows. Player extends hand as if to offer handshake. Drop thumb to palm, wrap fingers around to protect thumb. Then the hand is placed behind glove with the middle finger knuckles touching glove.
  4. Catcher has come up in crouch so thighs are parallel to ground. This is approx. Goal is to get out of deep crouch and “unlock hips’ to allow for a quick explosive move towards second. Staying in deep crouch requires first move to be “up” and that will waste time.

Throwing mechanics:

A lot of things here are all happening together. I will start with describing the footwork I teach and then the glove and arm motion separately. This footwork would be for a 0-2 count where catcher will hold strike.

One of the things that happens early in the mechanics is a very subtle weight shift. When just receiving pitches I instruct catchers to have weight spread with 60% on heals, 40% on balls of feet. As soon as they are aware the runner is moving that shifts to 60-40 the other way. This will only happen after MUCH practice and will have to become almost an unconscious shift.

The footwork begins with the catcher beginning to rise up out of the crouch. Since they are slightly pitched forward this movement is up-and-out-toward second. The first foot to move is the right foot. It slides straight across towards the left foot. It is planted at a spot that would be ½ way between where it was and where the right foot is. DO NOT have the right foot replace the left. This is taught, but creates way too much momentum in the wrong direction. The goal here is to get turned so the left hip is pointed towards second as fast as possible.

The left foot follows quickly after the right. The target for the left foot is to land basically directly in front of the right foot. This will put the body in a straight alignment to 2 nd. We want this foot as close to the midline as possible. However we do not want this foot to cross the midline. Ideally this foot should touch the midline and be pointed at 2:oclock.

With the slight lean forward at the beginning and a strong push off the back leg we should avoid the problem of having all weight sitting on the back leg that results in throws totally dependent on arm strength and throws that often tend to go high and right.

Now the upper half of the body.

The exchange of the ball from glove to hand is a big time eater for many players.

Once the ball makes contact with the glove the first move the player makes is to turn the glove so the pocket is now facing them. They grab the ball and the throwing hand immediately begins its path back through the throwing slot. The back of the throwing hand leads the hand back. Do not lead with the elbow. The glove stays out in front of the player. It does not travel back toward the throwing shoulder after the ball is removed.

Many kids are taught to draw the glove back with the ball and remove the ball when the glove is back to the right ear. I believe that technique causes 2 problems that need to be eliminated.

  • By drawing the glove back to the ear you cause the front (left) shoulders to close off the front side. Some girls rotate that shoulder so far that their left shoulder is pointed towards the 1 st base dugout. Obviously this causes alignment problems that almost surely will result in a erratic throw.
  • The 2 nd problem this causes is the sideways movement that will be created by the glove side arm when the throw is executed. As we throw, the glove side arm should be driving down to the left side to help pull the right side forward to get the release point out in front. With the glove back so deep on the right side of the catchers face, the first moves that arm will make is a radical sideways motion just to get back on the left side of the body. Then, and only then can that left elbow bend and the left arm drive down where it belongs. All of this sideways torque is counter productive to a throw that’s should be headed toward 2 nd base.

From this point the left elbow moves up to a point where the elbow is bent at a 90-degree and the left elbow is pointed directly at 2 nd. I tell the catchers to use this elbow as their sight. The upper arm should be shoulder height. Level to the ground. Glove hand is allowed to bend down at wrist in relaxed position.

When the ball was removed it began its path back the throwing slot. The grip we are working for here is a 4-seam. With practice a player can come out of the glove with a 4-seam grip nearly ever time. The biggest issue from this point is that the entire throwing arm, shoulder, elbow, hand and ball NEVER go any lower then when they remove the ball from the glove. As soon as the arm starts back it should begin to track in an upward direction, the back of the hand leading the arm back. Our “target” is to end up with our right elbow shoulder high with the upper arm parallel to the ground. Yes, just like the glove side arm. The elbow should be at a 90-degree angle up. The ball should face the backstop, hand slightly on top of the ball. If the ball is not all the way facing the back stop the impending rotation of the hips and arm will almost always create a wrist roll. This will result in a throw that will act like a curve ball and tail away to the left.

At this point the actual throw begins with a simultaneous rotation of the right side. I tell my students that the pinky on your right hand starts the throw. As it rotates the elbow, shoulder, hip, knee and right foot all rotate towards 2 nd. At the same time the left elbow begins to drive the left arm down and back towards the left hip. This driving helps “pull” the right side through the throw and moves the release point out in front of the body. It is important to keep the head up and looking at target all the way through. Too often the head follows the left shoulder and drops the left side down. This will almost always result in a high to the left throw. After the release the right foot and leg are allowed to release from the ground to release the remaining energy that is stored on the right side.

Throw to 3rd

I need to start with a few premises on stanceso the analysis makes sense down the road.

Stance

  1. Secondary receiving position (runners on base) has feet slightly wider then primary (no runners on).
  2. Heels touch the ground, toes pointed up the lines
  3. Throwing hand is behind glove.
    1. Proper position for throwing hand is as follows. Player extends hand as if to offer handshake. Drop thumb to palm, wrap fingers around to protect thumb. Then the hand is placed behind glove with the middle finger knuckles touching glove.
  4. Catcher has come up in crouch so thighs are parallel to ground. This is approx. Goal is to get out of deep crouch and “unlock hips’ to allow for a quick explosive move towards second. Staying in deep crouch requires first move to be “up” and that will waste time.

Throwing mechanics

For this analysis we will assume the batter is right handed.

The purpose of this footwork is to accomplish 2 things.

  1. Get us clear of the batter so we have an unobstructed throw to 3rd.
  2. Set us up so our momentum will be directed towards 3rd base when we throw, not towards the 3rd base dugout.

I teach a technique that has the catcher moving behind the batter to get a clear lane to throw to third. The biggest problem I have with many students is they have too much momentum going to their left created as they clear the batter. They are never able to get their momentum turned and powerfully drive towards 3rd. This is caused by a toe-to-heel slide step to the left with their right foot. The player slides their right foot to the left and just behind their left heel to slide behind the batter. When they then try to redirect their momentum towards third they have generated too much lateral motion and cannot get their left hip turned back towards third to begin the throwing motion. This will usually result in throws that are on the foul territory side of third.

The correction for this is a simple change in the angle the right foot takes to clear behind the runner. I have the players take a deeper drop step back-and-towards third. The angle of this drop step is very close to the angle of the back side of the plate. You follow the same line created by the back right edge of the plate (The edge that comes to the point in the back).

The right foot is dropped back and stays in the same alignment that it was when catcher was in his receiving position. To clear most batters this foot must be slid behind and past the left heel.

At this point the hips turn and the left foot steps and drives towards third.

Mechanics for the upper half of the body.

Once the ball makes contact with the glove the first move the player makes is to turn the glove so the pocket is now facing them. They grasp the ball and the throwing hand immediately begins its path back through the throwing slot. The glove stays out in front of the player. It does not travel back toward the throwing shoulder after the ball is removed. The glove stays out front. The glove elbow stays bent and is drawn back toward the left side in the same angle as the right foot. They travel parallel paths. This will put the left elbow and the glove right over the left hip ready to pull down when the right side turns and begins the throw.

At this point the left elbow is up at point where the elbow is bent at a 90-degree.The upper arm should be shoulder height. Level to the ground. Glove hand is allowed to bend down at wrist in relaxed position.

When the ball was removed it began its path back the throwing slot. The grip we are working for here is a 4-seam. With practice a player can come out of the glove with a 4-seam grip nearly ever time. The biggest issue from this point is this. The entire throwing arm, shoulder, elbow, hand and ball NEVER go any lower then when they remove the ball from the glove. As soon as the arm starts back it should begin to track in an upward direction, the back of the throwing hand leading the arm.

Our “target” is to end up with our right elbow shoulder high with the upper arm parallel to the ground. Yes, just like the glove side arm. The elbow should be at a 90-degree angle up. The ball should face away from the catcher, hand slightly on top of the ball. If the ball is not all the way facing away the impending rotation of the hips and arm will almost always create a wrist roll that will result in a throw that will act like a curve ball and tail away to the left.

At this point the actual throw begins with a simultaneous rotation of the right side and the stepping and driving towards 3rd with the left foot and leg. I tell my students that the rotation of your right hand starts the throw. As it rotates the elbow, shoulder, hip, knee and right foot all rotate towards 3rd. At the same time the left elbow begins to drive the left arm down and back towards the left hip. This driving helps “pull” the right side through the throw and moves the release point out in front of the body. It is important to keep the head up and looking at target all the way through. Too often the head follows the left shoulder and drops the left side down. This will almost always result in a high to the left throw. After the release the right foot and leg are allowed to release from the ground to release the remaining energy that is stored on the right side.

Timing Release

A catcher's throw down to second base to nab a potential base stealer is in essence a 3-part skill that can be evaluated for strengths and weaknesses and improved. The three components are: (1) Ball Control and Release Efficiency, (2) In-flight Velocity, and (3) Accuracy. On average a catcher's success rate is just 25% and, at best, around 50%. Each of the three components of the throw contribute to the success or failure. Without evaluating each part and just practicing the throw, success will only increase slightly. The following is the three part evaluation process, presented in reverse order. Accuracy is the easiest to evaluate and most observable component, irrespective of the other two parts. Rating a catcher on this portion is just a matter of noting whether or not the ball arrives at the 9"x18" target some 127 feet away. Practice usually results in improvement unless the throwing mechanics are completely wrong. A simple observation of the act of throwing will tell you if the catcher is doing it right or wrong.

In-Flight Velocity.Once I get the players arm warmed up to game readiness, I have him make 6 throws from a crow hop. He can use whatever mechanics he likes to generate the maximum velocity he can. I time that on the Jugs gun. I get 6 readings; I throw out the fastest, and the slowest, and average the other 4. This gives me an average max velocity. I then have him get into his crouch. I throw him pitches down the middle and have him throw down full speed. I again have him do this 6 times and use the same method to determine his average maximum throw down velocity. After timing over 500 catchers this way I have found that a drop in velocity of less then 3% from max velocity to throw down velocity is the goal. More of a drop then that and there is something in that player's mechanics of his throw to second base that is excessively “eating” velocity. At that point a close evaluation of those mechanics is needed.

Velocity is all over the map for me when I look at the database of kids I have timed. If I look at the High School Max-velocity kids as a group the low side is in the low 60’s. Good for HS would be low-mid 70’s, excellent would be 78-82. In the College group the low side is 70-74, good would fall in 75-79, excellent would be 80-84, 85+ would be a serious prospect as far as velocity goes.

Ball Control & Release Efficiency. To evaluate this component I use the following technique. I position the player in front of the black Jugs tarp that hangs behind home plate in our batting cage. I measure out 10 feet and draw a line. It must always be 10 feet. The player puts his toes on the line facing the black screen. The coach kneels in front of the catcher, slightly off center. The player gets into his secondary receiving position. The coach throws the “pitch”. Player completes a full speed throw into the screen. The stopwatch is started when the ball hits glove and stopped when the ball hits the screen. The player must sit on the strike and not move until the ball hits his glove as if it were an 0-2 count late in the game. Because the catcher is releasing the ball about 5 feet in front of the screen, arm strength has little to do with the time recorded on the stopwatch. The drill gives an accurate measurement of how fast the athlete gets it in the air. You can also have the catcher throw directly into the fence backstop, but I find the tarp makes a more precise sound when hit, making it easier to ensure a good clocking.

Ave release times for High School players would be under .85 down to .78, good would be .78 down to .70, and excellent would be .69 down to .65. Below .65 is very fast for HS. For the College players in my database the average release times would be under .78 down to .70, good would be .70 down to .65, and excellent would be .65 down to .59. Below .59 is really moving. Fastest release I have ever timed at any age is a 14yr old that throws in the .49-.52 range. He is just amazing.

While some critics of the evaluation process mention that it does not incorporate all the variables of a game situation, it does give a good base for comparison between any groups of players. Using these measurement techniques allows me to break the throw down into its 3 different phases and better be able to attack the area of greatest weakness in any given player.

I have a number of college players that have guns for arms, velocities out of crouch 85MPH+ but have slower releases then a number of high school kids. The above evaluation technique has enabled me to isolate what section of their throw is the weakest and look for the flaws that are eating time. Likewise I have some players that have lightning fast releases but 65MPH velocity. Again it helps me direct their training efforts in the area of greatest weakness.

Force at Home

I have been asked many times what is the best way for a catcher to make the force play at the plate when bases are loaded and the ball is hit to an infielder. This play should be the front end of a double play. The out at first is often lost due to a late throw by the catcher. To follow is the techniques that I teach and think is the fastest way to get the out at the plate and get the ball to first for the second out.

First:

Here is what most of the kids are taught that come to me for instruction.

They step in front of the plate and set up as if they were a 1st baseman. They then stretch for the throw, and then have to reset the feet to make a throw to 1st for the DP.

Problems with this are:

It requires a pretty good look down to properly get your foot on the corner of the base to avoid getting run over by the person coming home if the throw is late.

  1. Presents a high risk of appearing that you were pulled off by an errant throw.
  2. If the throw is off target and you do get pulled off pretty tough to look behind you to find the plate to even get the lead runner.

So......here's what I teach:

Once ball is hit catcher sets up about one foot BEHIND home plate. They are positioned such that if they moved one foot forward they would be straddling the plate. They get their hips and feet set square to the fielder that is making the throw.

They get into a low ready position with their glove up at chest height. If the ball was handled properly by the infielder they make the play as follows:

As the ball approaches they step directly at the ball with the glove side foot. This step should carry them OVER home plate. This foot never touches the plate. Then as the ball is making contact with their glove they are sliding their back foot forward and dragging it across home plate. Then continuing toward 1st they make a cross step to begin their throw to first without any breaks in the movement. If done properly it will look like a middle infielder turning a DP at 2nd.

If the ball was NOT handled properly by the infielder, so their throw may be arriving very close to the same time the runner does, I suggest that they move in front of the plate and assume a 1 st baseman’s stretch position. Get the out at the plate for sure.

I prefer this to the previous technique because:

  1. By staying behind plate till ball is in the air, if the throw is off mark catcher will still be able to see where home plate is and if necessary just make catch and touch home for the 1 out.
  2. This technique creates a faster release since the tag on the plate is done “on the way” to making the throw to first. All one fluid motion.

Do softball pitchers out-pitch your catchers?

As I have observed the game of fast pitch softball for women the past 10 years I have seen an interesting situation develop. There has been an extraordinary emphasis on pitching instruction around the country. The skills I used to see in only the best high school senior pitchers years ago are now being executed by girls as young as 12 and 13.

The 55mph barrier is being broken by younger and younger girls each year and the amount of movement on their pitchers that these young pitchers can achieve is startling.

All this leads me to the question: Do your pitchers out-pitch your catchers? Has the increase in skill of your pitchers out paced the skill of your catchers? Do your pitchers have pitches they can throw for strikes that your catchers have no chance of keeping a strike or maybe even just plain catching?

I see so many talented 12U and 14U pitchers lately getting frustrated because the catchers they throw to cannot begin to handle what they throw. Take a look at some interesting math for a moment and see how challenging it has become to be a 12U or 14U catcher.

It is not uncommon to see a second year 12U pitcher throw 50mph. At that speed the young catcher, maybe an 11 year old, will see a pitch leave her pitchers hand and hit her glove in just .55 of a second. That’s right, just a hair over ½ of a second. I hear so many coaches that are frustrated that their 12U catchers have trouble handling that velocity. To put that in perspective however lets look at how advanced we need these young ladies to be compared to their baseball counterparts.

On the 90 foot baseball diamond the distance from the pitchers mound to the plate is approx 60ft. The velocity needed to travel that distance in .55 is 75mph. Most baseball catchers will not have to catch that velocity, or deal with that limited reaction time till most are 15-16 yrs old at the earliest. We expect 11 & 12 yr old girls to do it with limited training.

A pitch of 55mph by a fast pitch pitcher arrives at the catcher in .50 or ½ second. Again the baseball equivalent velocity to achieve that reaction time is 82mph. Many high school varsity baseball pitchers will never see that speed in their high school career or have to deal with that short of reaction time.

So how can we help these young catchers to better handle the velocity and the short reaction time? I have a drill that I have been using for a number of years I have found to be extremely effective. The goal of the drill is to slow down the 50mph or 55mph or 60mph pitch to look like 35 or 40mph.

Here is how I do it. I do a receiving drill that exposes the girls to extremely short reaction times which equate to pitch velocities significantly higher then they will ever see even at the college level.

The first step is to get an accurate reading on your own underhand pitch speed. Find someone with a radar gun and have them time 10 pitches you throw into a screen. Your goal will be to throw all of them at exactly the same speed. Do not have the person tell you the speeds till you’re done. Remember, this needs to be a speed you can easily throw repeatedly with extreme accuracy. When I first did this a few years ago I found that my best speed for accuracy was 31-33mph.

I started with some 12U catchers back then and pitched to them at this speed from 25 feet away. Remember your goal is to throw strikes. This delivers the same reaction time as a 51mph pitch from 40 feet. Most thought this was easy. While the reaction time was the same obviously the ball hit their glove with significantly less force then the “real 51mph” pitch. The goal I gave them was to “beat the ball to the spot”, to have their glove at the spot of contact with the ball before the ball got their. With some of the fear removed since the ball would not hit as hard they became aggressive in their receiving and were soon catching from 25 feet with ease.

Then after 6-10 pitches from that distance I moved in to 23 feet. This reaction time now equated to a 55mph pitch. Most of these 11 and 12 yr old catchers were not seeing 55mph for real so this was a bit of a challenge for them. But again I observed a much bolder approach to their receiving and they were aggressive to get their glove to the contact point before the ball arrived. These same girls were very timid at this velocity in a real pitch situation. After 6-10 pitches I moved into 20 feet. I was now exposing 11 and 12 yr old girls to the reaction time of a 64 mph pitch. Many after getting over the initial “yipes, that gets in here quick” were able to begin to catch a few. When they missed and they bounced off of their mask there was no big concern since it was only 32 mph.

When I would then go back to 25 feet and throw 6-8 more pitches they all commented that the pitch seemed very slow compared to before. As I incorporated this drill into their regular training I began to see a marked difference in their live receiving performance. Pitches that would have blown by them before that were just a bit off the plate were now being easily caught. My next thought was to get them ready for even faster pitchers.

I have made this a part of the training regiment for all my fast pitch catchers. Many of these same girls are now 14-15 years old and I make that same throw to them now from 16 and 12 feet. That’s the equivalent of 80mph and 106mph. If I throw strikes, they can catch many of them. Then when their own pitchers actually throw high 50’s and low 60’s they look like they are floating in.

This training has also helped the girls to be quicker to get to curves, drops, rises etc. The pitches just do not look as fast when you’ve caught pitches with reaction times that are equivalent to twice the speed your pitchers really throw.

Look forward to your comments and questions