For the first post of my blogging career, I’m excited to lay some groundwork on the part of the game that really fires me up, performance on the defensive side of the baseball. While I think the phrase “pitching and defense wins championships” is incomplete, (you gotta score some runs too!) I do believe that proficiency as a defender is of paramount importance at every level. In my humble opinion, the keys to being a great defender are not always fully understood and therefore not always coached and practiced, not to mention that defensive instruction is usually not a priority here in Colorado and other cold weather states when there’s snow on the ground and we’re working indoors. My hope is that through this blog, I can help players and coaches understand the critical importance of focused defensive work, what it truly means to be a great defender, the fundamentals that are required, and the ways in which players can efficiently master those skills. Let’s get our feet wet!
What really draws me to defense is that there are an infinite number of variables that go into the execution of it. You may take 100 ground balls in a row and there’s a very good chance that each one of those balls acted differently. The fly balls you catch in the first and seventh innings may be under a completely different set of conditions. A catcher is tasked with handling pitchers with completely different arsenals, strengths and weaknesses, whose stuff varies from day to day.
While the visible millisecond and millimeter differences are not nearly as prominent as they are in hitting or pitching, being a great defender requires the ability to adjust in countless ways on a pitch to pitch basis. Within all of the unknown that comes our way as a defensive player, we can still break our tasks down into teachable and practicable fundamentals. The following are the four basic physical tasks (much more on the mental in following posts) that all great defenders execute consistently whether they are an infielder, outfielder, or catcher.
No matter what position a defensive player occupies, the ability to read the play is the foundation for being able to execute it properly. Once again, a defensive player is faced with countless possibilities on each play, but we can break the reads we make as defenders into three parts: Pre-pitch, ball flight, and mid-play reads.
Pre-pitch, our reads are focused on the game situations, including inning, score, positions of base runners and outs. This gives us a general idea of how we may need to execute the ensuing play. Within that, we need to understand the players on both our own and the other team. Who is hitting and running for the opposition and where our teammates are positioned have a large bearing on how we may need to act. Finally we need to understand the elements so we can adjust accordingly. Sun position, wind, and field conditions are important factors to understand before the play.
Reading the ball flight is a crucial part of being great defender and can be the difference between getting to a ball and just missing it. As a catcher, this mainly consists of reading the ball out of the pitchers hand, giving us an idea of how we may need to act as it gets to us. Infielders and outfielders must get a read of the pitch, the hitter’s swing, and the flight or hops of the ball off the bat. As this read occurs visually, the defender must physically act in an efficient manner to allow his good read to help him make the play. In my opinion his part of the game is often time left to chance, while in reality there are simple but powerful ways we can work on it!
The final read we must make as defenders is reading the play as it unfolds. As the ball is put in play, we must be able to adjust our thought process according to factors based on where the ball is hit, how the base runners have advanced, and the changing situation. Proficiency in this department is built on having worked on various situations in a practice setting, as well as understanding possible scenarios pre-pitch.
At any position on the field, the timing that a defender employs is crucial to his ability to properly execute the play. A player can make a great read on the baseball and have great physical tools (i.e. feet, hands and arm) but his timing must allow those tools to work properly. As he reads a baseball, the information that he picks up is what sets up the timing in which he will execute the play. A player must understand how his body needs to act in the seconds before he goes to catch the ball, in order to best utilize those mechanics. As with reads, this is something that we can identify and work on and to me is the most critical part of great defense. If you watch any great defensive player in Major League Baseball, it looks as though they make plays all in one motion, when in reality they are just getting to and from important positions seamlessly. This is the case because their ability to time the baseball is superb, and puts them in great positions to catch and throw. Great defensive players are masters of rhythm, which allows for their bodies to work efficiently. (Ask Matt Williams!)
How to catch the baseball is the part of defense that is focused on the most as we coach and practice. While everybody has their own opinions on the right way to effectively catch (or block) the ball, I’ll keep mine to myself at the present moment with a guarantee more info on that subject in the future! For right now, I just want to briefly touch on some basic absolutes when it comes to catching the baseball at any position.
We must have the ability to get to catch position quickly and efficiently. As in hitting, the more efficient our swing, the more time we have to read the pitch and get on time with it. The same applies as a defender. If it takes us forever to get to the ball, we have to commit earlier, which often leads to us being at the mercy of the baseball and its often-unpredictable antics. Getting to catch position quickly is accomplished by utilizing our timing and having no wasted movement.
Vision is crucial. As we get to catch, we must be able to effectively see the ball we are trying to retrieve. Often times players get themselves into positions where they are fielding a ball in a place where they cannot see. (between legs, behind head) Maintaining good vision from the time you read the ball until it is caught is key.
Balance! Whether you are a catcher, infielder or outfielder, being in a balanced, athletic position allows you the best opportunity to catch the baseball, and sets you up to get into a great position to throw.
The final piece that characterizes a great defender is his ability to get from a great position to catch the ball into a great position to throw it. Piecing these two aspects together is often times difficult for players as they face better athletes at the higher levels. Being an effective thrower defensively is based on a few key principles.
As in catching the ball, the quicker the player is able to get into a position to throw, the more wiggle room he has in completing the play. Being explosive getting from catch to throw will benefit a defender if there is pressure from a fast runner, or the ball he is fielding is hit slowly. I’m a firm believer that we need to train at a fast pace, and then slow down if the game situation calls for it. This is much easier than trying to speed ourselves up, which often times throws us out of whack.
We must have great direction. As we get from catch to throw, we want to be explosive, but we must be explosive to the correct spot! In my experience, focusing on getting our hips going towards our target on routine throws is the most effective way to get consistent direction.
We need to use our lower half as we throw. Too many times players get to a place where they cannot maximize their arm strength because they have put themselves in a position where they are wasting their legs. We must utilize the ground and those big strong muscles in our legs as we throw!
Finally, we must understand how to finish. Young defensive players often don’t realize the value of following the throw to the target, reinforcing and maintaining the direction that they have established as they prepared to throw the baseball.
As I conclude, please understand that these are the principles of being a great defender broken down into their basic tenants, and covering the spectrum of all 8 positions. Each one of these areas is rich with more specific details that paint a clearer picture of what great defenders execute effectively and consistently. As I have just scratched the surface here, future posts will allow us to dive in further on to how we can recognize defensive skills at specific positions, diagnose issues, and efficiently train to become better defensive players.