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Right now, practices consist of all the nuts and bolts of the program: rundowns, pick-off plays, PFP (Pitchers Fielding Practice), bunt plays, relays, etc. Most of these plays are pretty straight forward and easy to practice. One play, however, still has me waking up in a cold sweat every now and then. The 1st and 3rdplays!
Just looking at this photo makes my blood pressure go up.
I have to admit that I absolutely hated practicing 1st and 3rd plays on defense. One reason is that there are so many different types to work on and master.
- What do you do if the guy at 1st leaves early and sprints to 2nd?
- How about if he leaves early and starts walking to 2nd? Should the pitcher run at him or throw it? Throw it to whom?
- What if he steals on the pitch and then stops in between 1st and 2nd?
- What do you do if there are no outs or one out? How about two outs?
Add about four or five more questions in there and you see why I hated this play. For the defense to work this play correctly and consistently, quick decisions and good instincts are needed to act on all the variables.
For most of my coaching career, practicing the play consisted of my players running all over the place trying to get the runner caught up between 1st and 2nd and also trying to keep the runner on 3rd from scoring. It was not unusual to get nobody out on the play. This is where the “absolutely hated” phrase comes into play. It seemed no matter how we practiced it, high school kids generally were not able to recognize what to do and when. Even when they did, they often did not have the throwing strength or accuracy to make the play at home when needed.
The higher you go in the game, the less tricky stuff teams do because the talent of the players at those levels prevent the play from working most of the time. The arms and instincts are usually too good. The problem I ran into was that high school players themselves must notice and act on the variables they see in order to make the play. Their lack of experience and physical talent largely prevents them from doing it correctly.
I got so fed up with the results (in practice and in games) that I decided to make things more simple for the players. I made it very black and white, or actually “Red” and “Green.” I basically boiled the play down to two options:
GREEN – When this play is called, the defense’s job is to get an out … anywhere. I didn’t care if the out was made between 1st and 2nd or between 3rd and Home. Just get an out. I didn’t care if the runner on 3rd base scored. Just get an out. I would run this play early in the game when one run is normally not as important or when we were up a few runs. In many cases, I would gladly trade a run for an out. The other team is giving you an out. Take it.
RED – On this play, the runner on 3rd ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY CANNOT SCORE. I told my players that the runner on 1st could walk to 2nd for all I care. He could stop half way between 1st and 2nd and the defense wouldn’t have to budge. I told my defense that it is perfectly ok to act as if the runner on 1st base wasn’t even there. I would call for this play later in the game when that runner on 3rd is more important. It’s also good when you have a stud pitcher on the mound. In that case, I’m forcing the other team to beat us with their bats against a good pitcher and not beat us because of our defense. I want the ball in my pitcher’s hand. If we happen to prevent the run from scoring AND get an out … hallelujah! The planets lined up!
Unless you have two gifted middle infielders (in terms of arm strength and instincts) and a left handed first baseman (he can turn and throw home easier than a right hander), making it very black and white (or Red and Green) can help simplify things at the high school level.
I just wish I had done it sooner.
What is your experience with this play?
Keep it in the circle on every throw.
When I was younger, my dad and I would frequently make trips to the backyard to play catch. When my accuracy needed improving, he would always draw an imaginary circle in front of his chest with the ball to remind me that every throw should be in that circle. Every time I missed that circle, he would pause and redraw the circle. It annoyed me but it did make me focus.
A couple weeks ago I was watching a Phillies game on TV and the announcers interviewed Phillies third base coach Ryan Sandberg. During the interview, Sandberg mentioned that whenever Pete Rose played catch with someone, he would require the partner to throw the ball between his shoulders and his belt. It brought back a lot of memories.
Both players benefit from this habit. The thrower focuses more which improves his accuracy. When he makes his throws easy to handle, the receiver benefits because his transfer from catching to throwing will improve as well.
Getting your players into this very basic habit is key to a good, consistent defense. Start it early and demand perfection in this area and your team will improve on defense rather quickly.
The Tampa Bay Rays insert some fun with a “Nerd” travel day. Create your own!
Losing saps a lot out of the team in terms of chemistry but it can also make the game less fun which is the most damaging part. Players try to do too much, coaches don’t know what to do, pitchers blame the fielders/hitters, fielders/hitters blame the pitchers, etc. No fun indeed.
With adversity, though, comes an opportunity to think outside the box a little and try something a little unorthodox. As a coach, you’ll get some kudos for at least trying something different and might just bring back some of the fun in the process. Sometimes that’s all you need to get the bats and/or the wins rolling again.
Below are some things I have been apart of on teams that were either in the basement already or just not playing up to potential. Some didn’t work but all were fun!
- Have a player draw names from a hat. The first name pulled leads off, the second name bats second, and so on until the line-up is made.
- Draw names out of a hat to determine positions as well. You can make exceptions for pitchers and catchers if you like.
- Line-up is created based on chronological order of uniform numbers. Lowest to highest or highest to lowest.
- Switch up the uniform. Everyone goes Old School with the high socks. If the team is already Old School, bring the pants down.
- Everyone wears eye black. Even the pitchers. Even the coaches.
- The entire line-up swings the same bat. Pick one and everyone uses it. Choke up if you need to.
- No on-deck batter is allowed to swing weighted bats, use donuts, etc. in the on-deck circle. Just stand there in case you need to get to the home plate area to tell a runner to slide/stand up.
- All hitters MUST swing at the first strike. Penny fine for those who don’t.
- All players sprinting onto or off a field must touch a base on their way out/in.
- Don’t take pre-game infield/outfield. Just play the game.
- Take a phantom infield/outfield. (Stay tuned for a separate post on this one!)
- “Slump busting Kool-Aid”. A separate water cooler is made with Kool-Aid. All players MUST take a small drink from it before walking up to the plate. Label the cooler clearly.
- All players MUST enter/exit the dugout backwards. After in/out they can turn and walk/run as normal.
- In you have any, bring out some old uniforms. Dig around in the storage units (all high schools have them) and bring out old jerseys, pants, or both! I’ve done this multiple times, always with success.
Their are countless others but the point of all of them is to be creative and bring back the fun. When that happens, players relax. When players relax, their potential can come out and the wins start showing up.
The no look delivery
There are several ways to hold runners on to limit their running game. Having a good pickoff move is one of them. Having several different types of pickoff moves is another. Mixing your times to home plate is important as well. The biggest tip coaches usually pass on to their pitchers is don’t get into any patterns. If a pitcher’s timing, number of looks at the runner, and/or pickoff moves never vary, they are going to be exploited by base runners.
Looks are good. Not looking can work too.
When it comes to avoiding patterns on the mound, there is one technique that is often overlooked. It is the “no-look” delivery. Regardless of the pickoff move or the delivery to home plate, pitchers are almost always told to check the runner first. To avoid patterns, pitchers will frequently check more than once. This pattern of “checking at least once” is why the no-look delivery can be effective.
If a runner has seen a pitcher check a runner at least once before every pitch, he will naturally not take off until the pitcher looks at him at least once. The point is, the runner expects to be looked at by the pitcher after he comes set. In a big running situation, the pitcher, having looked at every previous runner at least once, can come set properly and immediately deliver to home plate without checking the runner. The runner does not get a good jump because he didn’t expect to run until after the pitcher looked at him. The pitcher never did.
Mixing the number of looks at the runner is certainly important. Adding a “no-look” in there as well can allow a pitcher to be even more effective at stopping the running game.
A pitch is thrown way outside and high. A player from the bench yells “Good waste pitch!”
But was it?
I believe there is quite a difference between and purpose pitch and a waste pitch. In my view, a purpose pitch is a pitch that isn’t necessarily a strike but still serves a purpose. A waste pitch is a pitch thrown for a ball that served no purpose at all. Here are two examples of a situation and how a waste pitch and purpose pitch differ.
1. The count is 0-2. The catcher calls for a high fastball. The pitcher throws it a foot outside and high. Because the pitch was a ball right out of the pitcher’s hand, the batter immediately knew to take the pitch. This is an example of a waste pitch because nothing was really accomplished. The pitcher just added another pitch to his pitch total and nothing more.
2. The count is 0-2. The catcher calls for the same fastball up in the zone but this time on the inner half of the plate. The pitcher throws it there. This caused the batter to wait a little longer because a pitch that starts in that location could be a curve ball that could still break over the plate. When it doesn’t, the batter now moves his eyes/head back and away from the pitch. This accomplished a few things. First, the pitch was close enough to the strike zone to entice the batter to think of swinging at it with two strikes. Even if he did, the batter would not have been able to do much with that pitch based on its location. Second, the pitch moved the batter’s eyes/head. When this occurs, a tiny bit of fear enters into the hitter’s mind. He instinctively will not be so willing to lean over the plate because the next pitch might be in the same location. If the next pitch is a curveball that starts towards the same location, the batter is more likely to think it is another fastball up and in and theferfore bail out. As a result, when the curve ball breaks over the plate, the batter often locks up. The 0-2 pitch set the batter’s eyes upward and the following pitch went down and away thus changing the batter’s eye level.
Left: Waste pitch no where near the zone. Right: A pitch thrown with a purpose.
There are many other examples of this difference between waste pitches and purpose pitches. The general idea is that a purpose pitch sets up the following pitch. The waste pitch doesn’t really accomplish anything.
Some pitchers are so afraid of allowing a batter to get a hit on an 0-2 count that they overcorrect the next pitch and totally waste one. Good pitchers throw the 0-2/1-2 pitch with a purpose which usually makes the next pitch much more effective.
The trouble with seniors
Over the years, I have had numerous conversations with coaches at the high school and college levels. We’ve talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly. One common theme that you will tend to hear over time is the unique difficulties that pop up with regards to senior players and in some cases, their parents too.
On one hand, just about all good teams at the high school and college level have great senior leadership. A coach cannot overstate how important it is to have a group of experienced veterans who can take younger players under their wing and show them how things need to be done. It helps even more if the seniors are the best players on the team. On the other hand, senior players can be an absolute nightmare. Here are some of the things that can cause team dynamics to spiral downward rather quickly.
- Some senior players and their parents believe that because a player is a senior, he has a God-given right to play and/or start. When he doesn’t get the starts he “deserves,” the coach is the one who is now unreasonable and disloyal towards the player. Of course, when the offended player was an underclassman himself and started over another senior, the player and his parents strangely didn’t seem to mind.
- Some seniors see team rules as interfering with the “fun” that many of their non-athlete friends are having now that high school is coming to a close. Staying away from parties, mandatory Saturday morning practices, etc. start to look more oppressive than necessary. Some seniors will up and quit because of this. Especially if they are not getting the playing time as stated above.
- Some seniors are beginning to realize that their dream of playing in college (and possibly beyond) is not going to play out as they had hoped. Some ask themselves “what’s the point?” when it comes to work ethic and desire to improve. Often they are the last to arrive to practice and the first to leave.
Put these negative things together and you begin to understand why some coaches have instituted some policy decisions when it comes to seniors. Here are some I have heard of from coaches.
No senior makes the team unless the coach feels his playing time will be significant. This prevents the player from being a cancer in practice and especially on the bench during games. If it is likely he is not going to play much during his senior year, some coaches will just not keep him at all. It is a harsh rule but some coaches, right or wrong, feel the pros of this blanket policy outweigh the cons.
All seniors will meet one-on-one with the coach prior to the season. This is another option for coaches who don’t want to just cut all non-playing seniors but want to make the expectations very clear early on. If a player is not expected to play much, the coach tells him this right away. The player has the chance to decide right there whether or not he can live with that. The coach tells him that if he takes a uniform, he is saying that he will be there every day until the end of the season. His work ethic does not change mid-season either.
Many coaches have a pre-season parent meeting where the coach outlines all this to the parents of all the players.
All coaches have an interest in analyzing the pros and cons of senior participation on their team. Coming up with a plan and making it clear to everyone early can save a lot of headaches in the future.
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Great fielders do more before the ball is even hit
On a recent evening, I had the rare chance to watch a high school game. From where I was sitting in the stands, my viewing angle was such that I could see the batter and a particular fielder in my field of vision at all times. After a ball was hit to this fielder, something immediately jumped out at me. A couple more balls hit his way confirmed it even more. The fielder’s reactions to the ball off the bat were extremely slow. On each batted bat, the ball literally traveled 20-30 feet before the fielder even moved from his ready position on the pitch. As a defender, it will not matter how fast your footwork is if you wait until the ball is halfway to you before you get started. Good defenders are able to react immediately after contact is made – and as you’ll see, sometimes even before that.
Two questions need to be answered here:
- What causes this slow reaction time?
- How does a fielder fix and/or improve this ability to react?
1. What causes this slow reaction time? We’ll start by assuming the player has pretty quick feet. If the player does not, there are many footwork drills to improve the quickness needed. If the player has quick enough feet but still doesn’t get good reactions, a few things may be causing the problem. A couple things are beyond his control and a couple are not. First the factors beyond his control.
When a player plays on a different field for the first time, he may not be used to the hitting background. When a fielder looks in at home plate, the area behind the batter can make it easier or more difficult to see the ball off the bat depending on what’s there. A solid, dark background provides a good setting to see a white ball being hit. An area behind home plate that has varying shades of white or gray can be a tough background to see a batted ball come out of. When this occurs, a fielder may struggle at first until his eyes get used to the setting. This can take a game or two.
Another similar problem occurs when a player plays his first night game of the season. The different lighting conditions can have a similar effect of decreasing the defenders’ ability to see the ball off the bat. A few innings or games usually gets the player to adjust. Note: If your team plays games at night, it is to your advantage to schedule at least one practice under the lights so players get used to it prior to their games. There is an adjustment period that is needed and not all players adjust at the same rate.
There is not much a player can do to change the background and the time of the games. However, there are two things that fielders often do that hurt their ability to read the ball well off the bat. One is not watching the flight of the pitch when it approaches the batter and the second is not anticipating beforehand where the ball will be hit. And that brings us to question #2.
2. How does a fielder fix and/or improve this ability to react? The first fix is making sure players watch the flight of the pitch as it approaches the batter. Some players simply watch the batter and wait for the ball to be hit before they react. If a player watches the flight of the pitch, he can start to read where the pitch is heading and therefore can anticipate where the ball will be hit. If he does, he can learn to lean on the pitch in the direction the ball is likely to go. Here is an example. Let’s say a good hitter is up who pulls the ball very well. The catcher calls for a curveball. As a shortstop, if I watch the flight of the curveball and see it approach the batter as a “hanging curveball,” I can predict with accuracy that the batter will pull the ball. Even before the ball is hit, I can start to lean to my right slightly knowing that the ball is more likely to be hit that way. On the other hand, if a batter with a slow bat is up and I notice a
fastball heading towards the outer half of the plate on the pitch, I can lean to my left before the ball is hit because chances are great the batter will not pull that pitch. Some players watch the actual flight of the ball and others watch the catchers glove. Movement of the glove towards a spot will also tell you where the pitch is heading. Whichever works for you.
The second fix is connected to the first one. Fielders need to be aware of who is batting, what their tendencies are, and what pitch is being thrown. Even younger kids who don’t know much about opposing hitters can make the general prediction that 3, 4, and 5 hitters tend to be pull hitters and all the others either have slower bats or use more of the entire field. Just that information alone can help a fielder anticipate where the ball will be hit.
In terms of improving in these areas, the best way by far to practice all this is to take your fielding seriously during batting practice. As a former shortstop, one of the things I would do regularly after getting my normal ground balls was to stand out at my position, watch the flight of the BP pitch, and try to correctly lean to where I thought the ball was going to be hit. The more I did it, the better I got. And so will any fielder if they take that time seriously.
When you get to each new level of the game, more players will have the same natural abilities you have. What separates the great defenders from the pack isn’t always physical skills like speed and quickness. Often it has more to do with what the fielder is doing before the ball is even hit.
Aggressive base running is a valuable weapon for any offense. Putting runners in motion in all its forms puts a lot of pressure on a defense because they are forced to deal with multiple things at the same time – throwing, covering bases, chasing and fielding grounders, pop-ups, etc. The more things you make a defense think about and do, the more likely they will screw something up. The “hit and run” and the “run and hit” are good examples of offensive plays that accomplish this. Below are some thoughts and variations of both.
How the runner and hitter approach this
play depends on a number of variables
and the philosophy of the coach.
I’ve probably wrote on this website a hundred times about how important proper footwork is when it comes to defense. Most errors, non-plays, and other mistakes are causes by the feet not being in the correct place at the correct time. There are countless examples of this but I noticed another the other day while watching a game on TV. It involves the common situation of the second baseman covering first base on a sacrifice bunt.
When this common play is practiced, I often have to correct the second baseman’s footwork. The mistake many second baseman make is shown in the following photo. (Sorry for the softball photo and the small size. It was the best I could find.)
You’ll notice that the fielder’s right foot is on the bag. This is common for first baseman because they are taught to step to the ball with their glove side foot and keep their non-glove side foot on the bag. On normal throws to first base where a first baseman needs to stretch, this is the correct footwork to use. However, when a throw is coming from the home plate area, this common footwork creates some problems. It doesn’t give the thrower a very good target to throw to and it gives the receiver very little mobility if the throw is a bad one.
Because of this, when a throw comes from the home plate area, the first baseman (if he doesn’t have to charge) and the second baseman (if he is covering first base) should get to the bag and place their LEFT foot on the bag so that their body is squared up to the throw coming from the home plate area as shown in this photo.
Correct! Left foot on the bag and squared to the thrower.
Doing it this way gives a good inside-the-line and away from the runner target to throw to. If the throw is poor to the infield side of first base, the fielder using this correct footwork can reach over as needed and catch the ball while still in contact with the bag as shown in this photo.
Correct footwork with the left foot on the bag
If the throw is poor to the foul side of the bag, he can quickly shift his feet over the bag and get that throw as well like shown in this photo.
Correct footwork allows this player to shift left on a poor throw to the foul side of the bag.
.This simple footwork is an easy fix but if not made, the very simple throw on a sac bunt can turn into a circus rather quickly.
Slumps are not just for hitters. There are slumps on defense, slumps in baserunning, slumps on the mound, and slumps in the coaching box. Slumps affect everyone in the game at some point. Motivation is a target for slumps as well. It would be nice if our motivation levels remained at a high level all the time. It is unrealistic to think it will.
Accepting that dips in motivation will occur is the first step in doing something about it.
This time of year (summer = heat, humidity, tired, sore, etc) is when many people find that their motivation levels dip. A variety of other things can lead to this as well but there are some things that sufferers can do to turn that dip around and increase motivation. Here are five:
1. Increase your knowledge. There is always something new to learn in the game whether you are a player or coach. Learning a new skill, a new drill, a new workout tip, or even a new position can go a long way towards getting your motivation back. Learning something new automatically makes you want to try it out. It gets you moving again. When you think there is nothing else to learn, you stop moving and stop growing. Never stop learning about the game. I designed this website with this tip in mind! How am I doing?
2. Listen to successful people in the game. Part of the learning process mentioned above should be listening to and reading about people who are successful in the game. Summer (actually any time of year) is a great time to kick back a catch up on your reading. Podcasts are great as well. I have made four podcasts of my own! If you haven’t heard them, click HERE. Successful people in the game didn’t get there by accident. They’ve had successes and failures along the way and made many adjustments. That trial and error process can take a lot of time. Save your time by learning from THEIR mistakes instead of making them yourself!
3. Remind yourself why you play or coach. The game of baseball can wear you out very quickly if you focus on the wrong things. Usually what brings a player down the quickest is focussing too much on stats. My podcast/interview with Steve Springer (Performance Coach – Toronto Blue Jays) has a lot of information about that mistake. If you have not heard the interview, you MUST! It’s a winner for any player! Hopefully, when a player or coach reflects on why they play/coach, the word “fun” comes to mind. If you have lost the fun of the game, it’s time to rethink why you continue to be involved in the game. Regain that “fun” and you are on the road towards improving motivation.
4. Get some balance. For many players and coaches, it has been non-stop baseball for a number of months now. Do anything for months and months without a break and you’re likely to start thinking of that activity as a chore. Break up the monotony with something different. Go to the beach. Get back into mountain biking. Hang out with friends that DON’T play baseball. Go fishing. Get away from the game and plan some activities that have nothing to do with baseball. Often players and coaches are reminded how much they love the game. However, this only happens when you are away from it for a little or a long while.
5. Re-examine your expectations. As I said earlier, stats (poor ones especially!) can bring down a player’s confidence and motivation levels very quickly. Check to see if your goals are still attainable. Example: If you had a goal to hit over .400 and you are now hitting .210 with many at-bats under your belt, change your goal. Maybe focus on something you have total control of like “quality at-bats”.
Dips in motivation happen to everyone in the game. Follow these tips and search for others as well. If you do, I think (and hope!) that your motivation tank will start to fill up once again.