Playing Catch - Throwing The Baseball
When kids are taught to throw, often the instruction is watered down into just a couple of steps. The act of throwing a baseball is not that simple. Throwing requires the entire body to work together in order to throw the ball accurately and to put something on it. All positions on the field require the ability to throw the ball accurately. Good throwing mechanics will enable you to make plays. When you warm up with the team before practice or play catch in the back yard, make sure you work on your mechanics and strive to improve your accuracy.
The best way to grip the ball is across the seams as pictured to the right. The fingers are placed over the top of the seams to provide a good grip on the ball. In the first picture you'll notice that you can see 2 seams running horizontally. The back of the ball not visible will also have 2 seams running horizontally. By gripping the ball in this fashion, those 4 seams will help to keep the ball in the air longer and keep the ball traveling straighter (assuming the player can throw it with 12-6 rotation).
It takes years of practice to be able to grip the ball across the 4 seams in this fashion when playing a position other than pitcher on the field. Players can work on this by throwing the ball into their glove and as they pull the ball out shift the ball to the correct grip. This takes practice and I wouldn't worry about it for younger players.
Try to keep the ball out on the fingertips not back in your hand. The second picture on the right shows the ball out on the fingertips. Gripping the ball in the palm of your hand and not out on your fingers will cost you velocity and accuracy. Younger players may need to grip the ball with three fingers instead of two, but unless their hands are very small they should still try to grip the ball out on the fingers.
Youth Coaching Advice
Young players will not be able to grip the ball across the seams while playing in the field. Work with your pitchers on getting the correct grip but have your other players work on other parts of their throwing mechanics. They can work on this skill when they get older. Do work with them on getting the ball out on the fingertips. This can be difficult with small hands, but it is still an important concept for them to understand.
Many young players don't use their wrist much when throwing the ball. When the ball is brought back in the throwing motion, the wrist should be cocked back. This way the wrist can be used as part of the throwing motion.
Watch young players throw and you will see most will throw with a stiff wrist. It is very difficult to throw the ball accurately with a stiff throwing wrist. This is a skill that young players should work on from the start.
You can practice this skill by holding your throwing arm just above the wrist with your glove hand (see image to the left). Bend your throwing arm at the elbow with your forearm vertical. Keeping your arm in this position, practice throwing the ball with just your wrist and fingers. It may feel strange at first, but keep working on this skill. The wrist and fingers play a major role in the accuracy and strength of your throw.
You can think of the motion your arm makes when throwing the ball as a circular motion. If you're throwing a short distance, the circular motion will be smaller then when you are throwing farther, but it's still a circular motion. The circular motion will aid your throw by providing more natural momentum than simply bringing your arm straight back and then forward. The circular motion should begin when you're pulling the ball from your glove. If you are playing outfield you will almost always be making a longer throw, so when you remove the ball from your glove, your arm and hand should drop down and by your back knee. This will provide you with the longest circular motion possible. If you are making a shorter throw in the infield for example, you may take the ball out of your glove and move it back and down slightly. This will give you a circular motion appropriate for the distance.
It's important to have your hand on top of the ball as you pull it back and start your throwing motion.
How do you determine if you're throwing with a circular motion or not? One of the best ways to check yourself is to freeze occasionally after you pull the ball out of your glove. If you are bring it up and back for anything other than a very short throw, you are not using a good circular motion in your throw.
If you have been throwing incorrectly for a long time, then it is going to feel different throwing with a good circular motion. That is to be expected. Practice throwing this way all the time and it will soon feel natural and you should see increased accuracy and velocity.
When throwing you want your front shoulder to point in the direction of where you are throwing. So after fielding the ball you will be turning your body sideways and pointing your lead shoulder in the direction of the throw.
If you follow the logic of having your front shoulder facing the target then you might have guessed that you also want your lower body lined up in the same manner. Your back foot should be perpendicular to the target and your hips should be closed and also pointing in the direction of the target.
Once you have everything lined up, you'll want to step toward the target with your lead foot, push off your back leg, and throw the ball using your entire body.
In order to throw the ball so it won't tail, you want to make sure you throw it across all four seems with '12-6' rotation. '12-6' rotation refers to a clock. If the ball rotates from 12, straight down to where 6 would be on the clock, this would be considered '12-6' rotation. The next two images show an example of 12-6 rotation.
Unless you throw the ball straight over your head, you won't be able to get '12-6' rotation without moving your wrist. As the ball comes forward during your motion, you will want twist your wrist to keep your hand as vertical as possible. This is the key to having good '12-6' rotation on the ball.
When a thrown ball gets by you it's easy to look over to the other guy and place the blame on a bad throw. The problem isn't entirely in the throw. It also lies in your expectation that the ball will be thrown right at you. When playing catch during practice or receiving a throw during a game, expect that the ball won't be thrown to you. If you start with that expectation then you will see the throw that isn't right to you as an opportunity to make a good play.
When playing catch at the beginning of practice, use the time as an opportunity to practice not only throwing the baseball, but catching it as well. When waiting to receive the throw, start by putting yourself in an athletic position. Is doesn't mean you have to be in the same ready position you would be when the ball crosses the plate, but you still want to have your knees slightly bent and your weight on the balls of your feet. Basically, you want to be ready to move.
Go To The Ball
Instead of standing in one spot and sticking your glove out hoping (or not caring) if you catch it. Move into a position to give you the best opportunity to catch the ball. If it's thrown over your head take a drop step and go after it. If it's thrown a few feet to your side, move and try and get in front of it. Playing catch gives you an opportunity to practice fielding and catching the ball.
Give the player your playing catch with a target to shoot for. Place both hands out in front of your chest prior to the player throwing the ball. This will give him an area to shoot for. If the ball is thrown above your waist you should catch the ball with your thumbs together, closing your bare hand over your glove as you make the catch. If the ball is thrown below your waist, catch the ball with your little fingers together and again close your bare hand over your glove as you make the catch.
If all this sounds dry and boring then all you need to do is turn playing catch into a little competition to make things interesting.
Give targets for your partner and see how many times he can hit the glove without you having to move it. Have him do the same and see who can get to 5 or 10 first.
Alternate throwing groundballs to each other, the person receiving the throw will play first base. The first person to not field the ball cleanly or to pull the other person off the base with a bad throw loses.
With younger players it can be fun counting how many throws can be made back and forth without the ball hitting the ground.
In the end baseball should be fun and there's no reason you can't have fun and work on becoming a better player at the same time. Playing catch is certainly one opportunity to accomplish both.
Fielding Ground Balls
Ground Ball Hit At You
Unless the ball is absolutely ripped at you and you don't have time, get in the habit of moving toward the grounder as you prepare to field it. Notice the word 'charge' wasn't used -- that word implies running towards it as fast as you can. Unless it's a slow roller, you want to approach the ball in a controlled manner that is aggressive but not out of control. This allows you to make adjustments so you're not catching it off a short hop or taking it off the first bounce on the infield dirt. As you get closer to the ball, begin breaking down to get into position to field the ball. To do this, shorten your steps and widen your feet. Bend not only at the knees but also with your back. Put your hands out in front of your body and open your glove toward the ball with your bare hand on top.
Catching The Ground Ball
There are a few common problems that players make when catching a ground ball.
- Not catching the ball out in front.
By doing this, you cannot watch the ball all the way into your glove; most likely you are bending either with your knees or back but not both.
When you catch the ball under you, you loose the ability to give with your hands. You want 'soft hands', a term used to describe a fielder who catches the ball out front of his body and seems to suck up the ball from that position into a position to throw. With soft hands, you can make last second adjustments to a bounce that was different than expected.
- Poorly Positioned Hands
Your glove must be in a good position to field the ball: open and close to vertical. This gives you the most area to catch the ball.
In all situations, try to avoid catching the ball on a short hop. In the diagram below, the approximate area of the short hop is shown in red. Catching the ball on a short hop is a difficult play to make. It takes practice for players to get in good position to avoid fielding a short hop. The following link is a good drill for players to work on the necessary footwork for avoiding a short hop: Short Hop Drill
The backhand play is one of the most difficult to make. Poor technique and lack of practice are two of the biggest reasons why players struggle with the backhand play.
As you approach the ball you will either field it with your left foot forward or right foot forward depending on when you get to it. Many players will practice fielding a backhand only one way, but the fact is you will have to make the play both ways so make sure you practice both ways of fielding a backhand. Either way you want to make sure you keep your glove in front of your face. You want to watch the ball all the way into the glove.
Gripping The Bat
Tension is Your Enemy
Tension is your worst enemy when it comes to a fluid swing. Tension throughout the body is often the direct result of gripping the bat incorrectly. A player with a relaxed grip on the bat will be able to react faster and wait longer on a pitch than a player with a death grip on the bat. You want to be relaxed in the box; this starts when you pick up the bat.
You'll see various types of grips at all levels of baseball and you'll also read or see some people who believe there is only one way to grip the bat. If this was true you'd see all major league players using the same grip. The variables with the grip are how far out on the fingers or deep in the palm a player will hold the bat, how the upper and lower hands aligns on the bat, how tight to hold the bat, and whether to choke up or not.
Fingers or Palm or Somewhere in Between
With young players I will show them how to grip the bat and I start them out with middle knuckles approximately lined up and I try to get them to get the bat out of the palm and into the fingers where they will have better control (Image g1). Younger players have an easier time relaxing their hands when they don't have the bat buried in the palm of their hands. One quick way to check a player is to have him hold the bat out in front and look to see if there is a gap between the bat handle and the spot between the thumb and index finger (Image g3 below).
As players develop they will often adjust their grip and sometimes bring the grip back closer to the pad in one or both hands. The grip needs to be comfortable and it must provide the player with the ability to have a relaxed grip. Remember, tension is the enemy.
Knuckles, Knuckles, Knuckles
In the end you want players hands to align somewhere from the middle knuckles lining up (Image g1 below) and the middle knuckles of the lower hand lining up with the top knuckles on the upper hand (Image g2 below). Anywhere in that zone that is comfortable for the player should work as long as they don't get the bat too far in the palms of their hands.
How Firm Should You Grip the Bat?
The best answer is to grip it as firm as you'd like as long as the grip is relaxed. The grip has to allow a player to take a natural swing. In looking at the images below, Image g4 is the grip that jumps out and yells "fix me". In this grip the player has the bat buried in the palms of his hands and you can see the tension in the hands and the arms. The alignment of the knuckles will also inhibit his natural swing. One of the keys to having a quick bat is the ability for the top hand to snap the wrists forward just before contact. "Bat lag" is a term to describe the relationship of the bat head to the hands as the swing progresses towards contact. As the hands come forward into the zone the bat head which is trailing behind is whipped by the wrists forward to contact to generate a tremendous amount of bat speed. Bat lag is not to be confused with bat drag. Bad drag has a negative impact on the swing and is a common problem with young hitters. Bat drag is fairly easy to pick out as the hitter will look like he is having a difficult time getting the bat head to the ball and through the zone. It can be caused by a player using a bat that is too heavy and also by poor mechanics in general. Improper grip as shown in Image g4 can be one cause of bat drag because the grip inhibits the ability of the wrists to snap the bat forward. Gripping the bat too tight with a proper grip can also contribute to the bat drag.
Stepping Into The Batters Box
Comfort, confidence, and balance! You need all three of these characteristics when you step into the box to hit.
Confidence begins when you step into the box. Do it with a sense of purpose; dig your back foot in and let the opposing pitcher that you're there to battle.
Comfort and balance depend on your stance and how you prepare to hit the ball. If you're not comfortable, you won't be relaxed. When working on your stance, strive for a position that comfortably puts you in a balanced position to hit.
Location In The Batters Box
The first priority when getting into your stance is to make sure you have good plate coverage. Have a method for determining this for each at bat. During practice, have someone watch you take some practice swings from in front of the mound. Simulate swinging at an outside pitch. Is your bat covering the outside corner? Adjust your distance to the plate so you have the correct distance.
Create a method for measuring that distance. Many players tap the plate with their bat the same way each time they get into the box. If the bat hits the same part of the plate each time, then they know the distance is correct.
While every player wants good plate coverage, the depth you stand in the box is more a matter of preference. If you stand deep in the box (towards the catcher), you may have more time to wait on a fastball, but you may find it more difficult to hit breaking pitches. By standing forward in the box, you may be able to catch the breaking pitch early but it will be more difficult to get around on a good fastball.
What's the right position for you? Analyze your strengths and weaknesses to help you decide. But, wherever you stand make sure you feel confident in that position. Most big league hitters tend to stand toward the back of the box. You, like most of them, may find the extra time to react is important.
Open, Closed Or Square Batting Stance
Most hitting coaches claim that the best stance for hitting is a square stance -- where your feet are parallel to the plate. This stance puts your body in the best position to coil, stride, and swing.
However, there are other stances and you have decide what works best for you. Try to avoid radical stances at the plate, experiment with stances that give you the ability to make a smooth coil (discussed later) to get into the launching position.
Weight and Hands
When you get into your stance, your weight should be slightly back, but not completely on the back leg. Have your hands near the top of the strike zone. Many players prefer to have their hands slightly off the back shoulder. Having your hands off your shoulder and at the top of the strike zone puts them in the best position for swinging the bat. It's very difficult for any hitter to catch up to a high fastball and hit anything but a pop fly if their hands start below the ball.
Picking Up The Ball
Coaches always tell their players to watch the ball all the way to the bat. But, where should you pick up the ball as it comes in? If you don't pick the ball up as soon as it leaves the pitcher's hand, then you reduce the time you have to react and may miss early indicators of the type of pitch being thrown.
There are a number of ways to pick the pitch up out of the pitcher's hand.
- You can follow the throwing arm of the pitcher all the way through the motion.
- Draw an imaginary box around the delivery area. Focus on the box rather than the pitching motion and pick up the ball as it enters the box.
- Pick a spot on the pitcher's body and focus on the location of the delivery of the ball. For some pitchers, this location may be the bill of the cap. Focus on that spot until the pitcher's hand comes into the imaginary box discussed above and then switch your eyes over to the ball. This method allows you to keep your eyes focused at the same distance as the mound.
As a hitter, you can gain an advantage if you can correctly predict which pitch the pitcher plans on throwing. You can often determine what the pitch is by the way the ball comes out of the pitcher's hand.
For example, a fastball comes straight out of the pitcher's hand where a curveball pops out above the hand. To determine these pitches, stand behind a backstop and concentrate on the pitcher's release point. While this takes practice to perfect, you will become a more patient hitter who can better predict the pitches thrown your direction.
Arm position can also determine the pitch, especially a pitcher who has a three-quarter arm motion. For these pitchers, they need to get on top of their curveball and often throw pitches with their arm in a higher position than when they throw a fastball.
Timing, rotation, and weight transfer are essential to good hitting. The amount of rotation vs. the amount of weight transfer will vary from hitter to hitter. In general, power hitters tend to be more rotational, while single hitters tend to be more weight transfer. One mechanism to help achieve all of these is the coil. Simply put it's much easier to swing the bat and achieve better timing if you move back before going forward. As the pitcher starts his delivery, you will want to move your weight back on to the back leg, closing your shoulder, hips, and knee. This is also the point when you want to move the bat near the launching position. When the coil is complete you are in the correct position to stride.
One of the most common mistakes made by hitters at all levels is having the stride be part of the swing. In fact, hitters should perform the stride before the swing.
During the stride, you shouldn't transfer your weight from the back leg to the front. Hitters that transfer their weight have a difficult time handling off-speed pitches. (Looks like lunging at the pitch.) Having good hip rotation is a critical piece of the swing for hitting with power. For the hitter that transfers his weight forward with the stride, power is lost not only from the transfer of weight at the incorrect time but also from the inability to rotate the hips properly.
You may notice that a number of big league players do have the stride as part of their swing. The key for these hitters is the big leg kick, which acts as a timing device and doesn't result in the transfer of weight. Instead of picking their foot up and moving it forward, they're picking up their foot and hold it until they recognize the pitch. If they read fastball, they drop their leg quickly and swing. If they read off-speed pitch, they simply hold it there a little longer before putting it down.
How Do You Stride While Keeping Your Weight Back?
The key is to stride out with the inside portion of your front foot. One way to think of it is to act like your striding onto a dozen eggs and you don't want to break those eggs. By doing that you will keep your weight back. Make sure you stride with your front foot closed. If you open up your front foot towards the pitcher, you will also open up your hips which will cause a loss of power when you do swing.
The pitch is on the way, you've coiled and taken your stride and now you're ready to swing. The first thing to realize is that your swing should not be driven by your arms, but by your legs and hips. We'll take a look at each area of your body and follow it through the swing.
As your weight moves forward from your back leg, your back foot will pivot towards the pitcher and your knee will turn in. The front foot will not pivot and you will want to keep that leg stiff. It's not necessary to keep it completely straight, but you don't want to flex it as you transfer your weight. (This can cause your head to drop as your tracking the ball.)
While you pivot on your back foot, you also will open up your hips. The degree to which you open your hips depends on the location of the pitch. On inside pitches, you need to completely open the hips to get your hands through right next to your body. On outside pitches, you have to keep your hips more closed to get your hands out and drive the ball the other direction. An important point on feel for the player: It should feel as if the back hip is driving the hips open, not the front hip pulling the hips open. It may seem like a subtle difference, but a player that is pulling open will often start by pulling his front shoulder open. This can cause all types of problems.
Your legs and hips are going to drive your swing and provide power. Work hard on both of these and you will see a difference in the batting cage and on the field.
Arms And Hands
When you begin your swing, you want your hands to be at the top of the strike zone. Any lower and you will be swinging up at a high strike. This most likely will result in a fly ball or pop-up.
To have a quick bat, you must start your swing by bringing your hands through close to your body. On inside pitches, your hands stay closer to your body longer than on outside pitches. Remember to extent the bat towards the ball just before contact. If you extend the bat too soon, you will slow down your swing. As you make contact with the ball, your bottom hand should be palm up and your upper hand should be palm down. This means that you haven't yet rolled your wrists over. Rolling your wrists happens naturally after hitting the ball. Concentrate on driving through the baseball. Sometimes players are in such a hurry to start running that they actually start slowing down their swing before contact. Hit the ball hard first, then run. As your hands continue forward and your wrists roll over, it's natural to let you top hand come off the bat. This allows you to continue with a good follow through on your swing.
It's essential that you track the ball from the start of the pitch to the bat. Often hitters want to see where they hit the ball before contact. Concentrate on watching the ball all the way through contact and look at the contact spot for a split second after you hit the ball. This ensures that you have tracked the ball the entire way.
Another way to think about tracking the ball is shoulder to shoulder. Start your chin near your front shoulder; after you swing, your chin should end up on your back shoulder. If it doesn't, then you're leaving your head out in front of the plate and not watching the ball all the way in.
- Not catching the ball out in front.