Learning to judge a fly ball

I can’t believe I’ve never done a post on playing the outfield before. But apparently I haven’t because I had to create a new category for this one. What really surprises me about that is that I love outfielders. As a slow pitch player I always enjoyed the outfield myself. But stranger things have happened, I guess.

In any case, one of the challenges of training outfielders is there’s just no substitute for experience. You can short toss by hand to work on the catching techniques, but judging a fly ball off a bat is a skill unto itself. It’s not something you can really drill, per se. You just have to do it enough to get the feel for it. Some players never do get it.

There is one trick you can try if your outfielders are close, but tend to let the ball get just over their heads. Tell them to go back farther than they think they should. It sounds simple — almost too simple — but it definitely works.

It all has to do with consistency and making adjustments. Players who are consistently allowing the ball to go just over their heads haven’t quite calibrated their brains to judge the exact trajectory of an incoming ball. They think they’re under it, but instead they’re just ahead of where it will land. Having them move a little further back than they think they should helps them make the adjustment, and starts to train their brains on where they should be rather than where they think they should be.

That, and a few thousand fly balls hit from the plate to the outfield, ought to do it!

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About Ken Krause

Ken Krause has been coaching girls fastpitch softball for nearly 20 years. Some may know him as a contributing columnist to Softball Magazine, where he writes Krause's Korner -- a regular column sponsored by Louisville Slugger. Ken is also the Administrator of the Discuss Fastpitch Forum, the most popular fastpitch discussion forum on the Internet. He is currently a Three Star Master Coach with the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA), and is certified by both the Amateur Softball Association (ASA) and American Sports Education Program (ASEP). Ken is a private instructor specializing in pitchers, hitters, and catchers. He teaches at North Shore Baseball Academy in Libertyville, IL and Pro-Player Consultants in McHenry, IL.

Posted on May 28, 2009, in Coaching, Outfield. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Ken,I agree! Nothing drives me crazier than seeing a coach throwing fly balls to a team! There is a definite connection between the “crack” of the bat and the reaction in the brain then transmitting that to the feet to get moving!I have to disagree a bit. I have found that when the ball is dropping behind outfielders they took their first step in. This is more w/ younger players, but I see it in my 16u’s as well. Watch them, crack of bat, they step forward, then the ball falls just behind them. Tell them “crack of the bat” take a step back, find the ball, then get under it.You can drill this by simply hitting the ball into a net or whatever, and have them hop back. Sort of like “startling” them. Crack, jump back.The downside to this is that when the ball is short they might not catch as many, but that is not usually the case as you report in your post. Once they learn to get behind the ball, they adjust to the shorter fly faster than if they come forward and have to adjust backwards.I will be using your “think the ball is further back than it truly is” trick though, that’s a good one. But try to have girls, and boys for that matter, take a step back at contact. They will have many few balls over their heads that way.

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  2. Rick Cartwright

    I agree with the above also, many times I see the first step going in. What I have been using lately is to have the first step going to the side, it is very hard to judge trajectory straight on. If they get a small angle not only can you see the arc better, but it allows you to drop step in the direction you need.

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  3. Interesting. I think maybe a diagonal step back might be best? Then they could turn and run as well right?

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  4. That is what I was taught too – to use the drop step first. As I’ve been taught, when evaluating kids, you want to see a drop step first, or at worst case, no movement at all. The step in can kill you so no movement is better than stepping in. A drill that I was taught was to hit the ball to the girls and they have to set-up 5-10 feet behind where the ball is to hit, and then actually let the ball drop to the ground. Stress to them they have to be there set-up before the ball hits. This also helps with teaching them to move into the ball on regular plays so they can catch and throw better. Nothing I hate more than watching an outfielder move slowly to an easy flyball and get there just in time – if they misjudge it or the wind is blowing hard, they have no time to react. I want them to get there early and set-up.

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  5. I think what Ken was referring to was a fly ball that you are easily able to get under, but fail to judge quite right and ultimately needing to drift back even farther at the last second. The thought process I try to get into the kids heads is to get behind the ball, similar to what Ken was suggesting.As far as movement at the crack of the bat, first step back is just as bad as first step in as far as the chances of making a catch goes. What first step back will do is cause less balls to go over your head and more balls to fall in front of you.What I prefer is first step in the correct direction, and that is the single most important factor in developing an outfielders range. Second is line, and least important is speed.In the cases where an outfielder can’t read immediately I teach them to freeze with the knees bent and ready to go when they finally pick it up. Teammates with better angles on the flight of the ball can help them with a loud “back” or “in”.I agree with one of the earlier posters that nothing can replace just hitting them hundreds of fly balls so the can learn the sound and identify the trajectory (actually it is the two combined). Starting out with tosses at a younger age is OK to first learn the drop step footwork and getting comfortable with turning your back to the ball and back handing and fore handing.JMO

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  6. JMO, I’m going to agree in part and disagree to another part. First reaction to the ball is ideal and by the time you get much older I agree, but when working with younger kids (I’m working with 12U), it just doesn’t happen that way. Moving left and right is possible at 12U, but in and out is much harder – heck, some guys I play with still have that issue. If a ball is to drop, I want it to fall in front, not behind. If you keep it in front of you then you contain them, if you let it go over your head then you give up extra bases. Also, and more importantly, if you start back, it is much easier to stop and come forward really hard. If you start in, and have to go back, it is much harder to stop and run back – also not many young kids learn to run hard when the ball is to their back. So yes, you take a risk to let more drop in front of you, but the recovery rate, imo, is much greater being able to come back in on a ball. I also want them in motion which is better than sitting still, imo. That is my experience and has worked for me as a player (though be it a lowly slow-pitch career).I agree with setting up farther back than anticipating – as indicated by the drill I mentioned. That also gets you ready for running in to make a catch and throw when someone is on base.I also agree that there is no better experience than hitting them flyballs again and again – bar none. Not sure about the sound of the hit though – with all the different bats out there it is rather hard to tell anymore – metal alloy 1 vs alloy 2 vs composite… And yes, speed is a huge factor but you need to work with everyone on the team, especially at younger ages, and so you need to work with what the kid has and have them do the best they can. You might not be able to teach speed (debatable for some) but you can teach them the proper footwork to get somewhere faster. To me, that means drop step first.

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  7. Hey Mike, hows it going. I have to agree that the age group makes a difference, for several reasons. One, that you haven’t mentioned is that at 18U we play all of our games on a fenced field and usually at 12U it is an open field (if not it might as well be open). A ball over one of my outfielders heads is almost always just a double (unless it goes over the fence too). That’s a lot less of a penalty for letting the ball get over your head.That said, I do know that by 14U we had got into the philosophy of “make them hit it over our head, and when they do, track it down and catch it” and we would play our outfield very shallow, especially right field. And those days we were open fields. I’m not saying our outfielders tracked them all down, but they got to quite a few. The main thing was our philosophy was that we would rather get beat by the occasional ball that was hit well than lose to a bunch of weakly hit duck snorts that would fall in front of us. We just felt better losing to a team that hit the ball hard as opposed to a team that hit the ball like crap. I guess that this is all a long way of saying I think our team in general is much less risk averse than most. I wouldn’t want to start teaching a player to take a potentially false drop step first just to make sure I could limit what went over our head. That could be a tough habit to get them to break. I suppose if you have a player who just ain’t gettin it you may have no choice. But my thought still has to be I want to teach them to read first, then react. Don’t move either way until you know where the ball is going. I want first step in the right direction and I’ll live with the mistakes while the kid is learning.Heck, I’m still living with the mistakes to this day. Our left fielder made a false step in this weekend that allowed a ball to get over her head (DD as a matter of fact). It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve seen it happen to her but it still does happen on occasion. The ball was a line drive right over her head.

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