Category Archives: Catching

The Sneaky Pick Play at First

Catcher squatting

Picking off a runner at first is a tough play for a right-handed catcher – especially one who isn’t comfortable or doesn’t have the arm strength to throw quickly from her knees.

By the time the catcher gets up, spins toward first, pulls her arm back and makes the throw there probably isn’t anyone in the tri-county area who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Even if she does throw from her knees, the amount of movement that is required to make a strong, accurate throw will likely be a pretty big tipoff to all but the sleepiest of base runners. And any first base coach who doesn’t pick up on what she’s doing should be relegated to the bench immediately.

There is another way to approach it, however, that can help disguise what the catcher is doing until it’s too late. It’s designed for when you have multiple runners on base and need an out to get out of an inning.

First let’s set up the situation. Preferably you have bases loaded and two outs, although you can run this play with runners on first and second and one or two outs.

What you’re looking for is the runner on first who figures no one cares about her (poor girl!). She takes a big lead, kind of stands there nonchalantly while the catcher has the ball, and then when the catcher goes to throw it back to the pitcher the runner drops her head and walks back to the base. Bonus if the first base coach is hyper-focused on seeing whether the girl on third will score soon.

When the pitch is delivered, the catcher catches it and runs out to chase the runner on third back to the base. Once the runner on third looks like she is committed to going back, the catcher turns to throw the ball to the pitcher, just like normal.

As she pulls her arm back, however, she uses her eyes to sneak a peek at the runner on first. If she is walking back not paying attention the catcher adjusts her shoulders without looking and fires to first instead.

By the time the first base coach and runner react, the ball is already in the first baseman’s hands for an easy tag. Inning over.

Sounds simple, right? It’s not. It actually requires a fair amount of practice because the catcher can’t do anything to indicate that she will be throwing to first until the ball is close to leaving her hand.

For example, this is a no-look throw. The catcher’s head can’t turn toward first at all, which is a tougher habit to break than you might think. It takes some discipline to keep her head pointed toward the pitcher, even if her eyes are looking toward first.

The catcher must also be able to throw with a decent amount of velocity without lining her entire body up toward the target. In effect she is stepping to her left and then throwing about 30 degrees to her right. That takes some practice so she doesn’t throw it into right field – or the parking lot!

Finally, the catcher has to be casual about the throw until it’s time to actually bring the ball forward in the throwing motion. She has to pull her arm back as if to throw it 20-30 feet to a waiting pitcher. Any sudden movement until the ball is about to be launched could again give it away.

Of course the first baseman has to be aware the play is happening, and can’t be fooled by the motion being used to fool the runner. She just has to accept that the ball could be coming while remaining more casual as well. If she looks like she’s ready for a play it could spoil the whole thing.

So yes, there’s a lot that could go wrong. Instead of getting the third out you could end up giving up a couple of runs and putting another runner in scoring position.

That’s why it requires a lot of practice, and a lot of confidence not just on the part of the catcher and first baseman but also the coach to allow this play to occur.

When it works, though, it’s a thing of beauty. And it really takes the wind out of the sails of the opposing team because A) it took them out of a good scoring opportunity where the pressure was on the defense and B) it made them look foolish.

Even if you never use it in a game, this is the type of play that can spark a defense and get them feeling good. But if you do use it, and you execute it properly, it’s something everyone on the team, and everyone in the stands, will remember for a long time to come.

So if you’re feeling adventurous or just want to give your team a little extra energy, give this sneaky little play a try. It could be the thing that turns a game around for you.

Catchers: Tips for Throwing from Your Knees

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For most of fastpitch softball’s (and baseball’s) history, the gold standard for catches attempting to throw out runners stealing a base was to pop up and throw from your feet. A quick catcher could be up in an instant, and use the power of their legs and bodies to power the ball toward said base.

Over the last decade, however, there has been a significant shift. These days it seems like all the cool kids are throwing from their knees.

In fact, throwing from your knees has become so pervasive that there are coaches who will tell you that if you have to go to your feet to throw you’ll never play at a high level or in college. That is absolutely untrue, by the way.

I know top-notch catchers who prefer to throw from the feet and do play high-level college and travel ball, but you know how it is when people get something stuck in their minds.  The ONLY thing that truly matters is the pop time – how much time it takes from when the ball hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the glove of the person covering the base. If your pop time is better from your feet, have at it.

That said, throwing from your knees is also a perfectly viable option. Personally, I like to teach both methods so A) catchers can decide what works best for them overall and B) they have options depending on the pitch.

For example, if you’re catching a riseball it may make more sense to follow it up and throw from your feet, whereas a good dropball lends itself more to a throw from the knees. It doesn’t make much sense to go back down to throw if the ball carries you high or vice versa.

If you are going to throw from your knees, you should learn to do it properly. Here are some suggestions that can help you maximize both your ability to get the ball to the base quickly and hit your target.

  1. No falling trees. This is the most common mistake I see. The catcher gets the ball and immediately starts falling forward toward the base as she makes the transfer.
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    Timber!

    As a result, while she may be quick to get into position she ends up throwing all (or mostly) arm, losing velocity over her normal throw. So whatever advantage she gains by not popping up she loses through reduced arm speed. A better approach is to get the body in position and drop the glove-side knee straight down under the shoulder.This loads the weight on the back side and allows the catcher to get more body into the throw.

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    Loaded and ready to fire.

    She can get resistance out of the front side rather than chasing it forward and throwing off-balance. With a little practice she can be quicker to release than with the falling tree method, with the added bonus of more velocity on the throw. What’s not to like?

  2. Get aligned with your target. Another common flaw is the desire to just drop down to the knees and throw. This will work (sort of) for a right-handed catcher throwing to third base or a lefty throwing to first because her body is naturally aligned that way anyway. For a throw to second, or a throw to the other side (e.g., righty throwing to first) it can be disastrous. The first move, as the ball is being transferred from the glove to hand, is to set the shoulders and hips in a straight line with the target. A good way to do this is to pull the throwing-side knee into position.
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    Be sure to get the hips and shoulders aligned with the target.

    Again, as it swings around it should end up under the throwing-side shoulder. This move should be quick and urgent, with the rotation of the body occurring in as tight a circle as possible. (The further out the knee or leg swings, the slower the movement will be.) From this position the throw will once again be strong and accurate.

  3. Work the transfer. Whether they’re throwing from their feet or their knees, this is an aspect many catchers fail to develop enough. They’ll do long toss and other arm strength drills until their arms turn to putty, but they’ll gloss right over the transfer. That’s a mistake, because the transfer dictates how quickly the rest of the throw can happen, and whether it will be powerful and well-timed. The first key is never, ever, reach forward to get the ball out of the glove. Instead, bring the throwing hand up near the shoulder and bring the ball to it. That way the transfer becomes part of the throwing motion instead of a separate operation. Also, you don’t want to squeeze the ball too hard in the glove because that will make it more difficult to pull out. Use the minimal pressure necessary to secure the ball. For more advanced catchers, instead of “catching” the ball and pulling it back, learn to rake it back. That means starting to pull the glove in before you catch it so you’re already taking the glove back toward the hand. You may lose a strike here or there, but if it means you throw out Ms. Rabbit trying to steal second I’m sure your coach (and your pitcher) will forgive you.
  4. Be sure to follow through. A lot of catchers, when they throw from their knees, will tend to stop short. When that happens they end up with their bellybuttons facing the target. That’s a great way to develop shoulder and elbow problems, especially if they’re trying to throw out a very fast runner. Catchers should unleash the full power of their body in a way that causes a natural follow-through. The result will be their throwing side shoulder ends up facing the target. Many catchers will fall when they do that. That’s ok – in fact it’s desirable. It means they got the full force of their bodies behind the ball.

Here’s the beauty. While none of these tips individually will likely make a huge difference in your pop time (except maybe the first one), their cumulative effect can be substantial.

Let’s do the math. (What, there’s math? No one said anything about doing math.)

Let’s assume the runner can get from base to base in 2.8 seconds and the catcher has a pop time of 2.0 second – enough to qualify for a Team USA tryout, by the way. She takes off at release from the pitcher and the ball takes 0.4 seconds to get from the pitcher to the catcher. That leaves just 2.4 seconds to get the ball to second.

Since the catcher has a top pop time of 2.0, the margin of error is .4 seconds. Try to record .4 seconds on a stopwatch or your phone’s stopwatch. It’s not easy. You’ve made the umpire’s job very difficult.

Now imagine each of the tips above can each shave 0.025 of a second off your pop time. Now your margin for error is .5 seconds, which means if the play was close before it’s not nearly as close as it was and you’re more likely to get that runner out. You’ve also demonstrated you can throw out a baserunner with 2.8 speed, sending a message to the opposing coach about sending anyone who runs slower than that.

The bottom line is throwing from your knees alone isn’t enough. In fact, it can actually slow it down if you do it wrong.

Do it right, however, and you’ll earn your reputation as a force to be reckoned with behind the plate – and a place on many coaches’ short lists.

Tricks and Tips for Developing Higher-Performing Catchers

Ashley catching

Ask most people (especially their parents) and they will agree that catchers are the backbone of a quality fastpitch softball team. While pitchers get all the glory and the accolades, without a great catcher your team is likely to under-perform and lose more games than it should.

Great catchers don’t just grow on trees, however. Even the best often need to be built. In fact, I’m often amused when I hear someone talk about what a “natural” a particular catcher is, because I know what they were like originally and how much work went into making them look like a “natural.”

So for those of you with a daughter who wants to strap on the ol’ tools of ignorance and spend her career squatting in the heat, or for you coaches who understand the value of a quality catcher and need to develop one or two, here are some ways I’ve found to make it happen.

Desire

All the joking around aside, catcher is a tough position to play. Probably the toughest on the field, all things considered. You can put gear on a player and stick her behind the plate, but that doesn’t make her a catcher (except in the scorebook).

To be any good at all as a catcher, you have to have a desire to play the position. If that desire isn’t there, the rest of it isn’t going to work no matter how hard you push.

I’ll take a kid who isn’t as athletic but wants to be back there over a great athlete who looks like someone shot her puppy every time she goes behind the plate any day of the week. And all day Championship Sunday. (That’s an expression only. No catcher should have to catch five or six games in a row unless there is simply no other option.)

Find the kid who wants to do it and the rest of it will go much faster.

Learning to block

One of the challenges with learning to block balls in the dirt is the basic fear of getting hit with the ball. There is a natural, human tendency to want to turn your head when a ball bounces at you, especially if you’re only used to fielding ground balls.

But that makes no sense for a catcher, because all of her protection is in the front. Turning her head (or body) actually exposes her to more potential pain and injury.

One way I’ve found to get past that fear is to walk up to the catcher, speaking in a friendly voice, and start tossing the ball at her face mask. Ask her “How’s that?” or “Does that hurt?” The answer you’ll usually get is “no” surrounded by giggles.

What your catcher fears is anticipated pain, not a memory of pain. Give her the experience of taking a ball to the face mask, or chest protector, or shin guards and she’ll be able to overcome that fear.

The one caveat, however, is to check to make sure her equipment actually will protector. I recently had a 10U catcher named Erin who finally told her parents and me that it hurt when she blocked a ball with her chest protector. One new, stiffer chest protector later and it was no problem. So be sure when you say it won’t hurt that you know whereof you speaketh.

Making throw-downs

The other area where catchers really “make their bones” (besides blocking) is throwing runners out. There is plenty of great information out there about the mechanics of throwing runners out. But here are a couple of things you don’t normally find in those discussions.

One, surprisingly, is to make sure your catcher has good basic throwing mechanics. Not sure why that aspect is overlooked, but it often is. And all the fancy footwork and ball transfer drills won’t do you much good if the core motion is too weak or too slow.

If your catcher doesn’t have a good throwing motion to start, work with her on it. Insist on it. Drill it into her until she can’t use poor mechanics. That alone will make everything you do more effective.

Another key point is to stop your catcher from running up to make the throw. She should just pop up and throw without appreciably moving forward. Doing it that way will not only save time (because while she’s running up the base runner is running to the base) but it will also protect her from late swings (accidental or intentional to cover the runner) and slipping on a slick plate.

But she’s young and can’t get it to second on a fly without running up? Who cares? A decently thrown ball will roll a lot faster than a runner can run, and if it’s on-line it will be right where the tag needs to be made when it reaches whoever is covering the bag.

Get that ball on its way quickly and you’ll throw out more runners. And remember – most coaches like to test the water first with their fastest runner. Throw her out, or even make it close, and the opposing coach will think twice about trying to steal the other girls.

Get vocal

There are two aspects to this. One is pure volume. Your catcher can be the shyest, most soft-spoken player on the team when she’s not on the field. But behind the plate, she needs to be loud, proud and confident.

Catchers should be directing the rest of the team while plays are going on, and insisting everyone else simply repeats what she says when calling out which base to throw to or where a player should go. Otherwise, you’ll have chaos on the field.

The catcher is the only player on the field who can see everything that’s going on, so it’s natural for her to be calling out what to do. That means A) she needs to know what to do in every situation and B) she has to call it out loudly enough for at least her infielders to hear on a noisy field.

Getting to point A is going to take a fair amount of practice and study. But point B can be accomplished with a little training. Have her work on yelling things – anything. It could be base calls, it could just be numbers, it could be her name. Anything to teach her to be heard.

If possible, take her somewhere where there is a wall a good distance away and have her practice creating a loud echo off the wall.

The other key is to get her comfortable telling her teammates what to do. This is not the time to be shy, and catchers shouldn’t worry about winning popularity contests. They need to take command on the field, hold their teammates accountable for doing the right things, and pick up the entire team when it gets down.

That’s a tall order, especially for a young catcher. But give them the leeway, authority and encouragement to become that player and you might just see a little magic happen.

Final thoughts

Catching isn’t just about skills. A lot of it is about attitude.

Catchers have to think in a way that differs from the rest of the team. They have to know the game at a deeper level than their peers (since they are basically the coach on the field), and they have to have a little swagger to them.

Help develop those qualities in your catcher(s) and you’ll find yourself on the winning side of a lot more ballgames.

And oh, for you parents who would like to see your daughter play softball in college: college coaches at all levels are always on the lookout for great catchers. They’d prefer to find them rather than try to build them.

The closer you can get your daughter to that ideal, the better chance she has of playing in college and getting some or all of her schooling costs covered. Just remember what I said in point #1!

Is Catcher Framing Worth It?

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If there’s one thing you can count on, especially on the Internet, is if there is a prevailing opinion, sooner or later someone is going to offer a contrarian opinion. If nature abhors a vacuum, it’s also true that the Internet abhors agreement.

What made me think about it was a recent discussion I saw about the value of framing for catchers. For years now teaching catchers proper framing technique has been, as they say in the business world, industry best practice. A great deal of time and effort has been spent on determining the best way to receive a pitch to give it the best chance of being called a strike.

So naturally, the talk on discussion boards and Facebook groups is now turning to “framing doesn’t work and is a waste of time.”

Respectfully, I disagree. In my experience, when catchers learn to frame pitches properly they can help their pitchers immensely – if for no other reason than they’re not carrying the ball away from the plate and making the pitch look like an obvious ball.

Since I’m not tied to any one team or program, I get the opportunity to watch a lot of different teams play. Pitchers who throw to catchers who are good at framing tend to get more borderline strikes called than those who don’t.

Here’s one great example. This spring, thanks to another great Internet benefit, streaming video, I got to watch a student of mine catch several games, including some playoff games. This was strictly low-budget video – i.e., someone stuck a video camera up behind the plate, hit the button, and you could watch the game. No multi-camera moves, no chance of the point of view of the camera changing, no announcers to influence what I was seeing.

Quite frankly, I was a bit shocked by some of the strikes that were being called when my student, who is an excellent framer, was behind the plate. Pitches that looked outside to me (perhaps due to the camera angle) were getting called. Hitters were also a bit surprised so I don’t think it was all camera angle.

The proof, however, was what happened when the other team was in the field. The same pitches were being called balls. Same umpire, same camera angle, but different outcome.

(Who is this catcher you ask? I’m not alerting any umpires to the identify of this magician, but I’m sure she knows who she is. And no, that’s not her in the photo although this catcher is a darned good framer herself.)

You’ll see the same thing if you just stand in one place behind the backstop where a good framer is at work. Pitches that are being called balls for one team seem to be called strikes more often for the other.

Again, this doesn’t mean the umpires are bad. Far from it. It’s just that there are a lot of visual cues that go into making a call on a pitch speeding into you, and how the ball is received is one of them.

Of course, one of the things that makes for a great framer is NOT trying to make obvious balls look like strikes. That’s just insulting the umpire’s intelligence.

The key to framing is knowing not just how to do it but WHEN to do it. It’s also about being confident enough in your abilities that you don’t look like you’re trying to get away with something. Just stick it and move on.

The Internet is filled with free advice, and it’s worth the price. For my two cents, though, framing is a very worthwhile skill for a catcher to acquire and practice. Whether you want to believe it or not, it makes a difference.

Product Review: The Softball Rope Trainer

Liv ROPE Trainer main

It doesn’t take too much time going through Life in the Fastpitch Lane to see that I am pretty fanatical about good throwing mechanics. I definitely feel overhand throwing is one of the most under-taught skills in the game, which is a shame because it’s such a big part of the game (unless you have a pitcher who strikes out 18 hitters a game, every game).

So that’s why I was excited to receive a new (to me) product to test – The Softball ROPE Trainer by Perfect Pitch and Throw. According to the manufacturer it is designed to help softball (and baseball) players learn the proper mechanics for a powerful, strong and safe throw by unlocking the joints in the proper sequence. From their website:

“Using The ROPE Trainer allows players to work the throwing muscles in all parts of the kinetic chain. Using The ROPE Trainer optimizes the mechanics of the throwing sequence by building the muscles and joints used during the throwing process. Over time, using The ROPE Trainer will allow for better muscle memory, improved strength and endurance without the excessive stress caused by releasing the ball.”

You can read more about the theory behind it and how it helps prevent injuries here.

The basic design is fairly straightforward. It’s basically a softball with a plug system that lets you attach one or two sets of ropes. By focusing on getting the ropes to work ROPE Softball Trainerproperly (and not smack the player on the head, legs or other body parts), The Rope Trainer helps players find the right path to slot their arms and follow-through properly.

You can add more resistance by using both sets of ropes to create more of a strength workout, although the grip will then not be the four-seam grip most players are used to. No worries, though. You’re not actually going to throw the ball anyway.

The manufacturer positions it as an upgrade over the old “towel drill,” where a player holds a small towel and goes through the throwing motion with the same goal in mind. In fact, here’s an article that tests The ROPE Trainer versus the towel drill. They tested the baseball version rather than the softball version, but I’m sure it’s the same.

One of the big differences in my eyes is that the ropes can swing around more than a towel, so the player has to be more precise in her arm and hand path to get the right results.

Ok, sounds good in theory. How did it work in practice?

The first girl I had try it was a terrific 14U catcher named Liv. She wanted to learn how to throw from her knees, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to check it out.

One of the big issues with catchers, especially young ones, learning to throw from their knees is that they tend to only use their arms. They don’t get into a good position to use their shoulders, torsos, glutes, and other big muscles, and they have a big tendency not to follow through after throwing.

So I put on one of the sets of ropes, handed Liv the ball, and had her get into a runners on base stance.  When I said “go” she reacted, getting into position and using The Rope Trainer as if she was actually making the throw.

As I said, Liv is awesome so after a couple of attempts she got the hang of getting the ropes to whip through to her left side at the end. Here’s a video of her as she’s using it:

Then we switched her to an actual ball. She immediately was able to make the throw with good juice on the ball, and with great accuracy too. Most important, she was using a strong throwing motion that will protect her arm and shoulder.

To give you an idea of how strong her throw was, this is what happened to her mom’s wedding ring after receiving a few at second then at first. Oops. Kari broken ring

Of course, it’s easy to get something to work when you have an excellent player using it. So for another test I went the other way.

I took a younger girl (who shall remain nameless) who did not have a particularly good throwing motion and had her try The Softball ROPE Trainer as well. While the results weren’t quite as instantaneous, she also showed improvement.

This particular girl was doing the classic “throw like a girl” of dropping her elbow below her shoulder and just sort of shoving the ball forward with her arm.

(NOTE: Don’t even bother telling me how horrible I am to use the phrase “throw like a girl” and wonder how such a nasty misogynist could ever work with female athletes. I encourage my students to throw like softball players, and will put them up against any male player their age – or any dad who doesn’t think girls can throw hard. So chill.)

After working with The Softball ROPE Trainer for about five minutes she was doing better with her overhand throws. I doubt that little session was permanent, but I wanted to see if it would make a difference.

I believe it did, and that with repetition at home and/or practice someone with poor throwing mechanics could re-learn how to throw properly, most likely within 2-4 weeks with regular work.

The other nice thing about The Softball ROPE Trainer is that it doesn’t cost very much. You can purchase it direct from the manufacturer for just $67.49. I know, weird price, right?

For that money you get the ball, two rope sets (I think – the website says one but mine came with two), instructions and a nice drawstring bag to hold it all. If you wear out the ball or one of the rope sets you can purchase new ones as well, which is always nice.

If you have or know players with poor throwing mechanics, or have someone with good mechanics who want to get better, give The Softball ROPE Trainer a try.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I don’t know how it is for fastpitch pitching yet. That’s next on my list to try. Seems like if you have mechanics that focus on whipping the ball through the release zone instead of pushing it The Softball ROPE Trainer might work. We’ll see.

If it works, I’ll do another post on that. If not, I’ll update this one.

Adding A Little “Pop” to Catcher Pop Times

Rachael catching

When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.

Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.

You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.

Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.

Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.

So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.

Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.

Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.

So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?

For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.

Here are some ways to do it.

  1. Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, sheRachael catcher stance pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
  2. Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
  3. Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
  4. Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
  5. Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
  6. Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.

If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.

The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.

Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.

Bring a Little Fun to Corrections By Playing HORSE

Help player learn skills faster by playing HORSE

Being a coach sometimes can feel like you’re stuck in the movie Groundhog Day. You offer a correction, the player makes it for a repetition or two, then goes back to what she was doing before. So you offer the correction again and the cycle repeats.

This pattern particularly shows up with younger players, but it can happen to anyone anytime. Obviously, two good repetitions followed by a few incorrect ones isn’t going to get anyone anywhere.

So how do you provide a little extra incentive to focus on doing it right every time? This is where taking advantage of the competitive nature of fastpitch softball players can come in handy.

Fastpitch softball is a tough sport full of difficulties and disappointments, so players really have to have some competitive fire to keep going with it. They also have to love a challenge. As soon as you press the “compete” button you almost always have their full and undivided attention.

One way I’ve done this is to borrow from the playground basketball game of HORSE. You know the one. You take a shot, then the player after you has to take the same shot. If he/she doesn’t make it, he/she gets a letter. You keep going until only one player hasn’t spelled out HORSE.

For Katie, the girl in the photo at the top of the post, the challenge was getting her to bring her back leg into her front leg to finish the pitch. She had the very common tendency of throwing the front leg out without using the back leg. As a result, the back leg was more of an anchor dragging behind her and cutting back on her speed and accuracy.

So I challenged her to a game of HORSE. The rules were simple. If her back leg finished by closing into her front leg (more or less) no letter was assigned. If, however, she finished with her legs spread apart (which usually caused her to bend forward as well) she received a letter.

Once we established those simple rules, it was game on! Suddenly, instead of the Groundhog Day loop of me telling her to finish, she was more on top of it. She still ended up getting an H-O, as I recall, but that was all in the 10 minutes we spent on it.

That was pretty good improvement, because it meant in all the pitches she threw she only failed twice. More importantly, rather than me telling her to fix the issue she was now dedicated to fixing it herself – because she didn’t want to lose the game!

I knew it really got through to her, though, when at her next lesson she asked if we could play HORSE again. I think she wanted to play because she knew she could win; she’d worked on it between lessons to gain the advantage.

But that’s ok with me – I want her to win, because then she’s improving her mechanics and using her body more effectively. By the way, there was no prize for winning or avoiding getting HORSE, although there certainly could’ve been. The game simply appealed to her competitive nature and got her attention.

In reality, this is a game/technique you can use to drive improvement for all kinds of techniques. Have a hitter who is dropping her hands or swinging bat-first? Play HORSE.

Have a fielder who isn’t getting her glove down on ground balls, or a catcher who isn’t keeping her glove on the ground while blocking? Play HORSE.

(I’m not just saying this to you, by the way. I am also making this as notes to myself, as I am definitely under-utilizing this idea.)

The one thing I would caution is focus the game on the process/skills, not the results. So use it to help a first baseman learn to scoop a ball in the dirt properly, but not to keep track of whether she actually got it or not. Or use it to help a hitter learn to swing hips-first rather than giving her a letter if she swings and misses.

If she learns the skill, the results will take care of themselves. But if you focus on the outcomes, you won’t drive the skills. Instead, you’ll probably reinforce bad habits as the player tries to avoid the error/failure instead of learning and internalizing the technique.

In any case, if you find yourself in a Groundhog Day-like loop, give HORSE a try. And if you do, or you’ve done the same thing yourself, let me know how it works for you in the comments below.

Minesweeper bunt drill for catchers

Success after completing the Minesweeper drill for bunts

One of a catcher’s responsibilities, whether in fastpitch softball or baseball, is playing the bunts that stay close to home. The catcher has to realize the situation, react quickly, pick up the ball cleanly, set her body, and make an accurate throw under pressure.

The first step in this process, of course, is to teach the core techniques, such as surrounding the ball and how to pick it up when it’s moving versus sitting versus spinning. From there, most move to tossing the ball from behind the catcher and having her pick it up.

Here’s another way you can reinforce the techniques while adding pressure, repetition, and conditioning. I call it the “Minesweeper” drill after the old computer game that used to come with Microsoft Windows.

What you want to do is set several balls at different positions in front of the catcher that she will actually be responsible for. The catcher starts from a runners on base stance, and when say go or blow the whistle, she runs out, fields the first bunt, makes the throw, then comes back and does the next, as Jasmine demonstrates here:

You can use as many balls as you like, although try to space them so the catcher doesn’t accidentally step on one and roll her ankle. For added pressure (and some competitive fun), have her work against a stopwatch. You can even have multiple catchers competing against one another to see who can get the best time.

As you can see, this is a drill you can do in a batting cage as well as outdoors. The cage we used in the video is a little short of the full distance, but that’s okay as long as you’re measuring times the same way. When you move outside to full distance, just set the baseline again.

Watch to be sure the catcher returns to a good stance each time before going after the next ball. She doesn’t have to stay there long. Just long enough to get established.

Not only is this drill good for building and reinforcing technique. It’s also a great way to help catchers get some conditioning work in without realizing it. They’ll be so focused on clearing the “mines,” especially if you’re timing them, that they won’t notice how much work it is.

If you’re looking for a fun way to help your catchers improve their bunt coverage, give the Minesweeper drill a try.

Training catchers with the Roman Empire drill

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Anyone who has seen a gladiator movie, or a movie with gladiators in it, is familiar with this scenario: Two warriors do battle until one bests the other. The victor stands over the fallen loser, weapon at the ready, and looks to the Emperor (or highest-ranking official in attendance). The Emperor holds out his hand with his thumb extended sideways, then either turns it up to spare the fallen warrior or down to indicate he should be killed.

Never mind that this is just a dramatic fiction of the movies. In reality, gladiators were too expensive to acquire and train to be wasted in such a manner. The idea of the thumbs-up/thumbs down creates a scenario to help fastpitch softball as well as baseball catchers.

Like hitters moving from the cage to games, catchers often have a tough time making the transition from practice to the field. They may be great at blocking in practice, when they know it’s coming, or scrambling to their feet to chase a popup. But in an actual game, all that training sometimes seems to go out the window.

That’s where we can borrow from the Roman Empire of the movies, and have some fun besides.

Line your catchers up in front of you, with your arm extended and your thumb to the side. They should all be in their runners on base stance.

Then either turn your thumb up for them to react to an imaginary popup or base stealer, or down to block a pitch in the dirt. Thumb up

The key is that they don’t know which they’re going to have to do, so they’re going to have to read and react quickly and appropriately.

For added challenge, you can tell anyone who goes the wrong way that they have to sit out. You can also tell the catchers that the last one up or down is out as well. That creates a little competition and gives them some skin in the game.

Thumb downWhen the catchers go into a blocking position, check to make sure they are in the position you want and not just flopping onto the ground. They should be up and over the imaginary ball, with their shoulders further forward than their knees and their chins tucked in – as opposed to the ones who sit on their calves like they’re getting ready to watch TV.

For the popup position, first tell them where the ball will be – in front of them or behind them. Then emphasize getting their backs turned to the infield so the imaginary ball doesn’t drift away from them.

If you want to go with steals, make sure they’re coming up into a good throwing position rather than just getting to their feet. If you have the space, you can even have them make the throw. Just be aware of a stray ball or two.

The objective, again, is getting them to read the situation and react more quickly.

Here’s the last part to making a successful transition. Your catchers may get good at Roman Empire, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll carry it with them onto the field. What you want to tell them is when they’re in a game, they need to approach it like they’re doing the Roman Empire drill.

They need to get themselves ready to read and react, rather than not thinking about it at all and then reacting too late. By being mentally ready on the field they’ll put themselves in a position to use all that training and find greater success.

Fastpitch catchers: On your feet or on your knees

Throwing from your feet or your knees doesn't matter, as long as you get the job done

University of Minnesota vs. Oklahoma State University Women’s softball.

Ok, I’ll admit it. The headline was my opportunity to offer a tribute to one of my favorite Blue Oyster Cult albums. But it does have relevance for fastpitch catchers as well as coaches when it comes to making throws to various bases.

There is certainly a perception in some circles that to be a high-level catcher you have to be able to throw from your knees. Of course, like many of these so-called “absolutes” that is simply not true.

Throwing out runners on a steal is basically a math problem. Since it’s summer let’s make the math easy to start.

Let’s say the runner can go from first to second in 3.0 seconds and the pitcher is throwing 60 mph, which means it takes 0.4 seconds from the time leaves her hand until it reaches the plate. Simple subtraction says 3.0 – 0.4 = 2.6.

That’s the amount of time the catcher has from the moment the ball hits her glove to the moment it must be at second base to catch that runner: 2.6 seconds, aka her “pop” time. Notice that nowhere in that simple mathematical formula does it say anything about how the ball is thrown, because it doesn’t matter. It just has to get there on time.

So if the catcher can throw hard enough to get the ball to the base in 1.5 seconds, that means she has 1.1 second to receive the ball, get into position, transfer the ball to her throwing hand and get it on her way.

If it takes less time to throw the ball, she has more time for the other stuff. If it takes her more time to throw, the transfer and positioning time goes down.

Of course, when you’re talking about high-level catching, such as at the D1 college level, 2.6 seconds is a terrible pop time. You won’t be catching if that’s what it takes. They’re looking for sub-2.0 times, the faster the better.

So using our simple math again, if the runner has 2.6 speed and the pitch is still taking 0.4 seconds to reach the plate, the pop time is 2.2 seconds. Allow for a little variance and you’re looking at, say, 1.8 seconds.

Now the throw must get there much faster, but it still doesn’t matter how it gets there as long as it gets there on time. There are no style points in softball. It either works or it doesn’t.

As I’ve been watching the D1 Regionals and Super Regionals I’ve seen both. Some catchers have thrown from their knees, while others popped up. Why the difference?

Sometimes it’s dictated by where the pitch comes in. A high pitch, whether it’s intentional with a rise ball or some other pitch that got away from the pitcher will lead to a throw from your feet. It would be silly to throw from your knees in that situation.

On low pitches it’s a little different. For some catchers, going to their knees feels right. For others, especially those who lack speed or mobility, it may be too difficult to get to their feet in time to make the throw. They simply don’t have the agility so they must go to their knees. Those who are quicker and more agile, on the other hand, can get up, get into position, and make the throw with time to spare.

Ultimately it comes down to 1) what it takes to get the job done and 2) personal preference. As long as the ball beats the runner to the bag in time to make the tag and get the out, how it got there doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.

I’ll take a catcher who throws from her feet and gets people out over one who throws from knees and doesn’t, or gets very few, any day of the week, and for a double header on Sunday. I’m sure any college coach would agree, because only a fool would think otherwise.

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