Category Archives: Catching

Brrrr It’s Cold; Take Advantage of It

As I write this we are not only in the beginning of the Christmas/New Year holiday vortex but also an actual polar vortex. Winter Storm Elliott is hammering much of the U.S., including parts that aren’t used to it, with snow, gale force winds, and bitter cold of the type that makes you run right back inside as soon as you feel it.

Or doing something stupid like this.

It’s so bad where I live that the facility I usually work out of has been closed for the last couple of days. No sense having people risk their health and/or their lives just to come to a lesson when there are no important games on the immediate horizon.

So does that mean all softball-related activities must come to a dead stop? Hardly.

In fact, times like this offer the perfect opportunity to really dig into mechanics and the mental game to work on the little things that can make a huge difference in a player’s overall performance.

It’s like when a player comes to a lesson and says they are feeling a little ill, or tired, or have an injury. I light up – not at their misfortune but at the chance to go deeper in aspects of the game that they might not want to spend so much time on ordinarily.

Not because it’s not necessary, but because it can be really boring to them. When it’s all they can do, however, those things become a lot more interesting.

So while it’s bitterly cold or snowy and you’re stuck at home (or even if it’s bright, sunny, and balmy for that matter) here are a few things to work on that don’t require a cage, a bat, a regular softball, or even much space.

Quick Pitching Release

I have yet to meet a pitcher who doesn’t want to be faster (including a few pretty famous ones). While speed alone isn’t everything, the more you have the better everything else seems to go. And the better you can get by until you can improve other aspects of your game.

One of the keys to speed is the ability to transfer as much of the energy the pitcher has generated through leg drive as possible into the ball. That requires a lightning-quick yet relaxed pronation of the forearm at release.

Building that pronation doesn’t require a lot of space or fancy equipment. You can:

  • Throw a rolled up pair of socks into a wall or mirror
  • Throw a plyo ball, foam ball, or regular ball into a net
  • Walk around the house practicing releases, Ks, and full circles with nothing in your hand
  • Perform various exercises (such as squeezing a stress ball) to build your grip strength

Focusing on that one little bit can pay huge dividends the next time you go to pitch at a full distance.

Leg/Body Drive and Timing Off the Rubber

Don’t worry non-pitchers, we’re getting to you. But this is another area that’s often under-trained when pitchers are left on their own.

A lot of pitchers have trouble generating effective leg/body drive off the pitching rubber. After they load they will start to reach forward with their stride (glove-side) leg while essentially standing on the drive (throwing-side) leg.

This type of movement is inefficient, even if it’s done quickly. To generate the kind of energy needed to throw hard you have to get the hips driving forward before the stride leg has gone out fully.

In other words, pitchers have to learn to use their legs together instead of one at a time. Fortunately, this is the same type of leg action used when you skip (or for you multi-sport athletes go for a layup).

Plus you’ll make people wonder what you’re so happy about.

Find a few feet of space and skip. Feel how the legs are working. Then try doing the same thing but adding a pitching motion to it.

Take video so you can see if you’re truly getting some spring in your step or if you’re just standing on the pitching rubber as the stride leg goes out.

You can also just stand on the ball of the foot of your drive leg, push forward, then “catch” yourself with your stride leg. This should all occur in a quick, short motion rather than trying to get out far.

Feel the legs working together, then start extending it until you can do it full speed, just as you would in a game.

Swing Mechanics

You probably know from endless hours of lessons what you’re supposed to do at each phase of the swing. But are you actually doing those things?

Here’s a way to find out. Set yourself up in front of a full-length mirror and watch yourself take a swing. If space is limited substitute a curling iron or a short pool noodle for the bat.

Go through it slowly and see what position your body is in at each phase. Check to see that you are:

  • Getting positive movement forward
  • Leading with your hips
  • Getting separation between your hips and shoulders
  • Keeping your hands up instead of dropping them to launch the bat
  • Driving your back side around your front side

Do it slowly, over and over, checking each aspect. Then do it a little faster, then a little faster, each time checking all those aspects.

While this doesn’t do much for your timing, it ensures that if you are on time you’ll greatly increase your chances of hitting the ball hard.

Ball Transfers

While this applies to any position, it especially applies to catchers. The faster you can transfer the ball from your glove to your throwing hand, the sooner you can get the ball on its way so you can throw out even the fastest of rabbits.

This guy gets it.

This is a skill that can be practiced in a bedroom or living room.

Start out barehanded, with the ball in your glove hand. Then transfer it to your throwing hand by slamming it from one to the other.

Then add a glove, doing the same thing. Do it over and over, each time trying to go a little faster.

Before you know it you’ll be able to move that ball from one hand to the other with the best of them.

Mental Game

Ask any coach or player how important the mental game is and they’ll likely tell you it’s hugely important. Then ask them what percentage of their practice time is spent on the mental game and, if they’re honest, they will probably tell you little or none.

That’s because physical practice seems like practice. Mental game practice feels like you missed something you should have been working on.

This is your chance. While you’re stuck inside, do some visualization, seeing yourself making great plays or slamming great hits.

Work on your positive self-talk. A kind word from yourself at the right time can work wonders.

Look online for various stress-relieving techniques you can use during a game. Examples include:

  • Squeezing a stress ball or other device
  • Grabbing a handful of dirt, squeezing it tightly, then throwing it away
  • Inhaling deeply through your nose and blowing the air out slowly through your mouth
  • Washing your hands with water
  • Creating a pre-pitch routine or ritual

Turn on loud music or a talking podcast then try to do something unrelated such as a reading or math problems. It’s amazing what this exercise can do for your ability to focus.

Time invested now in your mental game can pay big dividends when it’s actually time to play.

No Justification Needed

Really, these things aren’t just for bad weather. They are things you should be doing any time if you want to get better.

But bad weather provides the perfect opportunity because there is little else you can do.

Don’t waste this chance. Get on it now and you’ll find you’re than much farther ahead in your goals once you hit the field again.

Photo by Ir Solyanaya on Pexels.com

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Two Hands or One? It Depends

I’m pretty sure every fastpitch softball player ever has been instructed to catch with two hands. This mantra is drilled into them from the first time they put on a glove – and often until the last time.

Yet if you watch high-level players play you will often see players catching with just their glove hand. So which way is correct?

The answer is: it depends.

Sorry to equivocate but there is no “right,” one-size-fits-all answer. Because either way can be right depending on the situation.

Using two hands

When receiving a throw, the two-handed approach is generally preferred if the ball is thrown within the area of the torso. Using two hands helps secure the ball and protects against an error in case it accidentally doesn’t make its way into the pocket of the glove.

Two hands are also generally preferred when a throw must be made immediately following the catch, such as on a potential double play. Catching with two hands means the throwing hand is right there with the glove, enabling a faster transfer than if the throwing hand is somewhere else.

Another time two hands is the way to go is when fielding a ground ball between the feet. Especially if it is bouncing instead of rolling. Using two hands makes it easier to react to the unexpected and still make the play.

This has nothing to do with softball but was too cute to pass up.

In the outfield, players should be using two hands to field a fly ball they are already camped under. I know, I know, lots of MLB players use one hand but keep in mind their gloves are large and the ball is much smaller. Not to mention they are bigger and stronger.

Fastpitch softball outfielders are better served using two hands so they can clamp down on the ball after the catch. Just be sure the throwing hand is to the side rather than helping to close the back of the glove like so many seem to like to do.

Finally, when outfielders are fielding a rolling or bouncing ball with no need to make an immediate play, two hands is the way to go.

Especially if the outfield looks like this

Using one hand

It would be safe to assume that any situation that isn’t mentioned above would be better-served by using one hand. And you’d be right. But let’s go through a few anyway.

The first is when the player has to reach for a ball, i.e., ball that falls outside their center mass. Reaching with one hand allows you to reach further than doing it with one hand.

That’s just science. The extra inches gained may make the difference between an out and an error.

This reaching applies not just left, right, and up but also down. For example, an outfielder making a do-or-die play will be better off reaching down with her glove hand only so she can keep moving fast and pick up the ball on the run in order to gain more momentum into the throw. Trying to use two hands will only slow her down.

On ground balls, anything to the right or left will work better with one hand – again because it increases the player’s range. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen players try to go laterally with two hands only to see them miss by an inch or two. Maddening!

There are also a couple of positions that are (or at least should be) primarily one-handed. Take first base for example.

While it would be nice if all throws came right to them with time to spare, the reality is that’s rarely the case. First basemen are always stretching in some direction, even if it’s forward.

On in some other crazy direction.

Having a first baseman try to make these catches one-handed is a rookie mistake. Letting them reach with the glove, and throw the other hand back, will help your team secure more outs, especially as the pace of play gets faster. You can read more about that here.

Catcher is another one-handed position, although for different reasons.

Most times catchers are going to try to receive their ball in the center, even if they have to move that center from side-to-side. The issue here is protecting their throwing hand.

Balls deflecting off bats, bouncing off the dirt, or even breaking suddenly all put the throwing hand at first. Sprain a thumb, jam a finger, or even break a bone in the back of the hand and that valuable catcher will be watching from the sidelines for a while.

Learning to receive with one hand while keeping the other protected will help keep that catcher on the field when you need her.

One-handed catching also has the added bonus of reducing the time to transfer the ball from the glove to the throwing hand on a steal.

Catchers who use both hands to catch the ball tend to pause to transfer the ball before pulling it back to throw. By catching with one hand catchers can bring the ball and mitt to the throwing hand, thus making the transfer part of the throw instead of a separate operation.

It’s a difference of hundredths of a second, but those hundredths can make the difference between safe and out. Here’s where you can learn more about one-handed catching.

Bottom line

So you can see there’s no single blanket answer. How many hands to use depends on the position and the situation.

My recommendation is to teach all players to do it both ways when appropriate. And for goodness sake let your catchers and first basemen use one hand even during warmups so they can build that all-important skill.

5 Tips to Help Catchers Throw Out More Base Runners

While there are many things that go into being a great catcher, there are really two aspects where catchers “make their bones.”

The first is blocking. In a tight game especially, the ability to block a pitch that’s thrown in the dirt can make the difference between winning and losing. Great blocking can also give pitchers the confidence to throw to the edge of their ability, which also is a factor in winning more often than not.

The other aspect is the ability to throw out base runners. Particularly runners going from first to second. If you can prevent teams from moving runners into scoring position without having to hit the ball or sacrifice an out by bunting, in the long run you will do better than teams with catchers who allow every single or walk to automatically turn into a double.

I’m pretty sure that makes sense to everyone, and is (or at least should be) fairly self-evident.

Probably the most important steal to stop is the first one. Coaches rarely send their slowest runners to test the waters. Instead, they generally send their fastest, or one of their fastest.

Shoot down that rabbit, or at least make it close, and you’ll find opposing teams are less likely to send the rest.

Be vewwy vewwy quiet…

But that’s the what. The bigger question is “how?” As in how do you make stealing bases such a low-percentage play that teams would rather take their chances elsewhere?

Following are a few tips to make that happen.

Tip #1: Start with a good stance

One of the easiest ways to spot an untrained catcher is by her stance, especially with runners on base.

Untrained (or poorly trained) catchers will usually squat on their toes. This is a terrible position to start from as you have little balance and little ability to move in any direction – including up

When I see a catcher in that position, the first thing I usually do when I am training them is push on their forehead. At which point they tip backwards on their butts. Point made.

When there are runners on base you want to use a stance where your feet are flat on the ground, toes pointed slightly outward, you butt above your knees, and your back and thighs fairly parallel to the ground. You are now solid and able to block, pop up, or drop to your knees and throw depending on the situation.

Like this

Tip #2: Pop up instead of running forward

Probably the thing that most drives me crazy when I watch a catcher, even a young one, is when the catcher climbs out of her stance to make a throw, runs forward a couple of steps, and then throws. That’s a lot of wasted time.

I get why they do it. They feel like they can throw harder if they build up some momentum, like an outfielder throwing home. And they probably can.

But they can’t throw hard enough to make up the time they lost by running up. Because while they’re running up, the base runner is running to the next base.

The reality is you can throw the ball and have it roll to the base faster than any runner can run. Making it there on a fly is just an added bonus.

So instead of running up, have the catcher pop up/spring up with both legs, drop her throwing side leg back (a little love for your lefty catchers), land with the weight back on that leg, and then drive forward with the legs and body.

Get more body on the ball and you’ll throw harder. It takes a little work but it can be learned.

One way to get catchers to land weight-back is to start by having them pop up and land ONLY on the throwing-side foot in a way that their next instinct is to fall forward. Have them land into the leg, instead of back and over it, and they’ll get the load.

Then have them try it while landing on both feet.

By the way, a faster throw is only one benefit. Another is that the catcher won’t step on the plate – particularly important in those early morning games where the dew is still on the bases, or rainy days where they won’t stop the game.

A slippery plate creates a risk of a bad throw – not to mention a risk to the back of the catcher. Throw from solid ground and you remove those risks.

Finally, if the catcher runs up and the hitter is doing a delayed swing to cover the steal, either the catcher will stop when she sees the bat moving or will get hit with the bat. At which point she is not only in pain, and possibly injured, but also could be called for interference (as long as the late swing isn’t too obvious).

Something like this.

Pop up and throw from where you started and your catcher will avoid all these issues.

If you want to your older catcher to throw from her knees instead, this blog post will help you with that.

Tip #3: Work on the transfer

This is where I see a lot of young catchers have trouble. It takes them too long to get the ball from their glove to their hand so they can throw it. But it can plague even older catchers with weak technique.

Start by teaching your catchers to bring the ball back to their hand instead of reaching forward to take the ball out of the glove and then having to pull it back. Any delays when you reach forward are amplified during the throwing process.

The transfer should really be a part of the throw, not a separate operation. If you’re pulling the glove back to the hand, which is waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear, you can slam the ball into your hand and then have the hand go right into the throwing motion.

To train this, start with no glove. From a standing position, put the ball in the glove hand, pull it back and slam it into the throwing hand. For younger catchers you can use a smaller ball, like a tennis ball, to get the process started.

Then progress to doing the same thing but starting with the ball in the glove. No throws yet, just transfers. Then go from a squat, again without a throw.

Finally, toss the ball to a catcher in her squat and have her pop up and transfer the ball. When she can do that cleanly and successfully have her add in the throw. You’ll be amazed at how much faster she can get the ball on its way – fast enough to send a message to the other team to not even bother trying.

Tip #4: Develop great throwing technique on purpose

That sounds like an odd statement but it’s really not. As I’ve said before, throwing is often one of the most under-taught aspects of fastpitch softball.

This despite that fact that good throws are one of the most crucial and controllable techniques you can develop.

Personally, I am a huge fan of Austin Wasserman’s High Level Throwing program.

I’ve observed it, I’ve taught it, I highly recommend it. Your catchers will not only throw harder and more accurately, they’ll also protect their shoulders and arms.

But whatever throwing protocol you follow, be sure to work at it regularly. Hold your catchers accountable for using good technique rather than judging solely on whether they get the ball to the base.

The more you make them accountable, the more frequently they’ll throw well.

As part of that, measure their throws. If you don’t have one, borrow a radar from your local pitching coach and record how hard they throw. Knowing they’re being measured often brings out the best in them.

Also measure their pop times on a regular basis. (If you’re not familiar with it, pop time is the time from when the pitch hits the catcher’s glove to when it hits the receiving fielder’s glove after a throw.)

A good pop time is around two (2) seconds. If your catcher can go 2.0 seconds exactly she’s met one of the requirements to try out for the USA National team.

If your catcher can get under 2.0 seconds consistently your team is probably going to have a pretty good day.

Tip #5: Let her throw, even if she’s not good at it (yet)

This one is about player development, and it particularly applies to coaches of younger teams.

Another of my pet peeves is hearing that a team coach doesn’t want his/her catchers to make a throw to base, whether on a steal or a pickoff, because she might throw it away and cost them a run.

I say so what?

The only way she’s going to learn to make those throws under pressure is by doing it. Every. Chance. She. Gets.

Yeah, it’s always nice to win. But here’s a little secret I will share: Nobody cares how many fall ball games you won at 10U or 12U or in your rec league.

That’s the time to give your players the green light to develop their abilities and learn from their mistakes. Because if not now, when?

These are the same abilities, by the way, that will play into how successful your team is at the older ages. Remember that fastpitch players get faster as they get older. If your catcher doesn’t learn to make the throws now, by 14U/high school the infield will resemble a merry-go-round when you’re on defense.

Or whatever this is.

Let your catchers make those throws and just live with the consequences. They might just surprise you.

Follow these tips and your catcher will be one of the most feared in your league or area. Just prepare her for one thing: Once she builds her reputation her stats will go down. Hard to gun down runners if no one is willing to try running on you!

Little Sisters Are Natural Choices for Catchers

While it’s the pitchers who tend to get all the glory and adulation, there’s no denying that behind (or technically in front of) every great pitcher is a great catcher on the receiving end.

Catching is a tough job. Unlike other players, who spend most of their time standing around, catchers spend a good portion of every game contorted into a squat that gives them mobility while still allowing the umpire to see the bottom of the strike zone.

Catchers also wear all that gear, which not only adds weight but heat – just what you want when the temperature and humidity are both in the 90s or above. If you think a fielding mask is uncomfortable, trying wearing a full-on helmet as well as a chest protector and shinguards. They’re not called the “tools of ignorance” for nothing.

There are other downsides to it as well, which means if you’re going to be a catcher you REALLY have to want to be a catcher. It’s not the sort of thing one dabbles in.

It also takes a certain type of personality to do it well. That’s why I believe there is no one better-suited to the position than a little sister. Here are a few reasons why.

Little sisters tend to be bossy.

A great catcher will tend to have a take-charge personality. She is essentially the coach on the field, putting players into position and, since she’s the only one who can see the whole field, directing throws in live plays (among other duties).

Most of the little sisters I have known tend to have that personality trait. Growing up with older siblings they learn they have to be aggressive if they’re going to be included in group decisions. They also love conveying directions from their moms or their coaches to the others.

They tend to be sharp and direct and are used to yelling/speaking loudly in order to be heard above the noise. They also tend to do it without worrying about consequences because they know as the baby of the family their parents always have their back. All traits most coaches desire in a catcher.

Little sisters relish being annoying. If there is a little sister manual, the first page surely explains that your primary job as a little sister is to annoy all of your siblings – whether that is one or many. Little sister know how to push buttons and don’t hesitate to do so, all for their own amusement.

That’s what catchers are often expected to do as well. As a catcher you should be working on living rent-free in the head of every hitter who comes to the plate.

You want to talk to them, distract them, feed their own doubts about their abilities, exploit their fears, etc. Who is better at that than a little sister?

I have personally witnessed a little sister who is a catcher reduce her older sister to near tears during a hitting lesson with casual comments and snotty remarks. “Oh, there’s a big miss there,” she says on a swing and miss. Or big sis will hit a ball down the line and little sis will say “Foul ball,” not because she thinks it’s foul but because big sis reacts to the comment.

Another little sister catcher I know doesn’t hesitate to point out problems during her sister’s pitching lessons. She will also just give her general grief, making also sorts of negative comments to her just to make her mad.

There’s no real agenda behind it. I think she just likes the turmoil and chaos that results.

Catchers who can get opposing players to lose concentration, especially when it comes naturally to them, can be a huge asset in winning a tight game. Nothing like a catcher who can instinctively and immediately zero in on an opponent’s mental weaknesses. Little sisters are born with that ability.

Little sisters are tough. So not only are you in all that hot gear on a hot infield on a hot day, you’re the player on the field mostly to find your body being hit by the ball on a regular basis. It could be a foul tip, a ball in the dirt you’re expected to block, or even a pitch that is supposed to break right but breaks left.

Whatever the reason, if you’re lucky it hits your equipment, which still has an impact – particularly if it’s hitting your face mask. But it can also hit your arms, your hands, your legs, or other areas fairly easily.

You can also get hit by a bat if you have a bat thrower at the plate. While there aren’t supposed to be collisions at most levels anymore they do happen sometimes.

You also spend a lot of time in the dirt, squatting in it, kneeling in it, diving in it. Of course if you look between innings half the time you’ll find the catcher playing in the dirt anyway so that part probably doesn’t matter as much. But still.

Little sisters know the game. It’s not that they put in any more time studying the nuances of softball than anyone else. But after years of being dragged to their older sisters’ games, and listening to the in-game and post-game analyses of their parents, they’ve picked up a thing or two about how it’s supposed to be played.

Little sisters just seem to know that the first look should be at the lead runner instead of just automatically throwing to first. They know that if they can pick off a runner at first with two outs the runner on third won’t score.

They know that not every pitch that goes up is a rise ball and not every pitch that goes down is a drop ball. Which incidentally not only puts them ahead of many parents of pitchers and team coaches but also most softball announcers on ESPN.

They know which base to throw to when the ball is coming from the outfield and which player has priority when two fielders are going for a pop-up. Although they usually think it should be her if she is involved in the play (see point #1).

If you want someone on the field who knows the game and can direct the others, a little sister will get that job done.

A great choice

Figuring out which of your players will make the best catcher is an important decision that can affect your whole season. Finding out who the little sisters on your team are is a good place start.

5 Tips for Throwing Out More Runners at Second

One of the most important skills a catcher can possess is the ability to throw a runner out at second base. It’s a long throw – 84 feet, 10.25 inches to be exact – which occurs after the runner has already gained an advantage by A) leaving when the ball is released by the pitcher (or sooner, depending on who you’re playing) and B) only having to travel 60 feet.

Just from that statement alone you can see that the odds are stacked against the catcher. If the runner has 3.0 speed, and it takes the ball .4 seconds to reach the plate, that only leaves 2.6 seconds at most to catch the ball cleanly, transfer it to the hand, make the throw and have it arrive in time to catch the runner and have the fielder can apply the tag.

More realistically, you want the ball to arrive ahead of the runner, so let’s shave .3 seconds off that time. If you want to know how short a time that is, try starting and stopping a stopwatch in that amount of time. It will probably take you a couple of tries.

Then the fielder has to catch the ball and apply the tag. If the ball isn’t directly where the runner is the ball will have to be brought to the runner. Take off another .3 seconds for that. Now we’re at 2.0.

If the runner is faster, like 2.7, or anything else goes wrong, like a pitch that goes way high and has to be brought down, there’s even less time. You get the picture.

You can see why it’s such a valued skill.

While there are some aspects that are beyond your control – like that high pitch – there are definitely things catchers can do to improve their chances of throwing out more runners and building their reputations as the biggest, baddest gunslingers on the diamond. Here are five of them.

Pop up and throw instead of running up.

Many catchers, especially young ones, are taught to take a couple of steps forward before they throw to second. The goal behind this thinking generally is to help them get more velocity on the throw, although some will also talk about closing the distance. This type of thinking, incidentally, comes from baseball where the bases are 90 feet apart, not 60, so you have more time to uncork a throw.

The problem with that advice is while the catcher is running across the plate what is the runner doing? Running! And she has a head start and a full head of steam.

By the time a catcher stands up, takes a couple of steps and throws the runner has gained significant ground toward second. Not good.

The better approach is to spring up with the weight on the back leg, shoulders aligned with your target, and make the throw immediately. Yes, you may lose a little velocity on the throw, but the reality is you don’t have to get the ball to the fielder on a fly. It can roll faster than someone can run.

Two other benefits to not running across the plate are A) you won’t get hit by a batter covering the steal with a late swing (thereby getting hurt AND being called for obstruction) and B) you don’t risk slipping on the plate if it is slick or wet. Learn to pop and throw and you’ll increase your chances of throwing out more runner significantly.

Bring the glove/ball to your hand

Something you will see many young catchers do is catch the ball then reach forward to take the ball out of their gloves. It makes sense on the surface – they need the ball in their hand to throw.

The problem is reaching forward takes time. Then you have to pull the ball back to get it into throwing position before making the throw. This little delay may end up being the difference between safe and out.

A better approach is to pull the glove back to the throwing-side shoulder and have the hand meet it there. That way the act of getting the ball to the hand is part of the throw instead of a separate, delayed operation.

Slam it back and work on making it a continuous motion from transfer to ready to throw. You’ll shave a couple of tenths off your time.

BONUS TIP: If your core receiving skills are good, try learning to get the glove on the side of the ball and catch it as it comes back. As opposed to having the glove behind the ball, stopping the ball’s flight, and then having to pull it back separately. This type of raking can take another tenth or two off your time.

Improve your transfer speed

The longer it takes you to get the ball from your glove to your hand, the longer it will take you to make the throw. This is where many otherwise advanced catchers lose time.

Making the transfer is something you need to be able to do in your sleep. You just have to know where the ball is in your glove, and where your hand is, instinctively.

To get there, start by practicing the transfer with no glove. Just put the ball in your bare glove hand, then pull it back and slam it into your throwing hand. Rinse and repeat, over and over, until you’re not even paying attention to it anymore.

Then put your glove on, put the ball in it, and do the same, again over and over.

Finally, have someone toss the ball to you and work it through again until your transfer is flawless. If you can, work on the raking technique above AND work on catching the ball a little lower in the hand rather that in the webbing.

Catching it lower lets it stick out a little more so it’s easier to grab. Just be careful not to sacrifice getting a secure grip on the ball with your glove for trying to get faster. You have to get the ball to your hand before you can transfer it.

Practice the transfer and throw blindfolded

This is one of my favorite activities to do when I run a catching clinic.

When a catcher goes to make the throw, she shouldn’t need to look for where the base is or how to get herself aligned. That wastes time.

Yet you see it all the time. That little hesitation before they’re sure of where they’re throwing.

So to get past that, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her pop up and make the throw to second. For extra fun you can place an object at second and have her try to knock it off the base with her throw, offering a prize if she succeeds.

If you have multiple catchers you can make a contest out of it. It could be the first to knock it off gets a prize, or everyone who does it gets a prize. Doing the latter, by the way, is a great way to build some team spirit as they start rooting for each other.

A catcher who can hit a small target 84 feet, 10.25 inches away blindfolded, after starting in a squat, is a catcher who can accomplish anything.

Follow through on the throw

A lot of catchers, and a lot of players really, tend to stop their bodies when they are fully facing their target. Of course, to stop you first must slow down, which is the worst thing you can do when trying to perform any ballistic activity.

Encourage your catchers to throw not just with their arms but with their whole bodies. That means you should see the throwing side come through once the throw is made. That extra burst of energy will help ensure they get the most “pop” on their throws.

Get ’em

A catcher that can erase a runner trying to move into scoring position is worth her weight in gold. And since coaches rarely send their turtles to try a catcher’s arm, even coming close to throwing out the first runner is a good way to send a message to that coach that his/her team better be able to hit because there will be no freebies today.

And as word gets around, you probably won’t have to make as many throws because teams just know better than to try to steal on you.

Work on these techniques and you’ll have yourself an MVP year.

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.

    IMG_0227

    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.

    IMG_0238

    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.

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