Category Archives: Outfield

WCWS Demonstrates the Value of Great Outfield Play

I have written in the past about how many parents of travel ball and high school players view the outfield as a punishment or a sign that their coach believes their child somehow doesn’t measure up to her teammates. They will tell anyone who will listen that their daughter “deserves” to be in the infield – I guess because the cool kids play infield and the nerds play outfield.

Yet as the recent Womens College World Series (WCWS) demonstrated once again great outfield play is often the difference between winning and losing – as well as advancing or going home.

The obvious ones are the spectacular catches – going up over the wall to rob an opposing hitter of a home run. Those are dramatic and make for great candidates for endless SportsCenter Top 10 replays.

Yet those are also the rarities. Often the difference-makers are more the everyday plays or even the approaches to the position that the best teams adopt to ensure their success.

Here’s a good example from my own observations. As I was watching one of the teams warm up I looked at how their outfielders were throwing the ball back to the coach hitting fungoes.

It is common practice among colleges to recruit the best athletes then put them into positions where they are expected to use their athleticism. (The stated exceptions are pitchers and catchers, who are recruited specifically by position.)

As a result, many college players at all positions were once shortstops on their travel and/or high school teams. The best defensive players out of that group will actually play shortstop, and the rest will be spread around to other positions based on need or their ability to hit.

As I watched those outfielders it was clear that was the case for this team. All their throws were that quick, low arm slot, almost sidearm throw that shortstops make. That type of throw is great within a certain range, but after that range it can be a liability.

Sure enough it was during the game. I remember at least two balls hit to medium-deep left or left center where the outfielder picked up the ball and “shortstopped” the throw to third as a speedy runner went for the extra base.

Understand these weren’t balls to the fence. They dropped in front of the fielders.

As expected, the throws took two or three hops to get to third. By that time the runners had already safely slid in and stood up – it wasn’t even close.

A better, stronger outfield throw would have at least given them a chance to get the out. But it didn’t happen and the runners ended up scoring later.

Another example came during one of the Oklahoma State/Texas games. It was the play that was shown endlessly with the miscues that pretty much let Texas back into the game.

If you watch closely, when the throw goes to second after being cut off, the center fielder and the left fielder are nowhere near the line of the throw. When it goes awry, the center fielder has to chase the ball down to the outfield fence, which allows the runners to keep running.

Had she moved to the line of the throw earlier the damage may have been minimized and perhaps we would have seen an all-Oklahoma WCWS instead. We’ll never know.

Throughout the whole NCAA tournament we also saw examples of outfielders diving for balls when they didn’t need to only to see the ball skip past them for extra bases. We saw outfielders lose a ball in the lights or the sun because they didn’t shade their eyes properly or were using a closed-web infielder glove instead of an open web outfielder glove.

We saw balls drop between two outfielders or out fielders and infielders because the outies weren’t forceful enough in calling off the innies (which is what they should do, because they have priority). We even saw simple catches botched because outfielders were trying to make a throw before they caught the ball or just didn’t track the ball well enough.

These types of plays happen every day at levels of competition. And unlike an error in the infield, where most play is self-contained, problems in the outfield can quickly be amplified because there is no one behind them to help minimize the damage.

All of this points to the importance of having a well-trained outfield that is focused on their own position instead of why they’re not playing in the infield. Taking enough pride in outfield play to learn how to read the ball off the bat, re-learn to throw for more power and distance, and develop the type of situational awareness and focus required when the ball comes your way just a few times a game is invaluable to a team’s overall success.

So if you/your daughter is assigned to the outfield, don’t feel like the coach is saying you are “less than.” Instead, look on it as an opportunity to make a huge contribution to your team’s success and be the best outfielder you can be.

In other words, make sure you’re a difference-maker.

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.

Outfield Is Not a Punishment

Let’s play a little fastpitch Jeopardy! Here’s the answer: the Eastern Front, Siberia, and the outfield. What’s the question?

Name three things no one wants to get banished to.

During WWII, the Eastern Front (the losing war in a horrible winter in Russia) was the threat used to keep German soldiers and officers in line. At least it was on Hogan’s Heroes.

Throughout much of the tenure of the Soviet Union, Siberia was a place dissidents were “disappeared” to when the government didn’t want to outright kill them.

And to many in fastpitch softball, the outfield serves a similar function. They believe it’s where players are sent when they’re either judged (incorrectly) as not being not good enough for the infield, or they’re not part of the “in” crowd.

Sometimes that may be true. I won’t pretend there isn’t favoritism in where players are assigned on some teams, or that coaches don’t think some kids have the skillset to play the infield and have to put them somewhere else.

But there are a whole lot of reasons a perfectly good infielder may get assigned to the outfield instead. Beginning with the fact that she can actually catch a fly ball.

For those who have only observed it, catching a fly ball may seem like a pretty simple skill. It isn’t a quick reaction time thing like a sharp ground ball, and you have plenty of time to get into position – even if you have to run for the ball. How hard could it be?

Actually, plenty hard. It’s sort of like doing instant geometry.

You have to judge how hard the ball was hit, where its trajectory will take it, allow for the winds aloft as well as on the ground, avoid looking into the sun or lights for too long, and make your way through all the little divots and moguls no one has ever bothered to clean up. Not to mention the drainage grates and other knee-and ankle-destroying obstacles field designers who have obviously never played outfield might build in to keep the grass looking nice.

Then, quite frankly, there is the attention factor. With a top-quality pitcher in the circle, an outfielder may not see a ball hit her way for three or four innings. Sure, she has responsibilities to back up a base on every batted ball, but on many infield plays she can mentally be on a beach in Maui and still have time to realize something is happening in the game and then run to her spot.

Not saying she should, but she can. But then when the ball does come her way, she has to make all the calculations we just discussed and get there in time to make the play. It can be tougher than you think.

While the story about Gen Z’s attention span being shorter than a goldfish’s may be just a myth, it is definitely difficult to remain highly focused when A) not much happens around you for a long time and B) when it does happen it’s not likely to cause a significant injury (like a hot line drive in the infield will). An outfielder’s Spidey-sense just doesn’t need to be that acute.

The look many coaches see when giving their 20-minute post-game speech.

Here’s the thing, though. Hits to the outfield tend to have larger consequences when they get through. You have no doubt heard of an “infield single,” which is either defined as A) a ball hit so sharply that even though it was fielded in time the runner made it to base safely or B) an error by the scorekeeper’s daughter.

But you never hear about an infield double, triple or home run. The fact is, a ball between infielders, or just over their heads, causes only minimal damage. A ball between outfielders, or just over their heads, often results in extra bases.

You also have the factor that a ball that gets by an infielder can and should be backed up by an outfielder, at least in most cases. A ball that gets by an outfielder is generally backed up by a fence – or a whole lot more grass on a fenceless field.

Then there’s the fact that outfielders have a much greater area of responsibility just in terms of square footage. An infielder overall is responsible for about three feet to either side for the most part, anywhere from five to about 60 feet forward, and maybe 20 feet backward. In most cases it’s more like a 3′ x 5′ box.

Outfielders, on the other hand, have their areas of responsibility measured in square yards. They could have a good 80-100 feet from the fence (real or imaginary) to the edge of the infield grass, and roughly 1/3 of the total area of the outfield. More if you count backing up other outfielders and balls that land fair and roll into the far corners of the field.

That’s a lot of open space to cover. Oh, and no one goes out and grooms the outfield before or between games. You’re lucky if someone picks up the poop left behind when the ballfield was used as a doggy park or as a rest stop for the local goose population.

You see where I’m going. While infielders may get more action throughout the course of a game, it doesn’t mean they are more important. In fact, I would argue just as many if not more games probably turn on poor outfield play than infield play.

I can think of a particular case in point. I remember watching the Olympics all those years ago when softball was still in it. Team USA and Japan were playing in the Gold Medal game, and it was a tight contest.

Late in the game, with runners on base, a Team USA player lofted a lazy fly ball to left field. The Japanese left fielder – who in all fairness probably played shortstop normally on whatever other team she played for – started backpedaling, tripped over her feet and fell down, allowing what would be the winning run to score. Had there been an actual outfielder out there, the outcome may have been different.

I also remember one of my students, who was playing at a D3 university in the Midwest, complaining about the lack of outfield play on her team. She would induce an easy fly ball that a semi-competent 14U travel ball outfielder could have caught and it would end up falling for a double. She couldn’t believe that a college softball player couldn’t handle a fly ball hit directly to her, but there you are.

The point of all this is that, outside of 10U travel and probably most rec league ball, the outfield isn’t simply the equivalent of the reject couch in the first scene in Animal House.

Yeah this one.

It’s a valuable position that requires speed, agility, mental acuity, mental toughness and a willingness to lay yourself out when the game is on the line.

Being put in the outfield doesn’t mean you’re bad. It actually means, as Liam Neeson would say, you possess a particular set of skills.

This is the attitude you want to take.

Any coach who has ever experienced a major, heartbreaking loss because of poor outfield play, which is pretty much every high-level coach, knows just how important that position is. Instead of lamenting that you’re not in the infield, embrace your role in the outfield and give it all you’ve got.

You may just find that you love it. And even if you don’t, it could end up being your portal to where you want to go.

Goldfish photo by Chait Goli on Pexels.com

Tricks for judging fly balls

Can’t remember where I learned this one exactly. Seems to me it was from a book or article by a Major League Baseball player a long time ago. Or maybe it was one of those “tips for the youngsters at home” they used to run on TV.

In any case, young outfielders often have trouble learning how to judge a fly ball. They see the ball go up off the bat and they set up where they think the ball will come down. (Or they run in a few steps automatically, thus violating the “first step back” rule, but that’s a story for another day).

It takes a long time and a lot of repetition to learn to judge fly balls reliably. I’ve never found any drill to shortcut the process. The best way to learn is to catch hundreds (or thousands) of fly balls off a bat. But you don’t always have time to do that, especially with a game coming up. So here’s something you can use to help speed up that judgment.

The only thing that’s required is a visor or hat. When the ball is hit, see if it immediately goes above the bill of the visor or stays below. If it goes above, the odds are it’s going deep. If it stays below the bill, it’s a line drive and likely will stay in front of you.

It’s not a hard and fast rule. Sometimes when the ball goes high it’s going to be a pop-up. But if it is and the outfielder drops back, odds are it’s no harm no foul. It wasn’t her ball anyway.

Another thing to keep in mind related to the height of the ball is how hard you can charge it. If the ball goes high and looks like it might fall short you can run full out after it, and even slide or dive for it. If you miss, the ball isn’t going very far. But if it stays below the bill of your visor, approach with caution because if it gets by you it could roll for miles.

Finally, I got this tip from the NFCA’s Coaches College. The toughest ball to judge is the one hit straight at you. If you’re facing one of those and having trouble, move a few feet to the side so you can see it at an angle. And listen for help from your teammates. They may be able to see the flight of the ball better and help you know whether to go backward or forward.

Learning to judge a fly ball

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

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

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

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

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

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