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.
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.
In fastpitch softball, as in baseball, catchers tend to make their bones in two areas above all else. One is their ability to block pitches in the dirt. The other is their ability to throw out baserunners, either on steals or pickoffs.
Key to the latter is the ability to make a quick throw. While having a strong arm is important, a strong arm can be offset by requiring a slow, deliberate release. And for catchers whose arms are not the strongest, having a quick release becomes even more critical.
One of the ways you can speed up a catcher’s release is by getting rid of the need to “find” the base first. In other words, when the catcher goes to throw the ball – either on a steal or a pick – she shouldn’t have to look at where the base is and process the information.
Instead, she should just know instinctively where it is. The tenth of a second or two she saves by not having to “find” the base first can make the difference between safe and out.
Even the runner is safe, if it’s just by a hair it will serve as a warning to the other team’s coach not to get too adventurous on the basepaths. After all, coaches generally don’t test the catcher’s arm/release with their slowest runners – they use their fastest. If you can make it a photo finish with the fastest runner, it’s unlikely the coach will be anxious to send the rest.
So how do you get catchers to throw with more instinct? One of my favorite methods is by using a blindfold. Here’s how it works.
First, you must have already trained your catchers on proper technique, including the need for urgency. If you haven’t done that first, stop now and do that, then come back to this idea.
If you have, however, then it’s time to bring out the blindfold. The catcher starts with the ball in her glove and the blindfold in place. Make sure she’s in line with where she would normally set up, then have her get into her runners on base stance. Tell her to visualize where the base you’re throwing to is. I usually like to start with throws to second.
When she’s ready, either blow a whistle or yell “she’s going.” At that point the catcher pops to her feet (or drops to her knees if she can throw that way) and executes the throw as quickly as possible.
If she has a good feel for where the base is without seeing it, and good technique, she should be able to make the throw reasonably close. If she doesn’t, it could go anywhere and you’ll know you have some work to do.
If the throw goes offline, be sure to tell the catcher where it went so she can get a feeling for the difference between where she thinks it is and where it actually is. Also be sure to watch as she makes her throw for mechanical flaws (such as not pointing the front shoulder at the target) that can throw her off.
One way to make it more interesting is to offer a prize. This is particularly effective if you’re working with multiple catchers at once, since once one of them is successful it will spur the others. I’ve used a stick of Chapstick, a pack of gum or a roll of Mentos as prizes. You can select whatever you want.
Having a competition for a prize is a great way to end a training session, by the way. I like using this type because everyone has a shot at it (versus having only one winner) if they execute properly.
To add a degree of difficulty, have the receiver sit on a bucket or a chair. That cuts the adjustability of the receiver, so the throws really have to be spot-on. If you’re working with multiple catchers, you can add in some conditioning by having one be the thrower, one the receiver, and another chasing down errant throws. Give the thrower one shot, then she sprints down to become the receiver, carrying the ball with her. The running not only helps them build their legs but also fatigues them, helping simulate the feeling of having played a couple of games already.
This drill/game can be used for any base. It can be particularly interesting for right-handed catchers to learn to throw to first base on a pickoff attempt since the moves will have to be stealthy and they must rotate beyond the 90 degrees required to throw to second. It can get pretty random, especially outdoors, so your “chaser” will get a good workout in.
Throwing to bases blindfolded can be pretty challenging at first, so keep them encouraged. Let them know there is a degree of difficulty involved, and there’s no shame in not being able to do it at first.
But if they CAN learn to throw to bases instinctively, without seeing, the whole process will become a whole lot easier when they’re not blindfolded.
Don’t be surprised, by the way, if this quickly becomes your catchers’ favorite drill/game. The ones I’ve used it with usually will ask if they can do it, or will select it if given a choice of how to close out practice.
Truth is it’s not only challenging – it’s fun. And a point of pride when they’re able to make the throw.
Tossing out baserunners takes a lot of instinctual play. This is a great way of helping to build those instincts.