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.