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.
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.
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).
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.
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!