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.
- 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.
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.
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?
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 properly (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.
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.