Anyone who has seen a gladiator movie, or a movie with gladiators in it, is familiar with this scenario: Two warriors do battle until one bests the other. The victor stands over the fallen loser, weapon at the ready, and looks to the Emperor (or highest-ranking official in attendance). The Emperor holds out his hand with his thumb extended sideways, then either turns it up to spare the fallen warrior or down to indicate he should be killed.
Never mind that this is just a dramatic fiction of the movies. In reality, gladiators were too expensive to acquire and train to be wasted in such a manner. The idea of the thumbs-up/thumbs down creates a scenario to help fastpitch softball as well as baseball catchers.
Like hitters moving from the cage to games, catchers often have a tough time making the transition from practice to the field. They may be great at blocking in practice, when they know it’s coming, or scrambling to their feet to chase a popup. But in an actual game, all that training sometimes seems to go out the window.
That’s where we can borrow from the Roman Empire of the movies, and have some fun besides.
Line your catchers up in front of you, with your arm extended and your thumb to the side. They should all be in their runners on base stance.
Then either turn your thumb up for them to react to an imaginary popup or base stealer, or down to block a pitch in the dirt.
The key is that they don’t know which they’re going to have to do, so they’re going to have to read and react quickly and appropriately.
For added challenge, you can tell anyone who goes the wrong way that they have to sit out. You can also tell the catchers that the last one up or down is out as well. That creates a little competition and gives them some skin in the game.
When the catchers go into a blocking position, check to make sure they are in the position you want and not just flopping onto the ground. They should be up and over the imaginary ball, with their shoulders further forward than their knees and their chins tucked in – as opposed to the ones who sit on their calves like they’re getting ready to watch TV.
For the popup position, first tell them where the ball will be – in front of them or behind them. Then emphasize getting their backs turned to the infield so the imaginary ball doesn’t drift away from them.
If you want to go with steals, make sure they’re coming up into a good throwing position rather than just getting to their feet. If you have the space, you can even have them make the throw. Just be aware of a stray ball or two.
The objective, again, is getting them to read the situation and react more quickly.
Here’s the last part to making a successful transition. Your catchers may get good at Roman Empire, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee they’ll carry it with them onto the field. What you want to tell them is when they’re in a game, they need to approach it like they’re doing the Roman Empire drill.
They need to get themselves ready to read and react, rather than not thinking about it at all and then reacting too late. By being mentally ready on the field they’ll put themselves in a position to use all that training and find greater success.
Ok, I’ll admit it. The headline was my opportunity to offer a tribute to one of my favorite Blue Oyster Cult albums. But it does have relevance for fastpitch catchers as well as coaches when it comes to making throws to various bases.
There is certainly a perception in some circles that to be a high-level catcher you have to be able to throw from your knees. Of course, like many of these so-called “absolutes” that is simply not true.
Throwing out runners on a steal is basically a math problem. Since it’s summer let’s make the math easy to start.
Let’s say the runner can go from first to second in 3.0 seconds and the pitcher is throwing 60 mph, which means it takes 0.4 seconds from the time leaves her hand until it reaches the plate. Simple subtraction says 3.0 – 0.4 = 2.6.
That’s the amount of time the catcher has from the moment the ball hits her glove to the moment it must be at second base to catch that runner: 2.6 seconds, aka her “pop” time. Notice that nowhere in that simple mathematical formula does it say anything about how the ball is thrown, because it doesn’t matter. It just has to get there on time.
So if the catcher can throw hard enough to get the ball to the base in 1.5 seconds, that means she has 1.1 second to receive the ball, get into position, transfer the ball to her throwing hand and get it on her way.
If it takes less time to throw the ball, she has more time for the other stuff. If it takes her more time to throw, the transfer and positioning time goes down.
Of course, when you’re talking about high-level catching, such as at the D1 college level, 2.6 seconds is a terrible pop time. You won’t be catching if that’s what it takes. They’re looking for sub-2.0 times, the faster the better.
So using our simple math again, if the runner has 2.6 speed and the pitch is still taking 0.4 seconds to reach the plate, the pop time is 2.2 seconds. Allow for a little variance and you’re looking at, say, 1.8 seconds.
Now the throw must get there much faster, but it still doesn’t matter how it gets there as long as it gets there on time. There are no style points in softball. It either works or it doesn’t.
As I’ve been watching the D1 Regionals and Super Regionals I’ve seen both. Some catchers have thrown from their knees, while others popped up. Why the difference?
Sometimes it’s dictated by where the pitch comes in. A high pitch, whether it’s intentional with a rise ball or some other pitch that got away from the pitcher will lead to a throw from your feet. It would be silly to throw from your knees in that situation.
On low pitches it’s a little different. For some catchers, going to their knees feels right. For others, especially those who lack speed or mobility, it may be too difficult to get to their feet in time to make the throw. They simply don’t have the agility so they must go to their knees. Those who are quicker and more agile, on the other hand, can get up, get into position, and make the throw with time to spare.
Ultimately it comes down to 1) what it takes to get the job done and 2) personal preference. As long as the ball beats the runner to the bag in time to make the tag and get the out, how it got there doesn’t matter. Not even a little bit.
I’ll take a catcher who throws from her feet and gets people out over one who throws from knees and doesn’t, or gets very few, any day of the week, and for a double header on Sunday. I’m sure any college coach would agree, because only a fool would think otherwise.