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.
When I work with catchers, I often tell them two of the most important things they will be judged on by coaches is their ability to block pitches in the dirt, and their ability to throw runners out. Obviously there are a lot of other aspects to catching as well, but these are two of the most visible – and most glaring if a catcher isn’t good at them.
Of the two, the second one (ability to throw runners out) is the more easily measurable. At least in theory.
You can throw balls in the dirt to catchers all day long in a tryout or practice situation and they can look like champs. Especially if they know ahead of time the balls are going in the dirt. But put them in a game and the question is whether they can recognize that random ball headed for the dirt fast enough to block. Tough to simulate that randomness.
Throwing runners out, however, mostly comes down to one thing: pop time, or the time between when the ball pops the catcher’s glove to the time it pops the receiver’s glove at the base.
Really, it’s a numbers game. For the sake of simplicity (since I am generally math-challenged), we’ll use 3.0 as the time it takes a base runner to advance 60 feet. That’s a pretty good number at most levels outside the top of NCAA Division 1 college softball, so it’s one where you can expect to see the majority of runners. Well, that and above.
So if we’re using 3.0 seconds as the standard, let’s assume the pitch gets to the plate in 0.5 seconds. Not super fast, but not super slow either, and easy to do the math. So if we assume 3.0 and subtract the time it takes for the ball to pop the catcher’s glove, that leaves 2.5 seconds to make the throw and apply the tag in time.
Of course, getting there exactly at the same time leaves it up to an umpire’s judgment, which you never want to do, so let’s take off a couple tenths of a second to make the ball beating the runner there more obvious. Now we’re at, say, 2.3 seconds.
Of course, most teams will have at least one or two runners who are faster than 3.0 between bases. And some will push the envelope and attempt to leave a little early, so we’d best knock off a couple more tenths. Which means our pop team needs to be in the 2.0 to 2.1 range. Yeah, that feels right.
So if your catcher is hovering around 2.5 (or longer), or is sitting at 2.2 but playing higher-level ball where she needs to get the ball to the base in 1.9 or 1.8 seconds, how do you get that time down?
For any decently skilled catcher there is no one thing that will do it. Instead, it’s a combination of little things that will add up. Shave off a little here, a little there, and before you know it your pop time meets the standard for US national team tryouts.
Here are some ways to do it.
- Adopt a better “runners on base” stance. When I see catchers squatting on their toes in any situation it makes me throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s especially bothersome when there are runners on base, because you can’t move very well side-to-side, and you can’t exactly spring up either. The reason is the weight distribution in our bodies, and our center of gravity – which for a female generally sits low in the hips and toward the back. If the catcher’s butt is below her knees, she pretty much has to lift her entire body weight to get up. But if it starts around knee-level, with the thighs parallel to the ground and the back close to parallel to the ground, most of the heavy lifting is already done. You can get up a lot quicker – and last longer. Which is not only good for throwing runners out, but for chasing down bunts as well.
- Learn to pop up instead of run up. I see this one so often. Catchers will come up out of their crouches, take a step forward with their right foot, then take a step forward with their left foot, then throw. Too much wasted time! Because while you’re running up, what’s the base runner doing? Running to the base. Instead, catchers should work on popping up and jumping into a good stance, with their throwing-side foot dropping back and their weight starting out on that foot. Much, much faster. They can also learn to throw from their knees if they arm, but that’s a discussion for another day.
- Speed up the transfer of the ball from the glove to the throwing hand. Another thing you’ll often see with catchers, even older ones who should know better, is a tendency to reach forward to grab the ball after it’s caught, make the transfer in front of them, then pull the arm back to throw. The problem is their throwing hand starts off by going in the wrong direction. If they fumble with the transfer at all they have a long way to go (relatively speaking) before they are in position to make the throw. A better approach is to bring the ball back to the hand with the glove. The hand will be waiting around the throwing-side shoulder or ear. As the ball goes into the hand, the hand is then pulled back into a throwing position, essentially making the throw a part of the transfer instead of a separate event. To work on this, by the way, have the catcher start with nothing on or in either hand and just pull the glove hand back to slap the throwing hand. Then add a ball, still barehanded, then add the glove. Just stand sideways and continue to work on the transfer. Once you have that down, toss the ball to the catcher and have her practice the transfer that way. It’s repetitive and boring, but it works.
- Rake the ball back instead of catching it. This technique is a bit more advanced, but it can definitely help shave off some time. Typically, the catcher will catch the ball on a steal the same way she catches it for a frame, i.e., get the glove behind the ball, stop its forward progress, then pull it back. Rather than doing that, have the catcher work on catching the side of the ball while starting to pull her glove back, in essence raking the ball back toward her throwing hand as she receives it. Eliminating the stop-and-start of receiving the back of the ball helps get it in place faster to make a throw. Combine this with #3 and you’ll have a catcher who is lightning fast on her release. Then she just has to make sure her body keeps up with what her arms and feet are doing so she can get the throw off with full power.
- Know where the base is instinctively. Whether a catcher is popping up or throwing from her knees, she shouldn’t have to wait until she sees the base to make a throw. She should just know where it is and throw. To work on this, try blindfolding your catcher with the ball in her glove, then have her make the throw. For extra fun, place an object like a stuffed animal on top of a bucket (a second bucket will also work) and have her work on knocking it off. Even if she doesn’t succeed right away, she will build awareness of where the base is and what she needs to do to get the ball there.
- Learn to just throw. This isn’t a technique as much as a mental approach, so it doesn’t necessarily show up in a pop time measurement. But it can have a profound effect on the catcher’s success in a game. All too often catchers want to make sure there is someone at the base to receive the ball when they throw, so they will hesitate, even slightly, before throwing. That is the wrong way to go. The catcher should be focused on getting the ball to the base as fast as she possibly can, and trust that someone will get there to receive it. If they don’t, coaches should make sure to tell catchers they did the right thing and then proceed to work with whoever is supposed to be receiving to get there in time to make the play. I always wanted my catchers to push the limits of the receiving fielder. You should too.
If each of those ideas take just one half of one tenth of a second off, the catcher will end up shaving 3/10 of a second from her pop time. That could be the difference between the bases looking like a merry-go-round for the opposing team and your catcher showing there’s a new sheriff in town. Add in some ladder work for agility and a throwing program to increase overhand throw velocity and you’ll have a star on your hands.
The other thing to keep in mind is coaches rarely use their slowest runner to test the catcher’s throw. Instead, they usually use their fastest. So even if that runner does manage to squeak in ahead of the throw, if it’s close it sends a message not try it with anyone who isn’t a super-rabbit.
Keeping runners from advancing for free on bases should be a huge point of pride for catchers. If you want to make yours deadly, give these ideas a try.