By Trent Mongero – Winning Baseball
Most baseball coaches will tell you that a fielder’s consistency is a major factor used to determine playing time. They want a player who is going to make the routine play, every time…making the great play is considered a bonus. “Fielding Consistency” is defined as the ability to successfully repeat a fielding skill that results in an out (no error on the play).
Numerically, what does it mean to be consistent? Great infielders at the highest level of baseball have a fielding percentage of .970 or better. This simply means they are making 970 or more error free plays out of 1000 chances. This includes all touches (assists and putouts). It is evident that infielders with great fielding percentages take as much pride in their defense as they do any other aspect of the game. They pay great attention to detail and execute a daily plan to improve in the off-season, and to remain physically and mentally sharp throughout the regular season…and the post-season.
To put consistency into perspective, let’s take a close look at one of the best middle infielders ever…..Omar Vizquel. He had an average fielding percentage of .985 over 24 seasons at the MLB level. In 2000, Omar started 154 games at shortstop for the Indians. He had 648 chances (231 putouts, 414 assists, 99 double plays) and only committed 3 errors which equals a .995 fielding percentage. This unbelievable consistency earned Omar another Golden Glove. As you likely imagine, performing with this level of consistency takes a lot more than fielding a few ground balls every day. Thus, here are five ways great infielders improve their consistency.
- Strong Fundamentals
Fundamental mechanics are the foundation of great infielders. When I say mechanics, I don’t mean robotics. Fielders must implement fundamental techniques while remaining athletic, relaxed, and smooth. Yes, the best have their own style or flair, but don’t let that fool you. They develop style and proper instincts from a combination of instruction, practice, and game experience. This includes taking correct angles, using correct footwork, knowing the hop to choose, having quick glove action, and using proper arm angles needed to make every defensive throw imaginable. They learn to play ground balls from low to high and throw the ball with a 4-seam grip whenever possible. They have superior body control, quickness, eye-hand coordination, and field awareness (know where they are in relation to bases and other players).
Great infielders pay attention to the smallest detail. For instance, I would argue that having a quality glove that is a proper size (based on the infield position played) and having it broken-in properly adds to a player’s fielding fundamentals, and as a result, increases his consistency. In addition, knowing the different ways a baseball glove can be worn (relaxed on hand and fingers in different places in glove) can add or detract from performance. For example, a middle infielder wearing a glove too big and too flimsy will cause issues with a quick exchange, and if the ball does not enter in the pocket, the glove’s instability may allow the ball to deflect away from a catch or allow the ball to pop out resulting in an error.
- Quality repetitions
At the minimum, infielders must get a significant quantity of repetitions to improve their mechanics and ultimately their confidence. Repetitions can come in many forms including, but not limited to, drill work, Fungos from coaches or teammates, using a FungoMan machine (FungoMan.com), live plays off the bat in BP, or even throwing a tennis ball against a wall. It is a common mistake to think it is adequate for infielders to get all the defensive reps they need during daily batting practice or a “pre-game” infield routine. This is a small part of an infielder’s development, but certainly not enough to create the polished mechanics and confidence needed to be a consistent game performer.
Infielders must get repetitions on all plays they will be expected to successfully execute in a game. These repetitions should progress from the predictable to the unpredictable. When a player is learning a skill, it helps if they can repeat the same mechanical sequence in a controlled environment. For example, when learning the fundamental “flip feed” delivered from a shortstop to a second baseman when turning a double play, repetitions can progress from a stationary ball on the ground, then a rolling ball, then a soft Fungo from short distance and finish with an actual ground ball from the plate. Note that all of these repetitions are to the glove side of the fielder. That is predictable. However, once a shortstop learns all the double play feeds from his position (or is an advanced player) they should move from predictable practice to unpredictable practice. To accomplish this, a player takes random ground balls at any speed or angle and react, by executing the correct double play feed for that scenario.
Daily fundamentals not only include glove work, but also includes critical throwing repetitions. Infielders must strike a delicate balance between throwing too much and not throwing enough. Throwing accurately from multiple arm angles must eventually become instinctive for players who want to be great. Having the confidence to finish plays with throws (to teammates and bases) comes with practice. Infielders should make a safe amount of throws to all bases that they routinely throw to in games. If a player’s arm is sore, tender, tired, or injured, they should finish every ground ball rep by “powering up” to the intended base. Powering up means implementing quick footwork, fielding the ball, and transitioning into a throwing position to the desired target. However, the fielder would not make an actual throw. After powering up, they can turn and softly throw the ball to the Fungo hitter or place it in a bucket.
- Compete in Practice
The goal of great infielders is to make the actual game seem easy. This is accomplished by pushing limits in practice which include high intensity repetitions, competing against teammates, the clock, or both. For example, using a stop watch or the timer in a FungoMan machine can add stress to every type of ground ball. We know the average right handed MLB hitter runs to first base in 4.3 seconds, and left handers do it one tenth faster (4.2). Thus, the objective on every defensive repetition in practice should be under 4.0 seconds. This includes double plays and slow rollers. An added element of stress is competing against teammates. For example, how many groundballs out of 10 can one player execute successfully in under 4 seconds versus another player? A misplayed ball or bad throw counts as a failed repetition. The loser has some type of consequence such as push-ups or abdominal crunches. The improved concentration and mental toughness gained from competing in practice is sure to translate to more consistency during games.
- “Big 5” Infield Drills and Position Specific Infield Drills
Note: These drills are taught by Coach Mongero and are available at www.PlayWinnningBaseball.com. Some of the drills below are also viewable on Coach Mongero’s Youtube Channel at Youtube.com/CoachMongero.
Big 5 – All Infielders:
- Short hop drill
- Short hop to power drill
- Ozzie Drill
- 3 step-5 step
- Choose your hop drill
Position Specific Infield Drills:
3B and 1B: Picks or Picks and tags, Starting DP’s – Feeds, Relays to plate, Fly balls in foul territory, Slow rollers and bunts
SS and 2B: All DP feeds and pivots, Covering bag at second (picks and tags), 5,6,7 and 3,4,9 and 4,6,8 Triangle catch plays
- Strong mental game
In order to improve consistency, infielders must develop mental toughness. As with hitting, a big portion of fielding is mental. Without confidence and a short memory, a player will become less consistent….especially under pressure. A fielder’s mindset must be focused on competing. They must believe they will make every play. Period. Tips 1-4 will help build a fielder’s confidence.
Great infielders have razor sharp focus, and they never take a pitch off. This mental skill is partially developed in practice. As a player fatigues or tires, they lose focus, and as a result make more mistakes. As they are pushed to their physical and mental limits in practice, they grow as fielders. Being verbal also helps fielders stay mentally focused on every pitch. Communication with teammates and constant encouragement goes a long way to help with this cause. The last play is over and the next pitch is the only one that matters.
In addition, great infielders anticipate a rocket being hit at them every pitch. This keeps them from getting caught off guard. It is not uncommon for weak minded players to drift mentally to the past, thinking about previous mistakes or worrying about the future. They say to themselves, “I should have made that play” or worse, “I hope the ball is not hit to me.” They may have difficulty separating offense and defense and dwell on a previous poor at-bat, while simultaneously trying to play defense. This is the exact opposite of competing in the moment.
Baseball is a thinking man’s game. Players think between pitches and then react during each pitch. They combine acquired knowledge and physical skill to successfully improve their consistency and range (see Coach Mongero’s previous article, 5 Ways to Improve Range). This gives them a desired edge over their competition. However, if they fail to implement the tips mentioned above, both consistency and range will decline, and the game may eventually pass them by. Of course, superior athletes can often get away with relying on their raw talent alone, but at some point, they will end up competing with a player as gifted as them. When this happens, the smallest of an advantage can be the difference between playing and sitting on the bench.
Twitter: @CoachMongero and YouTube: www.Youtube.com/CoachMongero