By Trent Mongero – Winning Baseball
The next time you are around elite infielders, ask them this question… “When it comes to fielding, what separates one player from the next?” A starter from a non-starter? A high school player from a college prospect? A college player vs. a MLB draft pick? The answers you receive will likely include…quick hands, proper footwork, arm strength, fielding actions, etc. All of these answers would be partially correct. Yet, if you stop and really think about it, you probably realize an infielder could possess many (or all) of the tools mentioned above and still not successfully get to the ball, field the ball cleanly, and/or finish the play by recording an out. If this is true, then there must be more to being a great fielder. So what then really separates one elite infielder from the next?
The answer can be found in two words…RANGE and CONSISTENCY. Range is how much distance an infielder can cover in all directions and finish the play, and consistency is the ability to successfully repeat a fielding skill or action that results in an out. The only problem is, as players progress up the ladder to the higher levels of the game, the difference between each infielders’ range and consistency may be razor thin and specifically, in the case of range, hard to statistically measure.
Yet, if we all agree that range and consistency are vital to every infielder, and helps players separate from their competition, the next logical question has to be, “what can we teach infielders that will help maximize their RANGE and CONSISTENCY?”
Below are five “secrets” top infielders use to increase their RANGE. In a future article I will share 5 “secrets” top infielders use to improve their CONSISTENCY.
5 Ways Infielders Increase Range
- Know The Pitch Being Delivered
One of the most important things an infielder should know, that can help increase his range, is what pitch is going to be delivered, and there are various ways to acquire this information. The most logical is for the middle infielders to get the sign from the catcher as he is giving signals to the pitcher. However, if you have a coach who calls pitches for his team, the entire defense should know how to interpret his signals and thus will know what the batter will see each and every pitch (including the desired delivery location).
The reason knowing the pitch sign is vital is because it gives fielders a clue to the direction the ball is most likely to be hit. For example, if a right handed batter is up and the pitcher is getting ready to throw an off speed pitch, there is a likely chance the ball will be pulled. Likewise, if a hard throwing left handed pitcher is throwing a fastball away to the same right handed hitter, the odds go up that the hitter will be late on his swing and hit the ball “backside” (to the opposite field).
Knowing each pitch that will be delivered becomes even more valuable when the fielder combines this knowledge with the other very important information below.
- Creep In Direction Of Probable Contact
Most elite infielders know not to do anything that might tip pitches to the batter. This includes positioning themselves, pitch-by-pitch, to the pull side or towards the opposite field based on a fastball vs. something off-speed. However, if a fielder moves in one direction or the other as he “creeps” into his ready position, it will be too late and subtle for the hitter to pick up or notice. Thus, using the information in #1 (knowing the pitch), the fielder can creep (into his ready position) slightly to his right or to his left to gain a few feet in the direction of probable contact which is one to two feet closer to where the ball will likely be hit. This can increase a player’s range. How many fielding attempts does a player miss by 2 or 3 feet over the course of his career? Too many. Creeping into ready position in the probable direction of contact over the course of a season will make a difference, especially when a player combines the information in #1 and #2 with #3 below.
- Pick Up The Imaginary Strike Zone Of The Batter
If a defensive player wants to increase his range, he must also understand and apply this simple principle. Each time the ball is delivered to the hitter, each fielder must take his eyes from where ever they are glancing and look directly at the imaginary strike zone of that hitter. Once a player’s eyes relax upon the imaginary strike zone, they will see the ball enter his field of vision as it travels to catcher’s mitt, and they will also see the hitter’s bat attacking the pitch. If the bat barrel is early, the ball will be pulled. If the bat barrel is late, the ball will be hit to the opposite field. With practice, a fielder will be able to start moving to where the ball will be hit before contact is ever made with the pitch. This is a huge advantage for increasing your range. This is where the rubber meets the road with the information gathered in #1 and #2 above. #1 – The fielder knows the type of pitch and location. #2 – He creeps into his ready position in the anticipated direction of probable contact. #3- He sees the pitch enter the imaginary strike zone of the hitter, and he reacts to the bat barrel being early, on time, or late to contact.
- Both Feet Down Before Contact
Everyone knows a baseball travels very fast off of a bat when it is “squared up” or “barreled”. That makes this secret critical to not only increasing a player’s range, but just as importantly not decreasing a player’s range, which would be devastating for any fielder. When an infielder creeps into ready position, many guys leave their feet and gain a little air just before the hitter makes contact with the ball. This action is very similar to a tennis player receiving a serve. There is nothing wrong with this action, however, it must be completed with feet back in contact with the ground before the ball reaches the imaginary strike zone of the hitter. If not, the ball can travel 20 or more feet into the field of play, while the defender is in essence “suspended in midair” an inch or two above the clay. As a result, they can’t move in any direction until their feet land. Thus, if a fielder gets his feet back down to the earth a fraction before the ball gets to the imaginary strike zone of the hitter, he can start moving in the direction the ball will be hit before actual contact is made and thus increase his range.
- Crossover Step vs. False Step
Once an infielder recognizes the baseball is going to be hit to his backhand or glove-side he has to maximize his footwork in order to cover the most distance in the shortest amount of time. Most elite infielders implement a crossover step to accomplish this task. A crossover step is executed by simply taking the foot that is opposite of the direction the player wants to move and cross it over the foot closest to where he wants to travel. For example, if a short stop wants to move to his backhand side (towards the third baseman), he would pivot on his right foot while lifting his left foot up and over his right foot, landing it on-line in the direction he wants to run. The incorrect movement of an infielder, when attacking a ball to either side, is taking a “false step.” Which in the example given above would mean the short stop first lifts his right foot and moves it towards his backhand side, gaining a small amount of distance, and then bringing his left foot across. This unnecessary “False step” with the fielder’s right foot is wasted time and distance, and will decrease the infielder’s range.
Once a fielder buys into the fact that “little things” add up to “big things” in the game of baseball, he will be more excited to learn and implement the tips above to increase his RANGE. Most infielders recognize the importance of each of these secrets, but then fail to put them into action in games or to practice them during team B.P. (batting practice). However, the players that do successfully implement and practice these simple but effective ways to increase their range, begin to show better “instincts” and start improving their range.