|When it comes to outfield play, on the surface, many just think patrolling the outfield means catching fly balls. (USA Baseball)|
Drills are the lifeblood of skill development. Whether it be for Major Leaguers as a part of their daily routine, or youth players as their means of learning the basic skills of the game, it's in the batting cages and backyards where ability is truly cultivated. Drills allow you to isolate a specific part of a specific skill that, when put together, help develop the overall talent of the individual player.
Within each skill of the game lies a natural progression straight out of the "crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run" school of thought. For instance, hitters can't focus on putting the ball out of the ballpark without mastering the skill of putting the ball in play, while pitchers can't concern themselves with throwing ten different pitches until they've actually figured out how to consistently throw one for a strike. By following a simple step-by-step, building block approach with each specific skill of the game, players will not only find a comfortable routine that will build consistency in their daily work, but will also reap the benefits in their entire ability.
When it comes to outfield play, on the surface, many just think patrolling the outfield means catching fly balls. The reality is quite the opposite, as over the course of a season, outfielders will handle far more balls on the ground than they ever will in the air, so that has to be taken into account when setting up a practice plan. Additionally, with so much ground to cover, the reads, jumps, and routes can make a huge difference not just with whether a play is made and an out recorded, but also whether or not an extra base can be prevented.
Since so much of outfield play is done on the ground, starting a drill progression with a focus as such will translate into games very quickly. Put simply, there are only two types of ground balls an outfielder will ever have to field: one where they don't have to make a throw, and one where they do. For a ground ball without a throw- like a hard base hit directly at the outfielder- he will become an infielder with his technique to field the ball. On a ground ball with a throw to be made- think base hit with a runner on, or a ball to a gap- the focus turns to the feet, first setting up to field, then setting up to throw. The line drill puts an emphasis on both.
With outfielders standing in foul territory down the right field or left field line facing centerfield, we can roll (for younger players) or hit (for those more advanced) ground balls from fair territory, as the players use the foul line as their guide. Taking the approach out of the play by forcing outfielders to stay behind the line, the focus is on fielding technique, first on balls without a throw, moving the feet to get in front of the ball, catching it with two hands just like an infielder. Next with attention placed on ground balls with a throw, the outfielder keeps his feet moving while the ball is rolling his way, setting them up to field, and only crossing the line aggressively with his footwork to go field the ball, then replacing them to set up to throw.
Lastly, for balls that force the outfielder to move laterally, the correct angle and efficient route are vital, and the last progression of the line drill puts the emphasis on cutting the ball off. Now working on a ground ball to their left or right while behind the foul line, once they have successfully gotten in line with the ball laterally, only then can they aggressively cross the line and gain ground up the field to go get the ball, using their feet correctly as they had been previously.
READ AND REACT DRILL
Often times, a play is made not in the final moments before the catch, but rather at the moment the pitch is put in play. A great jump and the correct read can turn an average outfielder into a Gold Glover, while a late jump or a poor read off the bat can do the outfielder in. Putting a focus on seeing the ball and reacting accordingly teaches a skill that will repeatedly be the difference between making a play or not.
There are four parts to this drill. With the player holding a ball 10-15 feet away, he'll toss the ball to the center of their coach or partner's chest, who then can catch the ball with either his right or left hand. Whichever hand the tossed ball is caught with is the side the outfielder will open up to. The first part of the drill deals strictly with opening up to the correct side, turning after reading which hand the ball was caught with- partner catches with his right, player opens with a quick jump turn to his left, and vice versa. The next step adds the break which can be set in any direction- straight back, at a 45-degree angle, laterally- all now after opening up to the correct side after the same toss to the coach.
From there, we now add a short thrown fly ball to this specific drill progression. After tossing the ball, opening up to the correct side, breaking in the pre-determined direction, the partner who just caught it will then throw a short distance pop-up that the outfield can now go catch. This is a very isolated drill done in a relatively small area, but the technique is identical to that which will happen in a game on a batted ball. The thrown pop-up also offers the opportunity to focus on catching the fly ball correctly with proper technique, whether that be a ball to get behind, setting up for a throw, or one caught on the run. For the final part of this read and react progression, we can get the outfielder to practice recovering from an incorrect read by now throwing that same short distance pop-up to the opposite side that they opened up to. Wind, spin, or just a bad read in general can make certain plays a bit tougher, but when specifically working on getting back around to the correct side to catch the ball, they too can become routine.
Now putting everything together for outfielders prior to playing in a game, getting reads off of a batted ball gives them the opportunity to work at very specific skills that will be needed when the lights go on. Fungoed balls off the bat have been a constant at ball parks everywhere as both a part of players' pre-game routine, but also as a means to improve their abilities in a controlled environment. Every type of ball in play in a game can be simulated by the fungo, and just a little creativity can keep your outfielders engaged by having a different focus each and every day. Additionally, the fungo helps introduce the pre-pitch stance (or ready position), putting outfielders on the balls of their feet on contact to get the quickest jump off the bat.
A short distance fungo- hit from 100 to 125 feet away- is a good start, building from the read and react drill with an emphasis more on the read and technique than on actually going to get the ball. From that same short distance, using some fungo-wielding skill, with a ball hit directly over the outfielder's head, they can work on identifying the well-hit ball on contact, putting their head down- taking their eyes off the ball for the first few, dead-hard sprinting steps- and running to the spot where it will land to make the play. This head down, eyes off the ball technique allows outfielders to cover the most ground possible, as opposed to keeping their eyes on the ball the entire time. An uncomfortable way to go get a ball at first, when practices and learned offers great benefits for outfielders when it comes to their range.
Lastly, from a greater distance- some 200 to 250 plus feet away- the fungo can be hit as high (or low) and as far (or short) as possible, giving the outfielder a ball (or on the ground) in the air as close to what they might get in a game. Position the fungo in direct line with the sun, and outfielder can practice blocking its rays to catch the ball, a situation that will assuredly come up in a game. Make two lines and hit the ball in between, and now we have a focus on communication between outfielders. Move the outfielders in, and they can work on going back on the ball, or move them back to emphasize coming in on a pop-up. Instead of self-tossing to hit, create a side soft toss to fungo, and now all of a sudden outfielders have a completely different read on contact off the bat, and really must concentrate on getting their best jump.
There are many parts to becoming a great defensive outfielder. While it all starts with the attitude and simple effort to go get the ball, the specific skills to field every kind of base hit, line drive, and fly ball that will come up in a game can and should be worked on in practice. It's not just about hitting pop-ups to outfielders all day- the position is far more than that. By implementing the aforementioned drill progression into a daily practice routine, outfielders will undoubtedly help develop at a consistent pace, putting themselves in position to enjoy success patrolling the vast green space when under the lights.
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