Throwing Is More Than Arm Strength
When we teach pitching mechanics, the first thing that we concentrate on is the feet. Coaches often get caught up looking at all sorts of things when trying to pinpoint why a pitcher is having control problems. Many times the problem can be solved by simply looking at the pitcher’s feet. An initial step back or to the side that is too big can cause the pitcher to be off balance throughout the windup, which will throw the entire delivery out of whack. If the first link of the pitching chain is off, the remaining links are compromised.
That line of thinking translates to infield play as well. When an infielder catches a ground ball, the first link of the fielding/throwing chain is the legs. If the fielder doesn’t have a wide base with his or her butt down, not only will it be more difficult to field the ball, but there is a good chance that the player’s throwing mechanics will suffer, increasing the likelihood of an off-target throw.
For infielders of all ages, the natural tendency is to bend more from the waist than at the knees when catching a ground ball. This is a poor approach for a number of reasons.
First, if the knees are locked and the butt is up in the air, it’s harder to get the fingers of the glove all the way to the ground. This can lead to balls that scoot through the fielder’s legs.
Second, if the fielder is in this position, it is nearly impossible to catch the ball out in front of the body. Instead of keeping the head and eyes still and watching the ball into the glove, the fielder is forced to follow the ball into the glove by moving his or her head down as the ball approaches the glove. This abrupt movement of the head, but more specifically the eyes, actually can cause the fielder to lose sight of the ball for a split second, which can result in consistent misplays.
Third, and most important for this article, is that when a player bends from the waist to field a ball, the fielder is not in a position to make a quick throw that utilizes the strength of the legs. To make the throw, the player has to stand straight up, which takes a lot of time, before actually moving his or her feet toward the target. In addition, when a player fields a ball in this manner, usually the front shoulder is not aligned with first base, so more time must be taken to get the feet in proper position before shuffling toward the target. Some players will simply avoid lining up the front shoulder altogether, falling into the habit of stepping more toward right field than first base when throwing. When this happens, to help compensate, the fielder’s arm slot naturally drops, adding to the likelihood of a throw that moves and is tricky for the first baseman to handle. If players step away from the target and throw overhand, the ball is going to travel in the direction of their step and their front shoulder.
Over time, players can learn to make their bodies adapt to these mechanical flaws so that they throw with reasonable accuracy, but they never will be as accurate or quick in getting the ball to first base as the player who gets into proper fielding position and uses his or her legs to help propel the ball to first base.
Perhaps even more important than any of the issues mentioned above, however, is the idea that almost every skill that is performed in sports is executed from an athletic position that includes a bend in the knees and the majority of the body weight centered over the balls of the feet. A player who bends at the waist to field a ball and then has to stand up straight before throwing is not in an athletic position. Generally this player has generated no momentum toward the target, so the weight is more on the heels than the toes. The tendency is for the player to cross over instead of shuffling. The release is slow and the feet often get tangled. Finally, as with pitching, if the player’s weight is more on the heels than the balls of the feet and he or she is standing straight up, there is a good possibility that the throw will be high or low.
If you look at our initial example for pitchers, if the pitcher starts with a step back or to the side that is too big, this causes him or her to be too upright or even leaning back at balance position. From there, the lead foot lands prematurely and usually with the heel hitting the ground first, again causing the pitcher to be upright or off balance. Normally a pitcher gets to rotation or release point at about the same time that the foot plants, but in this case, the foot plants before the arm gets to 90 degrees. So the front side is spent, and very little torque is generated. Pitchers who find themselves in this situation try to rush through the delivery so that the arm can catch up with the rest of the body. They release the ball before the arm is in its proper slot, which hurts their chances of throwing a strike. The lack of torque lessens velocity and eliminates the possibility of a proper follow through. Every one of these issues makes it harder for the pitcher to throw accurately.
That one initial flaw ultimately compromised each of the remaining four links of what we call the five links of the chain. The same can be said for infielders. If the ball is not fielded with the proper fundamental approach, the chances of the infielder making a strong, accurate throw are much less than if the ball is fielded with a wide base, the butt down and the hands out in front. The fielding position is linked directly to the accuracy of the throw after the catch, just like each of the five links of the pitching chain is tied to a pitcher’s ability to throw strikes consistently.
That’s why it’s so critical to get young infielders’ bodies accustomed to getting into the proper groundball position. Our “Keep it Simple” teaching philosophy is geared toward allowing the players to develop the fundamental bases needed to be successful before moving into more advanced skills. Many parents will question why we roll ground balls to infielders of all ages at our camps and why we rarely hit ground balls to young players. If you start hitting ground balls at kids before they have developed the muscle memory for fielding a ground ball correctly, you are going to be making corrections for the rest of the season and possibly for the rest of their careers. Even at the high school level, when the season starts, players should hold the basic ground ball position for five or 10 reps of rolled ground balls at a time.
This will allow them to develop the leg strength and muscle memory to field ground balls properly with ease as the season progresses. They don’t have to worry about bad hops, backhands or forehands. All they focus on is getting in the proper position, holding it and catching the ball with two hands out in front.
From there you can introduce our “shuffle, throw and follow” or “throwing after the catch drill” in which the players start with a ball in their glove, assuming the ground ball position behind a cone, and then – without standing straight up – shuffle to a second cone, release the ball and then follow the throw toward their target and past a third cone.
Once the players seem to have mastered the idea of staying low and pushing off that right foot to explode toward their target and are following their throws naturally and consistently past the third cone, you can combine the rolled ground balls drill with the throwing drill to start tying the links together. Many major league players with less-than-spectacular arm strength have enjoyed tremendous careers playing shortstop by using their legs to help them get rid of the ball in a hurry and propel their throws to first base as quickly and more accurately than other players possessing much stronger arms. Ozzie Smith, Mike Bordick and David Eckstein, three shortstops with stellar defensive reputations, immediately come to mind.
When I talk about a player naturally following the throw past the third cone, I’m referring to an explosive initial shuffle toward first that automatically causes the player to move in that direction. When we teach hitting and pitching, we say that if everything is done properly from a mechanics standpoint, the follow through takes care of itself. The same goes for throwing after the catch. If your players are stopping after they release the ball or stopping and then running after the throw, they have not grasped the concept of using that right leg to propel themselves toward the target. Keep working on the throwing drill until their bodies are accustomed to that action.
To help them understand this concept, ask them to watch a player such as Derek Jeter field a routine ground ball during a game. Derek will catch the ball with his heels on the outfield grass and explode toward his target, making a quick, strong and accurate throw. When the ball gets thrown around the infield after the out, Derek is all the way on the infield grass, meaning he covers perhaps thirty feet from the time he catches the ground ball until he gets it back after the out.
Many people think that having a player assume the proper position when fielding a ground ball is intended to make sure that the infielder gets the fingers of his or her glove on the ground and can see the ball go into the glove. Of course that is true. However, getting into the proper fielding position – wide base, butt down, hands out in front – is essential to the next step of fielding: throwing after the catch. If the infielder catches the ball in that position with the left foot slightly out in front of the right, the front shoulder is already very close to being lined up with the first baseman and the player is in an athletic position. If he or she stays low and pushes off toward the target, shuffling in that direction and then releasing the ball, everything else should take care of itself.
Remember, defense is two parts – throwing and catching. If you catch 100 percent of the balls, but only throw half of them well, your team is going to struggle. So it doesn’t make sense to perfect only one part of the throwing-catching chain. But it does make sense to break the two fundamentals down into their separate parts, mastering each one individually, before combining them to complete development of the complex fundamental.
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