Making Infield Practice More Efficient
By Cal and Bill Ripken
By now you've probably gotten tired of reading that there are no shortcuts and that repetition is the key to success when it comes to developing fundamental baseball skills.Making sure that your players get a lot of repetitions - whether we are talking about swings, ground balls or fly balls - can be a challenge when you have a roster of 12 or more players, but there are ways to maximize the time you spend working on fundamentals that you may not have thought about. Even if you have one assistant coach or volunteer helper, you can use that person to break your kids into smaller groups, keep them active and at least double their repetitions.
Realistically, by eliminating some throws and using strategically placed buckets, you can probably triple or even quadruple your players' ground ball repetitions during a given session. Keeping your players active not only will make practice more enjoyable for your team, but also it will allow them to improve rapidly and dramatically.
Many coaches rely on formal infield/outfield pre-game and practice routines for their teams' ground ball work. While traditional infield/outfield practice is great for having players work on moving their feet, throwing after the catch and hitting the cutoff, in most cases only one player is working on his or her fielding fundamentals at a time. Sure, you may be working on cutoff and or relay fundamentals or on turning double plays, but as far as fielding goes, you are hitting balls to one person at a time while the others are watching.
Professional baseball players field a minimum of 50 ground balls per day - either before batting practice, during batting practice or both. Those guys are the best in the world at what they do, so if it makes sense for them to field balls every single day - even though they play on pristine fields - wouldn't it make sense for your young players to do the same?
Remember that your players are still developing their skills, so the more balls they get to field the better. We like to say that when the routine plays truly become routine - when players develop the muscle memory to feel relaxed enough on the field to react automatically to most balls that are hit their way - is when it becomes possible for the more challenging defensive gems to occur.
With that in mind, we feel strongly that it makes sense to spend 15 to 20 minutes at the beginning of every practice working on individual fielding. Of course, you want to accomplish a lot in every practice - baserunning, hitting, team fundamentals and so on - but if you really think about it, what is the point of cramming all of that stuff into a practice if your team struggles with the most basic part of the game (catching and throwing)?
Certainly, since time together on the field is a precious commodity, you want to be able to work on other aspects of the game during your allotted practice time. We are not suggesting that you spend your entire practice having your players field balls; kids are still kids, and we want to make sure they are having fun. If you spent even 30 or 45 minutes just working on fielding fundamentals, there's no doubt a lot of your players would lose interest. However, we do want to stress that is important to have your players field balls for 15-20 minutes every time they are on the field. And if you are going to set aside that amount of time for fielding, you might as well do what you can to ensure that the process is as efficient as possible, right?
Here's how you can do that:
Ask another coach or volunteer to hit ground balls with you. Get two full buckets of baseballs, or if you only have one bucket of balls, divide the bucket in half. Place half of your players on the left side of the infield and the other half on the right. It is best to put them in positions that they actually play, but for the first part of this drill, you want the players to be distributed evenly on both sides of second base so that they all get an equal number of reps.
Before starting the drill place an empty bucket or other type of container that can hold balls at each position in a location that will not interfere with the players attempting to catch ground balls. Place the buckets in foul ground at first and third and in the outfield grass behind second and short. One coach sets up five to 10 feet to the right of home plate, with the other five to 10 feet to the left of the plate. Each coach has a bucket of balls. The coach to the right of home hits ground balls to third base and shortstop, with the other coach hitting to first and second.
This is a rapid-fire ground ball drill, with both coaches hitting balls at the same time. The coach to the right of home hits a ball to the first person in the line at third base. That player fields the ball, focusing on the proper fundamentals, jogs to the bucket and drops the ball in it. The next player in the third base line quickly steps up and does the same. This coach hits to all the third basemen and then all the shortstops and then repeats that pattern until there are no balls left in his bucket. Meanwhile, the other coach follows the same pattern with the second and first basemen.
After each coach has emptied his or her bucket, have the players return the balls to the coaches' buckets and then start over. This time, however the third basemen and shortstops throw to first after fielding the balls, while the second basemen continue putting the balls in their bucket. The first basemen put the balls thrown to them in their bucket after receiving. Hit balls until the buckets are empty and then reverse the scenario, with the second basemen throwing to first and the first basemen dropping the balls in their bucket while the shortstops and third basemen simply field the balls and drop them in their buckets.
This is a great way to ensure that your players field a lot more ground balls than they would get in a normal session, while also allowing them to work on throwing after the catch. Likewise, the first basemen get to field balls and also concentrate on proper footwork around the bag and receiving. This allows you to focus more on specific team fundamentals such as cutoffs and relays, force outs, double plays, throwing to bases and so on during your regular infield/outfield routine without having to worry if your players are getting enough reps fielding batted balls.
Rolled Ground Balls
Use baseballs for this drill Seems simple, but appropriate for all ages. Balls can be rolled as soft or as hard as necessary and type of hop can be controlled. Players assume ground ball position with wide base, butt down and hands out in front (glove-hand wrist relaxed so coach can see inside of glove with fingers pointing down). Use a flat surface to prevent bad hops - and bad habits. At first ball should be rolled directly into glove from about 10 feet away. Have players hold ground ball position for five reps, so they can feel a little burn in their thighs. As players get comfortable fielding ground balls properly coach can move back and roll balls harder. For conditioning older players can be asked to hold position for more reps. Ball must be caught out in front so eyes can follow it into glove. Age appropriate: all ages.
Throwing After the Catch Drill
Use baseballs for this drill. Reinforces concept of catching the ground ball first, generating momentum toward the target, throwing the ball and following the throw. Three cones set up about several feet apart, placed in a line toward the target where the throw will be made (easiest to set up as a simulation of the 5-4 force out at second base). Player sets up with right foot next to first cone and assumes ground ball fielding position (wide base, butt down, hands in front). Ball rolled by coach to player who fields it, or player starts with a ball and simulates the fielding position. Player shuffles feet to second cone, releases ball and follows throw past third cone and toward the target (cones should be placed so that the distance is appropriate to accomplish the intended result for a given age group). Emphasize four-seam grip. Ball can be thrown to a coach, another teammate or toward a target on a wall. Player should stay low (and not stand straight up) in athletic position after fielding ball. This can be turned into a contest utilizing a target. Players who hit the target stay alive, while those who miss are eliminated. Age appropriate: all ages.
Use baseballs for these drills. Just like a regular ground ball, backhand is caught out in front of body so eyes can follow ball into glove and so that the wrist and forearm do not get in the way. Players also need to establish wide base, with butt down. There are two types of backhands to practice:
Throwing-side Foot Backhand Drill
This backhand is used for hard-hit balls that are slightly to the player's backhand side. Player lines up in front of coach with right leg extended. Pivots right foot so instep faces coach and drops left knee to ground (opposite for lefties). Creates a wide base to help get the butt down and the glove in front of the right foot toward the coach. Coach should be close enough to roll balls directly into glove until player gets hang of catching the ball out in front with one hand, squeezing the glove and bringing it to the center of body. Ball is rolled directly toward front foot. Glove-hand wrist should be relaxed so coach can see into glove. Have players avoid twisting glove so they don't close it too soon. After five repetitions have another player try. As players get more advanced they can raise the trail knee off the ground a few inches. Adding repetitions in this manner can help with conditioning as well. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.
Glove-side Foot Backhand Drill
This backhand provides more reach for players ranging farther to their backhand sides. Player lines up in front of coach, takes left leg and crosses it over the right as if turning to walk. Right knee is dropped to the ground (opposite for lefties) much like a walking lunge. Creates a wide base to help get the butt down and the glove in front of the body. Ball is caught off the front foot instead of in front of it (but still out in front of the body). Coach should be close enough to roll balls directly into glove until player gets hang of catching the ball out in front with one hand, squeezing the glove and bringing it to the center of body. Ball is rolled slightly in front of the lead foot. Glove-hand wrist should be relaxed so coach can see into glove. Have players avoid twisting glove so they don't close it too soon. After five repetitions have another player try. As players get more advanced they can raise the trail knee off the ground a few inches. Adding repetitions in this manner can help with conditioning as well. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.
High Five Drill (Underhand Flip)
Use baseballs for this drill. The underhand flip is utilized by virtually all infielders at some point, so it should be introduced at a young age and practiced. Players line up opposite coach, 10-15 feet away from him. Assume basic ground ball position (wide base, butt down, hands in front). Ball is rolled to player. Player catches ball first, generates momentum toward target, uses an underhand flip and finishes by following the flip toward the coach with the hand held high at head level. When the player gets to the coach he gives him a high five (hand should not drop below head level until high five is completed). Use body's momentum to carry toss to the target. Wrist remains stiff and arm does not swing. Also avoid letting ball roll off fingers. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.
Box Drill - (Underhand Flip) Short to Second
Use baseballs for this drill. Create a box with four players standing up to 25 feet apart from each other (closer for younger players). Fifth player stands behind any player at any corner. First toss comes from corner where there are two players. Do not use gloves - increases concentration. Each player faces corner to his right. Tosser shuffles feet or crosses over, flips the ball to player at corner to his left, leaves hand high and follows flip to that corner. After arriving at next corner, turn to face corner to the right and have two hands out in front ready to receive toss as it comes around. Catch the ball first, generate momentum, toss and follow to next corner. Stress stiff wrist, no extra arm motion, leaving hand high and following flip. This can be done with players of any age. For youngest players you may want to use gloves and count to see which group of five can catch the most in a row without missing one. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.
Box Drill - (Underhand Flip) Second to Short
Use baseballs for this drill. Create a box with four players standing up to 25 feet apart from each other (closer for younger players). Fifth player stands behind any player at any one of the corners. The first toss comes from corner where there are two players. Do not use gloves - increases concentration. Each player faces corner to his left. Tosser shuffles feet or crosses over, keeps hand with the ball in front of the body, flips the ball to player at corner to his right without turning the body or swinging the arm, leaves hand high and follows flip to that corner. After arriving at the next corner, turn to face corner to the left and have two hands out in front ready to receive toss as it comes around. Catch the ball first, generate momentum, flip and follow to next corner. This is more awkward because the hand stays in front of the body at all times. It is important to keep the wrist stiff and avoid turning body completely toward target so that hand is no longer in front. For youngest players you may want to use gloves and count to see which group of five can catch the most in a row without missing one. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.
Use baseballs for this drill. Putting the double play together. One group lines up at shortstop. Another group lines up at second. Coach says, "Go," and rolls ground ball to first player in shortstop line. First player in second base line runs to bag, puts left foot on the bag and holds up both hands at chest level as a target. Shortstop fields ball and executes underhand flip to second baseman, who takes right foot to the ball and catches it. Second baseman returns ball to coach and players go to end of opposite lines. After each player goes several times, switch and work on the 4-6 double play feed. Drill is reversed. Difference is that shortstop puts right foot on bag and takes left foot toward ball. As players get comfortable they can throw to a coach or teammates at first base to complete the double play. Stress the underhand flip and that the players covering second base should get there early and be stationary targets for their teammates. Age appropriate: ages 7-15+.