By Darren Fenster
Outside of catcher, no position is involved more in the pitch-by-pitch, play-by-play of a game than those manning the infield spots on the diamond. Infielders carry a wide array of responsibilities including fielding ground balls, turning double plays, setting up cutoffs and relays, being in the correct backup positions, and countless others. But for everything that falls on an infielder’s shoulders, make no mistake, those who make the routine play, routinely are valuable cogs to championship teams.
One of the most important parts of infield play has not to do with the hands, but rather with the feet. All infielders are built from the ground up, emphasizing proper footwork which will allow the hands and throw to work in naturally. Find a player with great hands, and that’s a guy who probably has great feet.
So, when developing your future Gold Glove-winning infielders, here are a few important things to consider:
When determining where exactly infielders should position themselves on the field, understand the importance of knowing the situation (outs, score, inning), where the runners are on base, the speed of the hitter/runners, along with each guy’s individual arm strength, quickness, and range.
Regular depth gives infielders the most range, playing back towards the outfield grass. This is the general position to be in with nobody on base, and the play going to first.
Double play depth puts the shortstop and second baseman closer to second base to turn a potential double play, about two steps in and two steps over as compared to regular depth. The corner infielders can also move in a step or two towards home plate with the idea of getting the ball just a bit quicker to the pivot man at second.
Infield in depth has all of the infielders playing at a spot where they can throw the baserunner on third out at home, which isn’t necessarily going to be up on the grass.
Half-way depth is a great one-out defense with runners on first and third, or with the bases loaded, where a double play can get your club out of an inning. A key to this depth is that the batted ball is going to dictate where the play is going: a hard ground ball enables the double play, while the softer grounder goes to home to prevent the runner from scoring.
Being ready to make a play is a big part of actually being able to make a play. An infielder’s pre-pitch (or ready position) does just that, putting them in a comfortable and relaxed stance, well-prepared to get a quick first step to make a play. Mentally, it’s also important to know what to do with the ball when it is hit your way, as great infielders anticipate plays, and want the ball to be hit in their direction.
As the pitcher delivers the ball, the infielder’s weight should shift to the balls (or front part) of their feet, timed out just as the ball enters the hitting zone. The feet are roughly shoulder width apart, with the knees bent and body in an athletic position. Hands are slightly out in front of the body, and NOT on the knees. Relaxed and on the balls of the feet is when infielders are at their quickest for that good first step on contact.
APPROACH TO THE GROUND BALL
Many youth infielders are brought up being taught to “charge” a ground ball hit to them. Charging a ball lends itself to going after the ball out of control, and a key element to becoming a good infielder is to work under control, so an “approach” to the ball is a much better mindset for players to be in when preparing to field a grounder.
Whenever possible, they should create an angle to get their body moving in the direction of the throw, towards the base the play is going to. This is known as getting around the ball, but not in a circular kind of way, but more like in the shape of a banana, just a slightly rounded angle that will get momentum towards the target, and into the throw. By approaching a ball in this manner, infielders are able to get more on their throws that actually are easier on the arm.
FIELDING AND THROWING THE GROUND BALL
When it comes time to actually fielding the baseball, it’s as much about proper footwork as it is having sure hands. The two work together. It starts with the approach to the ball mentioned above and continues with three basic steps to secure the ball. For right handed throwers, the footwork is as simple as right-left-field the ball. For lefties (first basemen), it’s the opposite, working left-right-field.
Bending from the knees, and not at the waist, infielders then want to field the ball slightly out in front of their feet, and under their glove-side eye. Think of the ball as an egg and catch it like an egg. That will help develop the soft hands that great infielders possess. Additionally, if they think about working under the ball, from the ground up, they are putting themselves in a good, athletic position. It’s far easier to work from low to high than it is from high to low when fielding. After catching the ball, it is then brought to the center of the body - ideally between the belly button and chest - from where the hands will separate to start the throw.
The throw begins with the feet working towards the target, as one replaces the other in a shuffling action. As the feet work the legs into the throw, it’s important to make sure the glove-side shoulder is pointed to the target where the throw is going. In essence, that shoulder acts as a guide for the throw, a good checkpoint for infielders to put themselves in a fundamentally sound position.
Holding the ball with a four-seam grip that will best keep the throw straight and on-line, making a throw through the target, instead of to the target, puts just that much more on it without overthrowing. After releasing the ball, keep the body moving in the same direction towards throw for a few steps, allowing all of the momentum that went into the ball to finish naturally and fully. After the ball is fielded, the play essentially becomes a game of catch to record an out.
The double play is commonly referred to as a pitcher’s best friend. A killer of all rallies. But when a potential double play ball is hit, and not a single out is recorded, all of a sudden it becomes the pitcher’s worst enemy, creating a chaos that often results runs scored by the opposition. So, when teaching the double play, one of the first thing to instill in infielders is to let them know that it’s OK if they don’t turn two. That will allow them to take their time in securing the first out, which, coincidentally best enables that second one to be recorded.
There are three parts to getting the two outs of a double play. First is positioning, where the middle infielders should shorten up their normal depths to move in and over, closer to second base where they will easily be able to get to the bag early as the pivot man to turn two. The second part is the feed, where regardless of the position on the infield, the better the feed to second, the more likely the double play is to be turned. So in going back to the approach that it’s ok if they don’t turn two, taking time on the feed to second to ensure a good throw is vital in securing that first out. The last part of the double play is the pivot, where by getting to the base early, the middle infielder can be in a position to turn the pivot into a simple two-step catch and throw. For shortstops, it is right foot on the base, left foot to the ball. For second basemen, it’s just the opposite, with their left foot on the base and right foot to the ball. From there, the double play literally becomes a game of catch, where the pivot man catches the feed, and throws to first to hopefully get that second out.
As with all of the skills in the game, infielders should work every day to become fundamentally sound, able to make those routine plays that are going to happen all the time. The SportsCenter highlight reel plays are ones that just happen where players allow their athleticism to take over. Those who become great at the boring stuff are usually the ones who tend to be great at the plays that we don’t teach because they have a fundamentally sound base from which to build.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.