Play Catch for Better Baseball
Play catch for better baseball seems like a no-brainer. Who doesn’t think that playing catch is an important part of baseball? I will answer that question, almost every youth baseball coach in the world. You are sitting there reading this saying, “Not me!” I am sitting here writing this thinking, “Yes you.”
Coaches must prepare a team for everything
Most coaches start practice either with a stretch and throw or vice-versa. The problem is not many youth coaches pay attention to the throwing part of it because the players are just warming up. Well whether you are warming up, hot or cooling off there should be a purpose to your movements.
When a player is, “Warming up,” they are more aware of what their bodies are feeling. Warm up is the best time to train the brain to use proper fundamentals. When players use good fundamentals during their entire practice, they are more likely to return to them unconsciously during high-pressure situations. Preparation is the name of the game, and it is never too early to start preparing.
Have you ever watched kids when they are warming up? They have gloves down at their sides, or they put the glove way out in front of them like they are going to will the ball into it before it thrown. Neither of these is good mechanics for receiving a ball during a game usually. There are exceptions first base and some tag plays, but most of the time, you want a player standing shoulders squared to the the thrower in an athletic position with knees and hips flexed. Their eyes should be looking in the direction of the ball, and their hands should be about shoulder height on either side of their head. This stance is called a receiving position.
That is the first part of playing catch. The second part is the throw. Throwing mechanics are just as important for a fielder as they are for pitchers. The other thing about the mechanics is that they are pretty much the same whether you are pitching, catching, playing infield or outfield. The distance of the arm swing is the only thing that changes.
A pitcher and outfielder are going to have the most similarity in their throwing arm swing or arc. Both positions have time to deliver the ball but need to maximize the velocity at which they throw. Infielders and catchers have more similarities in their throwing arc. Catchers and infielders require velocity on their throws but gain more of an advantage by getting the ball out of their hands quicker. Therefore, their arc is much shorter than pitchers or outfielders.
Pairing for mediocrity and excellence
At the college level, we try to have players warm up with other players who play similar positions. This way we can have the players monitor and help each other maintain the proper throwing and catching techniques. Our starting shortstop plays catch with the starting second baseman on game days and on practice days he warms up with the backup shortstop.
This method, in my opinion, is the best way to have players warm up at that level. At the youth level, it is something that may not work for your team. Youth players are learning the game. They are probably all getting exposed to playing multiple positions and may need to learn all for throwing arcs. As a coach, you are also dealing with the issue that some kids are better than others at playing catch.
I would like to promote a team-first player second philosophy to warming up. With this system, the player who is the weakest would play catch with the strongest player during warm up. Continue pairing players like this all the way down the line. Pairing this way will help the weaker players catch up with, the better players, in theory, making your team better. I don’t like to hold good players back though so my solution to that is each day you practice or have a game your players should rotate. Pairing players who are stronger together and players who are weaker together from time to time.
How do you play catch?
Playing catch is a part of practice because it is a part of the game. When you play catch the right way you give yourself a valuable tool to use to become a better baseball player. Better players tend to make better teams. Always observe how your team plays catch in warm up. Instruct players when necessary, and ball all means make them focus on doing it right.
Playing catch the right way will start with players relatively close to each other. The distance should be such that both players can comfortably throw the ball with extreme accuracy to the other. After about three to five throws one player should start backing up a couple of steps every couple of throws. The player should continue to back up until the players have reached a distance that is slightly longer than their hardest throw. Both players should be reaching each other on a hop.
The goal of every throw should be accuracy at a good velocity. Throwing a ball where you want every time softly doesn’t make you a good player. Just as throwing the ball hard all over the place doesn’t help either. There is a velocity and accuracy combination that each player can obtain that works for them. Belt buckle to head, between the shoulders is a good area to throw the ball. Make sure your players understand that and do it.
Bring it in
Once players have reached the one-hop range, the player that was backing up should start working their way back to their partner. On the way back players should work on positional defense. Ground balls for infield fly balls for outfield and catchers should receive and pop.
As an infielder receives a ground ball, they should go through their mechanics of fielding and stride into their throw. They should then return a ground ball or fly ball depending on their partners position back to them. Outfielders should do the same thing with fly balls. Finally, catchers should crouch into a position to receive a pitch when they catch the ball they should pop up to throw a runner out and return a throw to their partner. All of this is done with the same accuracy consideration as well as continuously closing the distance between players.
After a few weeks, you will find that if you can get your team to play catch for better baseball that is what you will get. The better ball will happen right before your eyes. For more information about how to play catch check out my article, “Teaching Baseball FUNdamentals.”