As a coach I've attended baseball games at all levels and a few things have jumped out at me recently. I am noticing it appears some of the position players are lacking in some simple fundamentals of their position. Fundamentals not only have to be taught to the players, they have to be practiced in a repetitive way for them to become natural or second nature in a game situation.
Three of the biggest ones I noticed, that become critical parts of the game, are first baseman scooping (or “picking”) the ball out of the dirt on throws over from other infielders, catchers dropping to their knees to block pitches in the dirt versus just trying to use their gloves, and base runners not knowing the signs and missing the same sign multiple times. Missing signs is just a player not taking the time to memorize them and is more of a mental error, the other two are physical errors that can be worked on by doing the proper drills during practice so it becomes natural for them.
Teaching a catcher how to properly block a pitch takes repetition. A good defensive catcher can block balls thrown in the dirt. It’s a skill that keeps runners from advancing and saves runs. A catcher needs to realize that while occasionally a catcher might catch the ball while blocking it, that’s not the goal. The goal of blocking is keeping the ball in front of you and not allowing the runners to advance to the next base like they would if the behind got past the catcher.
Once you determine that the pitch will bounce in the dirt, aggressively go after the ball and try to shorten the distance between you and where it will bounce. The closer you get to the point where the ball is going to bounce, the better chance you have to block it. This is a side to side, and/or slightly forward move.
The skill of blocking needs to be developed during practice. I found the best way to practice this is to get a pitching machine and point it down into the ground and keep feeding it balls. Move the machine around to have the ball hit the dirt at different points. The machine will consistently give the catcher opportunities to work on this skill. I have even found the JUGS Lite Flite Machine that throws a spongy type ball can be used indoors coupled with wrestling mats for practice. This gives the repetition that is needed to become a natural skill during a game.
You can better yourself and your team by improving your ability to scoop errant throws out of the dirt. Your teammates will feel confident that their first baseman has their back, and isn’t going to miss-handle the short hop – a situation which usually results in an error for the guy who threw the ball.
This kind of confidence makes your infielders more bold to go after the difficult plays and to try to get the out, even if they run the risk of getting off a less-than-perfect throw. A first baseman who masters this defensive skill takes away hits from the other team, keep runs off the scoreboard, and build confidence for the whole team.
This takes skill and a lot of work, and the drills for fielding short hops are probably going to be your main practice. Here are a couple tips to give you the best chance to pick any ball in the dirt.
Panic is Bad. Preparation is Key.
With preparation, you can become comfortable enough with this situation to allow yourself be calm and watch the ball the whole way. You must remember to keep your foot on the bag and let all of your practice and natural ability take over.
Attack The Baseball.
Be aggressive. Just because it may be a difficult pick, don’t let the ball play you. Once you get into position to make the play, be aggressive with your glove and take it through the baseball, don’t give with the ball and let it play you. When in doubt, go get the ball.
Get To The Side Of The Baseball.
You can make a pick more difficult if it is right in front of you, first of all its difficult to decide if you are going to back hand it or scoop it. Also, your body can get in the way. This is a do or die play, so give yourself the best opportunity to make the play. Even if the throw is right at you, play it into a backhand or forehand and attack the ball. This also allows you to see the short hop from the side and may give you just a little better idea of where the ball is going to bounce.
Work From The Ground Up.
It is much easier to move your glove up then to move it down. A trick commonly used, is to start with your glove on the ground and once the ball hits the ground start working up. This tends to be the height the ball will be kicking up, unless it takes a weird hop.
Similar to the skill of catchers blocking balls in the dirt, 1st basemen picking the ball out of the dirt needs to be developed during practice. I found the best way to practice this is to get a pitching machine and point it down into the ground and keep feeding it balls. Move the machine around to have the ball hit the dirt at different points. The machine will consistently give the 1st baseman opportunities to work on this skill. I have even found the JUGS Lite Flite Machine that throws a spongy type ball can be used indoors, although you don’t get the bad hops that will occur on dirt. This gives the repetition that is needed to become a natural skill during a game.