Outfielders need instruction too
Too many coaches don’t spend enough time on outfield defense — they just put a couple good athletes out there, hit them some fly balls and hope for the best when the game starts.
But any team’s outfield defense can be improved and that improvement translates directly into wins for your squad.First, though, coaches and players must understand the importance of outfield play. It’s your team’s last line of defense and balls that get by outfielders are usually the ones that decide games.
But even on those balls that are kept in front of outfielders, controlling baserunners is crucial. Outfielders who get to the ball quickly, pick it up cleanly and make a strong throw are going to keep baserunners from getting that extra 90 feet. Sometimes that means saving a run, but keeping the hitter on first base also sets up a double-play possibility, as well as giving infielders the option of a shorter throw for a force out.
Repetition, repetition, repetition
Using a pitching machine in practice is a great way to give outfielders plenty of repetitions. For most coaches, the pitching machine is more accurate than hitting fungoes and the outfielders receive more realistic repetitions.
The best way to improve outfield play is with repetition — especially since many outfielders started out as infielders and were moved because they weren’t quite as good defensively as the other infielders.
A pitching machine delivers ground ball after ground ball down the left-field line, as well as long fly balls to help players learn how to go back on the ball.
Keep center fielders shallow
And speaking of going back on the ball, play your center fielders shallow. More hits drop in front of the outfielders than go over their heads, so giving up that occasional double is worth it because of the singles you take away — and it also makes it more difficult for baserunners to advance.
Why play the center fielder shallow instead of the corners?
1. The center fielder is generally a better athlete, which means it’s easier for him to go back on fly balls.
2. The balls get to the corners a little faster.
3. It’s easy to play the left fielder a little deeper because runners on first usually aren’t going to third on a single anyway.
4. Coaches are more reluctant to send home a runner on second on a single to right than they are on hits to other parts of the outfield.
Of course, it’s hard to get outfielders to play shallow. They don’t feel as comfortable there but that’s mainly because they haven’t had enough repetitions — and even then, it sometimes takes a little extra coaching effort to get the idea across.
I was coaching in Belgium last summer and I had an outfielder who just wouldn’t play shallow. I went to the ballpark early, as I always do, and they were lining the field, so I grabbed an empty cup, filled it with chalk and wandered out to center field. When I got there, I made a little circle with the chalk and told the center fielder, “This is where you start on every play. I’ll move you from there, but that’s your starting point.” And I finally got him to do it.
With the center fielder playing shallow, it also makes it easier for outfielders to have confidence on those balls in the gap. Have your center fielder go low and the corner outfielders go high — meaning the center fielder, who starts shallow, is always looking to catch a ball in the gap below the waist while the corner outfielders go for the shoulder-high catch because they take a more direct route to the ball due to of their positioning.
Communication & drills
The center fielder is in charge in the outfield, just as any outfielder is in charge on a ball between him and an infielder. Have players communicate in threes by calling “Ball, ball, ball” when wanting to take the fly and saying “You, you, you” or the other player’s name three times when deferring.
Try this communication drill that runs horizontally or vertically — that is, either station two players about 30 yards apart from left to right, or have them 30 yards apart front to back. Drop fly balls in the middle of the two fielders either with the pitching machine or with fun goes. (Sometimes, use three players on the vertical drill — a catcher, infielder and outfielder. That way, if you don’t control the popup exactly, the odds are someone gets the work in communication and catching fly balls.)
It’s helpful to spend a lot of time each day in practice on outfield defense. While you’re working on pitcher fielding (10 to 12 minutes), make sure the outfielders get ground balls.
For example, on Monday, have outfielders get grounders to their backhand side; on Tuesday, to the glove side; on Thursday, straight at them.
Another option is to set up a cone and have them run around the cone before picking up the ball to get the right angle for the throw. During batting practice, only have two outfielders in each group so that they have to cover a lot of ground. Make sure your outfielders take pride in their defense by not letting fly balls drop or ground balls to stop rolling, even during batting practice.
Try some fun drills for a change of pace. For example, start with the outfielders facing away from the coach so they have to turn at the crack of the bat and find the ball…and later in the year, actually have them lying down with their feet pointing to the coach. When the ball is hit, they have to get up, locate the ball and run it down.
By focusing on outfield defense every day in practice, by emphasizing repetition, and by making sure the outfielders take pride in their defense, teams improve during the course of the season.
Rick Steen, who spent 32 years at San Ramon Valley High School in Danville, Calif., and now coaches at De La Salle High School, Concord Calif., can watch the hometown San Francisco Giants play, and also watch Randy Winn and Nate Schierholtz in the outfield. Both outfielders played for him at San Ramon, just 25 miles from AT&T Park.
Steen, an outfielder and first baseman himself (at Chico State), focuses on outfield play when he works overseas for Major League Baseball every summer. For the past 13 years, he’s gone to places like Ireland, France, Belgium and Switzerland to teach the game, and is in the Ireland Baseball Hall of Fame. That’s just one of five Halls of Fame Steen has been inducted into: the others are San Ramon High School (the baseball field is named after him), Chico State, Tri-Valley (Calif.) and the California Baseball Coaches’ Association.