Tips for coaching outfielders
A lot of 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 it’s their turn to make a play.
But any team’s outfield defense can be improved, and that improvement translates directly into wins for your squad. First, 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 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 taking an extra base. Sometimes that means saving a run. It also means keeping the hitter at first base, which sets up a double-play possibility, as well as giving infielders a shorter throw for a force out.
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 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.
Center field play
Coaches should play their 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.
Here are some reasons to play the center fielder shallow instead of the corners:
- The center fielder is generally a better athlete, which means it’s easier for him or her to go back on fly balls.
- The balls get to the corners a little faster.
- It’s easy to play the left fielder a little deeper because runners on first usually aren’t going to third on a single.
- Coaches are more reluctant to attempt to score a runner from second base on singles to right field than they are 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 — even then, it sometimes takes a little extra coaching to get the idea across.
I was coaching in Belgium once 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 their positioning.
Communication & drills
The center fielder is in charge in the outfield, just as any outfielder is in charge on a ball between them 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 fungoes. 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 groundballs.
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 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. Later in the year, 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.