Do You Have the Right Stuff to Catch?

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by: Jim Janick

So you think you might want to try out for catcher this season? Excellent idea! Make no mistake, it’s the most demanding position on the diamond — handling pitchers, squatting, calling pitches, receiving, blocking pitches in the dirt, positioning the defense, keeping base runners honest — basically calling all the shots. It’s definitely a challenge, but if you’ve got the leadership ability of “Pudge” Rodriguez, the toughness of Jason Kendall, and a willingness to learn the solid mechanics of Mike Piazza, you might be just the guy for the job.

Catchers are involved in every single play. They are constantly in the thick of the action. They may take a few lumps along the way, but good catchers just shrug it off. The protective gear they wear allows them to play the position the way it was meant to be played — fearlessly. In fact, good catchers take pride in the position and they love wearing their gear around the park. It singles them out as special — as warriors and leaders — almost like a knight’s armor.

Before you can apply for membership into this elite group, there are a few fundamentals you’ll need to know before that try out. First, let’s get one thing straight. All the catcher’s equipment you will strap on is designed for one purpose: to protect the front of your body.

So, rule number one of catching is: always strive to position your body square to the oncoming pitch. Never turn away. Let the equipment protect you. It’s nearly impossible to get hurt if you always face the ball. For every pitch then, you must move to the ball. Glide sideways to your knees for errant pitches, but keep your chest facing the ball. Never turn your head. Once you learn to trust your gear, there are three general areas you’ll want to work on to begin looking slick behind the dish: receiving, blocking, and throwing.

RECEIVING

Set up behind home plate as close to the hitter as is comfortable. Remember, the closer you are, the lower the odds of a foul tip hitting something besides your glove. Too close, though, and you risk the bat tipping your catcher’s glove sending the hitter to first base with a catcher’s interference call. Not good.

Settle into a comfortable squat, heels together, back straight. Allow your glove hand to dangle over your left knee (for right handers). When signaling for a specific pitch, make solid eye contact with your pitcher. Exude confidence in your pitch selection and location. Look like the leader you’re expected to be. Keep your right forearm close to your body and give the pitcher his signal with your fingers directly in front of your crotch. If you allow your fingers to get too low, the other team’s first base coach might see them below your legs. Use your mitt to hide your fingers from the third base coach. Alert base coaches will sometimes steal and tip off your pitches to the hitter. Don’t give them the chance.Usually, one finger indicates fast ball, two might mean curve ball.

In the beginning, your pitcher should only be throwing fast balls and change ups. Agree on signs for each of these two pitches ahead of time. After giving the sign, spread your feet farther apart, nearly shoulder width, balancing on the balls of your feet. Provide your pitcher with a solid target by holding the glove rock steady, fingers pointed up, right where you want him to throw the pitch. You may protect your throwing hand by placing it behind your back or by closing it into a soft fist behind the glove - whatever feels most comfortable. Just make sure you keep it behind something.

With runners on base, you should raise your tail a bit and not go quite as far down into your squat. You have to be ready to pop up in a hurry should the runner try to steal. When the pitcher delivers, glide sideways to the pitch as necessary by shifting weight right or left. Never stab at the ball with your glove. Never reach across your body if you can help it. Doing so exposes unprotected parts of your rib cage and shoulders.

Your job is always to keep your body in front of the pitch. Stay square. Receive the ball with soft hands, that is, give a little as the ball hits the pocket of your glove. If the pitch is anywhere close to the strike zone, hold the glove there momentarily to “frame” the pitch for the umpire. Afterward, return the ball to your pitcher with a solid throw aimed directly at his chest. Don’t make him reach or lunge for the ball. His job is hard enough without having to work to grab your bad tosses.

BLOCKING

Should the pitcher deliver the ball into the dirt, your job changes from catching to blocking. Your first priority is to keep the ball from getting past you. Forget about catching it. On a ball that bounces right in front of you, quickly drop to both knees with your calves on the ground, your toes pointing out, and your feet on their insteps. Place your glove between your legs, palm forward, fingers pointing down, blocking the hole under your legs.

Watch the ball all the way in so your chin will tuck against your chest and protect your neck. Curl your shoulders forward to direct any caroms off your chest straight back at the pitcher and onto the ground. Do not lean back. Ideally, you’d like the ball to hit your chest protector and bounce softly right on home plate where you can see it and reach it quickly.

On a pitch in the dirt to your right, glide to that side, dropping onto your right knee first, just before the left. Use your glove to block the hole under your legs. Curl your shoulders and tuck your chin, just as before. On balls to either side, however, angle your shoulders slightly into the field of play to direct any caroms back at the pitcher and away from foul territory. On any pitch in the dirt, glide to stay square to the ball and drop to your knees. Watch the ball all the way into your body to keep your neck protected. Keep it in front of you at all times. Do not let it get by you!

THROWING

We’ve already touched on the need for the catcher to return the ball to his pitcher in a consistently catchable fashion. But, with runners attempting to steal, your throws take on a new importance. Your job is simple — gun them down. A strong throwing arm is a definite plus, but you’ll develop that with time and practice. Until then, quickness and accuracy are all important.

Surprisingly enough, good footwork can be more crucial to success in throwing out runners than arm strength. You cannot throw accurately until your body is in good position. The quicker you can pivot your feet and body, the faster you can get an accurate throw off.

In throwing to second base, practice the “pop, pivot, and fire” move. As the ball reaches your glove, pop out of your crouch and catch the ball at the same time your feet pivot clockwise. When your feet pivot, your body will also turn so your left shoulder points at second base. As you bring the ball back to a fully cocked throwing position, transfer the ball to your throwing hand, feeling for the seams. Try to get your fingers across four seams if at all possible to keep your throw straight and on line. Fire the ball down to second base, aiming for knee high above the bag. Trust your fielder to get there in time. Keep your throwing arm as close to your body as possible throughout and remain compact and quick. Always throw overhand or three-quarters. Never side arm. Side arm throws rarely travel straight. Keep your throwing elbow at or above your shoulder. Follow through so your right arm crosses to your left knee at the finish.

This entire process should be one fluid, continuous motion. If you think of it in steps - catch, stand, cock, step, and throw - you won’t stand a chance. It has to be one motion. You catch the ball as you come out of your crouch. You pivot both feet and shoulders and transfer the ball from glove to bare hand while you bring the ball back to throw. Then, shift your weight forward and rotate your shoulders counter clockwise as your arm powers the ball toward the target.

Imagine an archer quickly bringing his longbow up to shoulder height, pulling the bow string back as his body turns to aim, and letting the arrow fly. Pop, pivot, and fire for a bull’s eye of your own.

As your skills progress with time, you’ll discover a long list of additional responsibilities expected from the catcher. You’ll need to learn proper pitch selection and location, how to set up hitters, how to position your defense, how to call cut off plays, how to field pop ups and bunts, and how to back up first base on ground balls. You’ll also need to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each of your team’s pitchers to call a good game. It’s a lot to ask. It takes a special breed of player. That’s why good catchers command respect.

If you’re still willing to join the elite group who proudly wears the shin guards and chest protector, work hard on these fundamentals. It’s often said, the fastest way to the majors is as a catcher. That’s because so few have the Right Stuff.

CATCHING DRILLS

BLOCKING: Align catcher dressed in full gear in front of a fence. The coach stands 30-40 feet away with a handful of baseballs. The coach tosses balls into the dirt, working right and left side equally. Catcher blocks each by gliding and dropping to knees. You can substitute tennis balls for a catcher without protective gear. See how many of ten tosses get blocked properly. Work for a perfect 10 of 10.

CLAP TURN DRILL: Catcher squats in front of a full length mirror in a ready position. No equipment is necessary. He practices pop, pivot, and fire by clapping his hands as he pops up, pivots, and cocks his throwing hand. He should watch that his front shoulder points at the mirror as the throwing hand moves back to a loaded throwing position. His feet should pivot clockwise as he pops up.

Repetition will build leg strength and foot quickness. Get the motion smooth and explosive.

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