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One of the most popular phrases a baseball coach will yell out during a game to a fielder is “Hey, play the ball. Don’t let the ball play you!!!” Whether you are a 6 year old, first time infielder or a 5 tool college shortstop, the message is still the same. Baseball players are more likely to make plays when they are actively moving as opposed to just standing still, picking daises, or just not focused defensively. A ground ball up the middle is more likely to be grabbed by an infielder who is on their toes, rather than their heels standing flat footed. A fly ball into the gap is more likely to be caught by an outfielder who is moving with the crack of the bat, as opposed to a late reacting fielder who was not focused on his/her position. I posed this question to Coach Jason Harvey of Ken Ryan Express. “What exactly do coaches mean when they shout out the phrase ‘Play the Ball, Don’t Let the Ball Play You!’ As always, Coach Harvey was up to the challenge!
Baseball is a game that must be played on the move. If you get caught flat footed, the chance of fielding the baseball becomes a lot more difficult. Players should be taught at a young age how to be ready when the pitch is made. Whether they are outfielders or infielders, they should be ready to move on contact. Even when the ball is hit directly at the player, the player should take a small circular route to be moving toward their target as they field the baseball. Players should try to avoid just staying directly in front of the ball. They should get their body in front of the baseball as it arrives in their glove. This way their momentum is moving toward where they intend to throw. If the ball happens to hit them in the chest or in the leg, the ball will be moving toward the target making it easier to pick up and throw. By moving toward the target, the player is able to move into a crow hop or quickly position their feet to make the throw. This is not exclusive to infielders. Outfielders should also move into a position to catch a fly ball as they are moving in toward the infield. If the player stays flat footed waiting for the fly ball, the ball will have a tendency to carry over their head, to the side, or they will take their eye off the ball before they catch it. Training players to make the catch coming in, will keep them focused on the ball right through the catch and get them into a good throwing position.
By training to be moving as you catch the ball, the player trains to play the ball instead of the ball playing them. It will not only increase the chances of making the catch but it is ideal for getting the body prepared to make a quick, accurate, and hard throw toward the desired target. Even when the throw is not necessary in the case of a fly ball, the player should always continue to catch the ball as if they will have to throw after the catch.
Three of my favorite drills to work on this are:
- Right/Left Drill: Place two balls approximately three feet apart. Have the player approach the balls and step with the right foot in front of one ball and then the left foot in front of the other ball while you roll a ball between the stationary balls. This would be for a right handed player. For a left handed player, the steps would be opposite. This trains the player to time the approach to the ball with the right foot followed by the left foot. The player can then work on coming out of the catch with the right foot followed by the left foot to make the throw.
- Triangle Cone Groundball Drill: Place one cone in front of the player, another cone approximately 10′ in front of that cone, and then one cone between those cones approximately 6-8′ to the right. This will create a triangle with the cones. As you roll the ball toward the lead cone, the player will learn to run around the middle cone and approach the ball on the move heading toward their target. It helps them work on footwork, timing, and quickness.
- Square Cone Flyball Drill: Place four cones in the shape of a square approximately 15′ apart. Have the player start at the cone to your left. Have the player run toward the cone in front of you, as they run toward the cone loft a pop up for the player to run under to make the catch. After the catch, have the player throw the ball to you and begin running toward the cone you were standing next to. Loft another pop up for the player to run under to make the catch. The player should then toss you the ball and begin running toward the cone diagonally away from the cone that you were standing at. You would then loft the ball toward that cone for them to catch the ball over their shoulder. They again stop and make a throw back to you. The next player would then start the drill and that player would jog back in line.
Thanks again for the great insight Coach Harvey. Jason Harvey is the Co-owner/ Physical Therapist at Elite Physical Therapy and an active baseball coach for youth baseball here in RI. Here is more about Coach Jason Harvey:
I’ve been coaching in Ken Ryan’s KR Express AAU program for the last two seasons. As a Physical Therapist, I’ve also partnered with Ken to offer Elite Velocity Training for youth baseball players to enhance throwing velocity, hitting exit velocity, and running velocity. I’ve done countless hours of research on mechanics and the physics of baseball. I’ve engineered a class that fills the gaps in a youth baseball players physical strength and flexibility so that they can properly perform the mechanics that coaches try to teach youth players.