Mt. Rainier Baseball Association - Cal Ripken League: Coaches Corner

Preseason Is Fundamentals Time

   By Cal and Bill Ripken

Fundamentals should never be neglected in baseball. In the big leagues, every single day the best players do the same simple hitting drills before batting practice, field a lot of routine ground balls, catch fly balls and play catch with a purpose. While some parents may think that tee hitting and catching rolled ground balls repeatedly is beneath their kids, the truth is that these simple drills performed routinely can separate their kids from the rest of the pack.

There are no shortcuts or miracle cures in baseball. When the routine truly becomes automatic and natural is when the spectacular can occur. The reality of coaching is that once your season starts, while there always should be an emphasis on the simple fundamentals, there are a million things that get in the way. You need to go over what went wrong in the last game and figure out what you need to prepare for in the next outing. Everybody has to get some swings. Some of your pitchers need to throw on the side. You have to work on team fundamentals such as cutoffs, relays and rundowns. Oh, and you haven’t really gone over bunting yet. There’s a lot to cover.  

By the time you’ve thought about all of that and look at your watch, you have almost completely used up your allotted practice time. Of course you want to make sure that you mix in something fun for the kids every time you are on the field, too, so by the time you do that practice is over.

It’s really no different in the big leagues. Even though there is an allotted block of time before every game for batting practice, catching ground balls and flyballs and so on, there are a lot of distractions that arise during the season. That’s why spring training is so important. If you go to a spring training workout and look around, you see a lot of throwing, a ton of routine ground balls being fielded, a bunch of flyballs being caught, guys in the cage working on basic hitting drills and pitchers doing simple exercises to fine-tune their mechanics.

These are the best players in the world, and they do this for six weeks – not two or three days right before the season starts. The players and managers know how difficult it can be to work on the basics once the hectic playing season begins, so they make sure to take their bodies through a progression that first allows their baseball muscles to adapt and get into playing shape and then trains those muscles to respond exactly the same way to every ball and pitch that comes their way. Again, once the routine becomes automatic, the spectacular can occur. That’s why it’s important for them to reacquaint their bodies to the actions they need to perform routinely on a daily basis throughout a long 162-game schedule.

For those of you who have teams that are working out now or simply want to work out with your kids in the backyard, this is the perfect time of year to focus on the basic fundamentals involved with throwing, catching, fielding and hitting. You know that your practice time is going to get eaten up by other things once your season starts, so now is the time to help the kids develop the basic skills that they will need to be successful. Yes, it can seem to get boring or tedious for them at times, but as long as you keep an eye on them and make sure to incorporate some fun time into your workouts, concentrating on the fundamental building blocks now will give you a competitive advantage when the season begins and allow you to expose your team to more advanced strategies and fundamentals throughout the year.

When we say fundamental building blocks, we mean getting right down to basics: catching and throwing (that’s all that defense is), routine fielding drills and basic hitting exercises. The temptation will be to start whacking ground balls at your players right away or to fire up the pitching machine. There is a belief that focusing on more advanced skills and drills will give your players an advantage when, in fact, the opposite may be true. If their bodies are not ready to perform in a more advanced capacity at this point, it may frustrate them and hurt their confidence. If they are struggling they are likely to figure out some shortcut or means to accomplish a task that they cannot handle. An example of this would be a player who strides before a ball is fed through the pitching machine just so he or she can catch up to the pitch and make contact. This leads to bad habits that may take an entire season to fix.
Here are some things to consider when teaching the fundamentals during preseason workouts:
Catching and Throwing

Remember, the better we play catch the better we play baseball. Defense simplified is comprised of catching and throwing. That’s it. Teams that catch and throw well always have a big advantage over teams that don’t. For that reason, the exercise of playing catch never should be taken for granted.

The biggest issues we see with young players when it comes to throwing are stepping away from the target, getting the hand under the ball before releasing it and dropping the elbow below the shoulder at the release point. Take extra time in the preseason to monitor your players as they play catch, correct any flaws and help them develop a consistent routine that can carry over into the season.

Many preseason practices are held indoors. If that’s the case for your team, have your players play catch along a line and make sure that they turn their bodies so that their two feet are on the line and their front shoulder points toward the target. If they start in a position in which they are facing the target, they are already are opened up and are most likely going to step away from the target when they throw. The throw tends to drift in the direction you step if your other mechanics are in order. Really the only way you can step away from the target and make an accurate throw is to drop your shoulder and throw from a three-quarters or sidearm slot. This will make the ball dart and dive and puts unnecessary strain on the elbow. As your players play catch they should check their step with each throw to make sure it is toward the target and on the line or at least very close to being on the line.

A lot of young players get their hand under the ball when they throw, which leads to a delivery that resembles an old one-arm pitching machine and forces the hand to come around the ball at the release point instead of staying behind it. To correct this, players should get in the habit of making a circle with their arm that goes down, out and up after they take the ball out of the glove using a four-seam grip. At the point when the arm is up and extended back, have them stop and check to make sure the hand is on top of the ball. If the hand is on top of the ball at this point, it should naturally be behind the ball in a position of power as the arm comes forward and reaches the release point. Having the hand behind the ball as it is released allows you to generate the spin that will enhance accuracy and help the ball carry.

Have the players make the circle, take the ball down out and up and stop over and over until each one of them has the hand on top of the ball at the stopping point every time. This circular motion must become comfortable and second nature. When they get comfortable, have them make the circle without stopping and complete the throwing motion by releasing the ball. Once they have grasped this concept, allow them to play catch on their own. Remember that the throwing motion should be continuous. That is what creates the arm action and torque necessary to throw the ball at maximum velocity. Don’t let your players fall into the trap of actually stopping their throwing motion. The only reason you are having them stop at all is to so that they get accustomed to the circular motion and to make sure they are keeping the hand above the ball.

Also keep in mind that the hand should remain above the shoulder at the release point, again to ensure accuracy and carry. If this is a problem for your players, have them throw from one knee, with their torso tall and the non-throwing-side knee up. Have them exaggerate the circle and concentrate keeping the elbow above the shoulder each time. You may want to place a batting tee raised to shoulder level or hold your hand at shoulder level on their throwing side and ask them to throw, making sure the elbow is above the tee or above your hand as the ball is released.

As far as catching is concerned, every player should present a two-handed target with the fingers pointing up at chest level. The ball should be caught out in front of the body so the eyes can see it enter the glove every time. Once it is in the glove, the bare hand should cover the ball to keep in from coming out. Make sure that your players are catching every throw this way so that it becomes automatic.

If your team seems to be losing focus or getting bored of playing catch, make it a game. For every throw their partners catch at chest level (in front of the chest) they get one point and for balls that are caught at face level (in front of the face) they get two points. The first one to 21 wins.

As far as fielding is concerned, there are certain fundamentals that should be followed to give a player the greatest chance to succeed. A ground ball must be caught out in front of the body, with a relaxed wrist and the fingers pointing down so that the tip of the glove touches the ground. The best way to get into this position is by creating a wide base with your feet and getting your butt low to the ground. This allows the hands to get out in front, which allows you to see the ball go into the glove. The bare hand should remain beside the glove so that it is safe from bad hops and can be placed on top of the ball after it enters the glove.

Many young players want to bend at the waist or hold their glove to the ground so that the webbing is actually in a position in which the ball cannot roll directly into it. In addition, the ground ball position is not a natural pose for the body to assume. It takes some getting used to and can lead to some muscle soreness early in the season. For this reason it is important to condition the body to get into and out of the position. If this becomes a natural position for the body to assume, a player is going to automatically set up properly in a game when a ball is hit his or her way. So, to allow the players to get the feel for the proper fielding position, it is important for you to roll them ground balls so that they can get accustomed to fielding them properly before having to worry about hard-hit balls, bad hops, catching balls on the run and so on.

Roll them balls over and over on a flat surface, having them hold the position for five reps, 10 reps even 15 reps without standing up. This will condition the body and build strength and flexibility in the legs. Have the players assume a backhand position and do the same thing. This should be done for players of all ages before you should even think about hitting them ground balls. You can roll balls harder if necessary and control hops to allow them to work on catching more difficult balls without getting hurt. This will condition their bodies and build confidence. When everyone seems comfortable fielding rolled balls properly, start hitting them ground balls and moving them around a little bit.

Catching flyballs properly is a matter of confidence, too. A flyball should be caught with two hands over the head and slightly in front of the body so that you can see the ball enter the glove and quickly generate momentum forward to make a strong, accurate throw. Many kids are scared to catch balls this way or like to look cool by catching balls off to the side or with one hand. Throw them balls over and over – use softer balls if you have to – until they are all confident catching the ball properly. Again, you can control the height and difficulty. As they develop confidence and consistency throw the balls higher and then move them around. Have them run football-style pass patterns for fun, to work on catching balls on the run and to improve their conditioning. There is plenty you can do to help your outfielders improve their fundamentals and build confidence before hitting them balls. This goes for any age group.

Very simply, you want to spend several sessions working on different drills such as soft toss, short toss, tee work and so on that are designed to focus on each individual component of the swing before moving on to live hitting. You want to be able to develop each part of the swing properly and correct any flaws before allowing kids to hit against live pitching. This will improve their chances of having more success when they take batting practice and will allow them to condition their hitting muscles and hopefully avoid injury.

Try to stress one area of focus for each drill. For example, with soft toss we take the stride out of the equation and ask the kids to focus on “loose grip, quick bat.” We like to focus on weight shift and “going back to go forward” when using a batting tee. Short toss from the front can be done to help kids work on hitting pitches in certain locations that give them trouble. For example, you might toss balls to the outside part of the plate and ask them to try to hit the ball hard up the middle or the opposite way in hopes that they will learn to keep the front shoulder closed long enough to hit the ball hard consistently.

Hitting a baseball is possibly the most difficult skill to perfect in all of sports, so it is important to develop each component of the swing before allowing a young player to take batting practice. Use the individual drill time to provide instruction and correct mechanical flaws, but resist coaching too much when they face live pitching so that you don’t clutter their minds and paralyze them at the plate.