It is amazing how Little League baseball teams and beyond do not practice some fundamental aspects of the game. From my standpoint, the reason I practice certain things other coaches may not is because I’ve been burned by other teams and have lost games and championships because of it. In my 21 years coaching youth baseball, the list of things that should be practiced is long but some situations come up over and over again. Here are four of them:
1) Pitchers not practicing fielding. This issue is incredible to me, though it took a few years before I began having my pitchers practice fielding. When youth baseball teams practice fielding, usually it will include every position but the pitcher. Youth baseball coaches need to put pitchers on the mound in practice and include them in fielding drills. Coaches also need to rotate the pitchers. Have the pitcher to go through his pitching motion without the ball. The coach then throws or hits a baseball to him. And not just right at him. Hit the balls to the left, center and right of him. Then put one or more runners on base and declare how many outs there are and continue hitting to him and let him decide which base to throw to. Try also having the coach hit ground balls to the pitcher on the mound and instead of trying to catch it clean, he has to knock it down, establish himself and then field the ball. The drills work and also get pitchers familiar with game situations.
2) Catching a foul ball near a fence. I swear I’m the only one in my league who takes this serious. Probably because I’ve seen more catchable foul balls hit the ground than any team in my league. The scenario usually starts with a pop fly just foul of first base. The ball moves deeper into foul territory. The first baseman looks like he has a beat on the ball as he gets closer to the fence or dugout. He then looks like he is hesitating the further he moves into foul territory. Then “plop”! The ball falls right near his feet about 12-24 inches from the fence. Of course we all know the consequences of giving away outs in youth baseball. This stuff kills me. So how can we coaches rectify this? At least once a year usually before the season I do the “Fence Drill” with my team. I first start on the first base side having the players line up behind each other about 6 feet from the fence in foul territory parallel to first base. I’m located around home plate. I throw pop ups as close to the fence as I can and instruct my players to track the ball. As they do this they should come right near the fence and either with their glove hand if they are a rightie or free hand for lefties, put their arm out feeling for the fence then proceed to track and catch the ball from there. This is getting them used to feeling for structures while keeping their eye on the ball. It makes them more comfortable and helps limit the fear of getting hurt. I then move the line closer to fair territory eventually moving the line where every player is a first baseman and has to hustle to feel for the fence first then catch the ball. I then move the line to the third base side of the infield. Is this drill fool proof? Absolutely not! But I did notice a few more catches over the course of a season if we practiced this drill!
3) Players not sliding at every base. This is tough one. I’ve seen major leaguers not slide and cost their team runs. The Yankees-Oakland A’s 2001 American League Championship series comes to mind when Derek Jeter made that great backhand flip to home and Jeremy Giambi didn’t slide and cost his team a run and possibly the game and series. You can preach and preach for players to slide but they will continue to forget to slide. As youth coaches, we have to remember that these are 10, 11 and 12 year old kids and their retention is different than say a high school player. But this is also something that you can practice instead of just telling the player when it comes up in a regular game. I want my players to slide on a force play even if they know they will be thrown out. To me having a reputation even on the youth level that my team slides might become a potential distraction for the opposition and the fielders might bobble a throw to them at the base. When we practicing sliding, I take my team in the outfield grass and have my players remove their cleats. I have a diamond set up with throw down bases. We go through a few scenarios rotating players having them slide in the grass and this process helps. We reinforce for them to slide during the game from the coaching box. Again, not fool proof, but very effective.
4) Practicing fielding a wild pitch or passed ball with at least one player on third base. In youth baseball usually not a game goes by without a wild pitch or a passed ball. When there is a base runner on third base, he has a better than 50% chance of scoring if he has just average speed. Let’s break this down from the defensive end. The pitcher pitches and the ball gets by the catcher. The pitcher recognizes this and rushes home to protect against the runner on third from scoring. His head is going back and forth between the baserunner coming from third and the catcher getting ready to make the toss. Many times the toss from the catcher is off target or the pitcher swoops down to tag the runner without the ball. Very few coaches practice this other than to yell out to the pitcher, ”Cover home if the ball gets by the catcher” when the situation comes up in a game. To practice this, set up the positions with a baserunner at third. Plant a ball behind the catcher without him seeing it. Have the pitcher do his wind up without the ball and when the coach yells “go” the baserunner breaks for home and the catcher locates the ball while the pitcher comes to cover home. Here we are setting up a practical situation and the catcher is practicing his toss and the pitcher is getting used to the baserunner coming at him while trying to secure the toss and tag him. Coaches should rotate both pitchers and catchers during this drill.
These are only four situations out of many that need to be practiced. In youth baseball we coaches tend to try and teach during the game. Practices are the place to teach and games are the place to reinforce what we conveyed to the players. With this formula they become familiar with the situation and give your team the competitive edge on the field.