Good infielders usually spend an inordinate amount of time working on the fundamentals of how to field a ground ball as far as their physical mechanics, footwork, glove action and making the throw. However, what is often left out is the need to work on developing the feel for how an infielder really needs to approach a ground ball. In other words, just how fast or slow should an infielder approach a ground ball. This is one of the biggest fundamental areas that often gets left out or falls by the way side when working the art of fielding ground balls.
Anytime a ground ball is hit, it is generally imperative each infielder moves toward the ball at a controlled rate of speed. This type of movement or momentum achieved by the infielder helps to cut down distance of the play and also assists in the elimination of fielding balls on the bad or middle hop. The middle hop is the tweener, the hop that must be avoided at all costs. The best infielders in the game always seem to get the good hop, they have the uncanny or instinctive ability (or seemingly so - the truth is it is developed via 1000's of reps) to flow with the hop and actually find a way to control the speed of the ball with their movement and make the play seem effortless.
When approaching a routine ground ball, I like to use the word “pursue”, rather than charge. “Charge” to me sends a message of running hard to the ball, out of control with little thought process to what an infielder should be doing. It would be similar to 100’s of years ago when, as we watch some movies nowadays of groups of infantry men charging their foes at a rapid rate of pace only to be taken down in their footsteps. Unwise thought processing that would cost dearly. Well fielding a ground ball and running at a rate of pace that is out of control is an accident or error waiting to happen. So, just what does an infielder do? Pursue the ball, like a lion pursuing his prey. Be cautious, yet aggressive; be confident yet conservative; let the eyes and mind take the body to the ball.
In general terms, the speed of an efficient ground ball pursuit is directly related to the speed at which the ball is hit. Routine ground balls should have movement that cuts down distance and shortens throws and essentially shortens the play. Slower hit ground balls will force the infielder to “come and get them” under control. Harder hit ground balls that have carry little longer before hitting the infield grass will necessitate the infielder laying back a little. If the first bounce is up or high, it is critical the infielder “comes and gets it” (the ball). All rates of pursuit to the ball should allow the infielder to adjust his own speed to promote the ground ball being fielded on the big or high hop first and the short hop second. What you see far too much with young, inexperienced infielders is either they sit back too much or they charge too hard, making the fielding of the ball extremely difficult.
A great way to help you infielders understand how to pursue ground balls is to set up series of cones to help them identify how they need to move to each ground ball. Begin this process by setting up cones at the halfway point between the fungo hitter and infielder or infielders. The first teach would occur based on where the first hop lands. For example, if the first hop lands on the coaches side of the cones, the infielder will need to move toward the ball at a controlled speed, cutting down distance and shortening the throw. If the ground ball were to contact the ground on the infielders side of the cones, the ball is getting to the infielder quicker and thus, less speed of pursuit is to be needed. Start with each infielder working hard at understanding the initial read of the first hop. Now, once each infielder has a pretty good handle at this, add more cones. The additional cones should be added half the distance between the half way cones already in place. In other words, the half way mark between the coach and first set of cones and the half way mark between the infielder and first set of cones. Now there will be four quadrants instead of two halves. Now, each time a ball is hit, watch what quadrant the first hop falls into and the infielder can now work on his movement based on these. For example, a ball that comes off the bat that hits in the first quadrant would mean a “hard” move toward the ball. Conversely, a ball that contacts the ground closer to the fourth quadrant, means the infielder can “lay” back a little before fielding the ball.
Using this type of method will really help kids understand how fast or slow they need to pursue a ground ball. It is so essential time is spent with all infielders on speed reads, as it is often the speed of approach that causes more fielding and throwing problems than any other action.
If you have any comments or need for further clarification on this subject, please leave them below and I will be happy to get back to you shortly.
Rick Johnston, Head Instructor - The Baseball Zone