The headline may seem simple enough. At the same time it may appear as these are the only areas of defense one should focus on. Well, I really wish it was this simple. Unfortunately playing the infield is more than just five areas,. However, the five areas that I will talk about are really the five main problem areas that the average High School infielder can get away with today, but will cost them dearly at the College level.
Infielders that make the following five areas an absolute priority in their overall development will find the transition to the next level of defense that much easier.
- Playing too deep...most Freshmen infielders that move on to college baseball will find themselves playing too deep. The speed of the game is that much quicker as each infielder moves up the baseball ladder. Given how the speed of the game increases, infielders must find a way to better position themselves prior to the pitch to improve their chances of making a play on the ground ball. Just watch what happens in Fall Ball when a freshman shortstop is playing too deep and the first routine ground ball that is hit to them - as soon as they field it and look up, they will see the runner getting down the line faster than what he has been used to. When the ball reaches the first baseman’s glove the runner will be already past the base or it will be a bang, bang play. So, what is the bottom line?...the game is faster (and yes balls do get hit harder) but finding the ideal position where range is not ill-affected will help each infielder make more routine plays...and that usually means figuring out how to play a little less deep.
- Sitting back on ground balls...yes, in HS infielders can probably get away with sitting back a little and letting the ball come to them. HS players are en masse not as athletic and fast as collegiate ones, and thus it becomes very easy to sit back or lay back on a ground ball and then come up throwing (no matter the arm strength) and in most cases easily throw out a runner at first base. Infielders that sit back at the college level could easily find themselves sitting on the bench until they learn the importance of moving toward a ground ball and cutting down on distance to shorten the throw to first base. Start to take accountability for your own actions and make it easier on yourself and spend less time worrying about if the play will be close by moving toward the ground ball rather than having it play you. Don't make a close out a good play anymore...try and beat the runner by at least a couple of steps now...because tomorrow that two step gap will disappear in college.
- Reading the speed of a ground ball...I have written previously on understanding the importance of reading the speed of a ground ball. It is really simple. The speed of the ground ball will dictate the speed at which an infielder moves toward the ball. Most ground balls an infielder will encounter will require a move toward the ball after the read. Of course balls that are hit much harder will dictate that less movement toward the ball is needed. But the question (and important element for infielders) is, just how fast are you reading the ground ball and subsequently how fast are you moving toward it? All HS infielders will have to get better at this before hitting a college campus. If you just for a moment consider the routine ground ball as a ball that may be fielded just after the third hop or possibly just before the third hop, it is safe to say that an infielder will move toward the ball at a controlled speed, cut down the distance and make the play. Balls that are hit with less speed require the infielder to read and move at a higher rate of speed to make the play. Batted balls that carry further toward an infielder in the air, like a low, knee high line drive, naturally are hit harder and will not require as much speed (if any at all) to make the play. So, infielders, you must work on getting your visual reads on grounds balls to determine your own speed to the ball.
- Reading hops...without question the most difficult for any infielder. So many HS infielders just get caught on in between hops and spend very little time trying to really understand different hops. Simply put, an improper hop read will cause a fatal mistake for an infielder when trying to field ground balls. The only way to overcome this is to take boat loads of ground balls and take them on different surfaces. Hey, it is pretty easy to pick up a ground ball and make a play on carpet, but what about a field that will not give a true hop? That’s right; there are fields like that that we all will play on. Infielders can look great on carpet, but the game changes when it is played on grass. Get used to it and get used to the different hops you'll encounter on all of them.
- Underestimating the speed of your opposition...hey you guys, college players get recruited and the majority of kids that get recruited are overall good athletes...and...faster than average compared to what you are used to at the HS level. Yes there are walk on’s that make teams, but those are not average players either. Some HS teams could have freshman players on the same field as seniors and in HS that is a significant speed and strength difference. In college, that difference is not nearly as large and as a freshman, players get down the line much faster than they would otherwise do in HS. So, what do you do? Don't underestimate the overall speed and thunk about the fastest few guys on your current team. That will be what the vast majority of guys will be running like at the next level...and YES even the big guys.
Side note: Much of this blog is based around middle infielders, but there are numerous points that all infielders can take from this.
Rick Johnston, Head Instructor - The Baseball Zone
Image courtesy of rattleradio.mlblogs.com.