One of the most important positions on the baseball field is the catcher. A catcher needs to be the team leader. The role of a catcher is to be able to anticipate all situations before they occur and react appropriately. Catching is a very cerebral position. All beginning catchers should be made aware of the responsibilities that go along with the position. The final piece of a championship puzzle could depend on how solid the team is behind the plate.
The objective of this article is to take a beginning or experienced catcher through all the steps necessary to become a proficient, well-rounded catcher. This step-by-step approach will leave no stone unturned. It is my hope that this will provide a complete teaching base for catchers of all ages.
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The catcher must be the team's leader. They have the entire field in front of them and are able to read and react to every situation. While the ball is in play, they are the only position that never has their back turned toward the action.
Everything must go through the catcher. They are responsible for calling pitches, keeping up the pace of the game, reacting to all situations, and also being an on-field psychologist. They must be able to get everything out of their pitchers and their teammates.
You've heard the old cliche that a championship team must be strong up the middle. That begins with the catcher. A team's destiny can lie in the hands of their catchers. If a team is short on talent, experience, and desire behind the plate, then their championship hopes have diminished. Conversely, if a team has a fierce competitor who will be able to inspire the team and motivate them to new heights, then the possibility of greatness will exist.
A catcher must be able to anticipate all situations from bunt defense to relay communications. The catcher must take into account the speed of the runner, the playing conditions, the type of athletes involved, the game situations, the playing surface and other important aspects. A catcher must have had enough drilling and practice that they do not have to think about the situation in much detail. They must be able to react and respond to the situation given.
The catcher has to be the toughest guy in the yard. He must take command and demand respect and performance from his pitching staff and other position players. When a crucial situation arises, the catcher must step-up and take charge of the game.
An area that is commonly overlooked when teaching young catchers is sign giving. It is just assumed that a player will be able to flash a few fingers and be on his way. This couldn't be farther from the truth. I have seen many catchers who are not proficient at sign giving. A small problem such as this can lead to game-time problems.
A catcher should give slow, controlled finger movements. There is no need to rush. The pitcher should be able to see the signs easily and in a relaxed manner. The catcher's hand should be placed back against the cup. The fingers should be pointing down. If the fingers are at an angle, it will hard to see from 60 feet 6 inches. The last thing you want to have happen is for a catcher to call a change-up and have the pitcher get confused and throw a slider.
A sure give-away to a hitter is for a catcher to give their signs and immediately set up inside or outside. A catcher should give the sign and location for the pitch they want called and move to location as the pitcher begins his motion. An important point is for the catcher to get the glove up and give the pitcher a target as early as possible. Again, don't give away location too early. Moreso, give the pitcher a reference point to immediately focus in on.
When a catcher is setting up for a fastball to be thrown right down the middle, the catcher should cheat slightly to the backhand side. The reason for this is it is easier to move and catch an errant pitch to your glove hand side than it is to your backhand side. Unless you are calling for a pitch up in the strike zone, your glove should target the bottom of the zone. If the target is mid-thigh and your pitcher hits his target the ball may land 400 feet away, if the target is at the knee, the pitcher has a greater chance of success if they hit their spots.
Once the pitcher gets ahead in the count, the catcher should set up for pitches differently than if the pitcher is behind in the count. If an outside pitch is called, the catcher should set up off the plate about three inches. Having command of the strike zone will increase the chances of the umpire giving you the outer half. The same holds true for the inside pitch. The only difference is that instead of setting up three inches off the plate, you only need to set up one inch off the plate. It is important to remember one of the cardinal sins of baseball; never hit the batter when you have them down in the count.
Once a pitcher falls behind in the count it takes away some of the latitude from the umpire and the catcher. If the catcher calls for a pitch away, they need to set up on the plate. You want the pitcher to hit the outer third or the black. Again, the same holds true for the inside pitch. You don't want to fall behind even further. Set up on the corner and give the target on the plate.
When a breaking ball is called, the catcher can still cheat slightly to the backhand side. They must again target the bottom of the zone. The glove must be at the knees. Mentally, the catcher must assume the ball will be in the dirt. Always be ready to block all balls in the dirt.
When the pitcher gets ahead in the count and a breaking ball is called, the catcher will set up on the plate and want the ball in the dirt. You want to try to get the hitter to chase the breaking ball and get himself out. Again, be ready to block all balls in the dirt. When the pitcher is behind in the count, the catcher should set up on the plate and target the bottom of the zone. In this case we want a rhythm breaking ball thrown for a strike. An important tip to the pitcher and the catcher; if you are going to miss, miss down and toward location. You won't get hurt if you miss down. However, if you miss up in the zone, bad things will happen.
A catcher can assume two different types of stances. One is used without runners on base and less than two strikes, and one is with two strikes on the hitter or runners on base. For the most part, both stances have similar qualities. The major difference is preparing your body to block pitches at the appropriate times.
Without runners on base and less than two strikes on a hitter, the catcher will have their weight resting on their instep. A catcher's center of gravity should not allow them to get caught lunging at pitches or falling forward.
The feet should be toe-to instep with each other. For a right-handed catcher, the left foot should be slightly ahead of the right foot. Balance should be evenly distributed over both feet. This will allow you to shift in any direction without any obstruction.
The glove arm should assume a relaxed position. The fingers should be pointed up and be tension free. The elbow should rest under or slightly angled away, not to the side of the hand so the fingers are horizontal. The catcher's elbow should also rest slightly outside the knee.
There are few different positions for the throwing arm to rest without runners on base and with less than two strikes. The most important aspect is to keep it out of harm's way. It can either rest behind the back or the leg.
Your brain should be focused. You must maintain your intensity for the entire game. The team can't afford to have a lapse in concentration from its catcher. Be ready for all situations that could occur.
With a runner on base, or with no runners on and two strikes, the catcher must make an adjustment. There is no change in weight, feet placement and glove arm positioning. However, there are other changes with the throwing arm, feet placement, and brain functions.
The throwing arm should move from behind your body to behind the glove. Place a closed fist behind your glove. There may be a fear that the hand will be hit by a foul ball. However, foul balls change planes. If your closed hand is behind your glove as you attempt to catch the baseball, you will be protected. The major advantage for placing your throwing hand behind your glove is to better facilitate a quicker glove-to-hand exchange when you need to throw. If your throwing arm is placed behind your back or leg, it will take you longer to exchange the ball from your glove to your hand and throw, as opposed to having the throwing hand right next to your glove.
Don't sacrifice your target. A common idea is for the catcher to raise up in their stance into a "more athletic" position. However, when you do this you also put your glove in a higher position. This gives a pitcher a higher target and also gives him a false sense of security. Keep the target low and be prepared to block all balls in the dirt, retrieve all balls in the dirt, throw all retrieved balls and be prepared for any situation.
The most important aspect of framing is to frame strikes and borderline pitches. Don't waste your time or the umpire's by trying to frame balls that are not in the zone. Simply catch the ball and return it to the pitcher and get ready for the next pitch. By framing pitches that are not strikes, you make yourself look like a bad catcher and may make the umpire look bad. If you make the umpire look bad, he will not be anxious to help you on a borderline pitch.
One key to framing is to catch the top half, bottom half and side half of the ball. When you catch the ball, you should show the umpire the other half of the baseball. For example, if the pitch is on the inner half of the plate, you should catch the left side of the ball (assuming a right handed batter) and show the umpire the right side of the ball. The rest is true for pitches up, down and out. Couple that with a weight shift and you have mastered the beginning skills of framing. It is most effective if the catcher can move their body with the baseball. A catcher can sway on their ankles and move with the pitch.
It is very important to beat the baseball to the spot of contact. By this I do not mean extend your hand and arm so far as to get hit by a swinging bat. Don't let the ball control you. Beat the ball to the spot and stick it. Make sure you do not hold the pitch for too long. This may upset an umpire. He may think you are showing him up by holding a frame for a long time. Keep the umpire on your side. Also, don't allow the baseball to knock you glove around. Be firm with your frame.
Your glove arm should be tension free and relaxed. It should not fully extend when the ball is caught. Trust your eyes; the ball will come to you. As it approaches, your wrist should relax. There can be a slight glove drop or turn in order to relax the hand. Do not allow your glove to fall too far. A slight wrist drop or turn is appropriate for relaxing the hand for contact.
This skill can win or lose a tight game. One misconception is that blocking a ball in the dirt is a catcher's only requirement. Not only is it important to block the pitch, but also to properly retrieve the baseball and get your body in a position to throw out a runner trying to advance. It must be stressed to catchers not to admire their work when they block the baseball. Catchers need to get up and pounce on the ball.
When blocking a baseball it is important to get both knees on the ground as quickly as possible. You do not want to hop up and then hit the ground, but drop to your knees immediately. The direction of the ball will dictate whether or not you will need to push off in any direction. This is done with your feet. You must get an aggressive push off with your legs toward the direction of the baseball. The next movement is to put your glove back against your cup with your fingers down, not the back of your hand down. If your fingers are down and the back of your hand is against your cup, you have set up a barrier for the ball to bounce off. If your hand is on the ground, you have created a ramp for the ball to hit and continue in a forward motion. The ball will have an opportunity to continue its forward movement and possibly get away from the catcher. During this time your throwing hand must be placed behind your glove. This will protect your hand from injury and help square up your body to the ball.
A catcher must also protect their throat and neck. To do this the catcher must take their chin and tuck it into their chest. They should not drop their head down, just their chin. Dropping the head will cause the catcher to lose track of the baseball. By only dropping the chin, the catcher will still be able to visually track the baseball.
A catcher should attempt to block all balls in the dirt when there are runners on base or when there are two strikes on the hitter. When a dropped third strike occurs, a hitter may try to advance to first base if it is unoccupied. A catcher should make it as easy on their pitcher as possible. If the pitcher can get a hitter to chase a pitch in the dirt, they should be rewarded with a strike out.
As there are different types of pitches that will be thrown, there are different ways to block these pitches. The goal in blocking is to block all balls so that they will hit you in the center of your chest and drop harmlessly in front of you. Do not try to catch a ball that is in the dirt. Trouble starts when a catcher tries to catch the bouncing ball and misses. The result is a ball back to the screen and the advancement of runners on base.
When a fastball is thrown in the dirt the catcher should maneuver their body in front of the baseball and block it back to the middle of the field. Their body should be perpendicular to the ball. If the ball is blocked correctly, off the middle of the chest protector, the ball will hit and return to the direction from which it came from.
Depending on whether or not a right handed or a left handed pitcher is throwing will dictate which direction a catcher will turn their body to adjust for the spin of a breaking ball. Therefore, blocking the breaking ball requires some thought and preparation.
As you look at home plate from the pitcher's mound, a right hander's breaking ball will hit the ground and spin right, a left hander's breaking ball will hit the ground and spin left. A catcher must angle their body to adjust for the spin of the baseball. They must push off with the opposite leg and drive their body over to meet the baseball and block the baseball back toward the middle of the field. An aggressive push with the opposite leg is crucial. They must be able to beat the ball to the spot and block the baseball.
There will come a time when even the best catcher will be unable to block a fastball or breaking ball that is thrown way outside or inside. The catcher will not have a chance to get their body in front of the baseball. This is where the goalie save comes into play. This technique is used primarily for the ball toward the backhand side of the catcher. The catcher will push off hard with the back foot and drag the glove across the ground. You should turn the glove over and get out as far as you can. The leg you initially pushed off from will drag across the ground and assist you in getting to your feet quickly, after you get a glove or body on the ball. Basically, you throw everything you have at the ball in an attempt to stop or slow a poorly-thrown ball. A variation of this will come on a pitch thrown toward your glove side. The mechanics are the same, only this time you have an open glove. The goal is the same, stop the ball.
First, locate the ball and quickly get to your feet. From the blocked position it is important to clear your hands from the middle of your body. It should be done by exploding your hands and arms in opposite directions. Do not lift your hands up and out in front of your body. The baseball can get caught up in your hands or arms if your first movement is out toward the pitcher. If your movement is away from your body, you decrease the chance of making contact with the baseball and increase the chance of keeping the ball in front of you.
Next, you should round the ball. Get your chest over the baseball and in a position to scoop up the baseball. Note, we have yet to look for the runner that may be trying to advance. The single most important aspect at this stage is to get to the ball first, then check the runner. A common error is to check the runner first. If you see the runner go, you may panic, or get in a hurry, and not retrieve the ball correctly. Get the ball first and then check the runner. Besides, if the rest of your teammates are paying attention, you will hear them yelling "runner".
Never pick up the baseball with only the glove or only the bare hand. The hand and glove must work together. This can be referred to as "raking" the baseball. A common error is made when a catcher tries to pick the ball up with only one hand. If the ball is not fielded the first time, the catcher may panic and continue having trouble picking up the ball, kick the ball or field it and make a bad throw because they are in a hurry. Two hands will give you a greater opportunity to field the ball the first time.
As you rake the ball, you should angle your body to the base the runner could be advancing to. You should get your feet set, your mind ready to throw and now find the runner. If the runner is trying to advance, throw a strike to the bag. If the runner is not going to advance but is leaning, throw behind him. The key is be ready to throw to any base. Want to throw the runner out? Take pride in blocking, retrieving and throwing the baseball effectively. This can make a difference in the outcome of the game. A good catcher wants to call a breaking ball in the dirt with two strikes and the winning or tying run on third. The pitcher must have confidence in the catcher to get the job done, and the catcher must have confidence in themselves.
If a ball is thrown right down the middle of the plate or toward the forehand, a catcher who does not possess great arm strength will utilize the jump pivot. The jump pivot allows for a quicker release and is recommended for catchers with quick hands and a lack of great arm strength. The catcher will quickly shift their feet from parallel to second, to perpendicular to second. Important note, the catcher will not move toward the right-handed hitter or away from the left-handed hitter. Their back foot will end up where their backside started, while their front foot will end up where their glove started.
A common error is for the catcher to move toward their glove and fall off balance. The catcher should assume a pole is running throughout the middle of their body. They want to shift around the pole, not spin away from the pole. Another key is to make sure the catcher does not stand straight up on their first movement. Stay low and in a strong, athletic position. This will assist the catcher in staying on top of the baseball and throwing downhill toward the base.
If a ball is thrown right down the middle of the plate or toward the backhand, a catcher that possesses arm strength will utilize the load and throw. Catch the baseball while shifting weight to the back leg. Again, the catcher must square their body to second. The catcher must still utilize a quick glove/hand exchange with the baseball and stay low to the ground in a strong, athletic position. The catcher must get into a position where weight is on the back leg and the shoulders are squared to the base they are throwing. If the alignment is off, or the catcher has already stood up, the power they possess in their throwing arm is lost.
It is important to mention at this time that a catcher must be proficient at both skills. The location of the baseball will dictate which footwork you use. The only exception is on a ball thrown to the middle of the catcher's body. On this throw, the catcher will determine which throwing footwork will be best for them.
A catcher can utilize three methods of throwing to third base. They can take a jab step toward the backhand, throw over a right-handed hitter, or shuffle behind a right-handed hitter. The location of the pitch, height of the hitter and arm strength and size of the catcher will determine which throw is best.
On pitches that take the catcher toward their backhand, the jab step is an appropriate throwing position. The catcher will simply take a jab step with their outside foot, plant their foot, stay low, point the shoulders to third, and make a strong and accurate throw. This will clear you from the hitter and give the catcher a lane to throw in.
On a pitch that is down the middle, the catcher can use one of two methods. First, depending on whether there is a right or left-handed hitter, and how tall the right-handed hitter is in relation to the catcher, the catcher could plant the back leg, step toward third with the front leg and throw over the top of the hitter. The object is to have a lane to throw in without the hitter getting in the way and disrupting the throw. If the hitter is taller than the catcher or the pitch takes the catcher toward the forehand side, the catcher can utilize a quick shuffle outside the hitter and create a throwing lane. Again, stay low, athletic, square the body to the base and make a strong and accurate throw to third.
A catcher must able to anticipate multiple situations. One of these situations is fielding a bunt. There are several factors that must be taken into account before a hitter even steps into the box. The catcher must recognize the speed of the runner, the athlete on the mound, the condition of the playing surface, the game situation (tied, up, down, early in the game or late in the game) and eventually factor in the speed of the bunted baseball before deciding which base to throw to. The catcher must take charge of the defense.
A catcher should attempt to field all bunted balls. The entire field is in front of them and they can make a quick, early decision. If the ball is fielded down the first-base line or toward the middle of the field, the catcher should take a direct line to the baseball, rake the ball in with both the hand and glove, set their feet, stay low and athletic and make a strong and accurate throw to the intended base.
If a ball is bunted down the third-base line the catcher has two forms of footwork. One method is to stay on the inside of the ball (opposite of the foul line), step over the ball, rake, spin the head and body, locate the base to throw to, plant your feet and make a strong and accurate throw. The other method is to round the baseball, staying on the outside (on or near the foul line), rake, plant and throw. The coach must allow their catcher to be an athlete.
The step-over technique is the most natural and recommended form of fielding bunts down the third-base line. However, there are some individuals who have the ability to quickly round the ball, field it and make a strong throw. A coach needs to be flexible. If the catcher can perform this skill they should be allowed to show off their athleticism, not handcuffed into a method that most recommend.
One of the most exciting plays in baseball is the play at the plate. When you think of some of the most famous plays in major league baseball, great throws to nail a runner or violent collisions at home plate always show up on the highlight reels. A catcher must always assume a bad throw to the plate.
In their mind they must be ready to move in any direction to catch a thrown ball, or be ready to drop to their knees and block a poorly thrown ball to keep runners from advancing and still giving yourself a chance to pick up the ball and tag out the runner. The catcher must keep the ball in front of them at all cost.
When setting up for a throw to the plate, a catcher should put the foot on the third base line. Their knee should point directly at the runner. If their knee is pointed away from the runner and a collision occurs, there is a greater chance the catcher will be injured. If their knee is pointed at the runner, there is more of a base and less give in the knee.
After catching the ball, the catcher should attempt to tag the runner with both hands; hand on ball, ball in glove. If it appears a collision is going to occur the catcher should lower their center of gravity and stay low. Just like in football, low man usually wins.
After you have tagged out the runner, get out of the way and find any other runners that may be on base. Don't allow yourself to get caught up in the play so much that you lose track of other runners on base. Tag out the runner trying to score and look for the next victim. Throw the baseball. Make the next play. Always stay focused on the game.
One important point that must be mentioned is the catcher should leave their mask on. An excuse for taking off the mask is that the catcher feels they can see the ball better without the mask on. With that philosophy the catcher should never wear a mask. If you can catch balls from a pitcher 60 feet away and not have problems seeing the baseball, you should be able to see a throw from the outfield. It is also a safety precaution. If the ball is short and takes a bad hop, an injury to the face and head could occur. Safety comes first. Protect yourself from injury at all times in as many ways possible.
An overlooked area by some coaches and players is a catcher's preparation in the bullpen. For a catcher who will spend most of their day in the pen, this is their game time. This is their opportunity to get better and work on every phase of their game. To do this a catcher must wear full gear in the pen. If you catch with only a mask than how will you get better on blocking balls in the dirt?
You have to go full speed in the bullpen, it helps the pitcher get game-ready and makes you better. Time spent in the bullpen is not time to feel sorry for yourself because you're not in the game, but to improve your overall game so that you will be the one behind the plate and your catching partner will spend their days in the pen. Take pride in yourself and your work ethic.