Catcher Drill Progression
By Darren Fenster
Drills are the lifeblood of skill development. Whether it be for Major Leaguers as a part of their daily routine, or youth players as their means of learning the basic skills of the game, it’s in the batting cages and backyards where ability is truly cultivated. Drills allow you to isolate a specific part of a specific skill that, when put together, help develop the overall talent of the individual player.
Within each skill of the game lies a natural progression straight out of the “crawl before you can walk, walk before you can run” school of thought. For instance, hitters can’t focus on putting the ball out of the ballpark without mastering the skill of putting the ball in play, while pitchers can’t concern themselves with throwing ten different pitches until they’ve actually figured out how to consistently throw one for a strike. By following a simple step-by-step, building block approach with each specific skill of the game, players will not only find a comfortable routine that will build consistency in their daily work, but will also reap the benefits in their entire ability.
When it comes to catchers, there is so much detail to what is- by far- the most involved position on the diamond. With that detail in mind, we can break down the specific skills of the position- receiving, blocking, and throwing- into very isolated parts that, when put together, can build that guy behind the plate into a complete catcher.
Above all else, the number one priority for the catching position is just that- catching. The manner by which a catcher secures the ball often times is the difference between whether or not the pitch is called a ball or a strike, obviously a skill that can have a significant impact on a game’s outcome.
A subtle pre-pitch movement with the hand that helps relax the glove is often a forgotten and completely disregarded aspect of receiving that can pay huge dividends. The hand is naturally going to become strong upon catching the ball, so by making the conscious effort to relax it just before the pitch, catchers can turn a loose hand into a quick hand, one that is able to beat the ball to the spot in the zone where it will be caught and stuck for the umpire to see. Think like a snake coiling up just before going to bite something. The hand works in a similar manner, with the snake’s recoil serving to relax, and it’s bite acting like that quick, strong catch. Loose is quick, and quick turns strong.
Without a glove, starting barehanded using an incrediball or even a plastic golf ball, catchers can learn the proper way to catch the ball softly, with the proper hand position, but can also become comfortable with their own individual pre-pitch movement to loosen their glove hand up. When simply tossing the balls to the catcher while in his stance from a short distance, stress catching the ball as quietly as possible, with little to no movement after securing the ball. For reps within the body, focus on staying behind the ball with the hand, rather than working around the ball with the hand turned. When the glove is actually on the hand, this idea of the hand behind the ball makes the pitch look good because it’s being caught with the glove in the same position as it’s set as a target.
From there, put the glove on, and do the same exact drill work with a hardball, either thrown or off the machine from closer to the mound’s distance to make the rep more game-like. The hand should act identically with the glove on as it did without, with the same focus from the pre-pitch to loosen things up, to the stick on catch. Another great teaching tool for catchers to help their receiving is a short stool (or even a bucket). By using a stool, a catcher can completely take their stance out of play, and allow the entire focus to be placed on what the hand is doing to catch the ball.
There are many aspects of the catching position that distinguish the position above all others. Blocking does just that more so than anything else, as it’s a badge of honor that truly separates the men from the boys. While mastering the skill begins with anticipation, we can break it down into a progression that will help it develop step by step. Blocking works in three distinct parts: first the glove going down to the ground, then followed by the body, and finished back on the feet for the recovery.
A good place to start is in a pre-set blocking position, with the glove and body both already down on the ground, putting the emphasis on the catcher getting comfortable with simply blocking the ball. So, with the glove down in between the knees that are also grounded, we can start tossing balls (soft incrediballs recommended for all blocking drills) in the dirt or using a pitching machine to perfect their technique of the actual block. Just a split-second prior to the ball hitting the body, stress the importance of exhaling. Breathing out softens the body, and turns it into a pillow that will absorb the ball, as opposed to a wall (without the breath) that will deflect it. When the ball hits, the chin should tuck down, essentially trying to see the ball hit the chest protector.
The next part to the blocking progression keeps the glove on the ground, but gets the catcher up into his action stance, ready to go down to block. With the glove already pre-set, the focal point here is getting the body down as quick as possible and can be worked on in the same exact manner mentioned above either with a throw or machine. The exhale and chin down continue as they were introduced above, and now we add the knees taking the body down to the ground. Once comfortable getting down to the ground quickly, we can finally put it all together with a true game-like block from a regular target in the action stance- which sits a bit higher than a non-action stance to allow for more athleticism to either block or throw.
The recovery is often the forgotten part of the block. If the catcher can’t find the ball, or takes too long to get to it, then the quality of the actual block is lost. The lack of a quick recovery gives the baserunner an opportunity to take that extra base that we are trying to prevent. So from any of the progressions listed above, the recovery can be added into the drill. Start just with getting up back on the feet quickly and just pointing to the ball on the ground, which focuses on purely finding the ball. Then the actual pickup can finish the drill work with footwork to each specific base, like to first on a dropped third strike or to second or third on a dirt ball with the runner trying to advance.
For one reason or another, a catcher’s pop time to second base seems to be their greatest sense of pride, constantly judged against the Major League standard of 2.0 seconds. Naturally there is a ton of value for a catcher to be able shut down the opposing team’s running game, but it is far more than just arm strength that will enable them to do so.
A catcher’s ability to efficiently throw to bases begins with the exchange. Not a single throw can be made if the ball never gets into the bare hand, so the first drill progression when it comes to throwing deals with a focus on a clean transfer of the ball into the bare hand. Catch the ball. Turn the glove (so the glove’s opening now faces the bare hand). Take the ball out with a four-seam grip (actually using the bare hand, not using the glove to “flip” it into the hand). Start to do it in slow motion- CATCH/TURN/TAKE- in three separate and distinct parts. Once comfortable with all three, we can slowly merge them all together, only quickening things up at the very end.
Once the exchange is mastered, the next step of the throwing progression places an emphasis on the footwork. Remember, throwing in general is as much about the footwork and getting the legs involved as much as it is anything with the arm, and throwing for catchers is no different. To get the feet working correctly, draw an upside-down ’T’ from the point of home plate going back away from the pitcher. That ’T’ is a guide for the feet for throws to second, starting in the action stance with both feet on the cross of the ’T’, and moving to the stem of the ’T’ moving into the throw, gaining ground towards second base. So, building from the exchange, we work on the ’T’ without even making the throw, but rather perfecting the feet. Once the footwork is consistent, then and only then should catchers start getting the ball down to second. When the exchange is clean, the feet compact and consistent, and the throw accurate, that quick pop-time that every catcher wants will assuredly take care of itself.
There are many parts to becoming a great all-around catcher. All combined it makes the position the most impactful in the game, as catchers are involved in every single pitch, and every single play. It takes a special player with a great attitude to don the gear night in and night out, as it’s the one spot on the field that is the epitome of the grind of our game. It’s far from glamorous, and the best catcher’s in the game embrace that face. By implementing the aforementioned drill progression for each aspect of the position, catchers will undoubtedly develop at a consistent pace, putting themselves in position to enjoy success running the game from behind the plate.
Darren Fenster is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is currently the Manager of the Portland Sea Dogs, the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox. A former player in the Kansas City Royals minor league system, Fenster joined the Red Sox organization in 2012 after filling various roles on the Rutgers University Baseball staff, where he was a two-time All-American for the Scarlet Knights. Fenster is also Founder and CEO of Coaching Your Kids, LLC, and can be found on Twitter @CoachYourKids.