The Last Line of Defense
By Darren Fenster
Over the last few years, no skill in our game has transformed more than hitting. With new ways to evaluate swings, combined with more aggressive approaches to hit the ball over the shift instead of around it, hitters are doing more damage than ever. For all that has changed in the batters’ box, there is a very important corresponding fact that we need to acknowledge: outfield play has never been more important than it is today.
Every year as a manager, usually on the day when we are teaching our players the pop-fly priority team fundamental, I would gather everyone together and explain to them that when the ball went in the air, they needed to become Dennis Rodman. A confused look usually overcame the entire group, not knowing for sure who exactly Rodman was.
Before he became “that guy with all the tattoos,” as our young players vaguely recognized him, Dennis Rodman was arguably the best rebounder in NBA history, carving out a Hall-of-Fame career by doing the dirty work on the court that few would ever embrace. When the basketball was shot in the air, Rodman expected to get the rebound. Every single time. And THAT’S the approach all great outfielders have; when the ball goes in the air, they expect to catch it.
There are three main priorities when it comes to outfield play, and the first is a simple one: EFFORT. Go. Get. The. Ball. Without effort, an outfielder can’t even be average. With effort, an outfielder will always give himself a chance to make a play. All of the extra bases are in the outfield, and nothing shuts down the extra base easier or better than simply effort to get on the baseball. The harder an outfielder goes after a ball, the sooner a baserunner or third-base coach has to make the decision on whether or not to stretch an extra 90’ or send the runner around.
The second priority of outfield play is a mental one: ENGAGEMENT. We want all of our players, no matter the position but especially our outfielders, to engage in the pitch, the play, and the game. In the Major Leagues, on average, roughly 300 pitches are thrown per game. That means for 150 of them, our players are out in the field playing defense and are expected to lock in mentally on every single one. That means they are timing out their pre-pitch to be ready to move to the best of their ability if the ball is hit their way.
We expect our outfielders to be engaged to the play. Whenever the ball is put in play, and many times when it’s not, there is always somewhere for everyone on the field to be. When players are focused on their specific job at hand, they are in the correct position, doing the right thing. The final piece of engagement is with the game. Depending on the score, the situation, or the inning, the variables of the game will dictate our players decisions offensively and, in this case, defensively. When our outfielders are engaged in the game, they know where to throw the ball, when to dive for a ball, or when to play it safe.
And lastly, the final priority of outfield play is OWNERSHIP, where we want our players to take pride in perfecting their craft in becoming the best defenders they can be. This is a two-pronged focal point, the first of which takes place during drill work. Our practices routines are designed in a way to only have one or two specific things to work on as we progress through our drill packages. When players truly take ownership, their drill work is laser-focused on the things they are working on and they can’t help but get better.
The second part of ownership is found during batting practice… on the outfield grass. Without question, the most important part of an outfielder’s day is when they work live during BP. There is no drill or fungo that offers a better rep than what an outfielder can get during batting practice. It’s as close to a game rep as there is, allowing for outfielders to get consistent with their pre-pitch timing, clean up their reads and breaks, and perfecting their routes to the ball. How an outfielder approaches batting practice will determine whatever they will become.
Many coaches have long tried to “hide” a productive bat in the outfield, thinking that they could sacrifice defense in favor of offense. Well, with the direction the game is going in, that strategy probably isn’t the smartest one in this day and age. For outfield is truly the last line of defense.
Darren Fenster is currently the Minor League Outfield and Baserunning Coordinator for the Boston Red Sox. Previously, Fenster was 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.