Infield 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 Little Leaguers 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.
With regard to the fundamentals of fielding a routine ground ball, a focus must be placed not only on the hands, but also more importantly, on the feet. Most understand that all good infielders possess good, soft hands. Well, when you see those sure-handed infielders, be sure to take notice of what their feet are doing. The two work together, and below is a drill progression that will help improve both.
Rolling balls to an infielder is much like a hitter working off of the tee. It’s a very simple starting point to a skill that can be done with kids who struggle to consistently catch a ball, all the way up to a Gold Glove winning Big Leaguer looking to hone his craft. The challenging level of this drill works hand in hand with the talent level of the player, where balls can be rolled (from ten to twenty feet away) softly underhand for someone just learning the game, or firmly like skipping rocks on water for those with some ability. While its focus may be different, the actual drill is the same. Here are three parts to what could be a daily hands routine.
By starting on the knees, we are taking the lower half completely out of the fundamentals of fielding a ground ball to allow for complete and total focus on the physical act of catching the ball. First and foremost, glove angle can be a major point of emphasis, just to get the glove as “big” as possible. Think fingers down, with the palm facing the direction where the ball is coming from. Do that, and the glove is open at its max. If the glove can catch raindrops, with its back flat on the ground, the glove is actually becoming smaller than what it could be. Being down on both knees also forces players to field the ball out in front of their bodies, with their eyes behind the ball. Draw a triangle in the dirt where the knees are its base, and have the player focus on fielding the ball at the triangle’s point. Lastly, the hand roll while on the knees finishes with the player bringing the ball to center, where the majority of all throws for infielders start. The hands “give” with the ball and are funneled in towards the belly-button/chest. The ball is an egg…catch it like an egg! That’s what soft hands are all about.
All good infielders work from the ground up, from low to high. The wide base segment of the hand’s routine adds the lower half into the picture by putting players back on their feet, shoulder-width apart. But rather than incorporating any footwork just yet, the feet are planted to the ground, and the focus moves to getting low by bending at the knees, not at the waist. In a half-squat of sorts, the knees will move over the feet, as the butt gets closer to the ground in an athletic position. When it comes time to catch the ball, nothing changes from exactly how the ball is secured when previously being on both knees, with the glove open, ball out front, then brought to center.
The final piece of the hands routine puzzle finally gets the feet into play. The feet play two roles for infielders: first, they set the hands up to field, and soon thereafter, set the arm up to throw. With the ball rolling, the footwork to field is as simple as right-left-field. The right foot gets the infielder low to the ball, and the left foot steps thru the ball, all while in that same position to field as in the wide base and catching the ball the same way as when on the knees. From there, the feet are replaced, right-left setting up to throw, with the front shoulder closed and pointing directly at the target. Right-left-field…right-left-throw.
As we build an infielder’s fundamental skills one step at a time, different drills enable us to put everything together and see how they work. None do that better than four corners. With a player at each corner, the ball is thrown around in every direction imaginable- around the horn, reverse around the horn, across, or anywhere - mimicking so many different types of throws and catches that will undoubtedly come up over the course of the season.
It is the mother of all infield drills where just about anything you can imagine happening for infielders, we can simulate in one variation of four corners or another. Routine ground balls. Double-play feeds. Slow rollers. Relay re-directs. So many aspects of infield play can be simulated in four corners, with footwork as the drill’s focus, while adding in both fielding and throwing as well. When the feet are working properly, the byproduct is solid, athletic fielding and throwing mechanics. Using just a little creativity, four corners can be a staple of daily workouts, with a different point of emphasis every single day.
Three different sized corners each offer different elements to work on. At 20 to 30 feet apart, it is the perfect size to work on underhand feeds for not just middle guys, but corner guys as well. Flipping the ball in the around the horn direction is like a left side of the field double play feed or a first baseman feeding the pitcher, while going reverse around the horn is geared for the right-side infielder DP. A box set between 30-40 feet enables work on that shorter overhand throw that doesn’t need the legs behind it, like a middle infielder moving away from the base on a force play at 2nd. From there, opening up to a 50-70-foot box with your infielders, really gives a ton of flexibility as to what to work on. Rolling the ball to the left and throwing across builds the fundamentals needed to make a routine play. Simply throwing the ball around the horn is the same as turning a 5-4-3 double play in a game- it’s the feed for a third baseman, or the pivot for a second baseman. It can even be a potential World Series game-ending throw to the plate for a first baseman!
There are countless variations of the four corners drill. Take advantage of them all.
The final progression for infielders prior to playing in a game is to get work with the batted ball. Fungo ground balls have been a constant at ball parks everywhere as both a part of players’ pre-game routine, but also as a means to improve their abilities in a controlled environment, with controlled and very specific reps that enable the infielder to put everything together as they would in a game.
A short distance fungo is hit from about half way in between home plate and each infield position and done so with a softer pace to the ground ball which enables infielders to really concentrate on a controlled approach to the ball, while reading and creating a good hop to field, before setting the feet up to throw. Additionally, an emphasis can be made on the pre-pitch stance (or ready position as many refer to it) where we are looking for infielders to be on the balls of their feet (front part of their feet, not solely on the toes) at the moment of contact, which makes for a great first step to the ball. Want to put a focus on the backhand? The softer pace and the shorter distance allow the infielders to concentrate of perfecting his feet and hands on what can be a very challenging play. You can put that kind of emphasis on any type of ground ball with the short fungo.
The circle drill with the short fungo can serve two purposes. Draw a circle in the dirt, and for players who sit back on ground balls, start them 10-15 feet behind the top of the circle, and force them to field the batted ball inside of the circle. This helps develop an approach of going to get the ball. For infielders who are flat-footed upon fielding the ball, have them start inside of the circle, and teach them to aggressively move their feet out of the circle when they go to field the ball. This not only helps them get their legs into the throw, but also gets them moving thru the ball.
A regular fungo hit from home plate gives infielders as close of a game rep as they can get in a practice environment, truly combining every aspect of the entire drill progression detailed above. Not only can the ground ball be hit at any speed, from routine to rocket, situations can be added into each rep (like runner on 1st, fast runner, or bases loaded with the tying run on 3rd in the 9th with one out) to introduce some on the fly thinking, a skill that all good infielders have.
As with anything, coaches always have to remember that players have to crawl before then can walk and walk before they can run. That’s exactly how professionals do it, and there’s no reason why amateurs can’t follow the same path. There is always a place to start, and we work up from there. Building an infielder is no different.
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.