By Dave Weaver
It is common knowledge among youth baseball and softball coaches that the one play most responsible for scoring runs is not the blast over the fence or the shot in the gap; it’s the passed ball.
As coaches we often find ourselves asking why it is so difficult for our young catchers to keep the ball in front of them. Why do so many balls get by and allow runners to advance and ultimately score?
To understand the problem lets divide passed balls into 2 groups. The first group is those wild pitches that are so far over a catcher’s head, or thrown so far to their sides that even skilled catchers are unable stop them. These types of pitches will diminish as the pitchers get older and become more skilled. If the pitcher does not get more accurate as he/she ages he/she will no longer be selected to pitch, and the wild-pitch problem goes away by itself.
The second group is the group that causes the most problems for youth coaches. These are pitches in the dirt within the catcher’s reach just to their left or right, or even worse, right between their legs. Why can’t the catchers stop them? Why can’t the catchers block them? From our point of view sitting in the dugout it sure seems obvious that the ball is going in the dirt. Why is it that these young catchers can’t see where the ball is going and make the proper play? Is blocking the ball really that difficult? Well my answer may surprise you. After more than 15 years of working with catchers I have come to the conclusion that blocking is really the easy part. If you have my DVD and have applied the blocking techniques suggested you could attest to the fact that nine-year-old catchers can be taught to block as well as high school starting catchers. That’s right, blocking the ball is the easy part!!
Well then, why all the passed balls? Why all the scored runs if blocking the ball is the easy part? For years I have seen catchers as young as seven years old perfectly execute a block in a drill environment with me tossing balls at game speed. The problem is not whether they know how to block or not block, the problem is they do not know when to block. Read that again. The problem is not whether they know how to block or not block, the problem is they do not know when to block.
Their skill deficiency is not blocking but something much more difficult to learn. It’s a skill that can take years behind the plate for a catcher to develop. The skill? Pitch recognition.
So we ask, what can be so hard about recognizing that a pitch needs to be blocked? We as coaches can clearly see from the dugout that a pitch is going in the dirt, but we see the pitch from the dugout, from the side, not from the most difficult angle, the catcher’s view. Recognizing the trajectory of a ball going into the dirt through the catcher’s eyes is much more difficult. Most often by the time the catcher recognizes a ball is going in the dirt it is too late for them to block the ball and the only reaction that remains is to stand up and run to the backstop to retrieve it.
If pitch recognition is the problem, just how much time does a catcher have to recognize the ball is on a flight path that will require him/her her to block it? Here is some simple math to ponder.
For youth baseball I will use 45 feet as a common home to mound distance. If we assume the pitcher actually releases the ball four feet in front of the mound then the actual distance the ball is thrown is 41 feet. Conversely, since the catcher sets up approximately four feet behind the plate the actual travel distance to the catcher is back to 45 feet.
Using 50-MPH as a reasonable speed for twelve-years-old and under we find that speed over that distance equates to 73 feet per second. So a ball traveling from the pitcher’s release point to the catcher’s glove 45 feet away will take approximately .6 seconds. Yes six whole tenths of a second to find the ball after release, get a fix on its flight path, make the decision to block, and then to muster the technical expertise to actually block the ball properly!
For the girl’s game the numbers are similar; a 45-MPH pitch thrown from 40 feet away travels at 58 feet per second. So from release point to the catcher’s glove 40 feet away the time to react is also .6 seconds.
The point of the math lesson is to help coaches realize just how little time these 12 and under catchers have to figure out they need to block the ball, let alone actually execute proper blocking techniques. Remember this math the next time you yell at a catcher for not getting down to a ball in the dirt fast enough.
(Next: Receiving Stance)