Tuesday is the first workout for Royals first pitchers and catchers. Manager Ned Yost doesn’t check with me before making a decision, but the odds are pretty good the workout will include PFPs. It’s how most teams start spring training.
PFP stands for Pitcher’s Fielding Practice, although I have on occasion heard players substitute another F-word for “Fielding.” So here’s what the Royals pitchers will be working on:
A coach will hit a fungo to someone positioned where the first baseman stands and a pitcher will race from the mound to first base. Somewhere along the way, the guy acting as first baseman will throw the ball to the pitcher and the pitcher will catch the ball and then tag first base.
It sounds simple, but it’s not.
Pitchers have to run the right route
Let’s say the pitcher is late or lazy and decides to run a straight line to first base; that means he’ll cross the bag as he steps on it and that puts him in the base path. And that means the base runner has the perfect right to run the pitcher over.
You don’t see it as much these days — everyone’s afraid of getting hurt — but if a tough guy decides to knock the heck out of the pitcher, the pitcher’s straight-line route gives the tough-guy runner the chance.
To avoid all that, pitchers are taught to run to the foul line, then turn and run parallel with the foul line to the bag. That way they never cross the runner’s path; they’re both running in the same direction. The pitcher tags the inside part of the bag while the runner tags the outside part of the bag and that prevents collisions; intentional or otherwise.
And it’s why pitchers have to take off right away; wait a beat and the pitcher might have to run straight to the bag to beat the runner. And don’t be surprised if the pitcher late to the bag is a lefty; they fall off to the third-base side so they’re already a few steps behind. Any delay can mean not getting an out that was there for the taking or — even worse — an injured pitcher.
Catching the ball
Assuming the pitcher takes off right away, gets to the line and then runs parallel with it, he then holds his glove up chest high and whoever fields the ball will try to hit him in the chest; but this has to be done before the pitcher gets to the bag.
That way the pitcher gets to focus on catching the ball and only then focus on touching the bag. If the pitcher is late or the throw is late, the pitcher is then trying to do two things at once: catch the ball while trying to step on the bag at the same time and we’ve all seen how well that works out.
The importance of doing the small stuff right
If you found this explanation of how a pitcher covers first base boring and overly complicated, you now know how a lot of ballplayers feel. Everybody gets the same speech, every season. Some coach will explain how this is supposed to be done and some pitcher at the back of the crowd will be rolling his eyes and thinking about where he’s going to eat dinner that night.
And that’s the guy who’s going to screw this up when it matters.
I once wrote a piece about watching batting practice with Dayton Moore and how Dayton watched guys to see if they were doing the small stuff right, even though it was just BP.
After the piece was posted someone who probably didn’t play a whole bunch of baseball left a comment ridiculing the idea by saying something along the lines of: “Oh, yeah, that’s how games are won — doing the small things right in BP.” (If you hadn’t already guessed, the comment was sarcastic.)
Then another reader who had served in the military said that was exactly how ballgames — and battles — were won: the military drills and drills so when the excrement hits the fan, they’ll do the right thing under pressure. Guess what; drill sergeants don’t really care how you make your bed — they care that you learn to do things right under pressure.
Just a reminder
On Tuesday, the Royals pitchers will work on covering first base for the ten thousandth time in their career. Starting spring training with something very basic — PFPs — is a way of reminding everyone how important it is to do the small stuff right.
Former Royals coach Doug Sisson once told me that a whole bunch of different kinds of teams had won the World Series; the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, the Oakland A’s who seemed to spend as much time fighting each other as their opponents, teams that hit home runs, teams that played small ball — but nobody wins without good fundamentals.
As you watch this 2017 season unfold, pay attention to the small stuff — it matters.